No, I still don’t want to work for Google.

You think those Google recruiters would know not to contact me, but the other day I got another perky “Opportunities at Google” email from one of them, telling me that they’d found my “online profile” and that based on my experience they think I “could be a great addition to our team!”

Riiiiight.

Since I just deleted my LinkedIn profile, I emailed them asking where they’d found this “online profile”, since it was obviously outdated. Oddly enough, it seems they’d found a page about me on the Geek Feminism Wiki, and were using the rather sketchy outline of my open source background there as justification for trying to recruit me.

The recruiter admitted that the page was out of date, and asked me to let them know what I’d been up to lately so they could add it to their records. Below is a copy of what I sent them. I’m posting it here, lightly edited, for anyone who’s interested, and in the hopes that the next Google recruiter (I have no doubt that there’ll be one) might use that web search thingamajig to find out whether I’m a suitable candidate before emailing me.


Here’s what I’ve been up to for the last couple of years, since you asked.

In July 2010 the startup I was working for, Metaweb, was acquired by Google. I was brought in on a 1-year fixed term employment contract, since the group we were acquired into (Search) didn’t really know what to do with a technical community manager. I attempted to transfer my role over to Developer Relations, but was told that I “wasn’t technical enough” for the job I’d been doing for 3+ years, presumably because I didn’t have a computer science degree and believed that supporting our developer community was more important than being able to pass arbitrary technical quizzes.

Around the same time, Google started to develop Google+. As a queer/genderqueer woman, victim of abuse, and someone who was (at that very time) experiencing online harassment and bullying, I was very vocal within Google for the need for Google+ to support pseudonymity. Google decided not to do that, and instead told people they should use “the name they are known by” while in actual fact requiring their full legal names, in many cases requiring people to provide copies of their government ID when challenged. (Extensive documentation about this is available on the Geek Feminism wiki, if you’d like to read it. See Who is harmed by a “Real Names” policy? for starters.)

When I walked out the door of Google’s San Francisco office on July 15th, 2011, I was very glad to have left a company I thought was doing evil towards any number of marginalised and at-risk people. My first tweet on leaving was to criticise them for it.

Less than a week later I got my first email from a Google recruiter — not first ever, of course; I’d been spammed with them for years, but first since I quit working for them. Here’s the blog post I wrote about it. In case you can’t be bothered clicking through and reading it, here’s the money shot:

If you are a Google recruiter, and you want me to interview for SWE or SRE or any role that has an algorithm pop quiz as part of the interview, if you want me to apply for something without knowing what team I’ll be working on and whether it meshes with my values and goals and interests, if you want me to go through your quite frankly humiliating interview process just to be told that my skills and qualifications — which you could have found perfectly easily if you’d bothered to actually look before spamming me — aren’t suitable for any of the roles you have available, then just DON’T.

The very day after I blogged about that, my Google+ account was suspended, for using the name I was almost universally known by. Over the next couple of months, I campaigned tirelessly for Google+ to change its policies, working with the EFF and other advocates. My work was covered in Wired, The Atlantic, and a number of other mainstream press outlets. Obviously this was to no avail as Eric Schmidt (at the time, CEO of Google) described pseudonymous users like me as “a dog or a fake person” and no substantive change has ever been made to allow pseudonymous use of the service, despite promises to do so.

I returned to Australia and went back to school. I did a semester of Sound Production at TAFE, but it turned out that the sound engineering course I was enrolled in wasn’t really my cup of tea, just like I’d previously decided, back in the ’90s, that university wasn’t for me. Like so many others, I quit my computing degree because I was more interested in the Internet and open source software than in fixing COBOL applications for banks who were worried about Y2K. But then, I’m sure Google’s HR system already knows all about that — if I’d had a degree, you might have considered me worth keeping on last year. Instead, Google’s reliance on higher education credentials causes it to weed out people like me, even though I have a track record a mile long and buckets of evidence to show that I’m good at what I do.

In the end, I’ve spent most of the last year lying in hammocks reading books, working in my garden, going to gigs, hanging around recording studios, doing the odd bit of freelancing, and, over the last few months, travelling around Europe. It’s given me a good opportunity to reflect on my previous work.

Since I’ve been out of the Silicon-Valley-centred tech industry, I’ve become increasingly convinced that it’s morally bankrupt and essentially toxic to our society. Companies like Google and Facebook — in common with most public companies — have interests that are frequently in conflict with the wellbeing of — I was going to say their customers or their users, but I’ll say “people” in general, since it’s wider than that. People who use their systems directly, people who don’t — we’re all affected by it, and although some of the outcomes are positive a disturbingly high number of them are negative: the erosion of privacy, of consumer rights, of the public domain and fair use, of meaningful connections between people and a sense of true community, of beauty and care taken in craftsmanship, of our very physical wellbeing. No amount of employee benefits or underfunded Google.org projects can counteract that.

Over time, I’ve come to consider that this situation is irremediable, given our current capitalist system and all its inequalities. To fix it, we’re going to need to work on social justice and rethinking how we live and work and relate to each other. Geek toys like self-driving cars and augmented reality sunglasses won’t fix it. Social networks designed to identify you to corporations so they can sell you more stuff won’t fix it. Better ad targetting or content matching algorithms definitely won’t fix it. Nothing Google is doing will fix it, and in fact unless Google does a sharp about-turn, they’ll only worsen the inequality and injustice there is in the world.

I guess you’ll want to know what I’m working on at the moment. My current project is an open source, open data project called Growstuff, which helps food gardeners track and share information about what they’re growing and harvesting. It is built on principles of sustainability, including a commitment to a diverse and harassment-free community, to actively supporting developers rather than excluding them based on misguided ideas of meritocracy, and to funding the project through means that will never put the people running the website in opposition to our customers. That means no ads, in case you’re wondering. We’d rather our members paid us directly; that way, we’ll never forget who we’re meant to be serving. I’m working on Growstuff from home, where I can be myself and feel safe and comfortable. I work with volunteers from all round the world, and get to teach programming and web development and system administration and project management and sustainability to all kinds of people, especially those who’ve previously been excluded from or marginalised in their technical education or careers. We get to work on things we know are wanted and appreciated, and we don’t have to screw anyone around to do it.

Let me know when Google has changed enough to offer me something more appealing than that. If you don’t think that’s likely to happen, then please put me on whatever “Do Not Contact” blacklist you might have handy. I know you must have some such list; I only wish you regularly referred to it instead of spamming people who not only don’t want to work for you, but have nightmares about it.

The Plan, Revisited

Last May I posted about The Plan. You might have heard the quote, variously attributed to all kinds of people but apparently actually said by Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, “No plan ever survives contact with the enemy.” That’s not to say mean that there’s no point planning, but that your plans need to be adaptable and learn how to roll with it once the action starts.

I don’t really like to think of TAFE as “the enemy” but I will concede that a few months’ contact with it made it very clear that my plan needed to adapt. After lots of discussion (including on this blog the other day) I decided that I the benefits of TAFE (a structured curriculum and a piece of paper of dubious value at the end of it) weren’t worth the cost (4 days a week and endless boredom and frustration).

So, I let the people at school know I wouldn’t be back, and now I guess I’m technically unemployed until I line up a bit more paying work. Meanwhile I’m sidekicking gigs with a few different sound dudes, trying to get some more hours crewing for the production companies, looking forward to some studio work that should ramp up in a couple of months, helping a couple of people set up studios (home and pro), and doing a bit of low-key sysadmin on the side. My main goal between now and the end of the year is to get more paying work.

Oh, and I didn’t finish Anathem. I skimmed to the end, though, and found that even when I knew how it ended I didn’t really care.

Sunk Costs Fallacy

[Contains spoilers for Anathem, if anyone cares.]

I’m going through two intensely frustrating things at present:

  1. The end of my first semester of sound engineering school, and
  2. Reading Neal Stephenson’s Anathem

School: it’s TAFE, which means no exams worth mentioning, and they really don’t want to fail anyone if they can help it. That means the assessment tasks aren’t too difficult, and in many cases we finish them long before the end of semester so that there’s time for marking, resubmission, late submission, or whatever. The side-effect of this is that the last weeks of semester seem to be spent mostly sitting around not doing much. Last week I had a couple of days where we essentially did nothing — or nothing that I either hadn’t done before, or which I couldn’t do myself via Google or Wikipedia in a fraction of the time — which as you might imagine I found rather irritating. Wait, that’s perhaps too much understatement. I was literally bored to tears, and yes, I do know the meaning of the word “literally” thank you very much.

By Wednesday afternoon I’d started to think the whole TAFE thing was a waste of time. Perhaps I could do better working (paid or unpaid, or most likely a mix of both) in the industry and learning on the job. I’d almost certainly find it more fulfilling than sitting in class, and over the same time period I’d probably learn more and certainly get more hands-on experience and industry contacts. When I approached one of our teaching staff about this, asking for his opinion, he said that I “might as well finish what I started”. In other words: I’ve done a semester of a course that takes two semesters to receive a piece of paper (and four semesters to receive a more advanced piece of paper, but two semesters is the first relevant exit point). Now that I’ve sunk the costs into the first half-year, I might as well go through to the end of it, even if what we’re doing in class is of only limited use to me, and not all that good for my mental health.

On another note, Anathem: a few weeks ago, probably because I was missing Wiscon, I found myself in an SF-reading mood. I wanted to catch up on a lot of the books my friends had been talking about over the last couple of years, while I’d been reading other things. I ordered an ebook reader, which would take a couple of weeks to arrive from the US, and in the meantime I hit the public library and borrowed a couple of books I’d been meaning to read or re-read, to tide me over. One of them was Anathem.

Before I start panning the book, I should mention that I’m actually a moderate Stephenson fan. This website is named after a term I found in one of his books, after all. I first encountered his work when found Snow Crash on the shelf of a general bookstore in Ballarat, sometime in the early 90s. I picked it up because the cover looked cool and bought it because the first paragraph grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. Cryptonomicon came out the same year the geeky consultancy company I was running was working on a gambling project on an offshore data haven; all our servers were named things like “kinakuta” and “raft”, and my laptop was “yt”. Hell, I even got hold of a copy of The Big U and read it. So, I’m not generally averse to the guy, and I have a fairly high tolerance for his diversions, random infodumps, and half-assed endings.

It was only when I got to the Baroque Cycle that I couldn’t handle it. At the time I was reading a lot of historical fiction and had pretty firm ideas on what constituted good writing in that genre. Quicksilver rubbed the wrong way against those genre conventions once too often, and since Stephenson was a relative newcomer to a period I already knew a bit about, his geeky fascination with things I considered commonplace (muskets and slow-match, for example) started to grate. Quicksilver was the first of his books that I didn’t finish, and I didn’t pick up another one until now.

Anathem is about a monk-like order who have survived thousands of years, who remain cloistered for up to a thousand years at a time, and who have a daily service of winding their giant clock, which has not just minute and hour hands, but year/decade/century/millenium hands too. It came out when I was working at Metaweb, on Freebase. The company had been named after Baroque-cycle-affiliated wiki of all knowledge, “The Metaweb” (now defunct, but you can see it on the Wayback Machine), and was founded by people closely associated with the Long Now Foundation, who are actually building a 10,000 year clock. Long Now talk was common at the office when I worked there, and there was lots of enthusiasm for Anathem when it came out — I remember there being an offer of tickets to a launch event or author talk or something for Metaweb staff — but I wasn’t in an SF-reading phase, so I skipped it. When Metaweb was acquired by Google, one of our founders gave a speech at our acquisition party talking about how Freebase was meant to be a repository of information that would last 10,000 years, and getting it into Google was the best possible way of furthering that goal. (True? Not sure.)

Enough background. A couple of weeks ago when I was standing in the Darebin Public Library’s Adult SFF section wondering what to read, I saw Anathem and grabbed it. I figured it would fill the time before my ebook reader arrived, I’d get to see what connections it had to Metaweb-the-company-where-I-worked, and it couldn’t hurt to have some of pop-cultural awareness of what it’s all about, the same as how I went to see Avengers, even though I don’t have much interest in the franchise, just so I’d know what people were talking about. All these were reasons to have a shot at it even though I knew there was a risk that I might find it as tedious and annoying as Quicksilver.

Surprise! It’s tedious and annoying! Stephenson finally found a way to add even more tangential infodumps into the story, by having almost the entire cast of characters be philosophers/theoretical scientists who spend most of their time lecturing or in Socratic-style dialogue about things like geometrical puzzles or the sensory perceptions of worms. Most of it ties in to the overall plot development, which at least is an improvement on some of his previous works.

The other thing that annoyed me was his worldbuilding: it’s set in another world where the people in it have “jeejahs” that are almost identical to our mobile phones and tablet devices; where the plebs wear baggy pants and sports jerseys with numbers on the back; where the dominant religion has a schism directly equivalent to the Reformation; and where details ranging from canvas-covered military transport vehicles to bucket-sized “sugar-water” drinks are all surprisingly familiar. The overall effect was of the kind of lazy worldbuilding where everything gets an “alien” name full of Zs and Qs and apostrophes, but is otherwise exactly the same as our world.

And then, over the course of hundreds and hundreds of pages, you eventually realise — SPOILER — that it’s all because parallel universes blah blah. Wait, you’ve been irritating me with your sloppy worldbuilding and “jeejahs” for all this time just so you could go SURPRISE! ALTERNATE EARTH!? And I’m meant to go “oh, wow, you’re not sloppy, you’re actually BRILLIANT!” Sorry, not feeling it.

So, I’m seven-hundred-something pages in to the book, and about ready to throw it across the room. And yet I find myself thinking, “Well, I’ve come this far, I may as well finish. Maybe it’ll get better.” At the same time, I have books ready and loaded on my ebook reader that I could be reading now, and probably enjoying more.

So the questions I’ve been asking myself, and which I ask you, if you care to take a shot at them: Firstly, with about two hundred pages to go, should I finish Anathem? Secondly, should I stay in school? If your answers differ, then why?

A whole lotta hoot, and just a little bit of nanny

I’ve recently had the misfortune of having had to sit through a series of classes on Western Music History that managed to make just about every form of music prior to 1900 seem deathly dull, irrelevant, and inaccessible. It amazes me how they can do this. I mean, it’s not hard to find some truly amazing stuff even within the confines of “Western Art Music”, and present it in a way that’s engaging. So why don’t they? Do they not know? Are they just teaching it out of a sense of obligation? Did they sit through dull music history classes back in the day and figure that we have to suck it up just like they did?

The Medieval period. What we learnt in class: there was Gregorian chant, which was basically monophonic vocals without much rhythm or melody to speak of, and then mumble mumble something happened and there was polyphony, SURPRISE! RENAISSANCE!

Yeah right. As if that’s all that was going on musically in the middle ages. We’re talking about an era that gave you St Vitus’ Dance, an uncontrollable urge to dance all over the place as if possessed by the devil. You think they did that to Gregorian chant? Of course not.

Here’s Corvus Corax with a little something to show you how it’s done:

Yeah, those dudes have a lightshow and moshpit. Their interpretive choices for this Saltarello (a 13th century number, if I recall correctly) are, ahem, somewhat non-standard, but no more ridiculous than the early music ensembles that play medieval dance tunes as if they were lullabies and dirges. No self-respecting medieval musician would’ve been able to earn his or her living unless they could get the village green jumping.

Corvus Corax use a range of medieval instruments including medieval-style bagpipes, ear-shattering shawms (clocked at 98dB!), and of course a buttload of percussion. But if you really want to appreciate the full ridiculous awesomeness of medieval instruments, you need to check out some of these Youtube videos:

  • The krumhorn, which is what you’d get if you crossed a kazoo with an old-fashioned walking stick turned upside down.
  • The hurdy-gurdy, which would be the medieval answer to the keytar, except you have to wind a handle to play it.
  • The portative organ, which is basically the bastard child of a pipe organ and bellows, giving you a kind of early accordion. There are quite a few home-made portative organs on the tubes — looks like they’re a great hacker project.