a women-focused users group: the very, very beginning

I mentioned nearly a month ago that we were starting a group whose goal is to get more women involved in open source. We had our first group meeting this evening.

We decided on a “chaining” strategy for invitations – no broadcasts on mailing lists we aren’t subscribed to, and people should feel a bit responsible for the folks that they bring along. The accountability for group participation is one thing that I feel strongly about, and there was rough consensus, so looks like that will stand for now.

There was some talk about maintaining at least 50% women in the group. Ultimately, I don’t think a percentage will matter if we have a strong group identity. But it got me thinking – what are the elements of this group that will keep me interested and will continue to draw women in? And then, what can I do to help maintain the group’s identity and goals?

One idea I had was the socratic seminar. Another was a goal of 100% participation in every meeting. During today’s meeting, three of us mentioned that we’d gone to a series of user group meetings without ever saying a word. What I like about the 100% participation goal is that combined with a socratic seminar, it would be radically different from other user group meetings I’ve been to.

For structure, I thought we could have our show-and-tell, followed by an hour or so of group work, and then a post-group-work sharing. I think that the sharing piece is key. And if we keep ’em short – and timed – I think it could be a very interesting.

We’ll see how things go. I offered to talk next month about the temporal database stuff I’ve been working on with Jeff. I asked for five minutes and thought it would be a nice jumping-off point for a smaller group to run off and work on database stuff for an hour. We’ll see if I can make a 5-minute presentation that is useful about temporal data.

gut-wrenching photography, convergence on war

If you haven’t seen this Nina Berman slideshow, go there now.

You can also read the NY Times article about her work on this project. I’ve subscribed to Jen Beckman’s blog for a while now, and been blown away by the photographers she curates.

I was impressed with the access that Ms. Berman had to her subjects. The soldiers reminded me of the men in No End In Sight. I saw that at Cinema21 just a week ago. It is the best war documentary I’ve seen about Iraq. Far better than Fahrenheit 911. I’ve been re-visiting 9/11 stuff – I picked up the Illustrated 9/11 Commission’s Report that I bought nearly a year ago and read it cover to cover.

And did you know that Errol Morris had a blog?

When I was a little boy I asked my older brother, If you blow up a photograph can you eventually see atoms? Here is one answer. When you magnify a leaf, in principle, you get down to the atomic level of the leaf. But when you magnify a photograph of a leaf, you get down to the atomic level of the photograph. You can keep magnifying the grains of silver-halide and get down to the atomic level of the silver-halide, but you do not see additional detail of the leaf. As a result of this inherent limitation, photographs are nothing more than coarse-grained screens laid over reality, revealing nothing more (about what is photographed) than a certain size. They provide an imperfect simulacrum of the surface of things.


Photography presents things and at the same time hides things from our view. It allows us to not-see at the same time that it allows us to see. But language plus photography provides an express train to error.

My media consumption is converging on war these days.

PeaceMaker and indie educational software

I played this game PeaceMaker for the first time this week. The goal of the game is to establish peace in Israel by finding a two-state solution to the conflict. Here’s the NPR story. They have a list of assumptions the game adheres to with this telling bullet point:

  • Small concrete steps, not grandiose plans

I was completely immersed in the game. You choose to be the leader of Israel or the Palestinian people, and then you are given a palette of possible actions. The Palestinian leader has nearly a third less options than the Israeli leader, and must focus on cooperation to win.

I was the Israeli leader and played for more than an hour before I won. The close of the game presents you with a “violence” rating – I got a 63 (the scale went to over 250, I believe), and an admonishment to try for less violent means of solving the conflict the next time I played.

The social studies teachers are planning on getting the game for all the lab computers in the high school and designing curriculum for their Middle East module that includes PeaceMaker.

That sparked a discussion about other educational games and their impact with a generation of kids who grew up with amazing interactive games. I did a little searching and found Democracy through The Independent gaming source. I’m looking for other games though! The PeaceMaker blog was a great resource for a few moments of research.

I’m curious about games that are available for open source operating systems. I’ve only ever played Doom and Nethack with Linux. Most friends say that they keep a windows machine around to play games, so I imagine the gaming world hasn’t really leaped into using Linux.

the kecky county fair

Kecky County Fair Pie

Yesterday, our friends Becky and Kate had a county fair on the street in front of their house. There were more than 30 entries to the judged crafts which included: pies, baked goods other than pies, canned food, sewing and needlepoint, livestock (bees and chickens!), gardening and “other”. The “other” category included a cow sculpture made of butter.

Here was my entry:

I am not a douche bag

I embroidered “I am not a douchebag” on the back side of the bag. I forgot to take a picture of it before I gave it away to a person who really wanted it.

What a great party! I can’t wait for next year.

More photos are in this photoset.

synchronized scanning talk

I normally post a long email about PostgreSQL talks we have here in Portland for PDXPUG meetings. Below is a draft of what I’ll be sending to the list.

The August 16th meeting began with a short discussion of Rules vs. Triggers. I didn’t come up with an EXPLAIN operator to talk about, but had recently run into a situation where I could have implemented something as a RULE or as a TRIGGER. Jeff explained that for table partitioning, the recommendation was to use Triggers. This had to do with some odd cases where you had a query whose predicate would be altered by the RULE in such a way as to render the “window” of data’s result NULL. Hrm. We all talked about that for a while, tried to come up with an example case – which was hard. Then we tried to blame something on MySQL that will remain undiscussed. And then we moved on.

I would like to revisit rules vs. triggers, and come up with the example case!

We had a few new faces – including the leader of the PHP group – Sam! Also, Jerry was looking for someone to help him out with some SQL questions. We hope he posts some questions to the list.

Jeff’s talk was largely about his patch, with a few bits about his development environment, a patch from Simon Riggs that was related but not dependent, and a little database theory thrown in.

The fundamental idea behind Jeff’s Synchronized Scan patch is that Sequence Scans can really start at any place between 0 and N, with N being the number of records in a table. It was arbitrary, before his patch to 8.3, that all Sequence Scans were starting at 0. In the past, DBAs would just need to plan for poor or unpredictable performance when multiple sequence scans occurred.

The patch implements a system where each process keeps track of where a sequence scan is at – in a tiny piece of shared memory. Then, when a new sequence scan starts up on the same table, it is given a hint as to where to start. The effect is that the second sequence scan now asks for data that is in the cache. For any tables that are larger than cache size, and whose queries are I/O-bound, this is a big performance benefit, with no real performance penalties. So awesome!
Jeff also discussed Simon Riggs’ patch which implements a very small ring cache to service Sequence Scans. This is also a big performance improvement because it prevents cache pollution by confining sequence scan data to a small space that can’t push other cached data around. Jeff mentioned that PostgreSQL already does a pretty good job, but this patch makes the caching even more efficient.

Another topic that came up was the Linux I/O scheduling algorithms. He had originally tested his patch using Deadline, NOOP, and Anticipatory. When he tried it with CFQ more recently, it didn’t work so well. He’d also tested ZFS, which seemed to work well but needed more testing.

Mark spoke up and mentioned that Deadline worked very well in general, non-deterministic cases with PostgreSQL.

There were tons of great questions, and even a few esoteric, theoretical arguments. Very good meeting, everyone!

Afterward, the Lucky Lab was crazy busy! We drank a couple pitchers, talked about the linux kernel, and I think there was a long argument about BSNF.

We did decide that someone was going to have to give a talk on “Hypercubes and Dungeons and Dragons: what you never thought they had in common”.
Next month’s meeting with be about relational algebra, with James, Vassilis and Rafael tag-teaming. Rafael has been teaching the intro to databases class this summer at PSU, so he is ready for some real heckling. I can only hope that Randal will be able to make it.

non-profits and systems administration

Wouldn’t it be great if the non-profit world could embrace free software? In my head, I’ve seen a giant Venn diagram labeled “VALUES” with Open Source/Free Software overlapping significantly with the of non-profits. Here’s a small one:

nonprofit open source venn diagram
I think that non-profits are certainly not ignorant of open source. In Oregon, our legislators tried to pass a bill that required F/OSS alternatives to commercial software to be considered for every software purchase. Then, the story goes, the guys from Redmond came down and talked them out of it. NOSI has been around for a few years, and I come across forums or blogs like techsoup daily.

The problem is implementation and systems support. Administration is where the car goes off the rails for non-profits. Qualified open source admins are not necessarily available to non-profits – I’m not sure exactly why, but I’d bet cost is a big reason.

Non-profits often receive equipment and software donations from the community, with little technical experience to maintain them. Most of the donations are commercial software with expensive licenses. There are a few tech support groups popping up that cater to non-profits (lower prices, focus on maintaining – not upgrading).

We have FreeGeek here in Portland. But there are still many non-profits who don’t or can’t use their services. I wish that there was a “server-in-a-box” setup that office managers would feel comfortable maintaining. Filesharing is so ubiquitous and necessary, it is unreasonable to expect that every office that needs filesharing will have a “qualified” systems administrator to maintain the server.

I guess my question is – is there a set of software apps that could be given to small- to mid- size non-profits as a replacement for commercial/non-free software?

Off the top of my head, I would want:

* Ubuntu Linux for client/server
* Firefox for a web browser
* Zimbra or Chandler/Cosmo for email and calendaring
* WebDav and SMB filesharing
* Subversion auto-versioning support on sharepoints
* Something like once:radix for a Filemaker-like database interface
* Accounting software?
That would all be pretty tough for a non-profit to maintain. I wonder about packaging those things together. Would it be worth it?

And then, once it was put together, how do we create a system where non-profits either have access to qualified sysadmins or can administrate everything themselves?

I’ve done a little research into non-profit/tech forums and organizations, but not nearly enough to know everything about what’s already out there. I’m very interested in pursuing this idea, maybe just for the sake of the few non-profits I work with.

creationists using nature precedings to pre-publish junk science

This paper was added to the Nature Precedings site today.

The title grabbed my attention – “The saltational model for the dawn of H. sapiens, chin, adolescence phase, complex language and modern behavior”. Ok, I’ll admit that it was those Jean Auel books (in 9th grade) that sparked my interest in non-fiction about the origins of our species.

So, first I had to look up saltation – it basically means “a sudden change”. Kind of tipped me off for what was to come.

And then page 3:

I already gave away the punchline in the title, but I’ll be painfully clear: the paper was a poorly written intelligent design argument, thinly disguised as a research paper on ancient skeletal remains.

I’ve seen Journey of Man, so I was interested in how the paper might get around the genetic evidence.. and well, the paper was unintelligible. There was a bunch of handwaving about different pieces of different ancient bones, and comparing them. Maybe dwTheory can tell me what grains of truth might have been mixed in with all the crap.

After wading through all the junk, I decided to find out who one of the co-authors, Omer Faruk Noyan, is. A google search turned up this petition questioning the validity of Darwinism.

I did learn from google that ‘saltational’ is a word often used by creationists. Maybe because is sounds scientifical? Rather than saying “hey, I think God did it!”, it is much better to use a word most people won’t know. Because that’s what science is about – using big words to construct nonsense arguments.

kaizen and change

My coworker gave a brief, but inspiring talk yesterday about kaizen. He brought up the wikipedia definition of the word, which focuses on the business meaning and primarily efficiency. Then he talked about what it means to him.

Kaizen is often heard in the same sentence with “continuous improvement.” I’ve heard it so often that I usually block it out as management-weasel speak. But I like the idea behind it – small, incremental changes that eventually add up to revolutions in efficiency.

Change, though, doesn’t happen without people. The people are the most important piece in all of this, and they are not interchangable. You can cross train and hire, but you will always get better results with a well-trained and actively thinking group.

Bottom line: kaizen is equally about the goal – efficiency – and the process to get there, which he called respect. That’s what my coworker said that inspired me yesterday.

I think the art in kaizen is how you actually get people to change. There are ready-made processes that you can apply – six sigma, five whys, pareto charts. But you can’t just put a stack of forms in front of a person and expect them to change the way that they think. You have to show people how the new way is better through experience, and, perhaps more importantly, how the new way benefits them.

In a way, I see that as internal marketing – but the best kind. It’s marketing based on truth and facts. And, in the process, you give people get something that they wanted anyway: respect.

I spent the last couple of days chewing on that, and I tried to shoe-horn kaizen into an article I’m writing about women in open source. I ended up not including it. My hope is that I communicated the essence of that idea about change, even if I didn’t say it in so many words.

end of an era

Having read this article, I’m now looking forward, come this December, to your front-page exposé on the real identity of Santa wherein you attempt to ruin Christmas for millions of children everywhere.

Fake Steve Jobs has been unmasked. (uh, yeah, spoiler to follow)

group cohesiveness

A couple days ago, I had my mind blown by this Clay Shirky talk from 2003. It was like someone was sitting in the room where we had the women’s BoF at OSCON. He lists three group patterns: sex talk, vilification of outsiders/enemies, religious veneration. We managed to skip over the sex talk (although I did make a joke about auctioning off tickets to the women-only conference to men). But we dove right in with the other two.

It got me thinking about another project we’re working on – a programming group whose goal is to get more women involved in open source, and allows men. I’m not in leading it, but I really want it to succeed. I want to avoid the negativity and baggage that seems to follow women-specific groups.

There’s a list of things at the end of the talk “to design for.” Shirky’s talking about social software, but I think that a couple of the ideas apply to RL as well.

Having barriers to entry for groups, for example, helps strengthen the group identity. You need an identity before opening up participation – so that the group can protect itself when the inevitable attack-on-identity comes. Either in the form of subversion of purpose, or “you suck and shouldn’t exist”.

Hey, there was lots of good stuff in there. If you haven’t read it already, take a few minutes and enjoy.

And more about the new group — something cool already happened in the discussion. A participant pointed out that we should really be thinking about projects in terms of 2-4 person teams. I love that someone piped up with that right away. Deep communication, particularly about code, won’t happen without breaking up into small subgroups.