Intellectual debt

2013-03-02

Software projects can accumulate technical debt: the work you need to do to fix the work you've already done.

I think it's possible to accumulate "intellectual debt". Thoughts and ideas that you've had, worked on, developed, talked about, but have not written up and published. You can have an idea, but until you've tried to write it up properly such that someone else could read and criticise it, you can't be sure that it actually makes sense. Of course, there can be a mistake in your write-up, but the process of writing up will force you to confront a lot of the potential problems with any idea.

Having huge amounts of intellectual debt means that you're sitting on a bunch of ideas which may not be correct, and that no-one has proper access to thoughts you probably wanted to share. Ideas are composable: one can depend on another, and if your unpublished ideas depend on a vast chain of your other unpublished ideas, you could be compounding your mistakes. Additionally, you could be rendering your thought too far from the mainstream: if you're right but radically different because people haven't assimilated your earlier ideas, considered and criticised them, then your bigger ideas, composed from the earlier ones, will be harder to promote.

Do legislators still know enough to reform legislatures?

2013-03-04

In yesterday's Irish Independent on Sunday there's an article by Senator John Crown, member in the university interest of the Seanad √Čireann, the upper house of the parliament of the Republic of Ireland, which currently faces abolition. The Seanad comprises several groups of individuals, most of these groups selected by various appointment panels representing agriculture, industry and so on; Sen Crown's proposal is to extend the provisions relating to the only elected one of these groups to embrace most of the other groups, while remaining within the various harder-to-change constitutional rules establishing the general setup (like the existence of these groups in the first place).

His idea is to replace the appointment panels with normal elections, and each elector gets to choose which of the panels' senators to vote for (under multi-member STV):

Every adult citizen will be able to vote in any "panel" constituency, but only in one of them.

This is a good example of why legislators should leave reform of the legislature to the experts, by which I mean me and my friends. It turns out that the idea of letting people choose their own constituency for upper house elections has been considered and rejected before: if there's no statistical difference between the constituencies, you get the same result. Therefore if you assign upper house constituencies at random, then the same party (under FPTP/AV) or proportion of parties (under STV) wins in each constituency. Letting people choose their constituency opens the system up to being gamed by the political parties.

Now I think the Irish Senate's composition is a dreadful thing, because it faithfully implements a formally corporatist approach to political and social organisation. This idea is commended in the papal encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (which is not a reason in itself to oppose something - they might have had a stopped clock moment and recommended a good thing for bad reasons). This kind of reasoning, the idea that we should support or oppose a constitutional feature because of who promoted it and why, decades after the fact, was much in evidence at Robin Archer's talk at the Menzies Centre last week (which was very interesting but somewhat wrong, and which I shall blog about tomorrow).

I confine myself to noting that if these upper houses are supposed to have some sort of expertise unavailable to democratic bodies, how many more software developers should be in them?

Let's re-criminalise bicycle theft in London

2013-03-05

Once again, my bike has been stolen. That is the fifth bike in ten years; I've spent more than £2000 on bikes over that time. It'd be cheaper to rent a bike from the sodding criminals, the way I top my Oyster card (except Transport for London purports to be running a legitimate business).

The bicycle is not a viable mode of transport in London currently: you need to live somewhere where you can keep it indoors (effectively impossible if you live in a tiny flat up four flights of narrow stairs), and you can only cycle to places where you can also lock it indoors. If you don't live somewhere you can lock it up, and use the bike for any sort of casual transport rather than commuting to a single location, it'll get nicked. Effectively, you have to have a car, or use public transport. I simply will not accept this.

There is an inexhaustible supply of bike thieves and bikes: small-scale organised crime and junkies will always be with us, but the price per kilogramme of a bike is so low that large scale organised criminals are not interested. The problem is that the police, the courts and the Crown Prosecution Service have decriminalised bike theft: unbelievably, thieves are let off with a caution, the courts apparently are not handing down custodial sentences even when someone is caught with twenty stolen bikes, so understandable the CPS doesn't bother. The real problem with the CPS is that they don't economically model the effects of their enforcement decisions: they decide "can I win this case?", not "what level of prosecutions is necessary to prevent the country slowly descending into anarchy?".

What can be done?

We need to crowdfund private criminal prosecutions of bike thieves. If the thieves know that there's a large group of hostile cyclists literally choosing cases to prosecute at random, and automatically demanding custodial sentences, the ones who are not drug addicts will diversify into other activities.

We need much better datasets about bicycle theft. People do not report thefts to the police because it is a waste of time; that means the data is not captured at all: private initiative can at least capture some of this data, even without a view to enforcement. The datasets will allow serious apps (like the tongue-in-cheek iSteal) to help cyclists minimise the incidence of crime.

Cycling campaigns need to adopt a much more critical attitude towards the police. Currently, bicycles in London have been de facto removed from the system of private property. This is arguably a violation of the ECHR, but don't expect Shami Chakrabarti to mount the barricades over it any time soon. Basically they've nationalised our bikes and given them away to the bad guys; whatever will they think of next? Oh yeah, our medical records.

The police's discretion to caution bike thieves needs to be revoked; I think this can be done by making theft of bikes chargeable only by indictment. I used to object to instrumentalisation of the criminal law, and advance this proposal as an example of what principled people start to think once we head down this slippery slope. If "first-time" offenders can get off with a caution, that doubles the number of bikes at risk.

It may be viable to establish commercial bicycle-theft rapid response and investigation services.

Whatever the case, it is not acceptable in a democracy for a small group of criminals to steal a hundred thousand bikes a year and effectively deny a large group of citizens a healthy and environmentally sound lifestyle choice.

Unflattering photos of Nigel Farage now licit

2013-03-06

Once a celebrity falls out of favour, the media start using unflattering photos of them. This happened after David Davis bombed in the Tory leadership election in 2005, and to Kate Middleton as then she was, when she briefly separated from Prince William, as I noted at the time.

Now the fix is in for Nigel Farage (shown).

Software continues to overwhelm judiciary and legislators

2013-03-08

Anyone watching the Microsoft anti-trust or SCO litigation would have concluded that competition policy and the judicial system are so slow as to be ineffectual. Now they are slow because they have to be; to be faster would involve undermining the legitimate interests of citizens, communities and companies. In effect, the general Turing machine and the Internet have combined such that the existing mechanisms of vindicating people's legitimate interests no longer operate.

Consider this case. That it has even got so far in the system shows that the laity (that is, people outside the new priestly elite that understand how to programme a computer) are just not equipped to do their own jobs anymore, as the specialist subject matter on which they have to make and interpret rules is too far outside their understanding.

The legal system itself is Turing complete, and is harnessed to the commercial interests of the sort of miscreants mentioned in the article. It's not remotely clear that it can operate in its current form in the current technology environment.