Subject: Re: Open letter to those who believe in a right to free software
From: Ben_Tilly@trepp.com
Date: Fri, 29 Oct 1999 10:29:51 -0400


Stephen Turnbull wrote:
[...]
> >>>>> "kms" == Karsten M Self <kmself@ix.netcom.com> writes:
>
>     kms>  - Economics studies markets.  Individual behavior falls
>     kms> under psychology.
>
> That's too generous to economics.  Economics does claim to have a good
> model of individual behavior.  It's simple enough to state, so I'll do
> it here:
>
> 1.  People have a good idea of what they want to happen in the world
> 2.  They have a good idea of what they make happen in the world
> 3.  They are pretty good at using the information they have to decide
>     how to satisfy 1 given 2
>
> 0.  They do as they have computed in 3.
>
That certainly explains why you are so quick to dismiss  my
pointing out how consumers demonstrate themselves to be
incompetent in making software decisions!  I do *not* think that
the above model is remotely acceptable in software.  As
concrete evidence I recommend that you track down estimates
about what portion of projects fail.  IIRC something like 70% of
projects with development costs in the 7 figures fail miserably
by any reasonable measure of success.  Yet such projects
continue to be funded!

I think that a careful analysis of how and why said projects are
so common would be beneficial for showing why the above
assumptions fail to capture dynamics that are central to the
software business.

> Clinical psychology, of course, is about people who fail to do 0.
>
> Experimental psychology is about measuring how well people do in 1, 2,
> and 3.  The answer turns out to be "not all that well," but in general
> they are pretty unbiased in their errors, especially where there are
> precise ways of keeping score, like money.  This means that economists
> can use the law of large numbers to work with markets.

Is that observed fact or hopeful assumption?

[...]
> Note that there is no mention of money or even physical commodities,
> nor even properties like "more is better."  They are not implied.
> Furthermore, relevant factors are not restricted to the personal
> sphere; they can include family, friends, or the whole human race,
> individually or in aggregates.  In fact, in general the only
> restrictions that "better" must satisfy are that given three worlds,
> A, B, and C
>
> a. A is no better than itself
> b. Either A is better than B, B is better than A, or they are
>    indifferent
> c. If A is no better than B, and B no better than C, then A is no
>    better than C.
>
> Most people, as well as most economists, agree these are pretty weak.

Most people question whether mathematicians are most people.
Particularly mathematicians who point out such uncomfortable
facts as the issue that a heck of a lot of these decisions are
made by organizations, and in organizations rule c is manifestly
violated.  Don't believe me?  Let me take 3 people whose
preferences are:

A > B > C
B > C > A
C > A > B

Don't look now, but the following statements are each accepted
by a 2/3 margin in this group:

A is better than B.
B is better than C.
C is better than A.

Keep this in mind the next time you cannot figure out how a group
organization (eg a company) does not seem to make much
sense.  That *might* just be a reflection of the reality of how
people behave in groups!

[...]
> In the case of free software the usual assumptions that are in danger,
> as I currently see it, are
>
> (1) "continuity", which implies that given two goods it's always
>     possible to make up for a loss of one by a sufficiently large gain
>     in the other.
>
Uh, please explain this?  I thought I knew what continuity was
inside out and backwards, and I certainly DO NOT see how the
above statement is derivable from any of the several definitions
that I am familiar with.

> I think it should be clear from that why I care so much about the the
> claim that intellectual property is evil; if so, there is no economic
> benefit large enough to justify it.
>
> Based on the discussion so far I see no reason to give this one up in
> general, except for Ben Tilly's religious belief about the
> non-existence of certain kinds of infinity.  ;-)

That is hardly a fair characterization!  I have sent you in personal
email descriptions of how classical mathematics leads you to
the irrefutable conclusion that there exist numbers which may not
be described, and that a specific number is both finite but we
cannot put any upper bound on how large it is.  When you can
reconcile the first with the concepts that we want to capture with
the word "exists" and the second with the concept that we want
to capture with the word "finite", I will reconsider my gut feelings.
Until then I remain competent at manipulating classical
mathematics, but unconvinced that its statements mean anything
close to what people would like to think they do.

>                                  I will, as a matter
> of personal honor (and empirical fact), put a (parametric) proportion
> of programmers with such utility functions in the model.  But I will
> have no qualms about trading off their sense of moral outrage against
> economic benefits to consumers or stockholders, and empirically the
> proportion is likely to be sufficiently low as to hardly affect the
> analytic conclusions.

The ease of copying makes their impact disproportionate.
You really should take that into account...

[...]
> Ben Tilly's discussion about the dynamic effect of Perl5 vs Perl4 on
> development costs actually worries me, in terms of "will I be able to
> model this acceptably well", far more than the issues of modeling
> programmer participation in free software.

I am glad to have