Friday, February 26, 2010

High Trust, High Responsibility Communities

[This is a blog version of a lightning talk I didn't give at PyCon]

People Hacking is as old as time, and every long lasting organization engages in it. One example of hacking people (and the title of this post) is to tell people you trust them. This "trust cue" invites reciprocity -- people behave well because you've signaled that you expect them to. Google's "don't be evil" motto works this way; the company has promised the outside world that it should be trusted so internal employees feel pressure to live up to the promise.

You can do the opposite and tell people that you don't trust them ["negative trust cues"] and people being people their behavior is predictably cautious and non-cooperative. I once worked for an ex-DEA prosecutor and to put it mildly the employer-employee relations weren't stellar.

The Python community has many positive trust cues going for it. The coding end is open source so everyone is a volunteer by definition, and volunteering for anything is a positive trust cue. Likewise PyCon introduces people face-to-face and having met someone as a real-live-person (even once!) invites an obligation to be more forgiving in the sterile world of email and bug trackers (was he being a dick or just having a bad day? I've met him, must have been a bad day). I got my commit bit after never having one of my many patches to CPython accepted*, but curiously not long after I met the guy who had rejected them (Raymond Hettinger, who was working the registration desk when I checked in).

I am/was a member of a large number of long standing volunteer orgs (most are fraternal**) and have seen many variations on trust cues: the big ones are the Boy Scouts, Habitat for Humanity, the Kappa Alpha Society, and the Free Masons. None are as old or put as high an emphasis on trust cues as the Masons - everything is setup to do charity and avoid conflict. It is prohibited to drink before/during meetings***, discuss politics, or discuss religion. The taboos are so strong that there aren't legal punishments for violating them - you are trusted not to violate them so (by reciprocity) no one does. Very few of the members are half as smart as the average lunch table at PyCon, but it is impossible not to like the members of my lodge because every time I see them they are doing charity: giving blood, contributing to food banks, etc. The trust cues are through the roof (one side effect of that is a very high attrition rate -- people quit because the activities are quite stolid and boring).

So the Python community in general and PyCon in particular inculcate positive trust cues (when was the last time your saw a post titled "PyCon sucked?" never). That said, I ran away from the python-d7y list because it was so loaded with negative trust cues. See Anna Ravenscroft's PyCon2010 talk for very healthy ways to promote positive trust cues and eschew negative ones. The topic mandated the opposite of the "no politics, no religion" of my other, more boring, org and the results were predictable. The d7y list was mostly harmless but 5% of the talk was by people that had no skin in the game (and hence no expectation of kindness or reciprocity). To be vague and ablative the demands of the 5% was a laundry list of negative trust cues: censorship, name-and-shame, and other minor atrocities. As a result most discussion of the list actually took place off the list because plain discussion on the list was impossible (par exemplar was one of the moderators emailing me off-book "I wish I could +1 but I can't. We need a new list.").

In closing the Python community exploits human nature in the form of trust == responsibility pretty well. I am happy to be exploited thusly because I'm human and it tickles my humanity. Assign bugs to me and - if I've met you or have met someone who has met you - I'll be quick to close it with a more delicate comment than otherwise.

* My patches weren't bad or wrong, they just weren't enough of a speed boon considering the maintenance overhead to be added to the stdlib.
** I have three brothers and no sisters so that's where I'm at ease. Though until recently (last century) "fraternal" meant "brotherhood of man" instead of the narrower "male only" so there still exist some mixed sex and female-only orgs that have "fraternity" in the name.
*** The "no booze" is very unusual for voluntary associations in the US. Most clubs have a members only bar that is the major fundraiser for the org. For instance, when I lived in Pennsylvania I was a social member of the King of Prussia Volunteer Fire Company - I was one of the thousand members who didn't fight fires but paid $30/year for my membership card (you needed to be nominated by an actual fire-fighter to join but like most orgs this was a technicality -- they were mainly interested in keeping out people who couldn't find one related person to say something nice about them)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

PyCon Wrapup

Here are my assorted thoughts on PyCon this year. Long story short: Marvelous.

The Atlanta location was actually in downtown Atlanta and not like the Chicago or Dallas PyCons where it was hosted nearer the airport than the city itself. There were dozens of restaurants and bars at every price-point within walking distance, and even more than that if you took the train a few stops. My favorites were the cheap local places like the Vietnamese soup joint (via Titus Brown) and the chili cheese dog joint (via Larry Hastings). I liked the high price steak joints too, but you can get good food anywhere so it's less of a kick. Now that we have some institutional knowledge about eating in Atlanta I expect to eat even better next year.

The conference organizers, program committee, and network guys all did a perfect job this year. You won't hear about it much because when things "just work" there is nothing to talk about. As an anecdote about how well things were setup: during sprints one developer was loading up his computer with video because the 'net download speed was better than he could get at home over fiber. Another anecdote: during sprints a different conference was coming in and had signs that listed our sprint rooms as part of their conference venue; I know nothing about the particulars but there was a flurry of panicked activity and the situation was handled.

Labor must be cheap in Atlanta because every business had more employees per square foot than I've seen in any other American city - including many Southern ones.

Flying sucks. While PyCon-qua-PyCon wouldn't be possible without cheap flights (trans-Atlantic esp) I would really have liked a heads-up that I would be stuck in Philadelphia for five hours. I could have called up some kith & kin and hit the downtown instead of sitting in the terminal for a dog's age.

I mostly got to talk to the people I wanted to see but haven't seen since last year (including the other Boston locals). I also met some new and interesting folks. Unfortunately one week isn't enough to do enough of both no matter how little sleep you get; but I'm pretty happy with the results.

A big shout-out to CCP games. They have an Atlanta office so an even bigger chunk of the Iceland office was at PyCon than usual. I met their Atlanta marketing director who is the guy who behind the viral marketing cum bombscare for ATHF a few years back. Good to see he landed on his feet. The CCP guys are a big reason why I slept very little, and happily so. Allow me a semi-related shout-out to Mr & Mrs Wayne & Wendy Witzel; I met them at a 'con or two ago, and Wayne volunteered as my session chair this year. They are both big EVE players and know Reykjavik better than I do (I don't know much). [Also, her name is not "Wendy" which I have been told repeatedly but refuse to acknowledge. It should be Wendy, dammit.]

Every secret project tried to do a release in time for PyCon, or so it seems. Some of the company ANNs include Sauce Labs and Nasuni. Additionally the conference was a big bag of leaky secrets so expect more announcements quite soon (I'm not contractually obligated to not-say but I will so as to not blunt their PR).

Sprints were smaller this year than last, especially python-dev. The sprint rooms at late night were also less, umm, vigorous than in past years. Sprints are still ongoing but for the first few days, when I was there, I can say there were zero card games played. Not holdem, not asshole, not set, not nothing.

I normally don't ask about late night sprint activities out of a sense of propreity, but I'll make an exception in this case. Was anyone around circa 3am on Wednesday? I have a lump on my head and I'm somewhat curious about its origins.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

PyCon Prep

If you are giving a talk take the time to watch AMK's How to Give a Python Talk. I posted some thoughts on speaking last year too. For anyone attending: go listen to the Pre-PyCon podcast where several regular PyConers give a conference HOWTO. It features some solid advice such as "accept the first dinner invitation you get" to which I'd add my favorite "eat lunch at a table with no one you know." It is easy to get insular especially for repeat speakers* and/or python-devs so the lunch rule helps me break out of that.

  • Finalize my talk and cut to length. "Finalize" is a bit of a joke because I tend to rewrite it every time I do a practice run. My talk last year got rewritten in the wee hours the night before I gave it too. Cutting to length isn't much of a problem; If you've done many rewrites and know how many slides you have you can adjust how much you talk about each slide on-the-fly. Relatedly, I'm impressed by the people that give just the talk they rehearsed - it's something I can't do.

  • Load up my Kindle. I'm not much of a gadget guy - I wear a watch and carry a pocket knife (I'm down to my last one, @#*@$^ TSA). The Kindle is a gift that I haven't had a chance to use because I don't travel much.

  • Load up my laptop. I rarely turn it on because my home office has three nice LCDs so I need to 'svn up' all the python trees and pull some bzr repositories for other projects. (I guessed wrong and started using bzr before Python announced the switch to mercurial).

  • Get my home network in order. I need to open up an ssh port so I can tunnel over a secure connection at the con.

  • Work on my lightning talks. I'm not 100% sure these will happen but be on the lookout for "High Trust, High Responsibility Communities" and "The Physics of Bowling." The community one will not include farkers, goons, or /b/tards but in my research I did come across this interesting article about EVE Online (EVE uses python heavily and always sends a contingent to PyCon) which includes a player .sig "You may be playing EVE Online, but be warned: we are playing Something Awful." My talk is about hacking people via trust cues and what does and doesn't work in some all-volunteer groups I'm in (Python-dev and Masons feature heavily).

  • No beta-blockers, again. I keep meaning to use performance enhancing drugs when I talk (beta-blockers are used by concert violinists to quell the symptoms of stress during performances) but never bother to procure them. Instead I just forgo coffee the day of my talk, which kinda sucks.

  • No mustache, again. I enjoyed it but it was a one time thing. Anecdotally: people who know you without facial hair have a hard time recognizing you with it. The opposite is not true: people who know you with facial hair have no problem recognizing you shaved.

* Jack's Rule of Badges: If two people in a group have speaker's badges then everyone in the group will have speaker's badges.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

PyCon on the Charles, Night 2

50+ members of the Boston Python Local turned out for PyCon on the Charles, Night 2; a dress rehearsal for PyCon speakers from the Boston area. Ned did an informal survey of the audience and 1/3rd will be at PyCon proper. I did an even more informal eyeball survey of the audience and 20% had beards and 10% were women (the groups were mutually exclusive). Only 2% of the attendees brought cookies and I would have berated her for reinforcing gender stereotypes but I was too busy thanking her for the oatmeal cookies with chocolate chips.

Peter Portante led off with his talk "The words 'Non-Blocking' and 'Asynchronous' Are Not Synonyms and Here's Why" (I paraphrase) which started with examples of documentation that use the terms synonymously and then detailed how they the two concepts are, in fact, different. The talk is a broad tour of what one thing means versus the other as well as who-owns-what as far as kernel-vs-userpace goes. Peter also footnoted the hell out of it so if you want to learn the difference between select(), epoll(), and kqueue() you can.

Glyph gave a beta* of his talk "Turtles All The Way Down" (not a paraphrase). The title references the fact that python behaves in unsurprising ways by design. His explicit goal wasn't to explain how all the "Python's Dusty Corners" work but to hammer home that what even a python newbie knows mostly holds up in strange, dark places because python's authors and maintainers are learned refugees from other camps that publish tomes like the "C++ FAQs (3rd ed)."

Gylph's talk was of particular interest to me because he's talking about the same damn topic as I am and in the same time slot. Thankfully the world is a big place so his talk is also completely different. This is my 7th PyCon so I've seen many topics repeated and I'm always pleasantly surprised by how differently the same material is presented by different people; part of it is personality, part of it is style, and part of it is voice. I, for one, would pay to listen to Alex Martelli read a phonebook.

Antonio Rodriguez gave an alpha of his keynote address. Keynotes are fun because they get to give BIG BOLD AVDICE. Hyperbole is fun because like advice from your father things need to be said twice as loud because you'll only follow half of it. The alpha talk was 3x as loud as necessary but I think he'll trim it down to the keynote normal of 2x based on feedback (and some topics will get moved to the Language Summit instead).

Edward Abrams debuted his "DJ-ing in Python: Audio processing fundamentals" talk. It is an industy talk/python success story. Not my favorite milieu but industry talks do a good job of highlighting tools and best practices. Abrams gave a brief overview of why audio manipulation is hard followed by a list of which python tools he used to solve his problems. NumPy and threads (for I/O) were featured heavily.

* version 6beta2 if his intro slide is to be believed