Tonnerre Lombard

FFII’s coordinator for Switzerland

Gender Liberalism: what got us here won’t get us there

January 29th, 2013

A frequently promoted strategy for tackling the issue of world hunger is liberalism. Just like any other -ism, it takes an idea to its extreme. And the idea is that you basically just need to make everything in the market equal, and equal opportunities for everybody are the result. So far though, there appear to be major gaps between the ideals and the actual results: people are still starving as you’re reading this, on this very planet.

The same principle is frequently promoted as a solution to the problem of gender equality. Basically, if everybody agrees that it’s ok to hire women into technical jobs, we will no longer have a huge bias in this job area.

There are many reasons why this doesn’t work, and none of them is inherent to our species in any biological aspect.

Education for failure

Education of women is a vast topic and basically starts with a childs first breath. Because that’s precisely the moment when we start learning new things, regardless of our gender. Starting from their birth, the child will observe its environment very closely and make observations. Those are not only based on its own family and things people say, but also actions. For example, if all women around the kid never pick up a hammer to build something themselves, and all men do, the kid concludes that hammers are for men. This gets even worse if Daddy keeps taking hammers, or for that matter, keyboards out of Mommys hands and does things for her. Very bad impression, don’t do it for the sake of your kids future.

In the life of an average girl, there are more aspects preventing a more informed relationship with technology though. For example, there’s all these people telling girls that technology is not meant for them or that they wouldn’t be good at it. (Fatal misinformation; various women I know are extremely skilled at building things.) Even worse, the cognitive processes of a woman are set up to expect failure in those situation by people telling them that they are going to fail anyway. And especially when people tell them ”I told you you wouldn’t make it!“.

Everybody fails. Girls do, boys do, hermaphrodites do and whoever else you could possibly think of does it too. Failure is normal. Failure gives you an opportunity to analyze what you did and improve it. And improvement is good, after all. This is the message which needs to be carried whenever somebody fails, regardless of the topic and other questions like gender.

No-opportunity learner

There are other ways parents set their girls up to have less of a chance to succeed in technology. A frequently observed pattern is to deprive them of the opportunities to learn. We all know of various cases where a boy was playing Doom 3, World of Warcraft, whatever computer game you can imagine all day on his own computer and would just be left alone. Likewise, I know of many cases where girls were using the family computer (because they never received their own one) to try and write programs or attempt to install server software to try and run their own test server, and were told after two hours to get away from the computer.

”You are spending way too much time in front of that computer! Go play with your friends or take a walk!“

These stories are from girls who actually made it as far as to write a program of their own or run their own web server on localhost. It’s hard to imagine how many girls never get there because they don’t have enough time in front of the computer to figure it out before they get frustrated. Or because they’re not allowed to run their own software on the family computer. Sure, some of this also hits boys, but excessive use of computers by boys is more widely accepted.

Peer Pressure away from what Matters

The time in school is typically spent around a group of other girls who are already frustrated with technology and a group of boys and teachers who throw around the same old phrases which discourage involvement with technology. Such an environment, just like all of the previously mentioned environments, is toxic to any interest in technology.

There’s not just the circumstance that no other member of the peer groups will want to be involved in having fun with technology. Additionally, any involvement will be punished verbally (”What, you’re playing with computers? Eww!“). And even boys who appreciate some involvement with technology frequently choose words which are more of an insult than a compliment (”You’re doing this quite well for a woman“).

If you ever worked in different types of environments, you might have noticed the effect yourself. If you’re surrounded by unmotivated people and people who aren’t very skilled at what they’re doing, they are slowing you down too, and you will never get as much done as you usually would. Even worse, you will learn a lot less over the years, because the typical tasks are scaled down for the size of the average mind in the team. So if you’re the most intelligent person on the job, you’re not very likely to grow (except perhaps in leadership skills).

On the other hand, if you surround yourself with people who are better than you at something, you will learn a whole lot from them, and your productivity and learning curve will appear to be boundless. You will start to feel like you’ve never seen the world so clearly.

This is however not the typical environment of a girl in school. Typically, they’re surrounded with other girls who don’t want to have any contact with technological challenges. So the mind suffers.

And then there’s the problem that most boys aren’t very well trained in not assuming leadership, and that teachers don’t attempt to teach that skill either. So when people work in pairs on a computer or work bench, boys tend to take the keyboard or dremel away from the girls, and generally take a more commanding role in the team. This means that the girls tend to get less to do and just watch the boy fulfill his task. She only gets the tasks the boy assigns to her. And typically, proper judgment isn’t applied in those situations.

No Hire!

Life doesn’t end with school. Eventually, girls become women and will start looking for a job. And there, part of the problem is that hiring for tech companies is frequently done by members of management who consider themselves technical. In tech startups, it is even done by technicians themselves. Thus, this area, too, is male dominated.

And now women are struck by the same problem foreigners are. Studies have shown that recruiters are significantly more likely to hire people who are more like them, and in case of male recruiters that would be men. Unfortunately, this means that more men will become tech recruiters in the future. And it makes women less likely to find a tech job. This produces gaps in the CV which are filled either by unemployment or non-tech jobs, where women have an easier time getting hired.

Unfortunately, the same recruiters will then hold this against the applicants. If they didn’t spend all of their time on tech jobs, it will be assumed that their lives are unsteady, making them less likely to get the tech job. This means that women in technology get less tech experience through jobs on average. Add to that all the prejudice against women for having the capacity to become pregnant, which is another big reason why they don’t get jobs. Or the prejudice that women are more prone to depressions — who wouldn’t get depressed with such terrible prospects?

No Heavy Administration

And even on the job itself there are problems. If a woman takes a job as a sysadmin, for example, it is not infrequent that her male colleagues are reluctant to assign some of the heavier server-lifting work in the server room, because it’s a male-dominated domain and muscles are invovled. So the men alone carry the server into the server room, mount the rack slides, slide it in, hook it up and start the installation (unless automated away, which is happening way too rarely, but that’s another point).

So in many companies, only the menial tasks of clicking up 1000 similar users or making coffee are left to the women. And the effects are devastating: I’ve seen women with a diploma in computer science and a CCNA certificate working for an ISP who were making coffee and carrying files from office to office. Because only men were entering the server room. Ever. This of course means that even though these women are on the job, they are refused the privilege to gather experience.

This has even wider effects when it comes to upgrade training courses. Women who fell into the trap to be kept away from the real experience may be perceived by management and human resources as not yet having achieved their full in-house learning potential. So they might not win the fight over the few free seats in that network management course, because a male colleague already has a lot of experience and is perceived as the superstar who’s just the right network administrator.

Of course, none of the points mentioned above apply necessarily to all women. Some of them get more lucky and end up in a really great company where they can do good stuff and gather a lot of experience. I am happy for every one where this is the case. The purpose of this article is to point to these effects and to outline their consequences.

What can we do better in hiring then?

Even though women are inherently as capable as men, the effects mentioned above have serious consequences. They mean that, unlike with a man, you cannot generally expect a woman interested in technology to have gathered a lot of experience at home and during childhood. There are simply reasons why some of them cannot take advantage of their childhood to gather tech experience. The same is by the way true for men who grew up in extremely conservative families who banned all use of technology from their homes, and the likes. So if in doubt, you should always treat the applicants as such.

It also helps to be more lenient on the CV. Women might have gaps in their tech career, or even not have worked at all for monthes. This might be because someone was looking at their application, just like you, and made some wrong decisions.

Another point is experience. Typically, if someone was working on a job for a longer time, you expect a certain level of experience from them. And you will check if the experience of the applicant matches your expectations. For example, a man who worked as a wind tunnel engineer for 5 years is expected to be able to make a lot of good estimations about aerodynamics, or to make good designs just from his good judgment.

Since however women in tech are frequently left with the menial tasks, this means that a lot of the time they never had the chance to gather as much on-the-job experience as you would expect from a man who has worked the same time on the same job. Be it because she wasn’t allowed to operate the wind tunnel, or be it because her colleagues always took away her keyboard when something important happened.

So you cannot trust the regular rules for past experience and career development. Still, you have to find some metric to determine if the applicant is going to be a valuable resource to the company or not. After all, you don’t want to just hire anybody. So what can you do to determine if the applicant has what you need?

The question you should ask yourself is a question which should generally be asked more frequently in job interviews. ”Does the applicant have the ability to learn what she needs on the job?“

Most of the time this is a very interesting question which is widely neglected. Most companies are different and run different applications or produce things in a different way. Experience can give you a lot of help in learning the ways of your new job, but it is in no way all you need. All these companies which throw out a list of 50 words the applicant must be familiar with forget that the company will probably have their very own framework built around PostgreSQL or something like that. It is much more important that you determine whether or not the applicant will ever learn to use your framework.

Good tech employees always learn on every job. It should be the biggest and most verified part of the job description. If people don’t learn on their job, the job is evidently boring and the person should get a more suited one.

Please note that women quota aren’t covered in this text because I have no idea about this topic. Whether or not they are a good idea, I hope that mankind will follow whichever path yields the better result.


You may have noticed that what is written above is quite controversial. It basically says that women need special treatment, must be nourished and brought on to the jobs, and that you should keep your expectations lower. This typically raises the suspicion that women indeed aren’t up to the job and aren’t hired for their skills. And when they are hired, they have to wonder if they’re really good enough or if they just got the job because of gender questions.

The answer is: if you manage to find an employee who can learn your ways quickly and understands what needs to be changed and how, it is a very good employee, regardless of the gender. But right now we have this gap and all the effects associated with it which pull very forcefully to keep the gap open for as long as possible. In order to bridge over this gap, some special treatment is required for some amount of time until we just truly work together in an environment which is free of prejudices and provides equal opportunities to members of any gender or non-gender.

Right now, we’re unfortunately too far from that to just ignore the whole problem and wait for it to go away on its own.


Every year on the first of August

July 31st, 2012

Switzerland is celebrating the first of August again. For the 721st time in a row, Switzerland is aging one year. And for the fifth time, people received a letter from the conservative party (UDC).

Two years ago, on November 28, 2010, the people of Switzerland decided to adopt the UDC motion for compulsory deportation of «criminal» foreigners, that is, foreigners who violated the criminal law. Since then, the federal government was trying to work out a way to implement this motion into law without violating any human rights and without trampling too much on the rights of foreigners.

Lack of any notion of proportion

This is a very hard problem. UDC wants the motion to be implemented as-is into Swiss law. This is however a clear violation of human rights, because it makes it extremely easy for everyone to kick any foreigner they don’t like out of the country by alleging their involvement with a petty crime. The current Swiss law already covers the case where a foreigner commits serious violations of the criminal code. The extent to which the violations are serious has to be determined by a judge on a case-by-case basis. However, the motion would change this. Any crime, even a petty crime, would automatically lead to deportation. If this is put into context with the most recent attempts by the conservative forces all over the world to put anything they don’t like into criminal law, the implications are exorbitant.

Think about ACTA. It was an attempt, supported by the Swiss institute of Intellectual Property, to put criminal sanctions on copyright violations. This means if you mess up a quote from a book in your publication, you don’t only get to pay damages to the original author, but you also get automatically deported out of Switzerland and back into your home country.

There were similar attempts to put patent violations into criminal law. Note how extremely difficult it is nowadays to avoid running into patent violations when you develop any kind of products. If you implemented a web shop, for example, that would definitely get you deported.

Think about the cybercrime convention. If you use a media player to display DVDs you purchased on your laptop, that’s a criminal offence (circumvention of copyright protection) and you will get deported.

Think about the hacker tools legislation. If you’re a security researcher or a system administrator and you possess exploit code to do your daily job — definite deportation.

UDC still pushing

UDC however announced that, in their opinion, the Swiss government has been too slow in implementing their motion into law. Thus, they’ve sent out letters to every household in Switzerland (including the criminal foreigners and everyone else) asking for signatures for a new motion to implement the old motion as it was written down.

This is an even more difficult motion than the last one. A lot of time has to be devoted to making sure the new legislation will be in accordance with the basic human rights and with international treaties Switzerland has signed in the past. It is also very important that this new legislation doesn’t lead to mass deportations or a mass exodus of foreigners who bring a lot of money into the country and add a lot of expertise the small, largely rural 7.6 Million people nation of Switzerland just cannot offer all by itself. New laws take their time, and this one is so very precarious that it most definitely shouldn’t be rushed.

But more than that, UDC knows that complex legal matters take more than 1.5 years. This suggests that their main intention behind pushing this is to get exactly the legislation they had written down in the original motion, before the council or the parliaments get a shot at merging it with their own ideas and making it «weaker» so it can actually work without the detrimental effects UDC had in mind when drafting it.

As UDC is pushing right now, there can only be 3 outcomes from this law: a mass exodus, mass deportations or mass naturalization. This would give UDC a better argument to discriminate against naturalized citizens with their initiative proposal to give them differently colored passports and take away some of their citizen rights.

Call for Papers for CoSin 2010

June 3rd, 2010

On July 9th to 11th, the Chaos Singularity (CoSin) is taking place for the 5th time.

The Chaos Singularity is an event with presentations, workshops, discussions and information about technology, internet politics and geek culture. It is organized annually by the Chaos Computer Club Zurich (CCCZH) and Chaostreff Basel.

You’re invited to submit talks and workshops for CoSin until June 30 through CCC’s Pentabarf system.

As always, the CoSin is taking place at the Kulturzentrum Bremgarten (KuZeB), Zürcher-/Zugerstrasse, 5620 Bremgarten, Switzerland. Everybody with an interest in technology is invited to join. For more information please refer to the CoSin Call for Papers.

European Parliament solicits opinion on the Parliament Register

July 4th, 2009

The European Parliament is currently conducting an opinion poll about the Parliament Register. The survey covers merely how the query system works (which, in my opinion, is very spartanic and doesn’t really exceed the power of the early 90s) and how the results are presented.

This survey however provides every EU citizen with a chance to promote the use of open standards in the Parliament register, which currently hands out MS Word .doc files. Thus, I would like to ask everybody to participate in the survey.

Gnome did not go Mono

June 18th, 2009

There has recently been a lot of rumors about the article Gnome goes Mono and jumps into the patent trap. There are some things that should be clarified about this.

  • Gnome did not go Mono. At least so far. The plans towards that direction appear to have been quite fruitless.
  • There are people stating that the Microsoft .NET patents only cover the System.Data and System.Windows.Forms namespace. This implies that no patents cover the concept of .NET per se.
    There has been no thorough patent analysis on this subject, and it should also be noted that patents, other than copyright, are a very broad so that rewriting the subsystem or class in question does not suffice. The class must be modified to make it work in a way that is not described in the patent claims. This means that, for a sufficiently unclear patent, it may not be possible to provide affected classes in nay way because any implementation would constitute a patent infringement.
  • Nobody is saying that Mono or .NET per se are evil; the point of criticism is that the legal situation is very unclear and potentially tainted.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Canadian Patents Appeal Board throws out business methods

June 13th, 2009

The Canadian Patents Appeal Board has ruled that business methods are not eligible for patent protection.

Hopefully this will add some weight in the same direction to the Bilski case.

German anti-censorship petition hits 100’000 signers

June 4th, 2009

The petition against censorship which was filed to the German parliament from April 24th, 2009 has finally passed the 100’000 signers. On June 4th, 12 days before the end of the petition, 110’298 people have signed it.

The powers that be however decided to ignore the petition so far. Apart from a lapsus of the German minister of economy, von Gutenberg, who declared that everybody who was against censorship is a pedophile, none of the politicians of the social democrats (SPD) or the christian union (CDU), the governing parties in Germany, has mentioned the petition in any way. Family minister Ursula von der Leyen, who is currently campaining for her reelection, even removed the time for questions from her campaign events.

Since the petition has passed the necessary limit of 50’000 signers, the petition committee of the German parliament will at least have to consider it. The result of this will be very interesting.

IBM speaks out against software patents

June 4th, 2009

The international computer manufacturer IBM has filed an amicus brief to the Bilski case in the USA, a case which is considered decisive for the future direction of software patents in the United States and potentially larger parts of the world.

The message was very clear: IBM stated that software patents are not needed to create or protect innovation. In fact they are hindering it and damaging the overall economy: «You’re creating a new 20-year monopoly for no good reason.»

This position came as a bit of a surprise considering that IBM is part of the Business Software Alliance, an organization who promoted software patents very openly during the Software Patent debate in the European Union. However, IBM lawyers have stated repeatedly on various unofficial occasions since then that the patents have not served the wealth of the company in any way.

Cold Patent War: Productivity considered harmful

The problem IBM is facing with software patents is very easy. The few actors in the world who had a sufficiently large budget to equip their operations with software patents are now standing unable to use them against each other because the patent portfolios are so vast that both companies would suffer serious consequences in any dispute. The reason for this is simple: IBM, just like other large companies, has a large amount of so-called «prior art», which means pre-existing software in this case.

This prior art however offers other patent holders a chance to attack IBM in revenge, because it most likely infringes on a number of patents held by the competitor. In the sum of hundreds or even thousands of patents, this means that they cannot practically be enforced, except as a defensive measure.

The only companies which are not susceptible to this type of dilemma are companies which never actually produced anything at all — so-called «non-producing entities» (NPE), or shorter, patent trolls. These companies solely exist for the purpose of holding and enforcing a software patent. As such, they contribute nothing to the state of the art while causing damage to companies that do.

Summarizing this effect, the patent system has a very negative effect on the economy indeed: it discourages innovation and productivity as a whole while promoting litigation. Thus, it is much less surprising that IBM finally realized that software patents are damaging — even to them.


In this blog:

Preliminary injunction against Microsoft contract

May 30th, 2009

The contract granted by the Federal Department of Construction and Logistics to Microsoft has been put on hold by the Federal Administration Court due to a pending case. The injunction explicitly excludes «all licenses required for vital operation of the federal infrastructure».

The reason for the injunction is the court case of other potential competitors against the department which had granted the contract to Microsoft without a tender, violating the federal law on acquisition.

See also:

Berner Zeitung on a slander campaign against the Canton Solothurn

May 19th, 2009

The Berner Zeitung currently appears to be on some sort of crusade against the Office for Informatics and Organization (AIO) of the Canton Solothurn. The subject is the Linux strategy of said canton.

(Please note that not all comments in the referenced articles are referenced below since there are so many of them, and most of them already falsify themselves.)


Back in 2001, the Canton Solothurn decided to migrate their entire IT infrastructure to a Linux desktop and Linux servers. Nowadays, most of the migration is complete and the old Windows NT terminal server farm exist in downsized form for legacy reasons.

Some applications still aren’t migrated, as evidently specialized applicatons aren’t always available initially for Linux.

A crusade against the strategy

The Berner Zeitung, however, is attempting to draw an entirely different picture of the migration. They recently published articles like «Kritik an der Pinguin-Strategie», «Wieder Ärger mit dem Pinguin» and others, all bashing the Linux strategy of the canton. Most of the articles mention complaints of users of the platform that they cannot do their work reasonably with the new platform.

One problem mentioned in such an article was, for example, that the office of justice received a PowerPoint presentation for some event and had to lend a laptop from the cantonal police to display it. This story is quite evidently nonsense, since the document could easily have been opened with OpenOffice. The other stories aren’t any better though.

Anonymous astroturfing site

The articles frequently cite a web site named Linux Windows, whose URL is not being linked to here in order to not affect the page rank. It is hosted at npage dot ch, which should help people to find it for reference.

This site is of really questionable quality. It is hosted with a hoster who refuses to provide any information about the people hosting sites using their services, and the site does not give any hint about the identity of the operator, who describes himself as a government employee.

The welcome site states explicitly that everybody who has something to contribute to the web site is allowed to publish to the guest book. However, all of the more insightful comments submitted in favor of the strategy, correcting statements about prior postings et cetera are never passed while some of the more superficial ones are permitted to simulate openness.

The entries posted to this site are then alltogether terrible. The issues mentioned are mostly minor temporary issues or general comments deprived of any basis. One comment claims for example that Open Source per se was bad because hackers have built backdoors into it, an argument which can be falsified easily by browsing through the FSF web sites or typing the claim into Google. Also, it neglects the fact that initially, all software was free software.

Instead, the owner of this site could have provided something constructive like a bug tracker, where fixed issues could be marked as such. This would have allowed constructive cooperation between the cantonal employees and the AIO.

Official «media management» by UDC

The conservative party UDC also published an article on the news site mentioning the debate and taking sides heavily against the Linux strategy. The article states that the canton is facing expenses of several hundred million swiss franks ­ — mentioning farther down that these expenses occur in the event that the strategy is changed and new Windows and Office licenses would have to be purchased. Under these circumstances it appears to be a good argument for keeping the strategy.

Another argument mentioned is that «the canton is sending out documents that its citizens cannot read». Were this the case, then at least there is a way out for the citizens which is free of charge: the installation of the OpenOffice suite, which can be done in only a couple of clicks.

However, the comment completely ignores that starting from Office 2007, Microsoft Office users have been sending out documents in the new OOXML .docx format by default. Reading these files requires a current version of MS Office, which has to be purchased. But even without this, reading newer Office files with older Office versions has always been a problem.

Official response

Mr. Bader from the AIO has been interviewed by various newspapers about the raised issues; his comment was that no such deterring problems are currently known to them. Most of the cantonal employees I’ve been in contact with also confirm that there are only occasional issues with the system which are usually fixed quickly. (This would probably also be the case with a Windows environment.)

It seems not to be a coincidence that these articles all appeared after the appeal to the decision of the Federal Office of Construction to grant a CHF 42 Mio contract to Microsoft without a tender, because the Canton Solothurn has been mentioned in the reasoning of the appeal as an example that alternatives to the Microsoft solutions exist. It is not known who is directing this slander campaign against the canton, but either way this person is mostly raising the ridicule of the community, rather than having a real effect.

Other renowned newspapers are already reporting that the Canton Aargau is considering to follow the good example of Solothurn and to migrate their IT to open source software. This makes it pretty clear that Open Source is indeed a viable alternative.

As a closing note, it should also be mentioned that our company is working with an exclusive Open Source environment and has been doing so since its early days in 2000. We have yet to encounter serious difficulties.