Blog: Stack Overflow

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

The Value of Aspirational Rules

In my part of the physical and digital world, discourse has gotten a lot more polarized in recent years. People are less likely to presume good intent and are more likely to take the worst possible view of another’s words. People are less likely to consider nuanced positions and instead take binary views: either you’re fully on my side or you’re a bad person. People are more likely to take things out of context or ignore the time and place in which something now objectionable was said.

People aren’t doing this for jollies; it happens because people are hurt, have been systematically hurt for years or decades or longer (personally or as part of a group), and want it to stop — and because fast, available, many-to-many communication has finally given people a platform to raise their voices. People want to make society safer and less hurtful — worthy goals! People want to be heard.

Owners and moderators of platforms and public spaces are now more mindful of their roles in public discourse. Many have concluded that aspirational rules like “be nice” or “treat others as you would like to be treated” or Victorian Sufi Buddha Lite don’t work. Instead, rule lists and codes of conduct grow more detailed as new ways to cause discomfort arise. Unfortunately, the authors of these tomes don’t always follow their own rules or consider how those rules can be misused.

We need to stop doing that. I don’t mean “don’t have rules”; I mean we need the aspirational, nuanced, people-oriented rules to be front and center, even though they don’t come with easy checklists. We need to use them with a dose of humanity and thoughtfulness, and we need to be willing to examine individual cases with transparency, working together with our communities. Read more…


Somebody on Twitter asked:

What did you learn in 2020 (besides how to make bread)?

I responded there:

  • To grow food in pots.
  • To cut men's hair.
  • To cook more new things.
  • That my cat loves me being home all the time.
  • More about community-building.
  • How to set up a nonprofit foundation.
  • To cut people w/no morals or human decency out of my life.
  • And yes, sourdough.

I was up against a character limit there, but I'm not here. Read more…

Election mechanics (not about the US)

A few days ago I was musing elsewhere about some online elections. Specifically, Stack Exchange has been running elections to replace all the moderators who have quit, and it's highlighting some weaknesses in their election scheme. Ranked voting is much better than "first past the post" but you still have to put the right checks in place.

If your election system uses ranked voting, think about how voters can reject candidates. The Hugo awards have "no award" as an automatic candidate in each category and you rank all candidates. My local SCA group lets you mark candidates as not acceptable and any who get 35% NA are removed, which gives the voters a veto when needed. Systems in which you pick N candidates lack this safety check.

"Cast N votes" doesn't let you distinguish between "this candidate is ok but not in my top N" and "I oppose this candidate". And even if you allow "not acceptable" marks on candidates (like my SCA group), you still need to allow ranking those candidates so voters can express "the clueless candidate before the evil one". If I recall correctly, my SCA group gets that part wrong; if you vote "not acceptable" you can't also rank the candidate, so you can't express degrees of unacceptability. If your goal is to deter NA votes that's a positive; if your goal is to elect people who are broadly acceptable then it's a negative. Read more…

Goodbye 5780

The year 5780 began for me, personally, on a terrible note caused by evildoers at Stack Exchange Inc. I won't say more about that here (I wrote plenty at the time). As above so below -- the door to their teshuvah remains open should they choose to correct their transgressions, but I, unlike the Holy One, do not hold out infinite hope for sinners to mend their ways. There are more important things in life to focus on.

5780 was the (sob) first year of the global pandemic crisis. On top of the sickness, the deaths, the changes in daily life that come with any pandemic, we in the US saw reckless endangerment, needless deaths, and political profiteering to levels even those of us already worried about the authoritarian trends of the toddler-in-chief did not imagine. He knew. And he let it run rampant anyway. Because he thought, somehow, that it would hurt his political opponents and not his own supporters. Because that oath he swore on taking the office, those words about serving the people (all of them, not just red states) and upholding the constitution and suchlike, was just fluff to him, not a commitment. Having thrown the people under the bus, he's now in full sabotage-the-election mode, betting that he can get away with it as he's gotten away with so much more. At worst, he figures, someone will manage to sue him years from now and he'll pay someone off. I fear for our country.

I fear for our country in other ways too. The white-supremacist-in-chief emboldened bigots ranging from crowds chanting against Jews to attacks on houses of worship to vigilantes fatally "protecting" the public from unarmed demonstrators to police who kill and recklessly endanger black and brown people who are already restrained and thus not threats. (Whites, on the other hand, generally get the benefit of the doubt.) And it would be easy to say that the bigot-in-chief is responsible for all this and we have only to remove him from office, but that's obviously not true -- the roots run much deeper. Our society has work to do.

And that work involves nuance, discussion, hearing and trying to understand others' perspectives, working together with people who are different, acknowledging the humanity of every person. Too many on the far right and the far left believe that they are keepers of the One Truth and that anybody who doesn't commit 100% to their view of truth is an enemy to be disparaged, cancelled, or killed. People are complicated, and attempts to paint monochrome pictures, while enticing to crusaders seeking us-vs-them litmus tests, are failures if the goal is to solve problems rather than to triumph. Too few people are willing to consider positions that exceed the length of a catchy slogan, but that's where the work has to get done.

But for all the trouble that 5780 brought, both personally and on a larger scale, it also brought some moments of personal light. Read more…

If at first you don't succeed, redefine success

Stack Exchange (may their venture funders wise up speedily in our day) lost a lot of moderators in the great evil of last fall and winter. They also fired most of the community managers who knew how the election machinery works, so they've been slow to replace them.

Then in July they announced changes to the moderator agreement, saying all new mods would be bound by it and all existing mods had 60 days to sign it or they'd be out. (This does not seem like smart timing given the previous paragraph.) The new agreement contains some troubling language, and some mods have said they won't sign it. I don't know how many; I didn't spend a lot of time digging around on their network. The deadline is tomorrow.

So, all in all, it's not surprising that they're having trouble filling all those moderator vacancies. It's also not surprising that they're trying to spin this to cover up their many mistakes. Read more…

Followup on SE's revised moderator policies

A few days ago I posted an analysis of Stack Exchange's new, still-flawed policies on moderator reinstatement. An employee who helped to write those policies challenged some of my feedback. This was my reply:

Read more…

Nine months later, some revised policies at SE

Back in October, Stack Exchange posted some policies for moderators to apply for reinstatement. I and many others raised concerns about transparency, fairness, and that the whole thing was a black box. Some also raised the concern that if a moderator was removed capriciously, without any valid process, it made no sense for that person to have to submit to this process that starts from a presumption of guilt. (The whole thing has a vibe of "we'll evaluate whether you're still beating your wife".) I posted my assessment there and also copied it in this journal for safe-keeping. (One never knows whether the original would survive, after all.)

This week they posted an updated version (feedback post). Let's see how it stacks up against the issues that were previously raised!

Read more…

Pesach 2020

Yisrael came to Egypt and the land flourished because of them. But a new Paro (pharaoh, king) arose who did not know them, and he enslaved them and made their lives hard. And not being content with that, he piled on misery, deliberately acting against them first by making their labors even harder and then by killing their children. When they protested, he prioritizing his own ego and divinity complex not only over justice but also over the well-being of his own people. At every opportunity to change toward the good, Paro hardened his heart and dug in more firmly on the path of evil.

This sounds familiar, on two different fronts.

On one front, the plague of Covid-19 has struck us (I am not asserting a source here) and, even as more people die in the US than anywhere else, even though we were repeatedly warned, our own Paro prioritizes his ego over the well-being of his people, ignoring pleas from governors who don't bow and scrape enough to him, stealing medical supplies from some of them to supply his friends. He prioritizes commerce over health, profit over protecting the vulnerable. The people cry out for rescue.

Now this is not the harsh reign of terror of the torah's Paro; while, sadly, many are stricken who could have been saved, we, unlike Yisrael, can take some measures to protect ourselves. Nothing is certain -- who knows whether that grocery delivery was safe? -- but we can hide at home and try to wait it out.

If we are able to work from home. If we have financial cushions. If we have homes. Never forget that not everyone does. I am fortunate in this regard; many are not. At my (tiny) seder this Pesach, I expressed gratitude for my household being saved (as far as we know), while noting that this year we do not have the national salvation of the Exodus. Many are still in danger.

And then there's the personal front. A Paro driven by ego, contempt for "lesser" people, and sometimes malice arose over me and mine, and did persecute some of us and seek to destroy -- not literally throwing people into the Nile, but metaphorically. There were many chances to correct that path, even saving face, but at each opportunity, the modern Paro hardened his heart, surrounded himself with complicit counselors, and dug in. At every turn, image was more important than teshuva, correcting misdeeds, and tzedakah, righteousness. Counselors who disagreed were driven out without even time for their bread (or health coverage) to finish.

I and many others escaped, and I am grateful for that even though we left both property and people behind. It is an incomplete exodus, as with Israel in Egypt -- rabbinic tradition says that many people feared the unknown and did not join the Exodus. Modern Paro's taskmasters continued to afflict some of those who remained, but also offered trinkets and promises to encourage everyone to stay. Paro's hope, it seems, is that if he gives the slaves straw again to make brick-making less onerous, the slaves will stay and be thankful. And Paro might be right in that.

A new Paro has arisen over the modern Egypt I fled, and has appointed a new vizier to speak publicly on behalf of Egypt. It is too soon to know whether the new Paro and vizier will correct past injustices or continue to sweep them under the royal carpet. Neither Paro nor vizier has sent messengers to all those who were driven out, and so for now Egypt remains Mitzrayim, the narrow place. I feel sorry for the many who remain and hope the new leaders will do teshuva, but Pesach encourages me to look forward and not backward, to a future of promise and not a past of narrow-minded oppression.

I am sad for the unnecessary victims of both Paros. Protecting myself is important and perhaps all I can do, but the Exodus is not complete so long as the oppression of those left behind continues. It was only at the sea of reeds that Yisrael was free from Paro. Sadly, the destruction at the sea of reeds was necessary because of Paro's hardened heart; it was not the desired outcome, and God rebuked the angels who sang triumphantly there. If Paro had ever done teshuva, widespread destruction could have been averted. I hope that our modern Paros will do teshuva and repair rather than enable ongoing damage.

Topical Purim Torah

I was pointed to this piece of Purim torah from Mi Yodeya. The question asks, based on a text, "why is Mi Yodeya so angry?". Isaac Moses, site founder, posted this answer, which I'm copying here for personal posterity.

And it was in the days of Ahashuar. Who? Ahashuar, who reigned over the royal treasury, from a throne in a palace, high above Shushan, the capital. And Mi Yodeya was at that time a province of the kingdom. There came to be promoted one hundred and twenty-seven governors of Personnel and Media higher than any of their fellow officials in the palace.

There was a Jewish woman in Shushan, the capital, by the name of Mordeca. And she was foster to many of the provinces of the kingdom, including Shushan, the capital. And she was highly regarded by the Jews and popular with the multitude of her colleagues, bearers of the royal signet. And she found favor in the eyes of the ministers of the court.

Now the one hundred and twenty-seven governors said to themselves, "there is a certain individual who is spread out among many of the provinces of the realm, whose language is different from the language of the palace, and who does not follow the laws of the kingdom, and it is not in our interest to tolerate her." And they were filled with rage, so they hurried messengers posthaste to remove the royal signet from Mordeca's hand, and they impaled her upon the book of records. And the governors sat down each week to celebrate, but the city of Shushan was confused.

In every province that the governors' command and decree reached, there was great mourning, wailing and weeping. And many of the people of the capital cast off their signets, for the fear of the governors had befallen them.

Some time afterward, a royal edict was issued, including in the laws of the kingdom that "the people in all the provinces of the kingdom shall speak the language of the palace, omitting nothing of what we have decreed."

And many of the residents of Shushan came before the court, and said, "if we have won your favor and the proposal seems right to you, let dispatches be written countermanding those which were written, and let the royal signet be returned to the hand of Mordeca." And they spoke to them day after day, and they would not listen to them. Then the governors dispatched their ministers to say, "if Mordeca will kneel and bow low before the palace, then there will be a poor ... that is, a chance, that she can be returned to her place in the palace gate." But they said to their ministers inside the inner court, "Now that this decree has been written in the name of the palace, it may not be revoked. The royal signet will not be placed upon her hand." And Mordeca would not kneel and would not bow low.

Some time afterward, when the anger of Shushan had subsided, the one hundred and twenty-seven governors thought about what they had done and what they had decreed against Mordeca. And they asked themselves "What should be done to a person whom we desire to honor? And whom should we desire to honor more than ministers who are beloved of Shushan and who intercede for the welfare of the people of the realm?" But the opposite happened, and they impaled Shaashgaz and Carshena upon stakes, for they were ministers who were beloved of Shushan and who had interceded for the welfare of the people of the realm. And Harbona, another of the guardians of the signet-bearers, who is also remembered as good, went out from the palace. And the city of Shushan was again confused.

Yes, "Shaashgaz" and "Harbona" have seen it. (I'm not in contact with "Carshena".)

Followup to the followup (GoFundMe)

Following up this update, I've received a receipt for the donation to The Trevor Project and have added a link on