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Ain't Misunderstandin'

Sometimes, even good intentions can lead to misunderstandings. Take, for example, the recent press release from a leading cellphone manufacturer (who shall remain anonymous, since its name is enough like mine that you might misunderstand me) trumpeting a new Bluetooth headset that has a "female touch."

Now, I'm not a woman—not even a "modern woman," in the words of the press release. Which may be why I don't understand what gender has with to do with Bluetooth headsets. The women I spoke to about this—at least those would speak to me—didn't as much take offense at the implied suggestions, as saying the suggestions were just plain dumb. "Crowded handbags, trying to find that ring-tone and juggling your time is difficult in today's busy world" [women are messy and disorganized?]. A new headset that is "a welcome relief to active, fashion-conscious women" [vain?]. "Throughout the design process, women have been thought about [by men?], from the considerable amount of talk-time available [women are more chatty than men?] and the user-friendly technology [women can't turn on a headset?], to the comfortable swirl ear hook which makes the headset easy to apply even with long hair" [Gee, I know lots of men who have hair longer than lots of women]. So what does the "modern woman" want? According to this Bluetooth headset provider, "an easy to use headset that looks great, fits in your handbag, and works well." Don't we all? But maybe I'm misunderstanding what the manufacturer has in mind—and more than once I've been accused of misunderstanding women.

Of course, I know what it means to be misunderstood. When I said something about programmers in China in last's month issue, reader Sal misunderstood:

How can a programmers' technical ability be based on their country of origin? Programming, like any other talent, is independent of the person's gender, race, or country of origin. I have worked with some really bad programmers who were born in the U.S., UK, Germany, India, Russia, and, yes, China. What separates a good programmer from a bad programmer is passion for programming and only a portion of the programming population have that. Furthermore, that passion is not based on person's country of origin. I am very disappointed that the chief editor of one of the most popular programmer magazines would make such a generalization that programmers from a specific country of origin are good or bad.

Sal, you misunderstood me. I'm the last person to suggest that geography has anything to do with programming talent. They're good programmers because they've acquired the skills and passion to develop great software, not because of where they live or, for that matter, their gender. Just take a look at any issue of this magazine and you'll see that great programmers—male and female—who write great articles come from all over the world—Belgium, Holland, Italy, Israel, France, Canada, Norway, Greece, the UK. Shoot, even Antarctica. Great programmers are everywhere, and I've been fortunate enough to travel around the world and meet many of them on their home turf (but not Antarctica, I'm glad to say). I will say that the greater the population, the more likely it is you'll see more programmers. But that's common sense. Also, countries with strong educational systems have an edge in building programming skill sets. However, both of these speak to technical abilities, not to the passion behind it. Which is why I agree with you that the passion for programming is what separates great programmers from the rest.

In the computing world, good intentions and misunderstanding often go hand-in-hand, that is assuming I'm not misunderstanding Edsger Dijkstra in his essay "The Fruits of Misunderstanding" (www.cs.utexas.edu/~EWD/transcriptions/EWD08xx/EWD854.html). According to Dijkstra, the source of lots of misunderstanding is when "faced with something new and unfamiliar, we try to relate it to what we are familiar with. In the course of the process we invent the analogies that enable us to do so." Dijkstra goes on to say that "with yesterday's words we have to plan today for tomorrow, and, the computing challenge being without precedent, the words are no good. If we don't coin new terms, we have to give new meanings to old words. Regrettably, the world of computing seems better at coining new terms for old meanings (or without any meaning at all)." Yes, like Bluetooth headsets with the female touch.

Jonathan Erickson


[email protected]

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