Fixing Broken Things

In my day job, I am a QA Analyst for a software company. I spend every weekday from nine to five thirty(-ish) telling developers to fix things.

Not because they’re bad developers, but because software is complex. It has lots of moving parts that can break in new and exciting ways. Once you get too close to it, you can lose sight of how it works for someone who has to use the product.

At least once a day, I have a conversation that goes like this:

“Can you fix the thing?”
“I didn’t break the thing.”
“I know you didn’t break the thing. But I still need the thing to work, so I’m asking you to fix it.”

Sometimes I need to have this conversation a few times before getting whatever the problem is fixed. But at the end of the day, everyone knows that if something is broken, it just needs to get fixed. No matter who broke it.

No, you didn’t mean to break anything in the process of deploying new code, but I still need you to go back and look at the five tangential processes that are now not working and fix them anyway.

Yes, I’m pretty sure most of the developers I work with hate me *at least* once a week. I’m sure I’m the cause of a lot of cranky chat messages and I occasionally get snapped at by a developer for telling them something is broken. But I don’t make developers fix things because I hate them. Or because I think they’re bad people. Or even because I think they’re bad developers. If I thought they were bad developers, I wouldn’t bother coming to them with problems in the first place.

I don’t make them fix things as a way of pointing fingers and saying they screwed up. I make them fix things because that thing is broken, no matter who broke it. It’s broken and it needs to be fixed. They know this and once the moment of “ARGH.I DIDN’T BREAK ANYTHING” passes, they get it fixed quickly and efficiently. It might be hard to deal with in the moment, but it’s an unavoidable part of life. When you’re trying to create new things, things break. My entire job as a QA Analyst means saying “Hey, this thing could be working better. Let’s make it better.”

This is what social justice is to me. No, I didn’t create racism. Or sexism. Or homophobia. Or transphobia. Or ablism. But it’s still a thing that’s broken. It’s still a thing that needs to be fixed. Just because I didn’t create it, that doesn’t mean that I get to pretend like it’s not broken. And that goes for every issue out there.

Misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism, classism, ablism. These are all things that are deeply and intensely broken in society. There isn’t a single person among us who shoulders the blame for breaking these things. At the same time, there isn’t a single person among us who gets to walk away from the responsibility of fixing them.

That’s the thing that people miss about social justice: Saying that you have taken part in something that needs to be fixed does not make you a bad person. Saying that you need to help fix something does not mean you broke it in the beginning. You can be a really good person and still screw up phenomenally. We all do at some point.

I mean to do good. I have my heart in the right place. Still, sometimes in the process of working on one thing, I accidentally contribute to the brokenness of five other things. I may be trying to work on fixing sexism, but if in doing so, I say something transphobic or ablist, or ignore the intersections of race and gender, or if I reproduce classist rhetoric in critiquing behavior, I have caused harm in exactly the same way I would have created harm if I had intentionally set out to hurt someone. At the end of the day, my motivations didn’t matter. I still need to work to fix the harm I caused.

When this happens, I need someone who isn’t as close to my motivations to take me aside and say “Hey, that thing is broken. Can you fix it?” Most importantly, I need to listen to them. I can have my moment of anger and frustration, but I need to swallow that and think about what they are pointing out. I am too close to myself to see my actions in a non-biased way. My friends are not. It hurts to be told I caused harm, but that hurt is nothing compared to the hurt I could be inflicting on others if I continue.

I need to show up every day at work, ready to help troubleshoot problems. In the same way, I need to show up every day for equality. I can take a day off here or there in either venue, and I need to for my own mental health (we all need to, more often than we let ourselves), but the work still needs to be done. The bugs will still be in our software, and the problems will still be in culture. Ignoring them doesn’t help. It just makes life harder for the people who have to work around those problems, whether talking about computers or society.

I didn’t break our society. I don’t mean to harm anyone. Nor do most other people. That doesn’t absolve me from the responsibility to help fix it. These things are broken. They need to be fixed. Let’s fix them.

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A Reference List of Excuses for Rape and Death Threats

It must be exhausting to come up with yet another new excuse to treat women horribly, so here’s a list for easy reference. Just pick one and you’ll be instantly believed by a large percentage of the internet, with no other actions necessary on your part!

Because ethics in gaming journalism.

Because she talked about not liking catcalling.

Because she wants to see women represented on her nation’s currency.

Because she thinks women should be treated equally as scientists.

Because she talked about sexism in book review practices.

Because she is causing deep rifts in the atheist movement.

Because she’s talking about academic philosophy’s deep misogyny problem.

Because she spoke out against a prominent skeptic’s sexual misconduct.

Because she spoke out against a prominent broadcast personality’s sexual misconduct.

Because she spoke out against any man’s sexual misconduct.

Because she stood up next to any other woman and said “I believe her”.

Because she makes art that talks about her experience as a woman.

Because doesn’t do femininity in the way you think she should.

Because she has no interest in conforming to “proper, self-respecting, chaste” womanhood.

Because she has no interest in conforming to the idea of wild, nymphomaniac whore.

Because she is having wild, fantastic sex with other people and not with you.

Because her womanhood is not tied to the sex she was assigned at birth.

Because she wants to read books about women.

Because she writes books about women.

Because she wants to play games with women main characters.

Because she’s making games with women main characters.

Because she’s only getting attention in her Sailor Moon costume because she’s “con hot”.

Because she isn’t hot enough to be in a Sailor Moon costume.

Because her skin color isn’t right for Sailor Moon.

Because she said that she doesn’t want men touching her when she wears a costume.

Because she said that she doesn’t want men touching her at work.

Because she speaks out about how women only have a place at tech conferences if they’re scantily-clad booth babes.

Because she works as a booth babe.

Because she doesn’t think “make me a sandwich” jokes are funny.

Because she called out sexist language in speeches.

Because she called out misogyny in journalism.

Because she’s tired of seeing herself reflected as a sexual plaything in almost every bit of popular media ever.

Because she isn’t the perfect reflection of a sexual plaything that every bit of popular media ever has made men expect.

Because she dared ask for a better world.

Because she has a voice and is using it.

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Where I’ll Be: DragonCon 2014

It's DragonCon. *Of course* there are Jedi and Sith staging a multi-story fight in the Hilton.

It’s DragonCon. *Of course* there are Jedi and Sith staging a multi-story fight in the Marriott.

So, it’s that time of year again. This week I pack up 50% (it feels like, looking at my suitcases) of my apartment contents and decamp to Atlanta for a week of science, costuming, nerdery and fantastic friends. DragonCon is a huge (50,000-ish people) multi-genre science fiction, fantasy, new media, science, steampunk, anime and everything else under the sun con that takes place every Labor Day weekend in Atlanta. There is something for every flavor of geek. I started attending this con 14 (!!!) years ago, as a teenage Star Wars fan, and have since migrated through Firefly fandom, Battlestar Galactica fandom, Skepticism and now landing soundly in the middle of the Science track. This was my first con, and it’s one that I keep coming back to, whether as a fan, a costumer, a panelist, or just the geek girl sitting in a corner of the Atrium level of the Marriott, grinning at the 10 foot tall Totoro costume and spontaneous Obi-Wan vs. Link duel going on to a soundtrack of a guy with bagpipes and the squealing of anime kids.

This year I’ll be splitting my time between being on panels and costuming. My panels cover the gamut of science to… science. But all kinds of science! Steamships, zombies, Aquaman, animal sex and Wookie evolution are just a few of the things I’ll be getting overly excited about. Come prepared to ask questions!

Superheroic Science

Friday 11:30am – Hilton, room 202
Some superheroes are frankly impossible, while others are plausible. What’s the difference, and does your favorite make the cut? With  Torrey Stenmark, Michael Gilkey
Science Track

Zombies and Vampires and Mummies, Oh My!

Friday 8:30pm – Hilton, room 202
The undead fascinate us, but what does “undead” mean? Are all undead monsters created equal? Panel scientists will examine life, death, and undeath. With Raychelle Burks, Lali DeRosier, Kristopher Hite
Science Track

Nature is Kinkier Than You

Friday 10:00pm – Hilton, Crystal Ballroom
Dolphins’ mating habits. Fruit bats and oral sex. Octopuses’ detachable genitals. How did animals become so kinky? 18+ With David Shiffman, Rachel Pendergrass, Diane Kelly, Lali DeRosier
Science Track

FOR SCIENCE! The Myth & Realities of Steam Power

Saturday, 5:30pm Westin, rooms Augusta I & II
Scientists and Fabricators discuss the fantastic contraptions behind steampunk and the myth vs. the actual science behind steam power. Q&A to follow. With Scott Vigue, Dave Lee, Jonathan Strickland, Thomas Willeford
Alternate History Track

Applied Science in Star Wars

Sunday, 4:00pm Marriott, room A706 (behind the blood drive)
We give you a panel of scientists to discuss what can and can’t happen in a galaxy closer to home. With John E. Bradford, Sarah Milkovich, Erin Patricia Macdonald, Eric P Spana
Star Wars at DragonCon Track

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Mad Art Lab made a craft! Well, one of the children who participated in our Scientist Paper Dolls Sandbox  at CONvergence 2013 did. Photo by Jamie Bernstein.

Where I’ll Be: CONvergence/SkepchickCON 2014!

Mad Art Lab made a craft! Well, one of the children who participated in our Scientist Paper Dolls Sandbox  at CONvergence 2013 did. Photo by Jamie Bernstein.

Mad Art Lab made a craft! Well, one of the children who participated in our Scientist Paper Dolls Sandbox at CONvergence 2013 did. Photo by Jamie Bernstein.

Every year, the Skepchick Network and Freethought Blogs get together to host a science and skepticism track at CONvergence in Minneapolis over the 4th of July weekend. This will be my third year participating in programming, and every year it just keeps getting better.

CONvergence is one of my favorite cons to attend, for many reasons. Reason number 1, the big one, is that they work hard year to year to make things more and more inclusive and more safe, both in programming and social spaces. Melanie, our kickass track director, has worked incredibly hard to create a balance of science and skepticism programming that will appear to anyone. She’s taken feedback from a wide variety of strong *ahem, guilty as charged* personalities, who all aren’t shy about bringing up issues they see with representation and somehow taken all of that feedback and made it into a programming schedule that I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of. And that’s just the SkepchickCON panels. Looking at the rest of what the con has to offer, they’ve gone even further in trying to make science fiction and fantasy programming that not only avoids some of the pitfalls of typical convention programming (hello, straight, cis, white male gaze), but actively looks those challenges in the eye, says “hey, let’s talk about this issue”, and sits everyone down for an honest discussion about concerns. Over free giant bowls of soup from the Con Suite.

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Seen and Not Heard

“Your selfies are vanity run amok!”

“Your livetweeting of your experiences is horrible and un-ethical.”

“How dare you use hashtags to express your anger. It’s polarizing.”

“Your Facebook wall is incontrovertible proof of your raging narcissism.”

“Can’t you just be invisible? Can’t you just be quiet? Can’t you just die gracefully so that we can immortalize you rather than continuing to live and inconvenience us with your words?”

“Big thinking is what we’re paid for. You don’t need to worry your pretty little heads about it. We’ll solve it.”
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Silence and Friendship

We’re all expected to be quiet.

That’s the trade-off we make for careers.

We know that the moment we speak out, we trade our futures for the chance of torpedoing our careers.

Every time we publicly mention the things that happen to us, we cut the number of people willing to hire us by another slice. We wonder about the moment when a future employer googles us, finds out we’re a “troublemaker” and doesn’t give us the interview. Or we envision the nicely worded letter that tells us that we’re not really a good fit for the office “culture”.

We stay silent while our bosses touch our legs and our back. While they make jokes they would never make in front of their mothers. While the other bosses shrug and brush it away.

And we know that the moment we speak up, we stand a good chance of losing everything we’ve ever fought for professionally, socially, financially.

Even worse, the men who have the ability to speak up… often don’t. We have to remain silent because the man who refuses to stop kissing us at greeting could fire us if we complain. The other men and women on his level remain silent because… well, I don’t really know. But they do.

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Rough Seas and Life Preservers

In its natural state, my brain is almost always over-stimulated. This doesn’t seem like a bad thing if you haven’t experienced it, but in practice, it means that I just shut down after a certain point. Thing that are easy, run-of-the-mill tasks for most people are insurmountable mountains for me. Calling someone on the phone to sort out something? Panic-attack inducing. Even answering emails or messages can be overwelmingly scary. Am I staring at you blankly? It’s probably because I have entirely forgotten how to make smalltalk and I’m reminding myself that you asking what I’m thinking does not mean you want to hear about my recent foray into reading about “alternative” STI treatments in the early 20th century (readers of this blog notwithstanding). Sometimes the ability to function in society is just so overwelming that my brain snaps.

I’m not going to hurt myself. I’m not going to hurt others.

However, I can’t perform at my optimum or even close to it without mind-altering drugs. Right now, due to a fun insurance screw-up, I’m stuck with self-medicating through caffeine and the occasional Sudafed. This keeps me functional enough that I can keep my job, finish tasks, have hobbies and occasionally write.

It does not keep me functional enough that I can pay bills on time without an overly elaborate setup of cell phone alarms, scheduled emails and scheduled payments. It keeps me functional enough that I can go be social with people, but not functional enough that I can do so without an irrational and gripping fear that I don’t belong, that I won’t be welcome or that people will hate me.

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The Pink Toy Aisle, The Blue Toy Aisle and the Green Toy Aisle

472057_10100598036781505_152254404_oHow did you play when you were a kid?

I played with Barbies and dolls and Fashion Star Fillies. (I might be the only person alive who remembers them, but I *loved* my horses with fashion accessories.) I had Lady Lovelylocks and Rainbow Bright. I had a baby doll and a stroller.

I also had Legos and Duplos. I had sticks  that became bows and arrows, swords and shields. I had rocks and fossils, telling me the stories of the earth on which I was playing. I had trees to climb and in which to build forts. I had crayfish and fireflies.

One doesn’t negate the other. And one doesn’t overrule the others in my head. I loved my ponies and dolls and their lovely clothes. I also loved my rocks and trees and fireflies. I still love all of these things.

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Geeks and Bullies

From the cover of Wonder Woman vol 3 #25 by Aaron Lopresti

From the cover of Wonder Woman vol 3 #25 by Aaron Lopresti

I was bullied as a kid. Relentlessly and aimlessly bullied. I was a special needs kid who had some neurological quirks and didn’t have the social niceties or group awareness enough to hide them. On top of that, I also had two (very) lazy eyes, a giant birthmark on my face, I walked on my toes and I was useless at sports. Pick on the weird kid is a game that never loses its entertainment value for kids.

Sound familiar? Yes? Good. We have a common ground to start from.

Let’s start with 5th grade. Gym class.

Your class is running laps. There are two kids in your class who hate you. You’re really not sure why, but they really, really hate you. You were trying to stay on the opposite side of the gym from the boys who hate you. But here’s the thing: You’re slower than them, and running hurts. So, no matter what you do, you fall further and further behind. As you’re falling behind, they’re staying at the same pace, so no matter what you do, eventually they’ll be next to you. And then they’ll subtly push you hard enough that you’ll fall. Or maybe this time around, they’ll say something horrible to you. Or maybe they’ll steal your glasses. That’s always a favorite.

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Good Clothes, Good Girls

I don't actually recommend this outfit for tortoise-wrangling.

It’s “appropriate”, but I don’t actually recommend this outfit for tortoise-wrangling.

It is really easy to find yourself fighting the wrong fight, particularly on the internet.

As people, we tend to get defensive when people argue with us, whether they’re right or wrong, justified or not, aggressive or friendly.

The impulse to defend yourself is strong, particularly when it comes to issues of your own body, your own identity, your own worth.

And so I found myself arguing the wrong question this week.

Context: I know not to fight with the trolls. I skim comment threads to get a general feel for them, but I can usually avoid reading them in their entirety.

I can let the insults roll off my back in most cases. After all, this is the internet. I am a woman. I have strong opinions. And I am using what little platform I have to fight for those opinions. This means I get insulted. A lot.

But then something small will happen. It could be one comment in a 300+ comment thread.

In this case, it was an accusation that I was, in reality, flashing people in my costume.

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