Posts tagged with ethics

Silicon Valley “maker” culture insists that if you don’t like something, it’s incumbent on you to do better. Bollocks. If we applied that logic to everything we’d say:

  • Marcovaldo’s paintings bore me. Maybe you should paint a better one!
  • The seats on this bus are uncomfortable. Maybe you should engineer some better bus seats!
  • I’m so frustrated that this plane won’t take off for another two hours. Maybe you should re-figure the logistics for the Civil Aviation Authority so planes can get off the ground faster!
  • Sylvia Plath is obnoxious. Maybe you should write some better poetry yourself. I don’t see you writing any poetry!
  • I hate Palazzo Pants. They’re coming back and I can’t stand it. So don’t buy any!
  • Economic theory is wrong. Maybe you should come up with a better theory!
  • Star Trek is racist and paternalistic. Well, I don’t see you writing a hit TV show that’s not racist!
  • I don’t like that restaurant. So don’t go there.

How could it seem reasonable to obligate someone to years of reparations for a one-minute whinge?


Kvetching may be a waste of time, but it’s also a natural part of life. We are a verbal species.
Just as innate as it is to

  • angrily debate politics or
  • to make an ugly face when you ask someone what they do and they say “Mathematics”,

it’s very simple and natural to express delight or disgust at good or bad design, craft, or taste—even outside one’s expertise. How is it incumbent on a whiner to spend ten years learning how to write software, because they said they disliked what you made?

If I say I didn’t like that restaurant and you say So don’t go there again, what just happened is that I expressed how something made me feel, and you instructed me. Maybe it is rational to not go there again … ok, fine … maybe it’s also rational to have feelings and to want to express them, even if I’m not going to take any further action beyond expressing myself.

It’s of course possible to override the natural instinct to complain. I could if I really wanted to. But Rails programmers in San Francisco already get enough remuneration. I’m not also going to grant them the power to dictate culture as well.

  • Linux is still hard for most people.
  • Mathematics is still boring for most people.
  • If someone complains to you, a totally fine response is: “I see”.

Even if science is hellish on the scientists, isn’t it important for society?

Perhaps. But likely not. Science merely offers power — the use of that power for good or evil is out of the hands of scientists.

And as it stands, we have the power to … cure malaria or end world hunger. In a final sense, we simply choose not to. Becoming a scientist will not give you control over how your technology is used. [I]f anything, it is an abdication from [that] responsibility.

Just ask Oppenheimer.

Keith Yost


It’s not always possible to say A ≻ B or A ≺ B. Sometimes

  • neither A nor B is smaller.        A≹B
  • neither A nor B is more successful.   A≹B
  • neither A nor B is prettier.         A≹B
  • neither A nor B is smarter.        A≹B
  • you don’t love A any more or any less than you love B.   ℒ(A)≹ℒ(B)
  • neither A nor B is tastier.           A≹B
  • neither A nor B is closer.           |A−x| ≹ |B−x|
  • neither A nor B is more fair.        A≹B
  • neither A nor B is better.             A≹B

I’ve argued this before using posets. And I intend to argue it further later, when I claim that the concept of Pareto superiority was a major step forward in ethics.

*[The concept of Pareto dominance allows you to make, at least in theory, a valid, fully general comparison between two states of the world. A≻B in full generality iff   a ≻ b   a ∈ A and ∀ b ∈ B, by the individual standards of ∀ .]


For now, though, I’ll draw some examples of functionals that don’t beat one another. That is, ƒ≹g nor g≹ƒ. (You might assume  has to be 2-symmetric but I’m just stating it for clarity.)

In this drawing, green wins sometimes and purple wins other times. Is it more important to win the “righthand” cases or the “lefthand” cases? How much better for each scenario? (see integrating kernel) Is it better for the L₂ norm to be higher? Or just for the mass to be greater?

In this drawing, orange wins sometimes and blue wins other times. Is it more important to win the “interior” cases or the “extremal” cases? How much better for each scenario? (see kernel of integration)


How about a function that measures the desirability of a particular boyfriend / girlfriend in various scenarios. How about the function g measures boyfriend B in the various scenarios (domain) and the function ƒ measures boyfriend A in the various scenarios. By measures, I mean the function’s codomain is some kind of totally ordered set where it does make sense to talk about better ≻ and worse ≺.

  • ƒ(at dinner) ≻ g(at dinner)
  • ƒ(career) ≺ g(career)
  • ƒ(in bed) ≫ g(in bed)
  • ƒ(with your family) ≺ g(with your family)
  • ƒ(at the beach) ≺ g(at the beach)
  • …and so on…

So how do you decide whether A≺B or B≺A? Perhaps you have your own priorities sorted so well that you can apply a kernel. Or perhaps AB in the final analysis.

I could make a comparable list for

  • comparing two houses or apartments (well, this one’s closer to the park, but that one has that cozy breakfast nook),
  • comparing two societies (one where the top marginal tax rate is 41% and one where the top marginal tax rate is 40%),
  • and on and on.

Sometimes it’s hard to compare. Sometimes — like which of your kids do you love the best — it’s impossible to compare.

The moral code of our society is so demanding that no one can think, feel and act in a completely moral way…. Some people are so highly socialized that the attempt to think, feel and act morally imposes a severe burden on them. In order to avoid feelings of guilt, they continually have to deceive themselves about their own motives and find moral explanations for feelings and actions that in reality have a non-moral origin.

murderer Ted Kaczynski, in The Unabomber Manifesto

Reminiscent of E.O. Wilson’s On Human Nature where he says that performance of one’s roles in society is like a hypertrophic outgrowth of "our" early social heritage.

Perhaps the internal logic of someone who performs many roles must be inconsistent. Whether the pressure is felt as a multiplicity of selves or an inconsistency of morals—maybe they’re instantiations of the same thing.

Dr. Kaczynski’s mathematics papers (collected here) mostly deal with boundary functions.


Have you ever noticed that, even if you delete text from a Microsoft Word document, the file size doesn’t decrease? If you are writing a book in MS Word, you’ll notice that the .doc file grows ever larger as you add & delete paragraphs, move snippets around; even if you delete a chapter, the file doesn’t necessarily shrink.

If you copy-pasted a document which you’d been working on for a while into a new, empty Word .doc (can I call that the null document?), maybe you noticed that the new file — even though it contained exactly the same text — was much smaller than the older file.

  • That’s because, mathematically, .doc files are semigroups

Typewritten letters are also semigroups — the thousands of possible binary operations would be “append from {letters, punctuation, whitespace}" — but with Word files, the operations include delete words, delete ¶ and replace ¶ with the word you just typed.

Whereas the state of a .txt file is the current body of text, the state of a Word .doc is the entire history of the document. (That’s why programmers use git|svn to remember the history of their directories: the IDE doesn’t do it for them.)

You can see this in the metadata. Open a .doc file in a plain-text editor (e.g., Notepad) and you’ll see snippets of things you thought you deleted. Hey, why are those still there?!

Microsoft keeps them there because you — and most Word users — want to be able to hit Ctrl+Z or Edit > Undo. If the pages of highlighted text you just replaced with an “a” were really gone, there could be no undo operation. And then you would screw yourself thousands of times with mistaken keystrokes and on sad days when you think most of your book is trash.

As a consequence of giving people what they want, Microsoft has also given some people what they don’t want. The US government has written instructions on how to really, truly delete classified information in .doc files. (One wonders what was accidentally disclosed before those instructions were written.) And Merck was blasted, after they submitted an article about Vioxx after Delete-ing a paragraph about the concomitant risk of heart attack. Apparently someone at the New England Journal of Medicine knows how to press Ctrl+Z.

Note to CMO’s: Never send an unethical MBA to do an unethical hacker’s job. \insert{LaTeX quip}.

Personally, I never send resumes or curriculum vitæ in Word, nor do I send reports to clients in Word. I always generate a PDF. When I’m writing something, I want it to be malleable. But when I give it to you, I want it to be locked down, uneditable, unable to be reverse-engineered. I make sure what you’re viewing is exactly how I want it to look, saying just and only what I want it to say.

They say unto him, Rabbi, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? This they said, tempting him, … they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.

Define ||x|| to be

In other words, unless completely perfect, one is imperfect. This is a different sort of measure than is used in assigning blame in a car crash, or in torts.

Those would take the total sum of damage and fractionally assign responsibility to each party. Allow me the licence to define the “Jesus norm” as above.

It would say that one is either responsible or not responsible.

So if I hurt you at all, I’m equally as responsible as everybody else who hurt you for making you whole again.