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For many years, when online and encountering sloppy spelling, grammar, and punctuation, I resisted the urge to stick up for proper language usage online. "Don't be such a nag!", I'd say to myself. "What if English isn't their first language?", I'd reason. "Not everybody can handle dyslexia, ADHD, Asperger's, etc.", I'd excuse. "It's not that big a deal.", I'd shrug.
On and on we go, year after year, using the Internet, a medium that relies exclusively upon text, while heedless of the simple methods of expressing ourselves with that text. First, we tried to helpfully guide those who struggled along. Then, when the inevitable, damning label of "Grammar Nazi" was hung around our necks, we backed off, puzzled, but not in the mood to be the world's white knight today. But now, the tide has turned all the way around. The straight-A students are now the "bad guys" and the drop-outs the "good guys."
Now we have... I guess I have to coin it myself... "Laziness Nazis"! People who attack you for using correct language! "Oh, you stuck-up snob! You elitist! Who do you think you're trying to impress, with your showing off? You must really think highly of yourself using a semicolon there!"
I even complacently tolerated this, as well. For far too long, I recently realized.
Here's one page to give an example - I assure you, I only limit myself to one example to save space. This example is a perfect snapshot of the spirit of the times. Dangerous Minds proposes a new CAPTCHA system to screen out those who cannot distinguish between similar elementary words like (there / their / they're), (were / we're / where), and (lose / loose). And you can ironically dance through the comments and pluck up the flames like wildflowers a-bloom. The mob reacts: How... how DARE they!
At the center of the "only elitists use correct grammar / spelling" movement is this attitude that "knowledge of language does not equal intelligence". And then I wonder... doesn't it?
That's when I had this epiphany.
Because typing the correct word does not cost anything. Leaving out a superfluous apostrophe doesn't require expending extra effort. Remembering a rule of sentence structure does not place a great burden upon people - there are parrots out there with a vocabulary of thousands of words, there are gorillas who learn sign language to communicate with their handlers in a semantically logical fashion. Even dogs I have owned understood the difference between "Where did your ball go?" and "We're going to the vet." And for Heaven's sake, unlike the parrots, gorillas, and dogs, we have built-in spell-checkers at our disposal.
Using correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation does not cost anything. Using correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation requires only mental effort. A person who cannot be bothered to expend the mental effort required to distinguish between two elementary-school words is also someone who cannot be bothered to expend the mental effort required to reason soundly... use logic... read carefully... think critically... have intellectual curiosity... take pleasure in solving problems... seek things out inspired by pure curiosity. Someone who is careless and sloppy in such a simple matter as typing out a few keystrokes - while using a medium that depends entirely upon typing the correct keystrokes in order to use it effectively - and gets belligerently defensive and insulting hostile when other people try to help them use this medium more effectively, is someone with a lazy brain that does not like to do work.
And that, my friends, I am so regretful to report, is an idiot.
Email, commenting, and texting are not constitutionally-protected rights, you know.
Now let's hear all the excuses the intellectually lazy use:
What if English isn't your first language? Then you have undertaken to learn a second language - so LEARN it! I have, in fact, been fluent in Spanish, having been born and raised in Southern California (I am no longer fluent in Spanish because I've lived up north for ten years now, so I'm out of practice). When I was rubbing elbows with Spanish-speakers, I tried to pay attention and get it right. When I made a mistake and was corrected, without fail, I was grateful every single time and thanked them for the lesson. And now that I am too rusty in Spanish to use it effectively, I stay out of Spanish forums. If I undertake Spanish again, I will ensure that I am at least back up to speed when I do so. And if a native speaker corrects my grammar, I express gratitude for the free lesson. In fact, I've never met the ESL (English-second-language) speaker who was hostile at being corrected - it's always the English-native "Laziness Nazis" who use the old ESL defense.
But is English too hard a language? Yes, I know, English has its little quirks: "Why do we park in a driveway and drive in a parkway?" and all that. That's because English is derived from West Germanic, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and French. It is not consistent in its rules because it draws from many languages with different rules, and we even import more words from other languages with impunity.
But so what, do you think English is hard? Oh my goodness, try some other languages. Try Spanish, which has the concept of grammatical gender, so that 'taco' is male but 'quesadilla' is female, and then the rest of the words in the sentence have to agree with the gender of the subject. Try Japanese, which has the concept of honorifics, suffixes attached to the end of any word referring to people, which change depending upon the relationship between speaker and "speakee"; thus your brother George is 'George-san' to you, but your father calls him 'George-kun'. Try Thai, which has the concept of phonemic tones, so that five words which are spelled and pronounced identically have radically different meanings depending on the tone of voice you use; the syllable 'na' on a rising note means 'thick', but on a falling note means 'face'. And try Chinese , which uses 600 pictograms just to get started with a baby-level vocabulary!
What, you feel taxed because you have to keep "they're" and "their" straight? Oh my God, when is the telethon? I want to contribute all I can.
What if you have dyslexia, ADHD, and Asperger's? Yes, I know someone who has all three. You do, now, too. In fact, you're reading something written by him right now! And I chose not to go through life with a brass band in front of me declaring my handicaps like a flag that people have to salute. All I have to do, you see, is care about overcoming my own natural disadvantages, and then I overcame them. Because I am a human being, with a spine and a brain and a heart, and I would rather live standing on my two feet than hide behind a diagnosis, like a coward. Which is why I have never mentioned it before and will never mention it again. For the same reason, I also don't bring up that I was raised in poverty, had to miss a lot of school to support my family, was raised in a broken home, could not afford college, was forced to self-educate, or dozens of other excuses I could use.
What excuse is it now? Did you have a poor education? Well, if you are in such a bad way that you fail kindergarten literacy, then what are you doing online at 2AM arguing about which Marvel superhero deserves to have the film with the biggest budget this summer? You have to hurry to your tutoring appointment - you have no time for idle chit-chat! And by the way, how do you manage to hold down a job, procure a place to live, or even find your way around town? Who gave you a laptop? How did you find this website?
You say you didn't have the time to spell it out the long way when you texted me? Well, what are you, an EMT? What are you doing while you text - driving a fire engine on the way to a four-alarmer? Yes, I know, I have a smartphone too, and my fingers are as fat as Grecian columns and the buttons are as tiny as fleas. I still text in complete sentences. And if I'm too busy to do that, then I'm too busy to text at all.
You say "mistakes happen"? Yes, they do! In an essay of this length with nobody to edit it (or publish it, for that matter) but me, I'm sure that I've made a few mistakes. I will try to catch and correct all that I can. I will save a draft and re-read it. When others catch mistakes, I will acknowledge them and correct the error (and have a sense of humor enough to laugh at the irony, given the subject). The difference between the occasional typo and lazy thinking is painfully, painfully obvious. ERRORS are random; LAZY is a habit. Pro-intelligence people admit to error; anti-intelligence people attack the one who pointed it out.
Oh, wait, maybe you'll catch me on some really arcane Strunk-and-White-type style rule. English, you say, has so many rules, nobody could be expected to memorize them all. Oh, please! We're not talking about dangling participles or split infinitives or ending a sentence on a preposition here - we're talking about the difference between 'there', 'their', and 'they're' - an adverb, a pronoun, and a contraction for a pronoun and a verb - words that most any three-year-old child knows.
You say that I am "exclusionist" for wanting to limit my online company to good writers? Why yes, yes I am. This is the "social" web, after all, and I see no problems with applying the same standards to virtual socializing on the Internet that I deploy, sans controversy, in the real-life socializing that takes place in my living room. So from now on, I will also ask all rude, violent, and irresponsible people to stay off my website as well. In fact, as soon as webcams are standard, I intend to be exclusionist to the point that, just as I would when answering the door, I give prospective visitors the once-over through the peephole and refuse them entry if I don't like the way they look.
And now I have an unpleasant task to do. I really, really like British performer Stephen Fry, have been following his work for quite some time, and have just plain looked up to him in the past.
But now, I have to pound sand in his rat-hole.
I have to do this because of this video, linked to and cited more and more every day as a "take that" to us "Grammar Nazis".
I'm afraid that I don't much care for Stephen Fry anymore.
In this little vlog, he does the very un-British (but very, very American) act of taking "Grammar Nazis" to task who, for example, protest the sign in the grocery store that says "Ten items or less" when it should (allegedly) say "Ten items or fewer".
OK, Stephen, I'll play your little game, because I have an appetite for straw men today.
In defense of the offending sign-painter, Fry has the audacity to cite Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare (basically, it amounts to "they didn't use perfect English, either"), and then looks down his noses at us "pedants" for not appreciating the rhythm, music, art, spirit, and joy of language as a dynamic, alive, and vibrant thing.
Gee, golly. We're sorry. No, actually on second thought, we're not the least sorry, Stephen Fry! You write like slugs on opium bugger, you have no more command of English than a USA beauty-pageant contestant, and you're only a British David Hasslehoff pandering to your real fan-base overseas because you're a loser in your own home country. And to put a fine point on how out-of-touch you are and perhaps always have been, you start off getting it wrong regarding whom is calling whom 'elitist'. It's the Laziness Nazis calling the Grammar Nazis 'elitist'; it wouldn't make any sense for it to be the other way around, now bloody would it?
That was the ad hominem appetizer. Now for the main course of reasoned arguments:
One does not have to violate the rules of spelling, grammar, and punctuation in order to produce a beautiful work of language any more than engineers must violate the laws of physics to pull off a perfect rocket launch. When Oscar Wilde or William Shakespeare misplace a comma or noun a verb, they have a license to do so by virtue of being historic and world-famous authors. Historic and world-famous authors do not get to be historic and world-famous authors by being ignorant of the rules, but by having mastered the rules, to a degree such that they know when they can augment them to serve the higher purpose of their own, more inspired writing.
Not that sign-painter. No historic and world-famous author, he. And he knew it. When the store hired him to paint a sign for the express check-out lane, he wasn't trying to wring the most succulent morsel of poetry from the dry bone of commercial store display work. No, he was getting paid bottom dollar to crank out the sloppiest, but still acceptable, possible wording and head for the pub while the paint dried.
And for such a simple task to which he was appointed, he was too incompetent even at that. For the correct phrase would not have been "12 items or less" nor even "12 items or fewer", but "12 item limit", a solution which is unambiguous, irrefutably correct, and takes less space and less time to boot.
But that sign painter, anonymous forever, did not think of it. And do you know why? Because he could not be bothered to expend the mental effort. Because he had a lazy brain that does not like to do work. Because he was a "Laziness Nazi", and people like Stephen Fry are making a living appealing to the Populist masses by telling them that their sloth is justified.
And that, my friends, I am so regretful to report, is an idiot.
And THIS is what happens when you’re SICK and TIRED of driving back to the computer store to exchange yet another part that was almost, but not quite, the right one you needed.
Yes, it runs. Beautifully, in fact. Out of SHEER TERROR.
Yeah, y'all have seen me distro-hop a lot over the (is it eight now?) years I've run this blog. Red Hat, Slackware, Mandriva, Ubuntu, and just recently, Fedora.
I don't know what happened with Fedora, but it seems to like my laptop, so it can stay there. But my desktops... these are old codger Gateway boxen I bought used, and even that was years ago. Let's just say that, if they were human, they would have been able to get their first periods by now. Fedora hates these boxes, and frankly, I'm not crying any tears over disengaging Fedora from them, either. Fedora runs great as long as you don't CHANGE anything, and then it becomes as durable as an inflatable dartboard.
I'd heard about this Mint, see. This new Mint thing all you hip young kids are grooving on. I finally broke down at a party and tried a puff of Mint and got hooked and next thing you know, I'm burning a DVD full of Linux Mint 14 Nadia, a name that sounds like a vampire from Slavic folk tales. Since I am a vampire from Slavic folk tales, we'd get along great.
First I tried it on my Dell "crash test dummy", an even older box, suffice it to say that it would end up in jail if it tried to have sex with the Gateway boxes. Just spun it in there (always use the crappiest computer you have to test a new disk, I always say) and running the DVD live came up with a decently presentable desktop at 1024x768 resolution. Not bad looking, I thought, wondering what ancient crawling horror of a graphics card I had in there... I reached in, and now remembered that I had left this brainless box with no graphics card, it was doing this off the motherboard. On a box that originally ran 640x480 when it was new.
Putting it on my intended Gateway desktop reaped equivalent rewards. Its install is the smoothest install I've ever had, even smoother than Ubuntu. When you reboot to a desktop, the login box flashes up with a snappy "ping". Not the blaring trumpet orchestral fanfare of Ubuntu, but a sharp, short cheep to attract your attention to the fact that it's ready to go to work now.
The whole point to Linux Mint is that it's an Ubuntu but with all the background stuff installed. Drivers, codecs, proprietary engines, and whatnot. I think it's great that we still have a choice in not having any non-free software installed by default, but seriously, who are these people who live without Flash, Java, audio and video support, OpenGL, and even most of the pretty fonts, yet still own a computer for some reason? Right, so what most of us end up doing is boldly downloading GPL'ed Linux while brandishing our patriot flag and making loud speeches about how we're not pawns of the capitalista overlords, and then tiptoe home to our closet in shame through the night installing all the proprietary stuff to make it do things anyway.
Hey, I have no problem admitting that while I am an anti-establishment punk at heart, my primary reason for running and loving Linux is that I am a cheap, cheap bastard.
Anyway, Linux Mint is one distro that even Ubuntu users can look down on for coddling. You thought Ubuntu holds your hand, but Mint will hold any part of you you ask it to. I was walking on the beach with Linux Mint 14 Nadia, and looking back, I saw one set of footprints. I asked Nadia about it, and it told me that those were the times when it carried me.
Minutes after install... well, no, I had to run updates, of course, and reboot, of course... but minutes after that, I flipped Firefox open and went around the web and Flash ran out of the box! Wait, I hadn't installed Flash yet... Then I went to see some Java games and dammit Java ran too! So I finally got out of installing Java (Installing Java is still used for torture in third-world dictatorships sanctioned by the UN). I went to Crackle and started watching a movie, it ran flawlessly! Linux Mint liked my Wacom pad! Linux Mint sang from my speakers! It opened a PDF from my collection for my reading pleasure while updates were finishing! And since I'd gotten the XFCE cut of the distro, I spent zero minutes and zero seconds looking at Gnome3, which is infinitely better than any time at all looking at Gnome 3. All out of the box!
So, yes, if you're tired of sitting up Googling "Firefox Flash plugin no sound" at Slavic vampire hours of the morning, Linux Mint is for you. Since you don't have to manually hunt down codec libraries this time around, this is one system where your family will thank Linux Mint for the four hours they didn't have to listen to you screaming behind the boarded-up office door.
Now, one caveat: the "Software Manager". There is a program by that name in the menus. Avoid it, it is a trick. Synaptic is in there too, go for Synaptic. "Software Manager" may be good for one-package-at-a-time installs, but that's exactly what it will let you pick is ONE package at a time. I got impatient and started picking more packages before it was done installing some. It bogged. I clicked on. It crashed. I gurgled in terror, running 'top' in a terminal and watching as various zombie package-install processes - now manager-less - lurched here and there in the guts of my system doing God Knows What. I think the reboot was well-timed enough to prevent too much damage.
Also, the "Software Manager" won't sort the install-able packages by any kind of logical scheme such as name or version, but instead by popularity, based on how many votes and YouTube-like comments the package gets. I'm not kidding, there's comments in each page for each package. What, am I supposed to quit using a tool I've depended on for 20 years just because some kid with a Guy Fawkes mask for an avatar tells me it's "for fags"? Mint's "Software Manager" also "helpfully" doesn't TELL you if something is installed or not until you click on it, and also whether the thing you're telling it to install now is part of the requirements for something you're already installing... I know the line of jazz about making things so easy to understand that grandma can handle it, but how about not handing grandma a box of dynamite and a book of matches while you're at it?
Alright, really, that one gripe, and then I'm sticking to Synaptic and apt-gets. Outside of that, Linux Mint is beautiful, beautiful beyond words. Not only is it well-thought out, stable, and well-behaved, but it looks damned good while its at it.
Around here, we Linux geeks tend to focus on technology, its place in society, and why monopolizing it into the iron fists of a few global corporations is a Bad Thing. The reasoning is that technology is central to all of our lives, cradle to grave, school to office, and we dare not allow a tiny oligarchy of billionaires to control everything that technology does.
What could be more dastardly than monopolizing the world's computers? Monopolizing the world's food.
Monsanto, in the emerging science of biotechnology, has become the Microsoft of food. Here in Iowa (a state with no small interest in agriculture) I get to witness the struggle firsthand; Monsanto commercials aimed at farmers dominate much of local television. Very few non-Monsanto companies manage to get equal billing.
The parallels between Microsoft and Monsanto are plain. Just the Wikipedia page on legal actions involving Monsanto reaps bold examples: Monsanto has filed patents on numerous genetically engineered specimens. They have filed suit against 145 individual U.S. farmers for violating those patents. The Public Patent Foundation has blown the whistle on some Monsanto patents. The U.S. Justice Department in 2009 has also opened investigations against Monsanto for anti-trust; that's still pending. And the legal battles outside North America are even more telling; stories abound of farmers being driven out of business, markets controlled, and even child labor. Oh, and Monsanto is a political lobbyist - a really, really big one - in the US, UK, and continental Europe. And corporate food patents, litigation, and fallout damage has been the subject of at least one documentary name of Food, Inc.
Oh, and one more parallel between Microsoft and Monsanto - Bill Gates has a huge financial stake in both.
In battling for technology freedom, we are permitted to not take ourselves quite so seriously. At the most, renegade programmers battling corporate dictatorships brings to mind cyberpunk "hacker wars". But when it comes to food, all silliness ends. This is a world with 925 million starving people, and the last thing we need is billionaires suing people for planting corn and soy without their permission.
Now, don't get me wrong: Does this mean that GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) are a bad thing? Of course not! This isn't about resisting scientific progress in agriculture - I am in fact hugely enthusiastic about biotechnology and genetic research and think that, if anything, it's not progressing nearly fast enough. Genetic modification of an organism in a laboratory is simply the sped-up version of the same thing nature has been doing for millions of years. Just so we're clear, I'll be first in line for genetically engineered chow, medical treatments derived from gene therapy, or adopting a four-assed monkey.
It's the part where we put a barcode on every DNA strand and let a few corporate dictators literally control the building blocks of life and the necessities for survival that our troubles begin.
On the other hand, I'm also not signing up allegiance with the fruitbat conspiracy theory nuts. So when Googling Monsanto news, I'm careful to dodge Infowars and NaturalNews and other sites that are more about Illuminati conspiracies and "science = bad" reasoning than the actual problem. And of course, I'm trying to avoid OWS and TEDx moonie-loonies on sheer principle.
So, I'm trying my best to screen out the cornflakes. But the bottom line is that we should be as concerned, if not more concerned, for a Monsanto world monopoly as we should about a Microsoft world monopoly. Hopefully cornflake-free further reading:
The Monsanto Monopoly
Antitrust advocate: ‘Long-term food monopoly’ if Supreme Court favors Monsanto
Monsanto's Earnings Nearly Double as They Create a Farming Monopoly
Who Owns Seeds? Monsanto Says Not You
A few months back, I made a little grump about Google+. The post actually got some response from the Google+ team. While some of that wish-list will perhaps always go unfulfilled, several other features I've wanted to see have been implemented. What's more, it's starting to get the thing you expect in a social network: people!
Google+ has been buzzing with increasing activity. I'm in more circles, get more feedback, get more adds, and discover more communities every day. It's starting to get some depth. They've added hangouts, integrated Google-pages with the place, and as for Google Reader (which oh so many people are grousing about its being discontinued lately), they axed it because of lack of use, and most of the functionality of an RSS newsfeed is repeated in Google+'s features. I can hit 'explore' and get a fuzzy idea of current news right there.
It's still got its rough patches though. For instance, Google+ says my profile is "35% complete" but I don't add things like my birthday. I never tell a social network my birthday specifically because I refuse to allow any site to paste an astrology symbol on my profile, which sad experience (ahem, Yahoo) has shown to be the default behavior. One of the rules for happiness in life that I have discovered is to give others the fewest possible opportunities to be stupid.
From little maladjusted quirks like that, you can see how I, not really meant for this world, am hard to please when it comes to social networks. Take it into account.
But when I want to swim in the online social pool, I'll take all the noise and deal with it to the best that my neurotic hangups will allow. So I'm glad so many more are joining the party on Google+. Let's hope they handle their growth responsibly!
It's been about six months since I huffed that Steam on Linux will never happen. Many of you out there confidently asserted that I'd eat crow on this particular prophecy.
Well, you could have fooled me. In fact, you did. Ten years of relentless hype-hype-HYPE, vaporware promises, press releases with all the substance of cotton candy, all led to my expectation that this was another Duke Nukem Forever, another Chinese Democracy, another The Last Dangerous Visions. If anything, I was hoping that goading from bloggers like me would drive Valve Software to either put up or shut up. God knows, if the energy of media-sucking barking had been put into biting, Steve Ballmer would be writing Ubuntu packages by now.
Well, the waiter has brought my crow and I'm sitting here with my fork and knife ready to call this one a busted prophecy. Except... the suspense is killing me. Steam on Linux keeps almost, but not quite, being almost entirely unrealized.
Latest update I've seen is this Slashdot story, uttering its tiny cheer for Linux getting a 2% market share of Steam now.
What I expect when I hear "Steam on Linux" is a native binary, with full support, with all of the Steam games on it.
What this Slashdot commenter says is:
"A respectable showing? The steam client may be the greatest thing ever but there isn't even a single current AAA title available. Not one. The biggest game they've got is half-life 1. It was released in 1998. 15 years ago. That's something we should be getting from gog.com. This looks to me like a token effort in order to get some cheap advertising on Linux friendly sites such as Slashdot.
News flash, that game's so old it probably plays perfectly in wine anyway. When steam for Linux starts getting AAA titles within a few weeks of the windows release then they will have something worth talking about."
Several point out that so far, "Steam on Linux" = Counter-Strike, Half-Life, and Team Fortress 2. That's nice and all, but even if 50% title support were considered a decent showing, that's 927 titles shy. Steam is rapidly becoming the Microsoft of digital game distributors, too, at about a 70% market share.
Another Slashdot commenter rattles the bones of the ASUS Linux laptop - remember that swell little ditty? (2007: ASUS Eee PC / 2009: "It's better with Windows") For technology corporations, "I'll switch to Linux" has become the way to make Microsoft renegotiate with you. It's the equivalent of ticked-off American voters declaring that they're moving to Canada.
Hey, I'm glad for Steam and game fans and Linux anyway, if this comes through. But realistically, do you really think Steam gives that much of a darn about running on Linux, or is this just a hole card against Microsoft? You've been watching this sitcom for a while now, right? Yes, like you, I want to believe. But reality hasn't done much to reinforce that desire in the past.
But maybe it will this time?
Damn it, will somebody out there either poo or get off the pot? My crow is getting cold here.
Update: Meanwhile in proprietary land, people are grousing endlessly over the new Sim City having launch problems. That's just one game; gotten more criticism in a few days than Valve has gotten for an entire decade-long fiasco. Sure, it's so unreasonable of me to bring this up...
I almost couldn't post this, because I've been in such an agonized tizzy, screaming myself to sleep at night as my white-knuckled fingers clench the sweat-stained bedsheets all about THE QUESTION.
THE QUESTION will not go away. It is front-paged on every news website, puked onto the table of every TV pundit debate, screamed from the headlines of every newspaper.
"ZOMG HOW DO WE GET MORE WOMEN INTO PROGRAMMING????????"
And science careers? And tech jobs? And STEM careers? And web development? And math? And database administration? And... and... where the wimmin at, dog?
None of these people realize that every time they ask this question, they drive women further away from programming. If there were a smidgen of interest in actually creating a balanced society, we would just make everything equally accessible and then let women make up their own minds what to do.
You know what question we never see? "How do we get more men into needlepoint?"
And nursing careers? And cake decorating? And ballet? Hey, guys, how would you feel if you had a mass of screaming harpies chasing you around with a camera and microphone demanding to know, right this minute, why you, sir, are not actively learning how to warp and weft a 10x20 penelope canvas? Would you be more open to getting into needlepoint then? Or would you be annoyed at being singled out for your gender? That's how women respond (and I know several myself) to "How do we get more women into programming?"
The answer is trumpeted to be, of course, that you must have this culture around needlepoint that is discouraging you from getting into it. Stigma. As soon as women find out you're a male needlepointer, they yell condescending remarks: "Oh, you petit-point pretty well for a man!" Flip that in reverse for women and programming. See how dumb that is? If women are only staying out of programming because of stigma, then men are likewise kept out of needlepoint. It's a female-dominated hobby, you see, so that would stop you from simply downloading patterns and buying thread at Hobby Lobby, because you'd be afraid of the clerks snickering at you behind their fist.
Not that it does. There are male needlepointers, there are female programmers. Ask either one of them what it's like in their culture, and they'll both respond that yes, the other gender does tend to dominate the industry, and yes, they do run into some sexism, but oh well, they deal with it and hope for a more enlightened tomorrow.
Yeah... but why? Why don't the genders show an even 50/50 split across all occupations and interests? Why are soap operas mainly watched by women; why are comic books mainly read by men? And yes, that last question is beginning to make the rounds; the media, endlessly helpless to distinguish one stereotypical pursuit from another, has leaped from asking why women aren't in STEM careers to why aren't there more women "geeks" and from there downhill to why aren't there more female Batman fans.
Oh, wait, they've tried to solve that one. Batman - boy-bits + girl-bits = Batgirl!
But wait, it didn't work. Women still don't read comic books!
Perhaps because they sensed that this "Batgirl" person (and Supergirl, Wonder Woman, etc.) was a shallow attempt at marketing to them by taking the same thing that's popular with boys and painting it pink. There's jillions of female superheros, and they are all male superhero spinoffs with a sex change. You may have Batgirl, but Batgirl drawn and written and sold by men. Oh no! Here it comes again! "How do we get more women to be comic artists?????"
No, really, guys, listen to this: What if we make needlepoint patterns available that picture monster trucks, football games, Playboy models, and Transformers robots? Will that get you into needlepoint?
Oh, it won't? Oh, you hurt my feelings.
(Sidebar: By the way, yes, there's female comic book and cartoon fans. In the manga and anime section, because in Japan, they have special categories of just manga and anime by females for females about females, and if there's male characters and more than two of them in one plot, you can bet the guys will be in each others' pants by issue #3. And if they aren't, the female slash fiction base will correct that oversight. Manga and anime enjoys a 50/50 gender appeal, because it started out from the first place being segregated into genres.)
Why aren't more women into programming?
I have the answer. My answer is so good, so definitive, that I should charge you for it.
The answer is "money."
No, not that the money is bad (although it is bad, but it's perceived as good). It's that every boy who grows up pursuing a tech career has dollar signs in his eyes. Because of Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, Larry Ellison, and Mark Zuckerberg. These guys are trumpeted from the front pages of Forbes, Time, and Business Week. The message is "there's big money in programming!" True, most of the programmers end up slinging Java in some god-forbidden corporate data warehouse for $12/hr. and end up getting laid off in five years when their job gets outsourced, but when they started out, they were aiming for Redmond.
(Another sidebar: Yeah, yeah, I know, there's one guy out there I have to address: You're only motivated to program because you enjoy making computers do nifty stuff. It's the love of the art. And that's why you have a job that has nothing to do with technology, do nothing to promote your success amongst your technology peers, and if somebody offered you fistfulls of cash to do anything computer-related, even consult or deliver a lecture at a conference, you'd push it away and be insulted, amiright? Yeah, you do it for the "love of the game" - you and every NFL player on their way to cash their 8-figure check.)
No, the question we should be asking is "How come there's so many guys in programming?" Because programming, even in 2013, is still seen as an at least stable and potentially lucrative career. And (WARNING: We have reached the part of this essay that will draw screams of "sexism":) guys feel more pressure to make money than gals. Because how many women want to date a broke man?
That's it. There are a lot of men in programming, because programming is seen as a potentially successful career, and men, naturally competitive, want those wads of cash very badly. You want more women in programming? Get rid of the money and the potential for success on a huge scale, men will abandon the field like toddlers fleeing the canned vegetable aisle, and Glamour, Vogue, and Cosmopolitan will start carrying ads: "Learn freelance programming at home! It's the perfect 'mommy-job'!"
Here, I'll prove it:
Presenting a book I've held dear on my shelves for a very long time, waiting for its day in the sun. The book is Introduction to Business Data Processing, by Lawrence S. Orilia, published McGraw Hill, copyright 1979. Important date to remember as we browse through it.
Sure, in 2013 you might think that there's a gulf between "data processing" and "programming", but in 1979, there wasn't one. The book is chock full of code in FORTRAN, COBOL, and BASIC. With flowcharts, endless fields of flowcharts, because that's how data processing was done back then. Check that link I made to Google books - while they don't have a scanned copy, note the keywords in "common terms and phrases". Yes, they go into line numbers and loops and statements. The students who learned from this textbook weren't modern data entry clerks. They would become programmers, because advanced software didn't exist at the time and it was expected that you would know coding in order to just use a computer.
Thirty years later, even Tim O'Reilly can't say "everybody who uses a computer should learn a little programming" without a lynch mob battering down his door.
What this book is also chock full of is women sitting at computer terminals. All the way through the book. Females operate the computers, men enjoy lofty positions in suits and ties striding around with clipboards, supervising the women.
You see, computing in this era was still largely seen as office-type work. Before computers it was all typewriters, adding machines, and filing cabinets, which mostly women did in the position of "secretary", so computers at the time were deemed to be glorified typewriters, adding machines, and filing cabinets combined - hence "women's work". Mostly it was the kind of work you wouldn't catch a guy dead doing. Remember, we're not talking the world of 3D rendered graphics and Internet entrepreneurs, we're talking punched cards and magnetic tape.
That's right, women were the first "hackers"!
His tie is wide enough to land a plane on, so he must be in charge. No way is he getting his hands dirty with this grubby computer stuff.
And yes, these queens of code could actually use a command line! You know, that thing I get screamed at all the time by the troll chorus for being an "elitist geek" for advocating?
Just look how confident and happy she is! Little did she know that in 30 years, plugging in your own external storage media correctly on the first try would be beyond 95% of either gender without a frantic call to tech support.
But modern macho men, your final humiliation is yet at hand. So only big, strong, logical men can handle all this computer stuff, ehhhh? Well back then, computer operation as an occupation had to be sold down, not up, so they had to include this charming anecdote:
It says on page 252: "A computer has become the means of communication between Lana, a four-year-old chimpanzee, and the rest of the world. Two years ago, she started to use the symbols on a computer keyboard to talk to her keepers."
"You see that, ladies?" said 1979 businessmen desperate for technicians, "These things are so simple, even a monkey can learn to use them, so you have no excuse!" A female monkey.
Remember this was 1979. Nobody had made billions of dollars in software yet. In hardware, yes, certainly, IBM, Honeywell, DEC, and whatnot, were very big deals. So the manufacture of computers was a male-dominated field, but just like typewriters, once we make 'em, let the women type on 'em. Also take note that the word "hacker" had yet to enter public parlance. There was no mythologized archetype of the cyberpunk anti-hero.
So if programming computers wasn't glamorous yet, and software tycoons who would become world-class billionaires were years in the future yet, and operating a computer was so easy that a monkey could do it, then what was there to attract men? Nothing. Yet the world needed programmers. So they had to hire women, and lo, there were the women running all the big, hot, dusty machines.
Now, I don't have time to write a whole book here and you don't have time to read it. I've laid out all the tools you need to build your own answers, because you're all bright people. Think about men, women, jobs and hobbies, and which ones are male-dominated, female-dominated, or 50/50. Think about history. Think about motivation, and the options people have in society.
I hope you have all learned something, not just about the history of computing, but about the genders, society, and the way the public perceptions relate to all of them.
But above all, most of all, more than my dear blood, I hope I never have to hear this stupid, stupid, stupid question ever again.
Follow-Up: I misplaced the bookmark when I was writing this, but I found it again. Here's Stanford research about how programming changed from a female to male profession. Now, sociologically, they cite our old boogey, gender-bias. Subtle gender-bias covered up by personality testing and prerequisite courses. Yes, but saying "we don't have female programmers because personalities are screened for introverts and college records are screened for math credits" does nothing but move the question out to "Where are all the introverted math geek women?" There are introverted math geek women out there. But anyway, it's another point of view worth sharing here.
Update: How many times does YOUR head hit the desk when reading about the latest gender-tech scandal, known as "dongle-gate"?
Update 4/10/13: As I continue to get more responses to this, here's a link somebody found on Fogcreek from 2 years ago: “The Computer Girls” from the April 1967 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. Once again, somebody else noticed that women used to dominate the computer field, but then answers "why did they leave?" with the knee-jerk "teh sexism!" Always, always, always.
It isn't often that I feel the need to amplify Stallman's words; he's usually a little extreme-left for my tastes. But this is one of those times when he reminds me why I still count him as a visionary - perhaps even still ahead of his time.
In this Reuters interview, he addresses the problem of corporations that are "too big to fail" and proposes that monopoly laws be strengthened, a return to Glass-Steagall-type regulation, and a progressive tax on corporations, where the bigger the company, the more of a percentage they pay.
Wonderful, wonderful sense, it would fix just about every economic problem we have in this country. And you can hang your hopes on seeing unicorns fly before it actually happens.
See, all us geeks sat through all those science fiction epics and made it to the 2000s, and all that ended up coming true was the dystopian government, only that government is actually an oligarchy of corporations. We didn't get 1984, but we did get $1983.99.
There's a problem with this: We can't vote for corporations. We can't elect new CEOs and board of directors. We can vote all we want to for government, but when both the US and the UK can find a corporation guilty of antitrust and are together powerless to reign them in, then that government isn't a government anymore. Corporations have taken their place. When a corporation can recklessly and ruthlessly pillage the economy and then hold a nation hostage demanding that it be bailed out because it's too big to fail, what is left for us to control with our votes? When a corporation is legally considered a person and then we do not hold that entity to morals and the laws of the land, then what else have we created but a psychopath?
In Europe for many centuries, churches and governments together caused many problems when they got too rich and powerful for their own good at the same time they were getting too chummy together. We started the United States with the idea of abolishing kings and popes. But what do we do about CEOs who have riches and power beyond the dreams of even kings, melded with the government?
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Aaron Swartz was a very nice fellow, and what happened to him was very sad. And now, here's a less-whitewashed version of his story:
Aaron Swartz was a bright young programmer who assisted in the authorship of the RSS specification, developed the web.py framework, worked on Internet archive projects, and started up a company called "Infogami" which was bought by the Y-Combinator-(and Hell)-spawned Reddit before immediately being snapped up by Conde-Nast Publications and almost as immediately firing Aaron Swartz. Swartz then turned most of the rest of his life to the misguided activity we call "hacktivism", in-between the odd Wikipedia edit.
Note: Amazing facts: Swartz did NOT invent the computer, hand down the GPL on stone tablets from Mount Sinai, kill his sensei in a duel, chop a snake into four pieces and throw it around the Earth to create the four corners, give birth to the Sun, destroy the Ring in the fires of Mount Doom, get bitten by a radioactive unicorn and develop superpowers, or travel back in time to kill Hitler. None of the bodily fluids from his remains have thus far been demonstrated to have supernatural restorative properties.
( You might want to print out the above paragraph, clip it, and save it in your wallet or purse in the months to come. Pull it out and re-read it quietly to yourself when everybody else is donning burquas and taking candlelight pilgrimages to his place of birth. It is the sole glint of level-headed reason you're going to see written on this issue. )
In a freak legal accident straight out of the movie Brazil, Swartz, amidst his hacktivism, managed to download a bunch of free academic articles from a freely accessible website, an act which inexplicably angered somebody in the academic sausage-grinder. Then, like so many hacktivists before him and so many hacktivists that will come after him, the government proceeded to pursue Swartz as their target as this decade's lottery-selected cybercrime scapegoat.
You've doubtless heard that Swartz was looking at life in prison or worse. What you haven't heard is that the latest plea-bargain round had Swartz's proposed sentence down to six months and some charges - and they were still haggling. Granted, the charges on his record would have sucked, but are you seriously telling me Swartz wouldn't have been able to get a job ever again with credentials like his? To say nothing of the possibility that he could have gone ahead through a trial and conceivably won.
Now, ignoring the rumors to the contrary, nobody killed Aaron Swartz but Aaron Swartz. Swartz suffered from severe depression. Long before his legal woes, Swartz already was sounding depressed and suicidal way back when he got sacked from Conde Nast - he was writing blog posts that were already raising alarm. It may yet come out that his mental state colored his judgment a couple of times, perhaps even when he was downloading academic papers.
Note: Amazing facts: He was not crucified on Galilee, nor was he buried in a stone tomb, nor was he secretly assassinated by the Illuminati. Carmen Ortiz, stupid character though she is, did not hire ninja assassins to put him away. Clip and save for future grounding against the waves of myths soon to pass.
I understand what it's like to be a grieving father. When I have unfortunately found myself in that role in the past, I, too, heard myself say some stupid, irrational things. Anger and denial are parts of the grieving process. We get through it, move on, and - usually - get to live down what we said. As long as it isn't reported in the media tweet by tweet.
Aaron Swartz did mostly good in the world, and certainly had his heart in the right place. I am sad that he is gone. A lot of people I agree with have said nice things about him. Good night, sweet prince.
I just don't happen to think that he turned water into wine. To paraphrase Pulp Fiction, What the rest of you witnessed was a miracle; what I witnessed was a freak occurrence.
UPDATE: Cory Doctorow is currently hosting a petition drive to have the Assistant U.S. Attorney fired. Why is it whenever I see a misguided online witch hunt, I follow the flame trail and find Doctorow at the end of it? OWS, SOPA-paranoia, Kiva.org... Cory Doctorow is an irresponsible cult leader with an online army of impressionable, alienated, brainwashed young kids ever-ready to shoot first and ask questions later. For somebody who used to just run a nice little website where he posted cool stuff, he sure is on an arrogant power trip now.