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Can Software Make You Less Racist?

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I don't think we computer geeks appreciate how profoundly the rise of the smartphone, and Facebook, has changed the Internet audience. It's something that really only happened in the last five years, as smartphones and data plans dropped radically in price and became accessible – and addictive – to huge segments of the population.

People may have regularly used computers in 2007, sure, but that is a very different thing than having your computer in your pocket, 24/7, with you every step of every day, integrated into your life. As Jerry Seinfeld noted in 2014:

But I know you got your phone. Everybody here's got their phone. There's not one person here who doesn't have it. You better have it … you gotta have it. Because there is no safety, there is no comfort, there is no security for you in this life any more … unless when you're walking down the street you can feel a hard rectangle in your pants.

It's an addiction that is new to millions – but eerily familiar to us.

The good news is that, at this moment, every human being is far more connected to their fellow humans than any human has ever been in the entirety of recorded history.

Spoiler alert: that's also the bad news.

Nextdoor is a Facebook-alike focused on specific neighborhoods. The idea is that you and everyone else on your block would join, and you can privately discuss local events, block parties, and generally hang out like neighbors do. It's a good idea, and my wife started using it a fair amount in the last few years. We feel more connected to our neighbors through the service. But one unfortunate thing you'll find out when using Nextdoor is that your neighbors are probably a little bit racist.

I don't use Nextdoor myself, but I remember Betsy specifically complaining about the casual racism she saw there, and I've also seen it mentioned several times on Twitter by people I follow. They're not the only ones. It became so epidemic that Nextdoor got a reputation for being a racial profiling hub. Which is obviously not good.

Social networking historically trends young, with the early adopters. Facebook launched as a site for college students. But as those networks grow, they inevitably age. They begin to include older people. And those older people will, statistically speaking, be more racist. I apologize if this sounds ageist, but let me ask you something: do you consider your parents a little racist? I will personally admit that one of my parents is definitely someone I would label a little bit racist. It's … not awesome.

The older the person, the more likely they are to have these "old fashioned" notions that the mere presence of differently-colored people on your block is inherently suspicious, and marriage should probably be defined as between a man and a woman.

In one meta-analysis by Jeffrey Lax and Justin Phillips of Columbia University, a majority of 18–29 year old Americans in 38 states support same sex marriage while in only 6 states do less than 45% of 18–29 year olds support same-sex marriage. At the same time not a single state shows support for same-sex marriage greater than 35% amongst those 64 and older

The idea that regressive social opinions correlate with age isn't an opinion; it's a statistical fact.

Support for same-sex marriage in the U.S.

18 - 29 years old    65%
30 - 49 years old    54%
50 - 64 years old    45%
65+ years old        39%

Are there progressive septuagenarians? Sure there are. But not many.

To me, failure to support same-sex marriage is as inconceivable as failing to support interracial marriage. Which was not that long ago, to the tune of the late 60s and early 70s. If you want some truly hair-raising reading, try Loving v. Virginia on for size. Because Virginia is for lovers. Just not those kind of lovers, 49 years ago. In the interests of full disclosure, I am 45 years old, and I graduated from the University of Virginia.

With Nextdoor, you're more connected with your neighbors than ever before. But through that connection you may also find out some regressive things about your neighbors that you'd never have discovered in years of the traditional daily routine of polite waves, hellos from the driveway, and casual sidewalk conversations.

To their immense credit, rather than accepting this status quo, Nextdoor did what any self-respecting computer geek would do: they changed their software. Now, when you attempt to post about a crime or suspicious activity …

… you get smart, just in time nudges to think less about race, and more about behavior.

The results were striking:

Nextdoor claims this new multi-step system has, so far, reduced instances of racial profiling by 75%. It’s also decreased considerably the number of notes about crime and safety. During testing, the number of crime and safety issue reports abandoned before being published rose by 50%. “It’s a fairly significant dropoff,” said Tolia, “but we believe that, for Nextdoor, quality is more important than quantity.”

I'm a huge fan of designing software to help nudge people, at exactly the right time, to be their better selves. And this is a textbook example of doing it right.

Would using Nextdoor and encountering these dialogs make my aforementioned parent a little bit less racist? Probably not. But I like to think they would stop for at least a moment and consider the importance of focusing on the behavior that is problematic, rather than the individual person. This is a philosophy I promoted on Stack Overflow, I continue to promote with Discourse, and I reinforce daily with our three kids. You never, ever judge someone by what they look like. Look at what they do instead.

If you were getting excited about the prospect of validating Betteridge's Law yet again, I'm sorry to disappoint you. I truly do believe software, properly designed software, can not only help us be more civil to each other, but can also help people – maybe even people you love – behave a bit less like racists online.

[advertisement] At Stack Overflow, we help developers learn, share, and grow. Whether you’re looking for your next dream job or looking to build out your team, we've got your back.
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11 hours ago
Nextdoor is still pretty racist, though. I see stuff like, "black person wearing ____ and _____ parked on my street and walked away," at least once a week. And my neighborhood is fairly diverse.
3 hours ago
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2 public comments
4 hours ago
1. Just checked ND, and my neighbors are excellent about racial things, but man, they're unloading some ugly ass furniture.

2. Any chance we can roll out a version of this software to the police? They seem to need extra help in this area.
5 hours ago
They have a terrible reputation here for this kind of racist commentary. Maybe this will help…
Washington, DC

A Short Tale

3 Comments and 8 Shares

Yesterday, I linked to the story of police officer Jason Short, who attempted to rescue an inanimate doll. Since reading about it, I haven’t been able to get this sequence out of my mind.

He smashed the window with his baton to save the infant. The CPR, however, did not work. He checked for an obstructed airway and called for an ambulance.

“And I went to put my finger in its mouth and it was all resistance,” he said to WMUR-TV. “And I’m like, ‘This is a doll.’”

Picture Lieutenant Short, as he speeds into the Walmart parking lot in response to a 911 call. He’s responding to an anonymous tip of an infant in peril, suffering inside a hot vehicle. Though no one has stuck around at the scene, Short quickly spots the car in question as he circles the lot. He throws it into park, but even as he exits his cruiser, he’s boarding a rollercoaster of emotions. emotions

The officer’s adrenaline rockets up as he tries the door handle. It’s locked, of course, so he must resort to smashing the car’s window with his baton. Even with the loud crash, the baby is non-responsive. Once Short has the car door open, he follows his training. He cradles the child gently and attempts mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Alas, the CPR is terrifyingly ineffective, and he screams into his radio for an ambulance.

In desperation, Short attempts to poke his finger into the newborn’s mouth to clear whatever obstruction might be there. Suddenly, he realizes he’s holding a doll and feels like a complete and utter moron.

Now Short is standing dumbfounded, as the broken glass sprinkled on the ground glints in the sun. All gentleness is gone as he holds the “baby” by a single arm and jerks it up to his face for a closer inspection. His head swivels around, scanning the parking lot as he attempts to find someone with whom he can share a “Can you believe this shit?” look. And yet, there’s no one nearby, no one who has seen what just happened.

“Maybe I can just drive away,” Short thinks. “Otherwise, I’ll never hear the end of this back at headquarters.”

Before he can act on his devious plan, his radio comes to life. The voice of Cheryl Heins crackles through.

“Lieutenant Short, what’s the status on that call?” the dispatcher asks.

“You can cancel that ambulance. It’s…it’s a doll,” Short replies.

“Say again, Jason?” Heins says, incredulous.

“A doll, a doll, it’s a goddamned doll, Cheryl!” Short yells.

After a long pause, the single word response comes back.


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13 hours ago
Reminds me of the time my grandmother had to cover her mouth to keep from laughing at the terrified plumber who killed one of my rubber snakes I had accidentally left in the front yard.
1 day ago
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2 public comments
1 day ago
Pretty much. Poor guy. And the next chapter is everyone on the internet laughing about what an idiot he is.
Los Angeles, California, USA
1 day ago
But we aren't laughing at him. Because that doll through darkened windows could have fooled me
1 day ago
Absolutely - I didn't mean to imply that I thought he was an idiot, I think it's crappy for people to be making fun of him. Imagine what people would have said if he thought it was a doll but it was a real kid. Better safe than sorry.
23 hours ago
Thats a terrifying looking doll
1 day ago
We've all been there, right?
Raleigh, NC

Meteorite Identification

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Click for an actual flowchart for identifying a meteorite. My favorite part is how 'Did someone see it fall? -> Yes' points to 'NOT A METEORITE.' This is not a mistake.
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1 day ago
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2 days ago
how to identify a meteorite (be sure to check the mouse-over).
San Francisco, CA
3 days ago
I used to work in a lab in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington U, therefore I am (extremely) tangentially related to this xkcd and feeling very pleased with myself. (also I wonder if they've figured out why their site is crashing this morning...)
3 days ago
The site it links to is down, but the flowchart is accessible at https://web.archive.org/web/20160110210954/http://meteorites.wustl.edu/check-list.htm
Brighton, UK
3 days ago
Thanks to this, I can see that "Did someone see it fall?" has no "No" option. This is obviously part of the conspiracy to hide the existence of aliens.
3 days ago

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Your Greatest Weakness

1 Comment and 16 Shares

The opposite of Dunning-Kruger isn't that great either.

New comic!
Today's News:
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16 hours ago
Brooklyn, NY
3 days ago
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5 days ago
How to nail that interview.
Lafayette, LA, USA

Heroku is dead – no-one uses it anymore. You need to use Docker now

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Hey, my boss said to talk to you - I hear you know a lot about web apps?

-Yeah, I’m more of a distributed systems guy now. I’m just back from ContainerCamp and Gluecon and I’m going to Dockercon next week. Really excited about the way the industry is moving - making everything simpler and more reliable. It’s the future!

Cool. I’m just building a simple web app at the moment - a normal CRUD app using Rails, going to deploy to Heroku. Is that still the way to go?

-Oh no. That’s old school. Heroku is dead - no-one uses it anymore. You need to use Docker now. It’s the future.

Oh, OK. What’s that?

-Docker is this new way of doing containerization. It’s like LXC, but it’s also a packaging format, a distribution platform, and tools to make distributed systems really easy.

Containeri.. — what now? What’s LXE?

-It’s LXC. It’s like chroot on steroids!

What’s cher-oot?

-OK, look. Docker. Containerization. It’s the future. It’s like virtualization but faster and cheaper.

Oh, so like Vagrant.

-No, Vagrant is dead. Everything is going to be containerized now, it’s the future.

OK, so I don’t need to know anything about virtualization?

-No, you still need virtualization, because containers don’t provide a full security story just yet. So if you want to run anything in a multi-tenant environment, you need to make sure you can’t escape the sandbox.

OK, I’m getting a little lost here. Let’s back it up. So there’s a thing like virtualization, called containers. And I can use this on Heroku?

-Well, Heroku has some support for docker, but I told you: Heroku’s dead. You want to run your containers on CoreOS.

OK, what’s that?

-It’s this cool Host OS you can use with Docker. Hell, you don’t even need Docker, you can use rkt.


-No, rkt.

Right, Rocket.

-No, it’s called rkt now. Totally different. It’s an alternative containerization format that isn’t as bundled together as Docker is, and so it’s more composable.

Is that good?

-Of course it’s good. Composability is the future.

OK, how do you use it?

-I don’t know. I don’t think anyone uses it.

Sigh. You were saying something about CoreOS?

-Yeah, so it’s a Host OS you use with Docker.

What’s a Host OS?

-A Host OS runs all your containers.

Runs my containers?

-Yeah, you gotta have something run your containers. So you set up like an EC2 instance, you put CoreOS on it, then run the Docker daemon, and then you can deploy Docker images to it.

Which part of that is the container?

-All of it. Look, you take your app, write a Dockerfile, turn it into an image locally, then you can push that to any Docker host.

Ah, like Heroku?

-No, not Heroku. I told you. Heroku is dead. You run your own cloud now using Docker.


-Yeah, it’s real easy. Look up #gifee.


-“Google’s infrastructure for everyone else”. You take some off the shelf tools and stacks, using containers, and you can have the same infrastructure Google has.

Why don’t I just use Google’s thing?

-You think that’s going to be around in 6 months?

OK, doesn’t someone else do hosting of this stuff? I really don’t want to host my own stuff.

-Well, Amazon has ECS, but you gotta write XML or some shit.

What about something on OpenStack?




Look I really don’t want to host my own stuff.

-No, it’s really easy. You just set up a Kubernetes cluster.

I need a cluster?

-Kubernetes cluster. It’ll manage the deployments of all your services.

I only have one service.

-What do you mean? You have an app right, so you gotta have at least 8-12 services?

What? No, just one app. Service, whatever. Just one of them.

-No, look into microservices. It’s the future. It’s how we do everything now. You take your monolithic app and you split it into like 12 services. One for each job you do.

That seems excessive.

-It’s the only way to make sure it’s reliable. So if your authentication service goes down…

Authentication service? I was just going to use this gem I’ve used a few times before.

-Great. Use the gem. Put it into it’s own project. Put a RESTful API on it. Then your other services use that API, and gracefully handle failure and stuff. Put it in a container and continuously deliver that shit.

OK, so now that I’ve got dozens of unmanageable services, now what?

-Yeah, I was saying about Kubernetes. That let’s you orchestrate all your services.

Orchestrate them?

-Yeah, so you’ve got these services and they have to be reliable so you need multiple copies of them. So Kubernetes makes sure that you have enough of them, and that they’re distributed across multiple hosts in your fleet, so it’s always available.

I need a fleet now?

-Yeah, for reliability. But Kubernetes manages it for you. And you know Kubernetes works cause Google built it and it runs on etcd.

What’s etcd?

-It’s an implementation of RAFT.

OK, so what’s Raft?

-It’s like Paxos.

Christ, how deep down this fucking rabbit hole are we going? I just want to launch an app. Sigh. Fuck, OK, deep breaths. Jesus. OK, what’s Paxos?

-Paxos is like this really old distributed consensus protocol from the 70s that no-one understands or uses.

Great, thanks for telling me about it then. And Raft is what?

-Since no-one understands Paxos, this guy Diego…

Oh, you know him?

-No, he works at CoreOS. Anyway, Diego built Raft for his PhD thesis cause Paxos was too hard. Wicked smart dude. And then he wrote etcd as an implementation, and Aphyr said it wasn’t shit.

What’s Aphyr?

-Aphyr is that guy who wrote, ‘Call Me Maybe.’ You know, the distributed systems and BDSM guy?

What? Did you say BDSM?

-Yeah, BDSM. It’s San Francisco. Everyone’s into distributed systems and BDSM.

Uh, OK. And he wrote that Katy Perry song?

-No, he wrote a set of blog posts about how every database fails CAP.

What’s CAP?

-The CAP theorem. It says that you can only have 2 out of 3 of Consistency, Availability and Partition tolerance.

OK, and all DBs fail CAP? What does that even mean?

-It means they’re shit. Like Mongo.

I thought Mongo was web scale?

-No one else did.

OK, so etcd?

-Yeah, etcd is a distributed key-value store.

Oh, like Redis.

-No, nothing like Redis. etcd is distributed. Redis loses half its writes if the network partitions.

OK, so it’s a distributed key-value store. Why is this useful?

-Kubernetes sets up a standard 5-node cluster using etcd as a message bus. It combines with a few of Kubernetes’ own services to provide a pretty resilient orchestration system.

5 nodes? I have one app. How many machines am I gonna need with all this?

-Well, you’re going to have about 12 services, and of course you need a few redundant copies of each, a few load balancers, the etcd cluster, your database, and the kubernetes cluster. So that’s like maybe 50 running containers.


-No big deal! Containers are really efficient, so you should be able to distribute these across like 8 machines! Isn’t that amazing?

That’s one way to put it. And with all this, I’ll be able to simply deploy my app?

-Sure. I mean, storage is still an open question with Docker and Kubernetes, and networking will take a bit of work, but you’re basically there!

I see. OK, I think I’m getting it.


Thanks for explaining it.

-No problem.

Let me just repeat it back to see if I’ve got it right.


So I just need to split my simple CRUD app into 12 microservices, each with their own APIs which call each others’ APIs but handle failure resiliently, put them into Docker containers, launch a fleet of 8 machines which are Docker hosts running CoreOS, “orchestrate” them using a small Kubernetes cluster running etcd, figure out the “open questions” of networking and storage, and then I continuously deliver multiple redundant copies of each microservice to my fleet. Is that it?

-Yes! Isn’t it glorious?

I’m going back to Heroku.

Want to use Docker and Continuously Deliver that shit? Check out CircleCI’s Docker Support.

Our followup.

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5 days ago
I lol'd
Brooklyn, NY
7 days ago
This is 100% accurate.
8 days ago
Best docker dialogue since Hitler.
Bend, Oregon
5 days ago
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3 public comments
6 days ago
Everytime I look into Docker, this is where I end up.

I did containers in 2009 with Softgrid and App-V before it was cool and when it was still a collection of Windows hacks.

Now we have Docker, a collection of Linux hacks, with a lot of the fundamentals in place but none of the finish that make it solution ready.
Seymour, Indiana
6 days ago
"Yeah, BDSM. It’s San Francisco. Everyone’s into distributed systems and BDSM."
SF Bay Area
7 days ago
I wish I had written this
Brooklyn, New York


4 Comments and 17 Shares
This car has 240% of a horse's decision-making ability and produces only 30% as much poop.
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4 days ago
New York, NY
10 days ago
"I'm sorry, Wilbur, but I can't do that."
10 days ago
That definitely should have been the alt text
10 days ago
Thank you...I have to say, I was kind of proud of it!
8 days ago
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2 public comments
10 days ago
"Okay, but on a scale of Apple Maps to anything else, how good is the GPS in this thing?"
Moses Lake, WA
9 days ago
GPS should be one in a suite of mutually and massively redundant Self location systems.
10 days ago
Horseless carriages: Now with almost as much smarts as a horse.
Louisville, Kentucky
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