Ethics and Externalities - BuiltOnFire

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In economics, an externality is an indirect result of an action. For example, when someone drives somewhere, the direct result is reaching the destination, but some externalities of that action are traffic and pollution. When people make decisions, the externalities are ignored because their effects are generally seen as negligible or hurting the amorphous general good than the individual. Because of that, governments frequently brainstorm ways to decrease negative externalities, usually by pushing the cost of the externality onto the producer through tax or education. Computing has its own set of negative externalities, such as systems that are insecure or unstable. Developers usually do not mean for such problems to arise in their creations, but they occur because of small decisions or cut corners. The ACM presents an interesting way for dealing with externalities by making preventing them an ethical imperative. The opening sections of their Code of Ethics reminds computing professionals that their decisions may have unintended consequences and that good ethics mandates they seriously consider any possible harm that can come from a system. Hopefully, simple declarations of ethics will be enough to prevent large negative externalities in software and more codified ways of preventing those externalities can be pushed off far into the future.

Internet and the Amateur - BuiltOnFire

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The internet has not one much to help the amateur. It has helped them distribute content a little bit better, but hasn't helped much in creating content. High-quality content still requires equipment that is relatively expensive to an amateur and years of practice and training. The amateurs we see putting quality videos and music and pictures on the internet are people that would continue to make that content even if the internet stopped working today. The internet, however, has allowed those amateurs to show their content to the whole world, and not just their friends. In the end, its mostly just their friends that look at it. The one real change is that the rest of us can now look at things on the internet and think that it would be easy to do the same. Then we try and quickly realize that it's actually really hard.

Innovation and the soul - BuiltOnFire

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Humans thoughout their existence have had an innate desire to create. Proto-Promethean myths tell of man not stealing fire, but the tools to create fire. Yet many still feel a need for permission to create new and exciting things, and this is harmful. Marx posited that man being separated from his ability to create was and is the cause of ennui in the modern age. Failing to innovate hurts our souls, but fear and self-doubt keep us from it. The self-doubt stems from feeling that one lacks the skills to create something new, or the ability to do it in the free time that they have. Creation, though, is not about skill, but about passion. Without decades of training, one will never paint like the Renaissance masters, but the abstract works of Jackson Pollack are revered for their emotion. Besides, creating, not being revered, is the core of this endeavor. Fear tells the potential creator that their creations will cause others to look down on them. If you innovate at work and it doesn't work out, then our superiors will think your wasting company time. If you create something strange at home, your friends will start thinking you're strange as well. Creation, though, is not about success or failure, but it is about the process. Failures are inherent to the process, but they should not stop us in enlivening our soul with that process.

Chaos and Community - BuiltOnFire

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In Here Comes Everyone, Clay Shirky considers how the internet has lowered the management costs in organizing a group. Because of that, we are capable of doing much more than we have ever been able to do before, and do it with less resources. Shirky considers this a unique and potentially new type of phenomena, but it is something we have seen for centuries. For a modern example consider the neighborhood watch. A neighborhood watch is a group of people that have self-organized for the purpose of preventing crime in their community. There is generally some form of loose hierarchy and voluntary responsibilities, much like in Wikipedia or an open-source project. The main difference between the neighborhood watch and Wikipedia is that the people in the neighborhood watch live in close proximity to each other. This is not the driving motivation behind the neighborhood watch, though, as many people live in close proximity to each other without organizing in any way. It is not the proximity that motivates the members of a neighborhood watch, but community.

It is the same sense of community that motivates the more diligent Wikipedia editors. Wikipedia has its own political structure that one can acknowledge or ignore. There are hundred of sub-communities that work together for specific purposes, like cleaning up grammar or improving articles about a subject. These communities came into existence on their own and govern themselves. Their members can be active participants or just edit a few words every once in a while. What ha changed is tat these are people working from around the globe on a global product. They are a true international community

The Rise or Fall of Open Source - BuiltOnFire

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As software grows more complex, will there be a point where open-source software is no longer feasible? In the past, work on open-source projects was generally done by hobbyists and enthusiasts because there was a low bar for entry. Now, though, many open-source projects have grown in size to tens and even hundreds of thousands of lines of code. Some projects flounder for want of experts in strange domains of software engineering. We are starting to see more projects supported by companies rater than projects. Some company needs something that some open-source project almost does, so they send a team of engineers to build it up to meet their standards because its cheaper than writing it all themselves. Those engineers would no doubt have liked to work on that project or some other open-source project, but figuring out how a code-base works and where the problems are that need fixing is difficult and time-consuming. Time is a very valuable resource that one wants to spend properly, and figuring out a code base in order to help later may not seem the best use of time. The open-source model may not be dead, though. The model may have just expanded so that contributions don't occur on the individual scale, but on the corporate scale.

A Story About My Wife - BuiltOnFire

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My wife graduated last January with a B.S. in Environmental Science. Like most college students, she changed her major during her studies. She came to college planning to major in Chemical Engineering, but changed her major after a year. I asked her why she changed her major, and she replied, "Because the guys were jerks. I also wanted to do more field work, but mostly because the guys were jerks." In the pre-professional courses a number of men made sure that she knew that a woman in the major was taking a seat from the apparently superior men that would be applying for the major. They did so by whispering behind her and openly telling her. These men didn't make up a majority of the men she knew in the major, or even a significant minority. It was the repeated efforts of a small number that made her feel uncomfortable enough to leave. Fortunately, it was not a lose for women in STEM, as she went on to major in a hard science. It easily could have been though, and other women in the same position have likely left for greener pastures where the guys aren't jerks. When discussions about the lack of women in STEM come up, there is often discussion of subtle, systematic biases that leave women uncomfortable. We fail to realize that there are more overt biases as well, and those are the most dangerous.

These comments are posted with my wife's permission.

A Breach of Trust - BuiltOnFire

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Any community is founded on trust, and we idealize that trust. Imagining a community without trust one imagines a slum with bars on the windows and deadbolts on the doors. A community full of trust is then a Mayberry, where everyone knows each other's name and no one knows where there house keys are. The internet, as a community, is closer to the former than the latter, but it has a new problem. The internet has dirty cops. Authority figures we trusted when to help when really bad things happen on the internet are doing questionable things. THis issue is not just what they're doing, but how they've gone about doing it. First, the director of the NSA testified under oath that there is no program in place for the large-scale gathering of data. This was then shown to be a lie by an insider and a number of co-conspirators. Now the authorities tell us that they aren't looking at the gathered data and expect everyone to follow along. Now we are left between the rock of criminal elements who want to abuse our personal information for their own gain and the hard place of governmental authorities wanting to abuse our personal information for their own gain. These kind of pressures do not help a community grow into a modern-day Mayberry, but crush its spirit until it becomes a slum.

The Enemy of My Enemy is? - BuiltOnFire

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There is an old adage, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," but what should be done if the enemy of your enemy is also an enemy? Let's consider a hypothetical dilemma. You lead a farming village in the feudal period. Your village lies on a distant border of a kingdom ruled by a tyrant who levies painful taxes to fund his morally reprehensible debauchery. Over time, you find your village, as well as the neighboring villages, frequently threatened by a band of robbers. Your village has the strength it needs to defend itself from the robbers, but you know the tyrant is looking for assistance in dealing with these robbers who hurt his tax income. Do you defend yourself and let the robbers ravage your neighbors, or do you support the hated tyrant in eliminating the robbers?
This dilemma is comparable to the dilemma faced by Clifford Stoll in the mid-1980s. He knew that his computer systems were being hacked and that those same hackers were attacking military installations. He had to chose between defending only himself against the hacker, which he could easily do, or help the military and intelligence community, a group he believed responsible for the greatest atrocities of the the latter half of the twentieth century, apprehend the hackers. Stoll chose the latter option, but how does one go about deciding what to do in these types of situations.
What makes this type of situation unique is that action is a true act of agency. This is a situation where inaction preserves the status quo and is not in the least detrimental. Choosing to act is not a given, but a decision that must be considered. Stoll and many others have chosen to take action in this type of dilemma. This indicates that maintenance of the individual status quo is not the ethical position. If one considers the situation from a utilitarian perspective, one can see why. The option that must be taken is the option that provides greater utility to society. In some cases, the disruptive force will interfere with the second party's ability to cause harm on society, so preventing them from hurting you will ultimately benefit society and protect yourself. This is a core tenet of civil disobedience. On the other hand, the disruptive force might be causing more harm than they are preventing, and should be stopped. 
Stoll made his decision without knowing who the attackers were or what their intentions were, but he could make some assumptions. In the worst case, they were KGB spies who would use stolen information to hurt the United States and its citizenry, and in the best case it as a freedom fighter whose disruption would be nothing more than an annoyance to the military. There wasn't a way for the hacker to bring about a net good for society, but he could easily create a net loss, leading Stoll to act against the hacker. For the theoretical farming village, if the robbers hurt the economy enough to destabilize the kingdom and lead to a better government, it would be in the village's best interest to let the robbers run rampant. If the robbers were unable to do this, then they are making society worse which makes the ethical decision helping the tyrant eliminate the robbers.

Cody Wilson's Pointless Vendetta - BuiltOnFire

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Cody Wilson is winning a one-man fight against the government. By giving the average computer user the ability to produce firearms at home, he is proving that technology will always be able to undermine regulation. Unfortunately for Mr. Wilson, his fight isn't a particularly interesting one because he can't lose it. The point he is trying to make is self-evident. Government is inherently reactive because it cannot regulate technologies that don't exist. When that government is a well-established democracy with a large-amount of policy-making protocol, like the United States, regulation of new technologies is slowed even further. The cutting-edge of technology is and will always be a wild-west that is free from government regulation for a time. 3d printers and desktop steel mills currently reside in that frontier. This is the natural order of the political process and does not need to be proven. Mr. Wilson has turned a hobby into a vendetta but has proven nothing.

Based on The $1,200 Machine That Lets Anyone Make a Metal Gun at Home by Andy Greenberg at Wired on Oct 1, 2014.

Ideas are Cheap - BuiltOnFire

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Trillions of dollars pass through the United State's economy each year. The dollars moved through millions of firms in hundred of industries, but they all had one thing in common. Each dollar started moving because someone had an idea. This leads many people to the false conclusion that ideas are worth trillions of dollars. In reality, ideas are so plentiful they are practically worthless. If everyone in America had only one worthwhile idea a day, after a year we would have one idea for every fourteen cents in our GDP. In spite of this, you can get the government to treat your idea like property for twenty years or over one hundred years if you can convince them it has creative merit. Large companies then use this intellectual property to wage multi-million dollar wars against each other as well as small businesses and private citizens. These ideas can't even make money on their own. A million-dollar idea is only worth that much after many people have put hours of work into creating something real. Alone, it is worthless.