Older blog entries for hypatia (starting at number 325)

Book review: Steve Jobs

Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs.

It is the day in Australia to be thinking about poor leadership and its sequelae. And coincidentally I’ve just finished up everyone’s favourite summer hardback brick (all hail the Kindle), the authorised Steve Jobs biography, and I just read this today too:

However, sometimes really smart employees develop agendas other than improving the company. Rather than identifying weaknesses, so that he can fix them, he looks for faults to build his case. Specifically, he builds his case that the company is hopeless and run by a bunch of morons. The smarter the employee, the more destructive this type of behavior can be. Simply put, it takes a really smart person to be maximally destructive, because otherwise nobody else will listen to him.

Why would a smart person try to destroy the company that he works for?… He is fundamentally a rebel—She will not be happy unless she is rebelling; this can be a deep personality trait. Sometimes these people actually make better CEOs than employees.

When Smart People are Bad Employees

Well, good to see that someone understands Jobs better than me.

One major thing that struck me about this book is that Isaacson is really quite flattering about… Bill Gates. It is, however, fairly easy to do this in a biography of Jobs, because Gates was really one of the fairly few people with both power and emotional and financial distance to assess Jobs relatively dispassionately and to go on the record about it. He also never had a intense and short-lived mutual admiration relationship with him in the way that Jobs had with many men he worked more closely with. Gates and Jobs apparently always considered each other a little bit of a despicable miracle: astonishingly good work with your little company over there, Bill/Steve, I would never have considered it believed with your deluded pragmatic/uncompromising approach to software aesthetics.

I read these books mostly for the leadership and corporate governance insights at the moment: unfortunately there’s not a lot here. There is of course a lot of unreplicatable information about Jobs personally: I doubt a firm belief that vegans don’t need to wear deodorant is essential to building a massive IT company. Likewise, if your boss is uncompromising and divides the world into shitheads and geniuses, the solution turns out to (in this book) “be Jony Ive or John Lasseter”. Not really a repeatable result.

It shouldn’t (and didn’t!) really come as a surprise, but if you want to know more about Jobs personally, read this book. If you want to know a great deal about the successes and failures of Apple’s corporate strategy, you’ll largely see them through a Jobs-shaped lens. Which probably isn’t the worst lens for it, but not the only one. In any case, it’s a nice flowing read (I read it in a couple of days) and is ever so full of those “oh goodness he did WHAT?” anecdotes you can subject your patient housemates to, if you like.

Syndicated 2012-02-27 21:00:24 from lecta

Sunday spam: watered-down gruel

Mmm, yum.

I’ve been thinking more intensely about schooling my son since, well, he was born and also since I began reading Rivka’s homeschooling blog (she began homeschooling her then five-year-old year old daughter in June 2010, when my own son was about four months old).

I probably, frankly, wouldn’t know the first thing about homeschooling otherwise, but as it is, I can bring you several links. The first couple are a defence of homeschooling from a self-identified liberal point of view, in the US sense of progressive. In fact, all of this is about the US school system.

Does homeschooling violate liberal values?

Do we have a responsibility to work towards equal educational opportunity for all children, and if so, do we violate it by removing our family from the public system? Even liberal homeschoolers don’t really seem to engage with this question much. Partly I think it’s because there’s such a strong libertarian streak in homeschooling communities, even on the left wing. But also, liberal philosophical arguments for homeschooling tend to be based on a critique of schools as rigid and stifling institutions…

Are liberal homeschoolers hypocrites?

… I’m not a homeschooler, and I don’t particularly care whether anyone thinks I’m sufficiently liberal. But I certainly don’t judge anyone who chooses to take their kids out of these schools. There’s no one right answer to how to make this world a more humane place, and the homeschoolers’ answer seems at least as wise as Goldstein’s. If anything, I instinctively distrust the idea that we can create a more liberal and humane society by putting our kids into less liberal and humane environments. By treating kids as instruments for social improvement, that argument mirrors the very same instrumental treatment of children that I object to when it’s practiced by “reformers” who treat kids as soldiers in the battle for global competitiveness.

And that last point about soldiers in the battle for global competitiveness neatly brings me to Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools:

Hundreds of private philanthropies together spend almost $4 billion annually to support or transform K–12 education, most of it directed to schools that serve low-income children (only religious organizations receive more money). But three funders—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad (rhymes with road) Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation—working in sync, command the field. Whatever nuances differentiate the motivations of the Big Three, their market-based goals for overhauling public education coincide: choice, competition, deregulation, accountability, and data-based decision-making. And they fund the same vehicles to achieve their goals: charter schools, high-stakes standardized testing for students, merit pay for teachers whose students improve their test scores, firing teachers and closing schools when scores don’t rise adequately, and longitudinal data collection on the performance of every student and teacher…

Every day, dozens of reporters and bloggers cover the Big Three’s reform campaign, but critical in-depth investigations have been scarce (for reasons I’ll explain further on). Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that the reforms are not working…

Syndicated 2012-02-25 21:00:09 from lecta

Talking about his generation: you too can be a bad futurist

The X or Y posts (Gen X or Y?, On being X-ish) reminded me of something I wrote about my son, who was born in 2010, not long before he was born:

I was looking at one of those “the kids of today” lists and thinking about V. What will the world of the 2010 baby look like? I came up with:

  • September 11 will be something that happened when his parents were young, roughly equivalent to the Vietnam War for me, a bit nearer than the moon landing or Harold Holt drowning
  • in fact by the time he’s a teenager everyone or nearly everyone who walked on the moon will have died
  • he may not ever learn to read a paper map or street directory unless he gets heavily into bushwalking or something
  • by the time he’s grown up, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s really unusual to own many paper books, perhaps as uncommon as people my age who own vinyl (yeah, I do know a few, but…)
  • there will be a few veterans of WWII and people who experienced the Holocaust (other than as little babies) around in his childhood and even teens, but they’ll be like I remember WWI veterans: very elderly

If anyone wants to play: can you come up with things that aren’t true of children born in 2000, say? Things like “your parents have always had mobile phones” are going to be true of children 10 or even 15 years older than V will be. (Of my list, the paper map stuff probably fails that test, so might the WWII stuff.)

I’m a terrible futurist, that already reads badly to me. For example, I didn’t own a GPS device at the time: that’s why I thought that bushwalking would rely on paper maps in 2030. (Since they don’t run out of charge, presumably they’ll be useful as backups for a long time, at least for the type of folks who are wary enough to take backup maps anywhere.)

But the question stands: there’s a lot of difference already between me and someone born in, say, 1995. But what’s the difference between that child’s life, and that of my son born in 2010?

Syndicated 2012-02-14 23:54:56 from lecta

On being X-ish

Now that I have described how I graduated into Generation X, I have a secret to confess: I’m starting to think that that might not be entirely wrong.

Let’s stick to cohort effects here, since it’s supposed to be a cohort term. And I should add that this is all very trivial stuff, I’m focussing on media, pop culture and technology experiences.

One of the major temptations of identifying as Generation Y had to do with pop culture. My teenage years were just past the wave of slackers and grunge and Seattle. I probably heard Nirvana’s music during Kurt Cobain’s lifetime, but I didn’t know of them as a thing until about a year after he died. I’ve never even seen Reality Bites, but Ethan Hawke and Winona Ryder are both 10 years older than I am, and their movies weren’t about my cohort.

I am, frankly, Spice Girls age: not the pre-teen thrilled girls waving things to be signed, but the teenagers who actually paid for the albums with their own money. (I didn’t, for reference. We were a Garbage family.) Britney Spears was born in the same year as me, and her biggest year career-wise was my first year of university. And obviously, when the term “Generation Y” was coined, the stereotypes of late university/early career certainly fit my friends better than the Generation X tags with managerial aspirations. The return of cool people listening to cheesy pop: Y-ish. So that was where I felt I fell. (In case anyone I knew at high school drops by: I realise I wasn’t cool. But you may have been, and don’t think I didn’t notice you danced to the Spice Girls.)

But then, there’s certainly a few small societal boundaries between me and people who were born in 1986. (I have a sister born in 1986, and thinking about the five years between us is often telling.) Starting at a global level, I was reading Tony Judt’s Postwar recently (recommended, I’ll come back to it here at some point), and I was struck because I remember 1989.

To be fair, that’s more important if one lives in Europe, which I never have, but most of my first detailed memories of newsworthy events have to do with the revolutions of 1989 and the 1990 Gulf War. I remember the USSR, again, from the perspective of a young child who was growing up in Australia, but still. I can read the science fiction people smirk about now, the fiction with the USA and USSR facing off in 2150, and remember, a little bit, what that was actually about. This is, well, frankly, more than a little X-ish.

While we’re talking about defining events, I recall that quite a lot of people talked about the children who won’t remember 9/11. (And by children, I now mean 15 year olds, of course.) Obviously this is more important in the USA, perhaps a little like the European children (by which I mean 25 year olds) who don’t remember 1989 in Europe. I obviously remember 2001, and moreover remember the geopolitical situation in the years before it quite vividly too, and that latter is again, more than a touch X-ish.

Turning to technology, which is fairly defining for me, we’ll start with Douglas Adams:

Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Leaving aside the age effect where shortly everything cool will be against the natural order of things, it’s noticeable to me that the Web and email and so on fall in the “can probably get a career in it” bracket for me. Well, obviously not truly (the first version of the SMTP specification, which still more or less describes how email works today, was published in 1982), but my late teenage years were exactly the years when suddenly a lot of Australian consumers were on the ‘net. Hotmail was founded when I was 15 and I got an address there the following year. (icekween@, the address has been gone since 1999 and I’ve never used that handle since, partly because even in 98/99 it was always taken. But, actually, for a 16 year old’s user name I still think that was fairly OK considering some of the alternatives.)

In short, it was all happening in prime “get a career in it” time for me, and not coincidentally I am at the tail end of the huge boom in computer science enrolments and graduates that came to a giant sudden stop about two years after I finished. Frankly, X-ish. My youngest sister and her friends didn’t get excited about how they were going to become IT managers and have luxury yachts as a matter of course. (Well, partly age and partly not being jerks, there.) It’s a lot harder to get the “just a natural part of the way the world works” people excited about it.

Diagnosis: tailing X.

Syndicated 2012-02-14 23:29:58 from lecta

Gen X or Y?

Charles Stross:

In my next novel (the one I’m going to write for publication in 2014), I’m planning on tackling the future of politics circa 2030-2040. Today’s front-rank politicians, aged 45-70 and children of the Boomer generation and their immediate predecessors and successors, will be elderly and retired or dead by that time; the pre-occupations of politics will revolve around the issues and preoccupations of Generation X and Generation Y, those born between 1965-1985, and 1986-2000.

The shifting in the definition of “Generation Y” has been noticable to all my university friends (born, roughly, 1980 and 1981). The term was coined when I was at the type of age that needed a generation tag, I was probably 20 at the time. People born in 1965 were in their mid-thirties at the time, and “Generation X” seemed to cover the age range of roughly 25 to 40 year olds at that time, the people who were waiting (are waiting?) for Baby Boomers to move out of management positions for them, the people whose issues were kids and mortgages and such.

Thus, to the extent that they cared, people born in 1980 or so were first labelled, and came to identify with, Generation Y.

Then a change in rhetoric happened, because a catchy term for “16 to 25 year olds” was needed, and Generation Y was right there. (Stross is using it for people currently aged 11 to 26, in his entry.) So for about half a decade now, the leading edge of Generation Y has been stuck at 25 years of age, and anyone over 25 is Generation X. Thus, quite a lot of people have suddenly found themselves “promoted” to Generation X in the last five years or so. (For that matter, I suspect that people who were born in 1960 to 1965 are a bit surprised to suddenly find out that they’re now considered Baby Boomers, after being fed a steady diet of “the Boomers are keeping you down!” fluff in their own twenties.)

Really, if you want to seriously analyse this, John Quiggin had the final word in the Australian Financial Review in 2000 (and I imagine the inspiration for it was the coining of the term “Generation Y”, which certainly was not used at the time to refer to children then being born):

One of the standard ploys in journalism, marketing and political commentary is the generation game. The basic idea is to label a generation ‘X’ or ‘Y’, then dissect its attitudes, culture, and relationship with other generations. The most famous generation, of course, is that of the Baby Boomers, born between the end of World War II and the early 1960s, and their most enduring contribution to the generation gap is the ‘Generation Gap’ between children and their parents…

At first sight, discussion of this kind can carry with it an air of fresh insight, but most of it stales rapidly. Much of what passes for discussion about the merits or otherwise of particular generations is little more than a repetition of unchanging formulas about different age groups: the moral degeneration of the young, the rigidity and hypocrisy of the old, and so on.

Demographers have a word (or rather two words) for this. They distinguish between age effects and cohort effects [my emphasis]. The group of people born in a given period, say a year or a decade, is called a cohort. Members of a cohort have things in common because they have shared common experiences through their lives. But, at any given point in time, when members of the cohort are at some particular age, they share things in common with the experience of earlier and later generations when they were at the same age.

Most of the time, age effects are more important than cohort effects. The primary schoolers of the 1960s were very like the primary schoolers of today and, of course, totally different from the middle-aged parents they have become. The grandparents of today are more like their own grandparents than the bodgies and widgies they may have been in the 1950s.

So, Generation Y was originally a cohort term referring to children born, very roughly, from 1980 to about 1990, very roughly the bulk of children of the Baby Boomers (that’s a pretty short generation, so I can see how it gets extended to 2000 readily enough). But all three of “Baby Boomer”, “Generation X” and “Generation Y” are now being used to describe age effects instead:

  • Baby Boomers are perpetually pre-retirees: they have the bulk of the desirable jobs and the bulk of adult power. They are also perpetually a future liability in anticipated health costs and pensions. (In actual fact, many of the children born in the decade after World War I and quite a few born in the early 1950s are now retired or retiring.)
  • Generation X are perpetually early- to mid-career: they have high debt burdens, they have young children, they have high stress levels, they don’t feel entirely settled in their career but they are invested in it.
  • Generation Y are perpetually older youth: they spend a lot of time (“too much”) at university, they don’t take their jobs seriously, they nick off and travel at the least opportunity.

Incidentally, I assume the class aspect of these labels is apparent enough: these stereotypes all refer pretty much exclusively to managerial people (upper-middle) and their parents and children. This is often true of coverage of cohort effects: they describe the youth of journalists’ friends’ children.

I am that class, but the Gen Y stereotypes didn’t even describe my early 20s cohort that well, too many long term relationships and relatively young marriages. There was a lot of travelling and career-hopping though: my husband is one of the very few people I know who graduated with a Bachelor degree and has worked a full-time salaried job—not one individual job, mind you—in the same industry ever since. Stereotypes, eh?

However, since the coining of the terms, the confusion of age and cohort effects in the use of these terms means that people are surprised to find themselves aging out of them: you used to be Gen X, but now you’re a tailing Boomer. I used to be Gen Y for that matter, but I turned 30 and that was that. I graduated. I’m X.

I’ll be curious to see how long this effect lasts, if in five to ten years, as it should, the term Boomer is used to refer to people who actually have retired, rather than Boomers being perpetually on the cusp of retiring as they have been for seemingly my entire life.

Syndicated 2012-02-14 22:35:49 from lecta

Like advice columns? Check out Captain Awkward

I keep meaning to send the link to individual people I know, but then encountering a crucial etiquette problem, being that one cannot say “here’s an advice column you might like” without being heard as “here’s an advice column YOU NEED TO LISTEN TO BECAUSE YOU OUGHT TO FIX YOUR LIFE DO YOU HEAR ME?”

A broadcast medium is obviously the solution. Captain Awkward. Blogger gives advice, mostly about boundries.

Syndicated 2012-02-05 11:35:27 from lecta

An appeal for the Ada Initiative

When I was 15 I went on the web for the first time. A boy in my computing class went to Yahoo!, typed in “girls” and spent some time showing me porn.

Photograph of Mary Gardiner

I’ve programmed since I was a kid. I’ve loved the idea of open technology since I read a curious article in the 1990s about people all over the world, fixing complex bugs in an operating system that a university student had named after himself.

But every so often, I’m reminded how my Internet experience began. Women friends haven’t been safe on mailing lists, they haven’t been safe on Wikipedia’s talk pages, and they haven’t been safe at conferences. And even when they are safe, sometimes they’re lonely: estimates of women’s participation in open source run to about 2%, and as Wikipedia editors at 9%.

Thus, I’ve been a volunteer creating communities by and for women in open source since 2000. It’s been the equivalent of an unpaid part-time job for several of those years. But a year ago, Valerie Aurora became more ambitious, and proposed that since we were doing real work, we should do it as our real job. Together we created the Ada Initiative, a non-profit supporting women in open technology and culture. We rely on your support for our work:

Donate now!

Within a year we’ve organised our first AdaCamp, surveyed thousands of people about their perspective on women in open technology and culture, wrote and encouraged adoption of an anti-harassment policy by over 30 conferences and organizations in open tech/culture, and much more.

To continue our work in 2012, we need your help! Please donate to the Ada Initiative, and contribute to our planned work, including future AdaCamps, methodologically rigorous research into women in open source, and training for women contributors to open tech/culture projects and their allies.

Donate now: we can’t do it without you!

Syndicated 2011-12-14 21:00:13 from lecta

Interested in women in open tech and culture? AdaCamp Melbourne wants you!

My non-profit organisation, the Ada Initiative, wants to go full steam ahead into 2012, and we’re holding an AdaCamp event in Melbourne to kick off the year!

The Ada Initiative supports women in open technology and culture, ranging from open source to free culture to grassroots community organising to makerspaces to remix and fandom culture to open government initiatives and more. This stuff is powerful: it’s already shaping society and is going to continue to do so more and more. The Ada Initiative is focussed on supporting women in becoming an integral part of these communities.

AdaCamp will be a one day “unconference” (that is, it will have free-form sessions scheduled by participants) focussed on furthering women’s work in open technology and culture. It will be held on Saturday January 14 in Melbourne, some travel funding is available.

AdaCamp places are by invitation, if you’re interested in coming along please apply today. Applications close December 14. Hoping to meet some readers and ‘net friends there!

Syndicated 2011-12-07 00:00:31 from lecta

Speaking of being tall

Of course, if you blog about it it will happen again: “I thought they only made them that tall in Texas!” said the woman in the elevator with us this afternoon.

At least she gets points for originality. Texas? Why Texas?

Syndicated 2011-11-28 07:14:17 from lecta

Your friendly guide to talking to me about being tall

Scene setting: I’m 193cm/6’4″ tall. The average height of an Australian woman is about 163cm, so conveniently you can think of me as being a whole ruler taller, or that the average Australian woman’s head is about my shoulder height. This is a weird enough height that I’ve had all kinds of

Rule 1: consider not talking to a tall person about their height. It’s hard to do well. Think of it like this:
Person 1: “your body has a very very unusual feature! very unusual! very unusual!”
Person 2: “whereas your body does not! very normal! very normal!”

It’s a pretty one way conversation, basically. It’s unlikely (statistically) that they can reciprocate in kind by asking you/informing you about your visible weirdnesses, and if they can, it’s likely you don’t want to hear about your weirdnesses. The conversation in reality goes something like this:

Person 1: you are very very tall!
Person 2: um, indeed.
Person 1: [waits patiently for tall person to work harder to pull their turn out of the magical conversation hat]

Or alternatively, the general rule is start conversations where the person you are talking to has some chance of reciprocation.

Rule 2: especially consider not talking to a tall child or teenager about their height! This is because people generally make free with subjecting children and teenagers to every thought that crosses their mind, usually prescriptively at that. I am probably down to a conversation every few months about my height now. When I was a teenager, I had a conversation with a stranger about my height about once a week. That person who by virtue of youth (*cough* and gender) is extra socially obliged to stand there and look polite while they hear your every thought about human height variations? You’re not the only person taking advantage.

Rule 3: I’ve heard the jokes. Useful rule in general for anyone who has what you consider an unusual body, name, accent, hair colour, job, dress, religious belief, ethnic identity, mobility aid, manner of speaking, hobby, and.or other thing.

I have to say, I’m yet to hear what I’d call a good tall joke, but then, I would be biased, wouldn’t I?

Rule 4: I don’t need to know about how unattractive you find it. I won’t belabour this: if you’re the kind of person who tells tall people they are ugly or freaky (in my case, this was almost exclusively done by men to my teenage self, men in late middle age still occasionally do it now), you’re the kind of person who isn’t reading.

Incidentally, the favoured insult for a tall slender woman you’ve just seen on the street and instantly been repelled by is “lanky bitch” or “fucking lanky bitch“. In case it ever comes up in a trivia quiz or something. Who the hell uses the word ‘lanky’?

Rule 5: I don’t want to hear about how jealous you are. This is more complicated and interesting. When I was in my late teens, most of those people stopping me to talk to me about it were middle-aged women* wanting to tell me I was beautiful and special and should stand up straight and be proud and they wished they were me.

It took me ages to work out what was going on, which is that each of these women thought she was the only one and was lighting a torch in the misery of my teen years. Since it happened several times a month, I had no notion that they thought that, and they must have been rather unsettled by my awkward and slightly hostile reaction to their attempt to reach through the fog of human cruelty with a kind thought. Sorry, kind women.

* Um, possibly adult women? I wasn’t good at picking adult’s ages at the time.

Rule 6: unless you are my doctor, I don’t want to discuss my genetic history with you. I’m not sure why everyone wants to know whether my parents are tall (oh what the hell: yes, they are, and if the human race consisted entirely of my father’s relatives, I would be at the tall end of normal, rather than at the “having conversations with strangers and writing blog entries” level). It seems kind of weird to be led through a laundry list of my relatives and asked if they are tall. Are people trying to find out if their own children will/won’t/might be tall?

A special note to doctors on this one: you don’t get out of gaol free! It might help to explain why you’re asking. “There are some diseases and syndromes which have extreme height as a symptom, but if your whole family is tall that’s less likely” is an example of a helpful thing to say. (At my height-for-sex, I suspect you can just about get away with saying “so, Marfan syndrome**, you either have it or have been investigated for it, yeah?”) But since quite a few doctors have done this out of either a desire for chitchat equivalent to the general public or a desire to satisfy some medical curiosity irrelevant to their treatment of me, I don’t like it much from doctors without explanation either. I am all good with doctor chitchat, but not about something where I can’t tell if you think I have a disease or you have a few minutes to shoot the breeze with me.

** Not the only medically interesting cause of tallness, I know.

Rule 7: I will be the judge of whether I can wear heels, thank you. I don’t wear high ones because OUCH and also because there’s absolutely no social advantage to me from being taller, quite the reverse. But I sometimes wear low ones because I like the shoes they are attached to, and every so often a sales assistant refuses to sell them to me. What the hell?

Rule 8: It’s not good news for me that there’s someone taller than you. Actual remark addressed to me on several occasions: “wow, oh my god, you’re taller than me! I feel so good knowing that there’s a woman taller than me out there!” Only about half the time do they go on to realise what that implies from my point of view.

I do see the temptation to start conversations with other tall people about how they are taller than me, but when I do I remember this.

Rule 9: You don’t need to worry about what your kids say. Well, unless it’s “fucking lanky bitch” I guess. But kids specialise in drive-bys: “that lady is very tall!” I don’t mind stating-the-obvious drive-bys, it’s cute.

The champion kid remark to date was while I was pregnant: “Mummy, that lady is very tall and she has a baby in her tummy!” Indeed!

Rule 10: I am all good with reaching stuff on high shelves for you. Maybe this bugs some tall people, certainly people apologise a lot for asking me to do this, but it seems fair enough, really. Why do shelves intended for the general public go so high anyway?

Rule 11: I like to show off. I can touch the ceiling (on tiptoes) in normal height modern rooms. (I use this to change lightbulbs.) I can stand flat-feet on the bottom of a 1.8m depth pool (the usual depth of recreational pools) and it comes up to about my mouth. I almost never get the chance to mention these things to people! Humour me. (OK, you don’t have to, now that you’ve read this.)

Rule 12: If you’ve known me for ages and have secretly always wanted to talk to me about being tall, I usually don’t mind much of this from people I know. I guess the ugly thing would be an exception, but really, it’s strangers bowling up to me and asking about the height of my great-great-grandfather’s sister that comprises 99% of the problem.

Syndicated 2011-11-28 04:36:17 from lecta

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