Just for the record

June 3, 2013

Recently an interesting speaker event was scheduled for a Tuesday evening. I wanted to hear the talk, but wasn’t sure I’d be able to go to the event: having a small child means often having to say ‘no’ to things that happen in the evenings. So, a week before the event, I emailed the organisers (using the contact form on their website) to ask whether the event was going to be broadcast, recorded or transcribed. If they assured me that it would be broadcast after the event, then I’d be able to miss it with a clear conscience, knowing that I could catch up later; if they said that it definitely wouldn’t be recorded, then I’d know that the only way I’d get to hear it would be by going along.

Shortly after submitting the form I got an apparently automated reply from the organisers saying “Your question has been received. You should expect a response from us within 24 hours.” 24 hours came and went, and I got no reply. I dithered about whether to go or not, and then, as chance would have it, my husband got an official invitation to the event and the reception afterwards; I decided that this gave him a better claim, and I stayed at home.

The day after the event, I got a reply from the organisers telling me that the event had been “video recorded”, that they hoped to have the film up on YouTube “within the next few days”, and that a brief summary of the discussion would be posted on the website before the end of the day.

Now there is no way on earth this was a last-minute decision. You don’t make last-minute decisions to film an internationally-recognised speaker in the Sheldonian in the hope that they’ll let you stick it up on YouTube later. You plan the filming, you get permission to publish the video, and if you want the material online as quickly as possible after the event then you make sure the people who have to edit the film and publish the transcript know it’s important and have time allocated for doing it. I realise that that’s a lot of preparation. But would it have really thrown that schedule completely off course to take the time to send an email saying “Yes”, or better still, to put a note on the event page saying “This event will be recorded”?

This was only a small annoyance for me; the talk was by no means essential to my work (or even to my happiness), and in the end the decision was made for me by other factors anyway. But I wanted to note it as a little example of the bigger question of how you communicate with your users and why, which is part of the even bigger question of accessibility. I’m not an expert in accessibility, and this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive overview (it’s a complex subject), but put simply: if you give people information about your event and your venue, they’re more likely to be able to engage with it in whatever way works best for them — not to mention being more likely to help you make everything run smoothly. If you give people good directions, they’ll be able to find the event, and get there in plenty of time, and not interrupt others by scrambling to their seat at the last minute. If you tell them whether there’s level access, or how many steps there are, they can make a rational decision about whether to allow extra time for finding the hidden level entrance, or for climbing lots of stairs, or whether to leave the buggy at home, or whether in fact it’s too much hassle to go at all. If you tell people what time an event finishes, they know if they can get back in time for dinner, or if they need to get a babysitter, or if they’ll have to leave before the end. If you tell them they’ll be able to catch up with the content afterwards, they can make an informed decision not to go in person but still participate, still feel positive about the event and the organiser. Conversely, if you withhold this information, then you make it more difficult for people to make an informed decision, more likely that they won’t participate, and more likely that even if they do participate they’ll feel irritated or resentful when they discover either that they didn’t need to worry — or that they should have worried more.

Of course, if you do communicate these things then you need to be sure you can deliver what you’re promising. The very brief report of the talk did go up on the website the day after the talk, but the video still isn’t on YouTube nearly 3 weeks later…

Edited to add: The video is now online, nearly a month after the event. Worth a watch!

To blame computers is human

May 26, 2013

I’ve read many variants on the parodic proverb “to err is human; to really foul things up requires a computer”, mostly cheaply printed on mugs and tshirts (and often using somewhat coarser language), and had assumed it was relatively recent, but the other day I stumbled across the meme in a rather surprising place:

“Do you know what you sound like?” said Mrs. Oliver. “A computer. You know. You’re programming yourself. That’s what they call it, isn’t it? I mean you’re feeding all these things into yourself all day and then you’re going to see what comes out.”

“It is certainly an idea you have there,” said Poirot, with some interest. “Yes, yes, I play the part of the computer. One feeds in the information—”

“And supposing you come up with all the wrong answers?” said Mrs. Oliver.

“That would be impossible,” said Hercule Poirot. “Computers do not do that sort of a thing.”

“They’re not supposed to,” said Mrs. Oliver, “but you’d be surprised at the things that happen sometimes. My last electric light bill, for instance. I know there’s a proverb which says ‘To err is human,’ but a human error is nothing to what a computer can do if it tries.”

—Agatha Christie, Hallowe’en Party (1969)

[This text appears on pp.38-39 of the 1971 Fontana paperback edition]

I wondered if this was a particularly early attestation, so turned to (of course) more computers for the answer. The ever-helpful Quote Investigator gave April 1969 as their earliest cite for this saying; Christie’s novel was first published in November 1969, so my discovery didn’t push their date back, but it was still interesting, both as a question of provenance and an insight into “computer culture”. Had Christie read it and remembered it? Did she independently come up with the same idea? Did Bill Vaughan (whom QI credits with penning the proverb) just write down something that was already common currency by this point? We tend to think that eye-rolling exasperation with computers is a modern affliction, the contempt born of familiarity, but it was clearly unremarkable enough to find its way into Christie’s bag of clichés over 40 years ago. I’m actually surprised the quote hasn’t yet been attributed to Cicero, or some long-forgotten pre-modern scribe on his ancient tablet (perhaps a Newton MessagePad).

A name that’s particular

January 29, 2013

Oxford University has 38 Colleges and 6 Permanent Private Halls. Don’t worry, I’m not going to rehash the various debates about the advantages and disadvantages of the collegiate system here (for one thing, I should finish reading David Palfreyman’s book on the subject first). I just want to point out that for anyone who’s interested in web information architecture or website design this organizational circumstance gives them a fascinating corpus (including a probably-fascinating Corpus) of 44 roughly equivalent websites to compare: sites situated in the same cultural context, which deal with a similar size and shape of institution, similar sets of target users, and so on… but which are sufficiently autonomous that they can make very different choices about how to organise and display their information.

Before we even get to the content of the websites, I’ve long been intrigued and/or frustrated (depending on my mood) by the fact that the Colleges’ domain names are inconsistent in the way they relate to their actual names. Basically, they’re all www dot [name of college] dot ox dot ac dot uk… except where they’re not. I’ve reproduced the full list here so you can see what I mean:

All Souls College
Balliol College
Brasenose College
Campion Hall
Christ Church
Corpus Christi College
Exeter College
Green Templeton College
Harris Manchester College
Hertford College
Jesus College
Keble College
Kellogg College
Lady Margaret Hall
Linacre College
Lincoln College
Magdalen College
Mansfield College
Merton College
New College
Nuffield College
Oriel College
Pembroke College
The Queen’s College
Regent’s Park College
St Anne’s College
St Antony’s College
St Benet’s Hall
St Catherine’s College
St Cross College
St Edmund Hall
St Hilda’s College
St Hugh’s College
St John’s College
St Peter’s College
St Stephen’s House
Somerville College
Trinity College
University College
Wadham College
Wolfson College
Worcester College
Wycliffe Hall

By my count, that’s 25 colleges whose domain names are as close as possible within the characters allowed in domain names (omitting apostrophes, replacing spaces with hyphens) to their real name; 10 whose domain names are their intials; and 9 whose domain names are an abbreviation other than their initials.

Even the initials aren’t consistent: it’s not clear why the ‘nose’ of ‘Brasenose’ deserves its own initial (so perhaps ‘bnc’ should strictly count as an ‘other abbreviation’ rather than initials…), or why ‘St Stephen’s House Oxford’ has to have ‘Oxford’ added to its name/initials when the ‘.ox.ac.uk’ domain should locate and disambiguate it. Others look like initials at first glance (‘pmb’, ‘stx’), but aren’t.

Of the nine ‘other abbreviation’ Colleges, four of them (magd, sant, univ, worc) use the first four letters of their name — this is their ‘OUCS code’, the unique identifier* assigned to them by Oxford University Computing Services (now IT Services). These identifiers are used, among other places, in the University’s single sign-on system usernames — e.g. I was at Pembroke, and my username was pemb0471.

The remaining few (bfriars, chch, pmb, stx) are completely anomalous, and fairly unguessable (OK, St Catherine’s College is colloquially known as ‘St Catz’, but they’ve omitted the hyphen that nearly all the other ‘saints’ have included).

And of course, the names of the colleges themselves are inconsistent; Christ Church does not have ‘College’ as part of its name; Lady Margaret Hall is a College, not a Hall, while Regent’s Park College is a Permanent Private Hall; some of the Saints are possessive (St Hilda’s, St Hugh’s, etc) and others aren’t (St Cross College, St Edmund Hall — which is also a College, not a Hall). In fact, in some cases, their true names are very different from the names by which we know them: either “The President and Fellows of the College of St Mary Magdalen in the University of Oxford” or “The College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in the University of Oxford, of the foundation of Sir Thomas Pope (Knight)” (better known as, respectively, Magdalen College and Trinity College) would make a ridiculously long domain name (though not actually exceeding the technical limit); unsurprisingly, of course, that wasn’t a major concern in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Is any of this a problem? Not really; it makes the URLs hard to guess, but who guesses URLs these days? Typing any of the Colleges’ names into Google will take you to them in less time than it would have once taken you to dial up. However, it’s interesting to see that the same issues come up again and again in any attempt to derive a consistent naming scheme for computers from things that were named by and for human beings. I don’t want to fix it; I just find it fascinating.

* In fact, they’re just one of the many sets of unique identifiers used for departments and Colleges (and those sets are subject to change), but that’s probably a subject for another post.


September 28, 2012

There are many different shapes of procrastination:

The evil toad: You have one big, important, and difficult item on your to-do list, and it squats there glowering at you while you do everything else on your list in the hope of distracting your mind from it, but you can find no satisfaction in any of your other achievements while the black hole of guilt is still there.

The fake toad: You have one big, unimportant and probably long-deferred item on your to-do list, and it functions as a decoy from which to procrastinate by doing all the actually-more-important little things.

The tangled web: You know you’re supposed to be doing X, but you convince yourself that you can always say that you were doing Y (which also needs doing) instead, while actually avoiding both and doing Z (which may or may not need doing), with the result that you not only haven’t done X but you now also have to fit Y in somewhere as well if your story is going to hold water.

The void: You know there are things you need to do, but all you seem to be able to do is click refresh on Twitter, Facebook, email … maybe just one quick game of solitaire before you start on the important tasks … and before you know it several hours have passed and you’re no closer to doing the things that need doing.

The bouncing ball: You have a task that’s sat in your inbox or at the top of your to-do list for weeks, and it seems impossible to start it now, out of the blue, without any kind of trigger or marker or change to your circumstances; you need to give the task some kind of momentum again, so you can feel like you’re returning the ball rather than fishing it out of a stagnant pond. In order to do this, you phone or email someone else who’s involved in the project and ask something vague like “Can I just check where we are with this?”

Sound familiar? Can you think of any more?

Communication breakdown

September 20, 2012

Two separate small annoyances the other day revealed a host of deeper issues with internal communications structures:

  • Colleague A emailed our departmental ‘chat’ mailing list (we have two all-department mailing lists, one for ‘chat’ and one for ‘work’) saying that he needed someone to “make a change to the DNS” to redirect from one URL to another. His email ended, rather desperately, “Can somebody help?” Colleague B then followed up to this email (moving the discussion to the ‘work’ list) to say that what A meant to ask for was an HTTP redirect.
  • Colleague C, from another department, emailed me asking me to forward an email to a University-wide mailing list for web managers. I used to administer the list when I was part of the webmaster team, 3 years ago; I still have posting rights but I’m not really responsible for the list any more, so I forwarded C’s request to the appropriate role email address so that someone from the webmaster team could deal with the request via our ticketing system. In the course of the subsequent correspondence on the ticket (visible to everyone in the department) I learned that C had been told to email me directly by someone who is explicitly responsible for managing internal communications.

Exercise for the reader: how many separate communications problems can you identify here? Or do you think it’s all part of one big problem?

Get off of my cloud (2)

July 19, 2012

I’m still trying to disentangle myself from the various accounts that I was instructed to set up for the Acquia Drupal course.

My Acquia dev cloud account:

  • Of course, the invoice date I referred to at the end of the previous post wasn’t 7th October 2012, it was 10th July 2012, because we’re in America (oh, no, wait, we’re not). When I log in, my Billing Information page now says the invoice has been sent. I haven’t received anything that looks like an invoice.
  • I did receive an email warning me about scheduled maintenance that would affect “my sites”, despite the fact that they should know I don’t have any sites on their cloud any more.
  • As far as I can tell, there’s no way to delete my Acquia dev cloud account completely.
  • I can’t even remove my credit card details from my account. Going to ‘Payment Settings’ shows one credit card; clicking on ‘Edit’ for that card only gives me an opportunity to add a new card (not even to edit the old one).

Just to reiterate: they are storing my credit card details without giving me any way to update or remove them. I’m pretty sure this contravenes the DPA.

My account with Udemy:

  • I unsubscribed from all the Udemy emails (following the link in the email); once that had been confirmed, I went to my account settings to tick the “don’t send me any email alerts” setting (not sure how that was different from telling them not to send me any emails).
  • When it came to removing the account, there were two options:
    1. to detach the account from my Facebook account, or
    2. to delete the account altogether.

    I detached the account from my Facebook account, and set a password (as my account would be retained with my email address as username).

  • Once this had been done I then deleted the account completely. Thank goodness Udemy actually let me do this.
  • I then went to my Facebook account, checked the Application settings; the Udemy app was still listed as being authorised to interact with my Facebook account. Just to remind you, this app “needed” (wanted):
    • My email address
    • My profile info: description, activities, birthday, education history, interests, likes, location and work history
    • Friends’ profile info: Activities, interests and likes
  • I removed the app & deleted all app activity.

I don’t want to labour the point here, but I shouldn’t have to jump through all these hoops just to detach myself from a one-day training course; I didn’t think I was making that kind of commitment to any of the organisations involved when I signed up for the course. You might ask why it matters if we have unused accounts floating around all over the place, but I believe it does matter: it’s a potential security/privacy risk (though throwaway passwords probably minimise this risk); it’s wasteful (disk space may be cheap but it’s not infinite, and the energy required to run the servers is non-zero); but above all, it’s untidy: it offends my sense of order. I realise this is going to make me sound like some kind of philosophical neat-freak, but I don’t want to clutter up the global information space with stuff that I’m not using.

Enough complaining. I’m going to tidy up my hard drive.

Get off of my cloud

July 12, 2012

A couple of weeks ago I went on a “Drupal for Developers” training course given by Acquia. We were asked to bring laptops on which we had installed all sorts of software to allow us to import the pre-prepared Drupal site that we’d be working on, and there were dire warnings of what would happen if we hadn’t completed the setup before the session (“Please note that if you do not set-up and test your laptop before training, you may be forced to watch along on someone else’s machine so that we can all spend our time training and learning rather than debugging your individual set-up”).

Setting up

Being a conscientious type, I went through the mandated setup, step by step. First, I tried to install their “Dev Desktop” (an all-in-one server-on-your-desktop setup), but it didn’t work on Mac OS 10.5 — the documentation said it did, but I got the following error message:

Problem running post-install step. Installation may not complete correctly.

The error dialog also said that when reporting the errors I should attach two log files; only one of the specified files existed on my system. When I tried to launch the app I got the following error, which confirmed that installation hadn’t completed correctly:

Cannot load dll: @@INSTALL_DIR@@/common/lib/libmysqlclient.dylib

I emailed the trainers for help and they told me that there were “intermittent problems” with the Mac OS 10.5 version of their software. They asked me if I’d mind running their diagnostic script, also supplied with the software install; I tried to do this, but the diagnostic script didn’t work either. After a bit more to-ing and fro-ing of trying to get the script to find the required libraries, they recommended that I install MAMP instead… but the latest version of MAMP didn’t work on Mac OS 10.5 either. Sure, my fault for running an outdated OS, but frustrating nonetheless. I emailed the trainers again to ask if an older version of MAMP would suffice for Drupal 7, but didn’t get a very clear response; in the end, I decided to do the upgrade that I’d been failing to get round to for ages.

Once I’d upgraded to Mac OS 10.6, I installed MAMP, and went on to the next bit of the setup: to sign up for the “Dev Cloud” single-server Drupal hosting that the training company provided. In order to do this I had to give my credit card details and effectively subscribe to a year’s hosting for $165.40, but using a voucher code we’d been given to get 30 days’ worth of this hosting as a free trial. To be fair, the training company did warn us and apologise:

“You will need a credit card to complete this process. We’re sorry about that, but you will not get charged if you delete your cancel your account right after the training. (Or before 30 days is up!)”

but I can’t say I was happy about it. There were various minor annoyances with the sign-up process, too:

  • Filling in the registration form, I missed ‘state/province/region’ (probably assuming that it was only required for US addresses); when the form reloaded it had left in the credit card number (showing last 4 digits only, so it wasn’t valid when resubmitted) but cleared the CCV field and reset the expiry date; it had also unticked the mailing-list opt-out box, which is a pretty sneaky way to try to get the unwary to sign up for spam.
  • The “billing information” section had a mandatory “company name” field, but my personal credit card (which I had to use) isn’t registered to my work address, so I had to enter information which I knew to be false and hope that it didn’t prevent the payment from working.

Once I’d got the hosting set up, I went on to the next stage of the pre-course setup, which was to run through a “Hello Drupal” online course: “It should be pretty quick to do”, the instructions had assured us, so I’d assumed I could do this the day before the course (a day when in fact I was off work having been horribly sick thanks to my dear daughter bringing some kind of stomach bug back from nursery!).

In order to watch the course, I had to sign up for Udemy, an online training site, to watch “Hello Drupal”; this gave me a choice of setting up another account for a thing I probably wouldn’t want to use again, or signing up with my Facebook account. I chose the latter, but the Udemy app demanded rights that it surely shouldn’t need just to let me watch some training videos:

  • access to all my friends’ profiles
  • the right to post on my behalf
  • the right to “access my information at any time”

(Sorry, Facebook friends, if you get spam as a result of this. If it’s any consolation, Udemy are now sending me heaps of marketing emails, too.)

Having registered with Udemy, I discovered that “Hello Drupal” was three hours long; I’m afraid that at this point my conscientiousness was overridden by my utter despair at the prospect of trying to watch three hours of training screencasts when a) I didn’t have 3 free hours left in the day, and b) I just wanted to go back to bed and be ill in peace. I decided that I’d just have to go along early on the day (assuming I was well enough to go at all) and see what I could do.

On the day

On the day, it turned out that I was far from the only person who’d failed to complete the pre-course preparation: over an hour into the training time, we were still trying to get everybody set up. Some people were having trouble installing the software at all; others were having trouble importing the prepared site (not everybody had realised that there were two versions of the zip file, one linked from the middle of the Google Doc with the setup instructions in, the other linked from … I forget where, somewhere else); several people were finding that the prepared site was missing some of its images (a different set of images seemed to be missing from the two zipfiles); the Dev Desktop included drush, but it didn’t get added to the default path on Macs so people assumed it “didn’t work” (cue trying to teach Mac users who never use a CLI how to fix the problem…). As far as I could tell, nobody had watched the “Hello Drupal” screencasts, though that didn’t seem to matter.

There were useful bits in the training, though it all felt a bit rushed — partly because of the difficulties with setup; partly because the two trainers didn’t seem to have decided which bits they were going to demonstrate, let alone who was going to do each section (though to be fair this was the first time they’d given this course in this format); partly, I think, because there was actually just too much material to fit comfortably into one day even if we’d all started and proceeded smoothly. Annoyingly, we barely used the cloud hosting that we’d been told to sign up for (or indeed the version control that we’d been told to install Git for): nothing that we covered in the course couldn’t have been done just as easily on a local install of Drupal. There was a brief section at the end about development and deployment cycles where one of the trainers demonstrated how to use their Dev Desktop and Cloud Hosting to manage the process, but a) they could have demonstrated this without making the rest of us sign up, and b) they could have explained the cycle in general terms since most of us probably won’t be using their hosting (particularly as many of us were University IT people who would be using their college/department’s existing hosting setup).

I’m not talking here about “how to design a good training course”, though. I’m just talking about the bits and pieces, the admin, the places where the fail creeps in.

Setting down

So, a few days after the training, I finally found time to go and cancel my subscription. I started from the confirmation email I’d had originally, the one telling me that I’d signed up for a year’s hosting (with no indication whatsoever that the first 30 days were free):

You can find your invoices on your Billing History page. Invoices appear on the 11th of each month.
Order #: 19893

I clicked on the “Billing History” link, and got a 404. The URL was http://user/0/billing-history — OK, they’d forgotten to include the domain, easily done — so I added network.acquia.com to the beginning … and got a 403. Back to the email to try the “Order #” link — this took me to another 403’d page.

When I actually found the page with my subscriptions on, I was pleased to see that there was a clear “Remove this subscription” link below the subscription:

Screenshot showing Acquia dev cloud subscription with 'Remove this subscription' link shown


However, clicking that link took me to a page which said:

For security reasons, Acquia does not currently support automatic cancellation of the janetmck+acquia subscription.

If you would like to remove this subscription, please contact Acquia Support either by email at [their support email address] or phone at [their US phone number] ([phone number] international).

I was sure that my colleague who’d been on the course with me had been able to cancel his subscription without having to email/phone the company directly (and I confirmed this with him by email), so I had another look round. This time I found the “cancel subscription” link, on a smaller hidden menu:

Screenshot showing Acquia dev cloud subscription, with action menu and 'Cancel' link shown.


So I clicked “Cancel subscription”, and this took me to “Step 1 of 2”:

Step 1 of 2

Step 1 of 2?

Clicking ‘Continue’ took me to “Step 2 of 2”: a page asking me to fill in their exit survey in order to cancel my subscription (“Complete this form to cancel your Acquia Cloud account”):

Screenshot showing step 2 of 2 in cancellation process for Acquia dev cloud - the exit survey

Step 2 of 2?

Fair enough; I filled in the survey and submitted it, expecting this to lead to a “thank you” and a confirmation that I’d cancelled… but instead I was bounced back to the Workflow page, except that it now sported an alert saying “Cancelling this Acquia Cloud account will permanently delete all of the sites and data associated with it”. That sounded ominously like the sort of warning you get when you haven’t yet cancelled — after all, giving you that warning when you’d already cancelled wouldn’t be much help, would it? Going back to the Subscriptions page showed my subscription still “Active” with a note beside it saying “Expires 06/20/2013 (50 weeks 5 days left)” — that also didn’t look particularly “cancelled” to me. So I went back to the “Cancel subscription” link, back to step 1, back to step 2 (the survey), and this time noticed that the survey had a note at the top:

Your Dev Cloud cancellation request will be processed shortly. Your site’s data will be preserved for one week. If you change your mind, contact Acquia Support to bring your site back. Thank you for your feedback. We greatly appreciate it.

So my cancellation request had been received, would (hopefully) be processed… but the subscription still showed as “Active”. I tried again to find the “Billing History” or “Order #” pages which should have been linked from the email, to see if I could reassure myself that the order and the having to pay lots of money had been cancelled, and found myself back on the same 403 Access Denied page… but this time with an alert at the top saying “Cancelling this Acquia Cloud account will permanently delete all of the sites and data associated with it.” In other words, they appeared to have just added this warning (which only makes sense to show before cancelling) to the general page template, whether it made any sense in context or not.

I still didn’t know if I’d successfully cancelled my subscription; I set myself a calendar alert to look again in a week (by which time, according to Acquia, my data should have been deleted). Fortunately, I got an email today which confirmed that my subscription “was cancelled successfully”. The email continued chirpily: “We’re sorry to see you go! We’re constantly improving our services, and hope you’ll check back the next time you need expert Drupal services.”

Out of curiosity, I checked back on the site to see if the subscription now showed up as “cancelled” or “removed”. Instead, the page for the individual subscription was an unfriendly 403: “Access denied. You are not authorized to access this page.” The page for the list of subscriptions was more informative: “Unable to display subscription listing. We were unable to find any subscriptions to which you have access. Please contact support, or make sure you are using the correct account.” Also quite unfriendly, but it did reassure me that I’d managed to cancel my subscription… until, that is, I realised that I could now see my Billing History page: “Your first invoice will be issued on 07/10/2012.” I sincerely hope it won’t.

Enough whinging: how would I fix these issues?

  1. Instead of all the complicated pre-course setup, do one of the following:
    1. Trust the trainees: Allow people to do their own local install of the necessary software: make it clear what this needs to do (‘you must be able to run Drupal 7’) rather than dictating what it needs to be (‘install our magic box’), so people can figure out if their not-quite-magic-box solution will do the right thing. Provide a pre-built site that could be imported into a local D7 install, accept that people have different setups, warn people that they won’t be able to have much help debugging their setup during the course, let them sink or swim on the day.
    2. Control everything: Provide laptops with all the software pre-installed and the site ready set up. Some users would have to use an unfamiliar operating system, but the trainers would have the advantage of knowing exactly what setup people were using.
    3. A bit of both: Offer attendees a choice between the two options above.

    Personally I’d go for the third option: allow confident developers/sysadmins to use the tools they’re familiar with, & trust them to sort themselves out; give the less confident, the lazy, the busy, and the people whose laptop fell in the bath two days before the course a ready-rolled system that they can’t mess up as easily (or at least one that you don’t have to learn your way around when they do).

  2. Be clear about prerequisites:
    1. If the “Hello Drupal” course is a true prerequisite, tell people at the earliest possible opportunity that they should work through it before the training, and tell them how long it will take, so they can schedule that in
    2. If it isn’t, make it clear that it’s optional and explain how it might benefit you — is it useful for orienting yourself a bit before the course? For getting up to speed with the terminology? Is it advised for people who’ve never done any Drupal before, but probably not necessary for those who have?
  3. Don’t make people have to give their credit card details to sign up for hosting that they don’t need. I mean, really.
  4. If you’re going to force people to sign up for something that they have to cancel afterwards, make sure the cancellation process is simple and clear. I’d expect it to go something like this:
    1. Find my subscription from the ‘subscriptions’ link/tab under ‘my account’.
    2. Click the ‘cancel’ button/link beside it
    3. “Are you sure you want to cancel?” At this point I should be told very clearly a) what happens to my data once I’ve cancelled, b) what happens to my payments once I’ve cancelled, and perhaps c) what to do if I realise I’ve made a mistake.
    4. Click “Yes, I’m totally sure”.
    5. Receive on-screen confirmation that my cancellation request has been accepted, and an assurance that this will be confirmed by email (for bonus points, tell me what email address that confirmation is going to).
    6. “Please tell us why you’re cancelling.” This is a courtesy. I’m usually happy to do it if I’m only asked one or two questions.

The sad thing is that there was plenty of good material in the actual course, but I came away with an overall impression of a series of irksome processes that didn’t quite work seamlessly: I’m sure that’s not how Acquia wanted to come across in their training, particularly given that the training was so obviously intended to double as an advertisement for their hosting; I’m sure it’s not the impression they wanted to give of Drupal, either. But personally I feel that training should be an opportunity to get away from the contingencies of daily work and concentrate solely on the thing you’re trying to learn: you shouldn’t have to wrestle with “oh, it always gives that error message & we haven’t got time to figure out why”, or “we can’t upgrade that until the next financial year”, or any of the other thousand natural shocks that web development is heir to. That’s why it matters if the admin is a mess.

But perhaps I’m over-optimistic in assuming it’s possible to get away from those things, even for a day. Perhaps, despite everybody’s best efforts, the contingencies always creep in; perhaps we should just treat every new irritation as an opportunity to get better at dealing with irritations.

The fairer techs

June 17, 2012

Ages ago, Brian Kelly blogged asking Are there too many male speakers at events?, and asked on Twitter:

Are conferences dominated by male speakers? Evidence from 15 years of #IWMW – but should this inform policy? http://bit.ly/HJN1dJ

At the time, I replied:

DEFINITELY dominated by male speakers – but I’m not convinced positive discrimination is the solution… >>

<< bit long to explain in 140chr but I will try to find time to write a response in comments or blog! :)

As you can tell from the date on Brian’s blog post, it’s taken me a ridiculously long while to find time! However, better late than never (I hope), this is that longer reply.

First, let me say that personally I don’t feel put off, excluded, intimidated or threatened as a result of the predominance of men at IWMW (and, let’s be honest, most other geek events). That’s not to say that other people are wrong to feel that, if they do (and I believe that some do): just that I can’t personally speak to that experience, so I’m not going to try. I’m also not claiming to speak for all women, all geeks, or any other subset of society that I might belong to; and I’m certainly not claiming to represent the views of my employer (though I certainly hope they won’t take exception to anything I’m about to say!).

Having said that, the gender disparity is something that I notice: not just at conferences but in my day-to-day job. I’m the only woman on my team; it’s not unusual for me to be the only woman in the room at meetings; and I’ve been asked to be on more interview panels than I might have otherwise, to even up the gender balance. This pattern is repeated across the wider University: at my last very rough count, approximately 200 of the 600-odd IT staff the University employs were women (ironically, a higher proportion than I’d expected!); our internal annual conference for IT staff at Oxford University is always attended by more men than women (unsurprisingly, given the ratio above), and has only had one female plenary speaker in its 15-year history; IT staff social events are always male-dominated, too; and while anecdotally I’ve observed that web-focused events seem to have a slightly higher proportion of women than general IT events, it’s only a small increase if anything.

Wherever this debate is happening, there seem to be two key questions:

  1. Why are there fewer women than men here (wherever ‘here’ is)?
  2. What can we do about it?

One answer to the first question is probably simple for any reasonably technical values of ‘here’: there are fewer women coders and techies out there, because fewer women study computing at University, because fewer girls choose IT, computing and maths at school. (For more detail on this, see The Myth of Female Software Developers.) I’m not going to go into the question of why 16-year-old girls aren’t choosing these subjects at A-Level (and I suspect the problem goes back further, to GCSE choices at age 13 and even earlier than that), because it’s a complex sociological and educational question and it’s totally outwith my area of expertise. I do wonder to what extent computing or maths qualifications are a prerequisite for IT jobs (and particularly web jobs); I wonder even more to what extent they should be a prerequisite. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I took English, Music and French at A-Level, did a degree in English Language & Literature, and have no formal qualifications in computing.)

Of course, that may not be the only reason: in some cases the high proportion of men at a conference or in an organisation may result in a workplace/conference culture that’s male-dominated, maybe “blokey”, maybe offputting to women in some way (though not necessarily as extreme as the ‘brogrammer culture‘ that’s been hitting the headlines recently). It’s by no means a necessary outcome of there being more men around than women, but it does happen.

For me, however, the second question begs the questions:

  1. Can we do anything about it?
  2. More controversially, should we do anything about it?

There are several possible answers to the first question: if ‘here’ is in the profession in general, we could, for example,

  • try to change job adverts to make them more appealing to women (it’s not clear what this would mean in practice)
  • target job adverts at more female-dominated arenas (‘girl geek’ organisations and mailing lists? Mumsnet? I don’t know)
  • try to prevent — and show that you take seriously — the incidents that may make women feel uncomfortable or unwelcome, e.g. have a strong equal opportunities policy
  • try to change the jobs themselves to make them more appealing to women (again, it’s not clear what this would mean in practice — perhaps allowing part-time and/or flexitime working, and making the availability of these options explicit in the job adverts?)
  • introduce stronger positive discrimination measures, e.g. mandate at least one woman on every shortlist (but then what if none apply in the first place…?)

If ‘here’ is a conference and we’re worrying about the gender ratio among speakers or workshop facilitators, the options are similar:

  • try to make the call for speakers/workshops more appealing to women (it’s not clear what this would mean in practice)
  • try to prevent — and show that you take seriously — the incidents that may make women feel uncomfortable or unwelcome, e.g. have an anti-harassment policy
  • exercise positive discrimination — make sure to invite a set number of women

You may have noticed that there’s a trend emerging: a lot of these options involve making things “more appealing to women”. I hear this phrase a lot, and it’s never very clear what it means. For the profession as a whole, does it mean help with childcare (for example childcare vouchers, crèches or nurseries)? Well, here’s a thing: men are parents too. Does it mean allowing for part-time or flexible working? Again, this benefits everybody, not just women, not just parents: if employees can negotiate a satisfying work-life balance, they’re almost certainly more likely to be happy, motivated, and productive when they are at work; they’re also probably more likely to stay in the job. And everybody (employers and applicants) would benefit from more clarity in job adverts about whether part-time or flexible working is available: if it is and you don’t mention it, you may put excellent part-timers off applying; if it isn’t and you don’t mention it, people who require part-time/flexible working will be wasting your time and theirs by applying. For conferences, I’ve heard suggestions along the lines of “We could make it clear that you don’t have to be very technical to speak”, or “We could make it clear that we welcome applications at all levels of competence” — but both of those are making assumptions about women’s competence/interests and their reasons for not participating, not to mention also assuming that men aren’t affected by either of these perceived deterrents! (There is some evidence that, on average, women are more likely to underestimate their abilities than men — if you’re interested in going down that road, read up on Illusory superiority and the Dunning-Kruger Effect — but it’s far from clear that this is the most significant factor in the skewed gender ratio in IT and web work.) As with job adverts, though, making it clear what you’re looking for and what you’re willing to accept helps everybody: the take-home message is that neither women nor men can actually read your mind.

As for the anti-harassment measures, surely you don’t need me to tell you that nobody should be harassing anybody, anywhere. That’s not about “women’s issues”, that’s about everybody’s right to feel safe and to be treated with respect.

Then we get on to the question of more direct positive discrimination, e.g. introducing quotas for female attendees/speakers/applicants/employees. This is a tricky one, and I don’t claim to have any definite answers, but I’m uncomfortable with it for several (linked and overlapping) reasons:

  1. It’s still discrimination; it’s still “unfair”. I think this is more of an emotional reaction than an intellectual one, to be honest; it just Feels Wrong.
  2. I’d much rather see a process which allows the best candidates/speakers/etc to succeed irrespective of their gender.
  3. I worry that discriminating in favour of women to redress an imbalance will be perceived as letting women off lightly, not subjecting them to the same rigorous selection criteria as men. This just results in resentment (“she only got appointed/invited because she’s a woman”).
  4. I worry that a need to fill some kind of arbitrarily-set quota of women may lead to women actually being let off lightly, resulting in not only (justifiable) resentment as above, but also a lowering of overall standards, and a reinforcement of the perception that women aren’t as good (and distress and damaged self-esteem for the women involved as they realise that they’re not as good as their peers).
  5. I fear it’s addressing the wrong problem: I believe that the problem isn’t just “there aren’t enough women around”, rather the problem is a stage further back than that, at the point where women feel unwelcome and/or there simply aren’t as many women who are eligible/interested — both of which may be better addressed by trying to fix the causes upstream.

So what’s the answer? Should we try to do anything about the imbalance? If so, why?

There are reasons why the imbalance is less than ideal: Various studies show that organisations with a more equal gender balance get better results; some women want to go into IT but are put off by the imbalance in gender and the attitudes in the profession (though it’s harder to back that up with statistics), and I believe they should have the chance to pursue the career they want without having to wage war against perceived prejudice. But another way to look at the question is: what happens if we don’t do anything to try to even up the balance? Organisations miss out on potential talent; people who really do think women are inferior feel that their beliefs are vindicated by the fact that there are fewer women; people who just want to do a job without getting ground down by prejudice or identity politics may be put off by the imbalance in the industry; girls and young women who are interested in IT as a career may be ‘turned off’ if they can’t see any role models with whom they can identify; products which are developed won’t reflect women’s needs or interests (and people assume that so long as they provide pink laptops and games like this the ‘ladies’ will be happy); the status quo is preserved, or the imbalance worsens. None of those sound like desirable outcomes to me.

We’re back to fixing the wrong problem, though. Basically, I’m not sure I think we should try to make the gender balance equal (or even ‘more equal’) at IT conferences or in IT jobs; but what I am absolutely sure of is that we should work to get rid of discrimination on the grounds of sex or gender; we should challenge unexamined assumptions about the ‘default’ gender of speakers/applicants/geeks/etc; we should call people out on sexist behaviour or speech which may be making people (men or women) feel uncomfortable; and in general we should work to make our professional environment a place where everybody can be respected for their talents rather than judged on the basis of what chromosomes they were dealt at birth.

As I said, I don’t know the answers. But I know that nothing will change if we don’t keep asking the questions.

Shelf service

June 12, 2012

Recently I came across this assertion in the abstract for a talk about assistive technologies and widening access to educational resources:

“By their very nature, resources in digital format can be accessed more independently and personalised more easily.”

I’m not at all convinced that statement is true. A book can be accessed entirely independently, depending on where it is; if it’s in a library, you can go and get it out for free (though your access will be tracked to some extent); if it’s in a shop, you can buy it, and if you pay cash, nobody’s tracking your purchase (if you buy it second-hand you’re not even a sales statistic for the publisher). Once it’s yours, you can access it independently (provided your spouse doesn’t re-shelve it somewhere you can’t find it, your toddler doesn’t eat it, etc); you can take it with you anywhere you like, and it will remain just as accessible as it was at home; and you can personalise it in a number of ways: you can write on it, in pencil or pen; you can stick post-it notes or bookmarks in it, or (heresy!) turn down the corners of pages, to mark pages or passages of interest to you or others; you can stick a personalised bookplate, sticker or stamp in the front to mark it as your own (or simply write your name — and, incidentally, nobody will mind if your name contains hyphens, or it’s not the name you were given at birth); you can cover the book with a protective plastic cover, or fancy wrapping paper, or sticky-backed plastic, or anonymous brown paper; you can even cut it up and turn it into a new text or a new work of art (or both). Your ‘personalisation’ of it is limited only by your imagination.

Its digital equivalent, by comparison, can’t be accessed independently of some kind of reading device (over and above the body parts which you’d need to access a book) or printing device; often you have to go through some kind of intermediary (a website, a piece of software) to access it even then; your access may well be tracked, to a greater or lesser extent; and the extent to which you can ‘personalise’ it will be limited to the needs envisaged by the designers, developers, curators and so on who brought it to you.

Let’s just make a few things clear here: I love books — the physical objects and their content — but I don’t care about the real book smell, and I know from experience that you can actually read a Kindle in the bath. I don’t think real paper books are more real than real ebooks; I certainly don’t think digital resources are a lesser thing. I just don’t think their advantages are the ones being asserted here.

Beyond the twit of man

June 11, 2012

Recently I got an email from Twitter telling me about their new Privacy Policy and Terms of Service (and omitting to mention that they’re selling your tweets). So I went and read the small print, and found that it included the following:

“Our Services are primarily designed to help you share information with the world. Most of the information you provide us is information you are asking us to make public. This includes not only the messages you Tweet and the metadata provided with Tweets, such as when you Tweeted, but also the lists you create, the people you follow, the Tweets you mark as favorites or Retweet, and many other bits of information that result from your use of the Services. Our default is almost always to make the information you provide public for as long as you do not delete it from Twitter, but we generally give you settings to make the information more private if you want. Your public information is broadly and instantly disseminated. For instance, your public user profile information and public Tweets may be searchable by search engines and are immediately delivered via SMS and our APIs to a wide range of users and services, with one example being the United States Library of Congress, which archives Tweets for historical purposes. When you share information or content like photos, videos, and links via the Services, you should think carefully about what you are making public.” [emphasis mine]

There’s a lot of emphasis these days on the evils of social media companies (notably Facebook) making content public without users’ knowledge or explicit consent: in that context, Twitter’s stance seems sensible enough (I’ve been saying “think about what you’re making public” since the days when I spent as much time on netnews as I now spend on Twitter) … however, it seems rather ironic in light of the fact that Twitter will only let you access your last 3200 tweets. I asked to make those tweets public, I wanted to make those tweets public. As far as I was aware at the time, I did make them public: I knew that they would be indexed by search engines — welcomed the fact, as Google offers a much better means of searching Twitter than Twitter’s own search. And yet Twitter won’t let me or anybody else access them (at least, not without a lot of jumping through hoops). That’s not actually very public, is it?