Policing based on fear can’t work
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Policing based on fear can’t work

I’m a bit fixated on cases where the personal advice one might give to a friend or family member does not align with the policy we should pursue (see this post). Sunil Dutta, a 17 year veteran of the LAPD, recommends offering no resistance when you are detained by police, if you want to prevent a bad outcome:

Even though it might sound harsh and impolitic, here is the bottom line: if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. Most field stops are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long?

That’s the least nuanced paragraph in the piece, but I think it’s worth talking about. This is good advice from one person to another. I’ve been pulled over a number of times and this is the strategy I’ve always followed. I don’t want to go to jail or even get a ticket – what can I do to put the cop at ease so that I hopefully get the outcome I want?

My nephew is going to get his driver’s license soon. This is the advice I’d give him. An altercation with a cop is a no win scenario for the other party.

On the other hand, it’s completelly troubling to see a cop say this to the public. Basically, this cop is warning all of us that unless you can make a policeman feel safe, you’re liable to be subjected to violence and potentially deadly violence until the policeman does feel safe. Bear in mind that in the vast majority of interactions between police and the public, the policeman is the only armed party. Even more troubling is the fact that the biases of the police officer bear greatly on how safe the cop feels, regardless of the situation, making it vastly more likely that members of some age and ethnic groups will be subjected to violence or mistreatment than others.

The policy question is, how do we create a system where interactions between the police and civilians are governed by more than the cop’s feeling of being threatened. Maybe that means going back to partner policing. Maybe that means changing policy so that cops encounter armed citizens less often. It seems like a lot of cops shoot unarmed people out of fear that they are going for the cop’s gun – maybe cops shouldn’t carry guns as a matter of course. Whatever the solution is, serving notice to the public that if you scare us, we will hurt you can’t be part of it.

We’re seeing that on a mass scale in Ferguson, Missouri right now. An entire community has scared the police, and they’re responding by inflicting harm on that community on a daily basis until it stops. Policing that’s governed by fear can’t be effective. For another approach, see Jason Kottke’s post, Policing by Consent.

The ethics of Web experiments
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The ethics of Web experiments

Creating tools that facilitate online A/B experiments is a big part of my job. My team makes sure that we’re collecting data as accurately as possible, and we also created a tool that aggregates the results of experiments and performs statistical analysis of them to insure that our analysis is valid. Needless to say, the controversy over experiments run by Facebook and OkCupid has been interesting to watch from a distance.

For some background on my involvement with Web experiments, you can read this post a member of my team wrote experiments at Etsy back in 2012. I think it holds up pretty well.

Last week Christian Rudder wrote about OkCupid’s experiments on the OkTrends blog, in a provocative post entitled We Experiment On Human Beings! It was written in his inimitable style, with a pugilistic tone. OkCupid ran some pretty radical experiments, and Rudder isn’t apologizing for any of them. He was the interviewed on NPR and refused to apologize for anything OkCupid did.

I am a big believer in iterating on products through experimentation. As I wrote a couple of years ago, quantifying user behavior and analyzing it is what liberates us to some degree from the realm of anecdote and opinion. That said, there’s a reason why there are so many ethical guidelines in academia for experiments on human beings.

Writing at Kottke.org, Tim Carmody has the best argument I’ve read for why OkCupid’s experiments were problematic. I think that everyone who’s responsible for experimenting on the Web ought to read it and think about how it bears on the kinds of experiments they’re running.

Experimentation is a singularly powerful tool for refining ideas and testing the viability of features on the Web, but it’s also easy to abuse, especially in a social context. Fortunately, in the world of e-commerce, experiments are usually about making it easier to check out or testing out changes to search that hopefully make it easier for customers to find items they want to buy.

We’ve seen how a cavalier attitude toward user privacy on the part of Web companies has led to restrictions on cookies that make it more difficult to track user activity. These regulations restrict many kinds of bad behavior, but they also make it more difficult to do legitimate analsysis as well. I worry that a cavalier attitude about the ethics of experimentation will lead to regulations in that area that make it problematic to run any kind of Web experiment.

Many people are already suspicious of any kind of data-driven approach to problem solving. I’m as cynical as anyone about industry self-regulation. While it makes sense not to publicize experiments, we should discuss the kinds of experiments we run, and the role that ethical considerations play in expeirment design.

Trigger warnings for misogynists
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Trigger warnings for misogynists

I admit that when I initially saw trigger warnings at the beginning of articles, I was a bit baffled. That sense of bafflement was well-captured in this New York Times article from May, about requests to apply them to literary works in college courses. I’ve come to think that the appropriateness of trigger warnings depends entirely on the context in which they are used. If you want to know more about them, the Geek Feminism Wiki has a good writeup of how trigger warnings are used and the reasons for using them.

A couple of days ago, my colleague Lara Swanson posted about unsolicited feedback she received from dudes after her Velocity keynote, and I realized that there’s definitely one context in which trigger warnings are underused. Clearly the men who gave the feedback would have benefitted from a trigger warning that might have prevented them from unexpectedly having a negative emotional experience while watching a conference talk.

With that in mind, here are some new trigger warnings speakers may want to use to protect men from having a damaging emotional response, and worse, taking it out on others.

  • TRIGGER WARNING: Woman to speak authoritatively about topics not considered “girl stuff.”
  • TRIGGER WARNING: Content may force representatives of privileged groups to confront the existence of that privilege.
  • TRIGGER WARNING: Speaker apt to apply metaphors men are unfamiliar with.
  • TRIGGER WARNING: Speaker to extoll diversity for its own sake.
  • TRIGGER WARNING: Speaker using whatever tone they like when giving this talk.

With these precautions, hopefully we can make conference talks a safe place for men.

Square one for managers
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Square one for managers

I pulled this from an op-ed by Arthur C. Brooks in the New York Times this weekend:

The Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues measured the “negative affect” (bad moods) that ordinary daily activities and interactions kick up. They found that the No. 1 unhappiness-provoking event in a typical day is spending time with one’s boss (which, as a boss, made me unhappy to learn).

This is simply the nature of the relationship. As a manager, this is the ground on which your relationship starts, and it’s up to you to build something better.

Related: Your Boss’s Work-Life Balance Matters as Much as Your Own

Soccer doesn’t explain globalization
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Soccer doesn’t explain globalization

In a fit of World Cup enthusiasm, I bought Franklin Foer’s book How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization. The book is roughly 10 years old, and ages less well as you progress through it. The initial chapters on soccer history and racism in soccer feel fresh and are really interesting. Foer says in the introduction that the book progresses from bad news to good news, and unfortunately gets gets worse as you make your way through it.

Foer’s argument that soccer will provide the organizing force that disrupts Islamic fundamentalism in Iran seems particularly regrettable with the benefit of hindsight. The good news for wannabe soccer fans is that the book argues effectively that Barcelona is a perfectly good fan for a dilettante to support. The team is owned by its supporters, serves as a foil for fascist Real Madrid, and plays an exciting style. If you want to cultivate a soccer rooting interest and are afraid of unwittingly making common cause with white nationalists, Barcelona is there to offer safe harbor.

How Stripe is gaining open source karma
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How Stripe is gaining open source karma

The degree to which open source software has reduced time to market for web companies and saved them money in operational costs over time cannot be overstated. Indeed, open source is so crucial that in most cases we simply take it for granted. I don’t think people who have joined the industry in the past 10 years or so can really imagine what it was like. We used to pay for everything — databases, Web servers, application servers, version control software, compilers, and everything in between.

Now, you can build a massive business without spending any money at all on software, thanks to people sharing their work. People who are willing to give away their work created the foundation upon which this industry rests.

Stripe is doing an awesome thing to give back to the open source community — providing grants and office space to programmers so that they can work on their open source projects. It’s an interesting addition to the usual options of hiring open source developers and letting them spend some or all of their time on their open source work, or contributing patches back to open source software.

Andrey Petrov wrote a first-hand report on the two weeks he spent at Stripe working on his project, Urllib3. More companies should follow Stripe’s lead on this.

Quote
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Danah Boyd thinks deeply about Facebook emotion experiment: What does the Facebook experiment teach us? Here’s a bit of it:

Somehow, shrugging our shoulders and saying that we promoted content because it was popular is acceptable because those actors don’t voice that their intention is to manipulate your emotions so that you keep viewing their reporting and advertisements. And it’s also acceptable to manipulate people for advertising because that’s just business. But when researchers admit that they’re trying to learn if they can manipulate people’s emotions, they’re shunned. What this suggests is that the practice is acceptable, but admitting the intention and being transparent about the process is not.

There’s even better stuff further on, and you should read the post.

The expense report
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The expense report

I really enjoyed Camille Fournier’s post about the implications of exercising authority as a manager. In short, being told you screwed up by somebody who can fire you can lead to pretty serious anxiety. She nails it when she says this about her role has the head of engineering:

In fact, it is important that I’m seen as an inspirational figure to my team, someone they look up to and look forward to interacting with, and not vice-versa.

Her post also reminded me of a powerful lesson in management I learned awhile back. I heard a story about why a developer really didn’t like our head of engineering. One time, the executive was approving expense reports, noticed an odd $30 line item on this person’s expense report, and rejected it asking for an explanation. The oddness was easy to explain, and the expense report was ultimately approved, but the fact that the executive had rejected the report rather than giving this person the benefit of the doubt permanently set in their mind that the executive was a jerk.

I took a few things away from this incident. First, you can run into problems doing the right thing. The executive was being a good steward of the company’s money, and questioning the expense wasn’t wrong. Perception was the problem, as it so often is. Secondly, this person had very few interactions with the executive, and so there was no established expectation of trust that may have made this OK. If I’m only going to talk to someone a few times a year at most, I don’t want one of those interactions to be negative, especially with so little at stake.

The third was that people should be mindful of what’s expected of people with their job. Had the executive in question forwarded the expense report to accounting and had them send it back, feelings would not have been hurt. People expect accounting to carefully review expense reports. When an executive does it, it can seem petty or vindictive.

This is one of the toughest aspects of a manager’s job. You have limited chances to communicate with people, and what matters most is the outcome of those communications. Everything you do when managing people ideally helps to do their best work, whether it’s getting them the right keyboard, insuring that they’re fairly compensated, or giving them advice on how to get unblocked when they’re trying to solve a tough technical problem.

If it seems like I’m saying that as a manager, it’s important to be almost painfully deliberate in how you approach communicating, I am.

The dangers of over-reliance on perks
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The dangers of over-reliance on perks

My colleague Melissa Santos and I wrote a piece for Model View Culture about perks and how they can be divisive, in spite of the best intentions of the people offering them. The article really cautions companies about building their culture or even their recruiting pitch around perks, it’s a dangerous shortcut to take.

Melissa has a blog, Allowed to Apply, which encourages people to just apply for things that interest them. It’s a great message. She’s @ansate on Twitter.