Women Who Code hack night

The Women Who Code meetup and hack night yesterday was very lively! I look forward to going again and also going to CodeChix events if I can manage it. I think there were about 50 people there, of fairly diverse backgrounds and coding in many languages. I saw several people I knew like Hilz and Adina and Amy, but most were people I’ve never met, not people who show up at conferences or usual techie events, lots of recent comp sci grads with jobs at startups. There were a few people who are company founders and just interested in meeting programmers and hanging out with us, a few people just beginning to learn to code, and several people who told their way-back-when COBOL and BASIC stories. I gave away a huge stack of geekfeminism.org stickers.

photo from the 50s or 60s of woman at computer

The meetup was at the Blazing Cloud office in the Native Sons building which is an amazingly cool building, but not accessible, so I’m glad I managed it on crutches instead of bringing my wheelchair, which even if I’d been able to get it into the building, would not have worked in the tiny crowded office with people sitting all over the floor. Blazing Cloud looked like a company focused on giving programming classes mostly Ruby and other web dev stuff. I talked with a few people at the event who complained about their CS departments only teaching Java and C and being super … well… computer-sciencey, without teaching anything they wanted to know for building web or phone apps. So it was a good match between the host for the event and the people who showed up!

I had some pizza, beer, and cupcakes as I fiddled around with vim, vundle, Supertab, and Gundo (which Oblomovka had been showing me earlier) and setting up things with ExpandDrive so I can work on my VM dev environment *from my Mac* instead of ssh-ing into the VM. I think I’m getting to like folding in vim. Hilz explained her whole emacs setup to me which is similar and I think was called tramp; basically a thing so she can edit her remote files from her normal setup. While I don’t *much* mind hauling my .vimrc after me onto every server, vim bundles look extremely cool and I like the idea that I could keep it all in just one or two places (ie my laptop and maybe my main server in case I don’t have my laptop and want to work from somewhere else.)

Then I got totally distracted talking with Jesse and Judy who were starting to make a fun app with Ruby (which I’ve only tried once at a She’s Geeky workshop). Judy is making something to tag and search Starcraft VODs. Then we got gossiping about Noisebridge which she had just been to for a Ruby class and ended up staying all night learning how to use the Cupcake makerbots.

It was a lot of fun and even if it stays such a short event I recommend it. I think it will inevitably spawn some all day hackmeets though since no one wanted to leave or stop working on their projects 1 hour into it!! Actually, I would like to invite all the Women Who Code and CodeChix people to Noisebridge, which is a fantastic hackerspace open 24/7 (with an accessible bathroom and an elevator) and to the upcoming Hackmeet unconference.

On my way to BlogHer '11

I’m leaving this morning for the BlogHer conference in San Diego! I think this year’s BlogHer conference is going to be about 3000 people, our biggest ever. On our site I wrote up a quick round-up of mobile apps you might want at a conference as well as a brief explanation of securing your wireless connections with a VPN service — a “geeky conference prep” post. BlogHer also has a useful mobile app for the conference itself with maps of the convention center, the speakers and sessions, and the capability for people to build a schedule for themselves.

At this conference I’m moderating a panel on what happens when your blog goes viral, with Ashleigh Burroughs of The Burrow, a blogger who was shot by Jared Loughner in Arizona; and Nerdy Apple Bottom who suddenly was the subject of intense media coverage for her post on her son’s Halloween costume when he dressed up as Daphne from Scooby Doo. Both bloggers’ real names were revealed as a result of their sudden fame and they got thousands and thousands of comments and emails; months later they’re still fielding the effects.

I’m also running a Geek Bar session on “Internet Sleuthing” and another, with Skye Kilaen, on recovery from “Blog Disasters” — what to do if your blog goes down or is hacked, how to prepare to recover your data and rebuild your site. For the Sleuthing session I’ll talk about how to track people down and why you might need or want to do that as a blogger. The Geek Bar sessions are 15 minute workshops in small groups, repeated over a 1.5 hour time slot and I expect to give a mini-talk and then open it to hands on work and group discussion. It should be an interesting format and I think will also result in good social contact for the 5 people in each mini-workshop session, who will get to know each other in the process!

This year’s “disaster recovery” Geek Bar talk will be a good continuation of my longer talk last year, Fight Spam and Hackers! which was basically computer security 101 for BlogHer’s community of women who are very heavy users of social media and blogs and who are running their own sites but who may not have had the cultural background in geekery to have ever thought about how to crack a password. I brought up issues of privacy and anonymity, a subject that we talk about quite a lot as bloggers and as women, and tried to frame them in the context of our gender.

At BlogHer DC and Boston in 2008 I was on a panel called Blogging Basics: 6 steps to personalize, polish, and promote your blog which was a concrete list of ways to improve your blog. I still have people come up to me and tell me that they use the tips we gave in this talk! Especially the suggestion to print out your php code and css, and mark it up with a highlighter and notes in order to figure out what it’s doing and demystify it. In DC and Boston we also had a sort of Geek Lounge area set up for people to do hands-on work with their blogs in an informal setting; Sarah Dopp and I ran around the room talking people through tech support issues and usually everyone at a table would start to help each other out and collectively would know much more than they realized they did.

At these “geek” tracks it ends up being a mix of the more programmer or web dev types of BlogHer attendees and people who want to learn that stuff. The track is kind of a mini-She’s Geeky and leads to fabulous “hallway conversations” every year. The conference itself is amazingly lively and vibrant, with around 60-80% of attendees *and speakers* new to the conference and a very high percentage at their first tech conference ever. The conference tickets are cheap because we are highly and I mean *highly* sponsored by companies, with a huge expo hall of sponsor booths and all sorts of weird swag and contests and parties and sometimes individual people wandering around handing out bags of stuff. I think it was the year we were in Chicago that I came back with a pink Swarovski crystal covered Bluetooth headset, a vibrator, and a waffle iron in addition to Free Samples of about 5 kinds of detergent, snack food, retractable usb cables, flash drives, and I don’t even know what else. Everyone is kind of overwhelmed by the rush of women who are pair-bonded with their laptops and the joy of meeting people who you’ve read online for years especially when you find they are even more interesting in person. For myself I also really enjoy seeing the range of expertise people have and what kickass speakers they are — and wonder, are other conferences looking at our speaker list and using us as a resource to diversify their own talks and panels? I’m sure that happens to some extent but it should happen more.

I meant to write up a retrospective of my experiences at each of the BlogHer conferences but that will have to wait for another post! Meanwhile, enjoy this cute photo of me and my sister at BlogHer in 2006. That year we were inspired by the many online discussions of What To Wear to BlogHer especially to the big central party. In a sort of protest against worrying so much about what to wear anywhere, we wore ball gowns to the party and pretended to have a drama filled argument at the edge of the pool and then pushed each other in.

liz

Anyway, I look forward to another fantastic conference and am going to drive down to San Diego the long way, down Highway 1 and 101!

Notes on sockpuppetry and astroturfing

Mischi says in comments,

The fallout from this whole Amina/Paula Brooks mess has really spooked me. I’m starting to wonder how many other individuals on my twitter or facebook feeds might be equally “unreal”.

So, I have to ask: are there any clues or patterns one should be particularly careful to pay attention to?

Also, what are the different kinds of motives that might compel someone to create sock puppets that have such a long and involved online presence (as both “amina” and “paula brooks” seemed to have). Some people here are suggesting they could be motivated by a desire to gather intelligence and/or disrupt activist organizations… but surely there must be other reasons? I mean, “Paula Brooks” wrote about surfing — what was the motive here? I’m just confused, and more than a little bewildered.

Anyway, it would be nice to get more insight into the world of sock puppets (a term which until a week ago I had never heard of, but now can’t stop thinking about!). Again, thanks!

Good questions Mischi – we could talk about that all day.

I think that members of long-standing organizations and communities often have developed the discernment to recognize likely instances of people who are not quite who they say they are, *and* the difficulty and offense of proving that. People who percieve themselves, also, as being in a less powerful situation or in danger have to hone their judgement.

Growing up in the 80s in Texas, I learned how to have good gaydar. People who are online a lot, who live out important parts of their lives socially online, have good sockdar.

Sockpuppets galore

Just as there’s no one motivation for masking or fictionalizing identity, there’s no one tip-off for who is real, and how far they’re trustable.

In most cases, I don’t care — and I don’t have to care — if a person is representing themselves with complete accuracy. Your situation might be different and you need to know you’re not being Facebook-friended by your abusive ex-boyfriend or some weird lying person from your past or an International Woman of Mystery or an FBI agent who just infiltrated your animal rights activist group.

Anonymity and pseudonymity can help people to have a public voice who might otherwise find it difficult to make their thoughts known. Not everyone can be out of the closet! So, while it’s legitimate to worry about who you’re talking to, ask yourself perhaps — does it matter? If it does, how would this conversation change?

If you care a lot about it, you could video chat with them briefly, or verify from someone you both know that there’s been a face to face meeting.

If I want to know, and I care, then I’ll just ask. It’s okay to be rude. If someone’s identity is a bit thin, and it’s reasonable to want to know who you’re speaking with, and they’re real, they should understand why you need to ask. If, on the other hand, they come up with reasons why it would be outrageous to ask, or know — maybe that should be unacceptable to you. If the person keeps missing your meetings and the excuses get more and more strange, that’s another clue!

I think we see here also in this entire fucked up mess that asking your friends for help is a great technique to triangulate on reality! Look at the great stuff in the comments . . . People are still working together to figure out who Graber is, and who he’s fooled, and what damage has been done. Because of that, more people will be protected against him in future. (And maybe he’ll get some kind of of real help, if he’s helpable.)

People have been asking me — what’s a sockpuppet? What’s astroturfing? Astroturfing is “fake grass roots” — many shallow fake identities created to give an illusion of popular support and interest. Astroturfing could be lots of voters from different IP addresses with different logins, gaming a voting system, or many people talking about how great a product is. Because of astroturfing’s volume and potential sophistication, it may be best detected by building good software tools. People who think a lot about botnets and spam-fighting are probably best equipped to talk about astroturfing — though as Mechanical Turk and other tools are used more often for astroturfing, this will get more difficult.

By “sockpuppets” I usually mean a persona of some depth. (Picture a person wearing a sockpuppet and having a conversation with it.) Wikipedia pages are often places where you can easily find a pattern of unsophisticated sockpuppetry. Several new accounts spring up to edit the same article. If they’re all from the same IP address, that’s a dead giveaway.

Sockpuppets are there to talk to each other. Writers make sockpuppet friends or enemies, drama-filled relationships, or conversation partners. Ms.Scribe would make a somewhat obvious sock to accuse herself of not being real. Someone else would then expose the attackers. Ms.Scribe would become more solid and look more more important. I’ve seen Wikipedia edit wars where several people follow a pattern of argument. Alice will propose something outrageous, Bob will come along to disagree by saying something even more outrageous, challenging Alice; Alice refutes Bob and then Bob admits Alice was right after all. They make puppeets to debate with about why the sky is green.

Plain Layne on the other hand looked to me like a “literary experiment” gone wrong over time. There I saw that the specific locality of Layne’s blog and how she described her life led to the other bloggers in her town to expect to run into her. In the earlier days of blogging, people didn’t think that they would be noticed, or found, or develop real life friendships. Some of us might know better these days. MacMaster didn’t.

The story of Victoria Bitter shows some very interesting patterns that remind me more of Paula Brooks and LezGetReal than of Amina’s hoax. Amy Player/Victoria Bitter/Andy Blake shifted identity several times in real life and went through a gender transition. They also defrauded people of money – and somehow, all this tragically led to a triple murder-suicide in May 2011. As the documenters of Victoria Bitter point out, Andy Blake is still around and is still – amazingly quickly after his friends’ deaths – playing out the same patterns of asking for money and engaging with communities that care about LGBT issues and about fiction.

It seems difficult for identity-performing people to resist *engaging with themselves*. I think they also get very tempted to engage directly with people who are beginning to get suspicious about them. It must be like taking a dare, or pushing one’s experiment to its logical extremes. How far can it go? Maybe it’s a power rush, like the feeling of power a fiction writer gets as they move their characters around inside a story. The sense of psychopathy people talk about when they have been involved with sockpuppets may relate to this feeling of power and manipulation.

But I remember the story being more complex as I think of Plain Layne. She would reach a crisis in her life, or would be challenged by a commenter who’d say she couldn’t be who she says. And I’d intervene and comment myself, saying, “But she *could* have had crazy great sex on her first date because…” or “Well, you are all saying she shouldn’t take in her teenage cousin’s baby — but I’d admire her if she did” and then what I predicted *would happen*. Layne’s author would take suggestions or cues from commenters, and would play them out. We all had, now and then, the pleasure of feeling we were right in our advice, or our predictions of how Layne would feel about her choices and why.

With fictional personas of less well established boundaries, I think that kind of thing can have feel like talking with a person who’s schizophrenic and who incorporates anything you might mention into their fantastic ramblings. It feels *off*. There can be a pattern of boundary violation. Some sockpuppet hoaxers, like Bill Graber, seem to have incredibly bad boundaries right from the start. I mean, I don’t have the most fabulous boundaries either, and not a lot of instinct to stay away from drama, or I wouldn’t have kept on poking into this entire mess — but I’m actually nice, and exist, and have a life, and all that.

I’ve been thinking for the past few days about science fiction fandom and its online communities. Fans who write transformative works have been using pseudonyms, and developing chains of trust and reputation based on those pseudonyms, for a long time. In other words, if you make vids about characters who are owned by someone else, and build up your reputation with that as your art, you have good reason to hide your identity, because you don’t want to be sued.

For sockpuppet detection, it’s important to document the process of unravelling a hoax — the red flags, dead ends, and all the threads and evidence. Investigators screengrab and archive chats and photos or copy entire websites, which might turn out to be crucial traces of a sockpuppetry nexus or a Very Complex Internet Drama — before the perpetrator or a community moderator deletes the evidence. They’re archiving events and documenting extended public conversations. That’s a skill and a way of thinking that’s still evolving very quickly.

You can also look at people’s IP addresses, times they come online and go offline, and so on.

If you’ve been in activist groups of any kind it seems fairly usual for someone to point a finger at someone else who is a bit disruptive and accuse them of being an infiltrator. That can be a destructive process in itself, unfortunately.

While there do seem to be various patterns of behavior I think part of the sockdar we have at our disposal – especially as sophisticated readers – is about the use of language, being in the same register of formality, and speaking the same way. There are also differences in what sites a persona joins. A skilled hoaxer can fake those things of course! I’d like to know if other people notice particular things that affect their judgement of a person’s real-life existence or their sincerity?

I’ve got to stop writing for the day [ETA: I wrote this 8 hours ago and thought I posted it, but it was still in draft!] but I’d love to hear what others have to say on this topic. There is plenty to say as well about literary hoaxes (going back to JT Leroy, Nasidjj, Margaret Jones/Peggy Seltzer, and so many others). How do you smell a rat? Have there been situations where you have figured out someone’s real or not real?

[Also ETA to add, I am still researching and thinking about who the hell Bill Graber is, but needed to stop and write this, partly because it is what everyone calling to interview me is asking. Will post tomorrow about Graber and so on. Who the hell is Graber? Is that really his name? Does he have some overall agenda? Is he just independently kind of . . . not sane, having maintained an alternate identity for years and then totally melting down? I don’t buy the theory that he’s a secret agent of a government.. but it’s more plausible that he could be a disrupting agent of conservative/anti-gay organizations.]

Fundraiser for the girl in Cleveland, Texas

Thank you to Sylvia Gonzalez of Houston, Vice President of the Southwest chapter of LULAC, who organized the effort to get money directly to the family of the 11-year-old girl in Cleveland, Texas who was gang raped a few months ago and then basically got slut-shamed by her entire town and the New York Times. This post has information and links about the situation: How to help the 11 year old girl in Texas.

Logo for FM 1960 with Texas map

In the comments on my original post you can see several organizations local to this girl and her family, and you might like to donate to them to support the local infrastructure. I donated to several of them, including Bridgehaven, the Montgomery Women’s Center, and New Horizons Family Center. While I respect those organizations and think they’re important, I also think it’s important to get money directly to people in crisis. The girl’s family had to move, her mom has serious health problems, her dad was out of work for months, and I’m sure they can use all the avenues of help that are possible.

You can mail a check made out to the Cleveland Crime Victim Family directly to Sylvia (10102 Elm Knoll Trail, Houston, Texas, 77064), deposit it into any Amegy Bank. If you donate using the Chipin fund I set up here, I’ll collect that money and mail Sylvia a check next week. Any Paypal fees that get charged I will make up as my extra donation. If you want to leave a note for the family here, or email it to me privately (lizhenry@gmail.com) I’ll include those notes when I send Sylvia the check.

The story and the stories and comments that came out of it were so horrific, I needed to do something directly, so as not to feel so despairing. It was tremendously heartening to read all the comments on my first post, and I swore to follow up, so that people would have a way to contribute and respond further. When I raised money for Katrina disaster relief and flew out to the Astrodome, I ended up using that money — a couple of thousand dollars in cash — to people at moments when it made a big difference in their lives. I saw it work and have also appreciated getting no strings attached money to help me through crises in my own life. I think there is also something powerful about knowing that an individual person, even a stranger, has the faith in you to help out on that level. Thanks for reading, donating, or commenting, everyone!

Please repost the link to the ChipIn or feel free to repost all or part of this. I don’t have a lot of readers, so signal boost is definitely needed!

Thanks for the help

While I have plenty to say about my minor difficulties as a disabled person with parking spaces, being stepped on in crowds, and dehumanized at airports, I’d like to mention a super nice interaction I had with a woman at the grocery store the other day. I had stopped off on my way to work and walked from my car into Trader Joe’s with two canes. Someone else was using the motorized scooter, so I sat on a ledge and waited. My options were:

* wait for the scooter user to be done
* just leave and go to work without lunch
* walk to the back of the store to get my salad and fruit and back and wait in line standing up
* go back to my car and get out my wheelchair and wheel through the store to shop

I am lucky to have that variety of options, obviously!

Walking means pain in my knees and back and leg, and exhaustion, but getting out the wheelchair is also tiring as well as being hard on my hands which lately are in a lot of pain too. So I figured I’d sit for a minute or two and if the scooter user was taking too much time, I’d leave and go to work. Both walking the length of the store and getting out the chair once I was already in the store weren’t worth it. “It” being the price of arriving at work at 9am already wishing to go back home to bed and take painkiller and cry.

As I sat there a nearby checkout clerk, a lady maybe 60 years old, came over to ask me if I was waiting for the scooter. I said I was and didn’t mind waiting and was fine. But she offered to get me the groceries I wanted. “You can just tell me a list, or I can write it down.” The store wasn’t busy, and it would be no trouble for her to do. I was incredulous. While all that was true, her fundamental niceness in bothering to notice I was in (minor) difficulty that she could easily alleviate — well it amazed me. That almost never happens, even with friends, coworkers, and acquaintances.

I’m not shy about asking for help, though I don’t much like doing it. The thing is, I already have to ask for help enough. And I enjoy being able to do things. I’ve had enough moments of having to ration out my requests for help into asking for water, food, and help to get to the bathroom. Now I’m up and around and don’t have to do that. But… If it isn’t crucial, I don’t want to ask. I would rather be a little frustrated and continue to feel independent. Both because I don’t want to try the patience of able bodied people around me, as if they are a bank or participants in a zero-sum game, and I shouldn’t *use them up*. Even if I won’t need anything major from a clerk in the grocery store, a stranger, or a friend, I think of them as a resource with finite patience and attention not only for me but for whoever the next person who asks for help might be. The other component is certainly my pride. Am I going to ask a nearby stranger or a barista to bring my coffee to a cafe table when I’m on two crutches and can’t carry it? That depends on a complicated internal equation of pain, ability, and pride. I can usually manage it okay on one cane or none, but sometimes “can do it” is tangled with “will hurt, unnecessarily”. I understand on many levels that “independence” is a lie for all of us – for all people. None of us are independent. Dependence, and help, and asking; everyone has to do that, whatever the style of it and whether it is backed with money (as it is every time you pay someone to do something for you.) But I fight it hard on little things sometimes. It’s complicated and weird and I process it internally, a lot. Even when I ask for help, I have a hard time accepting the help. I prickle up like a cactus. I don’t want to be in any situational pattern where someone has power over me.

With that sort of thinking as my background, I said yes with some embarrassment and diffidence to the nice Trader Joe’s clerk. I was actually kind of stunned and going “Are you sure? That’s okay? Because it’s okay really.” She was determined to help out and not gross or weird about it. I asked her for a salad and some packets of dried seaweed. If it had been a whole grocery store list, I just wouldn’t have been able to ask it of her even with her kind offer.

She got me my lunch, rang it all up, and brought the bag out to the car for me. Outside she said that her brother had polio so she understood it might be hard to walk across the store. She looked at my wheelchair there in the front seat and asked if I was going to work. She assumed I had a job… she didn’t act like it was weird I had a car. All very rare. She must be a good ally to her brother.

Disability aside, people are usually a bit extra judgey because I’m a little scruffy and have purple hair so they assume I am kind of a privileged brat (and they’re right on that count) and/or some kind of drug addict teenager (I’m 41, and not, but even if I were, would still be disabled and in need of help sometimes) and thus not worthy or deserving of help.

walking in to pick up milo at camp

I drove to work actually crying… I know, first world moments and all… A bit ridiculous.

I was driving away wishing that as that lady in the Trader Joe’s gets older that other people are as considerate of her in small unnecessary moments as of course I also hope they are in the larger and necessary ones in her life. Since I have no way to guarantee that, I guess I’ll always try to get into her line at the store and say hello, will look at her nametag, and will figure out how to contact the store management to say an anonymous thank you.