Author Archives: owen

Open source, opportunity, and women in software

Linux Journal recently ran a thoughtful essay by Susan Sons about females in open source and hacking communities.

Sons starts by talking about how she first engaged with the Linux community. It was the 1990’s, and Sons was around age 12. She applauds that community for including anyone who was interested and skillful — even a 12 year old girl living on a farm.

Sons goes on to talk about how her way of learning technology is very different than the way girls are typically introduced to tech nowadays, like in high school STEM courses. She seems to feel like she was introduced to technology in a healthy way. But she thinks that, unfortunately, most girls are not given the opportunity to learn about computers the way she did.

Twelve-year-old girls today don’t generally get to have the experiences that I did. Parents are warned to keep kids off the computer lest they get lured away by child molesters or worse—become fat! That goes doubly for girls, who then grow up to be liberal arts majors. Then, in their late teens or early twenties, someone who feels the gender skew in technology communities is a problem drags them to a LUG meeting or an IRC channel. Shockingly, this doesn’t turn the young women into hackers.

Her main point seems to be that, as she learned technology (on a computer at home, communicating over IRC), it did not matter whether she was male or female, and it didn’t matter how old she was. But the way we introduce most girls to technology now is much less healthy. We expect them to live up to certain gender roles — wearing make-up, dressing stylishly, projecting femininity — and emphasize those things instead of encouraging them to hack and create. Then, when girls who have never had the opportunity to learn about computers get to high school, we act like there must be something wrong with them and act like they need special help (like special classes for women in STEM).

Sons also explains how these differences in learning technology result in differences in the ways women and men are treated later as adults in technology and computer occupations. Sons also seems to think that the situation has become a lot worse over the last 20 years.

I’ve never had a problem with old-school hackers. These guys treat me like one of them, rather than “the woman in the group”, and many are old enough to remember when they worked on teams that were about one third women, and no one thought that strange. Of course, the key word here is “old” (sorry guys). Most of the programmers I like are closer to my father’s age than mine.

The new breed of open-source programmer isn’t like the old. They’ve changed the rules in ways that have put a spotlight on my sex for the first time in my 18 years in this community.

Maybe Sons’ underlying message is this: We treat girls and women unfairly when it comes to computers and technology. But the main problem is not individual cases of prejudice. It is an educational system and a technology culture that puts women at a disadvantage from an early age — primarily by having very different expectations for women and men. Is that right? If so, then it is clearly very unfair.

Sons has an interesting perspective, and I wonder if it matches what you have seen in the tech world — in school, in online communities, in the workplace.

For OSU, Android APK files should be available outside Google Play

It’s been a long time since anyone has posted, and a lot has happened since the end of Spring semester (i.e., NSA leaks, Snowden, etc.). However, I just had a small thing that I thought belonged here.

I have a tablet on which I am running CyanogenMod, which is the most widely-used open-source distribution of an Android-like system. On Cyanogenmod, you can install all the standard Google apps, like GMail, Google Maps, and the Play Store, but you don’t have to. One thing about the Google apps is that, for full functionality, most require that you associate your device with a Google account. I don’t really want to do that with this device. Hence, I don’t use the Play Store. Most of the apps I want are available on F-Droid anyway. For the few remaining apps I want, I have been able to download the APK files from elsewhere.

To get on the OSU Wireless Network, the recommended method is to use the OSU Wireless Setup utility. However, this is available only through the Google Play Store. (I assume that manual configuration is also possible, though I have not tried.) I think this is inappropriate. So, I just filed this complaint with the OSU IT service desk:

Dear service desk,

Please do not require the OSU community to use the Google Play Store to get the OSU Wireless Setup app for Android. You should provide users with the APK file so that, if they choose, they can download and install the app themselves without the Play Store. The Play Store should be an option, not a requirement.

As you know, the Google Play Store requires users to sign up for a Google account and register their Android devices with Google. I realize that most people do this anyway, but some of us do not want to do this. The recommended method of connecting to the OSU wireless network should not require users to have a relationship with any specific corporation.

Please make the APK file for the wireless setup utility available for all users on an OSU website.

In the mean time, could you please e-mail me the APK file for the OSU Wireless Setup utility for Android?


Note that OSU does offer Android-specific instructions for connecting to osuwireless. (In fact, it looks like the screenshots are taken from a device running CyanogenMod!) However, at the bottom of the page it says, “Important: If you were unable to connect successfully with the instructions above, please try using the wireless configuration utility for Android.”

This is part of a disturbing trend of organizations assuming reliance on Google. There are many free apps that should be available outside the Play Store, but aren’t — simply because developers assume everyone will use the Play Store. If it ever got to the point where use of University services required use of Google, that would be worrisome.

More discussion of e-waste

We really spent only one class session discussing e-waste, but I think it is a really important topic. The starting point of our discussion was “The Electronic Wasteland”, which originally aired on CBS’s 60 Minutes. It is a startling video. I think it is something we should be sharing with our friends and families

When I have had old computers to recycle, I have taken them to either FreeGeek Columbus (which seems to be defunct) or Ohio Drop Off. I assume my old electronics were reused or recycled responsibly, but I have no way of knowing for sure. And even if there are good places that recycle electronics responsibly, there will be others that don’t. It is much cheaper to recycle electronics in developing countries that have little health and environmental regulation or enforcement than it is to do the recycling around here. As long as that is true, there will be businesses that send electronics to the “wasteland” in order to save money — even if it means making people sick and polluting the land.

In class, we mentioned a few possible solutions to the e-waste problem. One idea was to design electronics with more replaceable and upgradable parts. That way things do not become obsolete as quickly, and there is less total e-waste. Another idea was to add to the cost of electronics a fee that would be refunded only if the item was returned to an authorized center for recycling. (This is similar to how some states handle recycling of bottles and cans.)

What are some other solutions? What are the pros and cons of each solution?

Newegg defeats patent troll

A “patent troll” is a company that is set up just to make money off of patents it owns. Usually, such companies do not do any R&D themselves. Instead, they strategically purchase patents from other companies, especially companies that are going bankrupt or having other financial difficulties. Then they use these patents to make money from other larger companies. They say, “Hey, you use technology that we have patented. Either pay us some royalties or we will sue you.”

It is important to be aware that patents are different than copyrights. A copyright covers the creative work itself — that piece of data itself, as written or recorded. Examples include source code, an executable binary, some song lyrics, a book, a musical recording, a photograph, a video, etc. A patent covers an invention, in other words, an idea. So, for instance, you could have a certain kind of pulley system patented. And you could have the blueprints (or CAD drawings, etc.) copyrighted. Roughly, the patent covers the idea, while the copyright covers a data object.

According to Title 35 §101 of the US Code, the things you can patent are these: “any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof”.

Well, what if someone had a patent on e-commerce? That is the issue in this Ars Technica article about the legal fight between Newegg and Soverain Software. (Read the article. It’s great.) Soverain Software is a patent troll, in the sense described above. And, at one point, they acquired a patent for the idea of an internet shopping cart. They didn’t actually do the “invention” or file for the patent. Apparently they got it from a software outfit that was going out of business in 2001. Well, who uses web shopping carts? Everyone. Soverain has sued the likes of J.C. Penney, TigerDirect, Avon, Victoria’s Secret, Best Buy, Office Max, Home Depot, IBM, and others. Not all the cases have been resolved, but Soverain was pulling in millions of dollars.

Newegg was also being sued by Soverain, and they said, “This is bullshit.” (That’s a quote from Newegg’s Chief Legal Officer.) Instead of settling with Soverain, they fought. Finally, they got Soverain’s patents declared invalid. This saves them and many other e-commerce businesses tons of money.

It seems extreme to be able to patent an idea as general as internet shopping cart. But are there other ideas that potentially should be covered by patent protection? What would be the justification for that? Would copyright be enough by itself?

My guess is that act utilitarianism would favor a policy of no software patents but some level of copyright protection for software and source code. However, I haven’t worked through the act utilitarian evaluation step-by-step. Furthermore, there are many ways copyrights can be structured, and that is another complication. We will be talking about this more in class in a couple of weeks. But please weigh in with your initial thoughts!

3-d printed high-capacity magazines

In class Monday we talked for a moment about whether and how news stories about new technology could be ethically significant. I said that if technology changes the ways we live and interact with each other, then a new piece of technology might be very ethically significant.

Here is a great example. Forbes has an interesting write-up about Defense Distributed, a group using 3-d printers to create high-capacity ammunition magazines. (See also this article at The Verge.) People are using 3-d printers to print high-capacity magazines to hold bullets for assault rifles. Magazines holding more than ten rounds used to be banned. Since the Newtown shooting, there is growing support for banning them again. Well, how effective would a ban be if people could just download the design and print one from home?

Of course this issue goes well-beyond just gun magazines or even firearms in general. 3-d printing promises to allow DIYers to manufacture things that, up to now, have had to come from large factories. In many ways, this should be great. But what about people who want to manufacture something illegal or dangerous?

Aaron Swartz suicide

Ars Technica has the best short summary of the controversial life and death of Aaron Swartz that I’ve seen. It is definitely worth reading, if you have not been following this story.

The article points out what all commentators have been saying — that Swartz was a brilliant programmer, hacker, and technological innovator (and that he was only 26 at the time of his death). The Ars article is especially good because it presents a fairly clear (but maybe over-simplified) picture of how the events of the last couple years may have led to Swartz’s unfortunate death.

Swartz was an outspoken activist for free and open access to information — especially government documents and scientific publications. In 2010, Swartz (allegedly) used the MIT computer network to download millions of academic articles from JSTOR. I am not sure what his exact motives were. The Ars article suggests that it was a kind of activism or protest. What seems clear is that Swartz did not do it for personal profit. Also, as far as I can tell, he never distributed the documents to anyone. Anyway, JSTOR did not press charges but the US federal government went after him pretty hard. Apparently, he was potentially facing more than 50 years in prison.

At this point, it does not look like people are sure about Swartz’s motive for suicide. People have been speculating, though, that it was because of despair over a long prison sentence.

Swartz’s life was complex, but a simple summary still seems accurate. He had strong moral views. He worked for those views, and, in the process, ran afoul of the law. Legal issues threatened to ruin his life. So he took his own life.

Who is at fault here? Is it the fault of Swartz himself — for going too far in pursuit of his ideals? Is it the fault of the government, for prosecuting Swartz too hard (as Lawrence Lessig contends it did)? Is it the fault of society somehow? A combination? No one’s fault, just a said turn of events?

Kickstarter-funded projects at CES

The Verge has a long write-up about the Kickstarter-funded projects exhibited at CES. The new prevalence of Kickstarter-funded tech ventures might show us a model of how the path of technological progress — especially for consumer products — might become more democratic.

If you don’t know about Kickstarter, here is the basic idea: Someone has a project in mind but not enough money to do it. For example, maybe the project would cost $50,000. The person starts a Kickstarter project and asks for support. People pledge monetary support, but they only have to pay if enough other people pledge so that the project reaches its threshold, in this case $50,000. A benefit of this system is that it is safer for donors. They are less likely to end up spedning money on a project that never even gets rolling.

In the article, some of the projects in question were high tech “smart” watches, mobile phone accessories, Bluetooth-enabled stickers (for locating easily lost items), and an electric skateboard.

It seems that these new Kickstarter-funded projects will result in a wider array of available products. This means there will be more possible paths along which technology can evolve. Furthermore, the paths will be more often chosen according to the actual needs of consumers, instead of just whatever the large tech companies think they can sell. A consequence of this will likely be happier consumers. This makes Kickstarter a positive development from a utilitarian perspective.

Also, Kickstarter gives innovative people an opportunity to make money by working creatively on their own projects. That means they are less dependent for their personal income on large companies, organizations, or governments that decide what projects developers and engineers are to work on. This seems positive from the perspective of Kantian ethics. Kickstarter allows gives people autonomy and allows them to have work where they are not treated as mere means to someone else’s ends.