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Viliam comments on Open thread, June. 12 - June. 18, 2017 - Less Wrong

1 Post author: Thomas 12 June 2017 05:36AM

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Comment author: Viliam 16 June 2017 04:48:03PM *  8 points [-]

Finally read the review, and I am happy I did. Made me think about a few things...

Legibility has its costs. For example, I had to use Jira for tracking my time in many software companies, and one task is always noticeably missing, despite requiring significant time and attention of all team members, namely using the Jira itself. How much time and attention does it require, in addition to doing the work, to make notes about what exactly you did when, whether it should be tracked as a separate issue, what meta-data to assign to that issue, who needs to approve it, communicating why they should approve it, explaining technical details of why the map drawn by the management doesn't quite match the territory, explaining that you are doing a "low-priority" task X because it is a prerequisite to a "high-priority" task Y, then explaining the same thing to yet another manager who noticed that you are logging time on low-priority tasks despite having high-priority tasks in the queue and decided to take initiative, negotiating whether you should log the time in your company's Jira or your company's customer's Jira or both, in extreme cases whether it is okay to use English when writing in your customer's Jira or you need to learn their language, etc. And as the review mentions, these costs are usually imposed by the people higher in hierarchy, and paid by those lower in hierarchy, so people having the power to improve this don't have an incentive.

Legibility is often used as a reason to remove options. Previously you had options X, Y, Z, but 90% of people used X, and X is most known to people in power and they already have it better documented, so let's make things more legible by banning Y and Z, and perhaps by also banning the choice to use none of these services; now everyone uses X which we can easily track.

Depending on country, educational system may be a victim of this: homeschooling either illegal or just strongly disliked by people in power, same for alternative schools, it is much simpler to use the same system for everyone. So although my daughter knew all characters in alphabet when she was 1, the government will try hard to teach her all those letters again slowly when she is 6, and of course it will pay for this complete waste of everyone's time and energy using my tax money. (Luckily homeschooling is kinda-legal here, if you interpret some laws creatively and deal with all the resulting inconvenience.) Because a country where everyone learns alphabet exactly at the age of 6 is aesthetically more appealing for the people in positions to make the bureaucratic decisions about education. If I try to debate them, they will probably be tempted to just make a strawman who wants to keep their children illiterate, and debate that strawman instead of me.

Or there could be a problem with people who make small irregular side income - such as a student or an employee who also has a web page with adsense or a game or two on android market - because the state would like you to clearly choose whether you are an employee (with all the related legal and tax consequences) or an entrepreneur (with another set of consequences), and not "mostly this, but also a bit of that". You may be unable to find an expert who really understand how to tax your adsense / android / kickstarter income, because you are not supposed to be doing this, unless you have a company for doing it.

Similarly, the state may be rolling their eyes if you are trying to find an employment with 2 hours a day, or working only every other weak, because it has the nice predefined category of an "employee" that works 8 hours a day, 5 days a week.

And the problem is that most people designing this system, and probably many left-leaning people hearing about your problems they don't share, will most likely react on emotional level like: "Just choose one of the existing options, asshole, just like all normal people do! Why are you trying to complicate our work? Do you believe there should be special laws for you; do you consider yourself some kind of royalty?" When the truth is that no one needed a special law for them, until the state attempted to standardized things using a map that doesn't quite fit the territory.

Also, some of these problems could be solved by creating a less specific abstraction; for example, the state could check that your children have certain knowledge and skills, regardless of how specifically they gained them; or it could tax your total income, regardless of how specifically you gained it. Programmers call this design pattern "programming for interface, not for implementation" (in this analogy "education" would be an interface, and "classical school", "alternative school", "homeschooling", "unschooling" would be implementations; or "income" would be an interface, and "employment", "business", "kickstarter", "patreon" would be implementations). But it would probably still be difficult to convince the people in power of the need of this abstraction in first place. Again, because of legibility -- with interface, you have certain things you know, and the rest is black box; but implementation tempts you with unlimited possibilities of further inspection.

As usual, the impact is worse on poor people; when a middle-class employee cannot find a way to properly tax his monthly $10 from the android game, they can either just give the game away for free, or take a risk, hoping that in case they are doing wrong, the punishment is not going to be draconic. For a poor person, the monthly $10 makes a greater difference, but also involves a risk that e.g. if they are taking unemployment benefits, having an extra untaxed income will be treated as an attempt to cheat the system, and may have more severe consequences. Similarly, a rich person has more options to make their homeschooling legal, e.g. by declaring their child a foreign citizen (of a country that allows homeschooling) and perhaps even "prove" it by buying a house in that country; or whatever it is that according to the given country's laws will make the bureaucrat satisfied.

Then there is the aspect "if people in power don't understand it, it doesn't exist, and everyone who cares about it is acting irrationally". Whether a programmer acts like an asshole, or helps people around him, as long as it is not reflected in Jira, it didn't happen. Of course the official answer is to put it in Jira, which includes all the trivial and not-so-trivial inconvenience. You may enjoy cooperating with one colleague and suffer when you are forced to cooperate with another one, but on the official level this does not exist, and you will be treated as irrational (I think the proper word in this context is "unprofessional") for simply expressing preference for sitting next to person X instead of person Y, even if doing so would mean zero costs for the company, and could actually increase your productivity. There are some allowed ways to express your job-unrelated human side, and they are generally called "teambuilding", i.e. doing what the people in power believe is fun.

On the state level, using your local knowledge that is not recognized by state may be considered illegal discrimination. Better not go into specific details.

Comment author: ChristianKl 17 June 2017 09:30:27PM 0 points [-]

Depending on country, educational system may be a victim of this: homeschooling either illegal or just strongly disliked by people in power, same for alternative schools, it is much simpler to use the same system for everyone.

Many Western countries do allow alternative schools for the elite. The UK won't shut down Eton anytime soon.

Comment author: Viliam 17 June 2017 11:42:52PM 2 points [-]

Somehow people in power can always make an exception for themselves and for their families. Legibility only overrides the needs of everyone else. Sometimes you can also benefit from the exception, even if you are not one of them, if you happen to have exactly the same need. But the further from the elite you are, the less likely are your specific needs going to fit the exception made for them.