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Ambar Hegde
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I was warmly surprised to see how many people responded to my Google+ post about Dennis Ritchie's untimely passing. His influence on the technical community was vast, and it's gratifying to see it recognized. When Steve Jobs died there was a wide lament - and well-deserved it was - but it's worth noting that the resurgence of Apple depended a great deal on Dennis's work with C and Unix.

The C programming language is quite old now, but still active and still very much in use. The Unix and Linux (and Mac OS X and I think even Windows) kernels are all C programs. The web browsers and major web servers are all in C or C++, and almost all of the rest of the Internet ecosystem is in C or a C-derived language (C++, Java), or a language whose implementation is in C or a C-derived language (Python, Ruby, etc.). C is also a common implementation language for network firmware. And on and on.

And that's just C.

Dennis was also half of the team that created Unix (the other half being Ken Thompson), which in some form or other (I include Linux) runs all the machines at Google's data centers and probably at most other server farms. Most web servers run above Unix kernels; most non-Microsoft web browsers run above Unix kernels in some form, even in many phones.

And speaking of phones, the software that runs the phone network is largely written in C.

But wait, there's more.

In the late 1970s, Dennis joined with Steve Johnson to port Unix to the Interdata. From this remove it's hard to see how radical the idea of a portable operating system was; back then OSes were mostly written in assembly language and were tightly coupled, both technically and by marketing, to specific computer brands. Unix, in the unusual (although not unique) position of being written in a "high-level language", could be made to run on a machine other than the PDP-11. Dennis and Steve seized the opportunity, and by the early 1980s, Unix had been ported by the not-yet-so-called open source community to essentially every mini-computer out there. That meant that if I wrote my program in C, it could run on almost every mini-computer out there. All of a sudden, the coupling between hardware and operating system was broken. Unix was the great equalizer, the driving force of the Nerd Spring that liberated programming from the grip of hardware manufacturers.

The hardware didn't matter any more, since it all ran Unix. And since it didn't matter, hardware fought with other hardware for dominance; the software was a given. Windows obviously played a role in the rise of the x86, but the Unix folks just capitalized on that. Cheap hardware meant cheap Unix installations; we all won. All that network development that started in the mid-80s happened on Unix, because that was the environment where the stuff that really mattered was done. If Unix hadn't been ported to the Interdata, the Internet, if it even existed, would be a very different place today.

I read in an obituary of Steve Jobs that Tim Berners-Lee did the first WWW development on a NeXT box, created by Jobs's company at the time. Well, you know what operating system ran on NeXTs, and what language.

Even in his modest way, I believe Dennis was very proud of his legacy. And rightfully so: few achieve a fraction as much.

So long, Dennis, and thanks for all the magic.
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XKCD's Randall Munroe on Google+ enforcing a public gender.
I know I have strong opinions on this subject, so I'll try (but probably fail) to keep this relatively brief. I promise to go back to frog photos after this.

Google+ forces you to have a public gender in your profile (although it can be 'Other'). I know they have reasons for this, but I don't think they're good enough.

Many women grow up with a sense of physical vulnerability that's hard for men to appreciate. Our culture's relentless treatment of women as objects teaches them that they are defined by the one thing that men around them want from them—men who are usually bigger, stronger, and (like any human) occasionally crazy. This feeling—often confirmed by actual experiences of harassment and assault—can lead, understandably, to a lifetime of low-level wariness and sense of vulnerability that men have trouble appreciating. A male designer building an interface should try to keep in mind that there are reasons a female user might feel uncomfortable being told she has to broadcast her gender. Sure, someone's gender is usually obvious from their name, but there's no need to force people to draw extra attention to it—introducing myself with "Hi, I'm Randall." sends a different message from "Hi, I'm Randall, and I'm a MAN."

I don't think making this option mandatory is a significant cause of the major Google+ early-adopter gender split, but if you're worried about how few female users your project has, marginalizing their potential worries on your introductory screen doesn't seem very bright.

There are reasons Google+ might want your gender. For one thing, the interface may need to use pronouns, and in some languages there's no way to avoid this. We have a chat-bot in the #xkcd IRC channel which serves as a repository of user nonsense. At some point, we decided to program in the ability to use pronouns, and it was surprisingly complicated:

http://wiki.xkcd.com/irc/Bucket_Gender

Now, I went out of my way to support the various options for referral that users asked for (although I drew the line at recently-invented pronouns like "xir"). But even covering the basics in English is tricky, and the situation gets more so in languages like Hebrew. (It looks like Google+ punts on that issue by making all "other" users male in all languages, which is a can of worms in itself.) Yet none of the linguistic issues mean you have to make gender a broadcasted part of the user's profile.

They also (obviously) want to know more about you so they can serve ads; advertisers care about gender. But again, that's no reason to make gender public.

The "other" option is nice, but I don't really feel comfortable setting my gender as "other". There are a huge number of people whose gender is actually best-described as "other", and they come in astonishing variety, even if you set aside the issue of social gender and just ask about biology. This article has a fascinating list of eleven particularly tricky situations that lead to someone having no easy-to-agree-on biological sex:

http://linuxmafia.com/faq/Essays/marriage.html

There are quite a few people who are accurately described by an "other" option, and when they're sometimes struggling for recognition, co-opting their label for anyone who doesn't want to broadcast their gender seems a little off-putting.

The bottom line is that there are a lot of reasons Google+ would want to ask about your gender. But there's no good reason to pointedly make it the only thing in your profile that can't be private—and many reasons not to, starting with basic courtesy. It may be a small issue in the grand scheme of things, but I think it's worth getting right.

(P.S. I know I post a lot about interface quibbles and feature suggestions—and I do use the feedback button heavily—but I don't want to give the impression I'm generally unhappy with Google+. Fundamentally, I really like this system, which makes me want to tweak things in this early-adopter period so it will be as well-designed as possible, so it will survive and be around for me to use for a long time.)
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Google Plus now wants me to add such luminaries as Randall Munroe and Mark Zuckerberg to my circles. ^_-
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