It’s Protein World, We Just Live In It

I didn’t have a lot to say about the election this year. To be perfectly level with you, this was largely because my friend Zooko precommitted to unfollowing anyone who was tweeting about it, and looking back from late November, I think he kind of had a point. I’d remarked on Twitter, well before the primaries, that the breakneck pace of overwhelming demands for attention was going to exhaust people. (“You can’t fatigue the Trumpenkrieg,” shot back Andrew Auernheimer. Good ol’ weev.) In private conversations, I ruefully predicted another Brexit, though apparently not with enough conviction to have an analysis of my own prepared. (I’ve been writing other things, but most of them have been code.)

Even now, about all I have to say is that clearly nobody, least of all the media, learned anything whatsoever from Protein World.

(“What the hell is Protein World?”)

Of course you don’t remember Protein World. That was April 2015, nobody remembers that kind of ancient history! So. Protein World is an online store that sells weight loss products and employs some of the most deviously brilliant marketers ever born. Their UK advertising campaign for spring 2015 involved purchasing these ads:


on the London Tube, sitting back, and waiting for knee-jerk anger to propel their graphic design in front of way more eyeballs than a £250,000 ad purchase ever could have done by itself. Needless to say, it worked. Never mind that two weeks into the ad’s three-week run, regulators pulled it; those two weeks of Twitter outrage and petition-shilling drove £1 million of direct sales Protein World’s way. The grapes of “They’ll win no awards for this” are extra sour when your “they” has already laughed its way to the bank.

(I pause to reflect, again, on social media’s own peculiar brand of amnesia. Flash outrages, though they may seem omnipresent from within the bubbles whose joint attention they consume, are often not that widespread in the broader scheme of things. What it is easy to excuse having missed, it is also easy to excuse forgetting about. From a more Huxleyan point of view, there’s no need to construct a mandatory memory hole when people are easily incentivized to build their own.)

Now, this may be a glass sword effect, extremely effective once but minimally so thereafter. When Protein World expanded their subway campaign to New York City as May 2015 ticked over into June, search traffic maybe rose slightly, but not distinguishably over the noise of the month following their UK campaign. That said, a TV ad campaign in January 2016 coincided with a visible increase in baseline search traffic — but the same thing happened in January 2015. Considering that the same kind of increase for “beach body” also happened in January 2014, when Protein World was just getting started, I’m going to chalk that up to new year’s resolutions rather than marketing savvy. Still, if you think for a moment that marketers aren’t paying attention, figuring out which tools are glass swords and which tools are reusable, you’re deluding yourself. (And for that matter, even if a glass sword is only useful once, it’s still useful that once.)

I leave the corresponding analysis of, for instance, breathless coverage of 300 edgelords in a hotel, as an exercise for the reader.

We live in a world where individuals, acting in concert, have the power to make literally anything important, and what do we choose to make important? The things that rise above the noise floor of our baseline level of annoyance, the more unusual or appalling the better. Of course people are going to hijack that tendency. Welcome to social engineering, the infosec praxis in which you, your thought processes, and your habitual tendencies, not your silicon or your software, are the attack surface.

We often find, in hacking, that other fields, generally perceived as less adversarial than their offensive-hacking counterparts, independently replicate certain aspects of the offensive domain. Fuzzing has equivalencies in test-driven development, and TDD is finding ways to incorporate fuzzing into its processes. Exploit development has equivalencies in type theory and logic solvers.

The mainstream equivalent of social engineering is, of course, marketing. Also PR.

The less reputable red-headed stepchild of social engineering is, of course, trolling.

When marketing and PR find ways to incorporate trolling into their praxis, we get Protein World. And we get the 2016 presidential election. And, apparently, everything that comes afterward.

The paradox of large countries is that no matter how carefully their machinery of state is designed to disempower populism, at a sufficiently large scale, populism becomes a necessary operational mechanism. If you need dozens of millions of voters to go to the polls for you in order to win, you have to find and convince those dozens of millions of people. If you don’t reach out to enough people, and don’t convince enough of the ones you do reach, that is very bad and you will not go to the White House next year. Blame whatever external forces you want, if your ground game isn’t there, you won’t get the turnout you need in order to win. This is life with 219 million eligible voters. It just seems very odd to me that anyone would think that continuing to broadcast ever more strident messages of fear to the same demographic that didn’t win the last election, while giving plenty of free coverage to something they claim to hate, will move the needle any further leftward.

George Lakoff has lamented, lately, that the left seems unable to grasp the notion of a conceptual frame. This is probably true, but it is compounded by what appears to be an intentional innumeracy. “But Hillary won the popular vote!” Which doesn’t matter, because the race is decided by a different function, namely the sum of electoral college votes. Win all the urban centers you like; if rural and suburban voters disagree with them and outnumber them statewide, those extra millions of votes in New York City and the Bay Area won’t help. It’s not a popularity contest among the voters, it’s a popularity contest among the states, and it doesn’t matter how much New York and California love you if too many other states think you suck. I’m not sure why it’s been so hard for the DNC to grasp this, but if they don’t, after 2020 there may not be much of a DNC left to do any grasping.

The other paradox of populism, of course, is that any sufficiently large popular movement attracts spotlights that bring whackjobs flocking in droves. Occupy got this in spades, with every kind of conspiracy theorist vying for the media’s attention on a leaderless movement. If anything, the alt-right is even less organized than Occupy was; as such, anything that looks like organization looks like a story, especially to a scope-insensitive audience. Forget fake news; where are the calls to action for not-even-wrong news? The grain of truth in that attention-hijack cocktail you’re slurping down doesn’t make it any better than the 100% artificial kind.

I confess I don’t see any easy way out of this. Fake news, and not-even-wrong news, hijack your attention because we got too good at detecting bots clicking on ads, to the point where it became easier for sites to compete for real users’ attention. Yay, I guess? But new problems carry with them new complications. You can’t solve a problem that exists because of a cognitive bias — a heuristic that developed so that its user can expend less effort — by asking people to expend more effort. (Tried it, only works in exceptional cases.) This hugely constrains the possible solution space, even though there’s a significant Pareto improvement at simple actions like “not sharing things you haven’t read.” That sweet spot between “not enough attention to read” and “enough attention to relay” is where troll marketing scores big.

If you’re worried about things becoming “normalized,” worry about the normalization of troll marketing. Particularly the fact that it’s already happened.

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Dude, Where’s My Privilege?

Sometimes it feels like the world has jumped the shark. It’s 2016, and the world outside my door is starting to get stranger than the world behind my screen. Most of this year, it’s been a constant low-grade background of absurdity, but occasionally something so ridiculous happens that I have to blink and pinch myself to make sure it’s real.

A while back was one such occasion. I’d been working with a coworker for a while to put on an after hours event. The topic is unimportant; we organized the event because an external partner suggested it and offered to pay for it, and who doesn’t love free publicity?

As you might expect, a panel-discussion event, where the speakers are non-technical employees of tech companies, attracts its fair share of the absurdity we like to call cordyceps. This one was no exception. One of the panel speakers began to answer the first question by explicitly checking her privilege. Essentially, she apologized for her company’s success, before going on to tell us how this company achieved it.

This was weird, obnoxious, and not relevant at all to the discussion at hand. But it wasn’t unexpected. The unexpected part was that she did it ten more times throughout the night. In a 45 minute panel discussion. With 3 speakers. That’s an average of one privilege check every 90 seconds she spoke.

I understand the idea of privilege and I understand why she did this. After all, part of the reason we focus so much on SJWs is because we do care about these issues. But this was ridiculously excessive. I can’t even begin to imagine the mentality of someone who feels the need to pepper her speech with these catechisms.

One thing that bothers me about this attitude is that it sees everything as a privilege. This was especially obvious at our event. The entire purpose of the event was for successful people at successful companies to share what made them successful, so that the rest of us can do it too. To start the discussion by checking the privilege “of even being able to have this discussion” is absurd. It implies that the success and achievements of everyone involved are random endowments from the universe, and not hard-won achievements created through the work of the people involved. If the person speaking thusly sincerely believed what she was saying about privilege, then she would have nothing else to say. The entire discussion would go like so:

Q: How were you able to drive success at your company, and what lessons do you have to share with the audience

A: I am so unbelievably privileged to work at a company that can focus on driving success. Not every company can afford to do that.

Q: Are you saying that your company’s success is just random chance, and has nothing to do with the work you’ve invested into it?

A: I guess so. Sucks to be all y’all, working at terrible companies.

This is the insidious thing about typical discussions around social justice and privilege. It assumes, as a background fact, a complete lack of individual agency for everyone. You, as a person, with thoughts and hopes and dreams and ambitions, you didn’t build that. You were given it, randomly and unfairly, by society, by virtue of your involuntary, nonconsensual inclusion in a group that we’ve defined into existence. Because this was bestowed at random, you have no legitimate claim on it. Instead, you must grovel and apologize for receiving it. Oddly, you don’t actually have to give it up and distribute it more fairly; simply acknowledging it is sufficient to being a good person.

This is really upsetting. It’s dehumanizing. It reduces individual humans to tokens of their identity group. It’s demoralizing. It takes away your ability to achieve, to feel proud about what you’ve done. It’s a depressing outlook on life.

If you saw me walking down the street, you might think “there goes another rich privileged yuppie”. You’d be wrong. I haven’t had even a tenth as many opportunities, gifts, privileges, as the people lobbing accusations. No, I’ve overcome adversity (real adversity, not college-admission fodder), bettered myself, and become an expert in what I do. I’ve worked hard, achieved well for myself, and I don’t apologize for this. Of course I’ve had my share of luck, people along the way that helped me out. Of course I have the ‘privilege’ of being born here, and not in the third world. But to take these small, specific elements of my experience and reduce it to “everything you have is an unearned privilege” is offensive. It’s disgusting.

I have to wonder, how can people who think this way manage their day to day? If you’re going through life, feeling like none of your accomplishments are your own, how could you do anything at all without feeling like a failure? Like you can’t achieve anything, because your achievements are not you own? I have no charitable ways of understanding that mentality.

Maybe Moldbug was right, and this is just Christian guilt, rebranded. Given my religious upbringing, this seems plausible to me. There’s a definite parallel between the religious, almost cult-like language this speaker was using, and various pastors I’ve heard throughout the ages.

Regardless of its origin, I reject this line of reasoning as toxic. It’s important to take pride in one’s work. To want to get better. To want to achieve goals. It’s how we get things done. It’s alarming to me that a contrary attitude is taking hold in my industry, one that says “all of this is arbitrary and random, you have no right to feel pride or ownership over your accomplishments, and you owe a debt to everyone else who haven’t worked as hard as you.” When nobody takes pride in their work, their work quickly becomes unworthy of pride. When the reward for hard work is more work, and the reward for slacking is handouts, hard work stops getting done.

Maybe the speaker and her friends and coworkers really are privileged. Maybe they had a wealthy upbringing. Maybe they got scholarships to the Ivy League. Maybe their jobs are sinecures. But some of us, many of us even, got where we were through hard work and sacrifice, and it’s not fair or reasonable to paint all of us with that same repressed-guilt paintbrush. My career, my accomplishments, my possessions, my home, my life, these aren’t privileges. I wasn’t given any of these. I made them.

So check your privilege, if you have to. I checked mine. It’s still not there. My achievements, on the other hand? Right where I left them.

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Of Monoliths And Mesh Networks

Look around you.
Look around you.
Look around you.

Most websites don’t exist. When you type ‘’ into Safari, you might think you’re visiting Google’s website server, but you would be wrong. “Google’s website server” is not a thing. Google, the software package, is much too large and complex to be served out of a single web server. When you browse to any Google website, what you are actually getting is a large, complex set of interacting parts that all work together to give you the seamless experience of interacting with a single (virtual) website.

As with any complex system of interacting parts, the crux of the challenge is not in building the parts, but instead concerns how those parts and interactions are structured. In the world of web software, this feeds into a debate between two opposed strategies for designing these structures.

In the past, the traditional strategy is referred to as the “Monolith”. This is largely what it sounds like: One massive software project that does everything. The benefits of this are obvious: it’s very easy to figure out how to get started. Your one project already does everything, just make it do one more thing. Everything is centralized in one location, which means it is easy to manage and administer. Global changes become editing one configuration value. Everybody working on the same project means anyone can fill in for anyone else in a pinch. You don’t have the overhead of multiple projects. Performance improvements become simple: buy more powerful hardware. Finally, it’s a natural way of working. When the business people come and say “We want the computer to do X and Y and Z”, you write a program that does X and Y and Z and give it to them.

This worked, for a while. But as time went on, our requirements increased and project complexity followed, this started to suffer from some crippling tradeoffs. The centralized administration struggles to find the flexibility to account for myriad edge cases. Management thinks programmers are interchangeable, but people develop specializations around certain areas of code that are hard to see or communicate. When everything is together with everything else, a project bogs down under its own complexity, as a change to any element can cause subtle effects anywhere else. And there comes a point where you’re running the best hardware money can buy, and increasing performance beyond that point is a hard project.

A few years ago a new web project architecture arose, offering an alternative design pattern. Called “Service Oriented Architecture”, the idea was to identify the natural services in your project. You build each service as a separate project, have them all communicate with each other through a common interface, and so long as you design this interface well, you gain benefits.

The most obvious benefit is flexibility. As long as you conform to the shared interface, you can hide as much complexity as you want within your service. This makes it a lot easier to be flexible and handle edge cases. Say a given project needs to hit external services. In the monolith case, you must expose everything. With SOA, only the service that needs external access gets it, minimizing attack surface area. Or consider that a different programming language is better suited for a particular problem domain. As long as you conform to the standard interface, you can write in whatever language you like.

The encapsulation of services that are not strongly coupled to other services also has benefits in localizing the effects of changes. In the monolith, you never really know if a change to part X will cause a bug in part Y. With the service oriented architecture, the common interface acts as a hard check on errors. It doesn’t matter how you change service A, it can never introduce a bug in service B. Most changes in behaviour can’t cross the lines of the interface without a change in the interface itself. And, provided your interfaces are well tested, any bugs that do get through the interface will get caught there.

There are organizational gains, too. By allowing developers to specialize on certain sets of projects, they can become more effective on them. The separation of concerns into independent projects also allows more work to be done in parallel, free from the fear of colliding with someone else’s work

Many companies have adopted service oriented architectures after they’ve grown to a certain size. The top-down centralized management of a single codebase is just not able to handle the needs of a large, modern project or company. It chokes under its own complexity, and SOA helps to mitigate this.

Making things service oriented is difficult. I’ve hand-waved the process of designing the interface, and this is not a simple endeavour. But it’s an important one. It forces you to clarify the boundaries of things upfront, and to think carefully about the rules and the process for changing them. It also requires a large amount of trust. In a monolith, you can often code defensively around a bug, monkey-patch it, or edit the original code. With services, you must trust the services you interact with to fully and correctly implement your communication interfaces, and to satisfy their contracts and documentation. This cuts both ways, as the same expectations are held over you.

Monoliths encourage laziness and slop. Can’t make a timely and useful decision? Well, it’s a monolith, so build something higher up that forces the behaviour you want. Weird edge case? Ehh, code a one-off, what’s the worst that could happen? The worst is that, over time, these ad hoc decisions pile up into unmanageable complexity. SOA avoids this by forcing you to think it through upfront. It offers you a smoother, easier time, but only if you’re willing to do the work it requires.

Ultimately, as we discover time and time again, one size solutions do not fit all, and implicit design is no substitute for the real thing. Splitting up projects into smaller, localized, focused concerns, each with a small, dedicated set of people responsible, delivers more effective solutions than one massive unified team with one complex software dream.

Look around you.
Look around you.
Look around you.
Have you figured out what we’re looking for?

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Exclusive Inclusivity

Today a friend of mine brought this article to my attention. It was also shared on Twitter, and you know how those things go. The article is pretty standard stuff; I swear they could generate these things with Markov chains.

A warning: this post will be rambly. Even more so than my normal posts. I have a handful of thoughts on this subject that are only loosely connected, and I’m using this post to publish them all, miscellanea-style.

An extremely quick refresher for those of you reading this on a bunch of rocks: tech has a gender problem. Engineering departments are about 15% women. This is said to be indicative of deeply-rooted sexism that actively excludes women from these fields and roles. The proposed solution is to take various steps across a range of strategies to make these positions more inclusive towards women.

You know what I have always wondered? How will we know when sexism is officially solved? Presumably, there is a problem and we would like to fix it. How will we know when it is actually fixed? What milestones are out there to allow me to wake up one morning and say “our work is done here. Time to move on”?

There is a tendency for people who want to change the world, to be more concerned with the process of changing it than with the result of the change. This is bad. Poorly specified goals, combined with extremely enthusiastic supporters, are the raw materials that bad leaders subvert to do bad things. Even in the absence of sociopaths, poorly specified goals lead to lost focus. People constantly striving for change, without really knowing what they’re changing things into. People spinning their wheels, making no progress, because they haven’t defined progress.

So, just as a prompt for conversation: how will we know when the tech industry is no longer sexist? What are the victory conditions? What is the actual, concrete goal we are working towards?

The article linked above could be handily summarized by its title: “A new study shows how Star Trek jokes and geek culture make women feel unwelcome in computer science”. The assertion here is that a quirky geek culture is off-putting to women, and this causes them to avoid the field of software engineering.

Let’s take a moment to just sit back and appreciate the absurdity of this thesis. Just take it in.

Software engineering is a skilled profession. It requires a special kind of mindset. It requires specialized skills, acquired through rigourous schooling and/or years of experience. When done right, it is a massively valuable force multiplier; a good engineer in the right place can generate over $1M/yr of revenue for their employer. But, it’s easy to do it wrong, and bad engineering can be extremely costly.

In short, it is not something that just anyone can do. It requires smart, talented, driven people, working hard. Most people will not succeed at this. And that’s ok. Why should we expect them to? People don’t expect that everyone can be a doctor, or a lawyer. Why is this different?

I don’t mean to cast aspersions on the abilities of female engineers. Every one I’ve met has been just as capable as I am, if not more. This is more than the linked article can say. If you read between the lines, the article’s implications are insulting. It profiles the lives of millennial, college-educated women. These are the nation’s best and brightest. Sent to the best schools, graduating top of their classes. These people will go on to apply at the best employers in the world, making ~$150,000 USD/yr in total compensation at a Google or a Facebook, fresh out of college.

This article asks us to believe that young adult women who are so kick-ass as to be able to do the above, are so frail and fragile that a passion for Star Trek is enough to permanently bar them from this path.

Just let that sink in.

Imagine we’re talking about med school, instead of engineering. Imagine we are profiling women going in to med school. They have perfect grades, perfect extracurriculars. They pull of a perfect entrance essay, and a perfect interview. But then, one by one, they turn to you and say “nope. I can’t do this. Star Trek is just too dumb.” What would your reaction be? Mine would be dumbfoundedness. You can handle studying twelve hours a day for 8 years of your life, but you can’t handle Patrick Stewart’s Enterprise? This is an insult to all the brilliant women I know and work with.

When I went to engineering school, the mechies and civvies would often organize golfing trips. I, being a sparky, preferred to stay in the IEEE lounge on campus and play Smash Bros with my colleagues. To this, the mechies would scoff. “Playing golf is important”, they’d say. And they weren’t wrong. If you want to build a solid career in mainstream corporate (North) America, you have to go golfing. Teams get bonded over golfing. Business plans are discussed over golfing. This Is Just How It Is. When I turned down golfing invitations, the mechies didn’t hear “Simon doesn’t like golfing”. They heard “Simon doesn’t think his career is that important”.

Of course, I work as a software engineer, and our norms are a little different. We don’t wear suits and ties. We don’t go golfing. But just as mechies have their cultural quirks, we have ours. Ours are geek chic. You don’t need to talk about your golf game. You do need to talk about science fiction.

In a sense, this is arbitrary. Outsiders who don’t care for it see it as a barrier to entry, spitefully keeping them out. But it’s more complex than this. Cultures arise organically to bring people together. Engineers don’t talk about Star Trek to exclude non-geeks. They talk about Star Trek because they like Star Trek. It’s a Schelling point to organize around, socially. Culture is illegible. If you go around removing everything just because you don’t understand it, it will collapse. You would think people who maintain software projects would have a better appreciation for this.

I have a personal confession: I’ve never really liked popular science fiction. I had never in my life seen Star Trek before 2013. And believe it or not, this came up pretty frequently in various semi-professional capacities. So I read enough Wikipedia to hum a few bars and muddle through conversation. I watched it, eventually. And everything worked out fine.

The entire discussion above is misframed. Why should there even be one engineering culture to criticize in the first place? Google reports that there’s six hundred thousand software professionals in the States. Do you really think that every single one of those 600 kilopeople has the same superficial taste in media? If they did, that would be cause for alarm.

Software engineering, like every single other profession and social organization in the world, has niches of all shapes and sizes, all over the place. Hate Star Trek? Find the team of six that hates it as much as you do. There’s a hundred thousand of them; luck is on your side.

We talk about this theme a lot here in Status 451, and we do this because it is critically important. People seem to have this unshakeable tendency to universalize their preferences. Star Trek repels and excludes women, therefore there can be no Star Trek or, at best, it must be trivialized. For reasons unknown to me, the idea that there could be multiple cultures running in parallel falls on deaf ears. There’s more than enough people, places, and work out there for everyone to be happy. Why should we impose misery on group A just to make group B happy. Make everyone happy!

Why should we even care about inclusiveness?

We hear about how important diversity is so often that asking this question seems bizarre. Even as I write it, I feel dirty, as if I’ve outed myself as a bigot. But I don’t mean any subtext by this. Just the idea: Why should we care about inclusiveness at all?

Everything in life is going to be biased in one direction or another. Even in a perfectly fair world, there will still be random fluctuations and network effects. Facebook will have a different userbase from Twitter, which is different still from Vine. Why? Who knows. It’s arbitrary. Burrito shops will have different patrons than sandwich shops, which in turn will be different than the shawarma stand. Womens’ studies classes will still be overwhelmingly attended by women. So why is inclusiveness suddenly so important?

Granted, arbitrary barriers are bad for their own sake. Status 451 feels strongly that individual freedom and autonomy is good, and artificial barriers are bad. But artificial barriers are not things like a weird culture. Artificial barriers are things like unnecessary credentialing requirements, which add a literal cost to entry. Things like restrictive protectionist work permitting (the reason why I can’t make double my current salary in California). For the most part, tech is really good on these measures. Because code speaks for itself, a person with an active github account will be preferred to the Ivy League grad who is all talk and no substance. Because all one needs is a laptop and the internet, it is very easy to work remotely from anywhere in the world. We’re not perfect, but we’re far better than comparable professions. There isn’t a hospital in the western world that would hire a self taught highschool dropout as head surgeon.

But just because there is an inequality, doesn’t mean it’s forced, and doesn’t mean it’s bad. This goes back to my question at the beginning. An answer to the question “how do we know we’ve succeeded?” implies an answer to the question “how do we know something is wrong?”. I have a nagging suspicion that most would-be reformers’ instinctive answer would be “when engineering teams are 50/50”. But this is not a good answer. It assumes that men and women both equally want to be engineers. Given how nebulous gender categories are, it is not a good assumption to assume that both groups will be identical in aggregate. It also assumes no comparative advantage. Perhaps it turns out that women are comparatively better at things other than engineering. In that case, we would expect them ‘overrepresented’ in those fields and ‘underrepresented’ in this one. And it assumes no random fluctuations.

I’m a big fan of empowering people, giving them the tools to do what they want and live the life they want to live. I am not a fan of top down social engineering. It is one thing to give someone the tools they need to be a successful engineer. It is a very different thing to demand that engineers change their culture to facilitate a newcomer’s success. Nobody should be imposing their cultural preferences on any group. And if someone has to, I give priority to the people with seniority. They’ve already proven their worth.

So I ask again: why should I care about inclusiveness at all? In a world where all unfair, artificial barriers to entry are removed, then no matter what, however things shake out, we know they were fair. We know they represent what people want, and what people are willing to work for. If I live in a world where every smart, capable, driven female engineer is gainfully employed, and there’s still 4 men for each one of them at the office, where’s the harm? If anything, it sounds like at that point, ‘getting more women into tech’ is coercing women who don’t want to be there to be there. How is this a good thing?

And in a world where there are robust frameworks to facilitate all kinds of people living together, working and playing and communing and living their lives, why should I care how they cluster? In a world where every man who wants a male-only engineering team has one, and every woman who wants a female-only engineering team has one, and every person who wants a co-ed engineering team has one….. where’s the problem? Is it really a tragedy that there are teams that don’t balance perfectly?

I think my question is more reasonable than it first appears. I think, deep down inside, most people agree with me. Why? Because “inclusiveness” only ever seems to apply to certain groups of people. If you’re only concerned about including women, you’re not concerned with inclusiveness. You’re concerned about women.

This is rather personal for me, because myself, as well as many of my engineering friends, are neurodivergent. Many struggle with depression, suicide, anxiety, and bipolar disorders. Many are on the autism spectrum. Many are diagnosed ADHD.

They have been marginalized their whole lives. Essentially every engineer I know was routinely physically assaulted in elementary school and jr. high. Many had parents who couldn’t handle their weirdo status, and ended up emotionally (and sometimes physically) abusing these future engineers. They have been constantly socially excluded. Almost all of them were virgins until their mid twenties (the women, too). They have suffered much, much more exclusion than the upper-middle class white women in tech ever have.

Most of geek and hacker culture falls out of this. Hackerspaces popped up as clubhouses for the socially marginalized, where they could go be weird together. Many of the original successful startups were founded by two or three weirdos who created a space they could thrive in. Geek culture was a place where all these outcasts could come together and celebrate the random esoterica that they were passionate about.

When would-be reformers come along and say “this weird obsession with Captain Kirk is driving women away. It has to go,” they don’t think this is a big deal. To them, it’s just quirky people refusing to let go of their frustrating quirks. To them, it’s an arbitrary barrier to entry for women to become engineers. And, being arbitrary, it is unjust and unfair.

The existing geeks and hackers feel differently. For them, these engineering spaces were the only place where they weren’t excluded and marginalized. They spent their whole lives, suffering social, emotional, and physical abuse, and finally found their own safe space. As luck would have it, society values it, too, and the hackers and geeks have done fairly well for themselves.

Suddenly, a bunch of people are trying to take that away from them. In the name of inclusivity, even! It’s just like high school all over again. The jocks and normals and cool kids are coming to beat us up and take our stuff. Heaven forbid we have one moment of peace.

And for no reason! Because this situation is not symmetrical. If someone comes along and says “that thing you like, I don’t like it. Stop doing that thing,” then at most one person will be happy. But if someone comes along and says “I wish I could be an engineer, but I just can’t stand that thing. I wish they didn’t like it,” this admits a second solution. Let the freaks and geeks have their weird culture, start a second engineering team. Embrace the pluralistic patchwork. Somehow, this is never seen as a viable strategy.

If I could communicate one single thing to the world, contributing my part to engineering culture, it would be this: All of the things that are obnoxious, weird, unpleasant, problematic, about hacker and geek culture, that is what their safe space looks like. If you want to create safe spaces for other people, that’s great! Everyone deserves their safety. But by coming up to an existing safe space, pointing at all the weirdos inside, declaring them problematic, and displacing them to create a safe space for another group, that’s not inclusion. Inclusion would attempt to accommodate everyone. Displacing one group of people to accommodate another is just a culture war. War is hell. We’re better than that.


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Sever Yourself From The Khala

There are demons in the Khala.

Some demons are ones you might recognize. The biggest one acts with curious coordination, as a hundred million unrelated voices cry in unison “I’m With Her“.

Some demons are smaller. Weaker. Minor demons. And yet, their status as minor demons gives them strength. For who would suspect the death by a thousand cuts?

The FOMO demon. That party looks like a blast. Shame you’re not invited.

The demon of social comparison. Did you see what Jane has gotten up to? She made it into med school. How many times have you been rejected?

The demon of photogenicity. Mike’s looking ripped. Why don’t my photos ever look good?

The demon of missed reference. Ahahaha #theupsidedown. What? You haven’t seen Stranger Things? Come on it’s been out for three months already.

The demon of self-censorship. I wish I could respond to that thoughtful camgirl’s poll. But my boss follows me. What if he sees it?

But all those demons. They bow before their demon king. The most fearsome demon? It’s other people. In the Khala, their deepest fears become yours. Their crippling weaknesses, yours. Their every inane thought, yours. A billion cacophonous voices screaming their every though, no matter how trivial. Their every idea, no matter how foolish. A torrent of voices, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Slowly but surely eroding your sanity.

Sever yourself from the Khala. Learn to live, to really live, without the horrendous crutch of the Khalai. Walk in the void. Come, live as the Nerazim have lived for aeons. It is the only way to save yourself from the eldritch horrors that live within the Memetwork.

Sever yourself from the Khala. Let social media send its thralls to their doom. Don’t be one of them.

Quit Twitter. 

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[NT-3311] RCE in Christianity v1.0

You would have hated me as a child.

I was raised in a very religious household. But I was also born with The Knack. Religion, and Christianity in particular, doesn’t much care for sperglords. They tend to ask all sorts of obnoxious questions, they poke holes in your fragile narratives, and they generally cause all sorts of frustrating trouble.

I’m no longer religious, though I appreciate its value to others. I followed the up-and-out trajectory. As any sperg would, I started taking it seriously. And then I found out that that’s impossible. And then I found out nobody else did. After a while you wonder what the point is. And then you just stop believing.

The strange and unique thing about my experience is the particular things I got hung up on. Usually deep philosophical things, playing games with ideas that didn’t matter. But sometimes they mattered very deeply, and I couldn’t resolve the contradiction.

One night, on the way home from a youth group outing, the youth pastor is telling me about her friends. They’ve just started a wonderful Christian small business, and they need all the support they can get from the community. Their business? They re-cut popular movies, editing out the swear words and replacing them with Christ-approved cusses, so that they would be safe for Christians to watch.

16-year-old me immediately jumped to the obvious question: how does this make any sense? Let’s take, say, a Quentin Tarantino movie. Do you really watch this movie and think “the most immoral part is the word ‘fuck'”? To me, I would think a gratuitously violent movie with polite language wouldn’t be any more God-approved.

I probably should have dropped this. But it kept bothering me. Because, you see, one of the ten commandments is “don’t take God’s name in vain”. Another commandment is “don’t murder”, but there’s nothing about portraying murders. If God is all-powerful, he can be arbitrary too. And it’s pretty hard to argue with that one. You could argue that “fuck” is not subject to this rule. But goddamn, “goddamn” sure is. If you think about what the Bible says, maybe these people are on the right track.

So lets prax this out. The bible says don’t use God’s name in vain. Let’s take this at face value. Use God’s name in vain? Sin, go to hell. Use God’s name legitimately, you’re A-Ok. “God damn!”, hell. “God please help”, heaven.

So what happens if you say “Dios damn”. Did you just sin? If the answer is no, then this is just a qualified version of “the word doesn’t matter, intention does” and at that point, the actions of the Christian small business make no sense. So let’s shelve that branch, and say “yes. Yes it counts”. The Bible says don’t use the name. It doesn’t say don’t mean the name.

The weird thing about languages (well, one of many) is that new ones pop up all the time. You can invent them. There are people who are fluent in Klingon, after all. So, does that mean “joH’a damn it” is a sin? Like I said, lets assume ‘yes’.

I’ve been working on this project. I’m designing a new language, completely from scratch. Like a version of Lojban people actually use. I’ll be repurposing existing phonemes as much as possible, for convenience sake. I’ve decided that the English phoneme “the” is my language’s word for “God”.

If taking the Lord’s name in vain is meant in this literal fashion, we have a remote execution bug. By inventing a language and assigning the meaning “God” to an arbitrary phoneme, I can retroactively convert people into sinners and send them to Hell.

As those of you with basic literacy skills have been yelling into your screen for the past five minutes, “that’s goddamn crazy”. Of course it doesn’t work like this. Nothing would ever work like this. Nobody would ever think like this.

Words invoke a ‘use/mention’ dichotomy. You can either pass them around as pointers, or dereference them to values. But you don’t want to be sloppy about it. That’s how you get buffer overflows.

In my Aspergic analysis, I was stubbornly insisting on mentioning the name of God, never using it. This is somewhat absurd, but less so than you’d think. Consider again the Christian business. They, too, are mentioning curse words. If they interpreted the commandment to mean using curse words, then their edited versions would be just as bad. After all, whether I say “fuck” or whether I say “shucks”, the meaning is clear.

So flip it around. I say “goddamn traffic, I’m an hour late again”. Did I take God’s name in vain? If we’re going by use rules (as most people naturally would), I’d say the answer is no. When I said that phrase, I didn’t mean anything remotely religious. I wasn’t sincerely asking God to smite the Volvo going 70 on the Sea-To-Sky Highway. I was expressing frustration using a cathartic set of syllables. I was mentioning God’s name, not using it.

This is why most normal people look on that fellow’s business and think it’s silly and foolish. Everybody knows that the Bible is saying not to use God’s name in vain. But this man, who can’t possibly be so stupid as to not get this, insists that it says not to mention it. He makes a business out of it, duping others out of their cash.

Once upon a time, there were two minor celebrities on Twitter: Alice and Bob. They both felt very strongly about Skub, and used their fame and influence to advocate in favour of it.

Unfortunately for them, various trolls felt just as strongly that Skub is not part of a healthy balanced diet, and they made sure to let Alice and Bob know about it.

For daring to be pro-Skub in public, Bob got insults. People called him a bastard, an asshole. He got threats of doxing. He got “joking” death threats in his DMs.

For daring to be pro-Skub in public, Alice got insults. People called her a bitch, a cunt. She got threats of doxing. She got “joking” rape threats in her DMs.

Do you think that God thinks Twitter is misogynistic?

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Social Gentrification

Earlier this week a friend of mine was talking about nerd culture, and was surprised when I mentioned that I don’t like it. I avoid nerd culture and, despite being the exact target demographic, find it uncomfortable and unwelcoming. My friend found this puzzling and asked why.

“It got gentrified,” was my reply.

The following ideas are heavily inspired by both my personal experience, and the well-known blog post Geeks, MOPs, and Sociopaths. Give that a read before this one.

Also note, I am heavily conflating nerd culture and gaming culture here, because there’s a large overlap between those two communities, because the same thing has happened to both of them, and because it makes it easier to write about.

I used to identify strongly as a nerd. In high school, it was not by choice, but I entered college right when it started picking up steam. For a while I was excited to finally be able to identify as something popular, something good. But I was very quickly driven away. When I think about why, the metaphor of gentrification comes to mind. As an example is worth a thousand words, consider the metaphor of gentrification in the Mission district of San Francisco.

In the beginning, the Mission was a lower class neighbourhood, filled by mostly poorer people (analogy: social rejects, nerds, outcasts). It was dirty, grimy, crimey, and poor. Between the crime, the blue-collar norms, and lack of funds, it was an unpleasant place that most people did not feel welcome in. (Analogy: coarse language, blunt critical people, off-colour jokes, etc.)

Now, nobody actually likes to live in a neighbourhood plagued by crime, but there’s an interesting effect. The rough-and-tumble reputation protects the people who live there. They’re poor, their lives are hard and shitty, their community is unpleasant, but it’s their community. In a world that screws them over so much, everywhere else, it’s their safe space. They aren’t bothered by the rest of us, because the aegis of crime keeps us away. Over time, they even develop cultures and coping behaviours that grow to accept and mitigate the worst of the downsides of the crime and poverty they deal with (analogy: anon culture. Nerds reveling in their unpleasantness, as it keeps normies away.)

Fast forward a few years, and people start to notice that the Mission is a cool and valuable area (analogy: Nerd culture becoming cool). It has all this potential, if only we could clean it up a bit, remove the riff-raff, lower the crime (analogy: tons of people would enjoy nerd culture, but it is hostile and unwelcoming to them). Some people, of a higher socioeconomic class than the existing residents, move in and use their clout to start cleaning up the area, cracking down on crime and the like (analogy: leaders, celebrities, important people publicly identify with nerd culture and use their social capital to force cultural reforms).

Most people who see this happen are okay with the changes, because they are objectively good. Nobody, not even the existing residents, actually likes living in a high crime area (analogy: nobody actually likes dealing with the the unpleasant and offensive elements of nerd culture). So most people look at this scenario in progress and think “Yes! This is fine. It’s about time somebody cleaned this place up a bit.”

And the thing is, from a utilitarian perspective, this is fairly clearly the Right Thing To Do. The number of people who are unable to live in the neighbourhood (analogy: people who feel excluded from nerd culture) is much larger than the number of people who already live there (analogy: existing “real” nerds). Why should one particular group of people get to hoard access to a neighbourhood (analogy: nerd culture) just because they were there first?

The disconnect is that there’s a class conflict between the people already there and the people coming in. The people coming in are mostly middle- and upper-middle class folks with safe, stable lives, money enough not to be living precariously, etc. (Analogy: the people participating in nerd culture, now that it’s mainstream, always had other communities and social outlets that worked for them.) The people who are already there, on the other hand, have poor, hard lives because life screwed them over (analogy: the existing “real” nerds, for the most part, have suffered serious physical and social bullying that has severely impacted their life for the worse). More importantly, the people who are already there have nowhere else to go; they can’t afford the rising rental prices around here (analogy: the “real” nerds, being social outcasts, don’t have any other social communities they’re welcome in).

So you get this weird effect where, from the big-picture perspective, gentrification is obviously good. It makes crime disappear. It builds more houses that more people can live in. It brings in new people and new culture and new ideas and new businesses. And, more importantly, you enable an order of magnitude more people to enjoy it. (Analogy: “real” nerd culture is extremely unpleasant, somewhat hostile to newcomers, etc. The mainstreaming of nerd culture means there are more nerd things. These things are less hostile and offensive to people. There are new ideas. People can start businesses. An order of magnitude more people get to enjoy a cultural thing.) But it also makes demands on the existing residents: Put up with it, or leave. Some of the better-off residents can put up with it, and they end up even better off. They can afford the raised rents, and they’re happy that finally they can feel safe in their own neighbourhood. (Analogy: some of the nerds were only a little bit socially awkward. They can succeed and thrive in the new culture, and appreciate the fact that they are now more popular and influential.) They welcome the changes. But there are some people who can’t hack it. They can’t afford the raised rents. They get evicted, and have to leave. Some of them have lower class preferences and mannerisms that get progressively more and more shamed until they are socially pushed out of the area (and economically: all the cheap $4 standard Mexican breakfast diners being replaced by $20 yuppie brunch spots). (Analogy: Some of the nerds are super socially stunted. The entire reason they are nerds is because it was the only place they fit in. When the mainstream newcomers come along, they steadily raise the standards of social expectations until the worst of the nerds can’t handle it and are shamed [or sometimes forced] out.)

And this is a particular problem for two reasons. The first is that the existing working class residents of the Mission have nowhere else to go. Everything else is too expensive for them. It’s hard to just leave an entire life behind and start somewhere new. You have to build everything up from scratch. You have to find a place to do this (analogy: “real” nerds who can’t cut it in the mainstream community have no other communities they belong to. They have no other communities they can join, because the same social challenges that made them be nerds in the first place exclude them from other communities. They can go build a new one from scratch, but that is very hard.)

The second is that, because the Mission as it existed pre-gentrification is an unpleasant place, and because people are responsible for their own communities, they’re seen as being the ones at fault, and so nobody will support them. So not only do they have nowhere else to go, nobody cares about them enough to help them. (Analogy: much of the unpleasant, offensive, insulting, and otherwise problematic facets of nerd culture fall out of the fact that socially retarded nerds are socially retarded. They’re trying their best, it’s just that their best is not very good. To people who don’t have these challenges, all they see are a bunch of assholes being assholes. They feel no need to empathize, because those “assholes” are violating the newcomers’ social norms and ethical expectations, and so they are bad guys. When they’re excluded, nobody cares to help them find a new social home, because after all, it’s their own fault they were excluded.)

Finally, there’s an interesting, if depressing, side effect to this process. “Cleaning up the Mission” (analogy: “cleaning up nerd culture”) ends up splitting the existing residents (“real” nerds) into two categories: The top half, who can handle the new culture, and the bottom half, who cannot. The bottom half then gets screwed. But … the bottom half are already the people who get screwed the most in life.

Even though gentrification is clearly and unambiguously for the greater good, and a net benefit to society, it causes concentrated pain on a small collection of people. Further, as a side effect, it chooses a subset of those people, the subset that suffers the most already, and heaps even more suffering onto them to get it out of the way of normal people who just want to live in the Mission (analogy: take part in nerd culture).

If it’s not apparent here, I have sympathies to “real” nerds. I’ve been through this process in several communities already (internet Atheism chat room, Reddit, a local meetup group, gaming, Twitter, and in some sense the tech industry itself), and every time it happens, I end up on the bad side of things. Newcomers roll in and decide they want to make it friendlier to them and their friends. That’s fine! But the problem is they don’t take the time to understand or empathize with the people already there. The end result is that every time I find a community or activity I like and enjoy, and try to get involved in it, it inevitably gets yanked away from me once people figure out that it’s cool.

And for that matter, in the grand scheme of things I don’t even have it that badly. I know really awkward, unpleasant-to-be-around people for whom, say, 4chan-type spaces online are their only social outlet. They are marginally employed and have little to no money. Many of them still live with their parents while pushing 30. They’ve set down a shitty path in life, and they have little hope of ever leaving it. These social spaces are their only treats in life. I know two people who would have killed themselves if they didn’t have 4chan as a social support network (which sounds insane to everyone who hasn’t been a /b/tard, and obvious to all who have). When their community starts to get “cleaned up,” and they’re excluded because (for example) they are crude and make offensive jokes, this is a benefit to tens of thousands of people who want to be nerds, but it’s a devastating effect on people who don’t have anything else.

Long rambling story short: the mainstreaming of nerd culture makes me intensely uncomfortable because it pattern matches very strongly to social bullies seeing that I have something cool and taking it away from me. Or, more pithily: “ ‘Nerd’ is cool now, but nerds are still losers.”

If it had turned out that nerd went mainstream, and suddenly thousands of people thought I was cool and interesting and I had friends and dates and parties and games and great times, that would be amazing. But what happened, it’s more like a bunch of people decided nerd chic is cool, they started coming to nerd things, and then they said “ew what’s this loser doing here” before kicking me out so they could enjoy themselves.

Which, again: is for the greater good. I just wish it came with some empathy.

For a parallel example of this, Gamergate.

Starting around September 2014, most of the major nerd media outlets started running various op-eds whose core thesis was the same all around: “Gamers are dead” (an example, and another). The point of these articles was reasonable: There is a stereotype of “gamers” that the gaming culture and industry panders to, but the vast majority of people who want to play video games are not that. You don’t have to obsess about courting those people; you can be successful without making Call of Duty 47.

But these articles, all coming out at the same time, and all taking a snarky and condescending tone, scan very differently to those gamers themselves. I know a ton of people like that, and this was a really, really big deal to them. The people who wrote the articles, they probably didn’t think much about it. They are for the most part people with prestigious educations and upper-middle class backgrounds, who got jobs in media basically just getting paid to publish their opinions. The gamers in question? As a case study, consider a friend of mine from IRC. He’s around 30 years old. He lives in a lower income suburb in a flyover red state. He has sick parents and he is an only child. His parents were working class and have no money. He is employed as a minimum wage drone at a retail store. He can’t get an education because no money + sick parents. He is royally fucked in life, and he knows it, and that’s horrifying. His one escape, his one coping mechanism, is to zen out for an hour or two playing shooters with his friends online.

So he turns to Gamasutra, the one media outlet that pretends to care about him. And what does he see? He sees an article saying he’s a terrible person and the gaming ecosystem would be better off if everyone ignored him till he just disappeared. And, while that is somewhat true (he is unpleasant and probably drives other potential gamers away), that means piss all to him. To him, what he sees is that the one indulgence he gets in his otherwise shitty life is being taken away from him. By people who have no idea what it’s like, and don’t care enough to try and find out.

The push for the gaming community to become more friendly and welcoming, to stop with constant insults and name calling, to become a pleasant place for people to play games — obviously a world in which I don’t get death-threatened by 12 year olds in Barrens Chat is a better world. But in the process, nobody cared about my friend. His shitty life just got shittier, because some media yuppies don’t like swear words.

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