Some great ideas here about using metaphors when explaining technical topics.
I really like these four guidelines for good metaphors:
Some great ideas here about using metaphors when explaining technical topics.
I really like these four guidelines for good metaphors:
Cynthia Lee didn’t write the clickbaity headline, but she did write the superb article that follows it, methodically taking the manifestbro apart:
Its quasi-professional tone is a big part of what makes it so beguiling (to some) and also so dangerous. Many defenders seem genuinely baffled that a document that works so hard to appear dispassionate and reasonable could provoke such an emotional response.
This is what I was trying to get at with my post, but here it is explained far more clearly, calmly, and rationally.
In the end, focusing the conversation on the minutiae of the scientific claims in the manifesto is a red herring. Regardless of whether biological differences exist, there is no shortage of glaring evidence, in individual stories and in scientific studies, that women in tech experience bias and a general lack of a welcoming environment, as do underrepresented minorities. Until these problems are resolved, our focus should be on remedying that injustice.
We men face shame and firing if we say the wrong thing. Women face the same plus rape threats, death threats, and all kinds of sustained harassment. So women can’t speak up safely and therefore they would have to watch their male colleagues discuss how a woman’s brain determines her interests. How impossibly maddening that would be.
Oh, first of all, let me just get past any inevitable whinging that I’m not bothering to refute the bullshit contained therein. In the spirit of Brandolini’s law, here are some thorough debunkings:
- Despite speaking very authoritatively, the author does not appear to understand gender.
- Perhaps more interestingly, the author does not appear to understand engineering.
- And most seriously, the author does not appear to understand the consequences of what he wrote, either for others or himself.
Okay, with that out of the way, let me get to what really grinds my gears about this.
First off, there’s the contents of the document itself. It is reprehensible. It sets out to prove a biological link between a person’s gender and their ability to work at Google. It fails miserably, as shown in the links above, but it is cleverly presented as though it were an impartial scientific evaluation (I’m sure it’s complete coincidence that the author just happens to be a man). It begins by categorically stating that the author is all for diversity. This turns out to be as accurate as when someone starts a sentence with “I’m not a racist, but…”
The whole thing is couched in scientism that gives it a veneer of respectability. That leads me to the second thing I’m upset about, and that’s the reaction to the document.
Y’know, it’s one thing when someone’s clearly a troll. It’s easy—and sensible—to dismiss their utterances and move on. But when you see seemingly-smart people linking to the manifestbro and saying “he kind of has a point”, it’s way more infuriating. If you are one of those people (and when I say people, I mean men), you should know that you have been played.
The memo is clearly not a screed. It is calm, clear, polite, and appears perfectly reasonable. “Look,” it says, “I’m just interested in the objective facts here. I’m being reasonable, and if you’re a reasonable person, then you will give this a fair hearing.”
That’s a very appealing position. What reasonable person would reject it? And so, plenty of men who consider themselves to be reasonable and objective are linking to the document and saying it deserves consideration. Strangely, those same men aren’t considering the equally reasonable rebuttals (linked to above). That’s confirmation bias.
See? I can use terms like that to try to make myself sound smart too. Mind you, confirmation bias is not the worst logical fallacy in the memo. That would the Texas sharpshooter fallacy (which, admittedly, is somewhat related to confirmation bias). And, yes, I know that by even pointing out the logical fallacies, I run the risk of committing the fallacy fallacy. The memo is reprehensible not for the fallacies it contains, but for the viewpoint it sets out to legitimise.
The author cleverly wraps a disgusting viewpoint in layers of reasonable-sounding arguments. “Can’t we have a reasonable discussion about this? Like reasonable people? Shouldn’t we tolerate other points of view?” Those are perfectly sensible questions to ask if the discussion is about tabs vs. spaces or Star Wars vs. Star Trek. But those questions cease to be neutral if the topic under discussion is whether some human beings are genetically unsuited to coding.
This is how we get to a situation where men who don’t consider themselves to be sexist in any way—who consider themselves to be good people—end up posting about the Google memo in their workplace Slack channels as though it were a topic worthy of debate. It. Is. Not.
“A-ha!” cry the oh-so-logical and thoroughly impartial men, “If a topic cannot even be debated, you must be threatened by the truth!”
That is one possible conclusion, yes. Or—and this is what Occam’s razor would suggest—it might just be that I’m fucking sick of this. Sick to my stomach. I am done. I am done with even trying to reason with people who think that they’re the victimised guardians of truth and reason when they’re actually just threatened by the thought of a world that doesn’t give them special treatment.
I refuse to debate this. Does that make me inflexible? Yep, sure does. But, y’know, not everything is worthy of debate. When the very premise of the discussion is harmful, all appeals to impartiality ring hollow.
If you read the ex-Googler’s memo and thought “seems reasonable to me”, I hope you can see how you have been played like a violin. Your most virtuous traits—being even-handed and open-minded—have been used against you. I hope that you will try to use those same traits to readdress what has been done. If you read through the rebuttals linked to above and still think that the original memo was reasonable, I fear the damage is quite deep.
It may seem odd that a document that appears to be so reasonable is proving to be so very divisive. But it’s that very appearance of impartiality that gives it its power. It is like an optical illusion for the mind. Some people—like me—read it and think, “this is clearly wrong and harmful.” Other people—who would never self-identify as sexist in any way—read it and think, “seems legit.”
I’m almost—almost—glad that it was written. It’s bringing a lot of buried biases into the light.
By the way, if you are one of those people who still thinks that the memo was “perfectly reasonable” or “made some good points”, and we know each other, please get in touch so that I can re-evaluate our relationship.
The saddest part about all of this is that there are men being incredibly hurtful and cruel to the women they work with, without even realising what they’re doing. They may even think think they are actively doing good.
Take this tweet to Jen which was no doubt intended as a confidence boost:
I disagree with you about the memo, but I always have and continue to admire your work and your giant contributions to CSS. Thank you! ♥️— Brandon Flynn (@btflynn) August 8, 2017
See how it is glibly passed off as though it were some slight disagreement, like which flavour of ice cream is best? “Well, we’ll agree to disagree about half the population being biologically unsuitable for this kind of work.” And then that’s followed by what is genuinely—in good faith—intended as a compliment. But the juxtaposition of the two results in the message “Hey, you’re really good …for a woman.”
That’s what I find so teeth-grindingly frustrating about all this. I don’t think that guy is a troll. If he were, I could just block and move on. He genuinely thinks he’s a good person who cares about objective truth. He has been played.
A nasty comment from a troll is bad. It’s hurtful in a blunt, shocking way. But there’s a different kind of hurt that comes from a casual, offhand, even well-meaning comment that’s cruel in a more deep-rooted way.
This casual cruelty. This insidious, creeping, never-ending miasma of sexism. It is well and truly intolerable.
This is not up for debate.
Normally a McSweeney’s piece elicits a wry chuckle, but this one had me in stitches.
Humans are also far more likely to “literally cannot right now.” I have never met an automaton that literally could not, though I have met some that theoretically would not and hypothetically might want to stop.
Those who want to use science to support their views – especially if they seek to undermine equality efforts in the workplace – must make an effort to fully inform themselves about the science of human nature. They may be disappointed to learn that it’s not as simple as they think.
For more, read Angela Saini’s book Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story.
An excellent rebuttal of that vile manifestbro, and an informative history lesson to boot.
You can’t cherry-pick a couple of scientific studies you like and use them to justify your arguments against diversity programs, while carefully ignoring the mountains of other scientific studies that show both how and why diversity programs are good, beneficial to all, and worth investing in.
I wish I could be this calm in refuting pseudoscientific bollocks, but I get so worked up by it that I’d probably undermine my own message. I’m glad that Faruk took the time to write this down.
Remy and Julie are paying for diversity scholarships to Full Frontal on November 6th …including travel and accommodation costs.
The deadline for applications is October 2nd. If you know of someone who would benefit from this, please let them know.
This piece by Cennydd on ethics in digital design reminded me of something Jonathan Harris wrote a while back.
I like that he cautions against hiding the seams:
Designers should also strive to give digital products a healthy balance of seamlessness and interrogability. While it’s appealing to create technology that needs little human intervention, this sort of black box can be a breeding ground for dishonest behaviour.
A look at the degree of diversity in Android devices, complete with pretty pictures. The term “fragmentation” is usually used in a negative way, but there are great points here about the positive effects for web developers and customers.
You say fragmentation, I say diversity.
I know how Brad feels. I find it hard to muster any enthusiasm for any specific new device these days. But that’s okay. It’s more important to step back and see the trends and directions instead of getting caught up in the specifics of this particular phone or that particular tablet.
My remedy for device fatigue has been to take a step back and let my eyes go unfocused. Much like a Magic Eye, I can then see the hidden pictures behind the stippled noise that is the device landscape. This remedy helps me cope, gets me to stop caring about things that don’t really matter, and gets me to care about the broader trends the Magic Eye unveils.
Another call for design-based (rather than device-based) breakpoints in responsive sites.
.net Magazine is running a series of articles on their site right now as part of their responsive week. There’s some great stuff in there: Paul is writing a series of articles—one a day—going step-by-step through the design and development of a responsive site, and Wilto has written a great summation of the state of responsive images.
There’s also an interview with Ethan in which he answers some reader-submitted questions. The final question is somewhat leading:
What devices (smartphones/tablets) and breakpoints do you typically develop and test with?
Ethan rightly responds:
Well, I’m a big, big believer of matching breakpoints to the design, not to individual devices. If we’re after more future-proof responsive designs, we should stop thinking in terms of ‘320px’, ‘480px’, ‘768px’, or whatever – the web’s so much more flexible than that, and those pixels are a snapshot of the web as we know it today. Instead, we should focus on breakpoints tailored to the design we’re working on.
He’s right. If we’re truly taking a Content First approach then we need to “Start designing from the content out, rather than the canvas in.”
If we begin with some specific canvases (devices), they’re always going to be arbitrary. There are so many different screen sizes and ratios out there that it doesn’t make sense to favour a handful of them out of tradition. 320, 480, 640 …those numbers aren’t any more special than any other screen widths.
But I now realise that I have been also been guilty of strengthening the hallowed status of those particular pixel widths. When I post screenshots to Flickr or include screenshots in presentations I automatically do what the Media Queries site does: I take snapshots at “traditional” widths like 320, 480, 640, 800, and 1024 pixels.
Physician, heal thyself.
But really I should be illustrating the responsive nature of the design by taking screenshots at truly arbitrary widths: 173, 184, 398, 467, 543, 678, 832 …the sheer randomness of those kinds of numbers would better reflect the diversity of screen sizes out there.
Of course what I should really be doing is posting pictures of the website on actual devices.
I think our collective obsession with trying to nail down “common” breakpoints has led to a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of responsive design: it’s not about what happens at the breakpoints—it’s about what happens between the breakpoints.
Of course, if breakpoints are dead, responsive design is dead, because responsive design relies on breakpoints both in creative workflow and as a key to establishing user-need-and-context-based master layouts, i.e. a minimal layout for the user with a tiny screen and not much bandwidth, a more fleshed-out one for the netbook user, and so on.
I was surprised that he suggested the long-term solution would be a shake-out of screen widths resulting in a de-facto standardisation:
But designers who persist in responsive or even adaptive design based on iPhone, iPad, and leading Android breakpoints will help accelerate the settling out of the market and its resolution toward a semi-standard set of viewports. This I believe.
I don’t think that will happen. If anything, I think we will see even more diversity in screen sizes and ratios.
But more importantly, I don’t think it’s desirable to have a “standard” handful of screen widths, any more than it’s desirable to have a single rendering engine in every browser (yes, I know some developers actually wish for that: they know not what they do).
Stephanie details all the things we have to know about when designing for today’s broad range of devices: performance, capabilities, form factor, pixel density, and network latency.
These are all good points but I worry that if we just concentrate on the current device landscape, our processes won’t adapt to the future.
After the Future of Web Apps 2006 conference in San Francisco, a post by Chris Messina lamenting the lack of women in the line-up prompted heated debate and high emotions.
Tempers are still getting frayed and the discourse is generally pretty unhelpful.
Let me say from the start that I do think there is a problem with having so many conferences with such unbalanced line-ups and I firmly believe that a lot of the responsibility lies with the organisers to change things. That said, I also understand just how hard it is to put on any kind of conference at all.
To the people accusing conference organisers of being some kind of cabalistic old boy’s network: you’re really not helping. You’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar.
To the people organising conferences who throw up their hands and say “it’s not our job, we’re just reflecting the sad reality”: you’re being equally unhelpful.
So, all of you: try walking a mile in the other person’s shoes. That way, if you still don’t agree, you’ll be a mile away from the other person and you’ve made off with their shoes.
Eric came out with a provacative post that’s just aching to be quoted out of context:
So, here it is: as a conference organizer, I don’t care about diversity.
I admire and respect Eric but I think in this instance that he is wrong. We’ll just have to agree to disagree.
Eric makes the very persuasive argument that to put on a successful conference, the line-up needs to be filled with well-known, established speakers. (This prompted the obvious question from a few people in the comments; just how does one become well-known or established? As Jen says,
Eric, it is becoming a circle jerk.)
Success doesn’t just mean financial success, though I readily admit that the economics of organising a conference are fiendish. A successful conference is about more than just getting bums on seats.
Yes, if you fill a line-up with “A-listers” then you’ll sell all your tickets and the attendees will learn from the best and everyone will be happy… in the short term. In the long term, it’s unsustainable. It leads to a closed loop, a neverending cycle of the same names talking about the same subjects. Diversity isn’t just a means to an end (that end being a better conference), it is in and of itself, A Good Thing.
Conferences, especially well-established conferences (and I would put An Event Apart into that category) can and should take some chances. Yes, it’s risky. No, you can’t guarantee ticket sales. But it will be a better conference if the line-up has some wild cards.
I firmly believe that conferences shouldn’t simply be mirrors for the Web business, reflecting whatever is current and accepted. A good conference can act as a force on the industry. Conference organisers have a great opportunity here and I think it’s a shame to see it wasted.
Alright… enough talking about conference organisers as if they were some kind of separate caste of people. It’s time to point the finger at myself.
My company, Clearleft, organises the dConstruct conference in Brighton every year. It’s really Andy’s baby but he very kindly asks for my opinions in putting the conference together. I personally feel very strongly that this year’s dConstruct needs to change from last year’s homogenous line-up (I’m pretty sure Andy agrees).
Even if we sell every ticket, even if everybody blogs about having a great time, if the line-up consists of a bunch of white male speakers (“A-list” or otherwise), I will consider the conference a failure.
But what to do? The perceived wisdom is that there are simply far more kick-ass men speakers than women. I don’t believe that’s true. I think there are far more visible men in our industry, but with just a bit effort it’s entirely possible to find a wealth of women speakers who can truthfully be described as well and truly kick-ass.
I’m not sure if I’m supposed to blog about this, but for months now, we at Clearleft have had a BaseCamp project set up with the specific intention of finding new blood for dConstruct. We’ve invited people from outside our circle of expertise and interests and asked them to suggest speakers. The idea is to deliberately introduce diversity, to stir things up a bit and ultimately, to put together the most kick-ass line-up of speakers we can.
Is this tokenism? Absolutely not. I fully concur with Eric when he says:
What’s important is technical expertise, speaking skills, professional stature, brand appropriateness, and marketability.
But I don’t believe that this attitude conflicts in any way with the desire to increase diversity. It’s entirely possible to put together a superb line-up of diverse speakers.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at Web Directions North (or South for that matter), one of the best, most stimulating conferences I’ve ever attended. They didn’t make a big deal about the mixture of topics and presenters, they just put together the best line-up they could.
I’m not saying it’s easy. I know for a fact that it’s a lot of hard work. But it’s achievable; Web Directions is a testament to that.
I’m also going to have to agree to disagree with Tantek, another person I admire and respect greatly. He is of the opinion the kind of thing I’m suggesting would indeed fall under the category of tokenism:
Why is it that gender (and less often race, nay, skin-color, see below) are the only physical characteristics that lots of otherwise smart people appear to chime in support for diversity of?
Where are all the green-eyed folks? Where are all the folks with facial tattoos? Where are all the redheads? Where are the speakers with non-ear facial piercings?
Actually, I would agree with Tantek if I were talking about diversity of sexes, but I’m not. I’m talking about diversity of gender. There’s a difference. Sex means male or female. Gender means masculine or feminine.
I fully agree that a speaker’s sex makes about as much difference as their eye-colour or hairstyle but a speaker’s gender can and does affect their outlook and experience. As someone who has a (primarily) masculine gender, I know that I can learn a lot more from being in a mixed masculine/feminine environment. That’s one of the reasons why I’m glad my band isn’t an all-male affair.
I’m not just arguing semantics here. I’m trying to point out why I think Tantek’s argument is reducto ad absurdum. Gender isn’t like eye-colour. Introducing more gender diversity into a conference is productive in the same way as introducing someone with a background in product design or some other non-Web field that can offer a new perspective on our industry (this isn’t just an off-hand comparison).
I hope I’ve made my point clear. Let me reiterate that I can see both sides of this debate but I do come down firmly on the side of increasing diversity. I just hope that I can work towards this goal in a constructive way.
Frankly, I find Jason Kottke’s reductionist statistical approach to be counter-productive. It’s not just about numbers, Jason. I’m also not so sure that Anil’s abrasive style is particularly constructive but his clever riposte to the Future of Web Apps line-up is illuminating.
I do feel bad for Ryan. He always seems to bear the brunt of the blame even though plenty of other conferences are equally lacking in diversity.
However… I do take issue with Ryan’s attempt to wash his hands by pointing out just how many of the speaker slots were bought by sponsors. I’m sorry, but selling time slots to the highest bidder is no way to put a conference together. I’m well aware of the economic realities of putting on a conference and I know that selling slots to sponsors is established practice in certain circles but it won’t cut it with the geek crowd.
Again, Web Directions North managed to get this just right by allowing companies to sponsor speakers. So the speakers were all chosen for their expertise, knowledge and perhaps even diversity, and then Adobe or Microsoft were given the opportunity to introduce the speakers. It sure beats product pitches.
I want to finish with an observation on this whole issue of gender diversity at Web conferences.
This debate isn’t going to go away. It looks like it’s going to flare up every few months. Clearly, plenty of bloggers—who are also probably the target audience for a lot of these conferences—really care about this issue and want to see some changes. Yet every time the issue is raised, conference organisers fall back on the argument that they need to fill the auditorium and that the best way of doing that is to give people the same “A-list” speakers that have always worked in the past. In other words, give the people what they want.
Well, we want diversity.
It’s kind of like the whole brouhaha with Adobe and their crappy new icons. The majority of Adobe’s potential customers disliked the icons and wrote good, well-reasoned blog posts explaining why. As Aral so excellently noted, Adobe deliberately chose to ignore this wealth of valuable feedback. I see conferences falling into the same trap. The very fact that this debate is taking place (and continues to take place ever more frequently) should be sending a message that this is an important issue that needs to be addressed.
It reminds me of the old joke. A guy walks into a shop and asks for some product or other. The shopkeeper says, “We don’t stock that. There’s no demand for it.” The shopkeeper then adds, “It’s funny: you’re the tenth person to ask for that today.”
Jason Kottke on the still-ludicrous imbalance at most tech conferences. This issue isn't going to go away. Conference organisers need to stop being part of the problem and become part of the solution.