1. What Should I Read First?

    December 28, 2008 by Craig

    Christmas Books

    I got five interesting books for Christmas this year (four of which were on my Amazon wish list). I’m turning to you, dear LazyWeb, to help me decide in what order to read them.

    They are:

    I also have Startups That Work on loan from the library. I grabbed it off the shelf prior to my long car ride in a pre-Christmas book lull.

    I could also have Fable 2, so I could put off this decision entirely. 😛


  2. Mystery

    October 25, 2008 by Craig

    There never has been any mystery, just people who won’t read history.

    Accidental poetic insight by “St_Francis_P” in the Fark thread:

    Far from the pillaging rapists history remembers them as, the Vikings were stylish trendsetters considered far too concerned with their personal hygiene, thus explaining the great mystery of how the Vikings turned into the Swedes


  3. Hard Questions, Telling Answers.

    October 17, 2008 by Craig

    Marco has cooked up some ethical questions designed to push ethical boundaries, spark debate, and generate insight. He’s written up a good “why ask these questions” already so I won’t repeat it here. Instead, I’ll dive right in with my responses.

    Disclaimers

    1. Obviously, the situations invented by these questions mostly suck. However, trying to avoid making a decision defeats the purpose, and so I won’t take that option.
      1. Whenever Marco says “you must” I’ll follow that direction; in real life I’d of course be looking for other options.
      2. I won’t use randomness to make a decision, even though that might be a preferable result.
      3. I just read a very interesting article (courtesy J.) that’s very relevant to these types of questions. Based on that article, the answer to all of these is “I refuse the answer because, as a fallible human, I cannot accurately predict the consequences of major actions like these.” In real life that’s a good policy, but as above it defeats the purpose of asking the questions in the first place… so I won’t follow it here.
    2. I’ll also expand a bit with explanations of my thought process (which is really the whole point of this exercise).
    3. I can give an intellectual response from behind the safety of fictional circumstances. Often when confronted with real decisions, I’ve found my responses to be more emotionally charged. If I was ever actually in one of these situations, I might react very differently than what I say here.
    4. A bit more information could easily prompt me to flip my answer the other way. We don’t have more information than this though, so I’ll operate as best as I can in its absence.
    5. These are all rationalizations. I’m aware of that. I don’t have much confidence in any of them.

    Life Savings

    You must choose to spare one life: either a religious leader who to all known facts is a good and decent man who has brought solace to thousands or a scientist who tests as brilliant but has never accomplished anything in their field. Who do you save and why?

    I vote to save the scientist. Presumably, as a scientist, he has a more realistic/truthful view of the world than the religious leader (the truth of this statement is a whole other discussion; I won’t go into it here). We don’t know how the preacher brought his solace. It could very well have been at the expense of others, and at the very least is probably based on false premises. Basically, I’m voting for truth (even if harsh) rather than falsehood (even if comforting).

    ‘Til They Glow

    You have one city-buster nuclear weapon. You must use it on a major metropolitan area. There will be no direct repercussions. Who do you nuke?

    I’ll go with “the city that has the least worldwide impact.” I started thinking along the lines of “least worldwide economic impact” (ie: poorest); dikaiosunh posted a less-assholish version that involved the lowest population that still qualified. Let’s mix in cultural value as well (ie: don’t nuke Rome because of the huge art history that resides there). I don’t know which city that is but I’m sure Wikipedia could tell me.

    Convert The Infidel

    You have a machine that will mentally swicht all adherents from one religion to another (it cannot make them atheists, it must be a real religion–with church-like infrastructure, no flying spaghetti monsters). Which religion is the target. What do they believe now?

    Firstly, let me start off by saying that this would probably not have much effect. The differences between various religions are dwarfed by the differences in degree of religiousness. That is to say: an extremist probably won’t stop being an extremist simply because the particular beliefs change.

    However, if I have to choose…

    I gotta go with Sam Harris and pick Islam as the “from” religion, because:

    1. It’s big. The goal here is to have a positive effect, and since I want the biggest positive effect possible, I have to pick one of the big ones. That limits me to Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and perhaps Chinese folk religion. All of the other religions might be “more deserving” candidates but they’re smaller and thus don’t have as much of an impact.
    2. It’s somewhat more exclusionary than the others. It’s less tolerant of other views, especially relative to Buddhism.
    3. It’s very authoritarian. It’s less so than Christianity, but moreso than Buddhism.
    4. It’s militant. This is especially true when you consider recent history relative to the other religions. For example, Christianity has plenty of blood on its hands but a lot less has been spilled in the past fifty years; Islam encourages plenty of violent behavior here-and-now.

    As for the “to” religion: I want something that’s the exact opposite: nonviolent, nonexclusive, egalitarian, and accepting of outsiders. Again, I’m not sure which religion best qualifies. I don’t think Marco would accept any of my favorites picks as “religions:”

    1. Secular Humanism
    2. Humanistic Naturalism
    3. The Brights Movement

    Marco suggested Unitarian Universalism, and I think that’s a good pick. The Quakers are pretty close too. I’ll give a shout-out to the Doukhobors (of which my maternal ancestors were members) for their staunch pacifism. However, all of these groups still fall short on their supernatural / nonscientific worldviews. Maybe when the Brights get a building I’ll be able to switch my target.

    Criminal Intent

    You can make something that didn’t used to be a criminal act and choose the penalty. What would you criminalize?

    Unfortunately, criminalizing something doesn’t keep people from doing it, so this is not necessarily a worthwhile action. I’m tempted to pick something ridiculous (ex: “simultaneously being in two places at once”) in order to prevent any unintended consequences, but that’s goes against the spirit of not weaseling out of an answer. If I view this as “what would I really like people to stop doing”, I’d chose “believing things that aren’t supported (or are contradicted by) reasoning and evidence.” Penalty: you have to sit through lessons by Sagan, Dawkins, Randi, Douglas Adams, Penn & Teller, and others until you stop.

    Yo ho! Yo HO!

    You have a choice between stopping all internet piracy or all speeding on the highway but the cost is that your favorite living artist will be forever put out of business. Is it worth it to you to stop either of those at that cost?

    My answer is no, because I’m not certain that all piracy and speeding are bad. Putting my favorite (and thus IMO valuable) artist out of business definitely is. So, doing this might very well mean a double-negative, which is thus a no-brainer to vote against. On the other hand, if the question was phrased “stop the bad aspects of piracy and speeding” then I’d probably say yes; one artist’s preferred livelihood (note: not only livelihood) isn’t worth far-reaching social implications. (Besides, my favorite artist is already dead.)

    One Makes You Larger

    This one has multiple aspects so I’ll split them up.

    There is a 100% safe procedure that will ensure that your child will be hetrosexual. Do you use it on him/her?

    If I was 100% sure that this was also 100% without other consequences, then I’d probably say “yes”. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with homosexuality or bisexuality, but a lot of people do, and I’d prefer my child didn’t have to face that. He or she would presumably gain a slight advantage for it, and that’s good.

    But that’s a big “if”. More than likely, I could not be 100% sure of zero other consequences. In that case the answer is definitely “no”; in this day and age (and location) it’s not a big enough advantage to risk the consequences.

    Do you release it to the world at large?

    Here I say “no”, mainly because it’s unlikely to see how the lack of other consequences could ever be achieved. The same prejudices that cause me to consider it in the first place pretty much guarantee that it would be abused by at least some portion of the rest of the world. I realize that this approaches hypocrisy. Note that if you said “you can use it, but only if you give it to the world at large” then my answer would be “no, I wouldn’t use it, and then wouldn’t release it either.”

    What if it is 90% safe?

    A one-in-10 chance of real harm isn’t worth it when the benefits are so minimal. If I was living in in a place where homosexuality meant a horrible death, then I might take that risk. Here and now though it’s a no-brainer.

    Choose Your Punishment

    You are convicted of speeding while on vacation in another country. You are given a choice of 10 lashes with a cane or 90 days in jail. Which do you think you’d choose? (Assume the jails are relatively safe but only to a ‘realistic’ degree–no perfect guarantee).

    I’d pick prison. I haven’t had any pain approaching a cane (at least I don’t think so; maybe it’s not all that bad) so it’s hard imagine what that would be like. I think that, on average, prison would be better. There’s actually some good that could come out of prison time:

    1. Pick up useful skills and contacts
    2. Exercise
    3. Do community service (if allowed)
    4. Spend time reading, writing, and reflecting

    Heck, that’s nearly a holiday! 😛

    On the other hand, caning is done in a matter of minutes, so maybe it’s better to get it over with and move on.

    Crazy!

    You get to choose our next president: Bob Barr or Ron Paul! Ready, set, go!

    I don’t know many specifics about either of them. Obviously I’d research both before choosing. If I couldn’t do that, I’d pick Ron Paul just because he’s the wisdom-of-crowds pick. From the little I’ve read they both seem to be very close politically. I don’t think either would be horrible (both would probably be better than GWB).

    That’s it! Now it’s your turn.


  4. The End of the Software Developer

    September 19, 2008 by Craig
    Summary

    Do computer programs that write other computer programs mean the end of the software development career for humans?

    Twelve years ago, while I was in computer programming school, I was engaged in a debate with a not-so-knowledgeable person about the value of a career in software development. He claimed that before too long the profession would be obsolete, as computer programs would be writing computer programs, and the humans wouldn’t be necessary. (He was a medical magnet salesman; I think he was trying to convince me that his profession had more merits.)

    Thankfully, I didn’t argue the point much. There would have been little point in trying to convince him anyway, but at the time I didn’t really have a strong argument against it. Circa 1996, RAD and expert systems were big buzzwords, and so it seemed at least possible that, given enough time, research, AI, and computing power, programs-to-build-programs could become reality.

    A decade and a couple of computing revolutions later, this dream is looking less likely. We now know a lot more about how little we know about software development. We know how complex and chaotic it is, and we know how poorly algorithms are suited to handling those sorts of problems. We know that the best work is done in organizations that emphasize people over process.

    That’s not to say that computers, algorithms and AI haven’t made some appreciable advancements in capability over the past few years. Google is the best-known example. The Roomba and it’s big-brothers SWORDS and Predator have finally brought robotic sci-fi closer to reality. There’s real progress being made on the DARPA challenges. Can software-that-writes-software be that far behind?

    I’m not going to attach a timeline to that question, but I do have one insight. It came to me when listening to Stack Overflow Podcast 21 (you can read the transcript here). Jeff and Joel were discussing the role of experts in particular fields, how deep their knowledge really goes, and how applicable it is to new development. Jeff said:

    …the way that I’ve characterised [software development] in the past, it’s kind of like a number in binary. Right? So you start off with a bit… which is, you know, zero or one. And then as you go from left to right, you flip all those bits, and say you have six bits. By the time you’ve flipped six unique bits, think how many combinations there are of what you’re doing. It was always amazing to me as a developer, it didn’t take very long at all to get completely off the beaten path, to where, like, virtually nobody is doing what you are doing. And it’s not like you’re doing anything weird. It’s just that you made 6 unique decisions that are all independent of each other, and software development is just kind of like that.

    6 trivial changes can make 64 different possible outcomes (2 to the power of 6). What Jeff means is that no situation in software development is exactly the same as any other; the number of variables is so large that the number of outcomes is enormous.

    Computers today cannot deal with that sort of complexity. They won’t be able to do so in the immediate future either. With increases in algorithm research and raw power, they might be able to do so someday. I don’t know whether or not that will happen in my lifetime.

    What I do know is this: software development is probably the most complex domain in existence. That means that, if computer programs someday replace the software developer, it will be one of the last careers to be replaced. Most of the others will have long since fallen to ever-more-capable robots and algorithms. If you want something that’s future-proof, software development is probably as close as you will ever get.


  5. Perpetually Flawed

    August 29, 2008 by Craig

    When I was a kid, adults often told me I would be rich and famous some day. Apparently I was giving off some sort of ambition vibe early on. I think ambition is a genetic defect. You can’t have ambition unless you think there is something wrong with the way you are. Ambition is a state of feeling perpetually flawed.

    From Dilbert Blog.


  6. Wikipedia Tourism #12

    August 15, 2008 by Craig

    Poe’s Law — Without a blatant display of humor, it is impossible to tell the difference between religious Fundamentalism and a parody thereof.

    From List of eponymous laws (sorry, there’s no article for the law itself).


  7. Follow the Leader

    by Craig

    Marco and I have been talking a lot about the role of leadership in organizations. We’ve gotten on to a lot of different tangents, but there’s one important point I’d like to make out in the clear.

    Marco’s Bro writes:

    When I put someone in charge it’s because I want them to use their discretion — I believe they can be successful. I trust their judgment.

    I expect that their team members will support them. I don’t expect unquestioning obedience or anything, but I expect everyone to realize that Leader Guy is, in fact, Leader Guy because I thought he was the best person for the job.

    I know Marco’s Bro and, in real life, would probably accept most of his decisions. However, I disagree with this way of thinking in a general sense. My response to his statement goes like this:

    What if you made a mistake? What if Leader Guy deceived you into thinking he’s more capable than he really is? What if he’s no longer as capable as he once was (personal problems, brain injury, etc)? What if he’s now out of his area of competence (see: the Peter Principle). What if you only rationalized to yourself that he’s trustworthy, when in actual fact you installed him because he’s dating your sister? What if your trust in him stems from his Harvard degree that his father bought for him? What if your boss chose you because he knew you’d choose That Guy, who happens to be his nephew?

    Authority is a dangerous thing. When you trust in vested authority over other qualities then you put all of your eggs in the basket of the authority figure; your risk has gone up dramatically. That may turn out OK if the leader happens to be a good decision maker. However, thousands of years of history have shown us that following the leader doesn’t always work out well, and can often be disastrous. I’m sure everyone has been in a situation where they’ve had to accept the authority of someone who, on the face of it, shouldn’t have been given that power (I know that everyone in the U.S. has).

    Marco and His Bro have stated that they don’t expect unquestioning obedience in the leader, but that when the leader has made a decision, they expect the rest of the team to go along with it, even if they think it’s wrong. This strengthens my argument against authority while at the same time cuts its legs out from under it. Yes, you want your leader to be taking the arguments of his subordinates into consideration. If, at the end of the day, he rejects them regardless of their validity, then they may as well not have been voiced in the first place. Both Marco and His Bro have said that if they’d heard of dissent escaping from the confines of the team and propagating up to their level, they’d tend to trust the leader and think of the dissenter as a troublemaker. Of course, that may true in a some cases, but this policy definitely puts a chilling effect on dissent that could be beneficial (or even critical).

    In one of my instant messaging chats with Marco, the topic of religion (very briefly) came up. Religion is, of course, the ultimate in authority, both in a supernatural and in a real-world sense. Especially in monotheism, a deity has overwhelming power over its followers, who in turn have none over it. That deity, in turn “installs” its own hierarchy of people to act as a local authority on its behalf — at least according to the people in the hierarchy. Since these people supposedly have privileged access to the deity, they are effectively granted authority by the followers. Religion is particularly good at suppressing dissent, through everything from genocide down to making virtues out of trust and belief without evidence.

    Evidence and reasoning are the keys to overcoming the risks associated with authority. They are the great equalizers, because Nature doesn’t care one bit about who has granted authority to whom — but with enough evidence and reasoning you can navigate the rules that Nature has put in place and use them to achieve your goals.

    It may very well be that the chosen leader makes successful decisions because she applies the best evidence and reasoning to a problem. Ideally, this should be true in every case; you can make the best decision possible in the shortest amount of time when you don’t have to explain and justify it to others. But we all know that this doesn’t happen every time. Even if the leader has the best reasoning skills, she may not have the best evidence, and so her conclusions might be suboptimal.

    This is why I reject authority that exists for its own sake. If an authority figure makes a decision, let the decision stand on its own merits, not on the position of the person who makes it. If it’s a good decision (based on the reasoning and on the evidence), then it’s worth supporting. If there’s an better one, let it be the course of action, regardless of who proposed it. If gathering evidence is too costly (and it often is), then it’s OK to go with the assumptions of the most “experienced” person on the team, but be prepared to reject those assumptions when the evidence contradicts it. Personal experience is a valid argument (we rely on it for a great many decisions), but it’s a weak one, and it should be overridden and/or augmented by objective evidence whenever possible.

    Authority, at best, illegitimately takes credit for success. At worst, it leads to failure. Be skeptical of it at all times.


  8. Be a Team Player

    August 13, 2008 by Craig

    In many (most?) organizations, “being a team player” is code for “being nice” — which, in turn, is often code for “not contradicting anyone.” The problem with this is that it leads to groupthink and mediocre (or often just plain wrong) results.

    I think that this Slashdotter has it right: (emphasis added by me)

    I’ve worked for years in highly effective teams, and with success. I can tell you what made all the difference: The presence of equals to debate issues with, so that we could talk each other through the problems and emerge from the session with the feeling that we had defined better solutions. Perhaps we are all arrogant nuisances, but as long as we understand and respect each other we keep each other in check, and can function as effective team members.

    The “respect among equals” also translates to “respect among people above and below you in the hierarchy” when such hierarchies exist:

    • Listen to & consider what your boss says, but call him out on it when he’s wrong or hasn’t justified his assertions.
    • Listen to & consider the objections of those below your skill and/or station, but correct them when they’re mistaken and clarify the reasoning behind your positions.

    You should only be stating agreement when you reach the same conclusions based on the available information. If you don’t think you have enough information to defend a contrary position, it’s better to state that outright rather than agree by default. The lack of agreement, even without the presence of opposition, might be enough to show that the position is potentially unreliable.

    Being a helpful member of a team means working to achieve the same goal as the other team members. It does not necessarily mean following the same process.

    Update: Fixed the link to Slashdot. Sorry for that.


  9. Lies We Tell Kids (and Ourselves)

    May 14, 2008 by Craig

    Paul Graham has posted a great essay on the lies and misdirections we tell to children, the reasons we do it, and the consequences of doing so. There’s one passage I particularly liked:

    Telling a child they have a particular ethnic or religious identity is one of the stickiest things you can tell them. Almost anything else you tell a kid, they can change their mind about later when they start to think for themselves. But if you tell a kid they’re a member of a certain group, that seems nearly impossible to shake.

    This despite the fact that it can be one of the most premeditated lies parents tell. When parents are of different religions, they’ll often agree between themselves that their children will be “raised as Xes.” And it works. The kids obligingly grow up considering themselves as Xes, despite the fact that if their parents had chosen the other way, they’d have grown up considering themselves as Ys.

    One reason this works so well is the second kind of lie involved. The truth is common property. You can’t distinguish your group by doing things that are rational, and believing things that are true. If you want to set yourself apart from other people, you have to do things that are arbitrary, and believe things that are false. And after having spent their whole lives doing things that are arbitrary and believing things that are false, and being regarded as odd by “outsiders” on that account, the cognitive dissonance pushing children to regard themselves as Xes must be enormous. If they aren’t an X, why are they attached to all these arbitrary beliefs and customs? If they aren’t an X, why do all the non-Xes call them one?

    Now, to segue a bit:

    This form of lie is not without its uses. You can use it to carry a payload of beneficial beliefs, and they will also become part of the child’s identity. You can tell the child that in addition to never wearing the color yellow, believing the world was created by a giant rabbit, and always snapping their fingers before eating fish, Xes are also particularly honest and industrious. Then X children will grow up feeling it’s part of their identity to be honest and industrious.

    My grandmother has, on a couple of occasions, (jokingly) said to Laura that “she must have some Irish in her” due to her cheerful and outgoing personality. Laura happens to be Latin American and of course has pretty much zero actual Irish ancestry. There are cheerful and outgoing people in all cultures, but we like to assign people to groups and then infer properties about the person based on the properties we’ve observed or assigned to the group. That’s called prejudice, and it’s misleading even when it’s done with positive intentions.

    Lastly:

    We arrive at adulthood with a kind of truth debt. We were told a lot of lies to get us (and our parents) through our childhood. Some may have been necessary. Some probably weren’t. But we all arrive at adulthood with heads full of lies.

    There’s never a point where the adults sit you down and explain all the lies they told you. They’ve forgotten most of them. So if you’re going to clear these lies out of your head, you’re going to have to do it yourself.

    Few do. Most people go through life with bits of packing material adhering to their minds and never know it. You probably never can completely undo the effects of lies you were told as a kid, but it’s worth trying. I’ve found that whenever I’ve been able to undo a lie I was told, a lot of other things fell into place.


  10. Perfectionists

    May 12, 2008 by Craig

    Stephen Dubner on Freakonomics Blog writes:

    Have You Ever Noticed that people who go around saying “I’m a perfectionist” never are, while people who actually are perfectionists never go around saying it?

    I have.