January 9 2013

Paths of Indiana Jones & Star Wars

January 8 2013

You keep using that word…

I can see this thing is just going to run and run

Earlier today, following on from numerous others, Aral Balkan wrote about it:

A person who calls for greater diversity is not necessarily advocating the implementation of a quota system — that’s a straw man fallacy

No; it’s not.

Diversity and merit‐based selection process are not mutually exclusive …

No, but artificial diversity is mutually exclusive with meritocracy. Aral quotes Matt Andrews:

I would have stopped once we’d reached, say, 17 male out of 22 possible speakers

… that is to say, the last 5 speakers would be chosen based not on their merits but based on their gender, or artificial diversity.

Aral continues:

In an industry where 27–29% are female…

Which industry is this again? The conference in question is for ‘[web] developers and browser vendors’; a field where the most recent A List Apart survey found approximately 9.1% of respondents who identified as such were women.

… if you manage to get a speaker line‐up with 0% female speakers, you have a bias.

Not necessarily; based on the above figures and assuming speakers were chosen purely on their strengths, you’d expect this to happen about 9% of the time for this number of speakers.

People who are interested in seeing greater diversity at conferences are not calling for a quota system. That’s a straw man fallacy.

… except for Matt Andrews whose suggestion is to stop selecting based on merit and start prioritising by gender at an arbitrary number. In other words: a quota. It’s not a straw man: it’s an accurate description of what it is.

If, however, you reach 17 speakers and they’re all male, you should realise that you’ve reached a point where you need to take a moment to introspect your process and attempt to modify it to reduce your selection bias. This does not mean that you stop at 17 and start looking for five women as Matt states. It means that you go back to step one and re‐evaluate your entire selection process.

‘In order to solve the diversity issue first one must re-invent the universe’. We’ll come back to this one.

The Diversity versus Meritocracy False Dichotomy. This fallacy […] erroneously implies that diversity and meritocracy are somehow mutually exclusive

Now who’s using straw men arguments? Nobody, I think, would argue that it’s impossible to have both a diverse and merit-based collection of conference speakers. What is being argued is that artificial diversity is mutually exclusive with using merit as the sole deciding factor. As has been shown, you simply can’t guarantee that a set of speakers can always be gender-diverse given how few women work in web development.

Aral then posits an alleged argument put forward:

The conference has an all‐male speaker list, therefore the selection process must have been a meritocracy

I’m interested in hearing who thinks this, other than bigots from Hacker News. I’ve not seen a single rational argument on this subject which boils down this way.

Another version of this argument goes:

A conference that has a meritocratic selection process is bound to end up with few women.

Again, this is confusing correlation with causation.

It is doing nothing of the sort; the number of female web developers in the industry has a direct impact on the number of potential speakers for a conference that are female. Period. Not acknowledging this is essentially sticking your head in the sand.

Let’s rephrase it:

A conference with a merit-based selection process is statistically more likely to result in fewer speakers from statistical minorities.

If you still refute this, then I have some ‘lucky’ lottery numbers to sell you.

As the three conferences linked to above can testify, not only is diversity possible in a meritocracy, it can actually thrive in one.

Again, nobody is saying diversity can’t happen. But you shouldn’t kid yourself that a statistical minority beating the odds of representation is something that should happen more than, well, it’s statistically likely to. The only way that can happen routinely is through positive discrimination.

… the people who annoy me most on this subject are the ones who tell you to shut up about it. These men and women are happy with the status quo.

I’m fed up of hearing about this subject, and not because I’m happy with the status quo; I genuinely believe a better mix of genders (and indeed all types of diversity) can only benefit our art. But so far none of the polemics penned decrying the status quo have offered practical solutions or suggestion for how we can fix things.

Nebulous criticism of a ‘broken selection process’ is useless if it doesn’t also come with proposed solutions. The developed world has long had a massive gulf in gender representation across all the sciences; it would seem a far more productive goal to try and influence education policy than to endlessly bemoan the symptoms without addressing the cause.

September 19 2012
September 18 2012
August 2 2012

This Is For Everyone

But then all of a sudden the Olympic opening ceremony comes along, and millions of people sense - instinctively - that it isn’t either-or or us-and-them. You can like and respect and respond to both Elgar and Dizzee, both the romantic national myth of the countryside and the achievements of the Industrial Revolution, both the older traditions cherished by the Right and the post-war developments cherished by the Left. On Friday night, miraculously, it suddenly all seemed to be part of one narrative, part of a shared national story.

Robin Carmody absolutely nails it — this is exactly why the ceremony brought a lump to my throat; the realisation that yes; this country of mine is unique and special and worth celebrating!

July 20 2012

Why I’m backing App.net

Like many long-time Twitter users, I’m deeply concerned by the imminent (but as yet unconfirmed) threat to third-party developers who make use of the Twitter API. Twitter has evolved a great deal since its inception, but it would be wrong not to give credit to the ingenuity of third-parties who have helped make the service what it is today. Just to give a few examples:

The rationale for Twitter’s presumed cutting off third-parties is ostensibly about delivering a consistent experience, but the unspoken motive is financial: to ensure that advertising can’t be bypassed by a third-party client. But there is a problem here, predicated on an assertion Michael Wolff makes in his fascinating article ‘The Facebook Fallacy’; that advertisers are seeing reduced returns on their investment, with the net result that the value of online advertising is decreasing. To an extent, technological innovation and clever targeting can offset some of that decrease, but the endgame should be clear to all: that either the same amount of advertising will yield less revenue, or the amount of advertising will have to increase. The outcome of this battle is beginning to sound increasingly user-hostile.

I believe Twitter is one of the most important social inventions of the 21st century, and has tremendous power. That moment of realisation came for me first when Flight 1549 crash-landed in New York’s Hudson River, and was photographed by an iPhone user, shared via TwitPic. That photo was seen all around the world within hours, but wasn’t on the front page of newspapers until the following day. I later saw how it could be commercially invaluable when I was contacted directly by Etymotic Research after mentioning on Twitter that my earphones had broken, and they offered to replace them. All around the world companies now employ ‘social media’ staff, whose role is now effectively proactive customer service.

This usefulness is at risk if Twitter transforms into a vehicle for focused advertising, and I don’t want to see that happen. I’d rather see Twitter die and something else take its place, in fact. Luckily it seems I’m not the only one who feels strongly about this, and so I’m happy to contribute towards an effort to build something that can serve the same (if not a better) purpose, that won’t be beholden to advertisers. And if you are remotely as passionate about this as I am, then I urge you to pledge to contribute too.

July 11 2012

How has it been possible for banks to grow from less than 4 per cent of the global economy to more than 12 per cent of the global economy without impoverishing others? How has it been possible for profits in the financial sector to be consistently higher than profits from other human endeavors with more tangible products or impacts on our daily lives - such as agriculture, transport, health care or utilities? How has it been possible that banks derive their profits not from the protected and regulated activities of deposit-taking and lending, but from the unsupervised and often unknowable escalation of off-balance sheet assets and liabilities? How has it been possible that pension savings have increased while pension returns have declined to the point where only bankers can expect a comfortable old age?

Global banks have built the casinos and tilted the odds in the house’s favour by rigging the data that determines the outcomes of most of the bets on the table. Every one of us that sits at the table long enough - whether saver, investor, borrower, taxpayer or pensioner - will be a loser. It is not a flaw; it is feature.

Lies, Damn Lies and LIBOR..

July 3 2012
April 30 2012

On Opera & Vendor Prefixes

Reacting to Opera’s announcement that their latest experimental builds of their browser software would be spoofing certain -webkit vendor prefixes, I somewhat antagonistically vented on Twitter:

Hey Opera: nobody uses your crappy browser. Thanks for dicking over the web by implementing -webkit prefixes anyway.

Okay, the first part is most certainly not true; a lot of people use Opera (and as it happens, they have just published their State of the Mobile Web report for March 2012, so we can see what the data looks like right now). But whilst what I wrote was undoubtedly confrontational, having now looked some more into the situation I’m convinced that Opera have made a terrible decision out of desperation that will permanently damage web standards for little gain.

Opera is actively involved in the development of two mobile-oriented browsers: the enormously popular but atypical Opera Mini which mostly runs on older and non-smartphone devices, and the more modern smartphone-oriented Opera Mobile. When I asked, I was told that separate figures for how many people use each browser are unavailable. Given how eager Opera are to boast about how many Opera Mini users they have, it’s pretty easy to conclude that the number of Opera Mobile users is a lot smaller. This is significant, as a major justification given for spoofing vendor prefixes is that it affects a lot of people; Opera currently only intend to make the change within Opera Desktop and Mobile.

Opera have tried to throw a feint by insinuating that this is to prevent their users from being locked out:

When people block access by certain browsers, whether by omitting CSS rules or actively blocking, we have a duty to our users to access that content.

This is an egregious straw man: the prefixes Opera are implementing are limited to transitions, transforms, border radius and box shadows. None of these are barriers to being able to access content; this is just how progressive enhancement works.

As it stands today, Opera Software is a profitable and growing business, as their latest quarterly report attests (PDF link). But this masks the underlying sea change that’s happening with mobile Internet-enabled devices. Opera (along with Mozilla and Microsoft, the other parties intending to make this vendor prefix change) know full well that they’re sitting on sand castles as the tide comes in. An increasingly large number of the mobile phone devices sold today are either iOS or Android-based, and as the technology matures and economies of scale improve, the share of the market that once belonged to feature phones will be swallowed up by cheaper iOS or Android devices.

Experienced web developers know that encouraging customers to install another browser is a difficult if not impossible task. It’s even less likely that smartphone users will feel any need to install a third-party browser on their device when the default browser is easily good enough to begin with. Opera are faced with the knowledge that within a few short years, their user base could be eroded to almost nothing. This move is reflective of this realisation, and is one made out of desperation, with little concern for the long term implications to web developers and the standards process.

Vendor prefixes are, to be sure, a mess. But the situation we find ourselves in is not the fault of vendors implementing features this way, but of the glacial pace of the CSS Working Group in ratifying features that are already in widespread use. That another browser vendor feels able to spoof them shows the feature is already mature. The danger now is that ‘bad’ web developers will treat -webkit as more than just a de facto standard, and the march towards a single dominant browser in the mobile space will gather pace.

March 8 2012