Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Why Was This a Great Week?

This has been one of the best weeks ever for working in high tech amateur radio. I'm really looking forward to bringing all of it to the community over the next year! This is a golden age for SDR, cognitive, microwave, and advanced digital modes. Why was this week good? Here's why.

This year, I co-founded a research institute devoted to Open Source and Open Access in research and development. It's called Open Research Institute (ORI). Our site is here:

Most of what we do is for amateur radio satellite and terrestrial use. Why start a research institute? We wanted a formal structure for the work we all had been doing all along, and existing clubs were either unsupportive, unresponsive, full up with their own work, or not aligned with open source and open access. The last significant part of setting up ORI was getting the 501(c)(3) approval. That happened 6 March 2019.

ORI gets work done through projects. The list currently include Phase 4 Ground, Phase 4 Space, GRC Localization for Japanese and German, and Open Cars. There are several other projects in the initial investigation stages. There's room for plenty more! Phase 4 Ground and Space produces work that benefits all amateur radio space organizations. Libre Space, AMSAT-DL, JAMSAT, AMSAT-UK, TAPR, and more have been wonderful partners.

The Breakthrough Listen GNU Radio workshop coming up in mid-May is another big step forward. I got news I was accepted to it as a participant this past week. While not primarily an amateur radio event, the participant list has a lot of hams! It's quite thrilling to see how many really smart and amazing amateur operators there are in the GNU Radio community. There are SDR people coming to the event that I cannot wait to meet and work with. Things we talk about and work on at this workshop will be available to and will benefit advanced digital modes and their implementations in amateur radio.

I am the co-chair for GNU Radio Conference 2019 (Huntsville, AL) and have volunteered with the conference since 2016. It's an honor to be involved with and support event. Our ham exam session has been very successful, with 40-50 licenses or upgrades each year. Amateurs are a big part of GNU Radio. We decided to feature space communications as our conference theme for the Apollo landing anniversary year of 2019.

We tried repeatedly, starting in 2017, to get amateur radio conferences to co-locate and collaborate with GNU Radio Conference. The proposal was, they would each have their own space and track and keep all their identity and branding and whatnot, but share vendor space, food and meeting room costs, and get free proceedings, program publishing, schedule, shipping, and a variety of logistics support from us. The traditional organizations all flatly refused or ignored the proposal. One simply cut and pasted the city and venue to 2018 after perusing the proposal. I got confused phone calls from the venue we'd gotten quotes from for weeks. Two other bad experiences with other amateur organizations deliberately scheduling their conference on top of GNU Radio Conference have happened, despite a lot of effort to communicate, coordinate, and cross-promote. 

On the surface, this isn't great news or a good experience. But digging deeper, we realized that getting doors slammed in our faces by leadership hostile to change opened up a series of much better opportunities for us. The right response to the initial disappointments is gratitude.

And now, there is cause for hope. Over the past couple of weeks, one of the organizations that responded with grumpy indifference has changed direction. In another two years, I expect a drastic improvement in collaboration and cooperation between the two communities. There is substantial overlap. It's silly not to work together.

Another silver lining has to do with sexism and bigotry. Sexist and racist crap happens in tech. There is not a lot of good news here. Amateur radio organizations are very homogenous. Much more than the ham population as a whole. In the US 15-20% of hams are women. In more traditional organizations and clubs, it's at or below 3%. In many cases, it's literally 0%. Traditional organizations are stacked with people that don't like working with women and will pull a lot of underhanded garbage to make sure women who show up and volunteer are made to feel lesser, smaller, and unwanted.

Speaking up and speaking out against bad experiences is difficult. If you speak up or speak out, you will be punished for it, every time. You can assiduously document, you can follow all the rules for complaining about it, you can simply work twice as hard and try to "lean in". None of this will work. If sexists have any power over you in any way, you are doomed.

These experiences aren't the biggest problem. Yes they suck. But, the much bigger problem is the almost complete failure of any bystander men to deliver any repercussion, at all, to the men who behave in sexist, demeaning, bigoted ways. When the behavior is documented, when complaints and testimonies given, when it is observed and reported, men in general do absolutely nothing about it. If you're lucky, they'll wring their hands in private and commiserate.

The most outspoken men, who argue technical details with energy and force and commitment and devotion, fall completely silent in the face of sexism or bigotry. Even when it's obscene or explicitly illegal, they will do nothing. Poke or prod a bit, and then they get irritated, annoyed, or angry. "What do you expect ME to do about it?!" Any inconvenience at all is just too much to ask. They're generally ok with women being shut down, shut out, ignored, or their work erased. Gaslighting is normal.

This stuff is a cultural disaster that will not get even slightly better without men stepping up and enforcing repercussions for acts of sexism and bigotry. Just enforcing repercussions is the first step. The fact that most amateur operators won't bother with taking even the first step is telling. It is a big reason why women show up for one meeting, one project conference call, one email thread, one tour of HF with their new privileges, and then they either leave or get eliminated by men who just can't stand women speaking.

When you are the butt of jokes or comments that assume you are non-technical, are not really a person, are preventing men from enjoying themselves, are "spending husband's money", are "nothing but trouble", don't belong, are equated with children, or will suffer violence for expressing an opinion, the community in general has failed you. This stuff is common on HF and repeaters. It goes almost completely unchallenged on the air.

This is a root cause of why many, if not most, women express a fear of operating an amateur radio in voice modes. But there's an even deeper issues here too. Women suffer an enormous amount of violence at the hands of men that personally know us. We are socialized from birth to not offend or upset men in any way. Speaking as equals is offensive to many men, because we are *supposed to be* only supportive and only agreeable and never ever "right", on our own. Embarrassing men in any way is just not allowed. Being right in even the friendliest and gentlest way about math or science or engineering or leadership or financial opportunities or fundraising doesn't matter. Asserting an opinion that isn't strictly agreeing with a man results, worst case, in violence. This violence is real and even in "polite" and "civil" hobbies like amateur radio, it profoundly shapes the casual communication patterns.

Women in amateur radio consistently explain a reluctance to get on the air with "I'm afraid I'll say the wrong thing". Pay attention at the YL forums and YouTube videos where we are asked about this. Read the essays. This is a permanent refrain. Fear.

Men hear this, and hear "mic fright". No, this is not mic fright. Being afraid of operating on the air is a rational and justified response to the violence delivered from men to women in our society. Women police themselves in ways men simply do not have to. This is observable in general amateur radio operating, let alone technical volunteering.

Women therefore, in general, are expected to cede the communications space to men. Amateur radio is so heavily dominated by men, that the fear and subservience effect is easily observable. Break the "rules" and enough men will be truly enraged, and they will exact revenge.

I've been very active in amateur radio for almost 20 years. I've volunteered in advanced digital communications for over 10. I've been very successful in a variety of projects. I'm not a bad volunteer or leader. Some amateur radio organizations are hopelessly broken in terms of sexism. I choose to speak up and speak out and assert technical opinions. I am not an asshole about it, but I'm not Wimpy Wanda, either. I choose to pay the sexism tax on my work. Sometimes that tax means that effort sadly goes into the red. I'm kept out or attacked while mediocre men get to stay or are rewarded. There is really no appeal that works when this happens.

But. Sometimes leaders and fellow volunteers negate that tax! This is how you know who to spend your time working with. And this week, spending more time with those types of people and a LOT less time with proven sexists and bigots has paid off enormously. I felt obligated for many years to conform, serve, and respond within organizations that treated me like garbage. The last little bit of that "good intentions, terrible results" type of thinking evaporated this week. I'm late to the party, but better late than never to get rid of unnecessary baggage.

This is where starting our own organization (ORI) has made the most difference. It's a night and day difference to work with people that are unafraid to enforce basic standards of fairness. I cannot understate how truly important it is to have people with privilege go to bat for you. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my fellow ORI co-founders, Bruce Perens and Ben Hilburn, for simply being equitable and fair.

Does your (amateur or other) organization have a code of conduct? Is it enforced? Does your favorite event make it clear, through written policies and clear procedures, that everyone is welcome?

Things like a Code of Conduct are the minimum standard. They are not really that hard to implement. There's lots of resources to get up to speed here as an organizer or leader. This isn't a new issue. There's a metric ton of electrons devoted to endless essays about sexism and bigotry, and the huge cost to homogenous organizations as a result.

Phase 4 Ground has made substantial technical progress in our test plan, application layer, link layer, radio architecture, and user interface definition. One of the most difficult aspects of Phase 4 Ground has always been recruiting enough people for the FPGA/HDL/ASIC work. People that understand radio, coding, and reconfigurable digital logic are rare and in great demand from industry. But, we've never been in a better place in terms of human resources than we are right now, and I got additional contacts this week.

For big ambitious open source interdisciplinary designs, recruiting continues throughout the entire life of the project. Phase 4 projects welcome anyone, regardless of how much time they can commit, and we meet people where they are technically. One of the goals of Phase 4 is to give people a friendly and supportive place to learn advanced digital techniques. That's one of the purposes of amateur radio in general, and there's a great need for anything past the "hello world" type of FPGA design.

This means that some volunteers will benefit from ORI more than ORI benefits from them. This is on purpose. It's paying it forward to the community.

ORI takes risks that other organizations do not. ORI deliberately chooses difficult work that has a higher degree of failure. This is on purpose. Someone has to say the things and take the risks.

So, this week, the practice of risk taking and generosity paid off. Some weeks it doesn't go as well! There are a lot of setbacks when you take risks and try things that are new or challenge the status quo. Defending friendly, inclusive, supportive, collaborative work styles in a world that rewards opaque, authoritarian, discriminatory work styles can feel no-win. Unfortunately amateur radio has a lot of opaque, authoritarian, and discriminatory aspects. ORI provides a deliberately different alternative, and this week it paid off in several ways. No, I can't list them all, but if even half of the steps forward that happened this week pan out, then the next few months we will have a lot of happy announcements.

-Michelle W5NYV