Yet another missive from the “misogyny in IT” department

My feeds are buzzing this morning about Electronic Art’s (EA) marketing stunt at Comic-Con for their Dante’s Inferno game, and, given their promo is a Twitter competition, not in a good way. Unsurprisingly, because what EA and its Dante’s Inferno team, complete with Twitter account, have come up with is so mindbogglingly inane and disgraceful that you wonder how such a culture of puerile boorishness could  not only have managed to strive within a major gaming outfit’s corporate structure, but even receive approval for this project: To invite Comic-Con attendees to “commit acts of lust” with a “booth babe”, be photographed in the process, and post the result to Twitter.

Oh, and what does the winner get? “Dinner and a sinful night with two hot girls, limo service and a chestful of booty”. SRSLY.

Alex, a self-described game programmer and feminist, has a good round-up, and the EA invite is also preserved for posterity on Mashable.

From Ars Technica’s report:

I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a booth babe, especially not at a show like Comic Con. You’re being pawed at by huge amounts of sweaty geeks, you have to smile and be pleasant to people who may or may not have showered… it always seems like a hellish existence. What doesn’t help? Having your employer offer a bounty if people sexually harass you.

At Comic Con, if you commit “an act of lust” with an EA booth babe and take a picture, you could win dinner with said babes, as well as a great big pile of prizes related to the upcoming Dante’s Inferno. That’s right, the babes won’t just get the standard behavior and awkward advances—if someone is really obnoxious, they get rewarded for it, and then you get to see them again socially!

Folks, I may occasionally lust after (some) women just as much as the next lesbian, but I very much doubt I’m in EA’s target demographic here, even if I were a gamer. Neither is any straight woman or gay man. Or for that matter the numerous straight male gamers whose wet dream is not to objectify members of the other sex, kept at their beck and call to slobber over. You know, even if you don’t buy into the entire lust-as-sin concept (I don’t), sexual objectification is still despicable and sexual harassment a crime. Most geeks I know — heck, nearly all geeks I’ve ever met — understand that just fine.

EA have issued an awkward non-apology (“We apologize for any confusion and offense that resulted from our choice of wording…”), which, tellingly, was posted as an image on Twitpic, then taken down, at least in some locations, but of course preserved by a friendly netizen on Flickr.

The one good thing about the entire debacle is that is has been an immediate and very public debacle. Still, this year has been remarkably rich in mysogynist incidents, in web application development, F/LOSS, and now gaming. I wonder what is going on here. As a woman working in IT who considers herself a geek, my experience with the 20-35 year old geek crowd has been mostly very positive, and I’ve more than once relished an atmosphere that outspokenly rejects sexism, homophobia, racism and other forms of discrimination as a matter of course. Still, comment threads on geek forums speak a different language too often, and my personal experience has not been without ambiguity. What else do we have to do to make this crap stop?

Facebook mail: commenting on your photos makes you female

Over the last few days, Facebook quite clearly seemed to be upgrading its email notification components. This is what I concluded from the email from I found in my own mailbox: Because of some personal circumstances, I happened to post more often to my Facebook account than I usually would have, and more importantly received more comments. Comments are sent to my Gmail account as per my chosen Facebook settings. What I found, however, was that not all comments were being forwarded, and some of those that were appeared in the mailbox up to about 15 min after they showed up in the Facebook user interface.

Some performance glitch, I thought. But today the email notifications became somewhat creative. Here is a screenshot of the notifications of today that contain the text “also commented on” (I have covered up last names to protect my friends’ privacy):

Screenshot: Facebook notifications with gender confusion
Screenshot: Facebook notifications with gender confusion

There are two types of notifications: For comments on status updates and for comments on photos. Each can be done by the original poster (of the status update or the photo) or, more often, by someone else. To see the problem better, here are the update notes for comments on one’s own photos and status updates:

  • Ned also commented on her photo
  • Ned also commented on his status
  • Michael also commented on his status
  • Mike also commented on her photo
  • Jason also commented on his status

When I first saw this, I wondered on whose photo Ned had also commented on.

I haven’t follow Facebook’s UI choices in-depth, but Facebook used to use the singular “they” in their notifications, even if  the user’s (self-described) sex or gender was known. So what we can suppose happening here is that they’re reducing the use of singular “they”, and producing some glitches in the process. I checked: both Mike and Ned indicate their sex as male in their Facebook profile. So Facebook is currently reassigning a female gender to posters who comment on their own photos. What I don’t know is if women get reassigned to male.

The issue only shows up in email, that I could see. On the Facebook, Ned is male:

Status update note in the Facebook user interface
Status update note in the Facebook user interface

And who, exactly, are you?

I spent the last weekend, plus days before and after, in Portland, Oregon (at the 22nd annual convention of the usenet group soc.motss). This is a city that, even by the high standards of the urban European, has a truly impressive public transport system. Not only is it complete and fast, it’s also intelligently priced, ie, low, with free rides in the city center, and bike-friendly.

One bit of linguistic interest is worth mentioning here: The announcement made on some of the MAX light rail/streetcar/tramway (pick your term) lines to indicate at which side to get off the train at the next stop. Announcements in these trains are made by an automated, prerecorded voice, first in English, then in Spanish.

The text of the announcement, after indicating the next stop’s name?

Doors to my left.

This is a bit startling. I can see why an overly nit-picky planner would want to avoid “Doors to your left” — after all, passengers may be oriented every which way in the carriage. But saying “… my left” is presuming we have a speaker here. It’s not the driver. But someone or something speaking in a disembodied voice.

Now while there is indeed a well-defined left and right relative to a moving tramway, the problem is to ascribe a sense of agency to it that would allow it to speak to us in the first person.

I have not quite succeeded in finding out if the sentient tramway is restricted to the English — I thought I heard “puertas a la izquierda”, ie “doors to the left“, but this page claims it’s “puerta a mi izquierda”.

Portland, the City of Roses and sentient, anthropomorphic streetcars.

Why I like my showers with two degrees of freedom

Imagine your basic shower — in a cabin or above a bath tub. The ones I’ve known for most of my life tend to have two knobs: one to adjust the flow of hot water, one to to do the same for cold water. Or else they have a lever you can pull and rotate: pulling increases the flow rate, rotating changes the temperature. The end result is the same: you can make your water flow more or less copiously, and you can make it hotter or colder.

This means our shower has two degrees of freedom: You can change two variables independently (within limits). Unfortunately, some hotels seem to consider this system too hard for their guests to comprehend and present the hapless traveller with a single, often strangely shaped knob. What it does if turned, twisted, pushed, pulled, shoved or glared at, the traveller hasn’t got the foggiest.[*] In most cases, what you get is the single-degree-of-freedom knob: the more you turn on the water, the warmer it gets. However, the problem is: you don’t know this yet.

Here is why I think this is a bad idea, from recent practical experience:

  1. You get ready for the shower, and identify the shower controls. One single knob, function unknown.
  2. You twist it experimentally, taking care to stay out of the reach of the shower head (or tap). Water comes out. Good.
  3. The water is cold. Well, that’s probably normal: let’s let it flow for a while.
  4. The water doesn’t get any warmer. So this is probably the cold water knob. You go in search of any hot water knobs, levers, buttons, pedals or other controls.
  5. After having finished your search of the shower area (naked), you decide the knob is all you have. Water is still cold. The only thing you can do is to turn it on a little more.
  6. The water is still cold. Or maybe a little bit more lukewarm? You twiddle the knob. Water splashes back and forth. Yeah, definitely getting a little more lukewarm.
  7. You carefully close off all shower curtains, take your heart in both hands, and give the knob a good strong twist. And wait a while.
  8. YAY, finally, warm water. You take your shower.

Dear hotel designers: Presenting tired travellers who’ve likely never been to your establishment with anything but a regular, clearly labled, two-degrees-of-freedom shower control knob system is not good user interface design.

[*] These things can get exceedingly complex — the worst I’ve ever had was in a swanky resort in Windsor I stayed at for a company function: the knob had red and blue dots in odd places, ridges and ratchets, could be turned a little, then pushed or pulled, and then turned in an entirely different way again… the frigging bath mat came with instructions for use, but I wasn’t the only one who’d stood naked, wondering at it for 10 min, before succeeding entirely by chance (or, as were, going unshowered).