Just Shelley Technology

What’s the use?

Wayback Machine has copy of this story with comments

Last week I had an email from a person writing an anger management manual, who wanted permission to quote my old posts about using anger as a weapon against helplessness.

In the posts, I wrote about Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman’s research into a cause of depression he termed ‘learned helplessness’–where a person internalizes their inability to control a situation so much so that even if a method of change does present itself, they don’t see it. Seligman has based his entire career on techniques to fight this destructive perception.

As serendipity would have it, Joel Spolsky of Joel on Software just released his list of book recommendations for programmers and it featured Seligman’s book on the subject. This list, though, led to an ironic development, because I’ve been fighting my own sense of ‘learned helplessness’, and Joel’s book recommendations just added to it when I noted that not one of the books featured was by a woman; not even a co-writer.

I have become increasingly sensitive to this because not long after receiving the email from the anger management person, I had a chance to see pictures of employees of a company that provides services central to weblogging, and was disheartened to see that of all the pictures shown, over 20, only one was a woman–and she was in a non-technical position. This started me searching among all of the tech companies associated in some way with weblogging. In all, regardless of the nature of the business, there are very few women employees; of those, most are either in business or support positions.

For instance, O’Reilly Publishing has several women in key positions, but if you look at the senior editing staff, there isn’t one woman–at least none that I can see, and I looked, hard. People have said that women at O’Reilly do play a major part in the O’Reilly conferences, but from what I’ve seen in the past, they’re behind the scenes, not up on the stages. And where are the women authors? Where are the women who write the articles, and the books? Are there none of us left? Not at the new O’Reilly weblog–and rarely in the photos.

How many women are engineers at Six Apart? I know that the support staff is primarily women, but how about the engineering staff? How many women engineers with Google? How about Yahoo? The other major companies associated directly or indirectly with weblogging?

(I hope you all return with “lots”. It would give me fresh hope.)

I wrote in an email to a friend last week that rather than empower women, especially women in technology, I’m concerned that weblogging will ultimately prove harmful to women. Why? Because technology companies are looking more to the weblogs and to those who are more ‘vocal’ in this environment for new recruits for their companies. When you consider that most of the people doing the hiring are men in their 40′s or less, who tend to read others of like frame of mind, particularly those who have more notoriety, what happens, then, to the more traditional recruiting process?

Rather than post a job notice to Monster, or to local recruiters or in whatever local newspaper, these same people send emails out to the bright, enthusiastic, vocal, usually younger men who dominate the technology weblogs. The end result is that technology companies associated with weblogging tend to have a male-female ratio out of synch with the demographics of the rest of the country. So what happens, then, if this continues as a trend, as more and more companies enter into the world of weblogging?

This is a chilling prospect, especially to us older women in technology who haven’t secured a comfortable position. I ran from this in fear a couple of months ago when I took what little money I had on a trip to Florida to try and discover a new career in travel writing and photography. I was desperate to find hope, and instead, found a timeshare.

That’s not to say that I haven’t had interviews. Two weeks ago I had a phone interview with a major player in this field, and the interview did not go well. Everything was fine until he started giving me the technology quizzes — the questions that techs tend to ask to see if you ‘really’ know this stuff. As soon as he started I froze and had difficulty answering any of the questions. It wasn’t that I don’t know the stuff — it’s just that I have never been particularly adept at these types of interviews. When I was fresh out of college, true; but not lately.

When he asked how he could assess my technical abilities, I suggested he read my writings and look at my resume. He was very personable and very pleasant, but it did leave me feeling even more depressed.

These thoughts rattled around in my brain this last week, and with each new photo published online featuring primarily all men, or each new radio show or company almost exclusively all men, I became more depressed — I was fast approaching an internalized view that women in technology are a dying breed, and there is little we can do to change this–and I was one of the first old dragons being booted out the door.

Normally in times past, I would have written a blistering note about this issue in my weblog, and felt re-energized and ready to battle this particular demon. My anger sustained me and made me strong. Not this last week, though, I just felt quieter. Every time I would go to write something, I would lose interest almost immediately. I focused instead on working on Wordform and playing with Greasemonkey, and other odds and ends; even then, I didn’t feel like writing about what I was doing.

“What’s the use,” I told myself, and therein is the statement that lives in the core of learned helplessness.

The three most deadly words are not, “I hate you”, but, “What’s the use”.

I had a second interview with another major player on Friday, and this time, I felt very good about my answers. Rather than quiz me on specific uses of technology, he asked what I would do in this circumstance or that. Now, these are the types of questions I am very comfortable with, and which are equally good about determining how familiar you are with the field, the technology, and even how much you’ve thought about it and where are your interests. More than that, it was in a specific use of technology that has been important to me and my enthusiasm for the work was such that I probably could have talked his ear off for several hours.

I have no idea if either of these recruiters will follow up after the interviews. I have learned not to get my hopes up too high (being realistic is not being helpless). Regardless, though, I felt good about the second interview and this gave me a boost.

Looking around I see debates on technology and other topics that I want to be a part of, and though I have to fight my growing tendency to say to myself, “What’s the use”, I counter this with noting that if I’m ignored by the players, others are also ignored by the players and that sex isn’t always. the determining factor. This helps chip away at the helplessness when I realize that the ‘problem’, as such, doesn’t necessarily reside in me, as much as it resides among the players and the environment.

I am also getting more requests for help with individual and smaller company sites, so I am gainfully employed (thanks in no small part to the requests and recommendations I’ve received from many of you), and this helps break me out of not only the cycle of worry about money but a growing despondency. Even if I have to find work outside my field in order to make it month to month, this isn’t a sign that I’m not good at what I do or a failure in my field; it is a sign that times are tough. Most importantly, I can’t look at others and their successes and allow this to make me feel a failure–each of us has different times in our lives when things work…and when they don’t.

I actually want to find that point again where I get angry–furious–at what I read. I want to write scathing retorts and blistering diatribes, and sincere though strongly worded commentary. Then I’ll be the bird that burns, and people will be pissed and link and de-link accordingly, and I’ll just smile toothily at the results because anything is better than “What’s the use”.

But I don’t think I’ll ever burn quite as brightly again: over the last few years, I’ve had my deepest confidence in myself and my future shaken; there will always be a part of me ready to throw in the flag, a tiny voice ready to cry out, “What’s the use”. When you’ve gone down this road, you’re marked. It’s now up to me to make sure this was a one-time journey and not a repeat trip. In this effort, I’ll use any weapon, up to, and including, walking away from something important to me if I feel it gives harm.

Now I’ve aired my dark thoughts and my doubts, and time to focus on the light and the wonder, and there are new and interesting debates on the semantic web emerging, and I don’t think I’ve chastized the Men of Weblogging enough this week–and my cat wants me to play. Thank goodness for cats, chocolate, friends who can handle soggy shoulders, cuddlesome moments, nature, small children, music, good books, and new toys we can’t afford–not necessarily in that order.


Lowpoint in television

Thanks to Yule (who says it’s all Maria’s fault) I discovered that I’m Percy Bysshe Shelley in the “What famous Romantic Poet are you” quiz–not my favorite poet, but somewhat appropriate considering the name. In response, Yule wrote in comments:

No kidding! On the other hand, the poet Shelley’s full name never ceases to remind me of a cross-dressing Graham Chapman in Monty Python, leading a ’salon’ while totally inebriated, waxing enthused at the name of Shelley, which he (she) confuses with sherry (”Another sherry? Yes, yes, alright!”).

Ah, the baleful influence of television… 😉

The scene that Yule references is from the following (taken from script):

Chris in order to avoid this embarrassment, dives into the nearest department. A sign over the door reads ‘Victorian poetry reading hall’.

Cut to a poetry reading. Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats and Tennyson are present. Chris stands quietly in the comer hoping not to be noticed.

Old Lady: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, it’s so nice to see such a large turnout this afternoon. And I’d like to start off by welcoming our guest speakers for this afternoon, Mr Wadsworth…

Wordsworth: Wordsworth!

Old Lady: Sorry, Wordsworth… Mr John Koots, and Percy Bysshe.

Shelley: Shelley!

Old Lady: Just a little one, medium dry, (a dwarf assistant pours her a sherry) and Alfred Lorde.

Tennyson: Tennyson.

Old Lady: Tennis ball.

Tennyson: Son, son.

Old Lady: Sorry – Alfred Lord, who is evidently Lord Tennisball’s son. And to start off I’m going to ask Mr Wadsworth to recite his latest offering, a little pram entitled ‘I wandered lonely as a crab’ and it’s all about ants.

Murmur of exalted anticipation. Wordsworth rises rather gloomily.

Wordsworth: I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high over vales and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd
A host of golden worker ants.

Ripples of applause.

Old Lady: Thank you, thank you, Mr Bradlaugh. Now, Mr Bysshe.

Shelley: Shelley.

Old Lady: Oh… (the dwarf refills her glass)… is going to read one of his latest psalms, entitled ‘Ode to a crab’.

Shelley: (rising: and taking his place quietly) Well, it’s not about crabs actually, it’s called ‘Ozymandias’. It’s not an ode.

I met a traveller in an antique land
Who said ‘Six vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert
And on the pedestal these words appear
My name is Ozymandias, King of Ants

(oohs from his audience)

Look on my feelers, termites, and despair
I am the biggest ant you’ll ever see
The ants of old weren’t half as bold and big
And fierce as me’.

Enormous applause.

Old Lady: Thank you Mr Amontillado. I’d like to ask one or two of you at the back not to soil the carpet, there is a restroom upstairs if you find the poems too exciting (she falls over) Good afternoon, next, Mr Dennis Keat will recite his latest problem ‘Ode to a glass of sherry’. (she falls off the podium)

Keats: My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains
My senses, as though an anteater I’d seen

(panic spreads and the audience half rise)

A nasty long-nosed brute

(screams from the audience)

With furry legs and sticky darting tongue
I seem to feel its cruel jaws
Crunch crunch there go my legs
Snap snap my thorax too

(various screaming women faint)

My head’s in a twain, there goes my brain
Swallow, swallow, swallow, slurp (he loses control)

Silly, strange, defining, and oddly flattering to the audience. One never looks at British people the same way again, after having experienced Monty Python. The show was unique and original and TV at it’s best.

Compare this to the television show that Diane Reese pointed to today from Warner Brothers: Beauty and the Geek — receiving my vote for the most idiotic, phony, and offensive television show of all time.


The Complete and Utter Numbnuts Guide to Programming with Web APIs

Chapter 1:

When you’re satisfied with how your test functions to a web application such as Flickr are working and you then move to encapsulate the code into a reusable form, make sure you follow Simple Rule : rather than spending a considerable amount of time hacking, tearing apart, and picking to pieces the code when your new library doesn’t work, first check to make sure that the service hasn’t stopped running due to a scheduled downtime between the last test of the old code and the first test of the new.
Diversity Photography


I thought I would share a photo of Missouri’s colorful flora. Yes, you never know what exotic bloom you’ll come upon when out walking in these hills.

This silk floral lei was hanging from a tree in the middle of the forest that surrounds the Illinois end of the the Chain or Rocks Bridge. For ‘junk’ it was surprisingly pretty and fit the lush green of a typical Missouri marsh in summer. Artful graffiti. That’s the surprising thing about Chain of Rocks — not that there isn’t graffiti, but that the graffiti is rather attractive, and somehow appropriate.

I discovered the lei when I went with my roommate early yesterday morning to the Chain of Rocks: me to walk the Bridge, him to take his new bike on the bike path that follows the Mississippi until downtown. We picked morning since with the summer comes the summer heat and humidity.

Yesterday was only a start on the festivities I’ll attend this week. Missouri has come alive with a rich tapestry of interesting, and free, events. Tomorrow my daily outing will be the St. Louis Zoo, to see the king penguin baby and the new Fragile Forest exhibit. Also tomorrow, the first of the weekly concert series at the Botanical Gardens; Friday brings the first of the musical evenings at the zoo. Forest Park features the Shakespeare play, The Tempest, in the wonderful outdoor amphitheater. Next week brings the finest ragtime festival in the world to Sedalia, Missouri. All nice breaks from the web page design, coding, and writing.

Not that I don’t spend a lot of time regardless with the latter. We finished Loren’s Wordform conversion this weekend, and I really do like the look of his site. The “Floating Clouds” design takes on new meaning with his sky blue photographs and use of transparent sidebar. I wish I could take credit for these design additions, but Loren decided on both, and it really works for his site and the overall layout and concept.

We also broke the “800×600″ barrier with his site — the center columns combine to 900 pixels. It was that or shrink Loren’s photos, and I’m not sure that the need to ‘rigidly’ follow this standard outweighs the effect of this shrinkage. If a person has an 800×600 monitor, they will need to scroll past the sidebar somewhat to get to Loren’s writing, but all of the content column will fit in the viewer, and I think this is the critical element. Hard to say, because I’m perceiving the design from monitors supporting 1024, or higher, resolution.

Speaking of perceptions. I, like some others, also listened to the Chris Lydon OpenSource radio program last night. I wasn’t even aware of it until people started mentioning it yesterday, and then I had to catch the ‘last showing’ in Seattle at 9pm (11pm my time).

From a radio perspective, I thought there was too many interruptions in the show — phone numbers to call, station breaks, notes about sponsors. I don’t listen to much talk radio so perhaps this is normal.

The guests were David WeinbergerDave Winer, and Doc Searls. As has been noted already elsewhere, this may not have been the best of choices for a show on Web 2.0–not that the people aren’t involved in it; but that this group has decidely focused viewpoints that don’t necessarily reflect that of the general populace.

For instance, a person named Catherine called into the show and noted that the internet fosters communication but in a sterile manner. This was mild criticism, but the guys didn’t necessarily address it so much as they tried to bury it with their enthusiasm. This seems to be all too common: critical debate has a very fragile existence in weblogging conversations. Discussions are either love fests or flame wars; there is very little in-between.

I also have one minor correction to make about what was discussed: Doc Searls and David Weinberger both mentioned how open source is owned by everyone and can be worked on by anyone, but that’s not entirely true. Open source is like proprietary source in that there are always those who control the direction and modifications of a specific piece of software–it’s just with open source, those who disagree with this direction can make a choice to start in a different direction, spun off from the main.

This is important to keep in mind because one misinformed criticism leveled at open source is that it is ‘too chaotic’–an assertion recently made as a reason not to release Java, as open source.

(Now what this has to do with Chris Lydon’s radio broadcast, leading to the title “OpenSource”, I have no idea.)

But I digress. David mentioned that he spent the weekend in a place with little internet access, and how cut off he felt by it. Lydon responded with the question: Is David addicted?

Riding over Drugs

Dave Winer made a statement in reply to another caller (Ruth) that jarred badly. In response to her observation about the use of the internet by people in Vietnam and her wonder how they’re using it, he jumped in with a quip that people in Vietnam are online primarily looking for sex. He said this also applies to LiveJournalers. He may have been semi-joking, but it showed little respect for the caller, and her comments. It was a glib, offhand response that added little to the discussion.

This statement aside, if there is one thing that would have given the show more grit, it would have been to include a more diverse group of interviewees. This particular group shares many of the same enthusiasms; without critical feedback, the show puffed a little overly much, becoming more of a pep rally than a true discussion of Web 2.0. This did, however, lead to the funniest part of the broadcast: after a particularly exuberant set of statements about how the web is going to change the world, a station break mentioned that the show, Living on Earth, would follow.

My biggest surprise of the evening was how nice Doc Searl’s voice is. I don’t think I’d ever heard it before, but he has a lovely voice. However, my perceptions may be a little biased because of something Doc said that was one of the most honest if quiet assertions in the entire program. When David Weinberger brought up how the weblogging environment still reflects the early dominance by Americans, and not just any Americans, but geeky Americans, Doc interjected, ‘…and males’.

For that, Doc earned a rose.

Photography Places Plants


The roses at the Missouri Botanical Garden are in full bloom, and unlike last year, I haven’t missed the early show. I spent yesterday afternoon taking photos and just walking about, enjoying the brilliant color and delicate scent.

As I was walking past the Lilypad pond on the way to the experimental rose garden, two mallard ducks swam towards me, the female hopping up on a circulation pipe, the male on the pond wall. I don’t normally pay much attention to mallards, since they’re so common. Yesterday, though, I notice how colorful the bird seemed in the bright afternoon sun.

The male has such a brilliant emerald green head, and that azure band on its wings stands out sharply against the subtle browns, blacks, and whites. The female isn’t as colorful, but does share the blue band, and the warm, dark eyes.

I started taking photos of the birds, getting close enough to pick out the intricate detail of their feathers. When was the last time I had looked closely at a mallard duck’s feathers? To notice the lacy patterns and subtle coloring, made richer by the bright, swatches of color?

Last night, as I was going through the pictures, I thought about a friend of mine who would have passed the ducks, as if they weren’t there. Chances are, though, he would also ignore the roses, the trees, the squirrels and most other things around him. He is a man who is so tightly focused on his immediate environment–his family, work, and his communication with others through the internet–that I’m not sure when the last time was he saw a rose, or really looked at a mallard.

As I uploaded the mallard photos to Flickr, I wondered if I had captured the beauty and the grace of the birds well enough to attract appreciation for their uniqueness; or would they only rate a glance and dismissal as just ducks–probably garnering more attention if they were dressed of their feathers and cooked in a delicate apricot-brandy sauce.

There are so many beautiful photos uploaded to Flickr, it’s a wonder that any photo stands out. A picture of a rose that might have drawn exclamations of delight a few years back becomes just one of many in a continuous stream of images. I’ve found that among my photos those that grab attention tend to be ones where the images are small and odd enough to not be easily identifiable. I don’t have any photos of naked people to test the hypothesis that these generate the most attention.

Speaking of which, since my ducks were preening their chest feathers, I was tempted to label the images with the tag ‘breasts’. I still might.

I’ve spent too much time on the computer today. Sometimes when I’m tired and have been staring at my computer monitor for a long time, spending hours looking at dark print on white, I’ll look up and everything in the room seems sharper, more colorful, and richer. The effect lasts only a moment, and I hold my eyes open as long as I can–until they tear. Yet I can stare at my room or out my window for hours and it will never sharpen or enhance what’s on the screen.

Not even my ducks. I showed these photos to my roommate and he said, “Uh huh. Nice. Ducks” Ducks becomes both a verb and a noun, not to mention a warning: this way there be ducks.

“What did you write about?”

“I wrote about ducks.”

“Uh huh. Nice. Ducks.”

Now when I wrote on the commonplace, the ordinary, and the benign, I’ll ‘tag’ it ducks. Who says I don’t understand how tagging works.