Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Dangers of Copying

When I'm first learning a code base, I often make use of existing code, using it as an example to help speed things up. I don't do this blindly, of course -- that would probably result in many more problems than its worth. Still, it can be easy to fall into the trap of taking the example code as ground truth.

This happened to me yesterday while working on Inkscape. I'm adding new support for the SVG element <tref>. Because this element is similar in concept to <use> in that both refer to other elements, I have been looking at the code for <use> as my model.

I needed a class to represent the link between the <tref> object and what it refers to. The <use> element simply subclasses URIReference to accomplish this, so I made a new subclass for my purposes, initially just duplicating the <use> version. When I tried to build the code, I got a linker error telling me there was no virtual table defined for my new class.

Cursing and hair pulling may or may not have followed.

Finally, I looked up URIReference to see what it had to say about the matter. Lo and behold, the function being overridden had a slightly different signature. There was an extra const in the parameter list in the <use> version. Removing it from my class solved all my problems. Sigh...

Why the code compiles and links properly with the extra const in the <use> rendition of the subclass, but not in mine, I will never know. But let this be a reminder to be wary of the dangers of using existing code as your example. Look around elsewhere in the code base and remember to question everything.

Monday, June 18, 2007


I am now able to officially call myself a graduate student. Until I shook Marc Garneau's hand (Marc being Carleton University's chancellor) , I could only be called a "graduand." The timing couldn't be better, really, as the class schedule for grad school courses has just been released.

On June 12th at 9:30 a.m., the first ceremony of Carleton University's 130th Convocation began. After the P.h.D. and Masters degrees were awarded, I was second in line to receive my degree. The official degree I earned is this:
Bachelor of Computer Science
Highest Honours
Software and Computing
Minor in Mathematics
Co-operative Education
Later in the ceremony, I also received a Senate Medal for Outstanding Academic Achievement. Something around 150 graduating students out of three or four thousand received this honour.

The reception that followed had fruit smoothies and cupcakes decorated with grad hats.

My parents with me in Alumni Park:

My grandparents with me at the reception:

Monday, June 11, 2007

Behind the Screen

Look, Ma! I'm famous!

Graduation is coming up very soon and Carleton University's monthly, Carleton Now, is capturing all the excitement once again. And one of the articles is about me! It's called Behind the Screen; check it out!

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Working Environments

I mentioned an article about working environments in Women and Open Source (the first of two posts about the topic), but couldn't find it at the time. I recovered the link this morning. The article is called Report: Tech's Gender Gap Widened by Uninviting Workplace.

From the article:
For years, word has circulated of a significant gender gap in the technology workplace, where women are greatly outnumbered by men. The blame is typically placed on low interest on the part of women to pursue computers and engineering, but the actual experience of women working in technology is rarely addressed. A report released May 14 stands to shift this perception by drawing attention to the fact that tech workplaces may not be the most favorable environments for women to work in.
As you already read, I figured that the environmental issue may apply equally as well -- though in a different form -- to open source development as it does to high tech in general. Feel free to read the article and let me know what you think.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Women in Open Source II

My previous post, Women in Open Source, received an interesting comment just hours after I wrote it. The commenter Chris suggested that my thoughts on the issues preventing more women from entering open source were perhaps sexist and too stereotypical. In fact, this is probably true, and is why I even wrote the piece in the first place.

We live in a politically correct world where certain issues have become taboo. It seems that many are somehow afraid to bring up the inherent differences between men and women lest they come across as sexist. Sometimes, this can be a good thing, but sometimes it can do a great disservice. After all, according to the studies, treating everyone in an open source community the same, without considering gender, is one reason that women don't get involved.

So where are these 'studies' anyway? Well, Chris pointed me to a project called Free/Libre/Open Source Software: Policy Support. Linked to from this home page, I started to read their first listed deliverable, D16 - Gender: Integrated Report of Findings. After reading through the Executive Summary, I came to realize that this report was essentially saying the same things I did, just in fancier words.

The opening paragraph of the key findings reads:
Listed below are the factors significant in excluding women from F/LOSS communities. These factors are nearly all underwritten by a central cultural dynamic within F/LOSS. F/LOSS participants, as in most scientific cultures, view technology as an autonomous field, separate from people. This means that anything they interpret as ‘social’ is easily dismissed as ‘artificial’ social conditioning. Because this ‘conditioning’ is considered more or less arbitrary, in their view it is supposed to be easily cast aside by individuals choosing to ignore it. F/LOSS also has a deeply voluntarist ethos which values notions of individual autonomy and volition. As a result participants largely do not believe that gender has anything to do with their own individual actions. The situation is thereby perpetuated in spite of the expressed desire for change.
Here is the first hint that the issue is highly related to the social aspects of open source communities. Notice that the culture underlying the communities is described as having a lack of any real social environment, since anything considered social is simply cast away and ignored. This quote also implicitly tells us that the social aspects of the community are indeed important to women.

Let's examine two of the key findings. (The others are equally as interesting and relate to what Chris said in his comment, but are less directly associated with my previous post.)
F/LOSS communities actively perpetuate a ‘hacker’ ethic, which situates itself outside the ‘mainstream’ sociality, but equates women with that mainstream. Women are treated as either alien Other or (in online contexts) are assumed to be male and thus made invisible. Women are seen as innately more able to organise, communicate and negotiate among F/LOSS projects as well as with the outside world. Thereby they become carriers of sociality that is seen in a contrast to the 'technical' realm ascribed to men. Additionally F/LOSS women receive a high level of attention due to their gender which decreases their feeling of acceptance as community members as well as their willingness to further engage with the community.
I feel that this finding correlates nicely with my earlier notion that even when a satisfactory social environment might exist, women may not be able to come to realize it. Nobody wants to feel like an outsider, yet becoming invisible isn't going to facilitate the social interaction most women seem to desire.
The reliance on long hours of intensive computing in writing successful code means that men, who in general assume that time outside of waged labour is ‘theirs’, are freer to participate than women, who normally still assume a disproportionate amount of domestic responsibilities. Female F/LOSS participants, however, seem to be able to allocate a disproportionate larger share of their leisure time for their F/LOSS activities. This gives an indication that women who are not able to spend as much time on voluntary activities have difficulties to integrate into the community.
This one touches upon what I was saying about women not generally wanting to come home from work and continue programming. Interestingly, this point seems to suggest that it is the domestic responsibilities, whether perceived or real, that make women feel they don't have enough free time to contribute effectively to open source projects. I figured that women simply wanted to take on activities outside of technology moreso than men, and maybe this gives a possible reason why. If women have been responsible for certain aspects of home life for many centuries, then it is not hard to believe that they would feel even today that they did not 'own' their free time in the same way as men, even if in modern times these responsibilities don't always exist.

And now for a couple of key recommendations.
Provide tangible resources to help women devote time to their F/LOSS activities. This means both funding helping women to take part at specific F/LOSS events, as well as continuous support to enable women to take part in F/LOSS projects over a longer period of time.
Women would probably feel less like they are interfering with life outside of their careers when developing for open source if they had, say, financial resources. Funding for attending conferences would help increase face to face social opportunities.
The European Commission, and EU Governments should use their commissioning role to encourage a greater variety of working methods in the production of software.
These methods could include ways that boost the social interaction of community members. For instance, web cast meetings might be considered, and when feasible, more in-person encounters.

It should be fairly obvious by now that this report supports the ideas from my previous post. Social interaction and a good working environment do matter to women, and is one aspect that has been keeping women away from open source development. Furthermore, not realizing the importance of this issue because the sexism card might be played can clearly cause more damage to the open source industry than good. After all, it seems that everyone agrees -- open source needs more women!