Hi, I’m Bill

Hi, I’m Bill. As Tim Chevalier has written about me (at least a little bit) in an article series entitled “The Christians and the Pagans” (1, 2, 3), I hope I may be permitted a short response. (Yes, it’s taken a while. Sorry about that.)

What first struck me as I read Tim’s three articles is the number of things we agree on. Firstly, I entirely agree that there is no such thing as being apolitical or non-ideological – as Tim says, being (supposedly) apolitical is a political view. In fact, I would also go on to say that there’s no such thing as being areligious – being an atheist or agnostic is a religious view. People sometimes find this assertion more palatable if I use the term ‘worldview’ instead of religion, but the point is the same – everyone has a highest point of reference, an ultimate real from which everything else flows. It may be God, matter, reason or something else, but everyone has it. Similarly, everyone has a basis on which they relate to others and a view of what would be ideal in society – everyone is political.

I also agree that it’s foolish to push away people who want to contribute. When Tim writes:

“[T]o build the best thing you can you have to include everybody who wants to and can work together on it and contribute. Pushing away people who have something to contribute is an exercise in purity-based morality, not a sound business or technical strategy.”

all I can say is a hearty (and perhaps slightly cheeky) “Amen!”.

However, when I agree with Tim on this, I can’t help remembering the following quote from the Github issue which prompted ESR’s article:

“Reading the links you posted I only have one thing to say to you:reevaluate your actions,you are becoming a toxic individual who is harming the Python and Django communities and haven’t even realized it yet. You are a member of the Django Software Foundation and are supposed to be setting the example. I will be forwarding the content of this issue to the Chair to evaluate your continued presence in the DSF. best regards.”

And I can’t help remembering what happened to Brendan Eich. There seemed to be a whole lot of pushing away, and purity-based morality, going on in both these situations. And if the response is “it’s not about his code; we didn’t like his politics”, surely that’s taking precisely the view that Tim is arguing against? Tim objects to people focussing on his politics and ignoring his code, and wishes it were different; would he grant Brendan the same grace?

Where we diverge is in Tim’s assertion that Christianity is a part of the dominant culture, an “unmarked ideology” in tech. This assertion would be within some distance of plausibility if by “Christianity” he meant the moralistic therapeutic Deism of American (and British) civil religion which is called “Christianity” in some quarters. Even then, it would be a big stretch – I think most people in tech don’t follow that; instead they see it for the hypocrisy it is. The dominant culture of tech is secular humanism. To demonstrate this point, of these pairs of opposing views, which one is dominant in tech? Which one would go unmarked if it were expressed in conversation at a tech gathering, and which would be challenged?

Christianity Secular Humanism
Marriage should be between one man and one woman Anyone should be allowed to get married to anyone else
Hell exists When we die, that’s the end
God created the universe Science explains the existence of the universe
Jesus is divine Jesus is irrelevant
Elective abortion is murder Women can do anything with what’s in their bodies
Sex should be for marriage only All (or most) forms of sex should be accepted and celebrated

As someone who has occasionally been on the sharp end of Christianity being very much a marked ideology in tech, I do find it hard to see how Tim can have come to the conclusion that it’s the mainstream. Over 1000 people come to Mozilla all-hands meetings; the prayer meetings we hold there have never attracted more than 5 people. This doesn’t bother us, because Jesus is Lord of all. But it’s hardly what one would call popular.

An additional trouble with Tim’s article is that it was prompted by an article by ESR, but Tim seems to have seriously misread him. Tim claims a pollution of agency attack – that is, people are denigrating the code of “SJWs” because of their politics. I agree his (ESR’s) headline (“Why Hackers Must Eject the SJWs”) is unhelpful at this point, but the body of his article seems clear that:

“We must cast [SJWs] out – refuse to admit them on any level *except by evaluating on pure technical merit whatever code patches they submit*.”

As we can see, ESR is urging precisely the opposite of what Tim says he is. ESR wants the hacker culture to stick to meritocracy, which he defines as focussing on the code contribution and not the person. His article is a call for a rejection by projects of a particular political stance and its ramifications, not of contributions. Just as, in a project run as perhaps Tim would have it run, other political stances and their ramifications would also be rejected by the leadership.

For myself, I unashamedly agree with this principle of operating open source projects. I don’t care if you call it meritocracy or something else. This is not to say some people don’t need more help on the contribution pathway than others – “to each according to his need”. But when it comes to looking at the code, we look at the code. If sometimes that principle is drifted from, and people start evaluating contributions based on the person who made them (a system which, for example, was being encouraged by djangoconcardiff) the solution is not to throw away the principle, but to recommit to it.

With Tim, I assert that this principle is *not* apolitical or non-ideological. Against Tim, I assert that instead, it is fundamentally based in justice. And I think this is where the heart of the disagreement is between “SJWs” and some (at least) who oppose them – it is not that one side says “we are pro-justice” and the other side says they aren’t, or says that something other principle is even more important. It’s that they don’t agree on what justice is. And perhaps one reason that “SJW” has taken on negative connotations in some circles (as Bradley discusses) is that people look at the form of justice espoused by this group and see it as no justice at all. Hence the ironic title.

More on the nature of true justice later, I hope. In the mean time, Merry Christmas to all :-)

Facebook “Community Standards”

A couple of things which apparently have violated Facebook’s “Community Standards” recently. Firstly, the idea of loving your enemies:

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Secondly, a post encouraging people to correctly use the word “homophobia”:

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Seems like the “community standards” process is being abused somewhat…

Fairness

We’re having a general election here in the UK, and so there has been more than the usual amount of talk about “fairness”. Fairness is one of these slippery words, the definition of which depends very much on your worldview. But ignoring even that, I’d like to propose a new rule to be observed in political debate, worldwide:

Politicians should be banned from arguing for change using the words “fair” or “fairness” unless they also specify what level of change would be “unfair”.

Let’s take the common example of taxes. We often hear phrases like “the rich should pay their fair share”, or “it’s only fair that those with the most resources shoulder the burden”. If a politician says this, they need to be asked “OK – so what level of taxation would go beyond ‘fair’ and get into ‘unfair’?” They would be allowed to define it in any number of concrete ways, e.g. “I think it’s unfair to take more than 50% of a person’s total income”, or “I think it’s unfair to leave anyone with less than £15k of income after tax”.

But the one answer that should not be allowed is the equivalent of “‘fair’ means paying more than they pay at the moment”, however much that is. In those cases, talk of fairness is actually covetousness in disguise – people are being taxed simply because they have money and the politician wants some of it for their own purposes. Covetousness knows no limits. If they want to argue for this, they can – but they should not have the gall to try and call it ‘fair’.

Politicians don’t like making such commitments, because then they would have to (shock!) keep them, or be easily held accountable. But the convenient thing about “fairness” is that it’s very elastic – people can generally be convinced to agree that any tax rise is ‘fair’, as long as it doesn’t target them. After all, most people like the idea of spending other people’s money on stuff that they want to happen. But without any sort of upper limit defined, taxpayers can never know when a particular politician might be coming back for another bite of their earnings – and that most certainly is unfair.

Black Lives Matter

Have you ever been hit round the head with the truth so hard that it leaves you staring in slack-jawed wonder? I just had that experience.

So anybody who voted for Obama — whose legal vision on abortion is simply a more sanitary version of Kermit Gosnell — has absolutely no right to the phrase “black lives matter.” If you voted for Obama, then shut up, leave the protest, and go home. Throw your “black lives matter” sign in the nearest dumpster, and try to retrieve your conscience from that dumpster. If you think that partial birth abortion, performed on a black child, ought to be fully legal constitutional act — like your man in the White House does — then you need to come to grips with the fact that the race problem in America is not ultimately cops in NYC, the race problem in America is you. Doug Wilson

Black lives matter. All black lives matter.

Wisdom from Boris Johnson

Dr Matt Taylor’s shirt made me cry, too – with rage at his abusers.

The more this sort of thing happens, the less I feel like supporting Team Internet. There is now only one level of disapproval on the Internet – total screaming outrage. And all of a person’s other achievements seemingly count for nothing if he does something that meets with that disapproval.

Twitter: could it be the greatest hate generator the world has ever built? Or perhaps it just more easily reveals what was in human hearts all along.

You’ve Been Trolled

(Troll (v.): to say something with the aim of provoking an angry reaction which benefits you.)

On , an American company called Honey Maid (company slogan: “This is Wholesome”) released a new commercial. It features a number of families and children in a very positive light, including a family of two men. Here’s the video:

Soon after came the calls for a boycott.

A few days later, a Facebook friend linked to this video, which you absolutely should watch in full:

So, if you were someone who called for or joined this protest, what did you achieve here? Let’s consider. You got to look angry and intolerant – even if you didn’t use language like that depicted in the video, everyone will assume that you did. You got to look weak – it’s now clear that even companies whose core market is supposed to be the All-American family with traditional values have no problem taking an explicit stand for same-sex marriage, because they think it’ll be a net win for their sales figures. And you got to look fearful and patronised – what they did is the approximate equivalent of patting you on the head and saying “There, there, dear, don’t be scared, it’ll all be alright in the end.” You gave the company a ton of free publicity, and they got to look enlightened and forward-looking.

And the crowning achievement of the trolling, the pièce de résistance, was the fact that there was a shot of a mixed-race family somewhat later in the original, and they included that in the “bits people didn’t like” section of the follow-up video, right after showing the gay couple. So you all look racist, too – even if none of you had any issues with the promotion of that type of family.

I’m pretty sure they didn’t think of this after the commercial was published; it was set up in advance. They knew this was going to happen, and you played right into their hands. As bits of marketing go, I have to say “well played”.

So, here’s my advice. Public expressions of outrage (something you picked up from the other side’s playbook anyway) clearly don’t work any more, if they ever did. When a company like Honey Maid can troll you to get a quite predictable reaction and lots of free publicity, here’s the lesson: you need new tactics. This isn’t working.

Copyright and Software

As part of our discussions on responding to the EU Copyright Consultation, Benjamin Smedberg made an interesting proposal about how copyright should apply to software. With Chris Riley’s help, I expanded that proposal into the text below. Mozilla’s final submission, after review by various parties, argued for a reduced term of copyright for software of 5-10 years, but did not include this full proposal. So I publish it here for comment.

I think the innovation, which came from Benjamin, is the idea that the spirit of copyright law means that proprietary software should not be eligible for copyright protections unless the source code is made freely available to the public by the time the copyright term expires.

We believe copyright terms should be much shorter for software, and that there should be a public benefit tradeoff for receiving legal protection, comparable to other areas of IP.

We start with the premise that the purpose of copyright is to promote new creation by giving to their authors an exclusive right, but that this right is necessary time-limited because the public as a whole benefits from the public domain and the free sharing and reproduction of works. Given this premise, copyright policy has failed in the domain of software. All software has a much, much shorter life than the standard copyright term; by the end of the period, there is no longer any public benefit to be gained from the software entering the public domain, unlike virtually all other categories of copyrighted works. There is already more obsolete software out there than anyone can enumerate, and software as a concept is barely even 50 years old, so none is in the public domain. Any which did fall into the public domain after 50 or 70 years would be useful to no-one, as it would have been written for systems long obsolete.

We suggest two ideas to help the spirit of copyright be more effectively realized in the software domain.

Proprietary software (that is, software for which the source code is not immediately available for reuse anyway) should not be eligible for copyright protections unless the source code is made freely available to the public by the time the copyright term expires. Unlike a book, which can be read and copied by anyone at any stage before or after its copyright expires, software is often distributed as binary code which is intelligible to computers but very hard for humans to understand. Therefore, in order for software to properly fall into the public domain at the end of the copyright term, the source code (the human-readable form) needs to be made available at that time – otherwise, the spirit of copyright law is not achieved, because the public cannot truly benefit from the copyrighted material. An escrow system would be ideal to implement this.

This is also similar to the tradeoff between patent law and trade secret protection; you receive a legal protection for your activity in exchange for making it available to be used effectively by the broader public at the end of that period. Failing to take that tradeoff risks the possibility that someone will reverse engineer your methods, at which point they are unprotected.

Separately, the term of software copyright protection should be made much shorter (through international processes as relevant), and fixed for software products. We suggest that 14 years is the most appropriate length. This would mean that, for example, Windows XP would enter the public domain in August 2015, which is a year after Microsoft ceases to support it (and so presumably no longer considers it commercially viable). Members of the public who wish to continue to run Windows XP therefore have an interest in the source code being available so technically-capable companies can support them.

Be Afraid of “Never Again”

[W]hen a President says “Never again” he is asking for the kind of outcome for which proving a negative, lots of negatives, is categorically essential. Proving a negative requires omniscience. Omniscience requires god-like powers.

Dan Geer

(The whole speech is worth reading.)

Yes, All Categories

It is not sufficient simply to point to texts that instruct Christians to “pay taxes,” and to conclude on that basis that all taxes are morally legitimate. For Christians are instructed to obey ungodly authorities, too; this instruction does not render those authorities godly, nor their behaviour legitimate.

To construct an adequate Christian political philosophy, each category of governmental action – from welfare provision to healthcare, from the judiciary to the military, from education to public roads and utilities – requires clear biblical justification. The mere absence of a specific biblical prohibition of a certain governmental action is not sufficient, because even if the action considered in itself is morally legitimate (e.g. the education of children), this does not justify the coercive taxation of citizens in order to fund that action without their explicit consent.

Steve Jeffery

Watching European Parliament (EPTV) Video Streams on Linux

(This is a blog post I wished someone had already written so I could have found it quickly yesterday.)

The European Parliament TV site’s streaming system, used on pages such as this one, triggers the Totem plugin on my Ubuntu, which promptly crashes. :-| I’m fairly sure it uses some Windows codecs.

There is a mobile site for their main TV channels (video and audio streaming) which works a bit better – you can extract the rtsp stream from the links, and pass it to VLC. But if the session you want isn’t on TV, you’re out of luck. (Worse is if part of it is, and then it switches to something irrelevant in the middle!)

Fortunately, André Loconte has written a script which finds the right URL in such pages and passes it to mplayer with the right options. Thanks to him. Note that you may have to try various values for the “language” constant defined near the top until you find the one which is right for you. (It seems they do not allocate languages to channels consistently.)

Invading Ireland

There are only a limited number of ways governments can deal with a large debt (such as that run up in the UK): taking via war, raising taxes, currency devaluation, or default. The first of those possibilities inspired me when, a while back, I was asked to try and come up with a good way of explaining just how large the UK’s national debt is, in a way that a normal person can understand.

Private islands around Ireland seem to be going at the moment for between US$3M and US$300,000 for 25 acres (0.1 sq km). If the UK invaded the country of Eire, threw in Northern Ireland and sold the result as a private island, it would raise:

84,421 square km x £5m per square km = £421 billion.

Selling an entire country would raise only about 1/3 of the total needed to pay back the UK national debt.