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Pythons are deaf, so are some Pythonistas

Friday 23 May 2014

I had coffee the other day with Nathan Kohn. He goes by the nickname en_zyme, and it's easy to see why. He relishes the role of bringing pairs of people together to see what kind of new reaction can result.

This time, it was to meet Jonathan Henner, a doctoral student of his at Boston University. The topic was how to include deaf people in the Python community.

The discussion was wide-ranging, and I'm sure I've forgotten interesting tangents, but I got this jumble of notes:

Accommodating the deaf at Python community gatherings is a challenge because it means getting either an ASL interpreter, or a CART provider to close-caption presentations live. This presents a few hurdles:

  • Neither solution is best for all deaf people. Some prefer ASL, but ASL doesn't have a large technical vocabulary. CART has the advantage that it also helps those that are a little hard of hearing, or too far back in the room, or even with speakers who have an accent. But some deaf people find CART to be like reading a second language.
  • ASL interpreters and CART providers cost real money, and need space and special equipment.
  • For international gatherings, such as PyCon 2015 in Montreal, there's the language question. Montreal may have more LSF interpreters.
  • For project nights, which involve small-group interactions, we talked about having the communication over IRC, even among people sitting together.

Programming is a good career for the deaf, since it is heavily textual, but they may have a hard time accessing the curriculum for it. Jonathan is exploring the possibility of creating classes in ASL, since that is many deaf people's first language. A common misconception is that ASL is simply English spoken with the hands, but it is not.

We talked a bit about the overlap between the deaf and autistic worlds. The Walden school near Boston specializes in deaf students with other mental or emotional impairments, including autism. Jonathan made a claim that made me think: that deafness and autism are the two disabilities that have their own sub-culture. I don't know if that is true, I'm sure people with other disabilities will disagree, but it's interesting to discuss.

There were a lot of avenues to explore, I'm not sure what will come of it all. It would be great to broaden Python's reach into another community of people who haven't had full access to tech.

Has anyone had any experience doing this? Thoughts?

GitHub monoculture

Saturday 3 May 2014

I continue to notice an unsettling trend: the rise of the GitHub monoculture. More and more, people seem to believe that GitHub is the center of the programming universe.

Don't get me wrong, I love GitHub. It succeeded at capturing and promoting the social aspect of development better than any other site. And git, despite its flaws, is a great version control system.

And just to be clear, I am not talking about the recent turmoil about GitHub's internal culture. That's a problem, but not the one I'm talking about.

Someone said to me, "I couldn't find coverage.py on GitHub." Right, because it's hosted on Bitbucket. When a developer thinks, "I want to find the source for package XYZ," why do they go to the GitHub search bar instead of Google? Do people really so believe that GitHub is the only place for code that it has supplanted Google as the way to find things?

(Yes, Google has a monopoly on search. But searching with Google today does not lock me in to continuing to search with Google tomorrow. When a new search engine appears, I can switch with no downside whatsoever.)

Another example: I'm contributing a chapter to the 500 lines book (irony: the link is to GitHub). Here in the README, to summarize authors, we are asked to provide a GitHub username and a Twitter handle. I suggested that a homepage URL is a more powerful and flexible way for authors to invite the curious to learn more about them. This suggestion was readily adopted (in a pending pull request), but the fact that the first thing to mind was GitHub+Twitter is another sign of people's mindset that these sites are the only places, not just some places.

Don't get me started on the irony of shops whose workflow is interrupted when GitHub is down. Git is a distributed version control system, right?

Some people go so far as to say, as Brandon Weiss has, GitHub is your resume. I would hope they do not mean it literally, but instead as a shorthand for, "your public code will be more useful to potential employers than your list of previous jobs." But reading Brandon's post, he means it literally, going so far as to recommend that you carefully garden your public repos to be sure that only the best work is visible. So much for collaboration.

There's even a site that will read information from GitHub and produce a GitHub resume for you, here's mine. It's cute, but does it really tell you about me? No.

There is power in everyone using the same tools. GitHub succeeds because it makes it simple for code to flow from developer to developer, and for people to find each other and work together. Still, other tools do some things better. Gerrit is a better code review workflow. Mercurial is easier for people to get started with.

GitHub has done a good job providing an API that makes it possible for other tools to integrate with them. But if Travis only works with GitHub, that just reinforces the monoculture. Eventually someone will have a better idea than GitHub, or even git. But the more everyone believes that GitHub is the only game in town, the higher the barrier will be to adopting the next great idea.

I love git and GitHub, but they should be a choice, not the only choice.

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