Tirole on Open Source

Jean Tirole is the latest recipient of the Nobel prize in economics, as was announced Monday. For more background on his work, see NPR and the New Yorker. My favorite portion of Tirole’s work (and, admittedly, pretty much the only part I’ve read) is his work on open source software communities. Much of this is joint work with Josh Lerner. Below I share a few selections from his work that indicate the general theme.

open_sourceThere are two main economic puzzles to open source software. First, why would highly skilled workers who earn a substantial hourly wage contribute their time to developing a product they won’t directly sell (and how do they convince their employers, in some cases, to support this)? Second, given the scale of these projects, how do they self-govern to set priorities and direct effort?

The answer to the first question is a combination of personal reputation and the ability to develop complementary software (Lerner and Tirole, 2002, p. 215-217). Most software work is “closed source,” meaning others can see the finished product but not the underlying code. For software developers, having your code out in the open gives others (especially potential collaborators or employers) the chance to assess your abilities. This is important to ensure career mobility. Open source software is also a complement to personal or professional projects. When there are components that are common across many projects, such as an operating system (Linux) or web framework (Rails), it makes sense for many programmers to contribute their effort to build a better mousetrap. This shared component can then improve everyone’s future projects by saving them time or effort. The collaboration of many developers also helps to identify bugs that may not have been caught by any single individual. Some of Tirole’s earlier work on collective reputations is closely related, as their appears to be an “alumni effect” for developers who participated in successful projects.

Tirole and Lerner’s answer to the second question revolves around leadership. Leaders are often the founders of or early participants in the open software project. Their skills and early membership status instill trust. As the authors put it, other programmers “must believe that the leader’s objectives are sufficiently congruent with theirs and not polluted by ego-driven, commercial, or political biases. In the end, the leader’s recommendations are only meant to convey her information to the community of participants.” (Lerner and Tirole, 2002, p. 222) This relates to some of Tirole’s other work, with Roland Benabou, on informal laws and social norms.

Again, this is only a small portion of Tirole’s work, but I find it fascinating. There’s more on open source governance in the archives. This post on reputation in hacker culture or this one on the Ruby community are good places to start.

Constitutional Forks Revisited

Around this time last year, we discussed the idea of a constitutional “fork” that occurred with the founding of the Confederate States of America. That post briefly explains how forks work in open source software and how the Confederates used the US Constitution as the basis for their own, with deliberate and meaningful differences. Putting the two documents on Github allowed us to compare their differences visually and confirm our suspicions that many of them were related to issues of states’ rights and slavery.

Caleb McDaniel, a historian at Rice who undoubtedly has a much deeper and more thorough knowledge of the period, conducted a similar exercise and also posted his results on Github. He was faced with similar decisions of where to obtain the source text and which differences to retain as meaningful (for example, he left in section numbers where I did not). My method identifies 130 additions and 119 deletions when transitioning between the USA and CSA constitutions, whereas the stats for Caleb’s repo show 382 additions and 370 deletions.

What should we draw from these projects? In Caleb’s words:

My decisions make this project an interpretive act. You are welcome to inspect the changes more closely by looking at the commit histories for the individual Constitution files, which show the initial text as I got it from Avalon as well as the changes that I made.

You can take a look at both projects and conduct a difference-in-differences exploration of your own. More generally, these projects show the need for tools to visualize textual analyses, as well as the power of technology to enhance understanding of historical and political acts. Caleb’s readme file has great resources for learning more about this topic including the conversation that led him to this project, a New York Times interactive feature on the topic, and more.

Playing Chicken with Your Calendar

The ever-interesting Brendan Nelson on meeting chicken:

You have a regular meeting in your calendar. It’s with just one other person. Sometimes you have things to talk to them about and sometimes you don’t. But as long as your calendar says you both have to go, you will both go.

The day of the meeting comes round. There are lots of things that need to be done that day. You look at that meeting sitting obstinately in your calendar and think how useful it would be to get that time back.

Inspiration strikes: why not cancel the meeting? A couple of mouse clicks, an automatic notification sent out, a joyously blank calendar. It seems so easy.

But you can’t bring yourself to do it, to cancel a meeting at such short notice. It would make you look disorganised, unprepared. And what about the other person?

More at the link.

The Economics of Movie Popcorn

The Smithsonian’s Food & Think blog recounts a long history of movie theaters’ objections to popcorn. They wanted to be as classy as live theaters. Nickelodeons didn’t have ventilation required for popcorn machines. Moreover, crunchy snacks would have been unwelcome during silent films.

But moviegoers still wanted their popcorn, and street vendors met their demand. This led to signs asking patrons to check their coats and their corn at the theater entrance.

Eventually, movie theater owners realized that if they cut out the middleman, their profits would skyrocket.  For many theaters, the transition to selling snacks helped save them from the crippling Depression. In the mid-1930s, the movie theater business started to go under. “But those that began serving popcorn and other snacks,” Smith explains, “survived.” Take, for example, a Dallas movie theater chain that installed popcorn machines in 80 theaters, but refused to install machines in their five best theaters, which they considered too high class to sell popcorn. In two years, the theaters with popcorn saw their profits soar; the five theaters without popcorn watched their profits go into the red.

Much more here, including how movie theater demand changed the types of popcorn that are grown.

PopcornPortionSizeExample

Popcorn and other concessions are important to theaters because a large percentage of ticket sales (especially during the first couple of weeks after a movie premieres) go to the studio. Recent figures I’ve seen are that concession sales are 80-90 percent profit, whereas in the opening weekend only about 20 percent of the sale price goes to the theater. This means that concessions can make up nearly half the profit for a theater–no wonder they try to keep viewers from bringing in their own refreshments.

Small bags of popcorn have now turned into buckets, perhaps in an effort to justify charging $8-10 rather than the nickel such snacks sold for when “talkies” were new. This transition is covered in the book Why Popcorn Costs So Much at the Movies and an interview with the author is here.

 

African Statistics and the Problem of Measurement

We have briefly mentioned Morten Jerven’s work Poor Numbers before, but it deserves a bit more attention. The book discusses the woeful state of GDP figures in Africa and the issues that arise in making cross-national comparisons between countries whose statistical offices operate very differently (interview here).

Discussing Jerven’s work now is especially timely given current events. Jerven was scheduled to speak at UNECA on statistical capacity in Africa. However, Pali Lehohla of South Africa strongly objected to Jerven’s ideas and led the opposition which ultimately prevented Jerven from speaking. Had he been allowed to present, Jerven’s speech would have summarized the issues thusly: 

I would argue that ambitions should be tempered in international development statistics. The international standardization of measurement of economic development has led to a procedural bias. There has been a tendency to aim for high adherence to procedures instead of focusing on the content of the measures. Development measures should be taken as a starting point in local data availability, and statisticians should refrain from reporting aggregate measures that appear to be based on data but in fact are very feeble projections or guesses. This means that it is necessary to shift the focus away from formulas, standards, handbooks, and software. What matters are what numbers are available and how good those numbers are. Comparability across time and space needs to start with the basic input of knowledge, not with the system in which this information is organized. (Jerven, 2013, p.107).

African Arguments gave Jerven a chance to respond to his opposition:

The initial response from many economists working on Africa varied between, ‘so what?…we already know this’, ‘we don’t trust or use official statistics on Africa anyhow’ and ‘I know but what is the alternative?’ Many more scholars in African studies and development studies, who were generally concerned with the long-standing use of numbers on Africa as ‘facts’, were relieved that there was finally someone who sought, not only to unveil the real state of affairs, but genuinely wanted to answer some of the problems that users face when trying to use the data to test their scholarly questions….

We need to rethink the demand for data and how we invest in data in Africa and beyond. My focus has been on Africa because the problem is particularly striking there. To fix the gaps we should first re-think the MDG and other donor agendas for data and do a cost benefit analysis – what are the costs of providing these data and what is the opportunity cost of providing these data? The opportunity cost is often ignored. Local demand for data needs to come into focus. A statistical office is only sustainable if it serves local needs for information. Statistics is a public good, and we need a good open debate on how to supply them.

This is a major issue, and all social scientists–not just economists–should be aware of Jerven’s work. As James C. Scott has pointed out, measurement is a political act.

Technology and Government: San Francisco vs. New York

In a recent PandoMonthly interview, John Borthwick made a very interesting point. Many cities are trying to copy the success of Silicon Valley/Bay Area startups by being like San Francisco: hip, fun urban areas designed to attract young entrepreneurs and developers (Austin comes to mind). However, the relationship between tech and other residents is a strained one: witness graffiti to the effect of “trendy Google professionals raise housing prices” and the “startup douchebag” caricature.

New York, on the other hand, has a smaller startup culture (“Silicon Alley”) but much closer and more fruitful ties between tech entrepreneurs and city government. Mayor Bloomberg has been at the heart of this, with his Advisory Council on Technology and his 2012 resolution to learn to code. Bloomberg’s understanding of technology and relationship with movers and shakers in the industry will make him a tough act to follow.

Does this mean that the mayors of Chicago, Houston, or Miami need to be writing Javascript in their spare time? Of course not. But making an effort to understand and relate to technology professionals could yield great benefits.

Rather than trying to become the next Silicon Valley (a very tall order) it would be more efficacious for cities to follow New York’s model: ask not what your city can do for technology, but what technology can do for your city. Turn bus schedule PDF’s into a user-friendly app or–better yet, for many low-income riders–a service that allows you to text and see when the next bus will arrive. Instead of calling the city to set up services like water and garbage collection, add a form to the city’s website. The opportunities to make city life better for all citizens–not just developers and entrepreneurs–are practically boundless.

I was happy to see San Francisco take a small step in the right direction recently with the Open Law Initiative, but there is more to be done, and not just in the Bay Area. Major cities across the US and around the world could benefit from the New York model. See more of the Borthwick interview below:

Inequality, Feudalism, and the Internet

Bruce Schneier speaks at Google on the nascent feudalism in computer security:

Highlights of the talk (some paraphrased and elaborated):

  • There is major inequality in the ability to provide security. Most individual users cannot provide it for themselves. But some big companies can. In fact, the companies are so good that they can provide it for others and bring individuals up to at least a minimal level of security.
  • This is the feudal model of security. Lords provided a minimal living standard in return for labor. They guaranteed that their peasants would survive, and the peasants worked a set number of days or provided a share of their crops as rent.
  • Typically we think of paying for security, but can we stretch the feudal model a bit further? What if users computers (while in screensaver mode or whatever) were used to help with security?
  • When people are afraid they are willing to make interesting bargains.
  • Everyone predicted that automobiles would make transportation faster. No one predicted the suburbs. Second-order social changes are hard to predict.

The Culture That is Unix

We are about one year away from the Unix’s 35th birthday, but I recently enjoyed going through this piece from the 25th anniversary. I especially enjoyed the parts about how Unix was governed, and the way that its origins influenced its organizing structure in later years:

The general attitude of AT&T toward Unix–“no advertising, no support, no bug fixes, payment in advance”–made it necessary for users to band together….

The decision on the part of the AT&T lawyers to allow educational institutions to receive Unix but to deny support or bug fixes had an immediate effect: It forced the users to share with one another. They shared ideas, information, programs, bug fixes, and hardware fixes….

[Bill] Joy began producing the BSD Berkeley Software Distribution. It was first offered in March 1978. The license was on one side of a sheet of paper….

The fact that the BSD release had a simple license agreement, credited those who produced the software, and was priced at the actual cost of the media and distribution exemplifies what was best about Unix in its first decade and what made it such a popular operating system….

Sunil Das, of City University, London, notes that “technically, Unix is a simple, coherent system that pushes a few good ideas to the limit.” But let history not forget that some of those ideas had nothing to do with operating systems; they had to do with sharing, collaboration, and the user-driven evolution of technology supported by a capable, concerned pan-corporate community of developers and users.

The Internet: Communication or Transportation?

The world we live in today is made of computers. We don’t have cars any more, we have computers we ride in. – Cory Doctorow (transcript)

Is the Internet a communication technology or a transportation technology? What does the answer to this question imply about Internet governance and the future of online liberty?

One thing technology does well is take multiple functions that were previously bound into the same physical process or object and split them into separate objects/subroutines, each of which does its own job so efficiently that the overall object/process works better than it did before. These chunks can also be recombined in new ways to do things that were not previously feasible.

online_communities_2An example is ebooks. Previously the storage, display, and transportation functions of a book were all combined into a single physical unit. The display of one book (its pages and ink) could be repurposed into another only by cutting it up, ransom-note style, or through a lengthy process of recycling. The display was also inseparable from the storage: if the display got wet, the data was marred forever. Transporting the information in the book could only be done by moving its entire bundle of atoms from one place to another

Enter the ebook. A single display can be used for a virtually infinite number of books. Storage is extensible, expandable, and expendable. If you want more, get it. If it breaks, replace it. And when you are ready to add a new edition to your collection it only takes a matter of seconds to transfer the bits.

Actually, the process goes back much further to when the written word disembodied message from messenger. Before this, shooting the messenger was the only primitive backspace key available. Burning books Fahrenheit 451-style can be tragic, but it is quite an improvement over burning bodies.

Is the Internet a simple continuation of this separation-optimization-recombination trend, or is it something more? The Internet is more similar to the spoken/written word jump than it is to the printed book/ebook development, because it allows the separation of consciousness from body. My body can be in almost any physical locations while my consciousness is bound up in a conversation, collaborative project, or game with almost anyone else from almost anywhere else.

In this way, the Internet is more like a transportation technology than it is a communications technology. Governing the roads was a nontrivial task for the early modern state. Then came air travel, which existed for a brief unregulated period before governments learned to exercise their control there. For more on the tension between innovation and regulation in transportation, see herehere, and here.

These early periods are open to rapid innovation, which also means that they permit risk-taking. This risk/opportunity trade-off chosen by state-avoidant peoples. States and their peoples see the opportunity but do not want the risk. Risk can be reduced or it can be hidden; the latter is cheaper and states are better at it, so it is often on that margin that they work to bring their peoples into new avenues of opportunity without fear. But by reducing the downside risk they also take away the upside of innovation.

The Internet is nearing this inflection point, if it has not already passed. It is a dangerous but promising frontier. Would you rather have pioneers as your guide, or big brother watching out for you?

Doublespeak: A Chrome App for the Orwellian Web

tl;dr: Doublespeak is a new Chrome web extension that replaces political doublespeak with plain English. It’s open source so you can help expand the dictionary of terms. 

George Orwell is well-known for introducing the terms “newspeak” and “doublethink” in his novel 1984. A portmanteau of the two, doublespeak, is more common in our modern lexicon–and unfortunately, so is the term that it represents. Another of Orwell’s works, “Politics and the English Language,” explains doublespeak using examples that seem almost quaint today (1946):

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.

Although Orwell is gone, the problems he describes are not. If anything, doublespeak has gotten worse in this age of “rendition,” TSA security theater, and PRISM.

Tim Lynch addressed this problem in the context of the War on Terror in 2006:

By corrupting the language, the people who wield power are able to fool the others about their activities and evade responsibility and accountability. Professor William Lutz, author of The New Doublespeak, notes: “Doublespeak is language that pretends to communicate but really doesn’t. It is language that makes the bad seem good, the negative appear positive, the unpleasant appear attractive or at least tolerable. Doublespeak is language that avoids or shifts responsibility, language that is at variance with its real or purported meaning. It is language that conceals or prevents thought; rather than extending thought, doublespeak limits it.”

It is true, of course, that dishonesty has always been a part of the human experience, but doublespeak is a pernicious variation of dishonesty. Doublespeak perverts the basic function of language, which is to facilitate a common understanding between human beings.

1984-posterLynch goes on to list several examples: “stop-loss” orders as a stand-in for conscription, the replacement of warrants by “national security letters,” and the renaming of Guantanamo prisoner suicides as “asymmetrical warfare.”

A–perhaps the–key point of Orwell’s conception of doublespeak is that words have meaning. Although this runs counter to postmodernism, it points out that language is a key front in the battle for ‘hearts and minds.’ Witness the recent discussion between a well-spoken University of Wisconsin student (‘Madiha’) and an on-campus recruiter for the NSA:

NSA RECRUITER 1: I’m focusing on what our foreign intelligence requires of [us], so…you can define ‘adversary’ as [an] enemy and clearly, Germany is not our enemy, but would we have foreign national interest from an intelligence perspective on what’s going on across the globe? Yes, we [would].

MADIHA: So by “adversary”, you actually mean anybody and everybody. There’s nobody, then – by your definition – that is not an adversary. Is that correct?

NSA RECRUITER 1: That is not correct.

Doublespeak has the power of the state behind it, which includes a great deal of technological sophistication. Until recently, I was more optimistic about the power of the internet to oppose conventional sources of political power. Although the recent Snowden revelations have diminished my confidence in technology as a political force, we can still use it as a tool to take back language.

To that end, I have developed a simple tool that you can use to counter doublespeak in your web viewing experience. It known as Doublespeak and is available as a Chrome web extension. Right now it has a small dictionary of three terms that it replaces, but can easily be extended for more. The code is also open-source on Github. When you install the extension, clicking its icon in the browser window will open a duplicate of the current page in a new tab, but with doublespeak terms replaced by their plain English equivalents.

Here are a few examples of the Doublespeak extension at work on these three pages:

Before

Before

After

After

Before

Before

After

After

Before

Before

After

After

Obviously it does not replace the text in images, but I think that makes the last example all the more striking. The extension should respond to titleized words, but some other special cases (e.g. all uppercase) are not handled in the current version (0.1).

If you have suggestions for new additions to the dictionary or other features, please let me know.