Archive for January, 2017

Last weekend I attended a workshop about preparing to speak at technical conferences. It was somewhat more than that, but I’ll start there. That is something I’m interested in right now, as I’m working on proposals to submit to an upcoming conference.

It was organized by Write/Speak/Code, a group of people who do several events around women, technology and open source. (There is also a larger annual conference.) This event, Own Your Expertise, was focused on preparing women to submit talks to conferences and participate in open source communities. This is one of several workshops Write/Speak/Code offers, and thanks to GitHub, tickets were free. There was even a professional photographer so everybody looks good on conference web pages. (Mine is also for foreign job applications, which I’ll not make this post any longer by getting into here.)

So on to the day’s content. Yes, it’s about conference talks. The presenters have a somewhat different path to getting to that however. While it does get on to mechanics like what “CFP” means, it starts with getting yourself convinced you can actually do this. For me, I’ve presented at conferences before so it’s not unknown territory. But I’m hardly jumping at opportunities to do so because, surprise, I have a problem figuring out what I can talk about and convincing myself I have something relevant to say.

There are topics where I’m comfortable with my expertise, but in textiles rather than my professional work. The dynamics of textile communities are different for me than work, first and foremost that I don’t depend on textiles to make a living. My visibility and activity in that community have no bearing on whether or not I can pay rent or buy food, and can vary as circumstances change. (This is not the case for some of my friends.) Without that pressure, it’s easier to talk about what I do. I have trouble carrying that over to paid work however.

The first part of the day was group exercises around speaking more comfortably about one’s own expertise (hence the title), different areas each of us can influence and educate, and words we can use to describe what we have to offer. In honor of the occasion (while many of our friends were at Women’s Marches around the country) one of the exercises was “If you could be nominated for a Cabinet post you were patently unqualified for, which one would it be?” I volunteered for Health and Human Services, given my extensive experience in Yelling At Insurance Companies.

As a less gregarious person, sometimes the exercises seemed a bit silly. (And given limited time, rushed.) But everything was focused on putting together people who don’t know each other and getting them talking about areas of their own knowledge and experience. Sprinkled in with more than a bit of “You Go Girl!” chicks-can-do-this cheerleading. (Which sometimes is too much large group socializing for me, but I got through it.)

The second part gets into details about how to actually go about this, with breakout sessions focusing on different parts of the process. I was in the one about writing a proposal, since that’s exactly what I need now. We read our preliminary talk proposals to the group (about a paragraph) and discussed ways to improve them. Everybody exchanged contact info to keep working together on our talks.

As might be expected of something hosted at a Bay Area startup, there was much socializing, food, and following the programmed events, alcohol. The bartenders also concocted no-alcohol fancy drinks by request, so that was cool. (Yes, GitHub has a full bar in their cafeteria/event space. They are hardly alone in that. And I have Opinions about the role of alcohol in startups. Another time.)

I had a good time, I got some useful ideas in framing my topic, and met a bunch of people. I actually wrote down contact info and followed up with five people. That’s a lot for me. Go me. I hope I can keep in touch with a few (that is often where things fall down, on both ends.) I’ve already heard back from one, and we will probably meet up next week.

I was not able to participate in a healthcare rally today, but instead I wrote about something that literally made it possible for me to have the career I do today. Something that won’t be there for other women if, by law or by economics, they are denied access to hormonal contraceptives.

When I was a teenager, every menstrual cycle brought nausea. I never knew how many hours I’d be too ill to do anything but lie down, or when it would happen. This was, apparently, “a thing that happens sometimes.” Supposedly I would grow out of it. My parents, who could barely discuss the rudiments of sex and female anatomy with me, seemingly weren’t interested in visits with any doctor other than my pediatrician.

When I started community college, I acquired both the legal freedom of being an adult and modest financial freedom from a part-time job. A romantic interest encouraged me to visit the local Planned Parenthood for birth control pills, “just to be prepared.” The boyfriend didn’t last, but the knowledge that hormonal birth control could control my cycle and reduce the nausea was amazing.

I tried to stay on the pill, but between sneaking out to go to the clinic and spending a good chunk of my tiny paycheck, it didn’t last. Back to trying to hide behind “No, really, I’m fine.” I didn’t grow out of it.

A few years later, it’s time to actually go to a real university and move out of my parents’ house. This means campus health services, covered by a mandatory student fee. It wasn’t insurance, exactly, but I could go to the clinic and see a doctor. I didn’t really think about it much, being more concerned with suddenly managing my own schedule, living with dorm roommates, and all the other normal things young people do going from family home to university campus. I had a Differential Equations class to pass.

The evening before my Diff Eq final, I had a particularly awful menstrual episode. I managed to drive back to the dorm from study group, but fell over vomiting outside the building. I wasn’t even surprised when people walked by saying only that I needed to sober up. (I don’t drink.) I crawled to my room and called a friend, who came right over.

And immediately called campus emergency.

I narrowly avoided being transported by the nice EMTs because I was able to muddle through the name, address, and number of fingers quizzes. They made me swear I would go to the clinic as soon as I could. The next afternoon, when I could walk without nausea again, I first told my Diff Eq prof I wasn’t going to contest the F for missing that morning’s final (I already wasn’t doing that great) and then went over to campus health.

When I signed in for a drop-in appointment, I said I had been ill but also wanted to speak to someone about birth control. That didn’t seem to have made it back to the doctor however. After going through my history and what happened, she asked if I had ever considered birth control pills. “That’s what I’m here for.” I needed to make an appointment with the Nurse Practitioner, who did the pelvic exams and dispensed pills, but they would get me set up right away.

The next semester was so much different. For the first time, I knew when I was going to get my period. Better yet, no vomiting! Ever! I could plan trips without concern I might get ill. I didn’t have to sit in class wondering if everyone (90% men) could tell that I wanted to puke. A whole part of my brain stopped having to worry about that anymore. That was 27 years ago. I have been on hormonal birth control continuously ever since.

In school, and later at work, my schedule was no longer unexpectedly interrupted by “Female Things.” If you think this is somehow all needless drama over trivial matters, try staying on good terms with your job when you can’t show up to work all the time, every time. There is a quiet horror in knowing that you’ll always have to tell your boss (male) and your co-workers (male) that you can’t come in today because of “Female Things.” It’s already difficult enough explaining that you, too, have an engineering degree and, no, you weren’t planning to go get coffee. Using all your combined vacation and sick leave for being ill is not a great way to look like a reliable, hard-working member of the team, worthy of desirable projects and promotions.

In the years since, I’ve had to go through all kinds of machinations to keep access to this medication. Doctors would write “nonspecific vaginitis” so the exam would be covered by my insurance. Occasionally one would ask why I wanted birth control if I wasn’t married. (I didn’t stay long with those doctors.) I’d move from job to job, from state to state, and from insurance company to insurance company, never entirely sure if I could get it covered until I came to California (where it was already required by state law.) Even now, it’s not a cheap medication to buy without insurance coverage. Back then there wasn’t even a generic version of the one I use.

The Affordable Care Act changed that. All of that. Contraception is a normal service, as are routine medical visits for preventive care. I don’t have to explain why and I don’t have to wonder if. It’s there. It’s a non-issue. I can apply my full attention to the important things in my life. Not where I’m going to come up with hundreds of dollars a year for something that allows me to work in my field, where a 40 hour week is laughably unrealistic.

There are so many other reasons the Affordable Care Act changed people’s lives for the better. This is just one part of my own story. Good health isn’t something nice to have if you can afford it, it’s the foundation on which we build a sustainable society where everyone gets a chance to find their own success. Don’t let it vanish.

I’ve been having this ongoing argument with my test environment over my github ssh key. First it was just when I used a particular dev housekeeping script my project needs, but now every time I log out of a shell, my github ssh key goes missing. I have to remember to ssh-add before I want to do something involving github.

I tracked down the problem to ssh-agent, which apparently works fine for most people but for me requires constantly adding my key back. I found a solution by installing a keychain package for Ubuntu.

I already had my key, so I only had to install the package and add the appropriate configuration to my .bashrc. Now, at login, ssh-agent is started if needed, and my github ssh key added. I can logout and login all I like, access github from my shell, and only re-enter my passphrase if I reboot the machine. (I haven’t tested that part yet.)

I had started to wonder why I had bothered with an ssh key in the first place. But with this, it now works as expected. So much nicer.