2016 Highlights

2016 was a struggle for many of us, with some pretty unpleasant stuff going on all over the world. To combat the feeling that 2016 was nothing but a huge trash fire, several of my friends have published lists of their 2016 highlights, and reading them really warmed my heart, as I felt so pleased for them having some wonderful experienced (there was much compersion to be had!). So, in return, here is my list of things that were awesome about 2016. I hope next year is half as amazing!

  • Went to the Australian Scout Jamboree 2016 in NSW with 39 other awesome people for 10 days, and watched kids have awesome fun, and learn and grow as they took care of each other.
  • Quit my job, after 7 years, for a proper holiday that didn’t involve attending conferences or scout events!
  • Went to Linux.conf.au 2016 in Geelong, and ran a one-day Open Knowledge Australia mini-conference. I’ll get to do this again in 2 weeks’ time in Hobart!
  • Helped out with the Scouts Victoria Kangaree, getting about 10 hours sleep in 3 days, and generally being amazing. It was really gratifying.
  • Went to my first festival, Confest, in NSW. It was an amazing week in which I did too much volunteering, had very little mobile reception (which was the best!), and met awesome people!
  • Saw some awesome shows for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, including Lisa-Skye’s “Spiders Wearing Party Hats,” which, between MICF and Fringe, I saw 3 times!
  • Experienced and participated in my first ever scene at a kink club, expanding my comfort zone. It was a fascinating experience!
  • Helped set up computers for Popup Playground’s Small Time Criminals, which is still running until February, and which you should totally book in if you haven’t already!
  • Went on my first overseas touring holiday to Europe. This was amazing, three weeks was exactly the right duration, and I absolutely loved it!
  • Did some awesome and fulfilling work with Invent The World, using Minecraft and other games to teach kids online empathy, problem solving, teamwork, and keyboard and mouse motor skills. Seeing these kids work together and learn was exhausting, but extremely rewarding, and I really hope to do more of this in the future.
  • Planned and ran GovHack Melbourne 2016, a weekend hackathon for about 100 people, with an amazing team of volunteers!
  • Attended my first PyCon AU in Melbourne, where I went to an education seminar, learned some awesome stuff from some even more awesome friends, new and old!
  • Went to Slut Walk Melbourne for the first time, and marched with hundreds of others against slut shaming and rape culture.
  • Attended HealthHack Melbourne 2016, as a participant, and not a volunteer, for a change, and, with my team, achieved second place for our hack!
  • Visited Adelaide for the first time, for the GovHack 2016 National Red Carpet Awards; a beautiful city!
  • Returned to Wellington, NZ, for yet another amazing KiwiCon, which ran in spite of the earthquake earlier that week!
  • Presented a talk about getting youth involved in tech at that fantastic BuzzConf emerging technology festival in Ballan, Victoria. A delightful, family-oriented feel permeated the event, and I met some of the best people!
  • Expanded my comfort zone further by attending my first ever gay clubs etc.
  • Went to the ever awesome Swingin‘ Bella Christmas, and sang and danced to the excellent music they play there every year!
  • Formed new relationships (from friendships to intimate partnerships) with some brilliant folks, while amicably ending some that had run their courses.

The experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve met this year have been unforgettable, and I’ll cherish many of them for years to come. Thank you to all of you who have made my life amazing simply by being a part of it.

Book Review: Fight Like A Girl – Clementine Ford

I don’t tend to write book reviews, but this is important. I’m not sure I’ve ever written one before,  so please bear with me.

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Book cover: Fight Like A Girl – Clementine Ford

Clementine Ford’s Fight Like A Girl is a book about feminism. It’s about a woman who has battled sexism, body shaming, and abuse all her life, and fighting like a girl who, surviving all this, has come out the other side strong, independent, and not giving a damn what men think.

Clementine talks about the ridiculous, contradictory, and often implicit and unspoken societal expectations of being a woman, the hateful names she’s called by men, who react with horror when they’re laughed at in response, as if that is the worst thing that could ever happen to them. She talks about perpetuation of rape culture, and contradictory suggestions regarding how women can avoid being raped, as if it should be their responsibility.

She discusses men’s assertion that feminists, particularly her, hate men so much, and how they wonder why, as she lists, extensively, the horrendous insults she’s received from these men online. Several pages of this chapter, Man-hater, were such a hard slog I had to put the book aside for a week to avoid just skipping them and denying them the attention they deserve. Men can be unbelievably awful.

Eventually, I made it to the epilogue. For some reason, possibly related to the poetic way it was written, I was compelled to read it aloud, and it literally brought me to tears. I bought the audiobook, just to hear Clementine read this, and it was amazing. The first paragraph does not do it justice:

This book is a love letter to the girls. It’s a letter to the bitches and the broads, the sluts and the whores. It’s to the troublemakers and the rebels, the women who are told they’re too loud, too proud, too big, too small.

Men, you should read this book. This book is not written for us. We are not its target audience, because if the patriarchy is to be overturned, women can nor depend on men to help, let alone lead the assault. It pulls absolutely no punches while detailing all the ways that patriarchy is perpetuated, how men can be awful, and women are second-class citizens. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t, at the very least, stay out of the way an not make things worse, and call out bad behaviour when we see it.

This book is eye-opening, and heart-wrenching, and I’d have it no other way. This book is not written for men, but you should read it anyway.

Everyone should read this book.

“This book is a love letter to the girls.” And, given everything in the world whose focus is on men, so it fucking should be.

“Do you have a partner?”

NB: This post and Communicating and Living Authentically were my attempts to sort out some thoughts. I don’t think I quite finished sorting them, let alone express them clearly here, but this may still be useful information. It took me 2 days to decide this wasn’t too private to publish.

When somebody asks about “relationship status”, the default interpretation in monogamous, heteronormative society is “do you have a partner?” As someone who practices polyamory, my answer to this question is usually “it’s complicated.” The reality for me is that I perceive lots of different kinds of relationships that are difficult to label. Some approximate labels or descriptions are, in no particular order:

  • Acquaintances (People who I know but don’t really interact with outside the space in which we met, such as those from meetups)
  • Friends (Best described, I think, as people whose personal lives I actively take an interest in outside the context in which we met. I try to make an effort to check in on these people occasionally to see how they’re doing.)
  • Close friends (People who I might chat with weekly or more regularly, and who I can usually enjoy simply spending time with, with no expectations of conversation or other forms of entertaining each other.)
  • Friends with benefits (Friends with whom I have an occasional sexual relationship.)
  • Casual sexual partner (This is a difficult term to find a synonym for, but Wikisaurus suggests “lover”, among others. I rarely consider this relationship type applicable to me, because in order to be intimately comfortable with someone, I tend to need to build some sort of friendly rapport first, hence “friend with benefits”.)
  • Romantic relationships (People with whom I feel I have a deep emotional connection and non-platonic relationship. This is probably the label that most closely approximates the “partner” definition in the original question. “Girlfriend” or “boyfriend” may also be used by the more heteronormative-minded.)

And then there are others, like live-in- and/or life-partners (people with whom one shares things such as a house or other possessions, finances, or children), and play partners (people with whom one has a BDSM-style relationship).

Now here’s the kicker: it’s possible that multiple labels may be applied to the same person. Additionally, some people may not quite fit into any of the above definitions exactly. So, returning to the question “do you have a partner?”… it’s complicated.

Often, the complication is due to the fact that, as a bit of a relationship anarchist, I’ve not necessarily had explicit conversations with people as to how they view our relationship; I just go with the flow, and take things as they come. Many of the above labels come with attached expectations (such as a certain level of time availability or other commitment), and as somebody who has lots of commitments already (e.g. to the multiple volunteer roles I’ve put myself in), and is, quite frankly, not sure of their ability to make too many further commitments, I feel guilty asking the same of others. This basically comes back to communication of wants and needs, like those addressed in Communicating and Living Authentically.

It’s complicated. Words are tricky. Brains are weird. Feels are hard.

Communicating and living authentically

NB: This post is dealing primarily with communicating feelings and emotions with partners/friends etc., rather than communicating/teaching  objective information.

I have difficulties with communication. It’s true of all of us, I think. We sometimes can’t adequately find the language to articulate our thoughts, or, worse, we’re afraid to do so, because we don’t want to admit how we feel (either to ourselves, because it’s too painful to think about, or to others, because we’re not sure how they’ll react or respond).

Communication tends to be most difficult precisely when it’s most important. […]
“If you’re afraid to say it, that means you need to say it.”

–Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert, More Than Two, quoting Marcia Baczynksi

The above is a mantra that I attempt to adhere to, but it’s hard. I think it gets less hard, slowly, with practice, but I am not sure if it ever becomes easy. There is, however, often an amazing sense of relief, a weight lifted from your shoulders, after saying something you’ve been afraid to say, regardless of the outcome. Yet, despite knowing, objectively, that it’s better for somebody to accept or reject you for being authentic, than for them to accept an inauthentic representation of yourself, fear of rejection is still a hard hurdle to overcome.

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Pictured: George McFly (Back to the Future) looking horrified. Text: “I just can’t take that kind of rejection”

A big part of my struggle is communicating my wants and needs, and acknowledging that I am entitled to have wants and needs, and that I have a right to ask others for these, just as they have a right to set boundaries around what they are and aren’t prepared to offer. These wants and needs could be from anything as simple as “I need hugs”, to slightly more complicated requests like “I want to see you more often”, or “I would like you to occasionally be available to listen to me vent/rant/mope.”

These may seem straightforward, but I really hate the thought that I’m a burden on others, even though if I received such a request myself, I’d usually be happy to oblige, or respectfully say that I didn’t feel capable of meeting that need right now, and maybe negotiate something else, all despite the fact that I tend to keep pretty busy. I make time for those I care about, and it shouldn’t feel greedy or selfish to expect others to do the same for me, but it sometimes does.

This post, and indeed, this blog, is an attempt on my part to live more authentically, by sharing my thoughts, explaining who I am, and how I feel, without necessarily expecting anybody to read or do anything about it. So if you’re reading this, thanks for taking the time. I welcome constructive feedback, but reserve the right to ignore it.

Anyway, basically, brains are weird, and feels are hard.

Appropriation of “Spoon Theory”

In recent times, I’ve occasionally referred to how many “spoons” I have at my disposal. This mostly comes up for me in a context of interacting with other people socially, usually either in the context of going to an event where I’m meeting new people, or having a discussion with people (either in person or online) on something on which we disagree. As an introvert who attempts to avoid or avert conflict, these interactions often require a lot of energy or courage for me to participate, so often I’ll say “I don’t have the spoons for meeting new people today.”

I was recently reflecting on the origin of spoon theory, and went to re-read the original blog post of the person who coined “spoons” as a term. This person has Lupis, and physically can only do a finite number of things in a day, often less than are strictly necessary to live a life equivalent to an abled person.

This made me realise that my use of “spoons” isn’t the same as its original intended purpose, and caused me to reconsider whether using the term was devaluing it for those with disabilities like Lupis. It turns out I’m not the first person to consider this. Geek Feminism wiki says: “disabled people have asked that the ‘spoons’ terminology not be appropriated by abled people.”

OK, so I’ve learned something new. I will make an effort from here onwards to stop using “spoons” to refer to my social anxiety or discomfort, and start hunting for alternative terms I can use. Possibly simply saying I don’t have the “energy” or “impetus” is good enough (though I’m open to suggestions for alternatives).

I hope this post serves to inform others of the potential appropriation of “spoons,”, and causes people to question whether the term can rightfully be applied to their situation.

EDIT: I did not write this post to tell people whether or not they are allowed to refer to their “spoons.” I leave that up to each individual. The main purpose of this post, I think, is to acknowledge Spoon Theory’s origins, and be mindful of our use of it, to avoid cheapening its value. There’s no easy solution, and it’s not a clear cut case; it’s just an interesting consideration.

Wasting privilege

I’m a middle-class, cisgender, white, male living in the 21st century. This affords me a non-trivial amount of privilege. I was reminded of this tonight as I had “Call the Midwife” S04E03 on in the background and I listened to how the English landlords refused lodgings to the Irish, and how homosexuality was treated with oestrogen tablets, with unpleasant side-effects. Despite being a fictional show, I don’t doubt it reasonably accurately reflects the reality of mid-20th century England, and it made me extremely uncomfortable, but also glad that I life in a time and place where I’m not directly affected by this sort of thing.

I subsequently saw the following:

And read Rosie’s blog post in the referenced tweet, which really reinforced my middle-class-ness, hitting particularly close to home because it referenced the GovHack Red Carpet awards in which I was involved last year. Rosie’s post also references the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union Conference from Tuesday, one of the sessions of which I caught the tail end of a video stream of, and was appalled by the circumstances the speakers have to endure.

Having now started to feel bad about the fact that I have spent a significant amount of time wasting my privilege  by not using it to help people less fortunate than me, I’m letting this serve as a reminder that we should be always evaluating where we decide to focus our efforts to maximise value while still bringing us joy and satisfaction.

I am passionate about plenty of social justice issues, from queer and trans discrimination, to feminism, to openness and transparency, and I’m only starting to see the tip of the iceberg on issues of unemployment, poverty, class, and racism. I need to remind myself that I can’t efficiently give my time to all of these causes, but I can carefully pick my battles, and do my best to make a positive impact, while listening to and amplifying the voices of those I’m trying to help.

Online privacy: a tale of irony and contradiction

This is the post that prompted me to start this blog a month ago.

I understand online privacy better than most. Unfortunately, privacy (and security; the two often go hand-in-hand) is often at odds with convenience. I have previously sacrificed convenience over privacy and security in many instances, because the latter two are important to me. Fair warning, this post doesn’t answer how to compromise between the above; it merely highlights my frustrations while trying to do so. Here are some of the more significant attempted compromises I’ve made, and the associated struggles:

Running free and open source software on my Android phone

I’ve had Cyanogenmod installed on my phone since shortly after I purchased it. For the past year or two, I’ve had it installed without any of the Google apps, such as the Play store, YouTube, Maps, Hangouts, Google+, and Gmail. Not having the Play store meant not being able to install any of the apps it offered. Instead, I made do with F-Droid, an app catalogue that exclusively contains free and open source apps.

This encumbered my ability to interact with other people, sites, and hardware. I couldn’t use common chat applications, some social media sites were clunky because I was limited to their mobile web page which is often a second-class citizen to their mobile app, and I couldn’t stream to my Chromecast. Eventually, about a month ago, I caved and installer the Google apps, because the disadvantage of missing out finally outweighed the advantage of knowing with reasonable certainty that my location data, contacts, and other private phone information was safe from third parties.

Facebook

I deleted my Facebook account in 2013 after it insisted on hounding me for personal information regarding my education institutions and place of employment. Initially, it was freeing. I had more time up my sleeve, and knew that even if Facebook didn’t delete the data for my old account, they weren’t getting any new data from me (though possibly from others; see Shadow profiles).

Again, though a couple of months ago, I’d gotten sick of the disadvantages. I’d occasionally get forgotten by people organizing events, because I wasn’t on Facebook to be invited. Many friends were difficult to get hold of because Facebook was one of their main communication media, and when I met somebody new in person and wanted to keep in touch, the first question I got was “What’s your Facebook”? My social life could be enriched, and so, with significant trepidation, I yet again forfeited my personal information to Facebook and started adding friends.

Gmail plus-addressing

I try to sign up to different sites with different email addresses (using Gmail’s plus addressing). This way, if i receive spam to a plus-address, I know which site disclosed that address (this, I admit, has never actually happened).

On January 21, a colleague and I were discussing various web services, and I mentioned that I used Gravatar, which serves up a picture for use as your avatar based on your email addresses, to any website that supports it. My colleague remarked that they were surprised that I, somebody reasonably privacy-conscious, used Gravatar. I considered this briefly. Gravatar works by asking you to supply all your email addresses, and upload one or more pictures, each of which can be associated with one or more email addresses. Then, when you sign up with one of those email addresses to a site that supports Gravatar, the site can send a request to Gravatar which includes your email address, and retrieve a picture that it can then use as your avatar or profile picture.

Gravatar is a free-as-in-beer service. They don’t charge members any money to use the service. Given this, they obviously need to make their money elsewhere, so it’s reasonable to assume they monetise their members, making members the product. Each request that a Gravatar-supporting-site sends to Gravatar likely contains a referrer stating which site made the request. This means that Gravatar could collect a huge database of all the email addresses associated with a member, and all the Gravatar-supporting sites they visit, then sell this information to the highest bidder. Because some of the sites I use plus-addressing on support Gravatar, Gravatar needs to know all thise addresses, making using Gravatar reckless, to say the least, because Gravatar can be used to unify my identities across all sites that support it. I signed up for Gravatar years ago, before I was quite so paranoid, so it hadn’t been subject to my now-more-stringent privacy analysis. Ironically, here I am blogging about Gravatar on a blog hosted by WordPress, who own Gravatar.

Solutions?

So how does one integrate with society while remaining reasonably private and secure? I’ve no idea, but I’m still looking, despite feeling a bit resigned to the reality that sometimes it’s all too hard.