Are Men the Victims?

A very famous blog post is Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is by John Scalzi [1]. In that post he clearly describes that life isn’t great for straight white men, but that there are many more opportunities for them.

Causes of Death

When this post is mentioned there are often objections, one common objection is that men have a lower life expectancy. The CIA World factbook (which I consider a very reliable source about such matters) says that the US life expectancy is 77.8 for males and 82.3 for females [2]. The country with the highest life expectancy is Monaco with 85.5 for males and 93.4 years for females [3]. The CDC in the US has a page with links to many summaries about causes of death [4]. The causes where men have higher rates in 2015 are heart disease (by 2.1%), cancer (by 1.7%), unintentional injuries (by 2.8%), and diabetes (by 0.4%). The difference in the death toll for heart disease, cancer, unintentional injuries, and diabetes accounts for 7% of total male deaths. The male top 10 lists of causes of death also includes suicide (2.5%) and chronic liver disease (1.9%) which aren’t even in the top 10 list for females (which means that they would each comprise less than 1.6% of the female death toll).

So the difference in life expectancy would be partly due to heart problems (which are related to stress and choices about healthy eating etc), unintentional injuries (risk seeking behaviour and work safety), cancer (the CDC reports that smoking is more popular among men than women [5] by 17.5% vs 13.5%), diabetes (linked to unhealthy food), chronic liver disease (alcohol), and suicide. Largely the difference seems to be due to psychological and sociological issues.

The American Psychological Association has for the first time published guidelines for treating men and boys [6]. It’s noteworthy that the APA states that in the past “psychology focused on men (particularly white men), to the exclusion of all others” and goes on to describe how men dominate the powerful and well paid jobs. But then states that “men commit 90 percent of homicides in the United States and represent 77 percent of homicide victims”. They then go on to say “thirteen years in the making, they draw on more than 40 years of research showing that traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful and that socializing boys to suppress their emotions causes damage that echoes both inwardly and outwardly”. The article then goes on to mention use of alcohol, tobacco, and unhealthy eating as correlated with “traditional” ideas about masculinity. One significant statement is “mental health professionals must also understand how power, privilege and sexism work both by conferring benefits to men and by trapping them in narrow roles”.

The news about the new APA guidelines focuses on the conservative reaction, the NYT has an article about this [7].

I think that there is clear evidence that more flexible ideas about gender etc are good for men’s health and directly connect to some of the major factors that affect male life expectancy. Such ideas are opposed by conservatives.

Risky Jobs

Another point that is raised is the higher rate of work accidents for men than women. In Australia it was illegal for women to work in underground mines (one of the more dangerous work environments) until the late 80’s (here’s an article about this and other issues related to women in the mining industry [8]).

I believe that people should be allowed to work at any job they are qualified for. I also believe that we need more occupational health and safety legislation to reduce the injuries and deaths at work. I don’t think that the fact that a group of (mostly male) politicians created laws to exclude women from jobs that are dangerous and well-paid while also not creating laws to mitigate the danger is my fault. I’ll vote against such politicians at every opportunity.

Military Service

Another point that is often raised is that men die in wars.

In WW1 women were only allowed to serve in the battlefield as nurses. Many women died doing that. Deaths in war has never been an exclusively male thing. Women in many countries are campaigning to be allowed to serve equally in the military (including in combat roles).

As far as I am aware the last war where developed countries had conscription was the Vietnam war. Since then military technology has developed to increasingly complex and powerful weapons systems with an increasing number of civilians and non-combat military personnel supporting each soldier who is directly involved in combat. So it doesn’t seem likely that conscription will be required for any developed country in the near future.

But not being directly involved in combat doesn’t make people safe. NPR has an interesting article about the psychological problems (potentially leading up to suicide) that drone operators and intelligence staff experience [9]. As an aside the article reference two women doing that work.

Who Is Ignoring These Things?

I’ve been accused of ignoring these problems, it’s a general pattern on the right to accuse people of ignoring these straight white male problems whenever there’s a discussion of problems that are related to not being a straight white man. I don’t think that I’m ignoring anything by failing to mention death rates due to unsafe workplaces in a discussion about the treatment of trans people. I try to stay on topic.

The New York Times article I cited shows that conservatives are the ones trying to ignore these problems. When the American Psychological Association gives guidelines on how to help men who suffer psychological problems (which presumably would reduce the suicide rate and bring male life expectancy closer to female life expectancy) they are attacked by Fox etc.

My electronic communication (blog posts, mailing list messages, etc) is mostly connected to the free software community, which is mostly male. The majority of people who read what I write are male. But it seems that the majority of positive feedback when I write about such issues is from women. I don’t think there is a problem of women or left wing commentators failing men. I think there is a problem of men and conservatives failing men.

What Can We Do?

I’m sure that there are many straight white men who see these things as problems but just don’t say anything about it. If you don’t want to go to the effort of writing a blog post then please consider signing your name to someone else’s. If you are known for your work (EG by being a well known programmer in the Linux community) then you could just comment “I agree” on a post like this and that makes a difference while also being really easy to do.

Another thing that would be good is if we could change the hard drinking culture that seems connected to computer conferences etc. Kara has an insightful article on Model View Culture about drinking and the IT industry [10]. I decided that drinking at Linux conferences had got out of hand when about 1/3 of the guys at my table at a conference dinner vomited.

Linux Conf Au (the most prestigious Linux conference) often has a Depression BoF which is really good. I hope they have one this year. As an aside I have problems with depression, anyone who needs someone to talk to about such things and would rather speak to me than attend a BoF is welcome to contact me by email (please take a failure to reply immediately as a sign that I’m behind on checking my email not anything else) or social media.

If you have any other ideas on how to improve things please make a comment here, or even better write a blog post and link to it in a comment.

Racism in the Office

Today I was at an office party and the conversation turned to race, specifically the incidence of unarmed Afro-American men and boys who are shot by police. Apparently the idea that white people (even in other countries) might treat non-white people badly offends some people, so we had a man try to explain that Afro-Americans commit more crime and therefore are more likely to get shot. This part of the discussion isn’t even noteworthy, it’s the sort of thing that happens all the time.

I and another man pointed out that crime is correlated with poverty and racism causes non-white people to be disproportionately poor. We also pointed out that US police seem capable of arresting proven violent white criminals without shooting them (he cited arrests of Mafia members I cited mass murderers like the one who shot up the cinema). This part of the discussion isn’t particularly noteworthy either. Usually when someone tries explaining some racist ideas and gets firm disagreement they back down. But not this time.

The next step was the issue of whether black people are inherently violent. He cited all of Africa as evidence. There’s a meme that you shouldn’t accuse someone of being racist, it’s apparently very offensive. I find racism very offensive and speak the truth about it. So all the following discussion was peppered with him complaining about how offended he was and me not caring (stop saying racist things if you don’t want me to call you racist).

Next was an appeal to “statistics” and “facts”. He said that he was only citing statistics and facts, clearly not understanding that saying “Africans are violent” is not a statistic. I told him to get his phone and Google for some statistics as he hadn’t cited any. I thought that might make him just go away, it was clear that we were long past the possibility of agreeing on these issues. I don’t go to parties seeking out such arguments, in fact I’d rather avoid such people altogether if possible.

So he found an article about recent immigrants from Somalia in Melbourne (not about the US or Africa, the previous topics of discussion). We are having ongoing discussions in Australia about violent crime, mainly due to conservatives who want to break international agreements regarding the treatment of refugees. For the record I support stronger jail sentences for violent crime, but this is an idea that is not well accepted by conservatives presumably because the vast majority of violent criminals are white (due to the vast majority of the Australian population being white).

His next claim was that Africans are genetically violent due to DNA changes from violence in the past. He specifically said that if someone was a witness to violence it would change their DNA to make them and their children more violent. He also specifically said that this was due to thousands of years of violence in Africa (he mentioned two thousand and three thousand years on different occasions). I pointed out that European history has plenty of violence that is well documented and also that DNA just doesn’t work the way he thinks it does.

Of course he tried to shout me down about the issue of DNA, telling me that he studied Psychology at a university in London and knows how DNA works, demanding to know my qualifications, and asserting that any scientist would support him. I don’t have a medical degree, but I have spent quite a lot of time attending lectures on medical research including from researchers who deliberately change DNA to study how this changes the biological processes of the organism in question.

I offered him the opportunity to star in a Youtube video about this, I’d record everything he wants to say about DNA. But he regarded that offer as an attempt to “shame” him because of his “controversial” views. It was a strange and sudden change from “any scientist will support me” to “it’s controversial”. Unfortunately he didn’t give up on his attempts to convince me that he wasn’t racist and that black people are lesser.

The next odd thing was when he asked me “what do you call them” (black people), “do you call them Afro-Americans when they are here”. I explained that if an American of African ancestry visits Australia then you would call them Afro-American, otherwise not. It’s strange that someone goes from being so certain of so many things to not knowing the basics. In retrospect I should have asked whether he was aware that there are black people who aren’t African.

Then I sought opinions from other people at the party regarding DNA modifications. While I didn’t expect to immediately convince him of the error of his ways it should at least demonstrate that I’m not the one who’s in a minority regarding this issue. As expected there was no support for the ideas of DNA modifying. During that discussion I mentioned radiation as a cause of DNA changes. He then came up with the idea that radiation from someone’s mouth when they shout at you could change your DNA. This was the subject of some jokes, one man said something like “my parents shouted at me a lot but didn’t make me a mutant”.

The other people had some sensible things to say, pointing out that psychological trauma changes the way people raise children and can have multi-generational effects. But the idea of events 3000 years ago having such effects was ridiculed.

By this time people were starting to leave. A heated discussion of racism tends to kill the party atmosphere. There might be some people who think I should have just avoided the discussion to keep the party going (really I didn’t want it and tried to end it). But I’m not going to allow a racist to think that I agree with them, and if having a party requires any form of agreement to racism then it’s not a party I care about.

As I was getting ready to leave the man said that he thought he didn’t explain things well because he was tipsy. I disagree, I think he explained some things very well. When someone goes to such extraordinary lengths to criticise all black people after a discussion of white cops killing unarmed black people I think it shows their character. But I did offer some friendly advice, “don’t drink with people you work with or for or any other people you want to impress”, I suggested that maybe quitting alcohol altogether is the right thing to do if this is what it causes. But he still thought it was wrong of me to call him racist, and I still don’t care. Alcohol doesn’t make anyone suddenly think that black people are inherently dangerous (even when unarmed) and therefore deserving of being shot by police (disregarding the fact that police can take members of the Mafia alive). But it does make people less inhibited about sharing such views even when it’s clear that they don’t have an accepting audience.

Some Final Notes

I was not looking for an argument or trying to entrap him in any way. I refrained from asking him about other races who have experienced violence in the past, maybe he would have made similar claims about other non-white races and maybe he wouldn’t, I didn’t try to broaden the scope of the dispute.

I am not going to do anything that might be taken as agreement or support of racism unless faced with the threat of violence. He did not threaten me so I wasn’t going to back down from the debate.

I gave him multiple opportunities to leave the debate. When I insisted that he find statistics to support his cause I hoped and expected that he would depart. Instead he came back with a page about the latest racist dog-whistle in Australian politics which had no correlation with anything we had previously discussed.

I think the fact that this debate happened says something about Australian and British culture. This man apparently hadn’t had people push back on such ideas before.

Logic of Zombies

Most zombie movies feature shuffling hordes which prefer to eat brains but also generally eat any human flesh available. Because in most movies (pretty much everything but the 28 Days Later series [1]) zombies move slowly they rely on flocking to be dangerous.

Generally the main way of killing zombies is severe head injury, so any time zombies succeed in their aim of eating brains they won’t get a new recruit for their horde. The TV series iZombie [2] has zombies that are mostly like normal humans as long as they get enough brains and are smart enough to plan to increase their horde. But most zombies don’t have much intelligence and show no signs of restraint so can’t plan to recruit new zombies. In 28 Days Later the zombies aren’t smart enough to avoid starving to death, in contrast to most zombie movies where the zombies aren’t smart enough to find food other than brains but seem to survive on magic.

For a human to become a member of a shuffling horde of zombies they need to be bitten but not killed. They then need to either decide to refrain from a method of suicide that precludes becoming a zombie (gunshot to the head or jumping off a building) or unable to go through with it. Most zombie movies (I think everything other than 28 Days Later) has the transition process taking some hours so there’s plenty of time for an infected person to kill themself or be killed by others. Then they need to avoid having other humans notice that they are infected and kill them before they turn into a zombie. This doesn’t seem likely to be a common occurrence. It doesn’t seem likely that shuffling zombies (as opposed to the zombies in 28 Days Later or iZombie) would be able to form a horde.

In the unlikely event that shuffling zombies managed to form a horde that police couldn’t deal with I expect that earth-moving machinery could deal with them quickly. The fact that people don’t improvise armoured vehicles capable of squashing zombies is almost as ridiculous as all the sci-fi movies that feature infantry.

It’s obvious that logic isn’t involved in the choice of shuffling zombies. It’s more of a choice of whether to have the jump-scare aspect of 18 Days Later, the human-drama aspect of zombies that pass for human in iZombie, or the terror of a slowly approaching horrible fate that you can’t escape in most zombie movies.

I wonder if any of the music streaming services have a horror-movie playlist that has screechy music to set your nerves on edge without the poor plot of a horror movie. Could listening to scary music in the dark become a thing?

Anarchy in the Office

Some of the best examples I’ve seen of anarchy working have been in corporate environments. This doesn’t mean that they were perfect or even as good as a theoretical system in which a competent manager controlled everything, but they often worked reasonably well.

In a well functioning team members will encourage others to do their share of the work in the absence of management. So when the manager disappears (doesn’t visit the team more than once a week and doesn’t ask for any meaningful feedback on how things are going) things can still work out. When someone who is capable of doing work isn’t working then other people will suggest that they do their share. If resources for work (such as a sufficiently configured PC for IT work) aren’t available then they can be found (abandoned PCs get stripped and the parts used to upgrade the PCs that need it most).

There was one time where a helpdesk worker who was about to be laid off was assigned to the same office as me (apparently making all the people in his group redundant took some time). So I started teaching him sysadmin skills, assigned work to him, and then recommended that my manager get him transferred to my group. That worked well for everyone.

One difficult case is employees who get in the way of work being done, those who are so incompetent that they break enough things to give negative productivity. One time when I was working in Amsterdam I had two colleagues like that, it turned out that the company had no problem with employees viewing porn at work so no-one asked them to stop looking at porn. Having them paid to look at porn 40 hours a week was much better than having them try to do work. With anarchy there’s little option to get rid of bad people, so just having them hang out and do no work was the only option. I’m not advocating porn at work (it makes for a hostile work environment), but managers at that company did worse things.

One company I worked for appeared (from the non-management perspective) to have a management culture of doing no work. During my time there I did two “annual reviews” in two weeks, and the second was delayed by over 6 months. The manager in question only did the reviews at that time because he was told he couldn’t be promoted until he got the backlog of reviews done, so apparently being more than a year behind in annual reviews was no obstacle to being selected for promotion. On one occasion I raised the issue of a colleague who had done no work for over a year (and didn’t even have a PC to do work) with that manager, his response was “what do you expect me to do”! I expected him to do anything other than blow me off when I reported such a serious problem! But in spite of that strictly work-optional culture enough work was done and the company was a leader in it’s field.

There has been a lot of research into the supposed benefits of bonuses etc which usually turn out to reduce productivity. Such research is generally ignored presumably because the people who are paid the most are the ones who get to decide whether financial incentives should be offered so they choose the compensation model for the company that benefits themselves. But the fact that teams can be reasonably productive when some people are paid to do nothing and most people have their work allocated by group consensus rather than management plan seems to be a better argument against the typical corporate management.

I think it would be interesting to try to run a company with an explicit anarchic management and see how it compares to the accidental anarchy that so many companies have. The idea would be to have minimal management that just does the basic HR tasks (preventing situations of bullying etc), a flat pay rate for everyone (no bonuses, pay rises, etc) and have workers decide how to spend money for training, facilities, etc. Instead of having middle managers you would have representatives elected from each team to represent their group to senior management.

PS Australia has some of the strictest libel laws in the world. Comments that identify companies or people are likely to be edited or deleted.

Sociological Images 2015

3 men 1 women on lift sign

The above sign was at the Melbourne Docks in December 2014 when I was returning from a cruise. I have no idea why there are 3 men and 1 woman on the sign (and a dock worker was also surprised when I explained why I was photographing it). I wonder whether a sign that had 3 women and 1 man would ever have been installed or not noticed if it was installed.

rules for asking questions at LCA2015

At the start of the first day of LCA 2015 the above was displayed at the keynote as a flow-chart for whether someone should ask a question at a lecture. Given that the first real item in the list is that a question should fit in a tweet I think it was inspired by my blog post about the length of conference questions [1].

Astronomy Miniconf suggestions for delegates

At the introduction to the Astronomy Miniconf the above slide was displayed. In addition to referencing the flow-chart for asking questions it recommends dimming laptop screens (among other things).

sign saying men to the left because women are always right

The above sign was at a restaurant in Auckland in January 2015. I thought that sort of sexist “joke” went out of fashion a few decades ago.

gendered nerf weaponary

The above photo is from a Melbourne department store in February 2015. Why gender a nerf gun? That just doesn’t make sense. Also it appeared that the only nerf crossbow was the purple/pink one, is a crossbow considered feminine nowadays?

Picture of Angela appropriating Native American clothing

The above picture is a screen-shot of one of the “Talking Angela” series of Android games from March. Appropriating the traditional clothing of marginalised groups is a bad thing. People of Native American heritage who want to wear their traditional clothing face discrimination when they do so, when white people play dress-up in clothing that is a parody of Native American style it’s really offensive. The site Racialicious.com has a tag for articles about appropriation [2].

The above was in a library advertising an Ebook reader. In this case they didn’t even have pointlessly gendered products they just had pointlessly gendered adverts for the same product. They also perpetuate the myth that only girls read vampire books and only boys read about space. Also why is the girl lying down to read while the boy is sitting up?

Above is an Advent calendar on sale in a petrol station. Having end of year holiday presents that have nothing to do with religious festivals makes sense. But Advent is a religious observance. I think this would be a better candidate for “war on Christmas” paranoia than a coffee cup of the wrong colour.

The above photo is of boys and girls pipette suckers. Pointlessly gendered recreational products like Nerf guns is one thing, but I think that doing it to scientific equipment is a bigger problem. Are scientists going to stop work if they can’t find a pipette sucker of the desired gender? Is worrying about this going to distract them from their research (really bad if working with infectious or carcinogenic solutions). The Integra advertising claims to be doing this to promote breast cancer research which is also bogus. Here is a Sociological Images article about the problems of using pink to market breast cancer research [3] and the Sociological Images post about pinkwashing (boobies against breast cancer) is also worth reading [4].

As an aside I made a mistake in putting a pipette sucker over the woman’s chest in that picture. The way that Integra portreyed her chest is relevant to analysis of this advert. But unfortunately I didn’t photograph that.

Here is a link to my sociological images post from 2014 [5].

The Purpose of a Code of Conduct

On a private mailing list there have been some recent discussions about a Code of Conduct which demonstrate some great misunderstandings. The misunderstandings don’t seem particular to that list so it’s worthy of a blog post. Also people tend to think more about what they do when their actions will be exposed to a wider audience so hopefully people who read this post will think before they respond.

Jokes

The first discussion concerned the issue of making “jokes”. When dealing with the treatment of other people (particularly minority groups) the issue of “jokes” is a common one. It’s fairly common for people in positions of power to make “jokes” about people with less power and then complain if someone disapproves. The more extreme examples of this concern hate words which are strongly associated with violence, one of the most common is a word used to describe gay men which has often been associated with significant violence and murder. Men who are straight and who conform to the stereotypes of straight men don’t have much to fear from that word while men who aren’t straight will associate it with a death threat and tend not to find any amusement in it.

Most minority groups have words that are known to be associated with hate crimes. When such words are used they usually send a signal that the minority groups in question aren’t welcome. The exception is when the words are used by other members of the group in question. For example if I was walking past a biker bar and heard someone call out “geek” or “nerd” I would be a little nervous (even though geeks/nerds have faced much less violence than most minority groups). But at a Linux conference my reaction would be very different. As a general rule you shouldn’t use any word that has a history of being used to attack any minority group other than one that you are a member of, so black rappers get to use a word that was historically used by white slave-owners but because I’m white I don’t get to sing along to their music. As an aside we had a discussion about such rap lyrics on the Linux Users of Victoria mailing list some time ago, hopefully most people think I’m stating the obvious here but some people need a clear explanation.

One thing that people should consider “jokes” is the issue of punching-down vs punching-up [1] (there are many posts about this topic, I linked to the first Google hit which seems quite good). The basic concept is that making jokes about more powerful people or organisations is brave while making “jokes” about less powerful people is cowardly and serves to continue the exclusion of marginalised people. When I raised this issue in the mailing list discussion a group of men immediately complained that they might be bullied by lots of less powerful people making jokes about them. One problem here is that powerful people tend to be very thin skinned due to the fact that people are usually nice to them. While the imaginary scenario of less powerful people making jokes about rich white men might be unpleasant if it happened in person, it wouldn’t compare to the experience of less powerful people who are the target of repeated “jokes” in addition to all manner of other bad treatment. Another problem is that the impact of a joke depends on the power of the person who makes it, EG if your boss makes a “joke” about you then you have to work on your CV, if a colleague or subordinate makes a joke then you can often ignore it.

Who does a Code of Conduct Protect

One member of the mailing list wrote a long and very earnest message about his belief that the CoC was designed to protect him from off-topic discussions. He analysed the results of a CoC on that basis and determined that it had failed due to the number of off-topic messages on the mailing lists he subscribes to. Being so self-centered is strongly correlated with being in a position of power, he seems to sincerely believe that everything should be about him, that he is entitled to all manner of protection and that any rule which doesn’t protect him is worthless.

I believe that the purpose of all laws and regulations should be to protect those who are less powerful, the more powerful people can usually protect themselves. The benefit that powerful people receive from being part of a system that is based on rules is that organisations (clubs, societies, companies, governments, etc) can become larger and achieve greater things if people can trust in the system. When minority groups are discouraged from contributing and when people need to be concerned about protecting themselves from attack the scope of an organisation is reduced. When there is a certain minimum standard of treatment that people can expect then they will be more willing to contribute and more able to concentrate on their contributions when they don’t expect to be attacked.

The Public Interest

When an organisation declares itself to be acting in the public interest (EG by including “Public Interest” in the name of the organisation) I think that we should expect even better treatment of minority groups. One might argue that a corporation should protect members of minority groups for the sole purpose of making more money (it has been proven that more diverse groups produce better quality work). But an organisation that’s in the “Public Interest” should be expected to go way beyond that and protect members of minority groups as a matter of principle.

When an organisation is declared to be operating in the “Public Interest” I believe that anyone who’s so unable to control their bigotry that they can’t refrain from being bigoted on the mailing lists should not be a member.

Anti-Systemd People

For the Technical People

This post isn’t really about technology, I’ll cover the technology briefly skip to the next section if you aren’t interested in Linux programming or system administration.

I’ve been using the Systemd init system for a long time, I first tested it in 2010 [1]. I use Systemd on most of my systems that run Debian/Wheezy (which means most of the Linux systems I run which aren’t embedded systems). Currently the only systems where I’m not running Systemd are some systems on which I don’t have console access, while Systemd works reasonably well it wasn’t a standard init system for Debian/Wheezy so I don’t run it everywhere. That said I haven’t had any problems with Systemd in Wheezy, so I might have been too paranoid.

I recently wrote a blog post about systemd, just some basic information on how to use it and why it’s not a big deal [2]. I’ve been playing with Systemd for almost 5 years and using it in production for almost 2 years and it’s performed well. The most serious bug I’ve found in systemd is Bug #774153 which causes a Wheezy->Jessie upgrade to hang until you run “systemctl daemon-reexec” [3].

I know that some people have had problems with systemd, but any piece of significant software will cause problems for some people, there are bugs in all software that is complex enough to be useful. However the fact that it has worked so well for me on so many systems suggests that it’s not going to cause huge problems, it should be covered in the routine testing that is needed for a significant deployment of any new version of a distribution.

I’ve been using Debian for a long time. The transitions from libc4 to libc5 and then libc6 were complex but didn’t break much. The use of devfs in Debian caused some issues and then the removal of devfs caused other issues. The introduction of udev probably caused problems for some people too. Doing major updates to Debian systems isn’t something that is new or which will necessarily cause significant problems, I don’t think that the change to systemd by default compares to changing from a.out binaries to ELF binaries (which required replacing all shared objects and executables).

The Social Issue of the Default Init

Recently the Debian technical committee determined that Systemd was the best choice for the default init system in Debian/Jessie (the next release of Debian which will come out soon). Decisions about which programs should be in the default install are made periodically and it’s usually not a big deal. Even when the choice is between options that directly involve the user (such as the KDE and GNOME desktop environments) it’s not really a big deal because you can just install a non-default option.

One of the strengths of Debian has always been the fact that any Debian Developer (DD) can just add any new package to the archive if they maintain it to a suitable technical standard and if copyright and all other relevant laws are respected. Any DD who doesn’t like any of the current init systems can just package a new one and upload it. Obviously the default option will get more testing, so the non-default options will need more testing by the maintainer. This is particularly difficult for programs that have significant interaction with other parts of the system, I’ve had difficulties with this over the course of 14 years of SE Linux development but I’ve also found that it’s not an impossible problem to solve.

It’s generally accepted that making demands of other people’s volunteer work is a bad thing, which to some extent is a reasonable position. There is a problem when this is taken to extremes, Debian has over 1000 developers who have to work together so sometimes it’s a question of who gets to do the extra work to make the parts of the distribution fit together. The issue of who gets to do the work is often based on what parts are the defaults or most commonly used options. For my work on SE Linux I often have to do a lot of extra work because it’s not part of the default install and I have to make my requests for changes to other packages be as small and simple as possible.

So part of the decision to make Systemd be the default init is essentially a decision to impose slightly more development effort on the people who maintain SysVInit if they are to provide the same level of support – of course given the lack of overall development on SysVInit the level of support provided may decrease. It also means slightly less development effort for the people who maintain Systemd as developers of daemon packages MUST make them work with it. Another part of this issue is the fact that DDs who maintain daemon packages need to maintain init.d scripts (for SysVInit) and systemd scripts, presumably most DDs will have a preference for one init system and do less testing for the other one. Therefore the choice of systemd as the default means that slightly less developer effort will go into init.d scripts. On average this will slightly increase the amount of sysadmin effort that will be required to run systems with SysVInit as the scripts will on average be less well tested. This isn’t going to be a problem in the short term as the current scripts are working reasonably well, but over the course of years bugs may creep in and a proposed solution to this is to have SysVInit scripts generated from systemd config files.

We did have a long debate within Debian about the issue of default init systems and many Debian Developers disagree about this. But there is a big difference between volunteers debating about their work and external people who don’t contribute but believe that they are entitled to tell us what to do. Especially when the non-contributors abuse the people who do the work.

The Crowd Reaction

In a world filled with reasonable people who aren’t assholes there wouldn’t be any more reaction to this than there has been to decisions such as which desktop environment should be the default (which has caused some debate but nothing serious). The issue of which desktop environment (or which version of a desktop environment) to support has a significant affect on users that can’t be avoided, I could understand people being a little upset about that. But the init system isn’t something that most users will notice – apart from the boot time.

For some reason the men in the Linux community who hate women the most seem to have taken a dislike to systemd. I understand that being “conservative” might mean not wanting changes to software as well as not wanting changes to inequality in society but even so this surprised me. My last blog post about systemd has probably set a personal record for the amount of misogynistic and homophobic abuse I received in the comments. More gender and sexuality related abuse than I usually receive when posting about the issues of gender and sexuality in the context of the FOSS community! For the record this doesn’t bother me, when I get such abuse I’m just going to write more about the topic in question.

While the issue of which init system to use by default in Debian was being discussed we had a lot of hostility from unimportant people who for some reason thought that they might get their way by being abusive and threatening people. As expected that didn’t give the result they desired, but it did result in a small trend towards people who are less concerned about the reactions of users taking on development work related to init systems.

The next thing that they did was to announce a “fork” of Debian. Forking software means maintaining a separate version due to a serious disagreement about how it should be maintained. Doing that requires a significant amount of work in compiling all the source code and testing the results. The sensible option would be to just maintain a separate repository of modified packages as has been done many times before. One of the most well known repositories was the Debian Multimedia repository, it was controversial due to flouting legal issues (the developer produced code that was legal where they lived) and due to confusion among users. But it demonstrated that you can make a repository containing many modified packages. In my work on SE Linux I’ve always had a repository of packages containing changes that haven’t been accepted into Debian, which included changes to SysVInit in about 2001.

The latest news on the fork-Debian front seems to be the call for donations [4]. Apparently most of the money that was spent went to accounting fees and buying a laptop for a developer. The amount of money involved is fairly small, Forbes has an article about how awful people can use “controversy” to get crowd-funding windfalls [5].

MikeeUSA is an evil person who hates systemd [6]. This isn’t any sort of evidence that systemd is great (I’m sure that evil people make reasonable choices about software on occasion). But it is a significant factor in support for non-systemd variants of Debian (and other Linux distributions). Decent people don’t want to be associated with people like MikeeUSA, the fact that the anti-systemd people seem happy to associate with him isn’t going to help their cause.

Conclusion

Forking Debian is not the correct technical solution to any problem you might have with a few packages. Filing bug reports and possibly forking those packages in an external repository is the right thing to do.

Sending homophobic and sexist abuse is going to make you as popular as the GamerGate and GodHatesAmerica.com people. It’s not going to convince anyone to change their mind about technical decisions.

Abusing volunteers who might consider donating some of their time to projects that you like is generally a bad idea. If you abuse them enough you might get them to volunteer less of their time, but the most likely result is that they just don’t volunteer on anything associated with you.

Abusing people who write technical blog posts isn’t going to convince them that they made an error. Abuse is evidence of the absence of technical errors.

Conference Suggestions

LCA 2015 is next week so it seems like a good time to offer some suggestions for other delegates based on observations of past LCAs. There’s nothing LCA specific about the advice, but everything is based on events that happened at past LCAs.

Don’t Oppose a Lecture

Question time at the end of a lecture isn’t the time to demonstrate that you oppose everything about the lecture. Discussion time between talks at a mini-conf isn’t a time to demonstrate that you oppose the entire mini-conf. If you think a lecture or mini-conf is entirely wrong then you shouldn’t attend.

The conference organisers decide which lectures and mini-confs are worthy of inclusion and the large number of people who attend the conference are signalling their support for the judgement of the conference organisers. The people who attend the lectures and mini-confs in question want to learn about the topics in question and people who object should be silent. If someone gives a lecture about technology which appears to have a flaw then it might be OK to ask one single question about how that issue is resolved, apart from that the lecture hall is for the lecturer to describe their vision.

The worst example of this was between talks at the Haecksen mini-conf last year when an elderly man tried at great length to convince me that everything about feminism is wrong. I’m not sure to what degree the Haecksen mini-conf is supposed to be a feminist event, but I think it’s quite obviously connected to feminism – which is of course was why he wanted to pull that stunt. After he discovered that I was not going to be convinced and that I wasn’t at all interested in the discussion he went to the front of the room to make a sexist joke and left.

Consider Your Share of Conference Resources

I’ve previously written about the length of conference questions [1]. Question time after a lecture is a resource that is shared among all delegates. Consider whether you are asking more questions than the other delegates and whether the questions are adding benefit to other people. If not then send email to the speaker or talk to them after their lecture.

Note that good questions can add significant value to the experience of most delegates. For example when a lecturer appears to be having difficulty in describing their ideas to the audience then good questions can make a real difference, but it takes significant skill to ask such questions.

Dorm Walls Are Thin

LCA is one of many conferences that is typically held at a university with dorm rooms offered for delegates. Dorm rooms tend to have thinner walls than hotel rooms so it’s good to avoid needless noise at night. If one of your devices is going to make sounds at night please check the volume settings before you start it. At one LCA I was startled at about 2AM but the sound of a very loud porn video from a nearby dorm room, the volume was reduced within a few seconds, but it’s difficult to get to sleep quickly after that sort of surprise.

If you set an alarm then try to avoid waking other people. If you set an early alarm and then just get up then other people will get back to sleep, but pressing “snooze” repeatedly for several hours (as has been done in the past) is anti-social. Generally I think that an alarm should be at a low volume unless it is set for less than an hour before the first lecture – in which case waking people in other dorm rooms might be doing them a favor.

Phones in Lectures

Do I need to write about this? Apparently I do because people keep doing it!

Phones can be easily turned to vibrate mode, most people who I’ve observed taking calls in LCA lectures have managed this but it’s worth noting for those who don’t.

There are very few good reasons for actually taking a call when in a lecture. If the hospital calls to tell you that they have found a matching organ donor then it’s a good reason to take the call, but I can’t think of any other good example.

Many LCA delegates do system administration work and get calls at all times of the day and night when servers have problems. But that isn’t an excuse for having a conversation in the middle of the lecture hall while the lecture is in progress (as has been done). If you press the green button on a phone you can then walk out of the lecture hall before talking, it’s expected that mobile phone calls sometimes have signal problems at the start of the call so no-one is going to be particularly surprised if it takes 10 seconds before you say hello.

As an aside, I think that the requirement for not disturbing other people depends on the number of people who are there to be disturbed. In tutorials there are fewer people and the requirements for avoiding phone calls are less strict. In BoFs the requirements are less strict again. But the above is based on behaviour I’ve witnessed in mini-confs and main lectures.

Smoking

It is the responsibility of people who consume substances to ensure that their actions don’t affect others. For smokers that means smoking far enough away from lecture halls that it’s possible for other delegates to attend the lecture without breathing in smoke. Don’t smoke in the lecture halls or near the doorways.

Also using an e-cigarette is still smoking, don’t do it in a lecture hall.

Photography

Unwanted photography can be harassment. I don’t think there’s a need to ask for permission to photograp people who harass others or break the law. But photographing people who break the social agreement as to what should be done in a lecture probably isn’t. At a previous LCA a man wanted to ask so many questions at a keynote lecture that he had a page of written notes (seriously), that was obviously outside the expected range of behaviour – but probably didn’t justify the many people who photographed him.

A Final Note

I don’t think that LCA is in any way different from other conferences in this regard. Also I don’t think that there’s much that conference organisers can or should do about such things.

A Linux Conference as a Ritual

Sociological Images has an interesting post by Jay Livingston PhD about a tennis final as a ritual [1]. The main point is that you can get a much better view of the match on your TV at home with more comfort and less inconvenience, so what you get for the price of the ticket (and all the effort of getting there) is participating in the event as a spectator.

It seems to me that the same idea applies to community Linux conferences (such as LCA) and some Linux users group meetings. In terms of watching a lecture there are real benefits to downloading it after the conference so that you can pause it and study related web sites or repeat sections that you didn’t understand. Also wherever you might sit at home to watch a video of a conference lecture you will be a lot more comfortable than a university lecture hall. Some people don’t attend conferences and users’ group meetings because they would rather watch a video at home.

Benefits of Attending (Apart from a Ritual)

One of the benefits of attending a lecture is the ability to ask questions. But that seems to mostly apply to the high status people who ask most questions. I’ve previously written about speaking stacks and my observations about who asks questions vs the number that can reasonably be asked [2].

I expect that most delegates ask no questions for the entire conference. I created a SurveyMonkey survey to discover how many questions people ask [3]. I count LCA as a 3 day conference because I am only counting the days where there are presentations that have been directly approved by the papers committee, approving a mini-conf (and thus delegating the ability to approve speeches) is different.

Another benefit of attending is the so-called “hallway track” where people talk to random other people. But that seems to be of most benefit to people who have some combination of high status in the community and good social skills. In the past I’ve attended the “Professional Delegates Networking Session” which is an event for speakers and people who pay the “Professional” registration fee. Sometimes at such events there has seemed to be a great divide between speakers (who mostly knew each other before the conference) and “Professional Delegates” which diminishes the value of the event to anyone who couldn’t achieve similar benefits without it.

How to Optimise a Conference as a Ritual

To get involvement of people who have the ritualistic approach one could emphasise the issue of being part of the event. For example to get people to attend the morning keynote speeches (which are sometimes poorly attended due to partying the night before) one could emphasise that anyone who doesn’t attend the keynote isn’t really attending the conference.

Conference shirts seem to be strongly correlated with the ritual aspect of conferences, the more “corporate” conferences don’t seem to offer branded clothing to delegates. If an item of branded schwag was given out before each keynote then that would increase the attendance by everyone who follows the ritual aspect (as well as everyone who just likes free stuff).

Note that I’m not suggesting that organisers of LCA or other conferences go to the effort of giving everyone schwag before the morning keynote, that would be a lot of work. Just telling people that anyone who misses the keynote isn’t really attending the conference would probably do.

I’ve always wondered why conference organisers want people to attend the keynotes and award prizes to random delegates who attend them. Is a keynote lecture a ritual that is incomplete if the attendance isn’t good enough?

Expectations of Skill and Time

On many occasions I’ve seen discussions about the background knowledge that people are expected to have to contribute to FOSS projects. Often the background knowledge is quite different from the core skills related to their contributions (EG documentation mark-up skills required for coding work or knowledge of code required for writing documentation). One argument in favor of requiring such skills is of the form “anyone who’s good at one aspect of the project can learn skills for the other areas”. Another is of the form “anyone who has time to contribute in one area has time to learn all the other areas, anyone who doesn’t want to learn is being lazy”.

I think it’s reasonable that someone who is considering donating their time to a project would want to start doing something productive immediately. If someone has to spend many hours learning how things work before contributing anything of value they may decide that it’s not a good use of their time – or just not fun. Also if the project is structured to require a lot of background knowledge then that will increase the amount of time that long-term contributors spend teaching newbies which is another way of sucking productive energy out of a project.

I don’t think it’s lazy to want to avoid learning unusual tools before starting a project. Firstly there is the issue of wanting to make productive use of your time. If you have a day for FOSS contributions and you can choose between spending 6 hours learning an environment for one project or 1 hour for another project then there’s a choice of 2 hours or 7 hours of productive work. Someone who has the luxury of being able to spend several days a month on FOSS projects might think it’s lazy to want to make effective use of 1 day, but there are a lot of people out there who are really busy and can only spend a few days a YEAR contributing, spending half a day learning an obscure development environment or documentation system can take a significant amount of someone’s yearly time for such work. To make things even worse some of the best programmers are the ones who have little free time.

For documentation MediaWiki (the software behind Wikipedia and Wikia.com) has a lot going for it. While it’s arguable that it’s not the best Wiki software out there (many people have wanted to argue this with me even though I don’t care) it’s obvious that MediaWiki is the most widely used Wiki software. If you have documentation stored in MediaWiki then most people who have any exposure to the IT industry, the FOSS community, or the Internet in general will already have experience using it. Also Wikipedia serves as a large example of what can be done with MediaWiki, there have been more than a few occasions when I have looked at Wikipedia for examples of how to layout text. Some people might think I’m lazy for never reading the MediaWiki documentation, but again I’ve got lots of other things to do and don’t want to spend a lot of time learning about MediaWiki instead of doing more useful things like creating content.

Project source code should be as consistent as possible. While large projects may have lots of modules and dependencies it’s best to try and keep them all in one place. If your project depends on libraries of code from other sources then it’s helpful to distribute copies of those libraries from the same location as the project source – particularly when the project depends on development versions of libraries. Then if there’s any mismatch between versions of libraries it will be a clear unambiguous bug that can be reported or fixed instead of being an issue that requires checks of what versions everyone is using.

One thing we should aim for in FOSS projects is to get the “long tail” of contributions. If someone spends a day fixing bugs in a dozen projects to get their own system working as desired then it would be good if they could submit patches without excessive effort at the same time.

This doesn’t just apply to FOSS development, it also applies to a large extent to any collaborative project on the Internet. For example if I was to start a Wiki for fans of a sci-fi series wikia would be the first option I’d consider because most potential contributors know it.

Proprietary Software Development

I’ve seen all the same problems when developing proprietary software. The difference is that money and morale is wasted instead of contributions. Often in commercial projects managers choose products that have a good feature list without considering whether all their staff need to be retrained. Programmers can usually train themselves so it’s often a hidden cost, the training is paid for in lost development time (both directly in time spent learning and indirectly when people make mistakes).

One significant advantage of using free software on Windows is that programmers can play with it on their own. For example I’ve never done a fresh installation of SourceSafe or ClearCase, but if I was going to work on a project that involved Git or Subversion on Windows then I could play with it and learn without risking disruption to the rest of the team. If commercial software is to be used then being common and relatively cheap is a significant advantage. MS SourceSafe offers significant benefits over most version control software on Windows simply because the vast majority of Windows developers have already used it and because it’s cheap and easy to setup a test instance if necessary.

I don’t care about the success or failure of proprietary software projects in general (I only care when I’m paid to care). I also don’t expect that people read my blog with the aim of getting advice on running successful proprietary software development projects. This section is merely to illustrate the general nature of such wasted effort on collaborative projects – and I should put my observations of failing proprietary software development projects to use.

Debian

Some Debian Developers are having a discussion about such things at the moment. That discussion inspired me to write this post. But I’m mostly writing about my experience over the course of 20+ years working in the IT industry and contributing to FOSS projects – not in a direct response to the Debian discussion (most of which I haven’t yet read).