Infrequently Noted

Alex Russell on browsers, standards, and the process of progress.

The Price of Anonymity: Our Principles?

I'm blessed with many friends in the Bay Area and incredibly grateful to count Caryl Shaw among them. It was pretty horrifying, then, to see the Digg "commentary" on an article which she wrote for PC Gamer. Luckily, much of the worst of the lot are being modded down as time goes on, but seriously, who really thinks that blatantly sexist comments are passable in 2008? That those kinds of comments occur on high-volume sites like Digg or Slashdot, sadly, doesn't surprise me.

It's really hard to know where to start in pondering the deep-seated misogyny that leads anyone to think that comments along those lines are OK, particularly in a public forum. That's perhaps part of the issue: while public, Digg (and Slashdot, etc.) comments are anonymous enough to give voice to the kinds of behavior that any society must excise if it hopes to achieve anything near its potential. We have shared principles that govern our society because we agree (together) that they're best for everyone and not just some smaller set of people. Anonymity suppresses the social enforcement functions that usually keep this kind of stuff from dominating the discussion by removing the sense of public shame that should be felt when saying vile things about others. Typing away at a keyboard allows one to feel alone but act in public in a way that creates an all-to-common dynamic online.

That got me thinking about OSCON and the talks that get proposed on the topic of gender balance nearly every year (I serve on the program committee). I usually find myself conflicted about such proposals, in part because I think the Open Source world has – in the main – been incredibly dishonest with itself to date regarding gender disparities. Jennifer and I seem to discuss it as it comes up every year, always ending up at the frustrating conclusion that this is the outcome the community allows. Surely this kind of objectionable behavior wouldn't show up so frequently if we were closer to gender balance in the OSS world. But the larger tech world seems to be addressing the topic badly if at all and OSS is no exception. Organizations like LinuxChix, SFWOW, and the Anita Borg Institute seem to me as much as defense mechanism against pervasive misogyny than a viable path forward. Segregation can't be our answer. Luckily there was a great talk this year by Emma Jane Hogbin (good notes here) which got to a lot of the meat of the issue (also, see Pia Waugh's talk summary). I find the discussion about the offhand comments which are tolerated by OSS communities to be particularly spot on: many of these communities have very strict rules about how they build and discuss code but are completely tone-deaf to how they alienate 50% of the world. Under the surface of both gaming and OSS is much the same dynamic at play when it comes to the treatment of women and, well, anyone else who's not a young white male from somewhere in the midwest. I've certainly seen my share of deplorable IRC conversations in rooms ostensibly dedicated to Open Source projects. Small or highly-focused communities might not put up with the crap that passes for discussion on Digg, but as communities grow without a strong set of norms in place and enforced, it seems inevitable that the semi-anonymous nature of the medium begets a hostile environment.

This is about the point where folks jump in to note that anonymity on the internet is a great tool for freedom; a way for the oppressed to express themselves and organize to further causes which are actually worth rallying to. But this argument breaks down quickly here: degenerate behavior in support channels or on discussions about popular links serves no principle, rises to no higher cause than prurient interest, and builds no "community" other than those who tolerate the objectification and denigration of half (or more) of the world's population. Frankly, that's not a community I want any part of.

So what, then, is the lesson for Open Source? Having just spent the week at OSCON, I've been slapped in the face once again by the complete lack of gender balance in Open Source contribution and computer engineering disciplines in general. It's kinda painful to walk around the expo hall and just imagine that for every 5 guys there are 4 women who were insulted, condescended to, or in some other way diverted from the path that would have landed them at OSCON. Simplistic arguments about graduation and enrollment rates are the dismissible results of completely antiquated cultural biases (via a new large-scale UW-Madison study). The UW study makes the case plainly: when we stop expecting differences and behave as though they are abnormal, they go away. Yes, yes, there are evolutionary differences in the physiology of men and women, but nothing that in any way explains anything like the complete dearth of female participation in Open Source. So we are left with just ourselves to blame.

In the Dojo project forums, mailing lists, and IRC channel, there is a strict policy forbidding offensive and lewd behavior. With that basic rule in place and enforced by long-time members of the community, the hostile environment so common elsewhere hasn't formed. That leads to a further puzzle: the Open Source world finds itself debating the moral and practical consequences of obtuse licensing aspects on a daily basis. What makes norms of community behavior around race, gender, and other forms of bias so different and loaded that Open Source community leaders then can't or won't speak to them? If we're developing this software with society at large, for society at large, why is absence of half of society from the process not the largest topic of discussion in the OSS world? It's certainly much more disturbing to me personally than any of the dickering over licenses that consumes so much time and attention.

The gaming world will need to clean up its own act, but the Open Source community doesn't need to wait for that to happen before acting. Unlike for-profit endeavors, Open Source projects have total leeway to act because it's the right thing to do and for no other reason. Open Source communities set standards – codes of conduct, if you will – regarding how code is developed, tested, licensed, and distributed. Open Source project leaders are in the business of setting standards for how well-organized communities act when it comes to code. So why are so many projects stopping there? The Ubuntu community Code of Conduct talks about respect but doesn't mention gender at all and while the OSI Code of Conduct talks about civility, it doesn't describe the norms which the community is held to aside from a reference to their Terms of Service which bury these expectations in 5 pages of legalese. At Dojo we haven't laid out our code of conduct in a document to date, but this latest incident has convinced me now that it's time to do so. Finding ways to modify our expectations around OSS participation by the "missing half" is now something I'm convinced is critical to the future of Open Source and computer science in general.

In that spirit, here's a first draft of a Code of Conduct for all Dojo Foundation projects which I'll send for discussion to the main Foundation list today for comment and hopefully adoption. Your thoughts on how it can be improved are much appreciated. It may not change the entire world of Open Source software development, computer science, or for that matter gaming, but we've got to start somewhere. We haven't let the Dojo community be complicit in the kind of misogyny-fueled belligerence that passes for commentary on Digg so perhaps by codifying those standards we can help create a clean, brightly-lit space where everyone can work, not just young white guys with too much time not enough perspective.

Update: Emma Jane Hogbin notes that others are starting to run with this too. The Dojo Foundation response to the proposed Code of Conduct has been very positive while there seems to be a lot of skepticism so far on the FLOSS Foundations mailing list regarding the need for a pan-Foundation statement of conduct principles. It'll be interesting to see where it goes from here.

Update 2: as I was listening to my podcasts this evening, I ran across a fascinating On The Media piece from this week that's pretty much required listening on this topic. Amazing and introspective stuff.

Update 3: What would Digg be like with Yog Rules?

Updates from Portland

I've been in Portland since Saturday, first attending FLOSS Foundations meeting which was very productive, and now attending meetings and tutorials and such. I've been a bit disconnected from the rest of the world due to The Conference Effect, but Nikolai from Uxebu gave me a heads-up that today they've announced a new Dojo + Django integration project called Dojango. A lot of the Dojo community thinks the Django guys have done a lot of things right, so this kind of integration makes tons of sense. I can't wait to see how it evolves.

While here I also got wind that Sun has quietly announced a new version of the Java Communication Suite with a rich, Dojo-based web interface. I don't know if it's running publicly anywhere, but it looks like an impressive win for Sun's Communication Suite customers.

If you're in Portland, I hope you'll join us for tonight's dojo.dinner(), 6:30pm at the Chesterfield (and RSVP for it by by sendng us mail).

OSCON '08

I'm leaving tomorrow for my yearly trek to Portland for OSCON. If you're going, don't hesitate to drop me a line if you want to catch up or RSVP for the Dojo meetup/dinner on Wed evening.

Speaking as a member of the OSCON program committee, I'm very happy about the quality of the talks in the web-ish tracks this year. There's even a Dojo talk – even though for the first time in a long while, I won't be giving any talks. The inimitable Matthew Russell, author of ORA's Dojo: TDG will be giving an awesome talk on 2D drawing with Dojo's GFX system. I know he's got some awesome demos worked up, so I can't wait to see the talk. Gavin Doughtie, occasional contributor to the GFX system, is also giving several talks that you'll find me in. Should be a lot of fun.

On a more macro scale, though, I've started to become concerned that "Open Source" as a brand has lost its way. Those who would speak for Open Source have focused narrowly on licensing and have largely ignored the other social processes and artifacts that define what it means to contribute to OSS projects and how those artifacts lead to success or failure of projects, and therefore, of the movement such as it is. There's a huge disconnect between what the letter of the Open Source law dictates (the licenses) and the social and process constraints that are required to build high-quality, trustable communities that ensure 100 point OSS products, and many businesses have struck on these differences as a way to use the Open Source brand to imply or insinuate that users should trust their products more than is warranted. OSI's failure to address this brand erosion has had some troubling effects in the small JavaScript corner of the OSS world of late, and I know we're not alone. OSI has also proven completely impotent in preventing license proliferation, further eroding the Open Source brand. There are, of course, lots of folks who are also concerned about these thing, and so I'm excited to see David Recordon (of OpenID, etc. fame) giving a talk which looks to talk about some of the community aspects. I tend to blow off "community" talks at conferences, but given David's use of the phrase "Open Web" and his unique perspective, I'll be interested to see what he says. I'll also be curious to see if and how any of this is discussed at the FLOSSCON meeting of OSS Foundation leaders tomorrow and Sunday.

If you'll be in Portland next week, don't hesitate to join us for the dojo.dinner() on Wed. I'm looking forward to seeing everyone again and talking though the issues. Should be a great time.

Only 2 More Days!

Go! Go right now to and watch Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog (if you aren't already compulsively refreshing the page in the hopes that they post episode 3 a tad bit early). Joss Whedon does it again.

Fascinating Data

Note: this post is far afield of my usual discussions. In the interest of not distracting those who read this blog because I usually discuss web-oriented things, the content of the post is beyond the jump.

Via Mark Thoma, the SF Fed's briefing numbers look really odd. The inflation expectation numbers look to depend on an extreme version of the commonly held assumption that workers have lost their collective bargaining power, thereby removing the wage/price linkage that caused so much damage in the 70's. That might be good for "the economy" (as defined by what's good for bankers), but if true, it seems bad for you and me.

What it means to you and I is that our economy has a chance of beating the rap on the fundamental inability of private markets (bankers) to judge risk accurately only because some percentage of our annual incomes will be shaved off and there's nothing we can do about it. And that is the good news. Put another way, we're staring down the last of the Bush Administration's regressive taxes and we just have to take it. The well-off pay a 17%-ish percent maginal tax rate on investment income, while those in "the productive economy" (the people those stimulus checks are designed to help out) pay well above that on every additional dollar they earn. Of course, it's basic economics that if you are in a situation in which you spend more of your marginal income than you save, then any tax on consumption hits you much harder than those who can afford to save. So prices increases without attendant wage increases hurt the middle and lower classes, particularly when the price increases aren't related to "core" inflation. When "core" inflation goes up, it really starts to squeeze asset values, but non-core inflation simply implies that it costs more to buy things like food, fuel, and all of the other daily necessities. While "core" inflation seems a good metric to talk about projected long-term inflation rates and linkages and embedding, its effects aren't the ones currently being felt by Americans.

Inflation is generically decried most heartily by the wealthy because it hurts them by reducing the real interest rate on savings, i.e. it reduces the return on assets invested. But not all inflation is created equal. The current situation is laying bare the difference between the average person's concerns about non-core inflation (the price of gas) and economists concerns about asset allocation (what's the rate of return on investment?). Put tersely: the current bout of inflation is hurting the people who can least afford it and those who can afford it are using the occasion to decry policies which they personally dislike even if their relationship is tenuous to the current trouble. There seems to be a lack of proportionality at work in the public dialog which I find deeply unsettling. Where did our conception of an adversarial press corps go?

The odd take-away is that inflation isn't so bad when it's tied to increases in productive output and income for those most at risk and when those increases promote stability, a fact that the "Washington Consensus" missed time and time again in its disastrous large-scale experiments in emerging economies. If those most at risk of income shocks are insulated by very low unemployment rates and a system that allows those in trouble to keep most of their (minimal) wealth in times of trouble (employment insurance, bankruptcy laws that don't strip people of fixed assets, etc.), then inflation is a tax that hurts the rich more, who incidentally are much more able to cope with such effects.

But inflation like we're experiencing? It's of a different sort. Non-core inflation is still in-check, which is good, but headline inflation is hurting those least able to cope at a rate not seen in decades. It's the last, grandest, "fuck you" of the current administration's policies to those who need to work for a living. Logic and data suggest that voting for regressive taxes isn't in my interest, or nearly anyone else's. Why then does a party looking to cling to power field bumbling fools who stand up for regressive taxation when logic, electability concerns, and basic math skills make plain how foolish that really is?

I'm a "right tools for the job" kinda guy. John McCain's economic and fiscal policy proposals certainly are making him look like a tool, but absolutely the wrong one.

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