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Comment: Re:I am no economist, but as a geek ... (Score 1) 205

by TopherC (#48558931) Attached to: The Failed Economics of Our Software Commons

I think what you're pointing out is really important from a broad economic perspective, since it's not always money that motivates us.

But I also think that TFA calling the software economy a "failed" one is technically accurate. One perspective on this that I've been pondering for a long time is the idea of Pareto optimality and the free market hypothesis. The hypothesis is that a free (unregulated) market economy becomes Pareto-optimal. A market segment that becomes sub-optimal is called a "failed" market. I think it's by that definition that the software market fails. Not that it's completely broken, just sub-optimal. Traditionally this defines where a government can step in to impose regulations to, for example, deter monopolies or prohibit cartels.

I am not an economist, and I cannot prove this, but I think that one of the assumptions underlying the free market hypothesis is that any good has a non-zero production cost. In hand-waiving terms, the concept of scarcity underlies economic theory. But a lot of our economy today is in goods that have either zero production costs, or production costs that are dwarfed by development costs. Software is the prime example, but music, movies, news, and more are also examples of this. There are other industries that are in a gray area, like microchip manufacturing, where development costs and capital investments are huge.

Pareto efficiency, as I understand it, can be thought of as a test of whether or not at any snapshot of time a redistribution of goods could theoretically be made in such a way as to make folks, on average, happier. Again I'm hand-waiving, and IANAE, etc. But if software is produced and distributed at nearly zero cost, then by giving more people who want the software, but not badly enough to pay for it, a free copy, or a free site license, we make some people happier without taking away from anyone else. Remember this is a momentary redistribution-thought-experiment, not a sales model. So any kind of commercial software, it seems to me, fails the test for Pareto optimality, and therefore the software market has "failed."

I'm not saying that commercial software is bad or evil or even unhelpful, just that a traditional free market economy does not, can not, regulate the software industry in an efficient way. We can do better. I don't know how, but I'm pretty sure there's significant room for improvement. In a sense, the success of free software (forgive the sloppy term) is a proof of this. I also tend to think of software that's paid for by advertisement revenue (free apps, web sites, all of Google) as another case study of a failed market. But that's a tangent.

I really like the idea of Snowdrift.coop. I like that they take a game theory approach to this problem and have what seems like a reasonable solution. I don't, however, think it solves the problem entirely by recovering an efficient software market. Their primary case study, OpenSSL, is not the kind of software that is by itself innovative or disruptive. It needs to work and work well, but it is a solution to a common and well-known problem. One of the key features of a free market is that it allows and even encourages failure. I don't (yet) see how the Snowdrift.coop concept will similarly encourage experimentation and failure.

To touch back on your point that we are not entirely motivated by money -- Yes of course that's true and it's important to not feel governed by the economy. If our basic needs are met then often we can focus on higher goals and motivations. But I'd still like to see a world where software and other industries like news media can thrive on equal footing with the more traditional industries. As these newer industries continue to grow, I think we need for them to be efficiently regulated.

If I were clever enough, I would like to be able to propose some modification to a market economy that can generalize to industries with zero production costs. I've thought a lot about this in spare moments here and there, but I haven't gotten anywhere. Has anyone else?

Comment: Re:Divisions (Score 1) 48

by TopherC (#48518049) Attached to: Interviews: Malcolm Gladwell Answers Your Questions

Well said.

This and the original question Gladwell was answering reminded me again of a basic question I've had since youth: why a political dichotomy anyway? Why not three types of people, or just individual issues that we have independent opinions on? Haidt explains some of this from the perspective of personality traits, but I wonder if another part of the answer lies in the most common voting system in the US: plurality voting. That system has the feature of a 3rd-party-spoiler effect, where a 3rd political party worsens the election chance of their most closely-related parties. Okay this is a bit of a stretch, but my reasoning is that this causes a two-party system to be a kind of stable equilibrium. This shapes the political landscape and makes things like mud-slinging propaganda to be unusually effective. With a simple conservative-liberal dichotomy, politicians (and advertisers to a lesser degree) can speak in terms of belonging to one group or another, about us-versus-them, and who-you-are rather than what-you-think.

Granted, Haidt does have some good points. But when Gladwell pointed out that Canadians aren't so obsessed with the liberal-conservative dichotomy I started to wonder. ... Okay, I see that Canada also has a plurality voting system, so I'm likely full of ... it. Eh, I'll post this anyway. :)

Comment: Re:Don't teach them to "program" (Score 1) 107

by TopherC (#48427525) Attached to: Ask Slashdot: Professionally Packaged Tools For Teaching Kids To Program?

About design patterns: In my own experience, I learned about design patterns only after many years of programming experience. I had already encountered and/or invented all the patterns I later read about. But reading about them was good because it allowed for a common language to communicate with other programmers as well as a kind of self-reflection and ability to think about design patterns more conscientiously and methodically. I'm glad to have learned about these when I did, and not sooner.

It's just fine, IMO, to teach programming as a self-discovery, unguided hacking, kind of thing. This is a "constructivist education" approach, and works extremely well in many cases.

The same comments apply to a lesser degree about teaching multiple languages and general programming language concepts. I would not teach a second programming language before a young student had the chance to explore and get comfortable with their first. That may or may not take long.

Comment: Re:Tip of the iceberg (Score 1) 669

by TopherC (#48264031) Attached to: Pope Francis Declares Evolution and Big Bang Theory Are Right

There's actually a lot of potentional scientific correct stuff in the Bible. Yet, discussing them usually gets frowned upon by either team - it seems (for atheist scientists) a lot easier to discard the bible as 'rubbish' instead of an historical document - where the religious camp tends to take this same history book too literal, despite all translation issues.

I need to disagree with your referring to the Bible as a "history book." Even though it contains a lot of historical narratives (combined with folklore), the purpose of the authors never (?) seems to be to document some piece of history but rather to highlight some moral idea, to explore our relationship to God, to help a nation have hope and stay together in times of exile, to stir up questions and provoke thought, etc. The stories told are never recent events at the time of writing, but reflect strongly and relate to the political landscape of the times they were written in. Also the style of writing is generally distinct from the style of other ancient-contemporary documents that were written to preserve history.

What I feel is a more helpful approach to the Bible is to read it like it were poetry. What analogies are being used? What is this really about? How does this change my ideas or motives? I know this conflicts with a "literal" interpretation, so I know many will violently disagree with this idea, but I can't fathom why. The Bible contains a wide range of conflicting theological opinions. We don't read cookbooks like they are philosophical treatises, and we don't read science fiction like a newspaper. Why do so many people ... Okay I'll stop. No, I won't. Consider for example the book Job, a non-historical narrative, that challenges the theology of divine retributive justice, and how that relates to the new-vs-old thought in the New Testament. Then think about the two creation myths in Genesis not as right-or-wrong histories but as stories that provide windows into human nature and the human condition.

I like the rest of your ideas. It's important to keep an open mind. Just make sure you're equally open to conflicting ideas and avoid falling into the trap that because something's possible, or because you believe it for some reason, it's true. Every good theorist hopes for the day their theory gets taken seriously enough to be experimentally proven false. Maybe in religion we should all hope for a time when we understand things well enough to realize our former beliefs were all poppycock. It's hard to find a higher (philosophical) aspiration than that.

Comment: Re:How about we hackers? (Score 1) 863

by TopherC (#48251709) Attached to: Debate Over Systemd Exposes the Two Factions Tugging At Modern-day Linux

I've been running Gentoo on a few boxes at home for many years. Very often I need to restart a service. It often goes along these lines:

# /etc/init.d/someservice restart
Stopping ... error.
# /etc/init.d/someservice start
I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid someservice is already running.
# /etc/init.d/someservice stop
# /etc/init.d/someservice zap
Well okay then. Whatever.
# /etc/init.d/someservice start

Comment: Re:Stop paying until the bugs are fixed (Score 2) 204

I like this advice, but in the case at hand -- it's been two years! -- I doubt it's worth wasting any more time trying to get your issues resolved by that vendor. You'll have to eat some costs one way or another.

This is probably a textbook case for promoting free software. That has to be said. And since you'll need a replacement VPN solution, it's not just a pedantic argument.

Comment: Re:And that is why the Spock/Logic way is incomple (Score 1) 937

by TopherC (#47911663) Attached to: Why Atheists Need Captain Kirk

I like that quote, even though it was a bit difficult to digest. The English language has evolved in the past century in a way that demands much less of the reader and conveys much less complexity and accuracy.

I wanted to add, somewhere, my $.02 about "faith." I'm told that early (1st century) Christians used what-we-translate-as-faith to be a kind of radical trust. More verb than noun. A trust in an idea, not fully understood or rationalized, that allowed them to lead lives that were unselfish, bold/foolhardy, non-violent extremists, anti-establishment, share-the-wealth sorts of people. The idea is that for them, faith was incompatible with certainty. Conviction deletes the possibility of faith. They did not have proof of deity, a consistent doctrine, etc. Reason was encouraged and appealed to, but knowledge was known to be incomplete.

What most people think about religion is that it is a doctrine (teaching or authority-based knowledge) that requires unwavering belief without question or reason. (My perspective here is Christianity rather than all religion, but I suspect that most major world religions are similar in this way.) Yet this is probably not a genuine or original form of any given religion but instead what human nature and politics have deformed religions into over time. People want to be told what to believe, and people who desire power cannot help but use fear and shame to great effect. I think modern-day Christianity is more about manipulating people and in most respects is the exact opposite of its earliest incarnations.

Science today has some of the same struggles. Science itself is an art, since the more precisely one tries to define it, the more inaccurate that definition becomes. Scientific knowledge is a little bit of an oxymoron since science can be described as a tool for disproving what is not true more than it is a means of proving what is true. This is true on all scales of complexity, but it's most evident at the reductionist frontier of particle physics and cosmology. The standard model is not logically consistent with general relativity, yet both theories are spectacularly successful. And there are problems of naturalness, etc. It is not tenable, not reasonable or scientific, to think that our most successful scientific theories are set to last. Modifications need to be made, and probably in big, fundamental, philosophically-challenging ways. The history of the development of physics is full of cases like this and physics is by no means "done." But people are eager to philosophize based on "what scientists know", and they are eager for answers from authority.

Authentic science, like authentic religion, is not authority-based. I'm not saying anything negative about consensus, just that there is always room for new theories and new experiments regardless of credentials. Data does not respect authority. And I don't believe there needs to be any contradiction between the two approaches of religion and science, as long as we are referring to religion as a searching process not a placating drug. Both science and religion address the basic problem of doing the best we can today with what little we know. Good scientists know that good questions are better than "right" answers, and good ... what, "religious" folk ??? (atheists included) ... know that it's better to be loving than right.

I suppose most of these ideas come from two books that might seem diametrically-opposed: The Underground Church, and Dreams of a Final Theory.

Comment: Re:Python + Qt (Score 1) 466

by TopherC (#47246981) Attached to: Ask Slashdot: Best Rapid Development Language To Learn Today?

A program like the grandparent's "Hello World" is meant as a starting point and not a demonstration of how small a nearly-useless program can be. A GUI program necessarily aims to do more than just print a message, and this example gives you a small glimpse at how you the language could look and feel, and how you might go about doing something more practical. A MessageBox popup is not a good starting point since about all you can change is the text itself.

Comment: Re:Protecting the Weak from the Strong (Score 3, Insightful) 224

by TopherC (#47223991) Attached to: Interviews: Bruce Perens Answers Your Questions

Do you have personal experience with this? Are there any data on that? How many lives are saved per year by the threat of gun violence?

In the absence of a study, imagine a world in which every citizen (maybe older than, say, the legal driving age) is carrying a firearm. Imagine the major population centers like NYC where the statistics would matter. Would there be fewer gun-related deaths in that world than in ours? I can't see it that way. I would feel safer in a world where people are more encouraged to deal with conflict in a nonviolent way.

Comment: Re:Simultaneity is in the eye of the beholder. (Score 1) 120

by TopherC (#47129369) Attached to: Happy 95th Anniversary, Relativity

Re: Mercury's precession, I'm still a believer in Vulcan.

Yeah, even the term "disproves" is not exactly correct. Newtonian gravity has a very hard time explaining Mercury's precession and is completely untenable with today's observational evidence. General relativity explains Mercury's orbit without having to invent new invisible planets & stuff. And today General relativity is still doing spectacularly well with many careful neutron star observations as well as experiments closer to home, like Gravity Probe B's measurements of frame dragging and more.

Comment: Re:Simultaneity is in the eye of the beholder. (Score 2) 120

by TopherC (#47129119) Attached to: Happy 95th Anniversary, Relativity

Funny, I read that book (which is excellent) but don't remember that analogy. But I think you're talking about special relativity, not general relativity. The best GR explanation I've seen is an article Lost in Hyperbolia. For me that explanation worked perfectly.

Now I remember reading in various places that the solar eclipse data on GR was not actually conclusive. Bad science. The earlier work Einstein did that explained the precession of mercury's orbit was actually the first confirmation of GR. Also, of course, confirmation is not a word that is ever used correctly in science. The precession of mercury's orbit disproved Newtonian gravity but failed to disprove GR. The bending of starlight by the Sun would have been an even more impressive failure-to-disprove GR if the data were actually conclusive.

Man must shape his tools lest they shape him. -- Arthur R. Miller