December 17, 2012

Gun Nuts 1

In the wake of the most recent school slaying I thought it might be relevant to revisit the writings of Eric S Raymond. Within my world he is a well-known and self-described "gun nut." His two principal writings on he right to bear arms appear to be The Parable of the Sheep and Ethics Through the Barrel of a Gun. I will look at the latter in a separate post. There is nothing I can do for the misery of the bereaved families. I can only hope to help in the longer run.

The Parable of the Sheep
This is a tale of a flock of sheep. The dog cannot keep the wolves away. Some sheep take the claws and fangs from dead wolves. They fight back, reducing the carnage. Eventually the wolves mostly leave sheep alone. They do not know which sheep are armed. Many sheep are terrified of the weapons. They ban the armed sheep from to the pasture. They post signs at the edges forbidding hidden weapons. The wolves, seeing this, return. Once again they inflict carnage on the flock. They are only beaten off by the armed sheep. The flock remain afraid of the weapons. They barely tolerate their protectors, the armed sheep. The armed sheep altruistically continue to protect the flock. Raymond describes the situation thus:
The bold sheep knew that the fangs and claws they possessed had not changed them. They still grazed like other sheep, and raised their lambs in the spring, and greeted their friend the dog as he walked among them. But they could not quell the terror of the flock, which rose in them like some ancient dark smoky spirit and could not be damped by reason, nor dispelled by the light of day.
The parable omits many refinements of the true situation. That is forgivable for expository purposes. A school shooting represents something outside the parable. There is a genuine reason for the terror of the unarmed sheep. Occasionally the armed sheep start acting like wolves. Of course the unarmed sheep are then the inevitable target.

The statistics for murder and armed robbery are quite alarming. Those for child murder are truly chilling. Almost 63% involved a firearm in 2011. Well over a thousand kids blown away each year. To suggest that we all arm to protect ourselves seems unbalanced. It's like the 1950's "defense" policy of Mutually Assured Destruction. Never was an acronym more appropriate. The terrorists aren't over there, they are among us. A school massacre is an act of terror.

Here the Japanese strategy of many approaches might be fruitful. It is unlikely there is a single switch we can turn to stop this happening. Surely it is better to try to understand these acts of atrocity. Consider them a societal ill and seek its cure. Perhaps we could try to build a world where people are better in touch with their fellows. Extremes of behavior can (most of the time) be recognized. If someone is heading in a dangerous direction, perhaps it can be deflected by sympathetic attention.

I imagine* that most mass murderers are completely in control most of the time. They are indistinguishable  from "normal" people. The classic quote after an apparently psychotic shooting episode? "He seemed like a normal guy." Let's leave the fact it's usually a man to another time. It's not like they are landmines, liable to go off at any touch. I am a pretty placid person most of the time. Occasionally some perfect storm of circumstances hits. Shortage of sleep is often involved. Physical exhaustion never helps. Emotional distress is very rarely positive. I "go off on one" in an uncharacteristic way. We all have extremes of behavior, often in response to extreme circumstances. Some people are more extreme than others.

Some people, sadly, are so extreme that they must be incarcerated to protect the rest of us. I would, in the USA, prefer it if the government invested its funding in long-term plans to make the country a better place to live than lock up predominantly black predominantly drug-offending adults.** Now private companies are running prisons, vested interests are powerful.

So while Raymond's simplified argument seems reasonable enough, that's only because it is simplified. There are inevitable outliers in a flock of over three hundred million. Mental stability and degree of moral control are two important dimensions. At that scale the sheep would appear to have a good reason for caution. Anyone proposing to use fangs and claws should surely be assessed as a responsible individual. Mistakes will still be made, but (presumably) it is not beyond the wit of sheep to concoct a scheme that reduces the number of massacre incidents.

In network parlance, the parable doesn't scale to larger flocks. Neither does it scale to bigger and better teeth and claws. The reductio ad absurdum of many gun nut arguments is that we should all carry personal tactical nuclear weapons. What's reasonable, and what's not? Why are such deadly automatic weapons allowed outside gun clubs and the armed forces? I don't mind people enjoying handling and using firearms. Hunting, preferably for food, for example, is a perfectly legitimate use. So is fun at a gun club shooting range. Mowing down kids, not so much. We have to strike a balance.

One final note: please let's not imagine there is an instant cure. All we can do is lay, and maintain to, long term plans. These should aim to reduce the availability and access to weapons, particularly those capable of facilitating mass murder.

* Admittedly if this were a Wikipedia article someone would have at least added a "citation needed" flag
** Who are then unable to vote

A Thank You to Eric Sterling

Offered for the attention of those who attended Eric's recent keynote at DjangoCon and, most especially for Eric himself. I still remember the talk and the panel session he took the time to contribute to fondly, and I particularly enjoyed the unique flavor he added to the lunch he attended.

December 15, 2012

I'm Sorry

The one-eyed snake
It appears I've been that guy (again). I've seen those "sorry if you were offended" apologies, and they are bullshit. So let me begin by unreservedly apologizing for my inappropriate behavior. Then perhaps I can tell you what this is all about. I do so in the doleful expectation that this post will generate more heat than light, as is typical for this subject matter in geek circles, and will be the cause of a large amount of ill-informed, unhelpful and possibly personally damaging commentary. Since it gives me the opportunity to discuss a few issues of importance I accept that as the price.

Last This year, at PyCon, I had a Square, a device to accept credit card payments through my cellphone, and inter alia was soliciting donations to the Python Software Foundation. As a part of my schtick I was offering to take photographs, and offered the option of a prop, a little Beanie Babies™ bean-stuffed Python which my dog, when a  puppy, had once got hold of and played with so enthusiastically that she tore off (and probably swallowed) the glued-on bead that represented its left eye. I've had this snake almost ever since I started using Python (almost twenty years now) and I'm very fond of it. It often travels with me as a talisman, since I usually travel alone.

Because I am so familiar with it, in retrospect it seems a little odd that I had never particularly dwelt on the fact that it is, literally, my "one-eyed snake" though I had used the phrase at home with family and friends as a joke. [For readers not familiar with colloquial English and American, I am obliged to point out at this stage that "one-eyed snake" is one of many euphemisms for the penis]. I was amused enough, on that day, by this fatuous coincidence that I offered to include "the chairman's one-eyed snake" in the photographs I was taking, of men as well as women.

People appeared (in my opinion, not actually the opinion that matters as it happens) to tolerate my risqué attempt at humor, feeble as it was, and took it in good part although certainly not everyone asked for the snake to be included. The conference ran its course, I went on my way, unaware that a storm was brewing.

The storm's gestation in fact took another event to trigger it, a recent motion by the PSF board that we would require any conference we funded to implement a code of conduct. The board collectively felt that this would be a forward step, and would actually be helpful to conference organizers who had not yet addressed this issue. PyCon has has a code of conduct for several years, and since the conferences I run professionally also have codes of conduct, I had no hesitation in voting for the motion.

It's difficult to describe this situation in anonymous terms, since verbatim quotes are required in order to allow me to properly discuss the way this situation has turned out. But those who wish to know the identities of the proponents must do so by using {{search_engine_of_choice}}. What happened when news of the motion came out is that someone posted a comment on Hacker News which included the following content
From what I understand, the code was approved by the Board of Directors of the PSF, and not the PSF as a whole. Please, correct me if I am wrong. This is ironic since one of the Board members was walking around the conference last year with a damaged stuffed python toy asking, "Would you like to see my one eyed snake?"
This was said to one of my female colleagues. I asked her if she would like me to say something and she replied, "No, it is just creepy, but I'm an adult."
I'd like you to particularly note two things: first, the quote is inaccurate, I believe (if I uttered those words I would have to accept I would have gone over the line with anyone but a close friend); second, the colleague herself chose not to complain. This is significant because of what happened next. Clearly the comment had received some attention, since shortly thereafter a second person, one I think it is fair to say is known not to be well-disposed towards the PSF, tweeted (in reply to a third party who may for all I know have been a fifth or twelfth party)
Wait, I didn't read this comment closely enough. What fucktard was walking around asking women to pet his one-eyed snake?
Note again: the already inaccurate quotation has been through the mangler once more. So now we (that is me and the PSF, though in this post I must put my director's hat aside and accept personal culpability) have a situation. This is not something that would have worried me hugely in my personal capacity, but the fact is that it has brought a lot of pressure to bear on someone who, through his heroic efforts to improve on last year's incredible PyCon, is already under quite enough pressure. So it is necessary for me to write this explanation lest his efforts to bring in sponsorship and promote diversity of all kinds in the Python community are damaged by my bad behavior.

Now to the several points I should like to make about the outcomes so far. I hesitate to think of the fallout to my professional life.
  1. I am lucky to be a man, since any woman posting about similar issues of female sensitivity is likely to be harangued and harassed until, unless she is of extraordinary character, she either allows herself to be silenced or leaves the Internet altogether (yes, well-known women have received threats that they felt obliged them to do this).
  2. Context is important. Although my behavior may not have been appropriate, it was taking place in broad daylight in a well-populated area so nobody felt especially threatened by it. The same offer (let alone either of the two misquoted ones above) made to a woman who is the only other occupant of an elevator at 1:30 in the morning would, I think, be reasonably interpreted as a possible if not an actual threat. Anyone who doesn't understand that isn't really fit to be out alone.
  3. It isn't up to me to decide whether my behavior is appropriate, but those with whom I interact. I teach professionally, have taken (and passed) sensitivity training classes, and am accustomed to behave in a professional manner that does not run the risk of attaching stigma to those I represent.  Because I feel that many members of the Python community are my friends, I perhaps overstepped the boundaries of professionalism, believing that nobody would mind.
  4. The fall-out of righteous indignation about events like this often lands on the wrong person. There is now heavy pressure on Jesse Noller as PyCon chair for not taking action about this. There have been definite suggestions that Jesse is being hypocritical in promoting a code of conduct for PyCon while condoning inappropriate behavior by a fellow director. There are two things worthy of note about this. 
  5. Firstly, since the issue only came to his and my attention eight months after the conference (and, indeed, after both he and I voted for the motion requiring codes of conduct) it is difficult to know what he could have been expected to do at the time. He has been heroically silent (for him).
  6. Secondly, the code of conduct exists precisely to reassure people that harassing actions can be reported, and will be dealt with, no matter what the position of the offender in the community. So I think anyone who is gunning for Jesse about this should give him a pass. If he had come to me because he had received a complaint I cannot say what action I would have felt correct, but at the least I would have expected to make a public apology. I do not expect that Jesse would have felt able to let a transgression on my part go without action: he has far too much integrity for that. I like to think I have enough integrity to accept being told when I have transgressed (hence my dislike of the "if anyone was offended, sorry" stuff).
  7. Circumstances alter cases. The code of conduct is not expected to protect people in a vacuum. If you find someone's behavior offensive your first recourse should be to say so. Hopefully an apology should be forthcoming, or at least a civilized discussion about your differences in standards. If the issue cannot be resolved in person then is the time to invoke the code of conduct. This is what makes variations in behavioral standards acceptable: when you are with people you know you are unlikely to go wrong; when you are not you should take others' input as defining acceptable limits.
  8. It is unreasonable to expect perfection. We all slip from time to time, and a slip should not necessarily lead to a fall. I noted with a parenthetical "again" in the opening paragraph that this is not the first time I have behaved inappropriately, and sadly it may not be the last. I can say, though, that on the few occasions my behavior towards an individual was definitely capable of causing offense I have apologized sincerely and without reservation, usually before further contact from the other party (i.e. I am capable of recognizing bad behavior on my own part and voluntarily apologizing for it). I am happy to say that I count some of those to whom I have had to apologize as friends even now, and believe those feelings are reciprocated.
  9. I specifically do not want the support of men weighing in with some equivalent of "what the hell, man, you didn't do anything wrong, what are the women complaining about?" Perhaps when your knuckles stop dragging along the ground we can talk. I very much would like the support of men who are equally liable to do stupid things (and have done) and yet still remain open to the possibility that one can be equally civil and courteous to members of all sexes. It's easy for men to say "we've all been that guy," but I hope that women don't imagine that guy conversation is laced with tales about how we were "that guy". We don't talk about our goofs even among ourselves (unless there's some club I'm not a member of). Men who are sensitive to the need for gender diversity find these mistakes painful to remember, and only dwell on them in private (this has not been an easy post to write). Men who are not sensitive to that need, please re-read the opening sentence of this paragraph. Support from others will also be more than welcome. 
  10. Diversity is not just gender diversity. Because I speak fluent English it is easy for Americans to imagine that I have absorbed their culture fully, though even after fifteen years I often have to stop to clarify cultural referents common to most natives. They forget that I am, in fact, an immigrant who was brought up with different standards. I am not trying to suggest that I should not be subject to the values of the USA, but would hope that when I overstep the bounds some leniency might be shown. I in my turn sometimes forget that standards are different over here.
There is more that I could write*, but I feel that this post is already long enough. I will close by remarking that it turns out the female colleague of the original poster is personally known to me, and in our several meetings both personal and professional since then she has not mentioned this issue (unless my memory has failed me). Naturally I intend to apologize to her at the first available opportunity, and to ensure that in the future I do nothing to make her feel uncomfortable (the basis on which I believed I was conducting the relationship). If I was not confident that people would feel comfortable in my presence I would not feel able to attend PyCon, since that would exclude others.

As PyCon's founder I genuinely want to see it address diversity issues properly. For eight years as a director and three years as chairman I have worked to ensure that the PSF is seen to take these issues seriously. I am mortified that I ran the risk of bringing either into disrepute. I hope that by making this apology I continue to lead by example.

* I might, say, discuss the appropriateness of using the word "fucktard" in public discourse on such serious matters .