Arc Forumnew | comments | leaders | submitlogin
3 points by shader 383 days ago | link | parent

> When the mechanisms are simple and easy to reason about, it's easier to delegate because worst-case analysis of human nature is possible. When the mechanisms are powerful, we need greater understanding of human nature to navigate the complexity of incentives and unforeseen consequences.

That helps tie the two together, thanks.

I'm still not convinced though on what you think the downsides would be, or why; specifically, why they couldn't be bounded and partitioned in some way, or why you have to get them all correct up front instead of adapting later with better information.

If we look at the truly long term, the butterfly effect might indeed paralyze us as to what the potential consequences of any single action might be. But a butterfly-flap does not directly cause a hurricane; they are connected by a myriad of intervening causes, many of which could have stopped the storm. Planning ahead is good, but how far? Specifically, how far given how little we actually control.

> We need more software driven by intrinsic motivation, that is more likely to try to grapple with long-term consequences.

This helps a lot for explaining your vision, and sounds much more agreeable.

I read After Virtue by Alisdair MacIntyre [0] recently, and this sounds like an appreciation for the virtues necessary for the successful practice of software development. It would be interesting to explore that further.

> the ... tragedy-of-the-commons effects we've already introduced into the world, But at some point enough trees get chopped down that it gradually gets more and more urgent to not dig ourselves deeper.

Mentioning a tragedy-of-the-commons and an analogy of tree-chopping makes it sound as though industrial software was producing destructive and indelible environmental effects. The idea of "digging ourselves deeper" also implies that it's cumulative and aggregate. That is, something like there being a "bad-software gas" effect, and every emission of bad software contributes to it and won't easily dissipate.

I think this is a contrast I keep trying to come back to; maybe eventually I'll figure out how to state it clearly.

Chopping a tree is destructive and permanent; it doesn't respawn, though eventually new trees might grow. This makes tree-chopping cumulative unless managed properly. It is also really does reduce the aggregate number of trees and thus whatever benefits trees provide the environment. That is, lost trees could hypothetically affect everyone. Eventually, tree-chopping could add up to something significant. Furthermore, each tree chopped is a larger percentage of the remaining trees, so later chops may be more serious than earlier ones.

I don't think any of these attributes apply to software though. Writing software is constructive. Each project is independent, and does not cause any effects unless directly invoked or linked. This means new projects create more options, but not more liability; there is no aggregate externality. There are hundreds of thousands of projects on Github, and thousands of more companies with private source, and I am aware of and affected by very few of them. If one of those projects causes harm when I link it into mine, that's as much my fault as the original author's because I chose to link it.

The existence of vague, aggregate negative externalities for software needs further justification. Specifically identifying the issue may also help identify better how to fight it.

I think a common error in macro analysis (such as in Keynesian economics) is to treat members of a type as an aggregate quantity. The capital in an economy isn't a homogeneous quantity C that can be easily shifted to different industries, but actual machines and experts coordinated in a structure of relationships that can't be so easily changed. Software doesn't exist as some abstract quantity S that increases or decreases and correlates to a quantity of harm H. Each project is unique, and used by other projects in unique ways - or may not have any effect on them, if they are not so connected.

> Hopefully this clarifies things even if I didn't answer every last question of yours. Do let me know if you'd still like me to answer some other bit.

That's fine; it's enough if my questions help you understand my perspective and confusion, so you can better address them. I'm trying to work out more precisely my thoughts on these things as well. The better I understand the problem and the value of these particular software virtues, the better I can incorporate them into my own work.

---------

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/After_Virtue



2 points by akkartik 382 days ago | link

You said above that chopping a tree is permanent, even though new trees may grow. We're of one mind there. It's worth dwelling on this distinction, because it is the essence of what I'm trying to get across.

It's not about the single tree. Trees grow and die, and every step of the process seems natural in isolation. The problem with externalities lies in the scale, in the disruption of the natural balance between competing forces.

Yes, individual rules are not directly connected to each other, and their effects are often isolated. The trouble lies in their implementation and how the interactions of implementations of different disparate rules often reduces the degrees of freedom in future rule making/management.

Say you have 100 people creating new rules or software. Each of them only cares about a few projects of rule-making, and the different projects are largely independent. If 90% of the rule-makers are making badly designed rules, the whole will gradually grow unmanageable. This story doesn't depend on what the rules are about in the real world. All we are concerned about are the implementation details. Are they implemented parsimoniously, or is the overall effect a result of two clauses combining from hundreds of pages apart? Are they easy to understand, or are they deliberately phrased in a convoluted manner to make it difficult for newcomers to join in the business of rule making? Do they follow some meta-rules consistently, or do they normalize deviance (http://lmcontheline.blogspot.com/2013/01/the-normalization-o...)? There are many such tests, and we think of them as 'design'. The design of a system is a meta-commons even if each of us has a different use case within it.

Even if you think you don't care about the rules most people follow, the rules care about you. For example, it's harder for me to find other C++ programmers to collaborate with because the pool of people who care about the same domain as me is further diluted by people who care about the same subset of C++ as me. The parts of C++ I don't use still affect my life.

-----

3 points by shader 378 days ago | link

Our point of difference here regards externalities. You seem to think they are pervasive, largely irreversible, and negative. I'm still not sure that externalities exist or what they would be, let alone why they would be irreversible or negative. What about positive externalities, as good practices are recognized and recommended by people to their peers?

> The trouble lies in their implementation and how the interactions of implementations of different disparate rules often reduces the degrees of freedom in future rule making/management.

Within a legal jurisdiction all laws are effectively "executing in the same scope." Thus it's obvious and natural that they could interact with each other. Less obvious that such interactions are negative, or why that would make it harder for new people to write rules. Clearly our legislators have no difficulty pumping out more and more laws every year...

In software, the implementations don't run in the same scope, unless deliberately made to do so. And again, software projects aren't compulsory or indelible. They can be deleted, ignored, replaced, etc. very easily.

I might understand if you focused on the social implications of the software, such as one person using a code base, thinking its patterns were normal, and replicating them elsewhere. But you specifically mention the implementations and that somehow interactions between implementations reduces degrees of freedom. How? Where? Within a project, or across projects?

> Say you have 100 people creating new rules or software.

This whole section mixes your analogy and your subject. Many of the statements are obvious or at least reasonable for a legal system, but not obvious for software; at least, not software as a whole. Perhaps an individual project can fit the analogy fairly well. A program may, per your analogy, have complex behavior caused by spaghetti interactions across hundreds of pages, which would make things difficult for a newcomer to change. Such things repeated as patterns across a project do constitute the "design" or architecture of it. Do such patterns exist across all of software though, when anyone can start a new project in an empty file?

I appreciate the mention of "normalizing deviance", it's potentially a useful concept for this discussion. I think you're referring to the abstract pattern of normalizing deviance from what could otherwise have been consistent meta-rules, as opposed to a specific deviance? I'm not sure where that leaves me though.

I can almost imagine the "meta-commons" you mention, but I have no confidence that it is anything other than "common sense". Yes, people have habits of thought and behavior informed by their past experiences; there's no reason they can't learn and do better on their next project though.

> Even if you think you don't care about the rules most people follow, the rules care about you. For example, it's harder for me to find other C++ programmers to collaborate with because the pool of people who care about the same domain as me is further diluted by people who care about the same subset of C++ as me. The parts of C++ I don't use still affect my life.

It sounds like you're describing a situation where "bad" approaches steal mind share, reducing the number of people available for doing "good" work. Or, in your example, the existence of other domains (rules?) creates negative externalities for you by diluting your supply of collaborators. This sounds like a zero-sum fallacy. You're assuming that those people would still be C++ programmers and that they would be compelled to share your interests for lack of options, or that the other domains poached collaborators that were rightfully yours. Generally it works the other way though; the overall size of the market is increased by the existence of competitors, who share marketing costs in a larger economy of scale. Thus, because of those other domains, people with different interests are drawn into C++ programming would otherwise wouldn't be, and maybe some of them might eventually discover yours and collaborate with you. Sadly we can't run multiple experiments to find out which universe you have more collaborators in though.

-----

3 points by akkartik 376 days ago | link

This is a helpful summary of our differences. The keystone is whether zero-sum is a good framing or not.

I think we should by default assume we're in a zero-sum regime anytime people's attention is involved. For example, think back to the SOPA/PIPA boycotts a few years ago when every website turned off for a day. That's a trick you can only pull a finite number of times before people grow jaded.

Similarly, someone is only going to try to learn programming a small number of times. And every time they think they failed increases the energy barrier for the next time. Burnout is the primary concern here, to my mind.

The same principles apply also to experienced programmers learning about new software. Burnout is the prime enemy, but the concern of minimizing burnout is on no author's mind. Nobody owns the design goal of comprehensibility of internals. Lack of ownership is the essence of an externality.

When it takes too much effort to comprehend a piece of software, people can no longer keep up with it on their time. They have to be paid to do so. That biases the playing field between insiders and users. A small number of people working on a popular piece of software can have disproportionate influence on the lives of people.

To me the argument of the previous paragraphs is ironclad. Which part do you disagree with? Is software already easy to comprehend? Is comprehension to outsiders not the #1 problem in software? Is the difficulty in comprehension not because of tragedy-of-the-commons effects?

---

I'm going to stop debating the non-software side of things, since I'm not an expert there and I don't really have any solutions to offer. I strongly feel the problems of limited attention carry over there. But it's probably easier for me to convince you of that in the realm of software. Oh wait, one final note:

> Clearly our legislators have no difficulty pumping out more and more laws every year...

Have you not met programmers talented at churning out crap? The difficulty is not in writing new laws, but in having the whole make sense. At least in software the computer enforces some basic checking. If the program crashes, that's visible to all. Contradictions in laws can fester for long periods until someone works up the resources to take a case all the way to the Supreme Court. (Why in the world don't US courts deal with counterfactuals? The whole principle of "case or controversy" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advisory_opinion#United_States) is bound up in pre-software thinking. In my ideal world courts would be able to give feedback on bills even before they are turned into Law, and actually influence how legislators voted on them. "Have you considered this corner case?")

-----