[Numpy-discussion] Numpy governance update

Benjamin Root ben.root@ou....
Thu Feb 16 23:54:39 CST 2012

On Thursday, February 16, 2012, John Hunter wrote:

> On Thu, Feb 16, 2012 at 7:26 PM, Alan G Isaac <alan.isaac@gmail.com<javascript:_e({}, 'cvml', 'alan.isaac@gmail.com');>
> > wrote:
>> On 2/16/2012 7:22 PM, Matthew Brett wrote:
>> > This has not been an encouraging episode in striving for consensus.
>> I disagree.
>> Failure to reach consensus does not imply lack of striving.
> Hey Alan, thanks for your thoughtful and nuanced views.  I agree  with
> everything you've said, but have a few additional points.
> At the risk of wading into a thread that has grown far too long, and
> echoing Eric's comments that the idea of governance is murky at best
> when there is no provision for enforceability, I have a few comments.
> Full disclosure: Travis has asked me and I have agreed to to serve on
> a board for "numfocus", the not-for-profit arm of his efforts to
> promote numpy and related tools.  Although I have no special numpy
> developer chops, as the original author of matplotlib, which is one of
> the leading "numpy clients", he asked me to join his organization as a
> "community representative".  I support his efforts, and so agreed to
> join the numfocus board.
> My first and most important point is that the subtext of many postings here
> about the fear of undue and inappropriate influence of Continuum under
> Travis' leadership is far overblown.  Travis created numpy -- it is
> his baby.  Undeniably, he created it by standing on the shoulders of
> giants: Jim Hugunin, Paul Dubois, Perry Greenfield and his team, and
> many others.  But the idea that we need to guard against the
> possibility that his corporate interests will compromise his interests
> in "what is best for numpy" is academic at best.
> As someone who has created a significant project in the realm of
> "scientific computing in Python", I can tell you that it is something
> I take quite a bit of pride in and it is very important to me that the
> project thrives as it was intended to: as a free, open-source,
> best-practice way of doing science.  I know Travis well enough to know
> he feels the same way -- numpy doing well is *at least* important to
> him his company doing well.  All of his recent actions to start a
> company and foundation which focuses resources on numpy and related
> tools reinforce that view.  If he had a different temperament, he
> wouldn't have devoted five to ten years of is life to Numeric, scipy
> and numpy.  He is a BDFL for a reason: he has earned our trust.
> And he has proven his ability to lead when *almost everyone* was
> against him.  At the height of the Numeric/numarray split, and I was
> deeply involved in this as the mpl author because we had a "numerix"
> compatibility layer to allow users to use one or the other, Travis
> proposed writing numpy to solve both camp's problems.  I really can't
> remember a single individual who supported him.  What I remember is
> the cacophony of voices who though this was a bad idea, because of the
> "third fork" problem.  But Travis forged ahead, on his own, wrote
> numpy, and re-united the Numeric and numarray camps.  And
> all-the-while he maintained his friendship with the numarray
> developers (Perry Greenfield who led the numarray development effort
> has also been invited by Travis to the numfocus board, as has Fernando
> Perez and Jarrod Millman).  Although MPL at the time agreed to support
> a third version in its numerix compatibility layer for numpy, I can
> thankfully say we have since dropped support for the compatibility
> layer entirely as we all use numpy now.  This to me is the distilled
> essence of leadership, against the voices of the masses, and it bears
> remembering.
> I have two more points I want to make: one is on democracy, and one is
> on corporate control.  On corporate control: there have been a number
> of posts in this thread about the worries and dangers that Continuum
> poses as the corporate sponser of numpy development, about how this
> may cause numpy to shift from a model of a few loosely connected,
> decentralized cadre of volunteers to a centrally controlled steering
> committee of programmers who are controlled by corporate headquarters
> and who make all their decisions around the water cooler unobserved by
> the community of users.
> I want to make a connection to something that happened in the history
> of matplotlib development, something that is not strictly analogous
> but I think close enough to be informative.  Sometime around 2005,
> Perry Greenfield, who heads the development team of the Space
> Telescope Science Institute (STScI) that is charged with processing
> the Hubble image pipeline, emailed me that he was considering using
> matplotlib as their primary image visualization tool.  I can't tell
> you how excited I was at the time.  The idea of having institutional
> sponsorship from someone as prestigious and resourceful as STScI was
> hugely motivating.  I worked feverishly for months to add stuff they
> needed: better rendering, better image support, mathtext and lots
> more.  But more importantly, Perry was offering to bring institutional
> support to my project: well qualified full-time employees who
> dedicated a significant part of their time to matplotlib
> development. He had done this before with numarray development, and
> the contributions of his team are enormous.  Many mpl features owe
> their support to institutional sopnsership: Perry's group deserves the
> biggest props, but Ted Drain's group at the JPL and corporate sponsors
> as well are on the list.
>  What I want you to think about are the parallels between Perry and his
> team joining matplotlib's development effort and Continuum's stated
> desire to contribute to numpy development.  Yes, STScI is a
> not-for-profit entity operated by NASA, and Continuum is a
> for-profit-entity with a not-for-profit arm (numfocus).  But the
> differences are not so great in my experience.  Both for-profits and
> not-for-profits experience institutional pressures to get code out on
> a deadline.  In fact, perhaps our "finest hour" in matplotlib
> development came as a result of one of out not-for-profit client's
> deadlines.  My favorite story is when the Jet Propulsion Labs at
> Caltech emailed me about the inadequacy of our ellipse approximations,
> and gave us the constraint that the Mars Rover was scheduled to land
> in the next few months.  Talk about a hard deadline!  Michael
> Droettboom, under Perry's direction, implemented a
> "8-cubic-spline-approximation-to-curves-in-the-viewport" solution that
> I honestly think gives matplotlib the *best* approximation to such
> curves anywhere.  Period.  Institutional deadlines to get working code
> into the codebase, whether from a for-profit or not-for-profit entity,
> and usually are a good thing. It may not be perfect going in, but it is
> usually better for being there.
> That is one example from matplotlib's history that illustrates the
>  benefit of institutional sponsers in a project.  In this example, the
> organizational goal -- getting the Rover to land without crashing -- is
> one we can all relate to and support.  And the resolution to the story,
> in which a heroically talented developer (Michael D) steps up to
> solve the problem, is one we can all aspire to.  But the essential
> ingredients of the story are not so different from what we face here:
> an organization needs to solve a problem on a deadline; another
> organization, possibly related, has the resources to get the job done;
> all efforts are contributed to the public domain.
> Now that brings me to my final and perhaps most controverisal point.
> I don't believe democracy is the right solution for most open source
> problems.  As exhibit A, I reference the birth of numpy itself that I
> discussed above.  Numpy would have never happened if community input
> were considered.  I'm pretty sure that all of us that were there at
> the time can attest to this.
> Democracy is something that many of us have grown up by default to
> consider as the right solution to many, if not most or, problems of
> governance.  I believe it is a solution to a specific problem of
> governance.  I do not believe democracy is a panacea or an ideal
> solution for most problems: rather it is the right solution for which
> the consequences of failure are too high.  In a state (by which I mean
> a government with a power to subject its people to its will by force
> of arms) where the consequences of failure to submit include the
> death, dismemberment, or imprisonment of dissenters, democracy is a
> safeguard against the excesses of the powerful.  Generally, there is
> no reason to believe that the simple majority of people polled is the
> "best" or "right" answer, but there is also no reason to believe that
> those who hold power will rule beneficiently.  The democratic ability
> of the people to check to the rule of the few and powerful is
> essential to insure the survival of the minority.
> In open source software development, we face none of these problems.
> Our power to fork is precisely the power the minority in a tyranical
> democracy lacks: noone will kill us for going off the reservation.  We
> are free to use the product or not, to modify it or not, to enhance it
> or not.
> The power to fork is not abstract: it is essential.  matplotlib, and
> chaco, both rely *heavily* on agg, the Antigrain C++ rendering
> library.  At some point many years ago, Maxim, the author of Agg,
> decided to change the license of Agg (circa version 2.5) to GPL rather
> than BSD.  Obviously, this was a non-starter for projects like mpl,
> scipy and chaco which assumed BSD licensing terms.  Unfortunately,
> Maxim had a new employer which appeared to us to be dictating the
> terms and our best arguments fell on deaf ears.  No matter: mpl and
> Enthought chaco have continued to ship agg 2.4, pre-GPL, and I think
> that less than 1% of our users have even noticed.  Yes, we forked the
> project, and yes, noone has noticed.  To me this is the ultimate
> reason why governance of open source, free projects does not need to
> be democratic.  As painful as a fork may be, it is the ultimate
> antidote to a leader who may not have your interests in mind.  It is
> an antidote that we citizens in a state government may not have.
> It is true that numpy exists in a privileged position in a way that
> matplotlib or scipy does not.  Numpy is the core.  Yes, Continuum is
> different than STScI because Travis is both the lead of Numpy and the
> lead of the company sponsoring numpy.  These are important
> differences.  In the worst cases, we might imagine that these
> differences will negatively impact numpy and associated tools.  But
> these worst case scenarios that we imagine will most likely simply
> distract us from what is going on: Travis, one of the most prolific
> and valuable contributers to the scientific python community, has
> decided to refocus his efforts to do more.  And that is a very happy
> moment for all of us.


Thank you for taking the time to share your perspective.  As always, it is
very interesting.  I have only been involved with numpy for the past 3
years. From my perspective, Chuck has been BDFL, in a sense.  It is hard
for me to imagine python without numpy, and it is difficult to fully
appreciate the effort Travis has put in. Perspectives like your are useful
for this.

So, power is derived by a mandate from the masses. That part is always
democratic. However, the form of governance is not required to be

If we are agreeing to Travis being BDF12, then that is just as valid in my
mind as us agreeing to some other structure. What is important is the
community coming together and agreeing on this.  Would that be fine for

Ben Root
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