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a potpourri of mirth and madness

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DebConf 10: Last day and retrospective

DebConf continued until Saturday, but Friday the 6th was my last day as I left New York that evening. I’m a bit late in getting this summary written up.

Making Debian Rule, Again (Margarita Manterola)

Marga took a bold look at the challenges facing Debian today. She says that Debian is perceived to be less innovative, out of date, difficult to use, and shrinking as a community. She called out Ubuntu as the “elephant in the room”, which is “‘taking away’ from Debian.” She insists that she is not opposed to Ubuntu, but that nonetheless Ubuntu is to some extent displacing Debian as a focal point for newcomers (both users and contributors).

Marga points out that Debian’s work is still meaningful, because many users still prefer Debian, and it is perceived to be of higher quality, as well as being the essential basis for derivatives like Ubuntu.

She conducted a survey (about 40 respondents) to ask what Debian’s problems are, and grouped them into categories like “motivation” and “communication” (tied for the #1 spot), “visibility” (#3, meaning public awareness and perception of Debian) and so on. She went on to make some suggestions about how to address these problems.

On the topic of communication, she proposed changing Debian culture by:

  • Spreading positive messages, celebrating success
  • Thanking contributors for their work
  • Avoiding escalation by staying away from email and IRC when angry
  • Treating every contributor with respect, “no matter how wrong they are”

This stimulated a lot of discussion, and most of the remaining time was taken up by comments from the audience. The video has been published, and offers a lot of insight into how Debian developers perceive each other and the project. She also made suggestions for the problems of visibility and motivation. These are crucial issues for Debian devotees to be considering, and I applaud Marga for her fortitude in drawing attention to them. This session was one of the highlights of this DebConf, and catalyzed a lot of discussion of vital issues in Debian.

Following her talk, there was a further discussion in the hallway which included many of the people who commented during the session, mostly about how to deal with problematic behavior in Debian. Although I agreed with much of what was said, I found it a bit painful to watch, because (ironically) this discussion displayed several of the characteristic “people problems” that Debian seems to have:

  • Many people had opinions, and although they agreed on many things, agreement was rarely expressed openly. Sometimes it helps a lot to simply say “I agree with you” and leave it at that. Lending support, rather than adding a new voice, helps to build consensus.
  • People waited for their turn to talk rather than listening to the person speaking, so the discussion didn’t build momentum toward a conclusion.
  • The conversation got louder and more dense over time, making it difficult to enter. It wasn’t argumentative; it was simply loud and fast-paced. This drowned out people who weren’t as vocal or willful.
  • Even where agreement was apparent, there was often no clear action agreed. No one had responsibility for changing the situation.

These same patterns are easily observed on Debian mailing lists for the past 10+ years. I exhibited them myself when I was active on these lists. This kind of cultural norm, once established, is difficult to intentionally change. It requires a fairly radical approach, which will inevitably mean coping with loss. In the case of a community, this can mean losing volunteer contributors cannot let go of this norm, and that is an emotionally difficult experience. However, it is nonetheless necessary to move forward, and I think that Debian as a community is capable of moving beyond it.

Juxtaposition

Given my history with both Debian and Ubuntu, I couldn’t help but take a comparative view of some of this. These problems are not new to Debian, and indeed they inspired many of the key decisions we made when founding the Ubuntu project in 2004. We particularly wanted to foster a culture which was supportive, encouraging and welcoming to potential contributors, something Debian has struggled with. Ubuntu has been, quite deliberately, an experiment in finding solutions to problems such as these. We’ve learned a lot from this experiment, and I’ve always hoped that this would help to find solutions for Debian as well.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Debian has benefited from these Ubuntu experiments as much as we might have hoped. A common example of this is the Ubuntu Code of Conduct. The idea of a project code of conduct predates Ubuntu, of course, but we did help to popularize it within the free software community, and this is now a common (and successful) practice used by many free software projects. The idea of behavioral standards for Debian has been raised in various forms for years now, but never seems to get traction. Hearing people talk about it at DebConf, it sometimes seemed almost as if the idea was dismissed out of hand because it was too closely associated with Ubuntu.

I learned from Marga’s talk that Enrico Zini drafted a set of Debian Community Guidelines over four years ago in 2006. It is perhaps a bit longand structured, but is basically excellent. Enrico has done a great job of compiling best practices for participating in an open community project. However, his document seems to be purely informational, without any official standing in the Debian project, and Debian community leaders have hesitated to make it something more.

Perhaps Ubuntu leaders (myself included) could have done more to nurture these ideas in Debian. At least in my experience, though, I found that my affiliation with Ubuntu almost immediately labeled me an “outsider” in Debian, even when I was still active as a developer, and this made it very difficult to make such proposals. Perhaps this is because Debian is proud of its independence, and does not want to be unduly influenced by external forces. Perhaps the initial “growing pains” of the Debian/Ubuntu relationship got in the way. Nonetheless, I think that Debian could be stronger by learning from Ubuntu, just as Ubuntu has learned so much from Debian.

Closing thoughts

I enjoyed this DebConf very much. This was the first DebConf to be hosted in the US, and there were many familiar faces that I hadn’t seen in some time. Columbia University offered an excellent location, and the presentation content was thought-provoking. There seemed to be a positive attitude toward Ubuntu, which was very good to see. Although there is always more work to do, it feels like we’re making progress in improving cooperation between Debian and Ubuntu.

I was a bit sad to leave, but was fortunate enough to meet up with Debian folk during my subsequent stay in the Boston area as well. It felt good to reconnect with this circle of friends again, and I hope to see you again soon.

Looking forward to next year’s DebConf in Bosnia

Written by Matt Zimmerman

August 25, 2010 at 16:57

Read, listen, or comprehend: choose two

I have noticed that when I am reading, I cannot simultaneously understand spoken words. If someone speaks to me while I am reading, I can pay attention to their voice, or to the text, but not both. It’s as if these two functions share the same cognitive facility, and this facility can only handle one task at a time. If someone is talking on the phone nearby, I find it very difficult to focus on reading (or writing). If I’m having a conversation with someone about a document, I sometimes have to ask them to pause the conversation for a moment while I read.

This phenomenon isn’t unique to me. In Richard Feynman’s What Do You Care what Other People Think?, there is a chapter entitled “It’s as Simple as One, Two, Three…” where he describes his experiments with keeping time in his head. He practiced counting at a steady rate while simultaneously performing various actions, such as running up and down the stairs, reading, writing, even counting objects. He discovered that he “could do anything while counting to [himself]—except talk out loud”.

What’s interesting is that the pattern varies from person to person. Feynman shared his discovery with a group of people, one of whom (John Tukey) had a curiously different experience: while counting steadily, he could easily speak aloud, but could not read. Through experimenting and comparing their experiences, it seemed to them that they were using different cognitive processes to accomplish the task of counting time. Feynman was “hearing” the numbers in his head, while Tukey was “seeing” the numbers go by.

Analogously, I’ve met people who seem to be able to read and listen to speech at the same time. I attributed this to a similar cognitive effect: presumably some people “speak” the words to themselves, while others “watch” them. Feynman found that, although he could write and count at the same time, his counting would be interrupted when he had to stop and search for the right word. Perhaps he used a different mental faculty for that. Some people seem to be able to listen to more than one person talking at the same time, and I wonder if that’s related.

I was reminded of this years later, when I came across this video on speed reading. In it, the speaker explains that most people read by silently voicing words, which they can do at a rate of only 120-250 words per minute. However, people can learn to read visually instead, and thereby read much more quickly. He describes a training technique which involves reading while continuously voicing arbitrary sounds, like the vowels A-E-I-O-U.

The interesting part, for me, was the possibility of learning. I realized that different people read in different ways, but hadn’t thought much about whether one could change this. Having learned a cognitive skill, like reading or counting time, apparently one can re-learn it a different way. Visual reading would seem, at first glance, to be superior: not only is it faster, but I have to use my eyes to read anyway, so why tie up my listening facility as well? Perhaps I could use it for something else at the same time.

So, I tried the simple technique in the video, and it had a definite effect. I could “feel” that I wasn’t reading in the same way that I had been before. I didn’t measure whether I was going any faster or slower, because I quickly noticed something more significant: my reading comprehension was completely shot. I couldn’t remember what I had read, as the memory of it faded within seconds. Before reaching the end of a paragraph, I would forget the beginning. It was as if my ability to comprehend the meaning of the text was linked to my reading technique. I found this very unsettling, and it ruined my enjoyment of the book I was reading.

I’ll probably need to separate this practice from my pleasure reading in order to stick with it. Presumably, over time, my comprehension will improve. I’m curious about what net effect this will have, though. Will I still comprehend it in “the same” way? Will it mean the same thing to me? Will I still feel the same way about it? The many levels of meaning are connected to our senses as well, and “the same” idea, depending on whether it was read or heard, may not have “the same” meaning to an individual. Even our tactile senses can influence our judgments and decisions.

I also wonder whether, if I learn to read visually, I’ll lose the ability to read any other way. When I retrained myself to type using a Dvorak keyboard layout, rather than QWERTY, I lost the ability to type on QWERTY at high speed. I think this has been a good tradeoff for me, but raises interesting questions about how my mind works: Why did this happen? What else changed in the process that might have been less obvious?

Have you tried re-training yourself in this way? What kind of cognitive side effects did you notice, if any? If you lost something, do you still miss it?

(As a sidenote, I am impressed by Feynman’s exuberance and persistence in his personal experiments, as described in his books for laypeople. Although I consider myself a very curious person, I rarely invest that kind of physical and intellectual energy in first-hand experiments. I’m much more likely to research what other people have done, and skim the surface of the subject.)

Written by Matt Zimmerman

July 12, 2010 at 12:57

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Navigating the PolicyKit maze

I’ve written a simple application which will automatically extract media from CDs and DVDs when they are inserted into the drive attached to my server. This makes it easy for me to compile all of my media in one place and access it anytime I like. The application uses the modern udisks API, formerly known as DeviceKit-disks, and I wrote it in part to learn get some experience working with udisks (which, it turns out, is rather nice indeed).

Naturally, I wanted to grant this application the privileges necessary to mount, unmount and eject removable media. The server is headless, and the application runs as a daemon, so this would require explicit configuration. udisks uses PolicyKit for authorization, so I expected this to be very simple to do. In fact, it is very simple, but finding out exactly how to do it wasn’t quite so easy.

The Internet is full of web pages which recommend editing /etc/PolicyKit/PolicyKit.conf. As far as I can tell, nothing pays attention to this file anymore, and all of these instructions have been rendered meaningless. My system was also full of tools like polkit-auth, from the apparently-obsolete policykit package, which kept their configuration in some other ignored place, i.e. /var/lib/PolicyKit. It seems the configuration system has been through a revolution or two recently.

In Ubuntu 10.04, the right place to configure these things seems to be /var/lib/polkit-1/localauthority, and this is documented in pklocalauthority(8). Authorization can be tested using pkcheck(1), and the default policy can be examined using pkaction(1).

I solved my problem by creating a file in /var/lib/polkit-1/localauthority/50-local.d with a .pkla extension with the following contents:

[Access to removable media for the media group]
Identity=unix-group:media
Action=org.freedesktop.udisks.drive-eject;org.freedesktop.udisks.filesystem-mount
ResultAny=yes

This took effect immediately and did exactly what I needed. I lost quite some time trying to figure out why the other methods weren’t working, so perhaps this post will save the next person a bit of time. It may also inspire some gratitude for the infrastructure which makes all of this work automatically for more typical usage scenarios, so that most people don’t need to worry about any of this.

Along the way, I whipped up a patch to add a --eject option to the handy udisks(1) tool, which made it easier for me to test along the way.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

June 27, 2010 at 14:38

Habit forming

I find that habits are best made and broken in sets. If I want to form a new habit, I’ll try to get rid of an old one at the same time. I don’t know why this works, but it seems to. Perhaps I only have room in my head for a certain number of habits, so if I want a new one, then an old one has to go. I’m sure some combinations are better than others.

I’m currently working on changing some habits, including:

  • Start exercising, swimming three times per week
  • Stop drinking alcohol entirely
  • Start a consistent flossing routine

I’m thinking of adding a reading habit to the set, but it’s going well so far and I don’t want to overdo it. I feel good, and am forming a new routine.

The flossing is definitely the hardest of the three. I hate pretty much everything about flossing. It also unbalances the set, so that I have a net gain of one habit. Maybe that’s the real reason, and if I broke another habit, it would get easier.

Does anyone else have this experience? What sort of tricks do you employ to help you change your behavior?

Written by Matt Zimmerman

June 23, 2010 at 20:14

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Finishing books

Having invested in some introspection into my reading habits, I made up my mind to dial down my consumption of bite-sized nuggets of online information, and finish a few books. That’s where my bottleneck has been for the past year or so. Not in selecting books, not in acquiring books, and not in starting books either. I identify promising books, I buy them, I start reading them, and at some point, I put them down and never pick them back up again.

Until now. Over the weekend, I finished two books. I started reading both in 2009, and they each required my sustained attention for a period measured in hours in order to finish them.

Taking a tip from Dustin, I decided to try alternating between fiction and non-fiction.

Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins

This was the first book I had read by Tom Robbins, and I am in no hurry to read any more. It certainly wasn’t without merit: its themes were clever and artfully interwoven, and the prose elicited a silent chuckle now and again. It was mainly the characters which failed to earn my devotion. They spoke and behaved in ways I found awkward at best, and problematic at worst. Race, gender, sexuality and culture each endured some abuse on the wrong end of a pervasive white male heteronormative American gaze.

I really wanted to like Priscilla, who showed early promise as a smart, self-reliant individual, whose haplessness was balanced by a strong will and sense of adventure. Unfortunately, by the later chapters, she was revealed as yet another vacant vessel yearning to be filled by a man. She’s even the steward of a symbolic, nearly empty perfume bottle throughout the book. Yes, really.

Managing Humans by Michael Lopp

Of the books I’ve read on management, this one is perhaps the most outrageously reductionist. Many management books are like this, to a degree. They take the impossibly complex problem domain of getting people to work together, break it down into manageable problems with tidy labels, and prescribe methods for solving them (which are hopefully appropriate for at least some of the reader’s circumstances).

Managing Humans takes this approach to a new level, drawing neat boxes around such gestalts as companies, roles, teams and people, and assigning them Proper Nouns. Many of these bear a similarity to concepts which have been defined, used and tested elsewhere, such as psychological types, but the text makes no effort to link them to his own. Despite being a self-described collection of “tales”, it’s structured like a textbook, ostensibly imparting nuggets of managerial wisdom acquired through lessons learned in the Real World (so pay attention!). However, as far as I can tell, the author’s experience is limited to a string of companies of a very specific type: Silicon Valley software startups in the “dot com” era.

Lopp (also known as Rands) does have substantial insight into this problem domain, though, and does an entertaining job of illustrating the patterns which have worked for him. If you can disregard the oracular tone, grit your teeth through the gender stereotyping, and add an implicit preface that this is (sometimes highly) context-sensitive advice, this book can be appreciated for what it actually is: a coherent, witty and thorough exposition of how one particular manager does their job.

I got some good ideas out of this book, and would recommend it to someone working in certain circumstances, but as with Robbins, I’m not planning to track down further work by the same author.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

June 21, 2010 at 16:00

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How to decide what to read (and what not to read)?

Like you, dear Internet readers, I have no shortage of reading material. I have ready access to more engaging, high quality, informative and relevant information than I can possibly digest. Every day, I have to choose what to read, and what to pass by. This seems like an important thing to do well, and I wonder if I do a good enough job of it. This is just one example of a larger breadth/depth problem, but I’m finding the general problem difficult to stomach, so I’m focusing on reading for the moment.

These are my primary sources of reading material on a day-to-day basis:

  • Email – I read everything which is addressed to me personally. I don’t reply to all of it, and my reply time can vary greatly, but I am able to keep up with reading it, and I consider it important to do so. I am still subscribed to a selection of mailing lists, but I find them increasingly awkward to manage. There are a few which I scan on a daily basis, but most of them I process in batches when I’m offline and traveling. I’m subscribed to far fewer mailing lists than I was five years ago, though I feel they are still the most effective online discussion facility available. I find myself doing more and more discussing in real-time on IRC and by phone rather than by email.
  • Blogs – I subscribe to a few big aggregators and a random sampling of individual blogs. Most of them I scan rather than read. I do most of this offline, while in transit, and so I don’t tend to follow links unless they’re promising enough to save for later. I’ve recently stopped trying to “keep up” (scan every post) on most of them, and instead just “sample” whatever is current at the time. It feels like turning on a television, flipping through all of the channels, and turning it off again. Even when I do find something which I feel is worth reading, it’s hard for me to focus my attention after a long session of scanning. I do find a lot of good stuff this way, but I’m pretty dissatisfied with the overall experience. I never feel like I’m looking in the right places.
  • Shared links – I share my own links publicly, and follow those shared by friends and acquaintances. I do this with multiple groups of people who don’t connect directly, and pass items back and forth between those groups. I place an increasingly high priority on reading items which are shared by people I know, more than on trying to follow the original sources, because the signal-to-noise ratio is so good: my personal network acts as a pretty good filter for what will interest me. I have the nagging feeling that I need to maintain a balance here, though. If I read mostly what other people are sending me, I feel like I’m living in a bubble of like-minded people and fear that I’ll lose perspective.
  • News – I read hardly any “proper” news. I don’t subscribe to any newspapers, and generally don’t read the online versions either. I do read articles which are shared by people in my network. Traditional media never seems to have the right scope for me. There may be particular journalists, or particular topics I’d like to follow, but news outlets simply don’t group their content in a way which fits my mind.
  • Books – Remember these? My diet of books has shrunk drastically since I started reading more online media. Devoting my full attention to a book just doesn’t feel as energizing as it used to. I hesitate at the prospect of sinking so many hours into a book, only to decide that it wasn’t worthwhile, or worse, to forget what I learned as I’m bombarded by bite-sized, digestible tidbits from the Internet. I feel sad about losing the joy of reading I once had, and want to find a way to reintegrate books into my regular diet.

How do you decide what to read, and what not to read? How does your experience differ between your primary information sources? How have you tried to improve?

Written by Matt Zimmerman

June 12, 2010 at 19:35

Ten TED talks I took in today

Starting about a year ago, I started following the release of videos from TED events. If one looked interesting, I would download the video to watch later. In this way, I accumulated a substantial collection of talks which I never managed to watch.

I spent a Saturday evening working my way through the list. These are my favorites out of this batch.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

April 25, 2010 at 01:25

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