Monday, March 26, 2012

What Plagiarism Isn't

For the record, the idea of replacing a symbol with the thing it symbolizes to enforce rational thinking comes to me from Eliezer Yudkowski (

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Your Boss Is IT Equipment

The fundamental enabler of large-scale organization is not management; it's communication. Starting on a small scale, any 2, 3,4, or n people can only organize and coordinate their actions if they can communicate with each other. The limit on the scale of organizations is the limit on how effectively people can pass information around. Hierarchical management structures are a solution to the problem of overcoming the natural spatial, temporal, and cognitive limitations on how effectively any individual can connect with a group of others. They represent a social and cognitive technology for facilitating communication, which uses extra people as components to make connections. Because people are very expensive pieces of equipment, hierarchical management is limited in how many connections it can support. This limit can only be overcome when you realize that the real problem is not how to manage more effectively; it's how to enable more effective communication.
This is why information technology is so important. This is why the internet is so socially disruptive. It is an alternate approach to amplifying the ability of an individual to communicate with large groups of others without the need to use other humans as components in the system. At both the smallest scales and the largest, it makes management obsolete. To reduce costs and build large-scale organizations, just replace your managers with switches and routers.

This Post Inspired by Here Comes Everybody.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Where Have all the Flowers Gone?

Computer Science has an embarrassing problem: it attracts a much smaller percentage of females than other science & engineering disciplines. This was not always the case; the world's first computer programmer was a woman, and in the late 70s and 80s women were not uncommon in CS departments. So why did they leave? The answer must explain what makes Computer Science as it is now so different from Mathematics or Electrical Engineering. It's not the subject matter; no, the most significant distinguishing characteristic of Computer Science is that almost no one becomes an Electrical Engineer or a theoretical Mathematician in 6th grade - almost everyone in those fields starts out on an equal footing - but children can program. The barrier to entry for experience with the tools of Computer Science is low, and a 6-year-old can get it. And thus, when I ask women I know why they didn't consider Computer Science in college, I get answers like "I would've been competing with people like you who've been doing it since you were kids," and "I might've if I'd known how fun it could be." Computer Science, more than other fields, suffers from gender discrimination in childhood. Fixing the imbalance will require not just better college recruitment, but changing how we raise our children.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Technical Religion

Religion and technology are not usually mentioned together. "Religion" as a word has an air of archaism. It is based in the eternal declarations of God to our ancient ancestors, not the newfangled creations of secular men. Yet all knowledge ultimately is inspired by God, including the inspiration for new technology. God works most often through the agency of human servants, and surely He would want His servants to be as capable as possible. The message of true religion does not change, but the media for transmitting it do as God inspires humanity to produce more and better tools to improve the lives of His children. As a side effect, He lets us have Angry Birds.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Amateur Linguist Teaches Elvish to Ethiopian Tribe

OK, yeah, not really...
But you just know that would be the headline somewhere if the mainstream press decided to cover this.

The story starts with Paul Bennet planning to go to Ethiopia; specifically, to a region where the native language is Hamer. Hamer, it turns out, has no writing system.
Being an amateur linguist, Paul decided to do what any of us would do in the same situation: design an orthography for them! Hey, if it worked for St. Cyril....

The neighboring and related language Ge'ez does have a writing system, so the initial plan was to borrow it, with the idea that it would do double-duty in helping Hamer speakers record their own language and give them a leg up on literacy anywhere else in Ethiopia. The work in progress can be seen here.

In discussion on the CONLANG mailing list, however, someone just had to notice that the phoneme inventory of Hamer just happens to fit very neatly in the Tengwar grid. There are existing Tengwar modes for writing English and Latin in the Elvish characters, so why the heck not?

The probability of an Ethiopian tribe actually adopting Tolkein's Elvish characters as the basis of their writing system is rather small, especially since the Ge'ez characters are already officially included in Unicode while Tengwar just have a proposal with codepoints subject to change.
But it would be pretty awesome, wouldn't it?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Mickey Must Die

Let's get one thing straight: it is entirely possible to simultaneously believe that the current state of copyright law is borked beyond repair and that intellectual property is a valid concept which ought to be useful for making money. The law says there's this thing called "Fair Use", an escape from copyright restrictions that lets our culture build upon and expand creative works while still respecting intellectual ownership. But it is so ill-defined and so disrespected by the courts that no one can be confident of actually using it and being safe from attack. Even if your right to Fair Use is upheld in a court, the simple threat of fees from a tactical lawsuit is enough to freeze any attempts to apply it. In this environment of fear, copyright law's primary function is no longer to encourage innovation by ensuring compensation; it is to provide a legal avenue for stifling speech and stomping out creativity. So when I say that I do not respect copyright law, that it should not be followed and needs to be eliminated, that Mickey Must Die, it is not because I think that all information must be inherently free and artists have no claim on their work. It is because my sense of social responsibility is stronger than my greed.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

You Can't Buy Everything At The Bazaar- Yet

The first rule of good software is that it scratches the programmer's personal itch. Unfortunately, not everyone with an itch is a programmer. Programming exists as a profession precisely because not everyone with a problem is capable of effectively solving it themselves, and thus someone has to get paid for scratching other people's itches. This will always be the case, because no matter how widely computer literacy is spread throughout society, some people will always be better at it than others; the fact that almost everyone can read and write does not make novelists obsolete, and the same is true for good programmers. This seems to imply that there will always be bad software maintained by people who care only as far as they are paid. However, there is one way out: as the population of programmers expands, the probability that one of them shares whatever problem you may have grows. When the bazaar is big enough, one just has to solve the problem of finding the person who wants to make what you need.