[personal profile] locore
I subscribe to the linux kernel mailing list (LKML), but I don't read it to any great extent. Most of what I'm interested in I can get from the linux memory management mailing list (linux-mm), and anything I miss that way gets flagged by colleagues, or linux weekly news (lwn.net). On Friday I was reading lwn - their weekly material comes out on Thursday - and found the following headline On kernel mailing list behavior. (I've linked it, but don't expect the link to work right now - it's subscriber only until two weeks after it was posted.)

It transpires that Sarah Sharp, kernel USB developer/maintainer/wizard, who I had met at AdaCamp, took exception to the tone of something Linus posted, and said so on list. The thread quoted in the article seems pretty tame. It ended with a plan for a handful of people, including both Sarah and Linus getting together to discuss the topic at the Kernel Summit. I'm amazed that the whole thing is "news", in the sense of rating a writeup in lwn. I'm father amazed that the lwn author felt it necessary to implicitly disclaim his ability to discuss the situation factually (rather than emotionally), saying "Your editor will attempt a factual description of the discussion, followed by some analysis" (my italics).

Sarah has posted about this in her blog. She's farthermore stopped heavily moderating the comments, so as to provide examples of the kind of responses her position provokes. I'm particularly impressed with the no-name kernel wannabees(1) who basically think that if she doesn't worship the ground Linus walks on, she should get out of the kernel community. That's not what they say - they restrict their suggestion of departing the community to disagreement on this specific issue - and imply that everyone on LKML agrees with Linus - but that's how I read their attitude: brown nosed sycophants operating from habit, not even specifically to curry favour. (Linus isn't having a hissy fit, and he's not the type to hold it in if he were even mildly irritated, judging by past behaviour. So this crazy defence of him seems likely to read as "brown nosed moron" to Linus, just as it does to me. Besides, it was on a blog post that Linus probably doesn't read.)

The whole thing feels like a tempest in a teapot, in part because the comment on LKML wasn't a response to one of the more egregious incidents. Instead, it was about a kind of humor that could be seen as advocating violence (though that was clearly metaphorical) or what some folks would call "verbal violence".

I've (very rarely) been in places where I found metaphors involving violence to be intimidating. They've all had 2 factors in common:
  • face to face interaction
  • (sub)cultural mismatch, so that I didn't know how to distinguish humour from pseudo-humour from (mild) threats

    LKML lacks the face to face component. On the other hand, most linux kernel contributors are doing their kernel work as part of their jobs. And there's a recent incident where someone (not in the kernel community) complained about harassment at a technical convention, drew down a denial of service (DOS) attack on her company by way of reaction, and wound up fired. So if this were about gender ... and Sarah's working hard to make it be about common politeness, not gender ... there's the implicit (and almost certinly unintended) threat that if you speak up about such things, you could get fired - possibly with a little help from opponents pressuring your employer in illegal ways. And frankly, because Sarah is female, with a blog that somewhat emphasizes this, it's hard to keep people from thinking about gender issues.

    I'm very confused about the whole thing. I can look at bits and pieces, but my overall reaction is confusion.

    I would prefer a less intimidating atmosphere on LKML. I would not pick the linux kernel as a project to contribute to on a volunteer basis, mostly because of the attitude I observe on LKML. On the other hand, I consider Ubuntu to be even worse, without the verbal violence. (They silence criticism/feedback by such techniques as deleting posts on grounds that amount to "new poster failed to follow persnickety rule that runs counter to 90% of the geek community behaviour".)

    Because of my profession, I expect I will be contributing to the linux kernel eventually, but nothing I've worked on so far has meritted upstreaming. And meanwhile, I'm very much aware that I'm a complete unknown in that community, and that getting a "bad name" in it could have significant negative effects on my employability, not just in that niche, but in other niches with overlapping personnel.

    I don't think the "verbal violence" contributes to my caution in approaching that community. I think the caution is about professional reputation. The level of metaphorical violence in these posts is trivial. As for the other behaviours - calling people "brain damaged", "idiots", etc. - well let's just say that my coworkers and I sometimes refer to Linus in similar terms, particularly with regard to certain kernel-wide policies he's enforced, which we consider (ahem) misguided. (My native geek dialect would call the policies "brain damaged". That's not the same as calling Linus brain damaged, but we do that too - for the pig-headed way he's refused to budge on these policies, and appears unwilling to listen to criticism.)

    It is unfortunate, but human, that there are always people in charge, even in supposedly consensus based organizations. People who disagree too stridently are always run out of town. People who've been properly acculturated consider this a good thing, in each specific instance, since the folks expelled are clearly "clueless", "trolling", "wasting people's time" etc. I observed all this, painfully, as a volunteer with a religious organization - which eventually expelled me for irresolvable differences of beliefs about appropriate leadership ethics. I no longer tilt against windmills.

    Enough for now - I see I should be getting ready for work - or even already on the way to work. Damn reality, it interferes with thinking things through.

    (1) I don't have the list of linux contributors memorized, so perhaps some of them have actually contributed to the kernel. Given my facility with names, it's conceivable, though unlikely, that I've even missed recognizing the name of a significant contributor. I doubt it, though, given their responses to people pointing out Sarah's contributions.
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