Archive for geeks

stack explode

Posted in Books, Kids, University life with tags , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2019 by xi'an

To say the least, most Stack Exchange communities have been quite active in the past days, not towards solving an unusual flow of questions from new or old users, but in protesting against the exclusion of a moderator who disputed on a moderator forum the relevance of a code of conduct change proposed or imposed by the private company behind Stack Exchange, now called Stack Overflow (like the honomym forum on Stack Exchange). A change about the use of gender pronouns in comments and answers (an announcement that attracted the second largest number of negative votes for the entire site). And an exclusion followed by a sequence of apologies from the company highest officers that did not seem to pacify anyone (first largest number of negative votes!) and that kept the excluded moderator excluded. And leading to close to one hundred moderators resigning or going AWOL. Including one of the most active members of X validated, Glen_b. Who posted a detailed description of the chain of events and a most rational explanation of why he was resigning from being a moderator. And then another major moderator, gung… A flak overflow as put by another report.

“We recognise that Stack Exchange is in no way obliged to take our input. We know that we are guests in the home of a private company. We don’t own the platform, and while we want to help to steer the ship, we don’t have the right to determine how it is governed. What built this network is a sense of community and common purpose, and a big part of that has always been the close relationship and communication between Stack Exchange and stakeholders, such as moderators and users. It’s a shame that we’ve lost something so fundamental.”

What can be learned from this fiasco is that it is not a very good idea to let a technical Q&A forum such as Stack Exchange to be run by a private company. Even though many contributors may have never realised till now this is the case. And even when the company is using A/B tests, Bayesian GLMs, and Stan to decrease the number of “unfriendly comments” on the site. Companies are primarily there to make profit and report to stakeholders, rather than the millions of people contributing to the site for free, sometimes investing a considerable amount of time and energy towards making the questions answered in a constructive manner that benefits the entire audience. Despite the facade coolness as in the nerdy, geeky chatter on the company blog, the company  executives and employees obviously do not share the same goal as the volunteers in the numerous communities of the network. Dealing in public relations rather than sheer exchange and in public image rather than openness and in management rather than empowerment. And in advertising rather than sharing.

Another basic remark is that by growing into so many subjects beyond computer programming, and in particular non-technical topics, the SE platform has hit a stage where some communities goals will inevitably clash with others’. I deem it rather characteristic that the (one?) source of the crisis is the issue of using pronouns as stated by the OP (if any) or else using ungendered pronouns. (Pronouns like they which apparently works in English for both plural and singular—as does you—as early as the 14th century.) As some raised religious arguments against using one or several versions. As well as grammatical ones and further ones of being challenging for some non-native-English speakers. I do not think that a corporate imposition (with threats of exclusionary consequences) one single version of inclusion and tolerance is going to work and especially not within each and all of the communities constituting Stack Exchange, which is why working towards an alternative and decentralised network could be timely.


Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2013 by xi'an

Being a great fan of Neal Stephenson (as shown by the previous review of Anathem), I was waiting for an opportunity to buy his latest REAMDE [no typo in the title there!], opportunity that I found in Providence during my short foray to the University bookstore. Having read the whole 1000+ pages of the book during my trip to India, I came back rather disapointed, even though I acknowledge it considerably helped alleviating the boredom of long train rides and short flights, and keeping the stress under control during the numerous delays that punctuated my visit. Because of its thriller nature.

In short, REAMDE is like a domino cascade: pulling out a first event/domino induces a cataclysmic event, due to an accumulating sequence of less and less likely coincidences. While it requires a strong dose of suspension of disbelief, as most thrillers do, it also creates the condition for addictive reading, once you are familiar and comfortable with the gallery of characters. However, once the book is over, you cannot but wonder why you got caught in this most unbelievable and rather predictable story.

Without providing too many spoilers (and no more than the reviews quoted on the book covers), REAMDE involves [among many other things] Iowan non-nonsense farmers, a reformed marijuana importer turned into a video game mogul, US computer geeks (with the appropriate amount of Unix code and Linux lore), Erythrean refugees, gun-crazy survivalist Idohans, Vancouver and Seattle locals, Russian gangsters, Chinese computer hackers, Cambridge history professors, a War of Warcraft replica, Taiwanese fishermen, MI6 spies, random generators, more CIA spies, Hungarian computer super-hackers, more Chinese tea peddlers, former Russian commandos, Philippines sex-tourists, Welsh and Canadian djihadists, and lots and lots of weapons… Not mentioning a fairly comprehensive description of the contents of Walmarts. This makes for a wee indigestible ratatouille and for a rather incomprehensible conclusion about the point of the book. Having picked djihadist as villeins turns about everyone else into a good guy, even though they all are trigger-happy and very little concerned about legality and justice. There may of course be a second level of reading to the book, namely that the debauch of weaponry and the insistence on how easy it is to get them from Walmart could be taken as a (too?) subtle criticism of the insane gun policy in America, as well as a criticism of the failed war in Afghanistan, compensating for the said failure by a fantasy revenge of the Americans (and Russians) on (Afghan and non-Afghan) talibans intent on entering the US to duplicate 09/11. Given the cleverness of Stephenson, this is not completely out of the picture, but I doubt most readers will follow this route! (This review by Cory Doctorow shows why.)

Once again, this is not such a terrible book and I enjoyed it at some level. (At least, I finished it unlike American Gods!) The part about the computer game is both enjoyable and central to the plot (no further spoilers!), even though the author tries too hard to convince us this is not World of Warcraft. I actually found many common features, based on the limited knowledge gained from watching my son play the game, and thought the idea of centering the plot on the game fairly clever, if somehow unrealistic. The second part of the book lost a bit of its appeal with the endless RV drive in BC and the even more endless pursuit/mini-war in the woods. And I could have done (once again!) without the very final “happy [well, not that happy!] ending”. Thus, read REAMDE at your own risk!