The Cause and the Effect

This week Richard Stallman resigned as president of the Free Software Foundation. It is long overdue, and I am grateful to Selam G., the writer of the blog post that sparked it.

I was disappointed to read that Michael Meeks’ post Tuesday on Planet GNOME repeated the excuses I’ve seen on Twitter and Reddit about mob rule and mischaracterization. Michael is of course entitled to that opinion, and unlike most Twitter and Reddit threads I’ve seen, has expressed it thoughtfully (which is why I think I can actually achieve something by writing this in turn.) I personally believe that that opinion does not stand up under scrutiny, and I hope writing a counterpoint might give him or others in the GNOME community food for thought.

I believe that we — especially in the GNOME community where it’s a goal to hold ourselves to high standards of treating each other well — must not let ourselves fall into the trap of saying ‘Stallman was just defending a friend, out come the pitchforks, just for one email, who will they come for next’ and thereby fail to see the whole picture. If it was really just one email and not years of well-documented bad behaviour and refusal to change, we’d be having an entirely different conversation.

Many who are grateful that Stallman has finally left the FSF are nonetheless anxious or grieving in some way: for the ideal of someone who may have been a hero to us before we realized what he was like in person; for trepidation about the future of the free software movement; or even for having to watch Stallman bring himself down in an avoidable, decades-long slow-motion train wreck. This is all understandable, but we should not let grief channel itself into minimizing or excusing or working around bad behaviour, or rules-lawyering about the interpretation of Stallman’s words. These two lines from Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson, singing about a different kind of grief, seem oddly fitting here:

Do not choose a coward’s explanation
That hides behind the cause and the effect

I will also refer you to Thomas Bushnell’s reflections from which I’d like to emphasize this paragraph, which is a response (expressed better than I could myself) to anyone who thinks that this one event can be regarded in isolation:

RMS’s loss of MIT privileges and leadership of the FSF are the appropriate responses to a pattern of decades of poor behavior. It does not matter if they are appropriate responses to a single email thread, because they are the right thing in the total situation.

The words of Matt Blaze are also appropriate here:

We will, as always, be treated to much examination of the precise nature and mass of the last straw, with observations that it would not by itself be sufficient to cause spinal damage in camels, and is therefore utterly harmless.

This post is my personal opinion, and is not written on behalf of the GNOME Foundation, its board of directors, nor anyone else.


Why Don’t You Just

If there was one phrase I could snap my fingers to make unutterable forevermore, it would be “why don’t you just …?”1

Someone is talking about a problem, or an achievement, or an idea, and the inevitable dismissive smartass pipes up and asks “Why don’t you just (move to a different apartment / adopt / rewrite it in Rust / eat more vegetables / mount your FTP account locally with curlftpfs, and then use SVN on the mounted filesystem)?”

“Why don’t you just?” is so second nature in my old field, physics, that XKCD made a comic about it: “So why does your field need a whole journal, anyway?”

“Why don’t you just?” means “I’ve thought about what you said for five seconds and I’m so smart that I really believe what I came up with in those five seconds is more valuable than whatever YOU thought of.”

“Why don’t you just?” means “I don’t trust you to do your own thinking.”

Sometimes “Why don’t you just?” even means “let me show you how smart I am by asking you why you didn’t just do something that I know won’t even work, and make YOU explain it to test if you’re as smart as me.”

The only possible answer to “Why don’t you just?” should be “If I could just, then I would just.”

…most of the time.

The tricky part is that sometimes, “Why don’t you just?” is the right question to ask, with the wrong wording. When you’re guiding people who are inexperienced at something, sometimes they do miss the obvious, easy solution. Or even experienced people miss it sometimes.

In those cases, how do you help them out without insulting their intelligence? Because “Why don’t you just?” is all about “me smart, you dumb”. The key is to put aside your ego and accept that this time, you may not get a chance to show that you are smart. First of all, check whether it is really the right time and place to give criticism! It might not be. If it is, then it’s a great rule of thumb to assume that they already tried the obvious thing you are about to suggest. That way, if they didn’t think of it themselves, they feel flattered and can save face. And if they did think of it or try it already, then you allow them to shine by explaining their thought process. Try something like “The way that I might have solved that problem is X. Would that also work in your situation?” Or “Stop me if you tried this already, but the way I’d have tackled it would be X.”

So, why don’t you just stop saying “why don’t you just?”

[1] Well, actually, I’d probably pick well, actually

The Parable of the Code Review

Last week’s events, with Linus Torvalds pledging to stop behaving like an asshole, instituting a code of conduct in Linux kernel development, and all but running off to join a monastery, have made a lot of waves. The last bastion of meritocracy has fallen! Linus, the man with five middle fingers on each hand, was going to save free software from ruin by tellin’ it like it is to all those writers of bad patches. Now he has gone over to the Dark Side, etc., etc.

There is one thing that struck me when reading the arguments last week, that I never realized before (as I guess I tend to avoid reading this type of material): the folks who argue against, are convinced that the inevitable end result of respectful behaviour is a weakening of technical skill in free software. I’ve read from many sources last week the “meritocracy or bust” argument that meritocracy means three things: the acceptance of patches on no other grounds than technical excellence, the promotion of no other than technically excellent people to maintainer positions within projects, and finally the freedom to disrespect people who are not technically excellent. As I understand these people’s arguments, the meritocracy system works, so removing any of these three pillars is therefore bound to produce worse results than meritocracy. Some go so far as to say that treating people respectfully, would mean taking technically excellent maintainers and replacing them with less proficient people chosen for how nice1 they are.

I never considered the motivations that way; maybe I didn’t give much thought to why on earth someone would argue in favour of behaving like an asshole. But it reminded me of a culture shift that happened a number of years ago, and that’s what this post is about.

Back in the bad old days…

It used to be that we didn’t have any code review in the free software world.

Well, of course we have always had code review; you would post patches to something like Bugzilla or a mailing list and the maintainer would review them and commit them, ask for a revision, or reject them (or, if the maintainer was Linus Torvalds, reject them and tell you to kill yourself.)

But maintainers just wrote patches and committed them, and didn’t have to review them! They were maintainers because we trusted them absolutely to write bug-free code, right?2 Sure, it may be that maintainers committed patches with mistakes sometimes, but those could hardly have been avoided. If you made avoidable mistakes in your patches, you didn’t get to be a maintainer, or if you did somehow get to be a maintainer then you were a bad one and you would probably run your project into the ground.

Somewhere along the line we got this idea that every patch should be reviewed, even if it was written by a maintainer. The reason is not because we want to enable maintainers who make mistakes all the time! Rather, because we recognize that even the most excellent maintainers do make mistakes, it’s just part of being human. And even if your patch doesn’t have a mistake, another pair of eyes can sometimes help you take it to the next level of elegance.

Some people complained: it’s bureaucratic! it’s for Agile weenies! really excellent developers will not tolerate it and will leave! etc. Some even still believe this. But even our tools have evolved over time to expect code review — you could argue that the foundational premise of the GitHub UI is code review! — and the perspective has shifted in our community so that code review is now a best practice, and what do you know, our code has gotten better, not worse. Maintainers who can’t handle having their code reviewed by others are rare these days.

By the way, it may not seem like such a big deal now that it’s been around for a while, but code review can be really threatening if you aren’t used to it. It’s not easy to watch your work be critiqued, and it brings out a fight-or-flight response in the best of us, until it becomes part of our routine. Even Albert Einstein famously wrote scornfully to a journal editor after a reviewer had pointed out a mistake in his paper, that he had sent the manuscript for publication, not for review.

And now imagine a future where we could say…

It used to be that we treated each other like crap in the free software world.

Well, of course we didn’t always treat each other like crap; you would submit patches and sometimes they would be gratefully accepted, but other times Linus Torvalds would tell you to kill yourself.

But maintainers did it all in the name of technical excellence! They were maintainers because we trusted them absolutely to be objective, right? Sure, it may be that patches by people who didn’t fit the “programmer” stereotype were flamed more often, and it may be that people got sick of the disrespect and left free software entirely, but the maintainers were purely objectively looking at technical excellence. If you weren’t purely objective, you didn’t get to be a maintainer, or if you somehow did get to be a maintainer then you were a bad one and you would probably run your project into the ground.

Somewhere along the line we got this idea that contributors should be treated with respect and not driven away from projects, even if the maintainer didn’t agree with their patches. The reason is not because we want to force maintainers to be less objective about technical excellence! Rather, because we recognize that even the most objective maintainers do suffer from biases, it’s just part of being human. And even if someone’s patch is objectively bad, treating them nonetheless with respect can help ensure they will stick around, contribute their perspectives which may be different from yours, and rise to a maintainer’s level of competence in the future.

Some people complained: it’s dishonest! it’s for politically correct weenies! really excellent developers will not tolerate it and will leave! etc. Some even still believe this. But the perspective has shifted in our community so that respect is now a best practice, and what do you know, our code (and our communities) have gotten better, not worse. Maintainers who can’t handle treating people respectfully are rare these days.

By the way, it may not seem like such a big deal now that it’s been around for a while, but confronting and acknowledging your own biases can be really threatening if you aren’t used to it… I think by now you get the idea.

Conclusion, and a note for the choir

I generally try not to preach to the choir anymore, and leave that instead to others. So if you are in the choir, you are not the audience for this post. I’m hoping, possibly vainly, that this actually might convince someone to think differently about meritocracy, and consider this a bug report.

But here’s a small note for us in the choir: I believe we are not doing ourselves any favours by framing respectful behaviour as the opposite of meritocracy, and I think that’s part of why the pro-disrespect camp have such a strong reaction against it. I understand why the jargon developed that way: those driven away by the current, flawed, implementation of meritocracy are understandably sick of hearing about how meritocracy works so well, and the term itself has become a bit poisoned.

If anything, we are simply trying to fix a bug in meritocracy3, so that we get an environment where we really do get the code written by the most technically excellent people, including those who in the current system get driven away by abusive language and behaviour.

[1] To be clear, I strive to be both nice and technically excellent, and the number of times I’ve been forced to make a tradeoff between those two things is literally zero. But that’s really the whole point of this essay

[2] A remnant of these bad old days of absolute trust in maintainers, that still persists in GNOME to this day, is that committer privileges are for the whole GNOME project. I can literally commit anything I like, to any repository in, even repositories that I have no idea what they do, or are written in a programming language that I don’t know!

[3] A point made eloquently by Matthew Garrett several years ago

Healthy Code

I work on a team of software developers that maintains several large codebases — too much code for any one person to easily know what’s going on in every part of it at any particular time. I found myself thinking a lot about how to keep the code healthy and a while ago I set my thoughts down as a list of good practices. Thanks to my coworkers at Endless for input, editing, and debate.

The good practices in this post differ slightly from the ones we adopted at work, which reflect the opinions of the whole team; these are worded to reflect my personal opinions.


I don’t like rules without a rationale. I believe these six assumptions underlie the rules that I set out below. That is, if you don’t agree with these assumptions then you probably won’t agree with the rules… ☺︎

  1. We can never know that our own code is correct.
  2. Left unchecked, we will believe our own code to be correct.
  3. Even small mistakes can lead to catastrophic data loss.
  4. Non-trivial programs have interconnections too complex to keep entirely in one person’s mind.
  5. Modifying non-trivial programs will break code unrelated to the modifications.
  6. The business value of maintainable code is only visible to developers.

Good practices for code health

Use your judgement

As always, rules apply only in the absence of any overriding reason to ignore them. Breaking them should be in mutual agreement between the writer of the code and the reviewer. (This system only works if everyone agrees about what the rules are in the first place, though.)

Example reason to break this rule: If no agreement can be reached, then the default is to follow the coding standards.

Review code

Code gets reviewed by a developer who didn’t write any part of it, because of assumptions #1, #2, and #3 — and to spread familiarity with different parts of the codebase throughout the team. Develop with ease of reading in mind, as if you are writing a letter to an unfamiliar code reviewer. Review code skeptically and with full attention, as if it came from a malicious agent out to erase your hard drive.

Example reason to break this rule: You are committing a trivial fix for a broken build and your continuous integration system acts as the code reviewer.

Observe the style

Code follows the coding style. Coding style is important because when code looks the same it’s quicker to read and errors jump out more easily. Apply automated tools when possible to save the code reviewer from becoming a parenthesis counter.

Example reason to break this rule: The code reviewer agrees with you that deviating from the style is more readable.

Test your code

Code needs automated tests. The rationale for this is assumptions #2 and #5, but could be the subject of an entire blog post itself. Lack of tests can be by itself a reason to fail code review, or at least start a dialogue between developer and reviewer about why tests are not necessary in this particular case.

Example reasons to break this rule: A one-off script. A component that proxies an external resource which can’t easily be mocked out.

Refactor on write

You will always have to deal with legacy code (code on which development has ceased but still must be maintained) and rushed code (code which you were forced by circumstances to check in that didn’t quite work well, works but is difficult to maintain, or is not tested.) By assumption #6, you will probably never set aside time to refactor code for its own sake. Therefore, refactor bit by bit to leave the code in a slightly better state each time it’s touched. In this way, code receives refactoring attention roughly proportional to the benefit you receive from refactoring it. If at all possible, add new code with a unit test even if the rest of the code is not written in a testable way.

Example reasons to break this rule: The code is already in good shape. The feature is critical and cannot be delayed. You are contributing your code to an open source project, in which case it is better to work with the upstream community to refactor.

Refactor only on write

Make your diffs per commit no larger than they have to be, in order to make code review easier. Since diffs go line-by-line, do not fix style errors in lines that that are not already being touched in the same commit. Use separate commits if there is an opportunity to make other style fixes.

Example reason to break this rule: If it makes more sense to fix lines other than the ones being edited in one shot (e.g. large sections with wrong indentation), do so throughout the whole file in a separate commit.

Pay down technical debt

Sometimes it’s not possible to build a feature without doing a large refactor first. Determine this as early as possible and include it in the time estimate for the feature. Do not shy away from paying down this debt; it will only compound if you borrow more on top of it. However, keep the changes incremental, and the functionality unimpeded while making these changes.

Example reason to break this rule: Extreme time constraints force you to take out a second mortgage on the code (even then, do this only with a healthy dose of disgust.)

Discretization is the better part of valorization

V is for Valorization. What’s that? A buzzword coined by the Dutch government that signifies how all scientific research should make money, and lots of it, sooner rather than later. It’s certainly not an English word, as evidenced by the quizzical looks on the faces of physicists who haven’t been working in the Netherlands lately, when some official government delegate gets to make a speech at a Dutch physics conference and says, beaming into the audience, “We are ferry heppy to see so much fellorizable research going on here!”

(UPDATE: Merlijn van Deen reports that valorisation is, in fact, a borrowing from French, where it is used in the same context of scientific research as in Dutch. In English, according to Wikipedia, it is used only as a translation of the German Verwertung, a technical term coined by Marx in Das Kapital meaning to add surplus value to capital by human action.)

I don’t fit the popular caricature of a scientist who thinks all research should be pure and untouched by worldly concerns. On the contrary, I have a Master’s degree in applied physics. One of my current projects is to build a new kind of wavefront sensor that works on a different principle than the commercially available ones. I’m firmly of the opinion that the original reason for this ‘valorization’ policy is quite sound: to get academia and industry interested enough in each other so that academia’s more marketable efforts get passed on to industry instead of dying the death of obscurity in a professor’s filing cabinet, and industry knocks on academia’s door when they have an interesting problem to solve with a longer time-to-market.

But it’s been blown all out of proportion now. The government has declared some research more valuable than other research: fields like high tech systems and energie (energy) are now designated topsectoren (top sectors,) research to which funds should be diverted at the expense of all other research. They are headed by topteams (top teams) each including a captain of science and captain of industry, which draw up innovatiecontracten (innovation contracts) that are required to hit each vertex of the gouden driehoek (golden triangle) of kennis, kunde, kassa (knowledge, expertise, and cash.) It will be successful in making the Netherlands #1 worldwide in the use of buzzwords, which I’ve italicized and translated (only where necessary, since half of them are in English anyway to make them sound more important.) If you read the actual documents, you get the feeling that the government is telling the big companies, “Hey! Want some cheap contract research? We’ve given those scientists free rein for too long and it’s time they worked for you to redeem themselves!”

The thing that spurred me out of lethargy was this, the Sell Your Science contest. You have to make a 90-second video about your research and the winner gets the title “Best Science Communicator of the Netherlands.” Sounds great. But it turns out that you literally have to sell your research: in the description, they treat ‘the audience’ and ‘investors’ as one and the same! I’m sorry, but science communication and sales pitches are two different things. Nothing wrong with a sales pitch contest, but at least call it by its rightful name!

Science crosses borders that politics doesn’t, so it may not have even occurred to their bureaucrat brains that they’re shutting out a large share of the scientists in the Netherlands, who are not Dutch and might not speak it well enough to read the rules of the contest which aren’t in English.

And this part really makes my blood boil (translation mine):

Nowadays, it’s not enough just to write scientific articles and to talk to people in your own field. A broader, open attitude towards society is expected, and valorization sections are required in NWO grant applications. The modern scientist will have to communicate differently and more widely in order to propagate their research.

I explain exactly why this makes my blood boil in the letter that I sent them on May 10. My own English translation is reproduced below. It’s been two weeks and I’ve received no reply. So I’m sharing it:

Dear Sir or Madam, (cc: editorial office of the Leiden University employee newsletter)

I read about the ‘Sell Your Science’ contest in Leiden University’s employee newsletter, and from there I clicked over to the website My astonishment was boundless when I read there that this contest is failing to distinguish between the two entirely disparate concepts of ‘science communication’ and ‘science valorization.’ I would like to take a moment of your time to explain why I think this is wrong.

Science communication is, as you say, presenting research to a broad audience in a clear and understandable way. But is that the same as ‘valorization’? Only if one assumes that the broad audience is exclusively interested in marketable research. That is a dangerous fallacy.

The passion that drives a researcher to be good at science communication usually doesn’t spring from the commercialization of research. It’s likely that someone who’s motivated by commercialization won’t choose a career in research. These days, there are those who would rather deny that, but it’s a fact. The description of Sell Your Science, in which scientists are portrayed as hermits, only speaking to their fellow scientists and avoiding contact with society, and in which you say that the ‘modern’ scientist has to start doing things differently, feels like a slap in the face of my profession. There are countless scientists, both in the past and in modern times, who may not necessarily be oriented towards industry, but do stand 100% squarely in society. These people are marginalized by the tendentious introduction on the website. ‘Hermits’ may exist, it’s true, but they are a small minority.

Anyone that I’ve ever encountered who’s been good at communicating science, was able to captivate their audience using their dedication and passion, no matter what the economic value of the research was. Good science communication makes sure the audience has learned something by the time they leave. Good science communication fans the sparks of curiosity in the audience, so that someone, the day after or the day after that, might just hit upon the idea to ask “How does that work, anyway?” A scientist who can captivate an audience (apparently, a hostile one at that) with ‘unmarketable’ science and at the same time, manages to convey its importance despite its unmarketability, is a much better candidate for the title of “Best Science Communicator of the Netherlands” than someone who can sell ‘marketable’ science to investors. That’s the difference between ‘science communication’ and ‘science valorization.’

Philip Chimento
PhD student, physics
Leiden University

Writing letters seems to have had an actual effect — read Part II.

Rain in the Desert, Part II

Recently I wrote about my experience with microblogging at a physics conference. I was gratified to find out that people actually read and enjoyed it, and it might even have had an effect on next year’s conference. Roy Meijer was kind enough to send me some tips on how to use social media at scientific conferences. I’ve said what I wanted to say about the experience, but I want to discuss my further thoughts about two inappropriately sexist messages that showed up on the big Twitter screens at the conference.

A conference-goer who made one of the sexist comments wrote a comment on this blog, anonymously, objecting to me calling him a socially retarded asshole in my essay. Let it be absolutely clear that I don’t take kindly to people who create an unwelcoming or unpleasant environment for women in physics. But it made me think anyway: he seemed genuinely convinced that women enjoy this kind of attention, and indeed, one shouldn’t ascribe others’ objectionable behavior to malice when it could be just cluelessness. So maybe I should just have said socially retarded.

But no matter whether it’s malice or cluelessness, I know that physicists can do better. Not just can, but have to. Sexist attitudes just don’t belong in the world today, and most other professions have gotten with the program. But physicists apparently still live in 1972. Here are some examples of what women in physics have to put up with:

  • A few years ago a professor at our Institute gave a really horrifying speech at the Christmas party, in which he thanked the secretaries for being our mothers who took care of us, and the technicians for being our fathers who brought us toys to play with. As if that piece of gender stereotyping weren’t enough of a train wreck by itself, he had actually started out his speech by telling an off-color story that involved mistresses, then said he’d heard that story from a Jewish colleague and that it was typical Jewish humor. (Although this post is about sexism, not racial stereotypes, and I can only be outraged about one thing at a time if I want to keep my message on track.)
  • Another professor at our Institute told grad students that to be a successful physicist, you have to have a supportive family, so his wife stayed home and took care of the children. Yes, there were female grad students in the audience. Perhaps there were gay grad students too.
  • At a conference I was at, a professor put a slide of a bikini model into his talk. He had photoshopped her head to be the professor organizing the conference (who is a woman).
  • If you go to the poster session at a physics conference, you’ll always see a crowd of nerds clustered around a few posters. At the center of each cluster is a female physicist presenting her poster. If I put myself in her place, I figure the attention to one’s research is gratifying — as a male physicist, I always have to work really hard to get anyone to even stop and take a look at my poster — but on the other hand, as a male physicist, I never have to worry about whether the attention comes from sincere interest in one’s research, or ulterior motives.

[Man writes incorrect equation on chalkboard] ONLOOKER: Wow, you suck at math. [Woman writes incorrect equation on chalkboard] ONLOOKER: Wow, girls suck at math.

Dear readers, I respect you, really I do. I know everybody on the whole internet links to this XKCD cartoon and you've seen it fifty thousand times already. But there's just no possible way to illustrate sexism in science more accurately and simply than Randall Munroe does.

So the question is what in particular is wrong with these comments I objected to. The Geek Feminism Wiki’s page on technical conferences has a list of problems with which women are often confronted. My experience is that FOM does a good job at making sure that most of these problems don’t occur at the Veldhoven conference. (Although my personal experience doesn’t really count, does it, since I’m lucky enough not to have to face these challenges.)

However, our conference-goer who made the inappropriate comment on the public screen, in my opinion, has made the mistake of falling into the “You should be flattered” trap: the misguided belief that since he was actually making a compliment, it should be OK. I quote (and slightly paraphrase) from that link on why this belief is wrong:

  • “It attempts to dictate women’s emotional responses to such comments, in particular perpetrating the idea that women are socially obliged to be pleasant and accommodating;
  • “It places the blame on women for responding negatively to attention which is wholly inappropriate in [a professional context];
  • “It reminds women that they are subject to men’s approval […];
  • “It reminds women who aren’t the object of the comment that they are also subject to men’s approval;
  • “It ignores the fact that many women have had negative experiences with sexual attention, such as immediate or eventual criticism or violence, and therefore do not view it with unmixed (or any) pleasure;
  • “It makes non-straight women feel particularly marginalised;
  • “Focusing on women’s appearance contributes to feelings of exceptionalism and conveys the judgment that a woman’s [physics] expertise is less valuable than her attractiveness.”

In my mind, there’s still an unsolved question. Does the conference organizer have a responsibility towards the conference-goers to prevent this stuff from happening or mitigate it when it does? On the one hand, you have to assume that people will comport themselves decently in public, and you can’t prevent every possible turd that people might drop in the punchbowl. On the other hand, allowing someone to create a poisonous environment for a minority lasts much longer than the conference does.

Addendum 1: I debated with myself whether to name-and-shame the professors in the examples above. They certainly deserve it, but I’m not sure it would serve any purpose other than spite. The time for denouncing the first and third incidents was right after they happened, and I will always regret that I said nothing in both cases. I wasn’t present at the second incident myself; I only heard about it from people who were there.

Addendum 2: Please realize that I’m not trying to flog a dead horse by chastising someone for an inappropriate comment at a conference that has been over for two months now. I am writing this because I think that the problem is an important one and I think that we have a responsibility to educate our colleagues so that physics can move out of the social Dark Ages, and women will actually feel welcome in our field, and nobody will argue about affirmative action policies, because we won’t need them.

Rain in the Desert

My employer, FOM, held their yearly national physics conference again in the town of Veldhoven. It’s always a good opportunity to catch up with people and learn about whatever’s been going on recently in Dutch physics research.

This year, the chairman of the executive board, Niek Lopes Cardozo, opened the conference with a short speech. To my astonishment, he concluded by urging the conference attendees to use Twitter during the conference! This was underscored by two giant projected video screens out in the main hall, scrolling messages from the #FOMveldhoven stream.

How does one set about the task of tweeting about a physics conference? I’m all for getting physicists, who are among the most conservative of scientists, to use exciting new technologies, but in this case I was skeptical. It sounded to me like the proverbial Underpants Gnomes’ half-baked business plan:

  1. Use Twitter.
  2. ???
  3. Profit!

…coming the way it did, with little more explanation than “Tweet for Science!” Possibly there was some metaphorical idolatry involved too, as if a consultant had advised FOM that they needed to “leverage the power of social media” and then leaned back in expectation of managers bowing down before him.

I have the unfortunate habit that when I see somebody’s golden calf, I have to poke at it until it falls over. So I decided to plunge wholeheartedly into it, skeptically but with an open mind.

This was new ground for me. I did already have a Twitter account, although I barely post more than once a month. I use it mostly to read other people’s messages. I thought this would be a nice experiment to try and see what ways I could come up with to put it to actual useful use at a conference.

Unfortunately, the results were underwhelming. It was a lot of inane chatter that in my opinion was a waste of time to read and participate in. Neither can I say that my own messages were very scientifically newsworthy — and it follows from symmetry that if I didn’t think other people’s tweets were interesting then they probably didn’t think mine were.

Here’s what kinds of things went on:

  • The usual let-off-steam tweets about trains being late.
  • Lots of chatter in Dutch from FOM. Of course people are free to tweet in whatever language they like, but projecting tweets on a big screen at an international conference in a language that less than half of the attendees speak is not going to make them disposed to participate.
  • Tweets about Twitter itself: can we get #FOMveldhoven to trend, who’ll be the most active Twitterer at the conference, etc. Meta-conversation is the refuge for people who really don’t have anything to say.
  • Tweets about lunch.
  • People exclaiming which talk they were going to, or at, or had just visited. This was the first reasonably useful Twitter phenomenon at the conference. There were not really any people advertising their own talks, but I found out why that was when I went to give my own talk: I was too busy setting up my laptop and concentrating to get out my phone and type a message, and it would have been disruptive to the person who went before me anyway.
  • Tweets about dinner.
  • People repeating the statistic of how many people there were at dinner including someone who didn’t get the chairman’s joke that it was a “world record in Veldhoven” (one-horse town where the conference is held) and tweeted that it was a real world record.
  • Tweets about how fascinating the after-dinner talk was. I thought the talk was fascinating too. So much so, that I paid attention to the speaker while he was speaking. When I got out my phone afterwards, I was half-amused and half-shocked to see how many people had publicly claimed they were listening raptly on a medium that made it impossible for that to be true. (You’d think this was the nadir, but it wasn’t. Read on.)
  • A snide political remark from me about the junior minister of Education which I later thought better of and deleted. Not my proudest moment.
  • Drunk tweets from people in the nerd disco.
  • The absolute nadir: “Rain in the desert! I saw a beautiful girl at #FOMveldhoven” (later deleted) and “Is this being moderated? Beer and boobs #FOMveldhoven” Congratulations assholes, you’ve just undone more progress for women in physics than any “20% female professors by 2020” policy can do. And seriously, only a physicist could be so socially retarded that, instead of telling a woman she’s beautiful, he manages to tell hundreds of others they’re ugly.

I’m convinced that the lack of useful content is because nobody really knew how to put Twitter to work at a physics conference. For example, it didn’t occur to me to post the slides from my talk online until the day after it was over — but I was surprised that I was the only one who posted any slides at all! Twitter is a powerful tool, but it won’t work for you if you don’t know how to use it, and I don’t know how to use it. Apparently hardly anyone else did at this conference either.

Accordingly, following along with the conference on Twitter would have been nice if it hadn’t been shoved into our faces quite so much. Exhorting the attendees in the opening speech and projecting the tweets on a big screen makes people feel expected to join in. Feeling expected to follow along with it makes it all the more annoying when it turns out to be a waste of time. It should have been optional.

I’d like to amend what I tweeted near the beginning of the conference. I said, “Twitter isn’t magical. Tweeting random crap from a conference doesn’t automatically make it nifty.” Twitter can actually make magical things happen, but like most magical things in this world, you can’t just wave a wad of cash around and say “I’ma get me some of that.”

Are there no workhouses?

Prinsjesdag (“little princes’ day”) is the traditional opening of the Dutch parliament on the third Tuesday in September. All the women in attendance wear ridiculous hats, and the country’s new operating budget is presented. (It is a closely-guarded secret until then, but someone always manages to leak it to the papers.)

"het meisje met de hoed" by Gerard Stolk 64 on Flickr

This is not actually a hat from Prinsjesdag. It is a hat-like animal that has gained sentience and is eating a human.

One thing that the casual observer might not realize these events influence is the coverage of health insurance plans.

Health insurance in the Netherlands works like this: every insurer offers a standard policy, called the “basic package.” Almost everything about it is controlled by the government: most notably, what care it is supposed to cover, and what the deductible is. The government gets to dictate this, because in this country you are legally required to have health insurance, and so by specifying the what the basic package covers, the government ensures that every resident not only has health insurance, but also that the most important care is all covered. Health insurers also receive a government subsidy to help them keep the premiums low for the basic package.

Insurers are free to charge whatever premium they want for the basic package, but (with a few exceptions) they are not allowed to change what it covers. Instead, they sell an “auxiliary package” that covers health care and dental care not in the basic package. Most people who can afford one do so, since the coverage of the basic package is — well, pretty basic. Every insurer offers a different auxiliary package; most of them have more than one, for example one for students, one for families with children, one for seniors, etc. (I’ve gotten annoyed every year that I can’t find an insurance company whose auxiliary package won’t cover alternative medicine, but that’s a different story.)

The day after Prinsjesdag, my insurance company sent out an e-mail to their clients with a link to a webpage explaining what the government announced would change in the basic package in 2012. (Which is excellent customer service if you ask me. But don’t think I’m plugging my health insurer — they do other stuff I’m annoyed about.)

The most concerning changes were in the area of psychiatric care. In the past, they already distinguished between first-line and second-line care; first-line care is provided by GPs and mental health professionals such as psychologists, whereas second-line care is for those with serious mental illnesses. (I hope I got these definitions right; I’m not an expert.) Starting in 2012, the number of first-line therapy sessions covered by the basic package will decrease, and the co-payment will increase. There was previously no co-payment for second-line psychiatric care, but there will be one from now on.

These reductions of coverage and increased co-payments are supplemented by various small changes that seem designed to add insult to injury. Here’s one example from the above-linked list (translation mine):

If a patient doesn’t show up to an appointment in second-line psychiatric care, and doesn’t cancel the appointment in a timely fashion, then the insurance won’t cover the appointment starting in 2012.

I think it’s perfectly reasonable that if I’m delusional, and have shut myself in my attic where I can’t turn my back on the Tupperware in which I’ve cataloged my last five turds because otherwise the aliens will secretly alter them, then the very least that can be expected of me is that I will cancel all my appointments and clear my calendar. Suffering from a serious mental illness is no excuse for a lack of common decency.

This sort of thing is exactly what I was afraid of when Health minister Edith Schippers discussed these planned changes in a press conference in June 2011 (translation mine):

“If people have problems that are just part of life, why shouldn’t they have to figure them out in their own social circles, and why shouldn’t you only be able to call upon health care if you’re really sick?”

"Sigmund Freud" by Sebasian Niedlich (Grabthar) on Flickr

Just lie back and tell me all about your made-up problems.

That’s right. All those freeloaders who sit and sob on their therapists’ comfy couches every week on the taxpayers’ dime need to get a hold of themselves.

Except she wasn’t talking about just any old freeloaders. She was talking about patients in first-line psychiatric care. In other words, if you’ve got post-traumatic stress disorder, postpartum depression, chronic depression, bipolar disorder, or some other mood or anxiety disorder that can commonly occur in otherwise healthy people: you’re not sick. It’s part of life. Just have a good chat with your friends and pull yourself together. Suck it up!

Too bad that people with anxiety disorders or mood disorders often already think that they’re not sick — their state of mind is normal. Too bad that their disorders often alienate those self-same “social circles” who are supposed to help them “figure it out.” Too bad that often the only thing those “social circles” can or know how to do, is to convince the person to go to a therapist, which the Health Minister has of course just de-legitimized.

And that’s what infuriates me. It’s not the cuts in public spending, which we all have to suffer through in these times, it’s the shameless glee with which this administration denigrates those who can’t defend themselves. It’s the willful ignorance that leads a Health minister to say that psychiatric patients aren’t really sick, or a junior minister for Culture to be proud of not knowing anything about art. It’s not enough to slash budgets and cut subsidies, no, everyone has to believe the disappearing government expenditures were never deserved in the first place. Psychiatric patients, artists, scientists, and other practitioners of “left-wing hobbies” (a term often bandied about by the far-right Freedom Party) need to be ashamed of themselves for wasting so many public resources for so many years.

Perhaps the most telling is that measures for quitting smoking will be removed from the basic health insurance package. Never mind that this is false economizing, since we will be paying for all those cases of lung cancer down the road. The underlying message is clear:

Delft blue tile: "If you can't be a contributing member of society, then for God's sake just DIE"I would like to thank Madelon Verheij and Jeroen Latour for answering my questions about insurance technicalities, after my impassioned cry for help on Facebook.

Revelations about the Rapture

My good friend Diederik Jekel, who has actually been the subject of a post in this space recently, approached me with the idea of doing a guest post. I often enjoy Diederik’s opinions on separating good science from bad science and we have had many stimulating discussions on the subject in the past. Since Diederik is looking to be an actual science writer (as opposed to an armchair dilettante like myself) I am honored to host this essay, or “rant” as he calls it.

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The past day I have stumbled a few times upon an article by Elizabeth Young. A few times because it has been published at multiple sites, a few of which have continuously tried to open pop-ups telling me I was a winner of a grand prize. Putting this all aside, I was intrigued by this article because it was combining the words ‘rapture’ and the ‘Large Hadron Collider’. Two things which I am very interested in. The article speaks of mass torture being inflicted on Mother Earth by doing experiments inside the LHC. A true genocide performed on innocent atoms and protons who are obviously neglected by the Geneva Convention. The international human rights Magna Carta is invoked and the question is posed, if these rights are applicable to us humans, why does it not apply to Mother Earth?

Now my intonation might come across as cynical but I am truly not here to bash the article as perhaps a non-believer of the Gaia theory. I find it is very productive and useful in a discussion or policy to perceive the earth and her constituents as a living organism which must be cared for and nurtured. Even if it is done so as a selfish act whose only goal is to keep our species alive. So, addressing ethical dilemmas, which are often overlooked in the pursuit of scientific discovery, is something which can only be encouraged and applauded.

That being said, a few things about the article annoyed me, so much even that I found it necessary to say something on behalf of the physicists who are, according to this article, for all intents and purposes, callous, sociopathic monsters. This discussion is difficult though, because of the religious undertone in the article. It does not make sense to throw just scientific arguments against it. In the end you either believe in Gaia or you don’t. You believe in God or you don’t, and many scientists do actually. The scientific vs. religious debate is one which is often fought wrongly, because both sides have their own set of rules and try to convince the other side with their own set. It is like a Brit trying to convince a Dutch person it is dangerous to drive on the right side of the road. It might be perfectly valid in the construct of the British rules, but the Dutch guy will have serious trepidations about following his advice. So you can only debate with the Dutch guy if you use the Dutch traffic codes as arguments.

Crashing and smashing

Which brings me to the first point. In the article a graphic description is given of how atoms and protons collide in a fashion which would not be very pleasant to us humans. We would not like to be crashed into one another at nearly the speed of light. Why are we scientists then so arrogant in assuming this is OK for particles? I was always taught in religion classes in school that the Lord works in mysterious ways and that it is very presumptuous to assume that you know God’s plan.

Two things I know for a fact. One is that the earth is constantly bombarded by particles which have billions of times more energy than the ones we can create inside the LHC. These particles are generated in supernova explosions, rotating black holes and colliding galaxies. Processes which are incredibly more violent than we can possibly create here on earth. Nature seems to be fine with this, because she has been doing this for eons.

Another fact is that Brookhaven National Laboratory has claimed to have created the same kind of soup which the LHC wants to create. This new phase of matter is called quark-gluon plasma and like the three phases of water (ice, liquid and vapor) it is just another phase of matter. When you heat ice, it becomes water. When you heat water, it becomes a gas and if you were to heat lead atoms to trillions of degrees, it should become a quark-gluon plasma. So this has been done before and it shows that with extreme pressure and extreme temperatures, you get this weird state of matter.

To the best of physicists’ knowledge, there was something called a big bang, and only a fraction after the point of creation the universe was extremely dense and extremely hot. Gradually the universe expanded, which cooled everything and made it less dense. Precisely as predicted, this state will come about when you heat matter to enormous temperatures and this is what happens inside the LHC. It is, pun intended, a giant space heater. A nice hint towards the correctness of the big bang theory.

So if Nature is doing the same thing on her own on a massive scale, and that by just increasing pressure and temperature we find this incredibly beautiful substance called quark-gluon plasma, who are we to say: “This is something Nature finds unpleasant.”

All particles and forces around us were born inside this soup of quarks and gluons. Everything we see around us today, from a beautiful sunset, to this rant from a physicist, to all my wonderful friends, have originated from this ooze. This is our genesis and this is what physicists are trying to understand. Elizabeth Young quotes the Bible a lot as a justification for her side of the story. But in doing so she is trying to prevent us from understanding the origin of everything in our own scientific, empirical, and experimentally verified way.

So she claims to know all about God and Mother Earth and denies me my right to understand where we are coming from. What makes her such an expert? This is difficult to find out, because all information about the author (except her name) is about her husband. Do not get me wrong, her husband seems like a sensible, heroic and wonderful human being, but I have absolutely no credentials of the author herself. Oh, this is not entirely true, she is a Hollywood screenwriter. Besides that she will not tell the reader what makes her an expert.

Why do you care so much, you may wonder. Why are you whining about this? Fair and valid questions. The problem is that because she explains some things in scientific terms it seems that she knows what she is saying. If you throw big numbers and impressive terms at readers, they tend to see that person as an expert. Something which is common practice in pseudo-science. I am emphatically not claiming she is a pseudo-scientist here to dupe the masses. I am saying this to clear up why I am so annoyed by this article. People take it at face value because it is written nicely and has technical aspects to it, so as a reader why check it out further. How could you be critical of this, if you are not familiar with the subject?

Scientific details

A few scientific details I would like to clarify. The first argument she makes is the mass electrocution of the earth by the LHC. There are many more things happening daily on earth which cause a lot more electric energy than the LHC. I will come to that later and give an example. But first I must address something she keeps claiming:

Each time the LHC is fired, God, the Planet, Gaea, our Mother Earth is violently shocked with 3,500,000,000,000 volts of electricity.

I believe that she gets this number from the fact that particles are accelerated to an energy of 3.5 TeV or tera-electron volts. This is the quoted number up there. What physicists mean is the following: the particles inside the accelerator have the same amount of energy as an electron would have if we were to put it inside a potential difference (think battery) of 3,500,000,000,000 volts (think very large battery). This is a ridiculously large number. For if we were to make such a field, we would generate incredible lightning storms. Think of it this way, if you have a potential difference of 30,000 volts, you will get lightning of about 1 cm long. So having 60,000 volts gives you 2 cm long lightning and so on. This 3.5 TV gives you lightning of more than 1100 kilometers long! So this is to put the ridiculous number into context. Something else must be going on here.

Luckily we don’t have to accelerate particles with electric fields, we use big magnets. We only use this archaic measurement unit because it is convenient. You can even use lasers to accelerate particles, and that has even less to do with electricity. To make it even more strange, I can calculate how much electron volts worth of energy I have, when traveling inside my car at 80 km/h. It is a staggering 1.2 × 1023 eV, or to put it in context, 35 billion times more energy is in me traveling at that speed, than the LHC puts in its particles. The thing is I am also very much more heavy than a proton, so to put that amount of energy in one proton is very impressive. So not much zapping is going on because we do not use these electric fields.

Let us look at other sources which are electrocuting the earth. The earth’s entire magnetic field is created by extremely large electric currents flowing inside the earth’s core. Another electrocution source is lightning. Annually there are 16 million lightning storms, containing hundreds of bolts and each average bolt produces 500 megajoules of energy. 500 megajoules (a single bolt) in the weird electron volt unit gives 3 × 1027 electron volts!!! Which does not even have an official name because it is so big. It would be 3000 yotta-electron volts and is the equivalent of 857 trillion times the energy the LHC puts in her particles. And this is just one lightning bolt. So if the earth does not like electricity, it should stop making so much of it.

So much more energy is contained in lightning storms and in the earth’s core than the LHC can ever produce. And even so, the LHC does not generate this energy by using electricity, it does this by using magnets (which run on electricity, but this is not zapped straight into the earth.)

She goes on to use some other numbers, which are very questionable to say the least, but I don’t want to bore the reader with more he-said-she-said on math.


Then comes the part where she says the LHC is all pointless because:

Whatever the outcome, the LHC will not be the final word in physics experimentation.

I find this unbelievable. So if it is not perfect, we should not do it at all? I am very glad she did not live during the caveman era, where man was trying to invent fire and she would say, “Why bother? It tends to go out and I might burn myself.” I believe the first aeroplane flight lasted about 10 seconds?

The endnotes finally are questionable to say the least and many quotes are used out of context but what I find utterly annoying is that she posts a phone number of a scientist online which you must call after reading her story, asking him to stop the experiment. I wonder if I should post her number here, so people can call her to explain what they think of her story. It is a spam-inducing breach of privacy.

One final quote:

But let me tell you this. I have proof these scientists may be several wires short of a working plug. Before they began their descent into scientific instability, these people actually made a rap video.

So as an extra argument for not trusting the hundreds of scientists who have worked their (pardon my French) asses off, she refers to a humorous video a few employees have made in an effort to make a particle accelerator a bit more comprehensible. Many people are afraid of this device, because of people like Elizabeth Young, who instead of trying to understand, try to scare the hell out of normal citizens. Including friends and family of mine who are, understandably so, worried.

The rap video was a joke. If scientists cannot be trusted when they try to make their work fun and relatable, then we are about to create very boring and annoying physicists. Scientists cannot use media such as video and rap songs to relate a more informal message? Then I ask you, Hollywood screenwriter Elizabeth Young, do you really want to link credibility to popular culture? Especially if these people made the rap video while getting their PhD in physics?

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Diederik Jekel is a Dutch physicist and scientific journalist. He received his degree in solid state physics and graduated on a superconductivity experiment. He is very happy to give more details about himself if necessary, but only about himself and not about his relationship.

Train at my front door

Shopping downtown last Saturday I was accosted by someone handing out some sort of paper. Usually I avoid these people like a week-old sandwich, but before I could break eye contact and ignore her, she said the magic words “RijnGouweLijn.” I took one of the papers. It was a folded A3-size newsletter with some utterly forgettable but sharp-looking graphic design.

The RijnGouweLijn (English, Dutch), complete with asinine StudlyCaps, is a light rail system, not built yet, which is supposed to go from the city of Gouda, through Leiden, where I live, to the coast towns of Katwijk and Noordwijk. The part of the track I’m interested in was originally planned to go through Breestraat, where I live, down to Leiden Central Station, and stop at Leiden Bio Science Park, where I work, before continuing on to Katwijk. A train that picks me up at my front door, and lets me off again at work? Sign me up! I don’t even care that it won’t be completed until long after I’ve finished my PhD and will probably live and work somewhere else: I think it’s a good idea on its own, even without pandering to my laziness.

That’s because Breestraat is an utter mess. A large number of the bus routes in Leiden run over its entire length. Despite its name meaning “Broad Street,” it’s hardly wide enough for two buses to pass in opposite directions. Add to that supply trucks that serve the many shops located there, and after store hours it gets worse when cars are allowed in and start speeding through it. There’s only one(!) crosswalk with a traffic light, and nobody, not even pedestrians, pays any attention to it whatsoever. So buses are lining up and passing each other, cars are speeding, pedestrians are dashing across the road at arbitrary points, which means I pretty much take my life into my hands every time I ride my bicycle down the street. If they built train tracks there, they’d have to reroute the buses and hopefully reduce the number of them, since the light rail would now serve some of the bus passengers.

Alas, it was all a dream. The Leiden city government held a plebiscite in 2007 in which the populace voted against having the track pass through Leiden at all, but the county was overridden by the provincial government. To placate the citizens, who were understandably disgruntled at having their vote rejected out of hand, they agreed to reroute the proposed track so it didn’t pass through Breestraat anymore, nearly doubling the projected expense of the Leiden portion of the construction, from 50 million to 90 million euros. I can only imagine what a public relations nightmare this was for the city.

So who caused the most damage in this situation? The voters with their knee-jerk NIMBY reaction? The county government who abdicated their responsibility and decided to leave to voters the decision on the public transport improvements this city so desperately needs? The provincial government, who chickened out and agreed to spend 40 million extra when, as long as they were overriding the referendum anyway, they could have just done whatever the hell they wanted? I honestly don’t know.

All this happened before I even moved here. Why am I writing this now? That brings me back to the newsletter pressed into my eager paw last Saturday. I read it, but it’s a trite piece of gosh-don’t-y’all-think-we’re-just-the-absolute-greatest propaganda, paid for by the RijnGouweLijn Project Organization, a consortium of relevant parties. On the front page they even included a little dig at the referendum, with the sneering sentence “In Leiden, they’re also eager about [the plans], evidenced by the reactions from the Chamber of Commerce and Leiden Bio Science Park.” I may not think it was wise to vote against the plans, but it did occur to me (and you’d think it might occur to the copywriters) that this isn’t the best way to convince people to rally round the plans that are now being forced down their throats.

Of course this is going to be seized on in the upcoming city council elections. I’ve seen campaign posters for D66 (a social-liberal party advocating direct democracy) with the slogan “RGL — Didn’t you say no?” This takes things to a whole new level of irresponsibility, since as I understand it there isn’t anything the local government can do about it anymore. But then again, the Dutch government haven’t exactly distinguished themselves in responsible decisions this week, have they now?