On Adria Richards, PyCon, and SendGrid

As many people are already aware, a woman named Adria Richards, who worked at a company called SendGrid, was fired yesterday. Both Richards personally, and SendGrid as a company, have been under attack by individuals, and by Anonymous. These attacks are “retaliation” for the firing of a developer at Play Haven, by Play Haven, after that developer was ejected from the PyCon conference taken aside and spoken with by PyCon staff (Update: the accounts I initially read said he’d been removed from the conference, but that was evidently not the case. My apologies for the misinformation.) following Richards’ reporting to the conference that he was making inappropriate jokes in the audience of a talk.

A lot of virtual ink has been spilled already on this topic, and as a cisgender, hetero white man, whether or not my understanding or ideas are correct, my voice is not among the ones that need to be heard most. (This is also a big part of why I haven’t been blogging nearly as frequently as I used to.) That said, I wanted to list a few links covering the story-so-far, as best I’m aware of it, and make a few short remarks on the matter.

First, Richards’ own account of the incident at PyCon.

Next, a Venture Beat article discussing the incident and some of the fallout, including DDoS attacks against SendGrid.

Here’s the Facebook post where SendGrid announces firing Richards.

This post by Amanda Blum has been getting a lot of circulation (perhaps because, I uncharitably speculate, Blum leads with “I don’t like Adria Richards,” imputes to Richards a history of being “unreasonable”, and insists “This wasn’t about feminism, and she shouldn’t be allowed to sit her perch on the issue.” and “Adria reinforced the idea of us as threats to men, as unreasonable, as hard to work with… as bitches.”). I think there’s a lot wrong with it.

Here’s a further post on SendGrid’s blog about Richards’ firing. Interestingly, they make the same mistake I did yesterday: they interpreted a proposed change to the PyCon code of conduct as a confirmed change intended to prohibit public discussion, like that Richards engaged in, of harassment incidents. My friend @quarteringsea, however, pointed out to me that PyCon say the proposed change (under considerable discussion on their GitHub repository) was intended to target the kind of doxxing and attacks Richards has been subjected to, rather than her initial report:

(Further update: it is actually now completely unclear to me which behavior the change is meant to address, so I’m cautiously holding out hope, but PyCon really needs to do a better job clarifying the situation. A Code of Conduct should be unambiguous.)

Finally, Melissa McEwan has an excellent response at Shakesville to some of the most common criticisms of Richards’ actions; and my friend Courtney Stanton has a thoroughly documented piece at BuzzFeed linking these incidents to the whole disgusting history of sexism and harassment in the tech and gaming worlds.

Here’s what I want to say, and it’s almost certainly redundant with some of what I’ve linked above, but the right way to articulate what bothered me most about the common insistence that “she should have just asked them to stop” instead of publicizing the photo: There is no fucking reason the onus should have been on Richards to politely ask the men to stop. She had a right to expect professional behavior, and moreover the odds of a man responding constructively when confronted by a woman — especially a woman of color — over sexist behavior are, in our society in general and in the male-dominated, “proudly-politically-incorrect” tech world in particular, extremely low.

Maybe the persons in question would have responded calmly, apologized, and improved their behavior in the future, but anyone who knows anything about how women who complain are treated in male-dominated fields (allow me to again recommend Stanton’s BuzzFeed post above) knows that, without already knowing them personally, there is no reason to assume they would. The odds are much, much stronger that they’d be defensive, dismissive, passive-aggressive, or just plain aggressive, and quite possibly escalate their inappropriate behavior — and that they’d feel themselves perfectly justified in doing so, that no one around them would step in, and they’d later deny having done anything wrong. (For an excellent account of how this sort of thing often works, I recommend my friend Maddy Myers’ writing on the fighting game community.)

“In an ideal world,” as the device goes, would it likely be preferable for a person witnessing inappropriate behavior to try asking those responsible to stop before taking any other action? Well, in an ideal world, no one would be behaving inappropriately in a professional setting in the first place; but let’s set that aside and stipulate that yes, if you have a reasonable expectation that a polite admonishment and request will be effective in both stopping the current problem and reducing future problems, without compromising your safety, that’s the fastest, lowest-friction, best response. We do not live in a world where women, especially in male-dominated spaces, can reasonably have that expectation. Keeping it private doesn’t necessarily result in any less harassment, but making it public does make it harder for everyone else to deny it’s happening.

A final note: As my friend @lastnora pointed out, the “don’t publicly shame people, that hurts the community, let’s just deal with it internally” logic being deployed in a lot of responses to this incident is precisely the logic of abusers. Don’t make the family look bad, don’t make the church look bad, don’t make the [whatever group] look bad — but a group that protects hostile or abusive behavior is bad, and to try to keep it looking good is deeply dishonest. Nora’s tweets, referring to the proposed PyCon Code of Conduct language:

No, We Aren’t Going To Run Out Of Oxygen

Or, newspapers really need better science reporters.

I first saw this Bangor Daily News story linked at Shakesville, but I think it’s making the rounds generally.

The article discusses a study from the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences of decreased phytoplankton reproduction rates in the Gulf of Maine — which, to be clear, is a real issue, and cause for some concern — and extrapolates the study’s findings into an apocalyptic-sounding threat to the atmosphere of the entire planet: “such a change in organisms at the bottom of the planetary food chain and at the top of planetary oxygen production could have disastrous consequences for virtually every species on Earth, from lobsters and fish that fuel Maine’s marine industries to your grandchildren.”

And it’s certainly true: if phytoplankton reproduction rates across the world’s oceans had dropped to 20% of their normal level, and showed no sign of bouncing back, that would pretty much be a doomsday scenario.

But it turns out that while ocean warming and acidification are still real long-term problems, there’s very little reason to expect that these findings have any major implications outside the actual area they cover. The Gulf of Maine’s problems are specific and localized; the world’s oxygen supply is not in immediate danger.

It happens that both my parents are marine invertebrate zoologists; my father is the director of research at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution after spending decades in the biology department researching zooplankton and jellies, and my mother is a science writer in the education department. I asked them about the Bangor Daily News article and the study it discusses, and they said I could quote their responses (sent to me, amusingly, within about five minutes of each other).

Here’s Dad:

It’s only about the Gulf of Maine, where more sediment runoff from recently undammed rivers and some increase in temperature are affecting phytoplankton photosynthesis. It  may have an effect on fish populations in the Gulf in years to come, but there isn’t direct evidence of that yet. The flushing of sediment from the rivers will probably stabilize in a year or so, and water conditions would get clearer in the Gulf. Climate related changes in ocean temperature and acidity may start to affect productivity in some places but won’t affect overall oxygen production.

And Mom added:

[I]n the Gulf of Maine, maybe lobster and groundfish (cod or haddock) will decline in a couple of years, but it might be transient, if the sediment gets flushed out in a year or two. We don’t really know yet how the ocean’s organisms will respond to slightly higher temperatures (maybe some phytoplankton will grow more under those circumstances.).

We’re not going to run out of air. I DO think humans are having an effect on the ocean. But we don’t know the extent yet, or all the implications, so that’s why we need to keep watching.

I’m concerned about overfishing, rising temperatures, and acidification. However, U.S. fish stocks are becoming increasingly well-managed, and are very carefully monitored, so overfishing along U.S. coasts is not so serious as it was[.]

They also checked with a phytoplankton expert at WHOI, who offered some remarks (with the caveat that this is a personal perspective, and not a scientific analysis of the findings):

I think this is a extremely interesting finding that provides a wake up call about the kinds of impacts of environmental change can have on marine ecosystems. In general I think we tend to be too cavalier about ocean impacts. … The impacts noted in the paper are large, but the findings so far are local-to-regional in scope. I don’t think anyone is responsibly ready to project this indicates a massive die off of primary producers at much larger scales. … I think it’s a good bet a lot of those nutrients will be used by phytoplankton eventually. This kind of shift could seriously impact the spatial structure of the ecosystem and how it functions, with potentially big effects for particular species, etc. … but it probably won’t mean anything like a full scale shutdown in productivity or large scale decrease in O2 production or anything along those alarmist lines of reasoning.

My thoughts on this are, mainly, that it shows the importance of better science reporting. The impending-doom spin here seems to have come almost entirely from the newspaper, not the study or the lab that produced it. Responsible news organizations need to ensure their science reporting is accurate and accessible (not always an easy task, I realize, and certainly not made easier by shrinking newsroom budgets and staff). Sensationalist reporting like this may sell papers in the short term, but in the long run — when the dire consequences don’t materialize — it erodes the lay public’s trust in science reporting, and ultimately in science itself, and it often makes people of good will, who earnestly directed others’ attention toward the bad reporting because they trusted they’d been given accurate information, into targets of mockery and derision by the more cynical.

There are very real reasons to be worried about the effect of climate change, and other consequences of human action, some linked and some not, on the ecosystem of the oceans, and it’s certainly true that overall phytoplankton health in the oceans is of crucial importance to the global food chain. But specific, local effects in the Gulf of Maine related to high sediment runoff in recent years are not the right place to look for the worst dangers, and focusing too much on this kind of article can cause us to miss or ignore bigger problems which might not seem as spectacular at first.

Should I Compare Someone I Disagree With to the KKK?

So, I was going to stay out of this one. It’s a complicated mess, and I think on many points both sides are talking past each other.

It started — well, no, it’s barely even meaningful to talk about where it “started”: the roots of the issue stretch back well before the founding of the United States, and threads are woven throughout our culture and history. But the current blagowebby eruption of this normally-subterranean-from-the-white-liberal-point-of-view conflict was kicked off by Melissa Harris-Perry’s column at The Nation, “Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama.” First Joan Walsh responded at Salon; then Harris-Perry wrote a followup blog post; then David Sirota mixed reasonable points about historical comparisons with nasty, condescending personal swipes and counterclaims as overreaching as he insisted Harris-Perry’s claims were.

There were and have continued to be, of course, many parallel and concurrent discussions, debates, and arguments over these posts on Twitter, where in particular Sirota has been prone to undermine what good points he made by adopting a taunting, sneering tone.

But even Sirota’s nastiest jabs seem to have faded to the level of background noise at this point, thanks to Gene Lyons, who penned (and, inexplicably, got Salon to publish — leading me to wonder on Twitter, “maybe Sirota slipped some web intern at Salon an unmarked envelope: ‘hey…make me look reasonable by comparison, eh?'”) “Obama’s bridge too far: When the president gets tough, the tough start whining.” In this gem of a column, Lyons dismisses the entire notion of applying the lenses of race and gender analysis to our history and politics with a “[y]ada, yada, yada”; characterizes Harris-Perry as “a left-wing Michele Bachmann”; and describes her worldview as “a photo negative of KKK racial thought.”


He wrote that.

So, you know, maybe Mr. Lyons just doesn’t quite realize the import of what he wrote; maybe he just figured, well, the KKK think about race a lot, and Harris-Perry thinks about race a lot, so…sure, why not compare them?

As a public service to Mr. Lyons and anyone else who might be thinking about employing a Ku Klux Klan comparison — and as a humble, clumsy homage to ebogjonson’s classic post, with my apologies — allow me to offer this handy spreadsheet: “Should I Compare Someone I Disagree With to the KKK?”

A flowchart to determine whether comparisons to the KKK are appropriate. Spoiler alert: probably not.

Please refer to this as often as needed. Click through for full size.

(Flowchart built with Creately. Edit: forgot to say in the initial post, the flowchart graphic is under a CC-BY-SA license. Feel free to share and adapt it under those terms; a link to this post is sufficient for attribution.)

On Troy Davis, Lawrence Brewer, Capital Punishment, and — again — on Being America

Below is the text of a public post I made on Google+ last night; I wanted to put it here, as well, and to make a couple of other notes on the subject.

State-enacted killing of innocent (and not-proven-guilty) persons is a necessary, inevitable feature and consequence of a legal system which allows the death penalty. There is no such thing in the world as perfection: all systems fail sometimes, all humans are fallible. The theory, though not the implementation, of the criminal justice system we have in the United States is probably one of the most resistant to failures, but there is not and can never be a system which never fails.

Knowing that systems always fail, the only rational thing to do is to try to design them not only so that they fail as infrequently as possible, but also so that their failures are as mitigated, and do as little damage, as possible.

A system which allows execution as punishment for crimes is a system which will — not can, not could, but WILL — kill innocent people. Troy Davis is far from the first, and so long as the death penalty is legal in this country he won’t be the last.

To support the death penalty is, inescapably, to support legalized killing by the government of innocent persons. The vast majority, I am sure, of death penalty supporters think that such cases are deeply regrettable, and that efforts should be made to avoid them; but as long as the state is allowed to kill people, it will sometimes kill innocent people.

Supporting the death penalty requires either a belief against all evidence, all facts, and all reason — a willful delusion — that some human legal system could possibly be so infallible as never to put an innocent person to death; or a belief that some rate of wrongful executions of innocents is acceptable in order to kill criminals.

Either is deeply troubling, but the latter especially makes my blood run cold.

This is what we are, in the United States of America. We tell ourselves, as a society, a lot of stories about our history, about the important people in our history, about the founding values of our country, about “what it means” to be an American. Most of them are lies.

What it means to be an American is to claim to be uniquely virtuous in the world, while living atop the piled-high bones of centuries of genocide and atrocity, profiting to this day from centuries of stolen labor, claiming the mountain of bodies on which we stand and the filth-filled gully below it together constitute a level playing field. What it means to be an American is to tell other countries to respect human rights, while we tap our own citizens’ phones, kidnap and torture people on mere suspicion of having connections to “the terrorists,” and proudly murder a man whose guilt of the crime for which he dies is not proven.

We are a nation of vicious, hypocritical cowards; we should own up to it, at least.

That post discusses the inevitability of killing innocents under the legal death penalty, and the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves in the US — something I also wrote about a couple years ago, after Shepard Smith was so angry about torture that he dropped an F-bomb on-air; then, I said: “And all of [this] does count.  We don’t get to pretend it didn’t happen.  We don’t get to pretend someone else did it.”

But the other thing I want to say is this: Lawrence Brewer, who was one of the three men who murdered James Byrd, Jr. in 1998 merely for being Black, and who was unequivocally, confessedly, unrepentantly guilty, was also executed last night. There’s an enormous amount of doubt about Davis’s guilt; there is none at all about Brewer’s. He was proud of what he’d done.

For the state to kill him — no matter how strongly one might believe (and I do) that the world is no worse off for not having him in it anymore — was nonetheless every bit as unjust and barbaric as was Troy Davis’s execution.

The state’s power to enact and enforce laws, and to try, convict, and penalize those who break them, arises from society’s right and obligation to keep itself intact, functioning, and healthy. In principle, though frequently not in practice (see above, re: impossibility of perfection), laws represent the lines drawn by society to protect itself: what falls outside those lines is too harmful to society to be allowed. And so to keep itself healthy, a society has the right to create mechanisms to try to prevent that harm, such as imprisonment to prevent perpetrators from causing further harm; well-known penalties such that people tempted to break the law will decide the risk is too great; requirements where possible that the perpetrator(s) compensate the victim(s), and reform and rehabilitation programs to make it easy for people who’ve done harm to society to instead find ways to help it. But society only has the right to do this so long as the mechanisms it puts in place are themselves within the harm threshold.

Capital punishment by the state is, in my view, inherently as far outside the harm threshold as murder is. A murder is, by definition, a harm that cannot be compensated for: no recompense or restitution can be made for a death, because lives are not objects and do not have a price. A victim’s family might want, as the MacPhails did in the Davis case, the killer to be killed; or they might want, as the Byrds did in the Brewer case, the killer’s life to be spared. But the law should never be an instrument of personal revenge: society’s concern is protecting, preserving, and keeping itself healthy, not enacting vengeance on behalf of individuals. If someone is a continuing danger — Brewer is reported to have told a reporter the day before his death, “I have no regrets. No, I’d do it all over again, to tell you the truth.” — society is justified in keeping that individual isolated, to prevent further harm. But just as we might take prisoners of war, and hold them for the duration of the conflict, but are compelled by law and decency to treat them humanely, and forbidden to kill them, so too is it inhumane to kill a killer.

Quick Note: Egypt

I would like to comment on what’s going on in Egypt right now, but I don’t feel remotely qualified to do so. It’s probably much too early to know what this is going to mean, but it’s hard to imagine that it won’t at least mean the end of Mubarak’s three-decade rule. I’m following @bencnn, @ioerror, @AJEnglish and @sharifkouddos on Twitter, and @RamyRaoof‘s Flickr set, currently. It’s not from Raoof, and I don’t know the original source, but I think that the picture of a protester kissing a member of the riot police will be one of the enduring images from this uprising.

My hopes are with the people of Egypt.

Why I’m Conflicted About Attending PAX East 2011

Kirby Bits’s excellent post at The Border House pretty much sums it up, actually. As KB notes on her blog, in the two days since that post went up, the “Dickwolves” merchandise appears to have been removed from the Penny Arcade store; that’s certainly a good step, and it deserves some recognition.

But it isn’t really very much — to, months after initially responding to criticism with dismissal, mockery, willful misrepresentation, and attacks, quietly stop trying to turn a buck by trading on rape culture in a couple of instances. (Especially when they’re still trading on rape culture, misogyny, and violence against women as a punchline.) It’s a step — and, again, it deserves recognition as such — but it’s also important to recognize that it’s only one, fairly small, step, and for it to be meaningful they need to follow up on it. If you hurt someone accidentally, and especially if at first you reacted defensively and insisted you’d done nothing wrong, doing something small in the way of redressing that hurt late is better than nothing or never, but if you don’t also make a point of being careful to avoid hurting them again, people are going to find it harder and harder to believe the “accidental” part.

I’ve been a Penny Arcade reader for over a decade (and yes, that means I’ve passed over a lot of problematic material without comment in that time, for various reasons; that’s not something I’m proud of), I attended and enjoyed PAX East last year, I’m a huge fan of their charity work, and I’ve offered praise for Tycho’s relatively thoughtful engagement with difficult issues in the past. So I would like to believe — and I do have some hope — that they will follow up appropriately on this, educate themselves on rape culture, and react more thoughtfully to criticism in the future. I don’t know how likely it is, but I’d like to believe it. (I mean, while we’re at it, I’d also like for Gearbox to have left Duke Nukem Forever to rot, so…)

So ultimately, I’m conflicted about attending PAX East this year. Some friends are going to be in from out of town to go to the convention, and Gabe and Tycho have always been insistent that PAX isn’t about them, it’s about the gamer community. I don’t necessarily think writing PAX off and conceding the space is a productive approach, but it also can’t be denied that Penny Arcade sets the tone for PAX, and at the risk of being redundant, just pulling the Dickwolves merchandise is far from sufficient, and while it deserves recognition as a positive step, it doesn’t deserve a whole batch of cookies or renewed unconditional support.

Of course, there’s still about a month and a half until PAX East, so any number of things could happen in that time to affect my decision on this. One possibility — I did this in the case of Talib Kweli’s new independently produced album, Gutter Rainbows, because I like his music and want to support independent music production, but was troubled by the line “life’s a bitch, it’s how you handle her” in “I’m On One” — is that I’ll go to PAX, and also give an equivalent amount to an organization like BARCC that works to fight rape culture and provide help and resources to survivors of sexual violence. On the off chance that any of my approximately four readers are feeling similarly conflicted about this situation, perhaps they’ll find that approach to be workable as well.