Day 14: Complacency

I saw this post on Twitter this morning:

My first reaction was “Wow! It’s gonna be a landslide!”. Even Texas is looking pretty blue.

But then I thought about what would happen if millions of people saw that, and decided that Trump’s defeat was a done deal? Why bother to vote?

I’m happy to see that people are finally realizing what a terrible leader Trump is, and that he is only ever thinking of himself. I’m shocked that everyone didn’t see that well before he was elected, but if we can get him out in November, we can repair some of the damage he has done before it is irreparable.

BLM Protestors in Philadelphia (photo credit: Chase Sutton)

We need every single person who came out to protest these past few weeks to also come out to protest where it really counts: the ballot box. We need to get rid on not only Trump, but every single Republican who has enabled him by putting party before country. We can never become complacent.

Day 12: Communities and Survivorship Bias

Communities, especially Open Source communities, tend to form some form of governance once they grow beyond a certain size. The actual size isn’t as important as the relationship among the members: when everyone knows everyone else, there’s really no need for governance. But when individuals come from different companies, or who otherwise may have different interests than the others, there needs to be some ground rules for making decisions on what does or does not get done. Without governance, projects will inevitably fork when these differences get large enough.

Typically governance is established by what most people involved like to think is a meritocracy: the hardest-working, most knowledgeable people are the ones who make the important decisions. At first glance this seems perfectly fair, and it usually is—initially, at least. Over time, though, this system is prone to the problems of Survivorship Bias. Let me illustrate how that happens.

Imagine a group of people who are on a long hike through the wilderness. There will be some people who have more skill reading a map, or operating a compass, or who know the terrain better. When the group starts out, it is only natural that these people lead the group, and they are given the title of Navigator. The group creates rules that while anyone can provide ideas as to what direction they should head in, only Navigators can make that choice. It works well for a while.

As time passes, though, and people in the group learn more about map reading and terrain features, their knowledge begins to approach the level of the existing Navigators. At that point it would seem fair to also designate these people as Navigators, since they now have enough knowledge to make directional decisions. But the rule is that the only way an existing group member can be designated a Navigator is if all of the existing Navigators agree. In other words, the process is largely subjective, as there is no objective test for competency. It also calls for a good deal of trust.

After a while, some people realize that while the Navigators have generally been doing their job well, they have made some errors that have taken the group off of the ideal path. Some group members point that out, and want to adjust course to get back to where they should have been. The Navigators, though, prefer to keep moving forward, even if it makes for a longer and more difficult hike in the long term; they prefer the feeling of moving ahead. Those who disagree go off on their own in frustration. Others within the group get the clear message that if they ever want to become a Navigator, they should curry favor with the existing Navigators. And when they do make it into that core group, they feel that they have worked hard to earn it, and anyone else who wants to reach that level has to play by the same rules that they did.

This is classic survivorship bias. The only people who can change the system are the ones who agreed with it in the first place, and thus don’t really see a problem with it. The voices of disagreement fade away until they can no longer be heard, so everyone thinks it’s all good. The system self-perpetuates.

I’ve seen this in action in several communities, but none so strikingly as in the OpenStack community, both on the Nova team as well as the Technical Committee that is supposed to provide technical leadership. I originally wrote a draft of this a year ago when I was working in that community, and became increasingly frustrated at how decisions were made. I happened to “run into” (electronically, of course) a few former Nova developers who had moved on, and when I expressed my frustration, they both said that similar feelings were why they looked to move to a different project. That’s when the role of survivorship bias became clear to me.

As I’m no longer in the OpenStack community, I don’t need to vent about particular issues or personalities. That’s history to me. I do hope that people realize that survivorship bias can shape how a community views itself, because if you are coming up short in some areas, you won’t know about it, because the people affected usually leave rather than deal with that BS. If you care about growing a healthy community, you need to make it easy and welcoming for people to share their ideas. And you should also take the time when someone who was active decides to leave to do a sort of exit interview. You might learn something important.

Day 11: Spreading Racism

Mass protests in a time of the COVID-19 pandemic: are they foolish gatherings that will only result in spreading the disease?

In an editorial in today’s NY Daily News, the authors make the case that even though protests in response to the execution of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and far too many others, are important because “racism is a deadly virus, too”.

I agree with the sentiment: racism is deadly, and we cannot just sit back and ignore it. But it is the analogy to a virus that really bothers me.

Viruses spread without intent. They do not choose their hosts. They are opportunistic: if a virus lands on a cell that it can infect, it does so. If it doesn’t, it dies. It does not have the capacity to choose.

Racism, however, is not randomly spread. Instead, it is actively taught to each generation. Children listen to their parents, and largely follow the values that they are taught.

When my kids were young and in day care, one of the other kids there called another kid a derogatory racial name. The woman who ran the day care handled it calmly, explaining to the boy why he shouldn’t call people those names. I talked with her about it afterwards, and she said that her grandmother had a phrase she used when she heard kids say ignorant things: “Well, he didn’t just lick that up off the floor!”

In other words, it wasn’t an accident; it wasn’t randomly spread. Instead, someone spoon-fed that to the child.

The only way to combat racism is education. For years most white people thought that the reports of police misconduct and brutality towards blacks was probably just “a few bad apples”, but that most were fair and respectful. Since the advent of ubiquitous video recording, though, those same white people are getting educated about the reality that POC have known for far too long.

And I hope that children growing up today see these protests, with people of all colors coming together to demand that things improve, and take away from this at the very least the concept that Black Lives Matter. They will be better equipped to deal with a racist relative, and refuse to be spoon-fed that bigotry.

Day 9: What Matters

It really sucks to have to dig into this once again, but apparently the statement “Black Lives Matter” is somehow controversial. Why is it so hard for people to hear that phrase and just say “Yup!”? What makes them so resistant to it? Do they hear that and mentally add the word “only” at the beginning, as if the claim is that somehow only black people deserve life?

For those who have trouble with this, or who have friends/family/co-workers with this issue, here’s a simple way of understanding it: imagine that you are at a dinner party. Everyone is seated around the table, and the food starts being served. Plates of food are placed all around, but you notice that they forgot to serve your friend Peter. So you state “Peter needs food”. But instead of the hosts apologizing and getting Peter a plate, they respond with “Everyone needs food!!”.

That’s certainly a completely true statement, but what is the point? Of course everyone needs food; nobody claimed otherwise. You are simply pointing out that at the moment, Peter isn’t getting any food.

Yes, all lives matter. But at the moment, black people are being treated by many police as though their lives don’t. They are getting killed for the most minor of reasons, when there is a reason at all. And when justice is demanded for the police officers who commit these murders, it almost never happens. Time after time, those murderers are let go, simply because they are police, and different rules apply to them.

When we say “Black Lives Matter”, we are saying that we need to address this systemic issue, and address it urgently before any more black people are murdered by the police. Those officers who have been part of these murders shouldn’t be held to a lower standard than that of an average citizen who kills someone; instead, they should be held to a much higher standard.

Let me leave you today with a clip from someone making a very similar case about this topic:

Day 8: Provocation and Patience

Watch this video. This is what an occupying army during a war looks like:

This is a civil police force. I use civil in the sense of “not military”, as their behavior is anything but civil.

Instead of keeping the peace, they are actively provoking an angry response. It is as if their attitude is “ok, we got this cool paramilitary gear – let’s use it!”. This aggressive provocation is also not confined to a few bad groups; instead, we have seen over the past few days that this is representative of police around the country.

They don’t show the entire crowd, but from the bits you could see, they easily outnumber the police 10 to 1. Riot gear or no riot gear, if the crowd was ever angered enough to attack back, they would quickly overwhelm the much smaller police force. That hasn’t happened yet, but it doesn’t take a wild imagination to envision it happening soon.

And while a part of me really wants to see these bastards get what’s coming to them, in the long haul an event like that would be just what the Trump regime needs to declare martial law, suspend civil rights, and get rid of everyone in their way. Trump knows that if he loses the election he will be quickly indicted, and will no longer have presidential privilege to hide behind. I don’t doubt for a second that he would tear up the Constitution and embrace the strongman role if it means never having to give up power.

We just need to hang on for a few months longer, vote out Trump and the entire Republican party, and then we can begin restoring the country. There is a lot that is broken; electing the people who will do that work is the first step.