Archive for August, 2007


Monday, August 27th, 2007

microPledge looks like the most interesting effort to provide a platform for funding creation of public goods through donations that I’ve seen in awhile (which isn’t saying much). Their projects could be thought of as assurance contracts — you either get the software or your money back. Would be interesting to see them attempt to offer dominant assurance contracts — … or your money back, plus. They also have what looks to be a reasonable approaches to payments to creators while a project is in progress and quitting creators.

But the amounts pledged so far are micro.

Via Erik Möller and Jeff Bone.

Moore’s law for software

Monday, August 27th, 2007

There’s been a fair bit written about ‘Moore’s law for software’, usually complaining that there isn’t one. My guess is that’s nuts, but I’d love to see some rigorous analysis (I bet I’m just ignorant of it).

Interesting tidbit from San Jose Mercury-News article two weeks ago Penny-pinching entrepreneurs changing world of venture capital:

Ten years ago, six or seven programmers would have been needed to achieve the results of one programmer today, valley veterans say.

If true, that’s an annual increase in programmer productivity of about twenty percent. Let’s say it’s actually half that due to exaggeration or (adding headcount to a software project doesn’t scale well–though on second thought Brooks’ Law could magnify productivity increases, by allowing teams to get smaller). That would make for a doubling time of about seven years. Not nearly as impressive as Moore’s Law doubling of transistor density every two years, but still exponential. And my wild guess is that it has been fairly consistent over the history of programming.

For my five year old impressions on the matter, see this thread.

Addendum: Depending (in part) on how far back you consider the history of programming to go, of course a consistent doubling time for software (or hardware) doesn’t make sense, but rather . Doubtless Ray Kurzweil has many graphs attempting to demonstrate this for software in his books. I didn’t intend to go there in this post, but it is timely, as I’ll probably attend the Singularity Summit in a couple weekends.

The pragmatic case for open services

Tuesday, August 14th, 2007

I’ve been meaning to comment again (see constitutionally open services from last July) on free services as in free software, discussion of which has picked up noticably in the past few months (see Luis Villa’s evaluating a free/open service definition rough draft and comments on that post for one entry into that discussion).

I may get to it eventually, but a big part of my commentary would be on the pragmatic “open source” argument for open services, which I think has hardly been made in that context. Matthew Gertner makes the case in Facebook and the Case for Open Source:

From my perspective, the most interesting thing about the recent leak of Facebook source code is what a non-event it was. As such it’s one of the strongest arguments for open source that I’ve seen in a while.

Gertner goes on to explain how of the possible downsides from the leak could be seen as benefits. Of course open source isn’t magic and a source code leak isn’t going to help any more than a source code dump with no process. But for at least some sites willing to invest in that process, there is almost all upside to opening the code that runs the site.

One question for temporary dictator applicants

Saturday, August 11th, 2007

“What will you do to reduce the power of the presidency?”

The disappointing answers I’d expect, in decreasing order of lameness:

  • George Bush exercised power irresponsibly, I will do so benevolently — expected from many Democratic and some Republican candidates. Ignore history and put your trust in the candidate and his successors.
  • Congress needs to get a backbone — expected from many Democratic candidates. Likely the candidate is a current or recent member of congress, hmm.
  • Cut back government and the president has less power to exercise — expected from Ron Paul. I’m all for this, but it’s really a version of the first answer. Coming from anyone other than Paul, it is merely a particularly insincere version of the first answer.
  • We need a strong president to lead the terror war — expected from many Republican candidates. This view may be more immediately dangerous than all of the above, but it isn’t nearly as lame.

I’m afraid I’d have a hard time providing a specific non-lame (and not pie-in-the-sky) answer myself, but what I’d want to hear are specific structural and cultural changes that would make it more difficult for the president to act in an unchecked manner. Every semi-viable candidate has plenty of paid wonks and fans to come up with a non-lame answer that fits their ideology.

One cultural change any candidate could effect right now would be to act like a job applicant rather than a contestant for temporary dictator — answer hypotheticals directly and express deference rather than refusing to answer or providing non-answers and demanding deference.

Your password is line noise

Friday, August 10th, 2007

I forgot my password for a site, requested a reset, and got this:

We all forget sometimes…

Your password has been reset

Your password is: =U)e37{MXk;#i/

Log in and try your new password

Excellent, and it worked.

I wonder whether strings with lots of non-alphanumeric characters are “harder” for some users to copy?

Trends in international apartheid?

Monday, August 6th, 2007

Last month in an editoral titled Free people movement is the way to global prosperity, Mirko Bagaric makes the obvious case that most are oblivious to: birth jurisdiction is a bogus moral category and all of the usual objections to open borders are highly suspect. Go read the column, but I want to call out one interesting claim:

For most of human history there have been few migration limits. Now we are moving to an age of “anti-migration”. In 1976 only about 7 per cent of UN members had restrictive immigration policies. This rose to 40 per cent in the early part of the 21st century. Advanced (western) economies are at the forefront of this regrettable trend.

The first sentence really annoys me, as it is difficult to make non-glib historical comparisons, in this case as in many others. The last sentence seems highly suspect–I have not heard of poor jurisdictions with liberal immigration policies and I have heard of many with illiberal policies.

The figures in the middle are rather interesting, and probably come from the World Economic and Social Survey 2004, Chapter III on International migration policies (pdf), page 75 (as numbered; 7 in the pdf) which says that in

1976 when few Governments had explicit policies to modify migration flows; 7 per cent had a policy to lower immigration

while in 2003

some 40 per cent wish to lower immigration.

which says very little about whether legal barriers to migration and their enforcement have actually increased.

If you read the chapter it appears that migration is a policy issue for many more jurisdictions than in the past and the overall policy mix has become much more complex, except that explicitly race-based policies have mostly disappeared.

It is too bad Bagaric felt it necessary to ruin an otherwise excellent column with unfounded things-are-increasingly-bad rhetoric.

I found the aforementioned column via Nathan Smith’s well-titled End World Apartheid post. I agree with Smith that South Africa is a useful analogue to the world:

South Africa is an interesting country because about 15 years ago it was a microcosm of the world. Like the world, it was about 15% white, the rest African and Asian. Like the world, the whites were segregated from the non-whites by law (of course the West does have some blacks and Asians, but it segregates the vast majority of them). The whites lived in prosperity, the blacks in poverty, their opportunities severely restricted by laws that were supposed to shut them up in “sovereign” native states, against their will.

South African apartheid has been abolished; world apartheid remains. But the end of South African apartheid has caused a surge in crime. So it’s a legitimate concern.

However, it is a far from perfect analogue. Bryan Caplan cites evidence that immigrants to the U.S. commit crimes at a far lower rate than U.S. citizens. There is a case to be made that extraordinarily high crime rates in South Africa are the result of Apartheid and its antecedents, not its end. For an example of this case, see Human Rights and Policing in South Africa: A Historical Perspective by Gary Kynock (pdf; abstract only, let me know if you find the full paper):

In other words, violence in South Africa is considered a post-conflict phenomenon.

This popular analysis is limited by its failure to consider the longer term dimensions of the prevailing crisis. This paper investigates the historical origins of South Africa’s pervasive criminal violence, suggesting that it was produced by a unique combination of a longstanding culture of violence interacting with large-scale political hostilities. While acknowledging that the politically driven violence of the past two decades has contributed to contemporary South Africa’s critical situation, I argue that these conflicts did not create a culture of violence. A historically grounded analysis clearly demonstrates that the political rivalries found fertile ground for escalation partially because a culture of violence was already ingrained in township society. This position is supported by a comparison between South Africa and other post-conflict societies. Many countries recovering from horrific civil conflicts have been relatively untroubled by criminal violence. Lebanon, Mozambique, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Congo-Brazzaville are but a few examples. Beirut, Maputo, Sarajevo and Brazzaville are all much safer cities than Johannesburg. What differentiates Johannesburg is the level of violence township residents experienced before the outbreak of political hostilities. South Africa’s endemic violence, in other words, is not a “post-conflict” affair, but rather a continuation of pre-existing township violence.

Organised criminal violence dates back to the establishment of the Johannesburg townships in the 1880s and I argue that policing, criminal gang activity and vigilantism were critical factors in determining the patterns of violence over several generations of political, economic and social change. The poverty, social dislocation, and institutionalised racism that were a direct result of state policies governing African urbanisation undoubtedly created conditions that encouraged violence. However, we need to probe more deeply to understand the forces that shaped and sustained a culture of violence in the townships and the ways that different segments of township communities coped with the violence. The nature of township policing encouraged both criminal gang activity and the emergence of a vigilante culture. These three particular dynamics became inextricably intertwined over the years and were a driving force behind the culture of violence that developed in the townships.

This paper concentrates on the historical role of the South African police and discusses why the police have failed to become more effective and accountable in the post-apartheid era.

Separate humorium

Saturday, August 4th, 2007

Eliezer Yudkowsky may be my favorite humorist:

If the priests of Baal are allowed to survive, they will start babbling about how religion is a separate magisterium which can be neither proven nor disproven.

Or the slightly less rolling on the floor laugh inducing version:

The orthogonality of religion and factual questions is a recent and strictly Western concept. The people who wrote the original scriptures didn’t even know the difference.