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An Update on Gendered Pronouns

Executive Summary

The use of gendered pronouns has been deprecated in favor of singular they. All users of English should migrate to the new system as soon as practical, but we do expect this to be a long transition.

Why has this change being made?

Usage of gendered pronouns depends on an obsolete version of the gender system. While we're not making any forward-looking announcements about the gender system at this time, this dependency has been problematic:
  • The gendered pronoun system requires that people cleanly sort into male and female.
  • To enable user-level caching it requires that this mapping change only rarely.
  • For users to select the correct pronoun when making a reference, this mapping must be be immediately apparent from name, appearance, profession, or whatever other limited information the user has available.
  • With the deprecation of gender roles, gendered pronouns make excessive emphasis on a relatively unimportant attribute.
Switching to a single pronoun that doesn't depend on gender resolves these issues.


While English '14 has full support for singular they, older versions have only minimal to partial support. For example, all active versions of English support it in someone and everyone constructions, English '92 added support for it in non-specific references, and only English '14 supports it with specific named referents. All users of English are encouraged to upgrade to English '14 or later, but we recognize that this may be impractical with older wetware.

At this time we are recommending that in situations where some participants have only partial support for singular they that people continue to use gendered pronouns for people with traditional binary gender unless there are strong reasons not to.

We may attempt to backport singular they to earlier versions of English, but pronouns are a very low level system. We are concerned we may not be able to safely make this change, and will only be able to offer an upgrade route. If you are interested in assisting us with testing a backport, however, please let us know.

We will continue to monitor the deployment of versions supporting singular they, and expect to issue another deprecation notice with a firm date when they-support is sufficiently widespread.

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Participating in Donation Matching

My office does a donation matching thing each year, where employees get together in groups to sponsor charities, offering to match donations. There are signs up around the office with phrases like "double your impact", but that's misleading because most of the sponsors would donate regardless. I'm torn about whether I should sign up as a sponsor: on one hand I want to raise money for great organizations, but on the other hand I don't want to contribute to a culture of donor illusions.

Offers to sponsor specific charities in our culture are almost never counterfactually valid: the sponsor will send the same amount to the charity whether you give or not. But they're often presented in a way that incorrectly implies that you can count the impact of the sponsor's money as if it were your own. This makes me sad, and is something I would like effective altruism to fix eventually. But where does this leave us in the mean time?

I'm conflicted about what organizations should do [1] but I think for individuals it's generally fine to participate in existing donation matching programs. It's a way to say "this is something we care about and are willing to use our resources to support, will you join us?" Most people don't care about "counterfactual validity", they're just excited about turning the conventionally solitary activity of donating into a social one.

(If someone asks "would this money get donated otherwise", however, we should be honest and take the opportunity to talk about counterfactual impact.)

[1] GiveWell decided not to use donation matching to raise money for their top charities because it felt dishonest to them, and I think that was a reasonable decision for them. Pushing the message that you should give because your donation will be matched would be inconsistent with the rest of what they stand for. Other EA and EA-aligned organizations have run matching campaigns, however, because offering matching funds does bring in more donations.

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GitHub Resumes

In software hiring it's becoming somewhat common for people to look at your public open source code to help make the decision. This tends to be described as "your resume is now GitHub". [1] And you see people offering advice like: more...

Responsible Transparency Consumption

People don't usually volunteer details about why they decided to do something, how they did it, or how it turned out, unless they have another goal in mind. You see people and organizations writing about cases where they've done better than expected, in the hope others will think better of them. You see writing that explains already-public cases of failure, casting it in a more positive light. You see people writing in the hope they'll be seen as an expert, to build up a reputation. Additionally, while most real decisions are made in people's heads as the output of a complicated process no one really understands, if you look at decision writeups you'll typically see something easy to follow that only contains respectable considerations and generally reflects well on the ones publishing it. If you're trying to learn from others, or evaluate them, this isn't much to go on.

Efforts to change this generally go under the banner of "transparency", and this is one of the components of the effective altruism (EA) movement, especially for EA organizations. GiveWell is especially known for putting this into practice but basically all EA organizations value transparency and prioritize it to some extent. Individual EAs do this as well; for example, as someone earning to give I keep a donations page and have posted several spending updates.

This puts the members of the EA movement in a position as consumers of transparency: people and organizations are releasing information because it benefits the broader community. This is information that they could easily keep to themselves, since as a practical matter everything is private by default and requires effort to make available. Writing a report requires taking an enormous amount of detail and deciding what to communicate, which means it's very easy through selective inclusion to hide mistakes and present yourself or your organization in an artificially posititive light. And not even intentionally! It's very easy to subconciously shy away from writing things that might make you look bad, or might reflect badly on people you on the whole think highly of. more...

Bash Argument Parsing and Quoting

There are many ways in which bash is an awkward language, and handling of arguments is certainly one of them. Here are two things you might like to do in a shell:

  • quoting: turn an array into a string, using shell-style escaping
  • unquoting: turn a string into an array, interpreting shell-style escaping
Hexagonal Keyboard Layout Survey

The piano keyboard is surprisingly poplar for how awkward it is. It puts all the keys into effectively a single row, which means you often need to move your fingers a very long way:

A four foot single-row keyboard is kind of nuts. We could get it down to 3.5 feet or 3 feet by going from piano key spacing (23mm) to accordion (20mm, or 18mm for a "ladies model") but that's still pretty big. [1] Putting in multiple rows for multiple octaves, however, can adramatically increase how many notes are under your fingers:

It turns out there are quite a few systems for laying out notes onto a hexagonal grid like this, so here's a survey of which instruments use which systems. I'm only looking at isomorphic keyboards, which are key-independent. more...

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