Monday, March 21, 2016

If I die tonight 2: showering forum members with love and mercy, willingness to step down from position of power, an open plea to moderators of blindness forums

Dear friends, colleagues, fellow mailing list moderators and forum members:

Continuing from my previous post on my decision to step down from various NVDA community positions, I’d like to talk about something that might be sensitive to some: mailing list administration, what it means to love and serve members and willingness to let go.

As I was thinking about death, legacy and future leadership, I was reminded of several definitions of death, both secular and sacred. To some, death is “… the next adventure …” (Albus Dumbledore), “… stepping into eternity …” (various songs) and “… time of judgment …” (Bible). Some have speculated that we end our existence once we die, and others claim that we possess a soul (I fall into the latter camp).

As I was thinking about death and praying about it and my legacy (see the previous blog entry), I also thought about forum administration, leadership position and loving the members of forums. As a person who have served in both roles (member and moderator), I know that moderating a list is a thankless job (I myself enjoy this position) and have witness disintegration of lists due to questionable conduct from members and moderators, I also know that leadership position doesn’t come with free lunch – it requires sacrifice, understanding and so on.

To me, a leader (especially that of an online forum) is one who showers forum members with love and is ready to serve the forum and its members. Showering members with love may take various forms, including researching a question on behalf of a member, arbitrating disputes, protecting members and so on.

However, I’d like to add one more characteristic to this list: willingness to let go. Power is both a helpful and a destructive force. If exercised correctly, power brings stability, prosperity and harmony. If misused, power makes leaders corrupt, causes distrust and disintegrates a community (here, I refer to mailing lists and forums as communities). If the moderator believes (or is compelled by members and outsiders) that they have abused their position or recognize that it is time to move on, a moderator should be willing to let go, knowing that they served their part (too much attachment to a list, as I found out, causes moderators to feel uneasy and stressed over the future).

Another characteristic I’d like to add is recognizing members as equal partners, accountable and answerable to people, and remembering that reputation of a forum rests on them and members. Some moderators say that a mailing list or a forum is the property of the forum owner; that is, an owner can do whatever he or she desires and run a list that best suits them. For example, without consent from the entire list, an owner could close a list, or the owner can expel members simply because they believe members are running rival lists or they don’t like them (without a cause).

I’d like to kindly (and with heavy heart) disagree with this attitude of running this kind of lists (with owners running the show alone):

1.       Members should be seen as equal partners in decision-making. It is better to consult members and make informed decisions than jeopardize the reputation of a list through decisions from their own, especially if it was an inappropriate choice.
2.       Leaders should be recallable. I believe that leaders are there to love and serve the list, and because of this, they should be held accountable and answerable to members, even if it means voting to remove a moderator.
3.       Leaders and members should remember that the reputation of a community depends on them. To some, reputation of the user and developer community will draw or alienate them to and from products, especially if a support list has publicly viewable archives. Some would say forum content is the crown jewel of a forum, but I believe the people are also important.

Some people may ask, “is it a good idea to let members criticize leaders?” Some moderators would say “no” because they wish to give outsiders an impression that they can manage a list. Some would say “yes” because they tolerate descent.

I myself think it should be allowed: criticism is a great thing if done correctly (incorrect criticisms include attacks on persons, flaming and so on). Although it is painful to digest in the beginning, it saves moderators from making wrong decisions, and in some cases, allows moderators to revisit their past decisions or compromise with members. It also allows vulnerable side of moderators to come out: genuine criticism allows moderators to think critically about what they’ll say, how they’ll act, why a member or two made this comment and so on.

Going back to the discussion on letting go and related concepts: sometimes, too much attachment to a list changes moderators (and I’m speaking from experience and after thinking about the answers to my prayers). First, it causes moderators to become extra vigilant against attacks on their lists. If a list is attacked (for example, criticisms from outsiders that could be misunderstood as an attack), they’d spend a great deal of energy “fighting” the attackers and often fail (there were cases where it has succeeded). For example, there were numerous debates on BrailleNote and Braille Sense lists regarding the products and the support lists, with folks from HIMS (Braille Sense list) defending the HIMS list (and I myself wrote messages to the BrailleNote list (when I was the chief admin there), saying they should exercise patience).

Second, moderators of lists become defensive when one or more members find themselves a target of attack. Because moderators are passionate about the reputation of a list and they feel at home when they sit on the moderator’s chair, they would believe that they need to be the ones defending their members and going so far as planning a counterstrike. Unfortunately, this is caused by passion, not reason (I found this out the hard way when one of the members of a Windows 10 list told me he was being harassed by someone (outside), then I formulated a plan to go after this person (a head admin on another list) by sending a letter to this person with mixed success; when I appealed to moderators of various lists, they told me that it is better to move on, which was the answer I needed (and they were right; to them I send my gratitude).

Third, moderators (and sometimes members) become so overprotective to a point where they’ll not teach their successors how to run their community. Without means of passing on their knowledge to the next generation, successors (moderators and members) will not find answers on dealing with crises, misbehaving members and so on. The state of NVDA community and the users list I described earlier fits this definition: in an effort to make the next generation suffer less, I have shielded them from how to handle crises to a point where I found myself saying, “I fed them fish all day instead of teaching them to fish.”

Fourth, moderators will exhibit tendency to advertise exclusive expertise. That is, they believe that only they should be the one answering all questions, respond to comments, defend a list and so on. This is prominent on lists where moderators do have reputation for delivering creative content (tutorials, websites, blogs and so on). Some moderators will stipulate that their content should only be sharable by members of his or her list, which is a sign of overprotectiveness and exclusivity (note that I do believe that, in some cases, exclusivity is the only option).

Before I go any further, we need to pause here and think about the following situation: a moderator of a list, who is known for producing helpful tutorials, says to members that his tutorials should not be sharable to outside members. In a way, this is a valid reason, seeing that this moderator would like to protect his publishing rights and in order to conserve bandwidth. However, I think this is a sign of advertising exclusive expertise: only members gets a chance to listen to his explanations, the tutorial set could be downloaded and distributed by anyone who may not give proper attributions (and I did see a case where the moderator did come after someone, thinking that this person post was an exact word to word copy of his tutorials) and so forth. Note that I do respect this moderator for what he does and know that his tutorials are good (no ill feelings here, and if I came across as such, I sincerely apologize).

Lastly, moderators become focused on succession plans. Worried about the future and the reputation of a list, leaders would draw up elaborate succession plans should they become unable to carry out their duties. Succession plan is good to preserve continuity, but focusing too much on that not only drains the energy of moderators, but also puts unseen burdens on moderators, members, the forum itself and outsiders: stress, content clutter, stricter conformity, tendency for members to act as moderators (without appointment or elected) and so on.

As for me committing these, I confess that I’m guilty of them all: overprotective, defensive, drawing up elaborate succession plans and so on. I do know that I did make mistakes such as not consulting list members when making difficult decisions, showing rage when I’m known to be calm and so forth. Only by the grace of God and through encouragement from community members I can lift up my face and say I’m ready to move on.

To members of forums I moderate or have moderated (NVDA International Users List on Groups.IO, Win10 Forum for screen reader users, BrailleNote Users list and others): I’d like to request mercy and forgiveness from you. On behalf of many forum administrators out there, I’d like to sincerely apologize for abuse of power and not considering members as equal partners. I’d like to sincerely apologize for showing contradictory traits at times, not showing love and mercy when I myself said leaders should show love and mercy, being so overprotective when I ought to teach next generation of leaders how to resolve crises and so forth.

To my fellow forum moderators and administrators: I’d like to sincerely appeal to you (from bottom of my heart) to consider members as equal partners in decision-making, not ignoring critics, and showing willingness to let go of your positions when it is time to do so. Please shower members of your forums with love and mercy, show that you too are vulnerable, show humility, and have an attitude of servants (to always serve, not to be served always).

To members of the blindness community, to sighted folks and others (especially CSUN 2016 attendees): I know I’ll get criticized for this (I’ll happily accept them), but this MUST be said (in hopes of starting a dialogue):


Joseph s. Lee
Head list representative, Windows 10 Forum for screen reader users (
(soon to be former) Moderator, NVDA International Users List (
(former) Head admin, BrailleNote Users mailing list (


If I die tonight 1: legacy, letting go of a community I love, serve and was too attached to

Dear friends, readers and supporters around the world:

At least once in our lifetime, we confront the following question: if we die, who’ll carry our legacy forward, and what exactly is death? I myself have experienced this moment today, what I found out and my plans. Because I will be touching a subject that might be sensitive to some readers and quite extensive, I’ll divide this question into two parts: part 1 will address death, legacy and letting go, and part 2 will discuss why I made my decision and my philosophy regarding administering and serving a community.

In case you are wondering why I’m writing this, it’s because the following statement will need further explanations: I will be stepping down from various NVDA community positions by end of this year. Let me tell you why:

As I lay in bed (dealing with a common cold and with muscle aches) and listening to some piano music, I was struck by an intriguing thought: if I die (as soon as now, sometime today or tonight), who will carry on my legacy? Although I thought about this question in the early months of NVDACon planning, it came stronger today: perhaps this week is CSUN conference (31st annual technology for people with disabilities) and missed going there, perhaps because I’m preparing for midterms, perhaps I’m tired after busying myself with NVDACon planning or what not. Of these, I think the thought of NVDA’s tenth anniversary celebrations, coupled with recent activities on various mailing lists have made this a stronger question today.

So I decided to meditate and pray over this question:

Dear God, if you recall me (if I die) tonight, who’ll take on my legacy? Who’ll take care of my family, friends I love, the communities I love and serve (including NVDA community and the Groups.IO Win10 forum)? Is there someone who’ll love the people and the communities I serve through various positions, someone who’ll shower them with more love than I did? Am I willing to let go of my position if that benefits the community in the long term?

I also added:

Dear God, what would your Son (Jesus) do if given this situation? I do know that he came and died many years ago to save me and others, and I know that he did it willingly. I look forward to a personal counselling session with you through your words

Surprisingly, the answer was simple yet counterintuitive:

Don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Remember what Paul said before his execution: “I’ve finished my race”. Although he didn’t say that, he was talking about today, the job he was given. You’re worried about tomorrow because you are too attached to the communities you are serving, and one way to not worry about tomorrow is letting it go – give it to the hands of the next generation.

At first, I didn’t understand what this answer meant, so I prayed again:

But God, letting go means a lot to me. Although it would mean less stress and one less list to moderate, I don’t know who’ll take care of the communities I love.

An unexpected reply:

Why did Jesus die on Good Friday? Did he do it willingly, or because his Father told him to? He did it because of both reasons: as the Word, he was present when the world began, thus he had powers over creation and took part in a grand plan to save you and others. He did it because he have subordinated himself to God, as his prayer before his execution shows. He knew what was better: dying (or sacrificing himself or letting go) to save everyone.

Not only this reply answered my original question, it answered another question, which is the subject of the next blog entry.

In summary, the reason why I wasn’t ready to confront the question of dying and passing on my legacy was the fact that I was too attached to the community I love and serve, too much attachment to a point where I set out succession plans (even before it happened). Sometimes, I felt that I should be the one to do something (including giving voice to the voiceless), stemming from the fact that I can become forceful and zealous for a cause. I also thought that the next generation should have an easier time managing a list, running a project and so on, which (and I admit now) led to failures of some initiatives (as they say, I was feeding fish to the next generation instead of teaching them to fish). Lastly, I haven’t seriously considered stepping down if it’ll improve a community in the long run until now (which naturally connects with the next blog post on leadership and mailing list/forum administration).

To correct these errors and to serve as a reminder to myself that I’m vulnerable and to show love to communities I love and serve, I decided upon the following:

1.       NVDACon International 2016 (April) will be the last conference I’ll serve as the head organizer. I’m glad for the fact that we do have passionate people who are more than ready (I think) to embark on this journey.
2.       I’ll be stepping down from my moderator position on NVDA users list (on Groups.IO) effective May 31, 2016.
3.       I’ll pass on my position of quarterly community add-on release coordinator effective August 31, 2016.
4.       NVDA 2016.2 tutorial will be the last what’s new tutorial I’ll produce, seeing that there are others who are better at producing tutorials than I am.
5.       I’d like to request that someone else who have better technical knowledge and teaching skills than I am to produce 2017 edition of Welcome to NVDA tutorial series.

I’m not doing this lightly: for some time now, I thought it is time to pass on the baton of list administration to someone from the next generation who’ll love the list more than I do and to teach them about effective ways of running an international list. I also believe that it isn’t right for one person to start organizing an international conference such as NVDACon (I originally envisioned various regions rotating around to organize NVDACon, and I’d like to start this process this fall, starting with regional NVDACon’s around the world). Although the acts of planning, announcing and releasing quarterly maintenance versions of community add-ons are tedious, it is rewarding in the end and is something that people should put in their resumes. Producing tutorials is a hard job, but it is also rewarding in the end – you get to learn how something works.

I’m not doing this to receive publicity; I’m doing all this because I love NVDA community, and know that letting myself go is something that’ll benefit this community for a very long time (perhaps the community would turn out influential advocates in the next ten years or more). As it stands, I believe I’ve done my best to love and serve this and the wider community. I do admit that I made numerous errors (both small and huge) and that I’m vulnerable; sometimes seen as an influential advocate, sometimes seen as a ruthless list administrator. In the end, what matters is the fact that tomorrow will worry about itself, and I should do my best in the job I’m given that should be accomplished today, even if it means stepping down from various positions in favor of the next generation.

To the next generation of NVDA enthusiasts: first, thank you for your continued support and enthusiasm. I’m sorry that I fed you fish all day long – I should have been better and teach you to fish. Although I’m stepping down from leadership position, you are more than welcome to ask me and other enthusiasts questions. Stepping down from the position of power doesn’t mean I’m leaving the wonderful NVDA community: I’ll try my best to serve in my new roles, whatever they might be. Thank you.

Joseph S. Lee
Translator, code contributor and community add-ons reviewer, NVDA screen reader project
(to be former) Chair, NVDA Tenth Anniversary Planning Committee
(to be former) Moderator, NVDA International Users List

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Open letter to the NVDA community: Hartgen Consultancy, we owe you an apology, important reminder for the NVDA community

To Hartgen Consultancy and the NVDA community,

First, I’d like to commend Hartgen Consultancy for their excellent support for screen reader users and providing products that are empowering many blind people around the world. Also, I’d like to commend the NVDA community for your continued support for NVDA and championing open-source development. The impact of work done by both entities can be felt across the world.

As I read Brian Hartgen’s article on the backstory of Dictation Bridge, and being familiar with articles from Chris Hofstater and with the Dictation Bridge project itself, I believe we the NVDA community owe Hartgen Consultancy a heartfelt apology. At the same time, I would like to take this time to seriously remind the NVDA user community (especially those on social media) that your attitudes, words and actions could have impact on reputation of the screen reader itself.

First, to Brian: As I read your article regarding backstory of Dictation Bridge and your defense, I felt uneasy regarding the treatment you’ve received. Although I do understand where Chris is coming from based on interaction between you and the unnamed beta tester, I felt more uncomfortable after reading how some on the NVDA community have reacted to your article and sent harsh words via social media. Although I do understand their message (looking at facts and trends, power of crowdfunding, price and so on), I believe we the NVDA community members should have done better when it comes to being courteous and professional.

As a code contributor to a screen reader and a fellow community and user side advocate, I’d like to take this time to apologize on behalf of the NVDA community. Certainly the actions and words used by some in our community are unacceptable, especially against a reputable source who can give them much needed information and can bring unique perspective to NVDA development (as you pointed out in your GPL article). Keep up the good work you are doing not only for users of JAWS and NVDA, but also for the wider blindness community.

To the NVDA community: If there are three things I will not accept from this community, it will be derogatory name calling, concentrated harassment and the idea that we should enforce our beliefs and practices of open-source and free availability. Concentrated harassment, as we’ve seen today on Twitter, not only hurts the harassed, but also jeopardizes the reputation of NVDA itself. Name calling, especially derogatory ones such as “shark” for JAWS, isn’t funny when you look at it from the perspective of the targeted: although it might be a joke, to some, it is a statement that seriously questions their self-worth. Open-source and free availability is good if exercised correctly, but enforcing that belief on a product with incompatible licensing terms or code that cannot be shared due to restrictions isn’t going to help us achieve our goals (worse, it could backfire, citing brand image, customer relations and so on).

Would anyone use a product where people are known to harass those who use other products? Would anyone come and talk to a representative of a community if the community in question has a history of name calling? Would anyone be persuaded to join the bandwagon if onlookers get an impression that all we do is go around and enforce our belief of open-source and free availability everywhere? As it stands now, the reputation of this community, and in extension, NVDA itself, is in jeopardy due to our careless words, actions and attitudes over the years. And don’t take this lightly: the reputation of NonVisual Desktop Access is shaped by you: attitudes, words and actions, as much as it is shaped by your enthusiasm, support, promotions and help to those who really need help using NVDA to its full potential.
Fellow NVDA community members, as we’re celebrating NVDA’s tenth anniversary this year, let us take a moment to reflect upon our attitudes, words and actions. Please don’t forget this: what makes NVDA special and worth trying (or moving away from it) is us: users, developers, supporters and others who are part of this community. Please don’t ruin the reputation of this community-driven screen reader (I myself would feel uneasy if I’m in a similar situation like Hartgen Consultancy, and so would NV Access and others in this community).


Joseph S. Lee
Translator, code contributor and community add-ons reviewer, NVDA screen reader project
Chair, NVDA Tenth Anniversary Planning Committee
Moderator, NVDA International Users list