The US political system serves special interests and the rich

A paper written by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page and entitled Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens has been recently released and reported on (h/t Michael Crimmins) that studies who has influence on policy in the United States.

Here’s an excerpt from the abstract of the paper:

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.

A word about “little or no independent influence”: the above should be interpreted to mean that average citizens and mass-based groups only win when their interests align with economic elites, which happens sometimes, or business interests, which rarely happens. It doesn’t mean that average citizens and mass-based interest groups never ever get what they want.

There’s actually a lot more to the abstract, about abstract concepts of political influence, but I’m ignoring that to get to the data and the model.

The data

The found lots of polls on specific issues that were yes/no and included information about income to determine what poor people (10th percentile) thought about a specific issue, what an average (median income) person thought, and what a wealthy (90th percentile) person thought. They independently corroborated that their definition of wealthy was highly correlated, in terms of opinion, to other stronger (98th percentile) definitions. In fact they make the case that using 90th percentile instead of 98th actually underestimates the influence of wealthy people.

For the sake of interest groups and their opinions on public policy, they had a list of 43 interest groups (consisting of 29 business groups, 11 mass-based groups, and 3 others) that they considered “powerful” and they used domain expertise to estimate how many would oppose or be in favor of a given issue, and more or less took the difference, although they actually did something a bit fancier to reduce the influence of outliers:

Net Interest Group Alignment = ln(# Strongly Favor + [0.5 * # Somewhat Favor] + 1) – ln(#
Strongly Oppose + [0.5 * # Somewhat Oppose] + 1).

Finally, they pored over records to see what policy changes were actually made in the 4 year period after the polls.


The different groups had opinions that were sometimes highly correlated:

Screen Shot 2014-04-17 at 6.40.59 AM

Note the low correlation between mass public interest groups (like unions, pro-life, NRA, etc) and average citizens’ preferences and the negative correlation between business interests and elites’ preferences.

Next they did three bivariate regressions, measuring the influence of each of the groups separately, as well as one including all three, and got the following:

Screen Shot 2014-04-17 at 6.46.55 AM

This is where we get our conclusion that average citizens don’t have independent influence, because of this near-zero coefficient in Model 4. But note that if we ignore elites and interest groups, we do have 0.64 in Model 1, which indicates that preferences of the average citizens are correlated with outcomes.

The overall conclusion is that policy changes are determined by the elites and the interest groups.

We can divide the interest groups into business versus mass-based and check out how the influence is divided between the four defined groups:

Screen Shot 2014-04-17 at 6.52.19 AM


This stuff might depend a lot on various choices the modelers made as well as their proxies. It doesn’t pick up on smaller special interest groups. It doesn’t account for all possible sources of influence and so on. I’d love to see it redone with other choices. But I’m impressed anyway with all the work they put into this.

I’ll let the authors have the last word:

What do our findings say about democracy in America? They certainly constitute troubling news for advocates of “populistic” democracy, who want governments to respond primarily or exclusively to the policy preferences of their citizens. In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.

Categories: #OWS, modeling

How recently have you experienced democracy? #OWS

A few weeks ago Omar Freilla came to talk to my Occupy group. Omar is a founder of the Green Worker Cooperatives and shared his experience as an organizer.

He is a well-spoken guy and talked passionately about forming community cooperatives, where workers “have a direct role in decision-making and a share of all profits, build community wealth and help make a democratic economy real.”

At one point in his presentation, Omar asked us was how recently we’d “experienced democracy.”

On the face of it I didn’t think it was a fair question, especially when he compared it to experiencing anger or happiness. After all, democracy isn’t an emotion and I can’t experience democracy, say, by myself in a room, but of course I can conjure up emotions by myself in a room, especially if I have a laptop, wifi, and Netflix to help me.

But since his visit, I have to admit I have dwelled on that question and it’s become more and more reasonable in my mind, although I made two decisions on how to interpret it.

First of all, I chose to interpret it not as a formal gesture of democracy, like asking how recently have you voted in a formal election. Instead, it’s a local decision-making process question: how recently has your vote mattered in a local decision that affects a group?

Second, it’s not really about me. It’s about looking around and deciding who around me gets to participate in democratic decisions and who doesn’t.

For example, it might be at work. Although I personally get to make a lot of decisions at work, that fact clearly separates me from tons of people who simply get told what to do by some kind of authority. And there is an important distinction between people who have a manager but get to make decisions internal to their projects and people who have every decision laid out for them.

And that latter workplace anti-democratic situation is, I imagine, maximally soul-crushing, and is the audience that Omar is worried about and is reaching out to. And that’s why his question turns out to be a really good question after all.

I also consider democracy inside my own family. Since I’m the mom of the family, I tend to make more decisions that affect my little group than other people, but now I’m more sensitive to sharing that power there when I can. Turns out my kids love making decisions, it makes them gleeful in fact, even if it’s just what to eat for dinner. And they make good decisions too, which I’m consistently proud of.

My final example is Occupy, which is by construction a direct democracy, and I know how good participating and experiencing democracy actually feels there, and it’s a big part of why it works.

What about you? How recently have you experienced democracy?

Categories: #OWS

Let’s experiment more

What is an experiment?

The gold standard in scientific fields is the randomized experiment. That’s when you have some “treatment” you want to impose on some population and you want to know if that treatment has positive or negative effects. In a randomized experiment, you randomly divide a population into a “treatment” group and a “control group” and give the treatment only to the first group. Sometimes you do nothing to the control group, sometimes you give them some other treatment or a placebo. Before you do the experiment, of course, you have to carefully define the population and the treatment, including how long it lasts and what you are looking out for.

Example in medicine

So for example, in medicine, you might take a bunch of people at risk of heart attacks and ask some of them – a randomized subpopulation – to take aspirin once a day. Note that doesn’t mean they all will take an aspirin every day, since plenty of people forget to do what they’re told to do, and even what they intend to do. And you might have people in the other group who happen to take aspirin every day even though they’re in the other group.

Also, part of the experiment has to be well-defined lengths and outcomes of the experiment: after, say, 10 years, you want to see how many people in each group have a) had heart attacks and b) died.

Now you’re starting to see that, in order for such an experiment to yield useful information, you’d better make sure the average age of each subpopulation is about the same, which should be true if they were truly randomized, and that there are plenty of people in each subpopulation, or else the results will be statistically useless.

One last thing. There are ethics in medicine, which make experiments like the one above fraught. Namely, if you have a really good reason to think one treatment (“take aspirin once a day”) is better than another (“nothing”), then you’re not allowed to do it. Instead you’d have to compare two treatments that are thought to be about equal. This of course means that, in general, you need even more people in the experiment, and it gets super expensive and long.

So, experiments are hard in medicine. But they don’t have to be hard outside of medicine! Why aren’t we doing more of them when we can?

Swedish work experiment

Let’s move on to the Swedes, who according to this article (h/t Suresh Naidu) are experimenting in their own government offices on whether working 6 hours a day instead of 8 hours a day is a good idea. They are using two different departments in their municipal council to act as their “treatment group” (6 hours a day for them) and their “control group” (the usual 8 hours a day for them).

And although you might think that the people in the control group would object to unethical treatment, it’s not the same thing: nobody thinks your life is at stake for working a regular number of hours.

The idea there is that people waste their last couple of hours at work and generally become inefficient, so maybe knowing you only have 6 hours of work a day will improve the overall office. Another possibility, of course, is that people will still waste their last couple of hours of work and get 4 hours instead of 6 hours of work done. That’s what the experiment hopes to measure, in addition to (hopefully!) whether people dig it and are healthier as a result.

Non-example in business: HR

Before I get too excited I want to mention the problems that arise with experiments that you cannot control, which is most of the time if you don’t plan ahead.

Some of you probably ran into an article from the Wall Street Journal, entitled Companies Say No to Having an HR Department. It’s about how some companies decided that HR is a huge waste of money and decided to get rid of everyone in that department, even big companies.

On the one hand, you’d think this is a perfect experiment: compare companies that have HR departments against companies that don’t. And you could do that, of course, but you wouldn’t be measuring the effect of an HR department. Instead, you’d be measuring the effect of a company culture that doesn’t value things like HR.

So, for example, I would never work in a company that doesn’t value HR, because, as a woman, I am very aware of the fact that women get sexually harassed by their bosses and have essentially nobody to complain to except HR. But if you read the article, it becomes clear that the companies that get rid of HR don’t think from the perspective of the harassed underling but instead from the perspective of the boss who needs help firing people. From the article:

When co-workers can’t stand each other or employees aren’t clicking with their managers, Mr. Segal expects them to work it out themselves. “We ask senior leaders to recognize any potential chemistry issues” early on, he said, and move people to different teams if those issues can’t be resolved quickly.

Former Klick employees applaud the creative thinking that drives its culture, but say they sometimes felt like they were on their own there. Neville Thomas, a program director at Klick until 2013, occasionally had to discipline or terminate his direct reports. Without an HR team, he said, he worried about liability.

“There’s no HR department to coach you,” he said. “When you have an HR person, you have a point of contact that’s confidential.”

Why does it matter that it’s not random?

Here’s the crucial difference between a randomized experiment and a non-randomized experiment. In a randomized experiment, you are setting up and testing a causal relationship, but in a non-randomized experiment like the HR companies versus the no-HR companies, you are simply observing cultural differences without getting at root causes.

So if I notice that, at the non-HR companies, they get sued for sexual harassment a lot – which was indeed mentioned in the article as happening at Outback Steakhouse, a non-HR company – is that because they don’t have an HR team or because they have a culture which doesn’t value HR? We can’t tell. We can only observe it.

Money in politics experiment

Here’s an awesome example of a randomized experiment to understand who gets access to policy makers. In an article entitled A new experiment shows how money buys access to Congressan experiment was conducted by two political science graduate students, David Broockman and Josh Kalla, which they described as follows:

In the study, a political group attempting to build support for a bill before Congress tried to schedule meetings between local campaign contributors and Members of Congress in 191 congressional districts. However, the organization randomly assigned whether it informed legislators’ offices that individuals who would attend the meetings were “local campaign donors” or “local constituents.”

The letters were identical except for those two words, but the results were drastically different, as shown by the following graphic:


Conducting your own experiments with e.g. Mechanical Turk

You know how you can conduct experiments? Through an Amazon service called Mechanical Turk. It’s really not expensive and you can get a bunch of people to fill out surveys, or do tasks, or some combination, and you can design careful experiments and modify them and rerun them at your whim. You decide in advance how many people you want and how much to pay them.

So for example, that’s how then-Wall Street Journal journalist Julia Angwin, in 2012, investigated the weird appearance of Obama results interspersed between other search results, but not a similar appearance of Romney results, after users indicated party affiliation.


We already have a good idea of how to design and conduct useful and important experiments, and we already have good tools to do them. Other, even better tools are being developed right now to improve our abilities to conduct faster and more automated experiments.

If we think about what we can learn from these tools and some creative energy into design, we should all be incredibly impatient and excited. And we should also think of this as an argumentation technique: if we are arguing about whether a certain method or policy works versus another method or policy, can we set up a transparent and reproducible experiment to test it? Let’s start making science apply to our lives.

Categories: data journalism, modeling, rant

People who obsessively exercise are boring

I’m not saying anything you don’t know already. I’m just stating the obvious: people who obsessively exercise are super boring. They talk all the time about their times, and their workout progress, and their aching muscles, and it’s like you don’t even have to be there, you could just replace yourself with a gadget that listens, nods, and then says encouraging things like, “Way to go!” at the very end. Excruciating.

Look, don’t get me wrong. I’ve gone through bouts of obsessive exercise myself, and those bouts sometimes were pretty lengthy. And no, it didn’t ever make me skinny, just incredibly fit. I remember I trained for a sprint triathlon once, and man was I fit by the time it finally happened in the spring on 2004.

But then, when I got to the starting line, and there I was wishing I could reorder the events so the the beginning swim would 5 kilometers and the run at the end were a quarter mile – I’ve never been much of a runner – and I just looked around at myself and everyone else there, and I wondered how I’d become so incredibly boring and self-obsessed that I had paid good money and driven miles and miles just to obsessively exercise in front of other people.

What was going on with me? I became increasingly disgusted by my own boringness throughout the race. I think the worst part was how many people said “You go, girl!” when I jogged by. They were trying to encourage the fat girl, I get it, but it made it even more obvious that I was doing something that I honestly didn’t need to be getting public response to.

Look, I’m not against exercise, and I love doing it, or at least I love having done it because it makes you feel good, and I encourage everyone to be fit and happy. But I’m serious when I say I will no longer tolerate hanging out with people who obsess over it and want to talk to me about their obsession. Too frigging boring, people!

So if someone mentions that they went biking over this gorgeous spring weekend, then awesome, I’ll be happy for them. But if they want to talk about which bike they used, and what their time around Central Park was, and how they’re training for this or that event, then no. I will tell them “sorry but can we talk about something not incredibly boring now?”

Why do I mention this today? Because I finally figured out what my hostility towards the Quantified Self crowd is, and it’s this same thing. All those gadgets and doodads are essentially props to pull out and use to have that same boring conversation that I’ve already refused to give into. So please, don’t show me your sleep tracker or your step monitor and expect me to care. I don’t care.

And don’t get me wrong – again – I know some people will benefit from that kind of thing. And some people actually have illnesses or physical therapy and exercise and particularly quantified exercise might particularly help them keep track of their health! I get it!

But let’s face it, most people are not doing this for health. They are doing it for some other weird, narcissistic and anxiety-shielding coping-mechanistic self-competitive (or outright competitive) reason. And again, I’m not hating on them exactly, because I get it, and I’ve been there. But I don’t want to talk about it with them.

Categories: rant

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Readers, readers!

Aunt Pythia rarely does this, and really has never ever made up a question, but she absolutely needs to share a couple of things that nobody even came close to asking about this week. And yes, they’re about sex, or at least about genitals. Please skip this next section, and possibly all Aunt Pythia columns ever, if you are not interested in vulgar discussions of dirty topics. And yes, she’s taking this as an excuse to use the plural forms.


First, it might not surprise people to learn that Aunt Pythia talks about sex with her girlfriends. A lot. And she’s noticed a pattern in those conversations: some women can orgasm during intercourse, others cannot. And when I say cannot, I don’t mean cannot without help from, say, hands or a toy (Aunt Pythia does not often meet women who are in the alleged 15% of the population who cannot orgasm). I mean women who cannot through intercourse alone, with only a partner’s pelvic bone as tool.

Such an intriguing and natural categorization of women does not leave Aunt Pythia cold! She wants to get to the bottom of this! Why is this not one of the most basic conundrums of human existence, she wonders? Well, it is, and it has been (possibly! hopefully!) solved, in this article. It’s all about measuring distances, and once you say it like that, it makes perfect sense. Mystery revealed.


Aunt Pythia has been thinking a lot about objectification lately, and wondering why it happens so much more to women. One slightly philosophical approach to this question is understanding the extent to which men’s genitals are, to put it delicately, ripe for objectification versus, say, women’s breasts.

And the thing is, dear readers, they are not. Not as a general rule. And that is why, in my opinion, this video is so deeply radical. Warning! Please do not watch this video unless you are ready to have your mind blown! And please don’t say I didn’t warn you about this video.

Addendum: I feel like there should be a phrase invented for that video. Something like, hey man, don’t make me robocop your dick, or hey dude, don’t robocop your own dick. Suggestions welcome.

Back to our regularly scheduled advice column

After enjoying (or not!) today’s Aunt Pythia post and advice:

think of something to ask Aunt Pythia at the bottom of the page!

By the way, if you don’t know what the hell Aunt Pythia is talking about, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia.


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Inspired by the PDF Hackathon, I was wondering if anyone has scraped any of the sites where things like NECAP and MCAS scores are posted ala Wikileaks. Are these things publicly available, and I just haven’t looked in the right places?.

I’m working on a letter to the chair of a committee in the state legislature that is considering a bill that would exempt teachers rated “highly effective” or “effective” from being evaluated the next three years. The link you posted to the six articles on VAM in New York have provided me with a lot of material. Mandatory inclusion of test scores in teacher evaluations is scheduled to be implemented this year in RI and I’m hoping that if we can drag our feet in RI until the negative effects in early adoption states become widely known maybe we can avoid making some of those mistakes. Unfortunately our education commissioner is one of Jeb Bush’s infamous “chiefs for change” and has a lot of clout.

Confused in RI

Dear Confused,

First, I feel your pain. And I’m not sure which link of mine you were referring to but it might as well be Eugene Stern’s guest post on his fears of a VAM-like model being implemented in New Jersey, which he wrote about a year ago, when it was being pushed by Chris Christie (I wonder what happened to that initiative? Eugene?). In fact please feel free to write your letter with many of the same points Eugene was making.

Second, there’s no way we want student test scores leaked ever, and for this purposes especially. The models themselves are secret, and the amount of details and information necessary to reconstitute even one teacher’s VAM score would expose many innocent people to scrutiny that they don’t deserve and is outright illegal and rightly so.

I’m afraid you will have to play this out politically, not using data. The whole point of it is that they control the data and are using the model as an opaque and threatening weapon.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

My best friend and I used to talk often on the phone (like once a week for an hour, over the course of 5 years) but gradually over the past year, the frequency and length has declined, and also now she never initiates the calls or texts. She’s pretty busy – she is overworked at a job she hates, and has had various boyfriends, and recently moved in with one, and hangs out with friends who live close to her (I don’t). A few times lately she has failed to return my phone calls.

I am a really lonely guy … I have tried basically the kitchen sink at finding a girlfriend, but haven’t been successful yet and so she is who I typically turn to for emotional support. Anyways, I love talking with her, but often times lately I have been feeling sad because I feel so ignored by her, and I kind of feel that I am not valued as a friend. Do you think I should I stop initiating calls and texts? Not because I want to stop being friends with her, but because it’s a bit unfair of me to ask for so much support from her, and I should try to finding an actual girlfriend instead?

Lonely in New York(?!)

Dear Lonely,

I love it when my job is easy and the tough answer has already been provided. Yes, you need to go find your own girlfriend and stop asking one friend for that much support and love. She probably loves you and knows you need to disconnect from her in order to connect with others. Once you have a real live woman to talk to in New York I bet she’ll be psyched for you and more willing to return your (less frequent and less pathetic) calls.

Plus, according to this interactive love map created by Jonathan Soma, you should count your statistically lucky stars that there are 5 extra single women per 100 single men in New York.

And by the way, you definitely should start hanging out with friends first. Making friends is easier than finding a girlfriend and often helps.

Auntie P


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m an undergraduate woman at a well-regarded (and presumably well-endowed) university in the South, in fact it once had the winning Putnam team and the winning NCAA basketball team in the same year, or some such nonsense.

Tuition is exorbitant, and in order to afford it, I have turned to some financially rewarding but controversial, um, artistic endeavors, let’s say, in which I exhibit my natural beauty and enhance my acting skills.

Some say these gigs are demeaning to or objectify women, others say they are a freedom of expression of things our culture tends to repress. Anyways, what would your advice to me be? Should I stay in the industry?


Dear BK,

Let’s think about this pragmatically and long-term. Besides the risk of STD’s, which I assume you’re taking care of, I think the main question is the extent to which you are putting your future goals at risk by taking these gigs now, rather than a more standard, presumably lower-paying evening job.

So, how easily identifiable will you be to later potential employers? And what kind of employment are you interested in? In the extreme case, where you want to be a politician and you’re a huge internet porn star, I think we have a problem. On the other extreme, where you want to be a lab scientist and you are stripping at a local bar with no recordings, I don’t think there’s a major risk.

Your actual case is probably in the middle, and although I don’t know what it is, I’d venture to guess that you also don’t know exactly what it is, because you’re probably 19 or 20 or so and don’t know exactly what you’re doing with your life.

So my advice for staying or leaving hinges on this concern, that your options are being at least somewhat narrowed without you really knowing it. Or even if your options are not explicitly being narrowed, I’m hoping you gird yourself for assholes and assumptions, and I hope you can push back.

And when I say that, I’m also saying “fuck this society” under my breath. We are super prudish in the best of times and at less good time we are freaky and hostile towards women. That’s not your fault.

As to whether the industry is demeaning and objectifying, I’d say it’s objectifying almost by definition, and whether it’s demeaning is probably something you will not be able to fully answer until you live with the ramifications of having been in it. So get back to me in 10 years and tell me what you think.

Good luck,

Aunt Pythia


Please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Envy, greed, and the American Dream #OWS

I was sent this Falkenblog post entitled Why Envy Dominates Greed a while back (hat tip David Murrell). The post suggests an interesting thought experiment which I’d like to discuss this morning.

Namely, it asks us to examine the extent to which our economic assumption that “everyone is working in their own self-interest” can be replaced by the assumption that “everyone is working to improve their relative ranking” and whether you’d get more clarity from economics that way.

I’ve done myself the favor of ignoring everything author Eric Falkenstein actually says about the economic theory, because he’s focusing on investing in the stock market, which honestly only a minority of people ever do even once. Even so I’d like to consider this idea of envy versus greed and try to make sense of it.

First of all, I do think that a certain kind of relativity combined with proximity is deeply important to humans. When members of my Occupy group talk about living on $2 a day while sleeping at homeless shelters in New York City, surrounded by men in suits with chauffeurs, it is very relevant that the privations described are combined with with a deep sense of humiliation of their understanding of their relative position. These are highly intelligent people who know how things look and they feel it keenly.

Similarly, when I think about poor people in other countries, it’s a different level of destitution than we see here, and yet it doesn’t make me want to drop everything and work in India. There’s something about proximity that we all respond to, and which has been well examined by social scientists.

Going back to my New York friend: is that envy being displayed, exactly? I don’t think so. I think it’s something more like dispossession and despair. And it’s honestly something I believe our natures would rather avoid, but sometimes just slaps us in our face, especially in places like New York City.

I’m not throwing envy out altogether. In fact, I do think envy is strongly at work, but only at a local level. I am working at Columbia now, so it’s natural and proper that I am envious of my colleague’s slightly-larger office. I ignore the stuff I don’t see like how the trustees are chosen and treated. A person in a given town is envious of their neighbor’s house or car or job or wife, but they don’t think about what’s happening in a different neighborhood. In fact they might obsess over such things. It happens. But again, it’s local.

Evidence that people only think very locally about wealth and inequality is everywhere; so when people are polled and asked to describe income or wealth inequality, they always think it’s much less skewed than it is. Why? I’ll guess. It’s because they extrapolate from their very local experience, where there the outliers are not so very outlying at all. It’s a safe kind of assumption that doesn’t boil the blood.

So envy is there, it’s powerful, but it biases us enormously. If anything, I’m starting to think envy is something to distract us from something more dangerous, which is that sense of privation and dispossession, which runs deeper and is more anarchic. By contrast, envy seems like a myopic feeling that keeps us acting safely inside the system, where if we follow the rules but we’re a little bit better at them, we will get that bigger office or bigger car.

In the end, I reject envy as a unifying glue that describes our world, at least in times of severe inequality like now. It just doesn’t address the growing hostility that I’m sensing, which is that second kind of feeling, which exists beyond envy.

Moreover, I think the assumption that everyone is feeling something as small as envy, or rather the projection of envy onto the entire population, is damaging.

So, for example, there was an New York Times Op-Ed recently entitled Capitalize Workers! that suggested we get more people involved for saving for their retirement by investing in the stock market with “minimum pensions”.

I think the idea here is that everyone wants a piece of that amazing stock market return. But if you think about where people actually are financially, it’s such a weirdly out-of-touch plan, the idea that everyone is a Wall Street trader or wants to be.

For most people I meet and talk to, at this point retirement is not at all about the thrill of risk-taking, but rather the avoidance of risk altogether. If you asked those people, they’d rather just have their Social Security benefits doubled. They are not trying to take their chances to double their money, but rather trying to eke out a retirement without severe pain.

Why is this happening? Why are the authors of this piece, who both work at the think tank Third Way,  making such bizarre assumptions about how poor people want to retire? My first guess was that they are just working with the funds on Wall Street who would reap (even more) profits if more people invested.

But another less suspicious possibility is given by my above observation. Namely, they are projecting their myopic envy, that makes sense in their world, onto the poor and middle class worrying about retirement.

In their neighborhood, the way envy works is about trading and making big gains with extra money, but of course to do that you have to have extra money to start out with. In other words, the distance between the authors and the people they claim to be trying to help is too large for their system of envy to translate meaningfully.


Categories: #OWS, musing

Does OpenSSL bug prove that open source code doesn’t work?

By now most of you have read about the major bug that was found in OpenSSL, an open source security software toolkit. The bug itself is called the Heartbleed Bug, and there’s lots of information about it and how to fix it here. People are super upset about this, and lots of questions remain.

For example, was it intentionally undermined? Has the NSA deliberately inserted weaknesses into this as well? It seems like the jury is out right now, but if I’m the guy who put in the bug, I’m changing my name and going undercover just in case.

Next, how widely was the weakness exploited? If you’re super worried about stuff, or if you are a particular target of attack, the answer is probably “widely.” The frustrating thing is that there’s seemingly no way to measure or test that assumption, since the attackers would leave no trace.

Here’s what I find interesting the most interesting question: what will the long-term reaction be to open source software? People might think that open source code is a bust after this. They will complain that something like this should never have been allowed to happen – that the whole point of open software is that people should be checking this stuff as it comes in – and it never would have happened if there were people getting paid to test the software.

First of all, it did work as intended, even though it took two years instead of two days like people might have wanted. And maybe this shouldn’t have happened like it did, but I suspect that people will learn this particular lesson really well as of now.

But in general terms, bugs are everywhere. Think about Knight Capital’s trading debacle or the ObamaCare website, just two famous recent problems with large-scale coding projects that aren’t open source.

Even when people are paid to fix bugs, they fix the kind of bugs that cause the software to stop a lot sooner than the kind of bug that doesn’t make anything explode, lets people see information they shouldn’t see, and leaves no trace. So for every Knight’s Capital there are tons of other bugs in software that continue to exist.

In other words it’s more a question of who knows about the bugs and who can exploit them. And of course, whether those weaknesses will ever be exposed to the public at all.

It would be great to see the OpenSSL bug story become, over time, a success story. This would mean that, on the one hand the nerds becoming more vigilant in checking vitally important code, and learning to think like assholes, but also the public would need to acknowledge how freaking hard it is to program.

Categories: musing, open source tools

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