Wednesday, December 31, 2014

[E]valuation is nontrivial

You know how when you're in a debate with a smart person, and the debate wants to fragment -- you need some kind of tree structure to keep track of all the threads that the two of you have brought up, because some of them are irrelevant to the main point but still intriguing, and some of them neither of you are sure whether they'll be crucial or just trivial, and sometime what was irrelevant turns into its own fun conversation/debate?

Except usually you can't do all of this, because the debate is taking place in a linear format like blog (or, worse, Facebook) comment threads?

I had a moment feeling a little like that today when reading Massimo Pigliucci's report from the American Philosophical Association meeting in Philadelphia where he relates sitting through a panel stocked with followers of Ayn Rand. In general, this is an exercise not worth the investment of time, since no one except Objectivists takes Objectivist philosophy seriously. (Not least because Objectivist philosophers don't take any non-Objectivist philosophy seriously, and it's pretty bootless to try to have an academic discourse that way.)

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Whiny little gits: on legislation by version control

There's an idea that's been rattling around my head for some time now, probably originally seeded by some internet forum discussion, and it's now been rattling long enough without me seeing any deadly objections that I figured I'd put it down on e-paper.

Problem-setting: legislative process. It's weird, and convoluted, and in many cases the rules of a legislative chamber allow changes to be made to a bill which the members need not be aware of. This was borne out recently in Congress when a single member inserted a provision at the behest of Citigroup, and there was no way to excise the provision from the final version which was submitted to both houses for an up-or-down vote, without jeopardizing the passage of the whole bill.

To zoom out a bit: voters don't care about, pay attention to, or understand process. That's OK, in one sense -- voters really are supposed to care about results, in theory, and are supposed to trust their representatives to get good at process. The problem comes in when advocacy organizations start scoring process moves as position-taking. For example, there's a funny little quirk in the Senate rules that if the majority fails to break a filibuster, the only way to try later to break the same filibuster is if someone changes their mind. What this means in practice is that the Majority Leader will vote to sustain the filibuster if he's sure the logjam won't break -- this way he can "change his mind" later if they can whip up the votes to get the bill through. But this exposes him to an advocacy organization scoring his vote as being on the wrong side of their favorite issue.

There's even the very basic existential question of "what does the law actually say?". How are we to know, under the current way of setting up legislation, if the text on the paper distributed to Congress is the same as the text which is digitally available on the website of the Library of Congress; or if either is identical to the text on the page signed by the President? And in case of a discrepancy, which is "the law"? Typos happen, and humans aren't optimized to catch them on paper.