Archive for the 'Book Reviews' Category

Book Review: The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric Raymond

I can’t believe I haven’t read this book until now since it intersects two areas of deep interest to me: technology (specifically programming) and freedom. Essentially the book celebrates liberty as a natural mode for creativity and productivity, with open source software as an example. Raymond has two further findings: that openness doesn’t necessarily imply a loss of property rights, and selfish motives are pervasive (and not evil).

When does open source work? And how about computational science?

Raymond’s biggest contribution is that he gives a wonderful analysis of the conditions that contribute to the success of the open approach, quoting from page 146 of the revised edition:

1. Reliability/stability/scalability are critical.
2. Correctness of design and implementation cannot readily be verified by means other than independent peer review.
3. The software is critical to the user’s control of his/her business.
4. The software establishes or enables a common computing and communication infrastructure.
5. Key methods (or functional equivalents of them) are part of common engineering knowledge.

I’m struck by how computational research seems to fit. Adapting Raymond’s list in this light:

1. Reproducibility of research is critical.
2. Correctness of methodology and results cannot readily be verified by means other than independent peer review.
3. The research is critical to academic careers.
4. Computational research may lead to common platforms since by its nature code is created, but this is not necessarily the case.
5. Key methods, such as the scientific method, are common research knowledge.

1, 2, and 3 seem fairly straightforward and a great fit for computational science. Computational research doesn’t tend to establish a common computing and communication infrastructure, although it can, for example David Donoho’s WaveLab or my colloborative work with him and others SparseLab. We were aiming not only to create a platform and vehicle for reproducible research but also to create software tools and common examples for researchers in the field. But at the moment this approach isn’t typical. In point 5, I think what Raymond means is that there is a common culture of how to solve a problem. I think computational scientists have this through their agreement on the scientific method for inquiry. Methodology in the computational sciences is undergoing rapid transformations – it is a very young field (for example, see my paper).

I think open source and computational research differ in their conception of openness. Implicitly I’ve been assuming opening to other computational researchers. But I can imagine a world that’s closer to the open source mechanism where people can participate based on their skill and interest alone, rather than school or group affiliation or similar types of insider knowledge. Fully open peer review and reproducible research would make these last criteria less important and go a long way to accruing the benefits that open source has seen.

Raymond notes that music and books are not like software in that they don’t need to be debugged and maintained. I think computational scientific research can bridge this in a way those areas don’t – the search for scientific understand requires cooperation and continual effort that builds on the work that has come before. Plus, there is something objective we’re trying to describe when we do computational research, so we have a common goal.

Property Rights – essential to a productive open system

The other theme that runs through the book is Raymond’s observation that openness doesn’t necessarily mean a loss of property rights, in fact they may be essential. He goes to great lengths to detail the community mores that enforce typical property right manifestations: attribution for work, relative valuation of different types of work, and boundary establishment for responsibility within projects for example. He draws a clever parallel between physical property rights as embodied in English common law (encoded in the American legal system) and the similarly self-evolved property rights of the open source world. John Locke codified the Anglo-American common law methods of acquiring ownership of land (page 76):

1. homesteading: mixing one’s labor with the unowned land and defending one’s title.
2. transfer of title.
3. adverse possession: owned land can be homesteaded and property rights acquired if the original owner does not defend his claim to the land.

A version of this operates in the hacker community with regard to open source projects. By contributing to an open source project you mix your labor in Lockean fashion and gain part of the project’s reputation return. The parallel between the real and virtual worlds is interesting – and the fact that physical property rights appear to be generalizable and important for conflict avoidance in open source systems. Raymond also notes that these property rights customs are strictly enforced in the open source world through moral suasion and the threat of ostracization.

The Role of Selfishness in Open Cultures

Raymond uses the open source world as an example of the pervasiveness of selfish motives in human behavior, stating that as a culture we tend to have a blind spot to how altruism is in fact “a form of ego satisfaction for the altruist.” (p53) This is an important point in this debate because the idea of open source can be conflated with a diminution of property rights and a move toward a less capitalist system, ie. people behaving altruistically to each other rather than according to market strictures. Raymond eviscerates this notion by noting that altruism isn’t selfless and even the open source world benefits by linking the selfishness of hackers and their need for self-actualization to difficult ends that can only be achieved through sustained cooperation. Appeals to reputation and ego boosting seem to do the trick in this sphere and Raymond attributes Linux’s success in part to Linus Torvalds’ genius in creating an efficient market in ego boosting – turned of course to the end of OS development.

Book Review: "Development as Freedom" by Amartya Sen

What is a developed country? According to Sen, development should be measured by how much freedom a country has since without freedom people cannot make the choices that allow them to help themselves and others. He defines freedom as an interdependent bundle of:

1) political freedom and civil rights,
2) economic freedom including opportunities to get credit,
3) social opportunities: arrangements for health care, education, and other social services,
4) transparency guarantees, by which Sen means interactions with others, including the government, are characterized by a mutual understanding of what is offered and what to expect,
5) protective security, in which Sen includes unemployment benefits, famine and emergency relief, and general safety nets.

Respect for Local Decisions

By defining the level of development by how much the country has, Sen largely sidesteps a value judgment of what it means specifically to be a developed country – this isn’t the usual laundry list of Western institutions. It’s a bold statement – he gives the example of a hypothetical community deciding whether to disband their current traditions and increase lifespans. Sen states he would leave it up to the community and if they decide on shorter lifespans, in the full-freedom environment he imagines, this is perfectly consistent with the action of a fully developed country (although Sen doesn’t think anyone should have to chose between life and death – this is the reason for freedom 3). This also is an example of the inherent interrelatedness of Sen’s five freedoms – the community requires political freedom to discuss the issues, come to a conclusion and have it seen as legitimate, with social opportunities and education for people to engage in such a discussion.

Crucial Interrelatedness of the Freedoms

Sen is quite adamant that these five freedoms be implemented together and he makes an explicit case against the “Lee Thesis” – that economic growth must be secured in a developing country before other rights (such as political and civil rights) are granted. This is an important question among developing countries who see Singapore’s success as the model to follow. Sen notes that it is an unsettled empirical question whether or not authoritarian regimes produce greater economic growth, but he argues two points: that people’s welfare can be addressed best through a more democratic system (for which he sees education, health, security as requisite) since people are able to bring their needs to the fore; and that democratic accountability provides incentives for leaders to deal with issues of broad impact such as famines or natural catastrophes. His main example of the second point is that there has never been a famine under a democratic regime – it is not clear to me that this isn’t due to reasons other than the incentives of elected leaders (such as greater economic liberty), but whether or not there is a correlation is something the data can tell. Sen notes that democracies provide protective security and transparency (freedoms four and five) and this is a mechanism through which to avert things like the Asian currency crisis of 1997. Democratic governments also have issues with transparency but this seems to me an example of how democracy avoids really bad decisions even though it might not make the optimal choices. Danny Hillis explained why this is the case in his article How Democracy Works.

Choosing not to Choose (Revisited)

Sen reasons that since no tradition of suppressing individual communication exists, this freedom as not open to removal via community consensus. Sen also seems to assume that people won’t vote away their right to vote. He doesn’t deal with this possibility explicitly but this is what Lee Kuan Yew was afraid of – communists gaining power and being able to implement an authoritarian communist regime. Sen’s book was written in 1999 and doesn’t mention Islam or development in the Middle Eastern context, so he never grapples with the issues like the rise of Shari’a Law in developing countries such as Somalia. I blogged about the paradox of voting out democracy in Choosing not to Choose in the context of the proposed repeal of the ban on headscarves in Turkish universities and the removal of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) in Somalia in 2006. I suspect Sen’s prescription in Turkey would be to let the local government decide on the legality of headscarves in universities (thus the ban would be repealed), and implement all five forms of freedom in Somalia and thus explicitly reject an authority like the UIC.

The Internet

Sen doesn’t mention the internet but what is fascinating is that communication technologies are accelerating the adoption of at least some of Sen’s 5 freedoms, particularly where the internet is creating a new mechanism for free speech and political liberty that is nontrivial for governments to control. The internet seems poised to grant such rights directly, and can indirectly bring improvements to positive rights such as education and transparency (see for example and The Transparent Federal Budget Project). Effective mechanisms for voices to be heard and issues to be raised are implicit in Sen’s analysis.

What Exactly is Sen Suggesting We Measure?

Sen subjects his proposed path to development, immediately maximizing the amount of freedoms 1 through 5, to some empirical scrutiny throughout the text but he doesn’t touch on how exactly to measure how far freedom has progressed. He suggests longevity, health care, education are important factors and I assume he would include freedom of speech, openness of the media, security, and government corruption metrics but these are notoriously hard to define and measure (and measuring longevity actually runs counter to Sen’s example of the hypothetical community above… but Sen strongly rejects the argument that local culture can permit abridgment of any of his 5 freedoms, particularly the notion that some cultures are simply suited to authoritarian rule). The World Bank compiles a statistical measurement of the rule of law, corruption, freedom of speech and others, that gets close to some of the components in Sen’s definition of freedom. This also opens the question of what is appropriate to measure when defining freedom. And whether it is possible to have meaningful metrics for concepts like the rule of law or democracy.

Sen eschews two common ways of thinking about development: 1) that aid goes to passive recipients and 2) that increasing wealth is the primary means by which development occurs. His motivation seems to come from a deep respect for subjective valuation: the individual’s autonomy and responsibility in decision making.

Crossposted on I&D Blog

Book Review: "What Went Wrong" by Bernard Lewis

When we were in Istanbul my mother picked up this book on a whim. It was published in 2002 and entirely written, excepting the preface, before 9/11. The subtitle of the book is “Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response” and Lewis’s goal is to explain thinking in the Islamic world as they confront, after several centuries of being at the forefront of civilization and progress, being in a position of declining power and achievement.

Lewis is a professor emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton and has specialized in medieval Islamic history. He’s written over 20 books and this one has created controversy (unsurprisingly, given the title) and made it to the New York Times bestseller list. For me, in my work with Berkman on technology and political structures in the Middle East, I was interested in his reasoning that focuses on democratic history and political change. Here are the most interesting points I noticed on these topics.

The Longstanding Attention to Political Science and Constitutional Law

Although they didn’t use those precise words, Lewis explains some contextual and cultural differences between how Westerners understand these concepts and how they appear in Middle Eastern history. For Muslims, Holy Law lays out the role of the ruler and his relationship to believers (his subjects). The typical Western metric for evaluating governments (on a scale from liberty to tyranny) is misplaced here since liberty is a legal term in the Middle Eastern context, not a political term as used in the West. The converse of tyranny is justice, not liberty, and justice meant that the ruler was there by right and not by usurpation and that he governs according to God’s law, which usually came down to a spectrum between arbitrary and consultative government. Lewis notes that this latter issue is not well defined in the Koran, and thus debate ensues, but authoritative non-consultative government is seen as undesirable, even from a ruler accepted as legitimate. But even in the Western context the problem of definition abounds, for example the liberty/tyranny scale is seductively simple. We have a well-accepted understanding of what constitutes tyranny but maximizing liberty can mean different things depending on whether you ascribe to Marxist, socialist, libertarian, anarchistic, or another ideology. So ongoing debate is not a difference, but for people thinking about political institutions in the Middle East like myself, the prominence of the notion of justice is an important correction to make to typical Western liberty-based thought.

Interpretations of Women’s Rights

Lewis points out that emancipation of women in the Middle East has been most pronounced in pre-2002 Iraq and the former South Yemen, which were both ruled by comparatively repressive regimes, and lags behind in Egypt, one of the most tolerant and open Arab societies. He cites this as evidence that a more liberal regime won’t necessarily lead to greater rights for women, and further notes that the more conservative and fundamental the regime, such as Iran and most of Afghanistan (before 2002), the less pronounced women’s rights are. Lewis thinks that while the need to modernize is accepted throughout the Middle East even among the most anti-Western fundamentalists, the emancipation of women is seen as Westernizing and a betrayal of true Islamic values. This is an area Wafa Sultan has talked about extensively, pointing out that even modernization accepts Western tenets and accomplishments, and she suggests that women’s rights can be accepted in the Middle East in the same way.

There have been historical figures in the Middle East who have fought for women’s rights. Shi’ite Persian Qurrat al-‘Ayn (1814-1852) became a follower of the Bab (forerunner of the founder of the Baha’i faith) and preached without a veil and denounced polygamy. Princess Taj es-Saltana was educated in French as well as Persian and denounced in her writings the bondage she saw her female compatriots subjected to. Apparently these writings, and women more generally, played a part in the Persian constitutional revolution of 1906-11, where there was a movement for the adoption of constitutional forms of government that would establish Western political mores, supported even by the Islamic leaders.

Modernization and the Internet

A Western eye might associate modernization with Western notions of liberty, but this is not always the way it has played out. Lewis explains that traditionally one way of expressing charity has been to create a waqf, an income-producing endowment dedicated to a pious purpose, such as a soup kitchen, water fountain, or school. Waqfs have predominantly been made by women, to whom Islamic law grants the right to own and dispose of property. In the effort to modernize in the 19th century, many of these waqfs came under state control. Lewis asserts that more recent efforts to modernize have followed this path of increasing state control rather than reducing it. He notes that many Middle Eastern states are evincing stronger control over schools, the media, and print. He feels that the internet, specifically the electronic media revolution, will “no doubt in time” undermine these controls and allow independent and self-supporting associations to emerge. Although he does not explain a mechanism, he suggests that perhaps this will spill into the existing state control over the economy where a large proportion of the population depends on the state for their income (this dependence bringing along with it the usual flourishing black market economy).

Political Change and Democracy

Lewis is careful to note that a view in which advancement assumes an increase in the Western understanding of freedom, such as in his words “freedom of the mind from constraint and indoctrination, to question and inquire and speak; freedom of the economy from corrupt and pervasive mismanagement; freedom of women from male oppression; freedom of citizens from tyranny” is simplistic and perhaps not even the right answer. He notes one need only look at the Western history with democracy to know how long and hard that road is. But he does in the end call for some adoption of certain values: abandonment of grievance and victimhood, reasonableness in settlement of differences, cooperation in creative endeavors. Lewis’s enumeration of a list of freedoms and his implicit suggestion that, at least according to Western observers, they are essential underpinnings of a modern society strikes me as similar to Amartya Sen’s thesis in “Development as Freedom” – that development occurs best in a country that endows its citizens with freedoms, specifically: political, economic, social opportunities, transparency, and protective security. Sen is very clear that these are important because they “help to advance the general capability of a person” and because they reinforce each other development is most successfully made when the freedoms are granted together. I’m not sure if he is right, but both Lewis and Sen seem to be suggesting roads for Middle Eastern societies that aren’t politically correct and advocate changes in local societal norms.

Crossposted on I&D Blog