Chad Perrin: SOB

17 December 2008

How is an economy like technology?

Filed under: Cognition,Geek,Liberty — apotheon @ 01:49

In a comment at his own Weblog (Chip’s Quips), my friend Sterling had this to say:

Yes — the myth still circulates that technology will eliminate the need for brains. The reality is that technology simply enables brains to work at a higher level while spending less time concerned with repetitive details.

This was part of a conversation related to the fact that every few years there’s a new push to try to eliminate programmers from the business of programming by creating some kind of programming environment that can be operated by MBAs. He’s right, of course — as is Scott Westfall’s Eliminating the Programmer, which is what spawned the discussion at Chip’s Quips in the first place.

Something that struck me about Sterling’s comment, however, is the parallel that can be drawn between:

  1. technology’s effect on technology markets when the “work smarter, not harder” breed of technologists are given the liberty to employ their technological skills as they see fit
  2. wealth’s effect on economic markets in general when the “work smarter, not harder” breed of wealth producers are given the liberty to employ their wealth as they see fit

In each case, the producer — whether it be a producer of new technologies (such as engineers and programmers) or a more general producer of wealth (such as an entrepreneur) — is better able to develop paths to more positive outcomes for everyone on average than external regulators. This is because the real producers, the innovators in their respective fields, tend to operate at a higher level of abstraction than outsiders who try to command the field via statistical studies.

Statistics is a field that can only produce meaningfully accurate results when you measure extremely narrow metrics and know how to interpret your results appropriately. One of the biggest and most common errors made by mediocre (or worse) statistical analysists is that of failing to eliminate or account for subtle variables that skew results. Another is assuming correlation implies causation. These errors make up the lion’s share of the reason that the software industry is full of middle managers who do stupid things like try to measure programmer productivity in lines of code produced (aka lines spent), version control check-ins, and so on, over a given period of time.

They also make up a lot of the reason that Congress does stupid shit like pass a $700B bailout bill that is likely to cause more harm than good. Keynesian economists, and Keynesian leaning econometricians, as well as people with no economics knowledge to speak of at all (such as congresscritters), have a tendency to measure a very limited number of economic factors, make unwarranted assumptions about what these measurements mean, then generalize from there while ignoring all the other factors that pertain to the situation to try to come up with ham-handed “fixes” for misapprehended problems. The end result is that government’s involvement in the economy ends up being an attempt to fix a problem using the same techniques that created it in the first place — of trying to make two nearly identical wrongs become a right, in short — at least 98% of the time.

At least, that’s the case if we assume that what middle managers actually want is more, and better, productivity, and what congresscritters and Keynesians actually want is greater general wealth production and across the board improvement of quality of life. If we assume these are the respective goals of these people, they fail because their methods are so often simple (and narrow) minded.

Another possibility, though, is that their actual goals are not what we might naively assume. Perhaps the real goal of the middle manager is to have documented, demonstrable criteria for making decisions that can be used to justify his or her continued employment. Perhaps the real goal of the Keynesian with influence over economic policy is to maintain and extend that influence, regardless of the actual effects on the market. Perhaps the real goal of your district’s congresscritter is to get reelected and indirectly improve its own economic standing — and to hell with the rest of us.

Meanwhile, if you look at the individual innovative technologist or entrepreneur, he or she is likely more concerned with making the core functions of his or her work easier, of abstracting away the drudgery, so that more of that effort can be put into solving new problems, and so that efficiency of producing either new technology in specific or new economic wealth in general is increased. As this new technology and wealth is distributed through free exchange to those who need it, more and more people are freed from having to focus their efforts on their current level of needs, and can focus them on a new, higher level — because that previous, lower level has already been met. That is, after all, what “achievement” and “success” are really all about: satisfying the current want or need, freeing one up to seek the next, higher level want or need.

The innovators who spawn the means of satisfying others’ wants and needs in the first place are in turn served by a higher level of innovator. At each higher level of the resulting hierarchy of innovators and producers, you find someone who creates the abstractions that ease the efforts of those on the next tier down, generally because they themselves wanted to break free of the drudgery of that lower level of the innovation and production hierarchy. The ability to do so is maximized by leaving such innovators and producers control over their own resources so they can be put to work by these people in the most effective manner possible toward further innovation and wealth production.

Standing outside the hierarchy of technological innovation or an economic market, punishing people for failing to use resources in a manner that fits your statistical model or rewarding them for gaming the system, in no way improves the situation. In fact, it retards true productivity.

The reason all this came to mind upon seeing Sterling’s comment about technoogy eliminating the need for brains was the recognition of a very simple fact:

The fastest way to eliminate the need for specialized knowledge workers from the set of requirements for a given task is to let them innovate in the realm of their own productivity. Truly innovative workers tend to create tools and techniques that abstract away the drudgery of their jobs, freeing them up to focus more on the work that’s harder to abstract away. The best way to help them do that is to stay the hell out of their way.

In short, keep your damned metrics-inspired “regulation” off my programming and wealth if you actually want me to be more, rather than less, productive.

14 December 2008

computer terms: spelling and pronunciation

Filed under: Geek — Tags: — apotheon @ 02:16

One of the more regular annoyances I run into with discussion computer related topics is variations in computer term spelling and pronunciation. I’ll explain some of what’s going on with several of them:

Apple MacOS X

It sometimes seems like nobody can agree on whether it should be called MacOS “X” or MacOS “Ten”. On one hand, the X represents the Roman numeral for decimal 10, as the successor to MacOS 9; on the other hand, the logical choice would be to pronounce the name of the letter “X”, because when referring to version numbers it is written “MacOS X 10.3” (for instance) — and saying “Mac Oh Ess Ten Ten Point Three” strikes me as pretty retarded. On the gripping hand, the official pronunciation is explained as “Mac O-S ten”.

Because I normally prefer to side with prescriptivists in matters of linguistics, you might imagine that I go around calling it “MacOS Ten” the way Apple intended. After all, it’s an Apple Computer, Inc. trademark; it’s Apple’s term. Apple gets to decide what it’s called. Right?

My preference for the prescriptive approach is based on my preference for having a clarified, correct way to use terms, but that is in turn based on my preference for having effective, efficient ways to communicate. If we can all agree on a correct, unambiguous means of reference, we should do so — all else being equal. The version numbering snag in the argument over how to pronounce “MacOS X”, coupled with the implied suggestion that the X might have something to do with the Unixy underpinnings of the OS (people sometimes refer to the whole extended family of Unix-like OSes as *X sometimes, after all), suggests a better pronunciation would be MacOS X, no matter what the Apple marketing department’s mandate might be.

I have tended to call it MacOS “X” rather than “Ten”, and I will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The “Ten” pronunciation will surely never go away any time soon, because it’s the “official” pronunciation, and one might argue that we should actively try to unify pronunciation by adopting the one that it is least possible for us to abolish, but because referring to it by either term is unlikely to lead to confusion in conversation (everybody knows what you mean, regardless of which pronunciation you use), I’ll stick with “X”, the letter’s name. In fact, when abbreviating the OS name by dropping the “Mac” part, I find the “Ten” version even less desirable because of the striking similarity of pronunciation between Apple’s OS X (“Oh Ess Ten”) and IBM’s defunct “Oh Ess Two” (OS/2).

Cocoa

The software development APIs inherited by MacOS X from NeXTSTEP (and, later, OPENSTEP) is called Cocoa. The name, obviously, hearkens to the pedestrian term cocoa, as in “chocolate”, which is pronounced like “koh koh”. For some reason, though, there’s an inordinate number of Mac-heads who seem to think it should (pretentiously) be pronounced “koh koah”. I think maybe they let the whole “We pronounce things differently in Mac-land!” thing, what with the letter X being pronounced “ten”, go to their heads.

I’ve searched extensively, and there doesn’t appear to be any official pronunciation guide online for the term as used by Apple — which indicates to me that they must figure it should be blatantly obvious, since it’s a normal word with a known pronunciation (“koh koh”, of course). In fact, while a bunch of MacOS X developers and users like to say “koh koah”, the real insiders, movers and shakers, in the Mac development world all seem to pronounce it “koh koh” — as demonstrated in audio interviews.

Maybe the people who favor “koh koah” are mostly just users who migrated from open source OSes, influenced by the GNU project’s perverse pronunciation obsessions. I don’t remember any long-time Mac users who haven’t really used Linux, or immigrants from MS Windows Land (who similarly were not Linux users), ever calling it anything other than “koh koh” — like the actual non-trademark word cocoa.

Daemon

A persistent process on a Unix-like operating system that is intended to run in the background and interact (primarily) with other programs, rather than operating in the foreground under direct control of the user, is called a daemon. Such programs are often server processes. This term is pronounced exactly the same as the word “demon”, which is actually etymologically descended from daemon. It is not pronounced “day mun”.

Note that Beastie, a ubiquitous BSD Unix mascot, is a daemon — not a devil. For some reason, a lot of people never get that.

/etc and other filesystem stuff

The /etc directory on Unix-like OSes is spelled like the abbreviation of the Latin “et cetera”, except it’s missing the trailing period. The proper way to spell the abbreviation is “etc.” (and not “ect” as I’ve seen it far too many times). The proper way to pronounce “etc.” is “et set-er-uh” — exactly like the unabbreviated term “et cetera” — but that’s not the way old-school Unix hackers started pronouncing the directory name Back In The Day. They went, instead, with “et see”. Due to considerable exposure to Unix hacker culture, I too have adopted that pronunciation — and it is, in essence, the unofficial official way to pronounce the name of the /etc directory. I don’t know if there’s a similarly unofficial official pronunciation for directory names such as /usr or /var. I tend to pronounce them “user” and “vahr”. If you know differently, please let me in on the secret, but if you’re just guessing like me I’m afraid that’s not going to help me much whether you agree with my pronunciation or not.

I don’t know if there’s a “proper” way to differentiate between / and /root via pronunciation when saying them aloud. I tend toward “the root directory” for / — which is, in fact, the unarguably official pronunciation for / — and either “the root user directory” or “slash root” when referring to /root, for which I’ve never encountered any authoritative pronunciation standard. If you have reasonably good sources on how /root should be pronounced to differentiate it from /, I’d love to hear about it.

GNU and GNOME

For some reason, when constructing the recursive backronym “GNU’s Not UNIX”, Richard Stallman and his friends have decided that the G should be pronounced separately from the N and the U. There is a previously existing word, “gnu”, that isn’t pronounced that way, though. A gnu is basically just a wildebeest — and pronounced correctly, the G is either regarded as a silent letter (pronounced like “new”) or a modifier to how the N is pronounced the way gn works in Italian, so that the word ends up being pronounced “nyoo” (or “ñu”, if you prefer the Spanish spelling). Since “nyoo” is annoying to say and sounds silly, and in a software context the “new” pronunciation of gnu makes it too easy to confuse with its homonym new (the actual word), I’ve just caved in and started using the “official” GNU project’s pronunciation, “guh-new”. That also, happily, lends itself to the distinct pronunciation of GNUrd as “guh-nerd” when referring to the overzealous Church of GNU faithful.

The GNOME “Desktop Environment” project is part of the larger GNU project. As such, of course the perversity of GNU project pronunciation spills over. Whereas the previously existing word gnome takes a silent G approach to pronunciation (resulting in “nome”), the GNOME project insists that it is pronounced “guh-nome”. Whereas “GNU” and “new” are very easily confused in a computer software context if the G is made silent, however, the same kind of problem doesn’t really exist for GNOME. Not many people are going to think that, when you say you use GNOME as your GUI environment, you’re talking about the city of Nome, Alaska. As such, I draw the line on stupid-sounding, pretentious, intentional mispronunciations of terms by people associated with the GNU project at “guh-nome”. I call it GNOME, and so should you. Screw those guh-nerds.

Linux

The name of the Linux operating system kernel is a Unix-ified modification of the name of its creator, Linus Torvalds. I know a lot of Americans are used to the Peanuts character Linus, whose name is pronounced “Line Us”, but that’s not how Linus Torvalds pronounces his name. He’s from Finland, and around there they pronounce it more like “Lee Noose”. As such, if you’re Finnish, you should be pronouncing Linux like “Lee Nukes”. If you’re a lazy American like me, you might let that slide into “Lin Ucks”. Whatever you do, please don’t call it “Line Ucks”.

SQL

The ANSI SQL standard specifically states that SQL is pronounced by the names of the letters, and not “sequel” as so many Microsoft techies say it. Thus, TSQL is “Tee Ess Queue Ell”, and not “Tea Sequel”. It’s a good idea to call it SQL not only because the standard says so, but also because there is an antecedent — but quite distinct — query language whose name is actually SEQUEL, pronounced “sequel”. For reasons of both official correctness and disambiguation with another language in the same technical namespace, SQL should be called “Ess Queue Ell”.

There are, however, context dependent special cases of which one should be aware.

Microsoft SQL Server

As a commercial software offering, MS SQL Server is subject to the whims of its vendor. Microsoft calls it “Sequel” Server, and frankly, calling it “Ess Queue Ell” Server is kind of clunky and cumbersome. Confusion between MS “Sequel” Server and any reference to the SEQUEL language is highly unlikely (effectively impossible), so there doesn’t seem to be any immediate harm in pronouncing it “sequel” in this context. There is, unfortunately, some less direct harm done by the way it trains a bunch of Microsoft SQL Server admins to think of SQL as being pronounced “sequel”, but that’s life, I suppose.

MySQL and PostgreSQL

In accordance with the ANSI standard pronunciation, both these open source DBMSes’ names are pronounced using the individual letter names rather than by mashing them together and mutating them to come up with “sequel”. MySQL, for example, is thus pronounced “My Ess Queue Ell” — which is handy when one might otherwise be confused about whether a speaker is referring to his second book or his database when he says “my sequel”.

PostgreSQL is a slightly more complex and less obvious case, but it all makes perfect sense when one bothers to think about it. Originally, there was a database called Ingres. Later, many of the people who developed it worked on a new project and called it Postgres — basically, Post ‘gres, or “after (In)gres”. Latter, deciding to hop on the SQL buzzwordism bandwagon, the name of the project was changed to PostgreSQL, which is properly pronounced “Postgres Queue Ell”. When abbreviating PostgreSQL by removing the SQL reference, then, one should not simply lop those three letters off the end and come up with Postgre, pronounced (lamely) “Post Gree” — but should instead return to the original term Postgres. The word “Postgre” has absolutely no origin in anything other than confusion and laziness.

. . . and that’s it for now.

If you have any suggestions for other terms I might address, let me know, and maybe I’ll add them to this list — or write up a separate list where I’d include them.

10 December 2008

re: a couple people who linked to an SOB entry about Paizo

Filed under: Geek,RPG — apotheon @ 04:24

I’ve been getting a little bit of a surge in traffic to How Paizo Fixed D&D today. It attracted a little bit of attention when it was new, and it is getting more attention now. Jonathan had this to say about How Paizo Fixed D&D at The Core Mechanic, in Of Pathfinder and Paizo:

It reads like a drama, and if you haven’t read it already then please check it out right now. Its awesome…

Jonathan — the same “jonathan” that posted a thoughtful (if brief) comment to How Paizo Fixed D&D — is a 4E player, but didn’t let that stand in the way of recommending my piece about Paizo to his readers, and I’m grateful. That, in fact, seems to be source of the lion’s share of traffic to How Paizo Fixed D&D today.

Another 4E player, Donny the DM, wrote a lengthy diatribe about all the problems he sees with Pathfinder RPG, his dislike for the PRPG community, and his general disdain for all things PRPGish and 3.5ish in The Fine Art of the TPK. He called it Grapeshot! Grapeshot for everyone! Or, a Pathfinder RPG Beta review of sorts. Like Jonathan, he too posted comments to How Paizo Fixed D&D and, again like Jonathan, what he had to say was thoughtful (though slightly less brief).

Both of these guys provide exactly the sort of commentary from people who disagree with me that I like — calm, respectful, and unwilling to just pretend they agree with me for the sake of false harmony.

As I pointed out in my response to Donny’s comments, the fact he (like Jonathan) hosts his Weblog at blogger.com pretty effectively dissuades me from commenting there. I loathe the commenting interface, among other problems I have with blogger.com — so hopefully they’ll take note of my response to what they had to say here. I also told Donny in my comment post that I think he’s somewhere out in left field in his (diatribe?) post at The Art of the TPK with some of his opinions about PRPG, but he managed to present his exaggerated statements of opinion in a manner I found funny. It’s worth reading for entertainment value, if you know anything about RPGs, if nothing else.

He opened (by the time I saw it) with:

Update: http://sob.apotheon.org/?p=438 One of my fellow bloggers and sometime commenters has also spoken. While his opinion differs, I request that my three readers refrain from throwing old cabbages at him, or me for that matter.

I’m with him: no rotten cabbage missiles aimed at either of us, please.

I intend to write a more direct response to what Donny the DM said soon. In fact, I meant this to be that more direct response, but I kinda got off-track and ended up with the rambling nonsense you see before you, and decided it would be better to segregate the response from this . . . stuff.

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