Happy National Coming Out Day!

It’s that day again! I wrote a coming-out story some years ago, and it’s in a book, Can I Sit With You?.

Here’s a link to the full story online if you’d like to read it. It’s called “The Sex Change of Zyax II“.

True story from my 5th grade life in Houston, Texas in 1980.

Here is a picture of me at around that time, in my big plastic glasses frame, slightly stringy brown hair, and a tshirt with an iron-on patch that says “Friends Are Forever”.

Liz 1981

While the legal and cultural situation for GLBT people has changed somewhat for the better in the U.S. since my coming out experience 35 years ago, I think that we can’t underestimate the damage that hateful bigots still do even with those changes taking place. LGBTQ youth are still at greatly increased risk of being targeted for violence, and at more risk for suicide, than straight kids.

I was pleased recently to see this new of a dude escaping from a bad situation from his family, and that he had good legal support: https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2015/10/06/trans-man-trapped-in-india-by-parents-allowed-to-return-home/.

Anyway, keep speaking up and representing, because this battle isn’t over.

Noisebridge! Best thing ever!

On April 2nd and 3rd I am going to spend several hours teaching at least 70 high school physics students how to solder and some alluring information about contributing to open source software!

They are doing a project to design and build a solar home. If you know anything about electronics or solar energy cells please join us a do some teaching!

rowan learning to solder

I spent $250 of my own money to buy a crapload of little LED kits so they can have a conveniently teachable soldering project – that is how much I love Noisebridge, and geeky things, and teaching, and non hierarchical anarchist/mutualist community spaces!

I am thinking of the Hackability group that meets at Noisebridge to fix and mod their wheelchairs and mobility scooters! We take over a classroom, gank all the workshop tools, and get on the floor where none of us think it is weird that we scoot and crawl and roll across the floor to pick up a screwdriver just out of reach, laughing at all this solidarity! We bravely dismantle our cyborg leg-wheels and bolt them on again covered with LED lights, jazzed up with arduinos to measure battery voltage, then roll on out into the town!

potentiometer and its lever

And the fierce, fun feminist hacker hive that is a chaotic unstructured network of strength and curiosity and information sharing, that stretches from Noisebridge to sudo room and LOLSpace, and beyond!

Claudia

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I am thinking of all the people I’ve given tours to who come in from out of town and are all starry-eyed and inspired, who meet people and go to Python and Ruby and web dev and Linux classes and eat the strange productions from the Vegan Hackers, the laptops that people at Noisebridge fix and give away, the cameraderie I always find there and the fabulous energy of young people just moving to San Francisco to do a startup or find some kind of freedom or empowerment and hope to find at least part of it at this weird ever changing junkyard coffeehouse-feeling co-op workshop. We made this place that isn’t anything like any other place and it can also be YOURS. Meddle in it!f

surface mount soldering

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Hacker moms visiting Noisebridge

Our rent went up this year, and our people’s job security and income went down. It’s exactly at that point, when the economy is hard on us all, that we need collectives and co-ops and hackerspaces. We have to band together in the best ways we can come up with.

me and maria zaghi at noisebridge

People visit Noisebridge and like it so much that they move to the Bay Area. They come to Noisebridge for education, to find peers and mentors, to teach, and sometimes to find as close as they can get to home and family when they are hackers down on their luck.

Noisebridge - looking west

They come to speak in public for the first time at 5 minutes of fame. They sound a little odd and then they turn out to be geniuses. They drudge to clean the floors and toilets and scrub the kitchen and buy toilet paper, doing the unglamorous physical domestic labor of maintaining this place that’s used heavily 24 hours a day 7 days a week.

noisebridge

We do good work together as best we can. We give a lot to our community! We give access, tools, skills, time, belief, trust, fantastic spectacles, beauty and humor and art. With a sense of wonder and playfulness people walk in and look around – I see it on their faces – like they have just had a million new ideas churn around in their heads – So many possibilities and they know they can be part of it.

Noisebridge table

circuit hacking monday

And we need widespread, ongoing support.

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If you can spare any, we need your exclamation points as I have used most of them in this post!!

Noisebridge tea cart

Hacking class for kids

My son’s school had a day this week called “Festival of Numbers”, a day where they invited the geeky parents and anyone else to come teach fun hands-on classes about science, math, engineering, or computer concepts. There were GPS treasure hunts along with classes on origami and code-breaking, probabilities in poker, bubble blowing, calculus, and gravity. The kids from grades 3-8 could sign up for whatever classes they liked throughout the day. It was an amazing event!

I proposed teaching “Computer Hacking 101” which would be a hands-on tour of Unix (in this case Mac OS X) with a little bit of Python thrown in at the end. The school officials reacted with mild dismay to the word “hacking” and I think the issue was kicked up to the district level. I hadn’t realized that popular opinion, even in Silicon Valley, equates hacking with criminals. So, they changed the class’s title to Command Line Secrets along with a kind of silly description about “robo cops and techno spies”. This made me laugh in that it was a weird endorsement of state violence (spies, cops) while rejecting individual power to learn skills and wield knowledge. Well, of course I went ahead and taught the same things I had been planning to teach.

tara's kid

The class was about 30 middle school students. A core of them seemed to be there because they heard from my 6th grade Python student that I was a decent teacher. We opened the class with the IT guy from the district logging them all in from a central computer under the same temporary login that let them access Terminal. As he did this, I read out the points of the Hacker Ethic and explained why I think it’s important for us to be able to tinker with the guts of the computer and of the Internet and the servers where we keep our information.

1. Access to computers—and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works—should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-on Imperative!
2. All information should be free.
3. Mistrust authority—promote decentralization.
4. Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race or position.
5. You can create art and beauty on a computer.
6. Computers can change your life for the better.

Of course it’s the Festival of Numbers not the Festival of Subversion, but cultural background is important!

I explained that knowing how to mess around with Unix or Linux was useful because tons of Internet servers use it. We went through a few basic commands like ls, pwd, and cd to understand the idea of moving around in directories and knowing “where you are”. Most of the kids didn’t catch on to this too well, but they managed. It’s really best to teach this kind of class with an extra helper for every 5-10 students, to get them all on the same page.

Then I asked who would like to see the super secret master password file for the computer. There were some actual screams of delight and disbelief. EVERYONE WOULD! What a surprise. We cd-ed into /etc and typed “more passwd”. I didn’t dwell on this too much, but told them to google it to understand all the bits of /etc/passwd, and said that the passwords won’t actually show, even if you have root, but you might be able to see the encrypted passwords in another file. A tall girl raised her hand. “So… um… how do you understand that encryption? How do you know how to encrypt things?”

We didn’t go into that. Instead I moved on to some more commands like touch and mkdir to make a file and a directory. Then they were getting a bit restless. Many people had moved ahead on the handout and there were more shrieks from around the room as people had typed ps -x or top and were stuck with lines of green text scrolling by in a Matrix-like way! There was another bit on the handout that explained to try control-C, control-D, q, quit, escape, and so on to get unstuck, but it was information I repeated many times over the next two hours!

At that point I was peppered with questions and some kids demonstrated to others that in Mac OS X you can type “say I like farts” and the Mac computer synthesized voice will say it out loud. Hilarity ensued. I let that go for a few minutes (laughing) and then the “say” chorus mostly stopped. Another kid in the back of the room raised his hand. “Ms. Henry how could I see someone’s IP address?” Other kids wanted to know what an IP address was so I gave an extremely condensed explanation that it was a number that shows at what point you’re connecting to the net. We moved on to the “Nifty Network Tools” bit of my handout, and tried: whoami, who, hostname, whois, ping, dig, ifconfig, and traceroute. It was impossible to keep the whole class together and still move as fast as I wanted to. But I did show whoever was paying attention how to do an nslookup on baidu.com, then traceroute to it, which is fun because you can see that it goes to China and that the time lag keeps increasing.

A couple of kids asked how they could get to Terminal to experiment with all these things when the computer lab at school locks them out of it. I recommended they ask teachers with computers in the classroom if they can experiment there, since those computers aren’t under central control. When they asked further if there was some way they could hypothetically get around the lockout in the computer lab I asked the IT guy if they had Terminal and a browser on a USB drive and ran it from there, if that would work. He wasn’t sure!

At some point in response to all their “how to get around school policy” questions I recommended they propose what they wanted to the school and see how they could get it, maybe through a computer club, or a promise of good behavior and to report any serious security holes immediately to a teacher or to the IT staff. And also, that they agree with their friends to try and hack each others’ accounts, then do harmless pranks — not anything malicious or mean. For “password cracking” questions I steered the conversation towards the importance of picking good passwords, but I did mention dictionary attacks, keylogging, and man in the middle attacks as well as simple social engineering or shoulder surfing.

julia with laptop

It was a fascinating experience, I loved the kinds of questions they asked, and really wonder what they’ll do with the information! It seems to me too that I should teach an identical class for their teachers and parents, to demystify the subject and let them know the landscape.

What would you teach to middle school kids in a Hacking 101 class?