February 2016 Archives

Short version: We tried that, but it doesn't scale. Eventually the one person self-nominated as the sole arbiter of 'good behavior' can't keep up with everyone and has to delegate. When that happens, their subjects start complaining about inconsistent rules and their enforcement.

An extensive, written code allows people to have a chance of living up to that expectation, and understand what'll happen when they don't. This is especially important for volunteer-run organizations who don't have professional, paid enforcers.


Long version

The legal code is just that: code.

Worse, it's a code that is interpreted, not compiled, and how the lines are translated into actions changes a little every time you run through them. Any time the Supreme Interpreter issues a ruling on something, whole swaths of that code will be subject to new interpretations, which will have unpredictable side-effects. Side-effects that will trigger new code to try and handle the edge-cases.

The legal system as it exists in most countries is extensive, written, and impossible for one person to fully understand. This is why lawyers are hated, the legal system seems arbitrary, and anything fun always seems to be illegal. And if that wasn't enough, case-law is its own unwritten thing that handles edge-cases in the lack of a written code. It's no wonder we hate extensive codes of behavior.

That said, there are very good sociological reasons why a code-of-conduct like:

Be Excellent To Each Other

Is a bad code. Take, for example, a basic value judgment:

Murder is bad, and will be punished.

Pretty obvious, and common-sense. And unlike 'be excellent', is narrower in scope. And yet.

Is killing someone accidentally while driving still murder?
Is killing someone in self-defense in your home still murder, or something else?
What is the exact punishment for murder?
Do you punish accidental murders different than intentional ones?
Do you punish killers-of-children different than killers-of-adults?

And so on. This is how we end up with ideas like 'manslaughter' and many grades of murder, with different punishments for each. Without those umpty-hundred pages of legalese defining everything, the answer to all of the above questions would be in case lawwhich is inaccessible to most non-lawyers.

Short codes: Easy to understand in general. But the specifics of what it means to me are completely opaque.
Long codes: Hard to understand in general, but are much more discoverable. If I need to know what it means to me, I can find out.

Nation-states have converged on the long code for very good reasons. But what about volunteer-run organizations like SF conventions, tech-conferences, and open-source projects?

People are hard, let's just party.

Unlike nation-states, volunteer-run organizations like these aren't big enough or well funded enough to have a professional enforcement arm. Relying on peer enforcement is unavoidable, as is relying on untrained people for adjudicating misconduct. These projects can and will attract people quite willing to be enforcers, and are generally the kinds of assholes we want to avoid. The people running these things almost to a person want to avoid conflict, or as it's sometimes called, DRAMA.

If one of your goals is to provide a fun place to code, party, or discuss contentious genre issues, you need a way to bounce the assholes.

Bouncing an asshole is conflict, that thing everyone wants to avoid. When the conflict becomes egregious enough to be officially noticeable, Responsible People tend to respond in a few negative ways:

  • Pretend they didn't see it, in the hopes one of the other Responsible People will notice and do something.
  • Talk themselves into thinking that it wasn't as bad as all that.
  • Pretend they're not actually a Responsible Person, and hope the complainer doesn't notice.
  • Officially notice, but wimp out on actually causing displeasure in the complainant.
  • Hide behind a committee, most of the members of which will be doing one or more of the four previous points.

If you have a "be excellent" code of conduct, point number 2 is where all the Official Drama will go to die; leaving a whole bunch of 'petty highschool bulllshit' to get in the way of the coding, party, or genre discussions. You will have assholes among you, but that's better than being the specific person who ruined someone's day (even if they are an asshole).

If you have a written code with if this BAD then that HARM in it, it allows the drama-avoidant Responsible Person too look at it and say:

Oh shit, this totally applies. Fuckity fuck fuck.

And actually do something about it. Which means, as it was written down, they know what that 'something' is. They may still try to pretend they never saw anything and hope someone else does, but having it written down makes it more likely that the next Responsible Person will do something. It also means that the committee meeting is much more likely to act in consistent ways, and maybe actually bounce assholes.

This is why we keep pressing for details in those codes of conduct. It allows the Responsible People to hide behind the policy as a shield to deflect the displeasure of the punished, and actually provide meaningful direction for the culture of the volunteer-run organization. You deserve that.

Why I'm not moving to California

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Many companies I would like to work for are based there and have their only offices there, so this stance limits who I can work for. Remote-friendly is my only option, and happily that segment has enough demand I can still find gainful employment in the largest IT market in the US. There are two big reasons for why I won't move to California:

  1. I couldn't stay married if I moved.
  2. The California political system is functionally broken.

Number one doesn't make for a long blog-post, so I'll skip it to focus on the second point.

A failure of democracy: the initiative system

Democracy goes to those who show up.

Government goes to those who show up, are well organized, and have funding.

The initiative process for those of you who aren't familiar with them, is a form of plebiscate. Many western US states have initiative processes, as they were a trendy topic when the western territories were applying to become states. They're seen as a more pure form of democracy than representative democracy, which is what the rest of the US political system is based on. If a group of citizens can gather enough signatures for a bit of legislation, they can get that legislation passed in the next election; in most cases, such legislation can not be overridden by the State legislature.

The intent here is to provide a check on the overriding power of the State legislature, which at the time had a tendency to be captured by industrial interests. Rail-barons and monopolists were a real thing, after all.

With the advent of modern media, a much larger percentage of the population is reachable with relatively little effort compared to the 1910's. In 1910, a special interest (be it a railroad, oil company, or anti-gambling crusader) found their biggest impact on public policy was by lobbying state legislators and other public officials. Best bang for their buck, and didn't require an army of canvassers and hawkers. That didn't stop grassroots organizers from trying to push public policy, they just weren't very good at it; 1914 had 46 initiatives on it, of which 6 passed.

Since the 1910's changes to the initiative process have been made to ensure only initiatives with broad enough public support would be put on the ballot, as voters were getting tired of spending half an hour to vote and way longer in voting-place lines. With modern media, scrounging enough signatures to get a special-interest initiative on the ballot is an intensive advertising campaign away. If an interest can get an initiative passed, the State Legislature can't do anything about it other than live with the impacts.

Democracy goes to those who show up, are organized, and have funding.

Initiative sponsors are the very special interests the initiative process was designed to oust. This leads to initiatives focusing on narrow pieces of government, that over time build a hodge-podge legal system that makes it hard to function.

Raising certain taxes requires a 2/3rds super-majority.
Oh, how about if we ensure budgets have a broad consensus, and require budget-bills be passed with a super-majority.
Education spending is the basis of a healthy population, protect that funding from budget-cuts.
Three felony strikes, and you're outta the public eye for life!
Okay, that's a lot of people serving life sentences, perhaps drug-offenders can get treatment instead.

And so on. It's the kind of code-smell (legal code is still code) that makes you itch to refactor, but refactoring requires going before a committee of managers, some of whom don't know how the system works anymore and are the kind of manager that others need to keep happy.

All of this leads to a government that has to jump through too many hoops, or require unreasonable levels of cooperation between the political parties, to be effective. I don't want to live in a place with government that broken.

There are calls for California to flush it all and rewrite it from scratch have a constitutional convention to deal with this mess, but it hasn't happened yet.

And then there is the Bay Area

To the tech industry, the rest of the state doesn't matter so I'm not going to talk about it.

Did you know that you can do local initiatives too? You bet. But when you get to local politics, only the most invested of interests show up, which selects for existing property owners looking to increase value. Not In My Back Yard is an impulse every city-council meeting has to grapple with. Due to the money involved in the Bay Area, ideas that sound good so long as you're not next door to them get little traction. The few that do end up getting passed face well funded lawsuits by property-owners looking to undo it.

Office-rents in SFO already exceed those of Manhattan. For residential housing, if you can get a mortgage, you're almost certain to be paying more than $2000/mo on it. For renters, over 40% of them are paying more than 30% of their income on the rent (based on US Census data from 2014). Non-census sources suggest rents are even higher, with 2BR units going for north of $3500 on average. To support a housing-payment of $3500/mo, you need to be making $140K/year at least in household-income. For those of us who are single-income families, even Bay Area salaries mean I'll be spending two or more hours a day commuting to work.

Also, San Francisco is the #1 renter-hostile market according to Forbes. San Jose and Oakland take the net two spots. Once you've found a place you can afford, there is zero guarantee it'll still be there in a year or you'll have the same rent.

In the way of big-city in-fill, unit sizes are getting smaller all the time as the available space shrinks.

Impacts to things people generally don't care about, like 401k contributions

There is a funny thing that happens when you make $140K/year, you start running into limits to how you can contribute to your retirement.

If you make more than $132K/year, and are single, you can't contribute to a Roth IRA. But that's a minor thing, since most people are married by the time they hit their 30's, and the limit for household is $189K/year.

The 2016 limit for 401k contributions is $18K. That sounds like a lot, but keep in mind that if you're earning $140K/year, that 18K is only 12.8% of your income. By the time you hit 40, you should be saving 10% or more for retirement. Employer matching contributions can help you get there (and are NOT subject to the contribution limits), but such contributions are few and far between in the startup space, and when they exist at all are not generous.

If you're paying over 30% of income on rent, paying another 10% for retirement is pretty hard.

This is the Federal Government's way of saying:

You will not be retiring in the Bay Area without extensive non-Retirement savings.

Yeah, not dong that.

Nope. I've never lived there. I don't have roots there. Migrating there to chase the labor market is a bad idea for me.

Thanks for reading.

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