01.04.16

13.02.16

Quote of the day

An excellent and concise explanation of why the First Amendment, and freedom of speech more broadly and more generally, matters to me:

Much of the Court’s opinion is devoted to deprecating the closed mindedness of our forebears…. Closed minded they were–as every age is, including our own, with regard to matters it cannot guess, because it simply does not consider them debatable. The virtue of a democratic system with a First Amendment is that it readily enables the people, over time, to be persuaded that what they took for granted is not so, and to change their laws accordingly.

Scalia, J. dissenting in United States v. Virginia

It’s taken years of following SCOTUS particularly, and the legal sphere more generally, for me to realize that of all the issues out there, freedom of speech is the one I care about most. Without it, we can’t actually argue about all the other issues that matter, persuading each other, learning from each other, and so on. It is necessary for representative democracy to be able to freely discuss everything and attempt to persuade each other, for us to have any chance at sound policy. The late Justice Scalia gets it exactly right in this quote.

(Speech implications aside: I have no immediate opinion on the legal question in the case as I only discovered it today. For the policy question — which too many people will confuse with the legal question — I would agree with the case’s outcome.)

Rest in peace, Justice Scalia. I’ll miss your First Amendment votes, from flag burning to content neutrality and forum doctrine to (especially, for the reasons noted above) political speech (if not always), among the votes you cast and opinions you wrote. Others less inclined to agree with you might choose to remember you (or at least should remember you) as the justice whose vote ultimately struck down California’s Proposition 8, even as (especially as) you considered the legal question argle-bargle. As Cass Sunstein recognized, you were “one of the most important justices ever”, and the world of law will be worse without you.

(In the spirit of freedom of speech, I generally post all comments I receive, as written. I hope to do the same for this post. But if I must, I’ll moderate excessively vitriolic comments.)

10.11.15

05.11.15

Linus Torvalds’s “communication style”

Linus Torvalds recently wrote a long rant rejecting a patch. Read it now.

Fellow Mozillian Nick Nethercote commented on that rant. Now read that.

I began commenting on Nick’s post, but my thoughts spiraled. And I’ve been pondering this awhile, in the context of Linus and other topics. So I made it a full-blown post.

Ranting is sometimes funny

Linus’s rants are entertaining, in a certain sense: much the same sense that makes us laugh at a teacher’s statement (to a student, if an odd one) in Billy Madison:

What you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

We’re entertained not because we approve of the teacher’s (or Linus’s) rants. We laugh because they’re creative. (Linus’s rants are creative, if not screenwriter-creative.) The flame can be an art form, even to flame war participants. My college dorm mailing list had regular flame wars (sometimes instigated or continued by regular trolls). I hated flame wars as a freshman. But eventually I grew to appreciate the art of the flame. In utter seriousness, that learning process was a valuable part of my college education, as it’s been for others.

(Yes, Billy Madison is low-brow humor. So are Linus’s flames, as entertainment. Not all humor must be high-brow.)

Even funny ranting is sometimes bad behavior

We also sometimes laugh because the behavior’s bad. (Humor’s core, I think, is a contradiction between expectation and reality. I highly recommend Stranger in a Strange Land for, among other things, its meditations on the nature of humor.) That’s one reason we laugh at the Billy Madison teacher-student interaction (allowing for its fictionality), and at Linus.

But somewhat pace Nick, I absolutely cannot equate laughing, or being entertained, with approval or celebration. This and this don’t celebrate ISIS, no matter ISIS appalls us. Naming Linus’s mail an “epic rant” doesn’t celebrate it. It’s just a description of five hundred over-the-top words when fewer words and less drama would have been better (as Nick observes). (At least one place calling the rant “epic” also linked this ironically-abusive decrial.)

Linux thrives despite Linus’s behavior, not because of it

Many of Linus’s rants are unacceptable. (I’ve seen a few that were overheated but not abusive.) Many developers weather them. But some developers have left the Linux community in response, when they wouldn’t have for gentler criticism. That’s a problem.

Linus gets away with bad behavior because: he’s abusive just infrequently enough; Linux has unusually high technical barriers to entry; it’s indispensable to many companies; and those companies fund development no matter Linus’s behavior. Linux led by Linus would have died already, absent these considerations. Linux is one of very, very few projects that can survive Linus’s abusiveness.

Linus is still very smart, and his rants can be right

I often recognize reasonable technical criticism beneath Linus’s rants. Regarding this patch, Linus is right. The proposed changes are harder to read than his suggestion — I’d reject them, too. I don’t agree with every Linus rant. But it’s normal to sometimes disagree even with smart developers.

What’s not normal, is being required to sift through abuse for usable feedback. It’s a skill worth having. If you can weather excess criticism from a coworker having an off day, you’ll be more productive. But it still shouldn’t be necessary (let alone routine), especially not for new open source contributors.

Conclusion

Linus is really, really smart. Because of that, and because Linux is really valuable, Linus unfortunately can keep being Linus. Barring a strongly-backed fork, nothing will change.

11.09.15

Quote of the day

During at least five of the passengers’ phone calls, information was shared about the attacks that had occurred earlier that morning at the World Trade Center. Five calls described the intent of passengers and surviving crew members to revolt against the hijackers. According to one call, they voted on whether to rush the terrorists in an attempt to retake the plane. They decided, and acted.

At 9:57, the passenger assault began. Several passengers had terminated phone calls with loved ones in order to join the revolt. One of the callers ended her message as follows: “Everyone’s running up to first class. I’ve got to go. Bye.”

The cockpit voice recorder captured the sounds of the passenger assault muffled by the intervening cockpit door. Some family members who listened to the recording report that they can hear the voice of a loved one among the din. We cannot identify whose voices can be heard. But the assault was sustained.

In response, Jarrah immediately began to roll the airplane to the left and right, attempting to knock the passengers off balance. At 9:58:57, Jarrah told another hijacker in the cockpit to block the door. Jarrah continued to roll the airplane sharply left and right, but the assault continued. At 9:59:52, Jarrah changed tactics and pitched the nose of the airplane up and down to disrupt the assault.The recorder captured the sounds of loud thumps, crashes, shouts, and breaking glasses and plates. At 10:00:03, Jarrah stabilized the airplane.

Five seconds later, Jarrah asked,“Is that it? Shall we finish it off?” A hijacker responded, “No. Not yet. When they all come, we finish it off.” The sounds of fighting continued outside the cockpit. Again, Jarrah pitched the nose of the aircraft up and down. At 10:00:26, a passenger in the background said, “In the cockpit. If we don’t we’ll die!” Sixteen seconds later, a passenger yelled, “Roll it!” Jarrah stopped the violent maneuvers at about 10:01:00 and said, “Allah is the greatest! Allah is the greatest!” He then asked another hijacker in the cockpit, “Is that it? I mean, shall we put it down?” to which the other replied, “Yes, put it in it, and pull it down.”

The passengers continued their assault and at 10:02:23, a hijacker said, “Pull it down! Pull it down!” The hijackers remained at the controls but must have judged that the passengers were only seconds from overcoming them. The airplane headed down; the control wheel was turned hard to the right. The airplane rolled onto its back, and one of the hijackers began shouting “Allah is the greatest. Allah is the greatest.” With the sounds of the passenger counterattack continuing, the aircraft plowed into an empty field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at 580 miles per hour, about 20 minutes’ flying time from Washington, D.C.

Jarrah’s objective was to crash his airliner into symbols of the American Republic, the Capitol or the White House. He was defeated by the alerted, unarmed passengers of United 93.

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