But once you’ve seen it and while you’re in the two-year wait for Dune: Part Two (argh!), can I suggest you also enjoy this wonderful creation by the folks at Bad Lip Reading, whose work I’ve plugged before. Note: minor spoilers (amazingly) if you haven’t seen Dune yet.
The Old Way
Prior to 2018, Three Rings had a relatively simple approach to how it would use pronouns when referring to volunteers.
If the volunteer’s gender was specified as a “masculine” gender (which particular options are available depends on the volunteer’s organisation, but might include “male”, “man”, “cis man”, and “trans man”), the system would use traditional masculine pronouns like “he”, “his”, “him” etc.
If the gender was specified as a “feminine” gender (e.g .”female”, “woman”, “cis women”, “trans woman”) the system would use traditional feminine pronouns like “she”, “hers”, “her” etc.
For any other answer, no specified answer, or an organisation that doesn’t track gender, we’d use singular “they” pronouns. Simple!
- They have done 7 shifts by themselves.
- She verified her email address was hers.
- Would you like to sign him up to this shift?
Unfortunately, this approach didn’t reflect the diversity of personal pronouns nor how they’re applied. It didn’t support volunteer whose gender and pronouns are not conventionally-connected (“I am a woman and I use ‘them/they’ pronouns”), nor did it respect volunteers whose pronouns are not in one of these three sets (“I use ze/zir pronouns”)… a position it took me an embarrassingly long time to fully comprehend.
So we took a new approach:
The New Way
From 2018 we allowed organisations to add a “Pronouns” property, allowing volunteers to select from 13 different pronoun sets. If they did so, we’d use it; failing that we’d continue to assume based on gender if it was available, or else use the singular “they”.
Let’s take a quick linguistics break
Three Rings‘ pronoun field always shows five personal pronouns, separated by slashes, because you can’t necessarily derive one from another. That’s one for each of five types:
- the subject, used when the person you’re talking about is primary argument to a verb (“he called”),
- object, for when the person you’re talking about is the secondary argument to a transitive verb (“he called her“),
- dependent possessive, for talking about a noun that belongs to a person (“this is their shift”),
- independent possessive, for talking about something that belongs to a person potentially would an explicit noun (“this is theirs“), and the
- reflexive (and intensive), two types which are generally the same in English, used mostly in Three Rings when a person is both the subject and indeirect of a verb (“she signed herself up to a shift”).
Let’s see what those look like – here are the 13 pronoun sets supported by Three Rings at the time of writing:
That’s all data-driven rather than hard-coded, by the way, so adding additional pronoun sets is very easy for our developers. In fact, it’s even possible for us to apply an additional “override” on an individual, case-by-case basis: all we need to do is specify the five requisite personal pronouns, separated by slashes, and Three Rings understands how to use them.
Writing code that respects pronouns
Behind the scenes, the developers use a (binary-gendered, for simplicity) convenience function to produce output, and the system corrects for the pronouns appropriate to the volunteer in question:
The code above will, dependent on the pronouns specified for the volunteer
@volunteer, output something like:
- His account has been created for him so he can now log in.
- Her account has been created for her so she can now log in.
- Their account has been created for them so they can now log in.
- Eir account has been created for em so ey can now log in.
We’ve got extended functions to automatically detect cases where the use of second person pronouns might be required (“Your account has been created for you so you can now log in.”) as well as to help us handle the fact that we say “they are” but “he/she/ey/ze/etc. is“.
It’s all pretty magical and “just works” from a developer’s perspective. I’m sure most of our volunteer developers don’t think about the impact of pronouns at all when they code; they just get on with it.
Is that a complete solution?
Does this go far enough? Possibly not. This week, one of our customers contacted us to ask:
Is there any way to give the option to input your own pronouns? I ask as some people go by she/them or he/them and this option is not included…
You can probably see what’s happened here: some organisations have taken our pronouns property – which exists primarily to teach the system itself how to talk about volunteers – and are using it to facilitate their volunteers telling one another what their pronouns are.
What’s the difference? Well:
When a human discloses that their pronouns are “she/they” to another human, they’re saying “You can refer to me using either traditional feminine pronouns (she/her/hers etc.) or the epicene singular ‘they’ (they/their/theirs etc.)”.
But if you told Three Rings your pronouns were “she/her/their/theirs/themselves”, it would end up using a mixture of the two, even in the same sentence! Consider:
- She has done 7 shifts by themselves.
- She verified her email address was theirs.
That’s some pretty clunky English right there! Mixing pronoun sets for the same person within a sentence is especially ugly, but even mixing them within the same page can cause confusion. We can’t trivially meet this customer’s request simply by adding new pronoun sets which mix things up a bit! We need to get smarter.
A Newer Way?
Ultimately, we’re probably going to need to differentiate between a more-rigid “what pronouns should Three Rings use when talking about you” and a more-flexible, perhaps optional “what pronouns should other humans use for you”? Alternatively, maybe we could allow people to select multiple pronoun sets to display but Three Rings would only use one of them (at least, one of them at a time!): “which of the following sets of pronouns do you use: select as many as apply”?
Even after this, there’ll always be more work to do.
For instance: I’ve met at least one person who uses no pronouns! By this, they actually mean they use no third-person personal pronouns (if they actually used no pronouns they wouldn’t say “I”, “me”, “my”, “mine” or “myself” and wouldn’t want others to say “you”, “your”, “yours” and “yourself” to them)! Semantics aside… for these people Three Rings should use the person’s name rather than a pronoun.
Maybe we can get there one day.
But so long as Three Rings continues to remain ahead of the curve in its respect for and understanding of pronoun use then I’ll be happy.
Our mission is to focus on volunteers and make volunteering easier. At the heart of that mission is treating volunteers with respect. Making sure our system embraces the diversity of the 65,000+ volunteers who use it by using pronouns correctly might be a small part of that, but it’s a part of it, and I for one am glad we make the effort.
I was out on a head-clearing walk anyway this evening as I waited for my computer to catch up with me on some batch processing work, so I figured I’d check on this cache, which got a DNF earlier today. The cache is in its usual place and is healthy and ready to find… but the colours of some parts of the cache container might trick the eye when seen alongside all the recently fallen autumn leaves…
A few weeks ago, my credit card provider wrote to me to tell me that they were switching me back from paperless to postal billing because I’d “not been receiving their emails”.
This came as a surprise to me because I have been receiving their emails. Why would they think that I hadn’t?
Turns out they have a tracking pixel in their email to track that it’s been opened, as well as potentially additional data such as when it was opened (or re-opened), what email client or clients the recipient uses, what IP address or addresses they read their mail from, and so on.
Naturally, because I don’t like creepy companies tracking what I do on my own computers and try to minimise how much they can do so, I read most of my mail with remote content disabled:
Do you have numbers on how many people opened a particular newsletter? Do you have numbers on how many people clicked a particular link?
You can call it data, or stats, or analytics, but make no mistake, that’s tracking.
Follow-on question: do you honestly think that everyone who opens a newsletter or clicks on a link in a newsletter has given their informed constent to be tracked by you?
Needless to say, I had words with my credit card provider. Paperless billing is useful to almost everybody but it’s incredibly useful for blind and partially-sighted users (who are also the ones least-likely to have images loading in the first place, for obvious reasons) because your computer can read your communication to you which is much more-convenient than a letter. Imagine how annoyed you’d be if your bank wrote you a letter (which you couldn’t read but had to get somebody else to read to you) to tell you that because you don’t look at the images in their emails they’re not going to send them to you any more?
Even if you can somehow justify using tracking technologies (which don’t work reliably) to make general, statistical decisions (“fewer people open our emails when the subject contains the word ‘overdraft’!”), you can’t make individual decisions based on them. That’s just wrong.
Took a late hike out here for a maintenance checkup before winter: make sure the waterproof seal is good etc. Really creepy to walk out here alone in the night fog, silent except for the occasional startling loud bellow of a rutting muntjack!
All is good here, and I was delighted to find in the logbook perhaps my favourite ever log entry in a geocache I own… it’s from the Oxfordshire County Council Countryside Access Team!
Staying at the nearby hotel I came out last night to try and find this but quickly gave up rather than poke around in the gloomy night. I’d brought a torch for exactly this kind of purpose but accidentally left it in the car… and the car key in the hotel room!
This morning, though, was much easier. The hint object – which I hadn’t even been able to see last night! – was a great clue and I was about to find a root… I mean route… to it through the undergrowth. TFTC!
I’ve a long history of blogging about dreams I’ve had, and though I’ve not done so recently I don’t want you to think it’s because my dreams have gotten any less trippy-as-fuck. Take last night for example…
I plough every penny and spare minute I can into a side-project that in my head at least qualifies as “art”. The result will be fake opening credits animation for the (non-existent) pilot episode of an imagined 80s-style children’s television show. But it gets weirder.
Do you remember Hot Shots!? There’s this scene near the end where Topper Harley, played by Charlie Sheen, returns to the Native American tribe he’s been living with since before the film (in sort of a clash between the “proud warrior race” trope and a parody of Dances With Wolves, which came out the previous year). Returning to his teepee, Topper meets tribal elder Owatonna (Rino Thunder), who asks him about the battle Topper had gone to fight in and, in a callback to an earlier joke, receives the four AA-cell batteries he’d asked Topper to pick up for him “while he was out”.
I take the dialogue from this scene (which in reality is nonsense, only the subtitles give it any meaning), mangle it slightly, and translate it into Japanese using an automated translation service. I find some Japanese-speaking colleagues to help verify that each line broadly makes sense, at least in isolation.
I commission the soundtrack for my credits sequence. A bit of synth-pop about a minute long. I recruit some voice actors to read each of my Japanese lines, as if they’re characters in an animated kids TV show. I mix it together, putting bits of Japanese dialogue in the right places so that if anybody were to sync-up my soundtrack with the correct scene in Hot Shots!, the Japanese dialogue would closely mirror the conversation that the characters in that film were having. The scene, though, is slow-paced enough that, re-recorded, the voices in my new soundtrack don’t sound like they’re part of the same conversation as one another. This is deliberate.
Meanwhile, I’ve had some artists put together some concept character art for me, based on some descriptions. There’s the usual eclectic mix of characters that you’d expect from 80s cartoons: one character’s a friendly bear-like thing, another’s a cowardly robot, there’s a talking flying unicorn… you know the kind of shit. I give them descriptions, they give me art.
Next, I send the concept art and the soundtrack to an animation team and ask them to produce a credits sequence for it, and I indicate which of the characters depicted should be saying which lines.
Finally, I dump the credits sequence around the Internet, wait a bit, and then start asking on forums “hey, what show is this?” to see what kind of response it gets.
The thing goes viral. It scratches the itch of people who love to try to find the provenance of old TV clips, but of course there’s no payoff because the show doesn’t exist. It doesn’t take too long before somebody translates the dialogue and notices some of the unusual phasing and suggests a connection to Hot Shots! That seems to help date the show as post-1991, but it’s still a mystery. By the time somebody get around to posting a video where the soundtrack overlays the scene from Hot Shots!, conspiracy theories are already all over: the dominant hypothesis is that the clips are from a series of different shows (still to be identified) but only the soundtrack is new… but that still doesn’t answer what the different shows are!
As the phenomenon begins to expand into mainstream media I become aware that even the most meme-averse folks I know are going to hear about it, at some point. And as I ‘m likely to be “found out” as the creator of this weird thing, sooner or later, I decide to come clean about it to people I know sooner, rather than later. I’m hanging out with Ruth and her brothers Robin and Owen and I bring it up:
“Do you remember Hot Shots!? There’s this scene near the end where Topper Harley, played by Charlie Sheen…”, I begin, hoping that the explanation of my process might somehow justify the weird shit I’ve brought to the world. Or at least, that one of this group has already come across this latest Internet trend and will interject and give me an “in”.
Ruth interrupts: “I don’t think I’ve seen Hot Shots!”
“Really?” Realising that this’ll take some background explanation, I begin by referring to Top Gun and the tropes Hot Shots! plays into and work from there.
Some time later, I’m involved with a team who are making a documentary about the whole phenomenon and my part in it. They’re proposing to release a special edition disc with a chapter that uses DVD video’s “multi angle” and “audio format switch” features to allow you to watch your choice of either the scene from Hot Shots! or from my trailer with your choice of either the original audio, my soundtrack, or a commentary by me, but they’re having difficulty negotiating the relevant rights.
After I woke, I tried to tell Ruth about this most-bizarre dream, but soon got stuck in an “am I still dreaming” moment after the following exchange:
“Do you remember Hot Shots!?” I asked.
“I haven’t seen Hot Shots!” she replied.
Maybe I’m still dreaming now.
When you hear that from a 2-year employee at a tech company, it’s easy to assume that they have a high staff turnover, but Automattic’s churn rate is relatively low, especially for our sector: 86% of developers stay longer than 5 years. So what’s happening? Let’s visualise it:
All that “red” at the bottom of the graph? That’s recent growth. Automattic’s expanding really rapidly right now, taking on new talent at a never-before-seen speed.
Since before I joined it’s been the case that our goals have demanded an influx of new engineers at a faster rate than we’ve been able to recruit, but it looks like things are improving. Recent refinements to our recruitment process (of which I’ve written about my experience) have helped, but I wonder how much we’ve also been aided by pandemic-related changes to working patterns? Many people, and especially in tech fields, have now discovered that working-from-home works for them, and a company like Automattic that’s been built for the last decade and a half on a “distributed” model is an ideal place to see that approach work at it’s best.
We’re rolling out new induction programmes to support this growth. Because I care about our corporate culture, I’ve volunteered myself as a Culture Buddy, so I’m going to spend some of this winter helping Newmatticians integrate into our (sometimes quirky, often chaotic) ways of working. I’m quite excited to be at a point where I’m in the “older 50%” of the organisation and so have a responsibility for supporting the “younger 50%”, even though I’m surprised that it came around so quickly.
I wonder how that graph will look in another two years.
A not-entirely-theoretical question about open source software licensing came up at work the other day. I thought it was interesting enough to warrant a quick dive into the philosophy of minification, and how it relates to copyleft open source licenses. Specifically: does distributing (only) minified source code violate the GPL?
If you’ve come here looking for a legally-justifiable answer to that question, you’re out of luck. But what I can give you is a (fictional) story:
TheseusJS is slow
It’s a great library and it’s used on many websites, but its performance isn’t great. It’s become infamous for the impact it has on the speed of the websites it’s used on, and it’s often the butt of jokes by developers: “Man, this website’s slow. Must be running Theseus!”
The original developer has moved onto his new project, Moralia, and seems uninterested in handling the growing number of requests for improvements. So I’ve decided to fork it and make my own version, FastTheseusJS and work on improving its speed.
FastTheseusJS is fast
My first release of FastTheseusJS, then, removes virtually of the comments, replacing them with a single comment at the top pointing developers to a website where the API is fully documented. While I’m in there anyway, I also fix a minor bug that’s been annoying me for a while.
- Forked from TheseusJS v1.0.4
- Fixed issue #1071 (running
mazeSolver()without first connecting
<String>component results in endless loop)
- Removed all comments: improves performance considerably
I discover another interesting fact: the developer of TheseusJS used a really random mixture of tabs and spaces for indentation, sometimes in the same line! It looks… okay if you set your editor up just right, but it’s pretty hideous otherwise. That whitespace is unnecessary anyway: the codebase is sprawling but it seldom goes more than two levels deep, so indentation levels don’t add much readability. For my second release of FastTheseusJS, then, I remove this extraneous whitespace, as well as removing the in-line whitespace inside parameter lists and the components of for loops. Every little helps, right?
- Standardised whitespace usage
- Removed unnecessary whitespace
Some of the simpler functions now fit onto just a single line, and it doesn’t even inconvenience me to see them this way: I know the codebase well enough by now that it’s no disadvantage for me to edit it in this condensed format.
In the next version, I shorten the names of variables and functions in the code.
For some reason, the original developer used epic rambling strings for function names, like the well-known
function dedicateIslandTempleToTheImageOfAGodBeforeOrAfterMakingASacrificeWithOrWithoutDancing( boolBeforeMakingASacrifice, objectImageOfGodToDedicateIslandTempleTo, stringNmeOfPersonMakingDedication, stringOrNullNameOfLocalIslanderDancedWith). That one gets called all the time internally and isn’t exposed via the external API so it might as well be shortened to
d=(i,j,k,l,m)=>. Now all the internal workings of the library are each represented with just one or two letters.
- Shortened/standarised non-API variable and function names – improves performance
I’ve shaved several kilobytes off the monstrous size of TheseusJS and I’m very proud. The original developer says nice things about my fork on social media, resulting in a torrent of downloads and attention. Within a certain archipelago of developers, I’m slightly famous.
But did I violate the license?
But then a developer says to me: you’re violating the license of the original project because you’re not making the source code available!
They claim that my bugfix in the first version of FastTheseusJS represents a material change to the software, and that the changes I’ve made since then are obfuscation: efforts short of binary compilation that aim to reduce the accessibility of the source code. This fails to meet the GPL‘s definition of source code as “the preferred form of the work for making modifications to it”. I counter that this condensed view of the source code is my “preferred” way of working with it, and moreover that my output is not the result of some build step that makes the code harder to read, the code is just hard to read as a result of the optimisations I’ve made. In ambiguous cases, whose “preference” wins?
Did I violate the license? My gut feeling is that no, all of my changes were within the spirit and the letter of the GPL (they’re a terrible way to write code, but that’s not what’s in question here). Because I manually condensed the code, did so with the intention that this condensing was a feature, and continue to work directly with the code after condensing it because I prefer it that way… that feels like it’s “okay”.
But if I’d just run the code through a minification tool, my opinion changes. Suppose I’d run
minify --output fasttheseus.js theseus.js and then deleted my copy of
theseus.js. Then, making changes to
fasttheseus.js and redistributing it feels like a violation to me… even if the resulting code is the same as I’d have gotten via the “manual” method!
I don’t know the answer (IANAL), but I’ll tell you this: I feel hypocritical for saying one piece of code would not violate the license but another identical piece of code would, based only on the process the developer followed to produce it. If I replace one piece of code at a time with less-readable versions the license remains intact, but if I replace them all at once it doesn’t? That doesn’t feel concrete nor satisfying.
This isn’t an entirely contrived example
This example might seem highly contrived, and that’s because it is. But the grey area between the extremes is where the real questions are. If you agree that redistribution of (only) minified source code violates the GPL, you’re left asking: at what point does the change occur? Code isn’t necessarily minified or not-minified: there are many intermediate steps.
If I use a correcting linter to standardise indentation and whitespace – switching multiple spaces for the appropriate number of tabs, removing excess line breaks etc. (or do the same tasks manually) I’m sure you’d agree that’s fine. If I have it replace whole-function if-blocks with hoisted return statements, that’s probably fine too. If I replace if blocks with ternery operators or remove or shorten comments… that might be fine, but probably depends upon context. At some point though, some way along the process, minification goes “too far” and feels like it’s no longer within the limitations of the license. And I can’t tell you where that point is!
This issue’s even more-complicated with some other licenses, e.g. the AGPL, which extends the requirement to share source code to hosted applications. Suppose I implement a web application that uses an AGPL-licensed library. The person who redistributed it to me only gave me the minified version, but they gave me a web address from which to acquire the full source code, so they’re in the clear. I need to make a small patch to the library to support my service, so I edit it right into the minified version I’ve already got. A user of my hosted application asks for a copy of the source code, so I provide it, including the edited minified library… am I violating the license for not providing the full, unminified version, even though I’ve never even seen it? It seems absurd to say that I would be, but it could still be argued to be the case.
99% of the time, though, the answer’s clear, and the ambiguities shown above shouldn’t stop anybody from choosing to open-source their work under GPL, AGPL (or any other open source license depending on their preference and their community). Perhaps the question of whether minification violates the letter of a copyleft license is one of those Potter Stewart “I know it when I see it” things. It certainly goes against the spirit of the thing to do so deliberately or unnecessarily, though, and perhaps it’s that softer, more-altruistic goal we should be aiming for.
Dropped by for a maintenance visit. All is well except for a discrepancy between the paper and online logs, which I’m following up with the cachers in question.
Great to see somebody finally setting the record straight on bioluminescence and the 50/50 horse-myth. Come on people, it’s 2021!
I’ve been using Synergy for a long, long time. By the time I wrote about my admiration of its notification icon back in 2010 I’d already been using it for some years. But this long love affair ended this week when I made the switch to its competitor, Barrier.
If you’ve not come across it before: Synergy was possibly the first multiplatform tool to provide seamless “edge-to-edge” sharing of a keyboard and mouse between multiple computers. Right now, for example, I’m sitting in front of Cornet, a Debian 11 desktop, Idiophone, a Macbook Pro docked to a desktop monitor, and Renegade, a Windows desktop. And I can move my mouse cursor from one, to the other, to the next, interacting with them all as if I were connected directly to it.
There have long been similar technologies. KVM switches can do this, as can some modern wireless mice (I own at least two such mice!). But none of them are as seamless as what Synergy does: moving from computer to computer as fast as you can move your mouse and sharing a clipboard between multiple devices. I also love that I can configure my set-up around how I work, e.g. when I undock my Macbook it switches from ethernet to wifi, this gets detected and it’s automatically removed from the cluster. So when I pick up my laptop, it magically stops being controlled by my Windows PC’s mouse and keyboard until I dock it again.
Synergy’s published under a hybrid model: open-source components, with paid-for extra features. It used to provide more in the open-source offering: you could download a fully-working copy of the software and use it without limitation, losing out only on a handful of features that for many users were unnecessary. Nontheless, early on I wanted to support the development of this tool that I used so much, and so I donated money towards funding its development. In exchange, I gained access to Synergy Premium, and then when their business model changed I got grandfathered-in to a lifetime subscription to Synergy Pro.
I continued using Synergy all the while. When their problem-stricken 2.x branch went into beta, I was among the testers: despite the stability issues and limitations, I loved the fact that I could have what was functionally multiple co-equal “host” computers, and – when it worked – I liked the slick new configuration interface it sported. I’ve been following with bated breath announcements about the next generation – Synergy 3 – and I’ve registered as an alpha tester for when the time comes.
If it sounds like I’m a fanboy… that’d probably be an accurate assessment of the situation. So why, after all these years, have I jumped ship?
I’ve been aware of Barrier since the project started, as a fork of the last open-source version of the core Synergy program. Initially, I didn’t consider Barrier to be a suitable alternative for me, because it lacked features I cared about that were only available in the premium version of Synergy. As time went on and these features were implemented, I continued to stick with Synergy and didn’t bother to try out Barrier… mostly out of inertia: Synergy worked fine, and the only thing Barrier seemed to offer would be a simpler set-up (because I wouldn’t need to insert my registration details!).
This week, though, as part of a side project, I needed to add an extra computer to my cluster. For reasons that are boring and irrelevant and so I’ll spare you the details, the new computer’s running the 32-bit version of Debian 11.
I went to the Symless download pages and discovered… there isn’t a Debian 11 package. Ah well, I think: the Debian 10 one can probably be made to work. But then I discover… there’s only a 64-bit version of the Debian 10 binary. I’ll note that this isn’t a fundamental limitation – there are 32-bit versions of Synergy available for Windows and for ARMhf Raspberry Pi devices – but a decision by the developers not to support that platform. In order to protect their business model, Synergy is only available as closed-source binaries, and that means that it’s only available for the platforms for which the developers choose to make it available.
So I thought: well, I’ll try Barrier then. Now’s as good a time as any.
Barrier and Synergy aren’t cross-compatible, so first I had to disable Synergy on each machine in my cluster. Then I installed Barrier. Like most popular open-source software, this was trivially easy compared to Synergy: I just used an appropriate package manager by running
choco install barrier,
brew install barrier, and
apt install barrier to install on each of the Windows, Mac, and Debian computers, respectively.
Configuring Barrier was basically identical to configuring Synergy: set up the machine names, nominate one the server, and tell the server what the relative positions are of each of the others’ screens. I usually bind the “scroll lock” key to the “lock my cursor to the current screen” function but I wasn’t permitted to do this in Barrier for some reason, so I remapped my scroll lock key to some random high unicode character and bound that instead.
Getting Barrier to auto-run on MacOS was a little bit of a drag – in the end I had to use Automator to set up a shortcut that ran it and loaded the configuration, and set that to run on login. These little touches are mostly solved in Synergy, but given its technical audience I don’t imagine that anybody is hugely inconvenienced by them. Nonetheless, Synergy clearly retains a slightly more-polished experience.
Altogether, switching from Synergy to Barrier took me under 15 minutes and has so far offered me a functionally-identical experience, except that it works on more devices, can be installed via my favourite package managers, and doesn’t ask me for registration details before it functions. Synergy 3’s going to have to be a big leap forward to beat that!