free riders

i wrote a few comments about free rider problems:

the first thing to keep in mind about free rider problems is that in many cases someone pays. if Europe is really free-riding on Iran defense, then despite the free rider problem the US *did* pay for it. this may violate someone's sense of fairness. however, if i want to buy something, and it happens to benefit others, and i know they won't consent to pay for it, and i still want to buy it at full price, that is perfectly reasonable.

the second thing to keep in mind is that what projects should be done is a tricky question. there are more available projects than their is wealth to complete them and we need to try to choose the best ones. so if a project doesn't get completed for whatever reason (such as people who stand to benefit refusing to pay for it), even if the project seems valuable, that does not prove anything has gone wrong.

the general solution to deciding which projects should be done is individualism. people complete whatever projects they want to using their own resources and free trade. this works well because it lets people put their knowledge to use if they believe it's important without having to convince the world, and the people who are more successful at their projects end up wealthier and thus more able to do more projects.

the general solution to free rider problems, and to selling things to people in general, is to use creativity to persuade people to trade with you.

some people believe the government is the solution to free rider problems. they believe that by applying force to make the project be completed, they can improve the situation, by making good things be done that wouldn't have been done otherwise. however, there is no guarantee the government will sponsor the right projects. governments have no special knowledge about which projects should be completed. governments also have problems with accountability and efficiency.

a critical issue besides which projects should be complete is: how should they be funded? when a government intervenes by force and takes $100 from all the farmers to build a dam, even if the dam ought to be built, this still may be the wrong way to build it and a bad deed. funding projects in good ways requires creativity.

the only way that force could be necessary, in principle, to make the right thing happen is if there were right things such that they should be done despite their being no possible way that anyone, or any group of people, would freely pay for it with his/their own wealth. if that's the case, in what sense is it really the right thing to be done?

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Quote of the Day

Here I stand; I can do no other - Martin Luther

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Syntax is supposed to be a win. It's supposed to be convenient, readable, shorter.

But Lisp -- the language where you write your code in trees without syntax -- is known for being very succinct.

So I see two possibilities:

1) Most syntax isn't actually a great idea

2) Other languages are so handicapped by lacking features found in Lisp that it more than makes up for syntax advantages (and libraries, and all Lisp's other deficiencies)

I'm leaning towards (2), but I suspect a fair amount of syntax is not helpful and some is bad.

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If your child doesn't want to look for solutions, this does not mean your child doesn't want to solve problems. Really. Your child isn't insane and *would* prefer if things were better. What's going on is that previous time spent "problem solving" was unpleasant and was itself a problem. Perhaps because it seemed boring and fruitless. Or because it involved the child being pressured to make compromises or sacrifices (same thing), or lectured, or asked questions he didn't want to answer. Or maybe "problem solving" previously interrupted other things like video games.

True morality isn't unpleasant or burdensome. Moral knowledge is knowledge of how to make choices. It's a tool that has information about how to get what we want, and what we should want. It's not arbitrary or artificially limiting. If something is a bad idea, true moral knowledge on the subject will include reasons why it's a bad idea and explanations of what will actually work well. And they will be persuasive. If they aren't persuasive, that indicates a *lack of* moral knowledge. If the "moral" alternative proposed doesn't sound nice, that indicates a *lack of* moral knowledge (either the proposal is wrong, or the explanation for it isn't good enough).

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Anti-Semitism Essay by George Orwell


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girl: i love you
boy: i'm not sure if i love you
girl: well, how will you find out?
boy: dunno
girl: will you know soon?
boy: i doubt it
girl: this is important!
boy: why?
girl: i don't love you anymore

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conspiracies are hard

i told Ann i'd hack jack's computer and knock him offline. i asked jack to logoff AIM for 20 sec. so jack logs off and i told Ann i did it. the most amusing thing went wrong: before he left, jack told Ann "Elliot is asking me to logoff for 20 sec. brb"

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Wrong Coding Conventions?

From the ruby-talk mailing list. Quoting removed, I think it's readable out of context.

How can a (coding) convention be *wrong*, instead of just less useful, less practical?

The same argument applies to other conventions. Why is Sati *wrong*, instead of just a less useful, less pleasant way to live?

Ideas have broad consequences that can't be arbitrarily restricted: they reach out to other fields. The full answer to the Sati case should include whether anything is wrong at all, and whether practical considerations have moral consequences. Those issues are important to the question about coding.

We can even take a dialog about Sati, and then use some of the ideas to argue about coding. Most of them will work just as well about either topic.

Jim: "Sure, Sati sounds horrible to us, but they are accustomed to it, and would be unhappy to live another way. It has practical consequences, like reducing how many women are available to knit, but wealth is only a convenience."Chloe: "Medical textbooks are a kind of wealth, and medicine matters. With less knitting, they won't be able to buy as high quality medical books."

So, back to coding. This medical textbook argument will work great. Some programmers write tools for doing page layouts, and for making diagrams. Those tools help us make better medical textbooks. The more convenient and practical the coding conventions of the programmers, the sooner we will have higher quality medical textbooks.

The idea that medical textbook production is a *practical* issue with *moral* consequences can be transplanted just fine between the two cases: it has reach.

This isn't conclusive, of course. Maybe you don't see the moral value in medicine. But I think it's getting somewhere, to tie those things together. Most of us are probably persuaded by now. And if we were to continue on, about Sati, or coding conventions, we'd continue on in exactly the same way -- discussing medicine -- because it's all tied to the same issue now.

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A Few Thoughts About Education

We must bear in mind that the truth is never clear. If it was, no one would ever disagree with us.

We must bear in mind that the more ignorant a person is of a subject, the more receptive he will be to our advice. Every time a person asks a question he has recognised his own ignorance, so it is a commonplace occurrence for a person to know he doesn't know everything.

We must bear in mind that pessimism and defeatism never solve problems, so it is better to be optimistic about whether a person can or will be persuaded of a good idea.

We must not be scared to disagree. People disagree all the time. But this does not make them hurt each other. It is not necessary to force agreement from a child, or worry overly about what he believes. That is his choice.

We should keep a sense of perspective. The worst that could happen is frequently better than the price of intervening.

We must stop thinking of all situations as the parent choosing what will happen. That is the model of a benevolent dictator. And one of the flaws is the enormous pressure and responsibility it puts on the *parent*.



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Short Jewish Story


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What About Israel?

Scott Ott writes:

Just a month after Colorado high school teacher Jay Bennish was caught on tape by a student as he ranted against President George Bush, capitalism and the United States in general

But the rant had a large anti-Israel component that was, in my opinion, even more unfair than the anti-US comments. It included that Israel was formed by the West as appeasement to widespread Jewish terrorism and assassination.

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I think some liberals (in the modern sense meaning 'leftist') believe this or similar:

All voluntary actions are self-interest based, therefore to rise above self-interest and have an ideal society *requires* involuntary actions: government force.

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Widespread Support For Terrorism

Rantissi killing: World reaction

Dear God, the entire world except Israel and USA condemned killing a major player in Hamas. And USA's statement was far too weak.

My preferred statement by the USA would be something like:

Good riddance to bad men. We pray Israel will continue this policy of making the world a better place. We are currently developing methods to coordinate with Israel to aid in future strikes. We will treat any condemnation of this action as condemnation of the United States as well. We wish to stand united with Israel, and the Jews, hand in hand, if they will have us.

I realise the "wish to" and "if they will have us" is a bit weak for a public statement, but i can dream.

The most interesting quote was:

Lebanese Culture Minister Ghazi al-Aridi:

"This is an ongoing soap opera and we'll see more murders of Palestinian leaders... This is absolute terrorism in all senses of the word."

Hamas leaders are "Palestinian leaders"?

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can't win

kill terrorists with collateral damage, and leftists hate you

refrain, and they hate you too

"Richard Clarke has charged that fighting terrorism was not the top priority with the Bush administration"

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Global Warming


just bury the CO2, says article. until then blow on windmills all day to check your email.

don't lefties usually oppose burying pollution in the ground? it could get into the water!! we'll never survive the dual threats of CO2 and dihydrogen-monoxide in the water!!

why not just turn the CO2 into something else we like more? we already have machines to do this: we call them plants. especially seaweed. i hear there's plenty of space left in the sea.

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Silly Studies and Food Fads

Wikipedia says:

Diet. One flawed study purported that Chocolate, french fries, potato chips and sugar, among others, affect acne. A recent review of scientific literature cannot affirm either way. The consensus among health professionals is that acne sufferers should experiment with their diets, and refrain from consuming such fare if they find such food affects the severity of their acne.

But how is someone supposed to know what foods increase or decrease his acne? Try to pay attention to what he eats and what changes in diet are linked to what effects? How will he know which food did it, and how will he know what the time delay between diet changes and acne changes is? (If acne changes, was the it due to the food 2, 4, 6, or 20 days ago? Or not due to food at all?) Scientists trying to do controlled studies haven't figured anything out yet. A person who goes on his own anecdotal evidence will almost certainly be creating unscientific superstitions for himself to follow. This should not be encouraged. People have enough hang-ups about food already. The only responsible advice for scientists to give is, "don't worry about it, eat what you want."

That some scientists would encourage people to act on anecdotal evidence in this way suggests they are not competent to perform studies themselves.

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Programmer Productivity

Yannis has proposed Yannis's Law which states that programmer productivity doubles every 6 years. He gets the figure from a project that took a week or two in 1972, but would now take an hour or two. I just did it in twenty minutes using a plain text editor (with python syntax highlighting) and a unix terminal. My Python is rusty.

The KWIC index system accepts an ordered set of lines, each line is an ordered set of words, and each word is an ordered set of characters. Any line may be "circularly shifted" by repeatedly removing the first word and appending it at the end of the line. The KWIC index system outputs a listing of all circular shifts of all lines in alphabetical order. This is a small system. Except under extreme circumstances (huge data base, no supporting software), such a system could be produced by a good programmer within a week or two.
Here's my code:

#!/usr/bin/env python
def main():
    f = open("kwic.txt", "rU")
    out = open("kwic-output.txt", "w")
    final = []
    for line in f:
        words = line.split()
        count = len(words)
        for i in xrange(count):
    for ele in final:
        out.write(ele + "\n")
def makestr(li):
    s = ""
    first = 1
    for ele in li:
        if first == 1:
            first = 0
            s += ele
            s += " " + ele
    return s
def cycle(li):
    tmp = li[0]
    del li[0]
    return li

if __name__ == '__main__': main()

By the way, if someone knows a more elegant way to avoid having an extra space in makestr, let me know. I'm aware of the option of deleting the first character after making the string, but I don't consider that very nice either.

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How To Get Popular

Rule 1) Do *not* second guess your memes

this applies to most forms of popularity, especially school grades k-12. it applies 10-20% less at college.

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Islamic Insanity

In Iran, a girl was sentenced to death by hanging for defending herself against rapists. If she hadn't defended herself, she would be stoned as an adulterer.

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There should be a profession called an arguer. This would not be like a lawyer, because few of their arguments would focus on the law. They would be called in when a company made a controversial decision and expected a lot of public discourse. They would accept jobs on a case-by-case basis so that they only argued for things they believed in (some wouldn't operate that way, but the good ones would).

Their job would be to engage with the public. This would be nothing like a Public Relations guy giving a statement, customer service giving a run around, or a press release. They would spend their time reading comments by the public -- both in public places and sent directly to the company -- and having conversations with those people. They would not give a statement and move on, instead they would actually engage with what the person was saying.

In some circumstances, this would be a far more effective use of money than advertising. There are all these people who want to interact with the company. So why not hire people to tell them a personalised version of the company's point of view?

A good arguer would persuade a few people that the company was right, and a fair amount would become less hostile. But more than winning arguing points, he'd show the company *has* arguing points that can hold up in a sustained debate and don't fall down after a few back and forths. He'd be demonstrating that people seriously believe the company is right and have thought it out.

Another part of his job would be to relay any opposition to the company that he considered especially interesting or thought had a good point. A company has a hard time reading and filtering a huge in basket, but when you cut down incoming arguments by a factor of a thousand or so (removing duplicates and bad arguments and fluff) it gets way more manageable.

Unfortunately the primary problem I see with this idea is the difficulty of hiring qualified, competent arguers. Letting people speak for your company is risky, so you need to be sure they are good at it. And the arguers job requires a lot more skill to avoid mishaps than a press release writer's job. The arguer will write a thousand times as many words, but every single one could end up quoted by the press if he messes up.

One day in the future, arguers will not be expected to be perfect and if they messed up now and then the press would realise this doesn't reflect badly on the company.

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