My favorite Heartbleed coverage
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My favorite Heartbleed coverage

Everybody is probably already familiar with the Heartbleed bug in OpenSSL that was disclosed this week. I saw two explanations that really impressed me with their clarity. The first was Randall Munroe’s XKCD comic. In a few panels, it illustrates exactly what the problem is. The second is for those who prefer text, and was written by Rusty Foster, formerly of Kuro5hin, who did a great job of explaining Heartbleed in the New Yorker.

Brent Simmons wrote up one possible implication of the bug, which is that writing software in C is no longer worth the risk.

Relationship advice from Malcolm X
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Relationship advice from Malcolm X

Recently rc3.org favorite Ta-Nehisi Coates got into a prolonged debate with Jonathan Chait (who blogs at New York Magazine) over whether it’s OK for Paul Ryan or Barack Obama to blame “black culture” for African Americans’ lack of economic progress relative to white people. Here’s Coates’ initial post if you want to start at the beginning.

Anyway, the debate shifts ground into an argument about whether Coates (standing in as a proxy for African Americans) should be optimistic and grateful for the progress that has been made on racial equality in America since slavery. Chait (who is white) argues that he should be, Coates disagrees. In doing so, he provides this quotation from Malcolm X1:

You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress.

While it can of course be argued that African Americans are treated better today than they were 15 or 50 or 100 years ago, it’s also true that they continue to face pervasive discrimination as a matter of policy and custom. They owe America no gratitude for treating them less badly.

When there are obvious, structural problems black people face that are the direct product of historical and current discrimination, blaming black culture for lack of advancement is scapegoating. That much was clear to me after reading Coates’ argument. I’d encourage you to read back through his entire series of recent posts on the topic.

What occurred to me after I let the post sit on my brain for awhile was how broadly applicable Malcolm X’s quote is; not only to other social issues but in my personal life as well. For example, women in the technology industry owe men no gratitude for any progress that has been made on the gender inequalities, because the ledger is still far from balanced.

Today I started thinking about times when I realized that I was treating other people poorly and made an effort to change my behavior. Stepping away from my own perspective really made it clear that I was the person with the knife in Malcolm X’s metaphor. In nearly every case, I have believed that I was making progress, and expected not only gratitude but complete forgiveness for my past poor behavior, some of which no doubt continues.

When applied at the social level, the quotation in question is illuminating. Applying it at the personal level is humbling.

  1. Here’s a video of Malcolm X giving one version of this quote in an interview.
Felix Salmon reviews Michael Lewis’s book on HFT
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Felix Salmon reviews Michael Lewis’s book on HFT

I’m really interested in Michael Lewis’s new book on high frequency trading, basically because high frequency trading is the kind of thing I hate, and I know Lewis hates it too. Felix Salmon throws some water on Lewis’s take, and argues that HFT is not as problematic as it’s made out to be.

My favorite article I recently read about HFT was Barbarians at the Gateways, a look at the technology behind HFT by Jacob Loveless. If nothing else, HFT is really, really interesting as a software engineering and systems design problem.

The high cost of unpaid conference speakers
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The high cost of unpaid conference speakers

One of the more interesting debates that’s cropping up off and on around the Web and Twitter is whether it’s unfair for conferences to invite speakers without compensating them beyond free attendance at the event. Remy Sharp’s argument can be inferred from the title of his post, You’re paying to speak. This reminded me of a post by Andy Budd from last August, Paying Speakers is Better for Everybody. Budd’s post is a bit less inflammatory and comes at it from the perspective of what a conference organizer gains by paying speakers:

As an organiser I think paying speakers is actually a very good idea, whether they ask for it or not. This is because it changes the relationship from a voluntary one to a business one. When you’re not paying somebody you really can’t expect them to put a lot of effort into their talks, help you promote the event or respond to your emails quickly (a constant bugbear for organisers). However by paying speakers for services, you set up a different relationship and a level of expectation that makes your life easier and the quality of your event better. We’re not talking huge piles of cash in un-marked bills btw. Sometime a few hundred dollars or a voucher from Amazon is enough to make a speaker feel valued.

My friend Alex King disagrees (with Sharp, at least):

This sort of entitlement crap really irks me. No one is making you speak at a conference; it’s a choice.

Here’s what I think – it has nothing to do with fairness. Conferences often don’t pay speakers because they can attract attendees to their events with a slate of speakers who are willing to appear for free. It’s as simple as that. There are a lot of reasons to want to speak at a conference, not all of them driven by a clear financial motive. I like to give talks for the same reason that I like writing blog posts – I think it’s fun to participate in the marketplace of ideas, and standing up and sharing those ideas with an audience is a great experience. Speaking to a group makes me pretty nervous, but I do it anyway because the response is usually pretty great. I would also add that assuming you choose the right events, attending as a speaker is really fun. Most people at the event know who you are, and many of them want to talk with you about your talk, which is on a topic that interests you enough to write a talk about it.

Preparing for a talk is pretty fun, too. It’s an opportunity to really think deeply about a subject and figure out how to present it in a useful way. Yeah, it’s a lot of work, but the rewards are intrinsic. If you disagree with me and feel like that’s not enough of a reward to do it, that’s OK. Ask for a fee, it can’t hurt. I just think that treating this as a matter of dollars and cents misses a lot of what’s going on with the relationship between speakers and conferences.

I should add that I am really lucky. I work for a company (Etsy) that will pay for me to go to a conference and give a talk without any expectation that I will pitch anything to the audience. I already attend few conferences, and I’d attend even fewer if I were spending my own money on it, whether I was speaking or not.

This is the real point I want to make for conference organizers. When you don’t pay speakers, you limit your pool of possible speakers to those who are self-funded, or, more likely, are paid to attend by their employer. That immediately eliminates a lot of potentially interesting voices. It also, in all likelihood, reduces the diversity of your group of speakers. It also makes it more likely that a greater percentage of your talks will be thinly veiled product pitches or painfully obvious recruiting pitches rather than well-prepared talks on inherently interesting subjects.

In the end, I agree with Andy Budd. Paying speakers is better for everybody. At the same time, I think the best speakers are usually those who would give excellent presentations regardless of whether not anybody is paying them.

Quote
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Seventeen year old Sara Sakowitz writes in the Washington Post about the attrition that results from gender stereotypes for young women:

When I looked around the arena at my robotics competition, I counted only three other girls out of over a thousand high school students working on their teams’ robots. Glancing at the bleachers, I watched girls parading as mascots, girls cheering for their teams, and girls dancing in the stands. But I didn’t see girls on the competition floor. Maybe in the next few years that gender balance will change, and the timid girls in the bleachers will be replaced by fearless women who are undaunted by society’s confining expectations. Someday, my all-girls team will not be the exception to the unspoken rule, but until then, we have to keep breaking it.

In the Internet industry we see the same sort of thing when people assume that women they meet are designers, product managers, or front-end developers rather than “real engineers.” Getting rid of one’s preconceived notions is difficult, but we can start by keeping them to ourselves.

Redirecting a bit of Amazon’s money to charity
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Redirecting a bit of Amazon’s money to charity

One way to do a tiny amount of good in the world (assuming you shop on Amazon.com) is to opt in to Amazon Smile. Once you have done so, Amazon will donate 0.5% of the money you spend on the site to the charity you select. I’m set up to donate to the Environmental Defense Fund currently. The catch is that for the donation to be applied, you have to access the site through “smile.amazon.com” rather than “www.amazon.com.” Amazon will remind you of that a few times, but then it goes away, and of course when you follow links to Amazon, they’re always to the main URL.

Fortunately, there are browser plugins that will make sure you’re always browsing through smile.amazon.com. For Firefox, there’s Amazon Smile Redirector. For Chrome, there’s Smile Always. It looks like a version of Smile Always for Safari is under development, but it’s not available in Apple’s extension gallery. If anyone knows of such an extension for Safari, post in the comments and I’ll add it.

Unfortunately, this seems to be a US-only program currently. Hopefully Amazon will expand it to other countries eventually.