Wikimedia chair, lawyer at Creative Commons, tech policy geek, FLOSS advocate, bassoonist, violist, nerd.
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[soc, anthro, anthro_meta, tech] The Affordance of Tyranny

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Well, I feel duly chastened.

This is fascinating and brings me up a bit short. The context's a bit complicated; let me explain.

In the academic field of anthropology, there's a journal called HAU. (Or Hau. Always seems to be styled in all caps, but it's not an acronym – it's a Maori word – so I dunno.) It's an open access journal; it was founded to be open access, and was just sold/given/transferred(?) to the University of Chicago Press, and is being converted to a traditional "closed access" journal. That's not the big controversy.

It's having a #metoo moment: people involved in HAU are coming forward (in some cases anonymously) to make very serious accusations against the guy who pretty much single-handedly is in charge of it. Those accusations include violent assault, financial shenanigans, and bullying and dirty dealing with volunteers and contributors all by this one guy, Giovanni da Col. The Twitter hashtag is #hautalk . (h/t Metafilter)

In the course of this controversy erupting, last Tuesday (June 19), someone made what I found to be an extremely interesting post, which I commend to your attention: Prof. Ilana Gershon posted "Pyramid Scheme. #hautalk".

It is a discussion of how the software system HAU was using shaped interpersonal interactions in ways which facilitated a malignant actor in a position of authority getting away with abusing his power. Though she doesn't put it this way explicitly, she's describing how tyrannizing one's organization was an affordance of their journal management platform.

The thing I found so arresting about her account is that the very things the software did that she persuasively argues facilitated these abuses, they're things I thought were good ideas for software like this. In fact, I think just about everybody who thinks about how to build a platform like this and has deep experience in volunteer organizations would think they were good ideas; presumably the people who designed and wrote the open source software they were using – Open Journals Systems – thought they were good ideas, and that's why they built the software like that.

What Gershon explains is that OJS facilitates the management of – this is the fundamental nature of an open access journal – a very large, complex volunteer enterprise with many, many contributors in many different roles, and where many contributions are small in the scale of the over-all endeavor. In any large volunteer enterprise, you have to find a way to leverage many small, time-limited contributions, to stitch them all together to make a coherent whole.

Like anybody who has ever done any online volunteer coordination, I've long thought, "Jeeze, a good software platform could help with this enormously." I've fantasized about building such things for specific projects, and started sketching out E-R diagrams in my head. Given even cursory contemplation, there are two obvious candidates for streamling through software implementation. First, automating out a whole bunch of manual coordinative communication, so tasks and resources (draft documents, e.g.) could be automagically routed to the next party and the people in charge get a dashboard so they can monitor what's going on. Second reducing the administrative tasks that otherwise bulk up volunteer commitments - to make it such that volunteers could just do the part they're interested in, whether that's academics doing academic writing or coders programming or musicians composing, and not have to also, say, do a bunch of formatting or holding committee meetings or document prep or whatever. That is: to make it possible – feasible – for the organization to have volunteers do one of a thing instead of needing volunteers to take on an on-going role where they agree to regularly do that thing many times.

These are, on the face of them, such obviously good ideas for volunteer organizations coordinated online (which today is all of them) that I am not in any ways surprised that they're baked into the OJS software.

And the consequence of those functionalities – which, in retrospect, is 100% head-slappingly obvious – is that they simultaneously instantiate a pattern of vertiginously hierarchical power relations (hence the "pyramid" of Gershon's title), while isolating individual contributors from one another, so nobody knows what's going on.

It hardens power hierarchies while eliminating witnesses.

Gershon talks about how this interacted with academics' avoidance of "service work", but there's nothing here specific to academics. All volunteer organizations have this problem: if volunteer roles are constructed to involve a lot of tasks beyond what the volunteers like to do or are willing to do, they are likely to volunteer less or not at all. I'm thinking of someone I know who got great joy out of volunteering at a food pantry – so long as she could just stock shelves and didn't have to deal with the general public; when her circumstances changed such that she couldn't be there when the truck arrived, and her only remaining available role there was working the counter, she quit.

One of the forms this problem takes is people who are willing to do various forms of work, just so long as they don't have to attend meetings. That's a common one. And it's not illegitimate: there are volunteer organizations I have never joined and never done work for, for no more reason than that I couldn't make their scheduled meetings. But, as Gershon's account suggests, when someone comes up with a software system which indulges volunteers' wishes not to have to have any meetings at all, you wind up with a volunteer base in which everyone is deeply isolated, where the only contact one has in the organization is the person who has authority over your volunteer work.

From the perspective of someone wanting organizational power so they can get away with being a petty tyrant (or not-so-petty tyrant), that's a shooting-fish-in-a-barrel situation.

I recommend you read Gershon's post for yourself, especially if you have anything to do with social software and/or volunteer organizations: Pyramid Scheme. #hautalk

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mindspillage
25 days ago
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Mountain View, California
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acdha
25 days ago
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This is an interesting angle on software design
Washington, DC

The dream of the Tsar's clock

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Last night I had a dream in which I was telling the following hilarious joke:

Once upon a time in Russia, the Tsar owned a magnificent handmade clock. It covered almost an entire wall, and was marvelously ornamented, with two accompanying decorations, resembling religious icons, to be hung on the wall flanking it.

There was a merchant who coveted the clock, and one day, unable to resist any longer, he hired some thieves to break into the Tsar's palace and steal the clock, which he then hung in his own home.

The very next day, who should happen by but the Tsar himself, with his retinue and bodyguards. Of course it would have been unforgivably rude to turn away that Tsar, so the merchant reluctantly invited him in.

The Tsar gazed at the clock on the wall. “That is a magnificent clock,” he said at last. Not knowing what else to say, the merchant agreed.

“I have one just like it,” said the Tsar.

That was the punch line.

Dreams. (Shrug.)

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mindspillage
26 days ago
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Mountain View, California
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Why I can’t (yet) teach engineering in ASL

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I’m a Deaf engineering professor. I want to teach my engineering college classes in ASL. This is a goal I have for the next couple decades of my engineering faculty career — to teach my way through all the core undergraduate engineering courses, plus the required undergraduate ones in my field of electrical/computer engineering (ECE) — in ASL.

Right now, this is not possible.

This might seem strange, because — I’m Deaf! I sign! I’ve taught engineering at the college level for years! But nope: being an expert at teaching a topic and being fluent in a language… does not mean you’re automatically able to teach that topic in that language. You need to be fluent in that topic, in that language.

And for that to be possible, vocabulary needs to exist. You need ways to efficiently express disciplinary concepts in the target language (in this case, ASL). Vocabulary is a key part of language; language has to be there for communication to happen; communication must happen for teaching to occur. And right now, I don’t have (good) signs for basic concepts such as “voltage,” which is an idea so fundamental that I can’t teach elementary school electronics without it, let alone college-level classes.

Now, I can (and do) teach engineering voice-off, signing, but I’m not using ASL when I do so; I’m using a signed form of English (which some people would call PSE or contact sign). I’m basically transliterating, with the occasional insertion of ASL grammar and a couple of classifiers. I’m not voicing, but you could read an entire English engineering lecture off my lips. In other words, I’m teaching in “English, with hands.”

ASL is not “English, with hands.”

We need vocabulary. We need ways to express these ideas within Deaf language and Deaf culture — ways that are efficient, that don’t require tons of expansion every time. In English, we say “voltage,” not “the electric potential difference between two points.” The latter is a definition, not a term. Similarly, I can explain voltage in ASL (perhaps as “electric pressure point point compare”), but I need a sign for the concept, and other concepts like that. If I can’t, I don’t have a professional vocabulary. It is akin to restricting technical communication to Basic English or Up Goer Five. If someone used the phrase “funny voice air” instead of “helium,” we’d figure they didn’t know what they were talking about, because there’s a word for that.

We also need ways to express these ideas within this language, not just ways to refer to the concepts as expressed in another language, as with fingerspelling. Yes, short fingerspelled words can turn into lexicalized signs, like “bank” and “OK,” and in this case perhaps “amps,” but what do we do for “semiconductor” or “bypass capacitor” — abbreviate? “SC” is already “South Carolina,” and “BC” is birth control, and I’d like to use my brain for things other than figuring out sentences like “You’ll need a BC in P to smooth the MC input V.” Or if we break the English word into components and then sign those, we get things like “tiny administrative person” for “microcontroller” (micro-controll-er). And then I flinch again, hard.

At that point, we’re just pointing to the English. If I wanted English, I would use it. I want ASL.

Every other Deaf engineer I know does this exact same thing. The moment we begin discussing technical topics, our signing shifts — hard — towards English. Perhaps we flinch a little and apologize to each other for using mouthing (and only mouthing/lipreading) to distinguish between “electric,” “battery,” and “circuit.” Perhaps we comment that, yes, signing “tolerate” (as in “to put up with, to bear”) is a poor sign for “tolerance” (permissible variation in a measured value). But we do not have other ways to do this. Not yet.

Fascinatingly enough, this has happened before — in engineering and computing and other college-level STEM fields, even — with spoken languages. There are plenty of examples of decolonizing the language of (collegiate/professional) instruction — I recently learned that Japan is doing this, for instance — but my favorite example is Hebrew and the War of the Languages. When the first Jewish (later Israeli) universities were being established, they knew that Jewish culture was amazing, and that Hebrew was a rich and beautiful language with a deep, deep history and multiple ways of expressing the concept of “God” — but no way to express the concept of “computer.”

And guess where a lot of their professors had trained? Germany. Austria. All their notes, all their books, all their training on… say, computers — they were obviously not in Hebrew, because there was no Hebrew word for “computer.” But yeah, it was a little problematic to be teaching programming… at a Jewish university… in German. And so, rather than capitulate to “eh, I guess we have to teach in German,” they built up the Hebrew language so that they could have technical discussions within it. They enriched their language and their culture instead of switching to another. This took a tremendous amount of work — many people, over many years, working to create a world where it was possible to teach computing in Hebrew. And now they have it.

That’s what I want for ASL and engineering (and computing, and technology). It’s going to take a long time. Probably the rest of my career. (“Congratulations, you’ve found a lifetime side project.”) It’s going to take a lot of collaboration with a lot of people and a lot of work and it’s never going to be done, because languages are never done. It’s going to be a lot of awkwardness and stumbling experimentation and a lot of new engineers brave enough to go out into the world not just with technical skills, but with language (ASL) to communicate those skills, and we’ll have a lot of short-term inefficiencies compared to “but why don’t you just teach it in English or signed English?” — but look: we’re going to make a world.

It does not yet exist. That’s why we need to make it.

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mindspillage
35 days ago
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darthsquidious: Chuck Tingle is heading down a track. You see on the path ahead of him, five of...

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darthsquidious:

Chuck Tingle is heading down a track. You see on the path ahead of him, five of his butt, all ready to pound him in the butt. You can save him from this fate by throwing the switch to the second track, but down that path you see the copy of his new manuscript, “Pounded in the Butt by the Manuscript Containing the Trolley Problem in Which I May or May Not Be Pounded in the Butt by Five of My Own Butt”. This manuscript will likely pound him in the butt. Do you flip the switch?

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mindspillage
57 days ago
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Hyak on Hyak

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I recently fulfilled a yearslong dream of launching a job on Hyak* on Hyak.

Hyak onHyak

 


* Hyak is the University of Washington’s supercomputer which my research group uses for most of our computation-intensive research.
M/V Hyak is a Super-class ferry operated by the Washington State Ferry System.
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mindspillage
86 days ago
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Today I learned - Guy Allen was a famous cowboy who won the rodeo championship eleven times. A...

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Today I learned - Guy Allen was a famous cowboy who won the rodeo championship eleven times. A twelfth win would have given him the world record for most rodeo championships won.

Instead, he was defeated by another cowboy named Buster Record.

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mindspillage
107 days ago
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Mountain View, California
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