Truth-telling and wu-wei

A Meditation on the Art of Not Trying is worth a read.

If you take nothing else from that article, believe this: wu-wei – effortlessness – is one of the secrets of effective truth-telling. It is an essential skill if you want to be a truly game-changing public advocate.

Ben Franklin said “Honesty is the best policy.” The full subtlety of that proverb is lost in modern English, because the word “policy” has shifted in meaning. In Franklin’s time the word had connotations of willed manipulation and deception that it has since lost. Translated into modern English it reads like “Honesty is the most effective way to manipulate people.”

And so, the wu-wei paradox of effective advocacy. To manipulate, speak truth. But it’s not enough to have the truth to speak; you need to be able to say it without strain, in a way that flows naturally from who you are. What is powerful is not just to speak truth but be made of truth clear inward to your bones.

I’m speaking lived experience here, not theory. I have spent decades becoming the kind of person to whom speaking the clearest truth I can formulate, even when it’s uncomfortable for me or socially frowned upon by others, comes as naturally as breathing. Audiences sense this naturalness and respond to it. This is why, when I speak difficult truths in public, I am much better than most people at inducing my listeners to actually grapple with them.

Sadly, there are other effective ways to manipulate people. The world is full of demagogues and sociopaths. But I believe wu-wei truthfulness has a tendency to win in the end, So: to persuade others of the truth, first uproot every lie from your own mind..

87 thoughts on “Truth-telling and wu-wei

  1. Very interesting.

    Although, a bit frustrating when nobody can comprehend the truths you are communicating. Truth is personal and isolating communicable sound bytes is another important skill.

  2. >The full subtlety of that proverb is lost in modern English, because the word “policy” has shifted in meaning. In Franklin’s time the word had connotations of willed manipulation and deception that it has since lost.

    Is there a good place to find changes like these in general? I don’t grok it wholly and I feel that I should understand it well, since so much of our law was written when English was different.

  3. @Noakes: The Wikipedia entry for “policy” still contains the connotation.

    “A policy is a principle to guide decisions and achieve rational outcomes. A policy is a statement of intent, and is implemented as a procedure or protocol.”

    Interestingly, modern glossings give “prudent or expedient conduct or action” as an archaic meaning.

  4. You can find a similar explanation and extension of these ideas in the book “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

    • >Shorter: “before you advocate a thing, really truly believe that thing”.

      More than that. Even lies you tell yourself that are unrelated to the topic of advocacy will diminish you.

  5. The fly in the ointment is this: the skill with which people can lie to themselves is a self-amplifying feedback loop, especially for demes that don’t suffer (immediately, at least) the consequences of their lies. When a comfortable man can lie to himself with impunity about a given subject, that delusion maps itself itself onto neighboring subjects until his mind as been corrupted beyond repair. And when masses of skilled self-liars live in close quarters, their favorite lie becomes a feature of consensual reality and thereforeimpervious to reason (e.g. the American’s Left’s impervious narrative of Michael Brown’s “hands up” surrender).

    When that point of mass unreason is reached, wu-wei becomes a losing policy. The Big Lie’s got legs (and hands, and guns), and is therefore resistant to argument or manipulation. An orgy of horror usually follows (The reign of Terror, The Red Terror, The Great Leap Forward, other Great, Terrifying Leaping Things) that reminds us of the danger of lying and its inevitable consequences… for a little while, anyway.

  6. @ Mark B. – “The fly in the ointment”

    Memetics is about manipulating the machinery of the mind (really the underlying neural structure), but mass delusion has been around for a very long time and sometimes serves constructive ends in addition to the negatives you cite. It’s a feature of our species, and not likely to go away anytime soon.

  7. > sometimes serves constructive ends in addition to the negatives you cite.

    Depends on what you count as a constructive end. I think the better categories are harmless delusions (“My horoscope gives great relationship advice”, “Thunder is the sound of angels bowling”) and harmful delusions (“A minimum wage hike helps create jobs”, “God *wants* me to kill Jews.”)

    The harmfulness of a delusion is proportionate to how big and mighty the institutions are that stand ready enforce your neighbor’s delusional belief as a feature of reality. For instance a phalaynx of hoplites who might spear your guts out was pretty bad, but also small potatoes compared to the global horror shows of the 20th century. And, given the smallness of the world and the length of the current spears, I fear that the 21st century might make the 20th look like a cake-walk. A human being is still biologically and psychologically the same as he was in the 4th century BC, but the organs of authority surrounding him are now superhuman in their capabilities to surveil, indoctrinate, coerce and punish, and their masters regularly treat even the most bugfuck insane of delusions as the pinnacle of rational thought. I am pessimistic about where this is all headed.

    That said, I do agree that truth-telling is generally a better investment of personal effort, and makes a more convincing case for those open to argument. But, again, my inner pessimist tells me there are precious few of those people left to convince. Space exploration and colonization might be the only hope left for the species; we need to get the Hell away from each other.

  8. If I understand the original intent correctly, perhaps a good modern formulation of Franklin’s adage would be as simple as “Honesty is the best politics.”

    While it may not convey exactly the original meaning, it seems like it might capture the basic idea in a way that could be understood today.

  9. I think it is true, but it really should not be called honesty or truth, because it is something much, much deeper than “normal” honesty.

    “Normal” honesty is convicing only when it is in short supply, making it valuable – where everybody else is running plausible deniability and carefully manicured messages, you can earn sympathy through being “normally” honest. “Normal” honesty does not do much in circumstances where everybody is as blunt as a pair of brass knuckles, where truth is a common commodity. But this is something different here. Not “normal” honesty.

    I think what you have in mind is, ultimately, getting your ego out of the way. Killing it is hard, even not using it is hard too, but at least being honest _to yourself_ about when you use it is doable.

    As you wrote, rationality is motivated. But the motivation isn’t always practical problem solving. We are motivated to accept ideas because we like them, because they make us look good or smart, or at least make us _feel_ good or smart, because they reinforce our identity or tribal membership… and it is very hard not to do this. But it is at least possible to know when you are doing is, and bracket it, compartmentalize it, and basically behave roughly along the lines that “yes, that this idea makes me feel smart is part of why I accepted it, I know it, but it is true even beyond that, even beyond all these motivations”.

    People who had some exposure to Catholic cultures tend to get it. It is really about confessing your pride. Not necessarily aloud, but at least to yourself. (Confession in the religious sense nothing but a really clever and useful method for not lying to yourself. If you tell others about your faults it is far, far harder to rationalize them away for yourself. This is one of the good ideas we need to find a secular replacement for. Like, blogging :-) ) Anyway, more points for doing it aloud, although not necessarily bluntly, it could be body language or anything. Confessing how an idea strokes your pride, yet, you seriously think it has truth value even beyond that, is what makes it convincing. Play the ego game, but at least play it in the open and be able to demonstrate its limits, and what truth lies beyond its limits.

  10. I don’t have the time or energy to keep track of lies, or the chutzpah to shrug it off if I got caught out.

    At one time I made a point of always telling the truth as a matter of principle. It didn’t really get me much; for too many people, truth is a flexible concept. Now I tell the truth because I’m lazy.

    • >Now I tell the truth because I’m lazy.

      While not getting caught in lies is a good reason not to tell them, I don’t think truth-telling is for the lazy either. It’s not merely a passive refusal to deceive others but an active refusal to self-deceive. That is often hard work.

  11. “In Franklin’s time the word had connotations of willed manipulation and deception that it has since lost.”

    Connotations it should probably reacquire, given its most common usage.

  12. “Honesty is the most effective way to manipulate people.”

    Maybe “to influence people”? “Influence” is more general term for affecting people’s behavior, while “manipulate” has specific connotations (of affecting their behavior in a way that at least disregards their interests, as one might manipulate an inanimate object, and perhaps actively works against their interests) which AFAIK aren’t associated with in the original “policy” that you’re translating.

  13. Education is a form of memetic manipulation. Our early ancestors used language and repetition to teach specific knowledge to their young in order to help them stay alive and thrive. Often this training was more superstition than science, and later included teaching religious doctrine based upon faith. This amounted to a workaround when full knowledge and understanding of reality was absent.

    Evolution has made us highly adaptable via our susceptibility to memetic programming. The downside is that being programmed with the wrong messages can also get you killed at a young age.

  14. +1 on the impenetrable shells of mass self-delusion out there.

    Exhorting–let alone broaching–true ‘truth’ to some people is no better than pissing in the wind. One needs to be at least the slightest bit sympathetic to the induction of truth for it to resonate (or even fundamental language or vocabulary constructs, which I find more personally challenging with the younger set lately). Many have petrified themselves (or been petrified) to this possibility.

    In situations like this, truth then can only be validated in POST/BIOS primitive truths–Fire hot! Water wet! Gravity down! (Heck, that might be a good logos wall to set up for a blog! Nothing like a good dragon or gargoyle standing guard for some self-exclusion.) Unfortunately, at the primitive-truth level, you also lose context and semantics and are stuck in basic syntax (e.g. foreign tourists with phrase books).

    I don’t think I’ve ever come across a better exposition of these two realities (app-happy, self-curated solubility vs. unflinching, bare-metal brutality) than Neal Stephenson’s term of metaphor shear. http://www.cryptonomicon.com/beginning.html

    • >+1 on the impenetrable shells of mass self-delusion out there.

      If you think it’s impenetrable, you haven’t found the right propaganda tactics yet.

      If I had listened to people like you back in 1997-1998, the world would be a poorer place today.

  15. I am reminded of something I often say about the news: it’s not just about reporting what is true; news outlets employ fact checkers for that, and frequently do a pretty good job. It’s also about reporting every truth that is relevant. A policeman opening fire on a residence is news; that he did so in response to shots fired at him from the residence is also news, but could be left out. That the local chief could not be reached for comment may be part of the story; that it was because the journalist didn’t get around to calling him could be left out. News outlets typically do not bother with completeness, let alone fact checking for it. There is no objective method for determining whether every question has been addressed, or even presented in a story.

    Bringing this over to wu-wei, I find myself asking how one would effortlessly speak truth as if made of it, but also effortlessly speak of the existence of relevant truths not yet known, as if aware of one’s incompleteness.

    • >Bringing this over to wu-wei, I find myself asking how one would effortlessly speak truth as if made of it, but also effortlessly speak of the existence of relevant truths not yet known, as if aware of one’s incompleteness.

      The best you can do to approximate this is speak from a position of epistemic humility, expressing not just your knowledge but the limits of your knowledge.

      When I give talks, I actually welcome a question to which I have to answer “I don’t know.” A question like that is an opportunity for discovery, and answering it honestly raises my credibility when I claim that I do know things.

  16. This paragraph stood out for me:

    “Getting drunk is essentially an act of mental disarmament,” Dr. Slingerland writes. “In the same way that shaking right hands with someone assures them that you’re not holding a weapon, downing a few tequila shots is like checking your prefrontal cortex at the door. ‘See? No cognitive control. You can trust me.’ ”

    Notice: Eric will not drink. (Or at least, he’s indicated he much prefers sober approaches to relationships, and I’m inferring his aversion to drink in general.)

    Herein lies a potential uphill disadvantage for him in the trust game. Anyone who sees him decline to drink now has to wonder, when in any discussion, whether Eric is speaking truth, or is craftily presenting truth in order to manipulate. To an extent, this does not matter, so long as what Eric says can be independently verified; but what if there’s not enough time, or he’s saying something only he can know, or, as I mentioned above, he’s willfully eliding something relevant that would undermine his manipulation? I can always suspect he’s doing that so long as his prefrontal cortex is clearly still running, just as I can always suspect a surprise strike from an otherwise friendly counterpart who still holds his sword.

    I’d guess Eric has thought about this already and long since concluded the tradeoff was worthwhile to him, but I don’t recall any specific examples of him speaking to this. (For me, temporarily disabling the prefrontal can retard other needed reasoning faculties, so I’d just as soon both people negotiated with swords still visible in their hands. We both know the swords will be there at some point anyway.)

  17. When I give talks, I actually welcome a question to which I have to answer “I don’t know.” A question like that is an opportunity for discovery, and answering it honestly raises my credibility when I claim that I do know things.

    I’m happy to say I could make this exact claim myself, nearly verbatim. (I probably have in the past, and don’t remember it!)

  18. >> If you think it’s impenetrable, you haven’t found the right propaganda tactics yet.

    I think I understand what you are saying here but, despite the need for error compensation, how can one ever know if the message is being received properly? And how does one stay calibrated doing that without an exterior point of reference?

    >> If I had listened to people like you back in 1997-1998, the world would be a poorer place today.

    Ouchie!

    • >despite the need for error compensation, how can one ever know if the message is being received properly?

      Why is this complicated? You listen to the words and look at the behavior of people you’ve think you’ve persuaded. If the message wasn’t received properly, you rethink your pitch.

  19. So what is it about purging yourself of self deception that makes one more convincing? I think it is a few things that fit together.

    Partly I think it is a body language thing, when your mouth is in alignment with your brain your body reflects this too, and a lot of the “impression” we get about a person comes from tiny, imperceptible clues in our body language. Also I think a mastery of the material conveys a confidence that people pick up on. Note that you can be unconfident and a master of the material, and confident and not be a master of the material, but both together convey a very high level of competence. Finally, a depth of knowledge conveys this same thing. This manifests in when you speak about something, and there are follow up questions, it is evident from the follow up that you are reaching into a deep well. There is a sense of “what he tells me is great, but there is obviously a lot more that he isn’t even telling me.” The final thing I think is the “I don’t know” which bespeaks honesty. It is a strange thing because the “deep well” thing directly contradicts this, but often in human relations the opposite of a great truth is also true.

    There is an old adage that “it isn’t a lie if you believe it”, which is a ersatz version of what you are talking about. (Consider: “look before you leap” and “he who hesitates is lost.”)

    However, being absolutely truthful is certainly not enough to being convincing, and I am interested in that whole subject — making a correct argument is entirely different than making a convincing argument.

    One thing that has occurred to me is that there are a whole taxonomy of mechanisms known to be convincing even though they are wrong, commonly called logical fallacies. Appeal to authority, ad homineim, strawman etc. There is something in each of these logical fallacies that makes them convincing, and I wonder if we might ask: why should the devil have all the good music?

    Can some of the underlying psychological mechanisms in these fallacies be retargeted to make a correct as well as a convincing argument?

    As an example, much of what I said about your “truth telling” argument is about making yourself seem self evidently a competent authority. Appeal to authority it seems to me is based on the underlying principle that the authority is more knowledgeable and capable that the two interlocutors and so should be deferred to. However, with the “deep well” and the right sort of body language enable you to be the authority in the situation, meaning that your interlocutor realizes that he is out of his depth and should defer to you.

    Similarly with strawman. Esentially this is attacking a proposition that has not been claimed and implying that the failure of the one means the failure of the other. However, strawmen can be useful, especially when they are offered in earnest. For example “Eric, your open source thing is just communism… Stallman said that nobody really owns software, so you just advocating the destruction of private property.”

    This is entirely a strawman, but picking apart why it is a strawman has amazingly powerful educational abilities, and moreover has potential to move a misunderstanding to an understanding and consequently to a meeting of the minds.

    Ad hominem is in some way the opposite if appeal to authority (though the attack is usually on a subject different than the target’s competence, in that respect it is kind of like a combination of a strawman and the opposite of an appeal to authority.

    Anyways, I just think there is a lot of depth in “logical fallacies” because the fallacy represents something that people find convincing, and correctness is generally not enough. Correctness and convincingness is the ultimate goal.

  20. @esr
    >If you think it’s impenetrable, you haven’t found the right propaganda tactics yet.

    Could you give us a real-life example of such a tactic that penetrated an extremely hard shell of self-delusion? Or does allowing potential propaganda targets to peer behind the curtain spoil future applications (and, if so, doesn’t keeping it hidden controvert wu-wei)? For instance, I’ve noticed certain of your blog topics draw seemingly impenetrable individuals. Can you recall a specific instance where your truthful propaganda finally broke through?

    I’m not being querulous; if there is a tactic that works, I’d like to see a live-fire exercise, and perhaps learn from it.

    • >Could you give us a real-life example of such a tactic that penetrated an extremely hard shell of self-delusion?

      I don’t know what you’d call ‘hard’. I’ve persuaded people with fixated ideas about guns and bigoted ideas about shooters to go to a pistol range. I’ve persuaded a left-winger to take public-choice problems seriously. I could multiply examples.

  21. Boundary cases:

    1) Like you, Erik, my relationship with my father is difficult because he’s very bright and very capable, but probably not quite as bright as I am. The problem is that it’s nearly impossible to disagree with him on anything, no matter how tactfully, without him perceiving it as disrespect. Further, he *will* escalate the conflict, occasionally to the point of physical violence. So when he begins ranting about something that he is just outright wrong about, what should I do? Not pointing out the flaws in his argument feels dishonest, but it’s never really worth getting into a fight over.

    2) What should a person do if they have parts of themselves that they find genuinely disturbing? If someone occasionally has violent fantasies that they are trying to suppress, is it okay to lie about that if they don’t know what they effect of revealing that information will be?

    3) Let’s say a person has basically no choice but to participate in an illegal activity and they’re later confronted about it by an authority figure. What’s the correct response?

  22. Eric writes: “…an active refusal to self-deceive.”

    Good lord, do you know how much trouble that can get you into? I could have been a comfortably smug conservative Utah Mormon, but instead I ended up on the fringe of society as both an atheist and an anarchist. :-)

  23. I’ve persuaded people with fixated ideas about guns

    …ding! I just now remembered: Eric wrote about this, and I know enough of the text to search – here it is.

    We are not sheep

  24. esr
    > I’ve persuaded people with fixated ideas … I could multiply examples.

    Funny Eric should bring this up, but if anyone doubts his power of persuasion, consider this: right now Microsoft is open sourcing many important libraries including their central jewel, .NET.

    This is not Richard Stallman style open sourcing, this is Eric Raymond style open sourcing. Or to put it another way, Microsoft is not doing so out of any sense of philanthropy, but out of a sense that it is commercially to their benefit to do so, an argument that might fairly be said to have been entirely created out of whole cloth by our host.

    Ten years ago who would have believed this? .NET Core Is Open Source. From the same company that about ten years ago described open source as a cancer.

    • >Funny Eric should bring this up, but if anyone doubts his power of persuasion, consider this: right now Microsoft is open sourcing many important libraries including their central jewel, .NET.

      I was not bad at persuasive wu wei before, but it was while I was on the road being Mr. Open Source that I truly mastered the technique. As with most things, you get better with practice, especially practice in challenging situations.

  25. > I don’t know what you’d call ‘hard’.

    Well, I guess I mean someone isn’t *obviously* a drooling idiot, but who reveals in the course of a conversation that his system of judgment is based on irrational assumptions about reality and/or the human condition. I suppose that description could fit anyone from the local child-raping, head-hacking (and head-hacked) jihadi to the crank at the dinner table who won’t stop babbling about “Islamophobia” or “rape culture”. But since we are shooting through the former’s “hard shell” on sight, we’re left with the hard-headed, emotionally-driven crank.

    I think “We are not sheep” is a great example. I would like to know how you cracked the shell of the public-option voter, since that seems to be the next big “innovation” the Left plans to foist upon us.

    • > I would like to know how you cracked the shell of the public-option voter, since that seems to be the next big “innovation” the Left plans to foist upon us.

      Essentially by explaining public-choice problems and deadweight losses in terms he could understand.

  26. >> If the message wasn’t received properly, you rethink your pitch.

    How is this different than saying the most politically advantageous thing at any given moment? (Cue the Abe Lincoln.) At some point you are bound to segfault, right?

    Either that or one degrades to such information-void discourse that any listener can end up hearing anything they want to hear. Not a bad policy if one earnestly believes whatever is falling out of his or her mouth at the moment. More infinitive, less indicative policy as it were. Truth as a moving target, let’s say.

    I don’t know, I see cases where some are physically, or systemically, incapable of receiving a message (e.g. yelling at a deaf person), many are acculturated against receiving a message (no comment), and others are content to steep in their own stew of received wisdoms without regard to what is being said to them because … zombie alien rodeo clowns (growing by the day!). Take your pick.

    Some nuts seem pretty tough, if not impossible, to crack, that’s all.

    • >Some nuts seem pretty tough, if not impossible, to crack, that’s all.

      Some are. But your initial position seemed to be against trying persuasion at all. That’s wrong and defeatist.

  27. Similarly with strawman. Esentially this is attacking a proposition that has not been claimed and implying that the failure of the one means the failure of the other. However, strawmen can be useful, especially when they are offered in earnest. For example “Eric, your open source thing is just communism… Stallman said that nobody really owns software, so you just advocating the destruction of private property.”

    This is entirely a strawman, but picking apart why it is a strawman has amazingly powerful educational abilities, and moreover has potential to move a misunderstanding to an understanding and consequently to a meeting of the minds.

    They say the best way to get info of how to do something in Linux is not to ask how do you do X in Linux. The neckbeards will tell you to RTFM and go back to compiling their kernel into a paper napkin or old sock. The key is to join a forum or IRC channel and say “Linux sucks because you can’t do X”, and watch as the neckbeards fall all over themselves in an attempt to correct you.

  28. Funny Eric should bring this up, but if anyone doubts his power of persuasion, consider this: right now Microsoft is open sourcing many important libraries including their central jewel, .NET.

    .NET is not their central jewel. Windows and Office certainly are, Xbox maybe. .NET is an attempt to obsolesce the Windows platform and out-Java Java in one stroke, now largely a failure outside development of line-of-business apps. They’re open sourcing it because not playing nice with open source means losing out on the Web-app ecosystem over the long haul.

    It’s a nice move, but I doubt this represents the emergence of a cuddly new Microsoft. Time will tell.

    • >They’re open sourcing it because not playing nice with open source means losing out on the Web-app ecosystem over the long haul.

      Correct. And, while I don’t believe I directly persuaded Microsoft to change its behavior, I did do that. That is, the widespread commitment to open source in the Web-app ecosystem traces back to my persuasion on the subject.

  29. @Jessica Boxer:

    “it isn’t a lie if you believe it”

    The dictionaries have definitions that require intent, and other definitions that don’t. The connotation that most people ascribe to the word “lie” requires intent, as does this maxim.

    I deliberately don’t ascribe intent to the word “lie”, and that makes people uncomfortable. Which is good, because the next step after being comfortable saying “I don’t know” (which I’ve always personally been comfortable with) is getting other people comfortable saying it. And one of the ways to do that is to make not saying it less comfortable.

    “John lied to me in the meeting this morning.”

    “He didn’t lie to you. He was misinformed.”

    “And how does that help me regain those two hours again? Look, if he’s not certain, he should say so, not lie to me.”

  30. @Jeff Read
    > It’s a nice move, but I doubt this represents the emergence of a cuddly new Microsoft. Time will tell.

    This is a curious comment Jeff, to me you are entirely missing the point. To me the essence of what Eric has done is made the point that you don’t need to be a cuddly company for open source to work for you, rather it is your commercial advantage to do so.

    He might not have directly convinced Nadella, but he has persuasively argued in a million places that the non-cuddly version works. This has created an environment where Nadella can make such a choice, where open source is about commercial benefit rather than dope smoking hippies.

  31. @Jessica Boxer:

    I thought companies in Colorado were finding commercial benefit from the dope-smoking hippies.

  32. Wu-wei is a natural feature of being a realist and a rationalist. To the extent that these attributes make someone successful, then others may be drawn to emulate these behaviors. Persuasion is incidental.

  33. Patrick Maupin on 2014-12-17 at 18:00:50 said:
    > I thought companies in Colorado were finding commercial benefit from the dope-smoking hippies.

    Not dope smoking hippies, dope smoking soccer moms.

  34. >> Some are. But your initial position seemed to be against trying persuasion at all. That’s wrong and defeatist.

    Okay, that was muddy messaging on my part with the usual line noise. (“Re–cal-i-bra-ting!”)

    Thanks for validating the re-send.

  35. @esr

    Audiences sense this naturalness and respond to it.

    People may feel or subconsciously interpret this naturalness as strong, but non-aggressive, confidence. You appeal to reason, and the net effect is a sort of “come reason with me”. We have made the point before that confidence, especially with a pinch of weirdness, is very powerful. In the late ’90s, I read something you wrote about hackers and sex – I believe it could only be found via the sitemap (now not working) in which one of your major points was that women respond to confidence in dumb jocks in a way that baffles geeks.

    @ Jessica

    why should the devil have all the good music?

    I think it’s so he can give it to KISS – consider…
    The Devil Is Me
    from the 2012 Monster album

  36. Mark B. on 2014-12-17 at 00:50:18 said:

    > sometimes serves constructive ends in addition to the negatives you cite.
    I think the better categories are harmless delusions (“My horoscope gives great relationship advice”, “Thunder is the sound of angels bowling”) and harmful delusions (“A minimum wage hike helps create jobs”, “God *wants* me to kill Jews.”)

    A meme is not always a delusion. It is a highly persuasive idea, a phrasing or statement that is easily repeated, a pattern that invites imitation. Some of these can be valuable, as when people confronted with crime or disaster imitate the heroes whose stories they’ve seen. Sometimes, simply a truth that is obvious once stated.

    For instance, the germ theory of infectious disease. The spread of disease baffled everyone for millenia. Then germ theory was discovered. The meme spread rapidly, and everyone understands it now.

  37. This is a curious comment Jeff, to me you are entirely missing the point. To me the essence of what Eric has done is made the point that you don’t need to be a cuddly company for open source to work for you, rather it is your commercial advantage to do so.

    It’s only a commercial advantage in that the alternatives for the open-sourced project are even worse.

    Open source still suffers from the Pomplamoose Problem. It’s really, really hard to make money off of software without charging royalties for the software itself.

    Now what you see happening with .NET is that Microsoft is pulling a Mozilla: attempting to squeeze some life out of a mostly-failed project by turning it into a loss leader. But they will never, ever, ever open source where their money comes from. Open source is a viable strategy for such projects because the only alternatives are to put them on life support or to abandon them altogether. With .NET, Microsoft realized that migrating everybody to a managed runtime Was Not Going To Happen, and that its true niche was client- and server-side vertical applications — a sort of Visual Basic 7.0 with multi-language support. For them, that’s not where the money is, Windows and Office are. But if they can convince Ruby on Rails kiddies to see the advantages of the Microsoft platform then it makes sense to open-source .NET as a loss leader. But their cash cow will never be open sourced; and even if open-source .NET is used in a way that undermines Microsoft’s business model, they will come out with attack lawyers swinging. Just like Oracle did against Google with Java.

  38. @Rich Rostrom
    > A meme is not always a delusion.

    Who said it was? Not me.

    It’s a category difference. Memes and delusions both can be transmitted via similar methods, but so can rectangular boxes and square boxes, or party hats and warheads.

    The point is a meme might yield any mixture of goods and harms, but a delusion either yields no harms or some.

  39. @esr
    > Essentially by explaining public-choice problems and deadweight losses in terms he could understand.

    I do grok that there isn’t a universal strategy, and that the best rhetoric is fluid Kung fu. “Baaa Baaa” may crack one shell but harden the other. I guess I wonder about that shameless other guy; the postmodern phenotype who seems immune to both evidence and mockery. Given that these people manage to regularly capture the wheel of large authority structures, I’m always looking for tips.

    (I still think that space exploration is the best bet for a civilization of free people. Individual liberty only seems to expand when the physical horizon expands.)

  40. @Jeff Read
    > It’s only a commercial advantage in that the alternatives for the open-sourced project are even worse.

    Worse is a very pejorative term. What is true is that .NET works better to Microsoft’s advantage as open source, again a meme created by Eric.

    > It’s really, really hard to make money off of software without charging royalties for the software itself.

    Tell that to Red Hat. However, it is equally hard to make money off of software you give away for free (as in beer) as is the case with .NET.

    > attempting to squeeze some life out of a mostly-failed project by turning it into a loss leader.

    Calling .NET a mostly failed project is utterly nuts. First of all .NET has ALWAYS been free as in beer, so they never made money off of it directly. However, .NET has been the framework used in 90% of Windows Desktop applications and 90% of IIS based web applications for fifteen years. How that can be considered a failure I do not know.

    (Yes 90% is a SWAG, but one only need read Monster.com for ten minutes to know what is going on.)

    > But they will never, ever, ever open source where their money comes from.

    No, they won’t, and they probably shouldn’t. My understanding of the ESR philosophy is that it doesn’t entirely eschew licensed closed software (after all he uses a commercial closed piece of software for static analysis on gpsd) and believes they can live alongside open source. Of course data jail is a whole other problem, but the two are not mutually exclusive.

    So you are avoiding the core point here though. The only reason Microsoft open sourced .NET was because of a memetic environment created by Eric. And that is quite an achievement.

  41. > When I give talks, I actually welcome a question to which I have to answer “I
    > don’t know.” A question like that is an opportunity for discovery, and
    > answering it honestly raises my credibility when I claim that I do know things.

    Back in the 20th century I was a guest expert on a “computer talk” radio show. Someone called in with some abstruse question I had no clue about. So I said I didn’t know and asked if anyone out there listening knew the answer. It took a bit before the first response came in, and then the subject took over the rest of the program.

    I’m not much of a public speaker, but that particular incident turned my attitude from “stage fright” to “this might be fun!”

    Most people like to play “stump the expert.” But I think just as many like to help out when they can, even when there’s no direct benefit for themselves. Hmm, I’ve seen that phenomenon before, somewhere…

  42. > The final thing I think is the “I don’t know” which bespeaks honesty. It is a
    > strange thing because the “deep well” thing directly contradicts this, but often
    > in human relations the opposite of a great truth is also true.

    The reactions of various clients to “I don’t know” has occasionally been interesting.

    “We’re paying you $RATE! What do you mean you don’t know?”

    “If I knew everything, you’d be paying me a lot more.”

  43. So you are avoiding the core point here though. The only reason Microsoft open sourced .NET was because of a memetic environment created by Eric. And that is quite an achievement.

    I’m not disputing that. I’m saying that memetic environment has a much smaller effect on the economics of software development than is commonly supposed.

    At the end of the day, selling software licenses is still going to be where the money is.

  44. > The problem is that it’s nearly impossible to disagree with him on
    > anything, no matter how tactfully, without him perceiving it as
    > disrespect. Further, he *will* escalate the conflict,

    I spent fifteen years herding cats on a technical mailing list and ran into that frequently. It seemed to be a common characteristic of the “high achiever” types; the more competent they felt themselves to be, the less they could tolerate any difference of opinion.

    For extreme cases, not even agreement was enough; anything less than fervent salaaming in their honor was perceived as an insult and attack.

    I can’t remember any of them learning how to get along with others, despite many lengthy mail exchanges and a few phone calls. They’d usually get angrier and angrier. Some eventually unsubscribed, a lot of them went off to start their own list that they could moderate to reflect their own egos. The rest… that’s one of the several reasons I decided I had better things to do than preside over endless pissing contests.

    When I first saw xkcd’s famous “someone is WRONG on the Internet” cartoon, I wondered if the Big Frogs could see the humor in it…

  45. @TRX
    > “We’re paying you $RATE! What do you mean you don’t know?”

    If they are paying you $RATE then it is incorrect to answer “I don’t know”, the correct answer in that case is “I don’t know and this is what I will do to find out”.

  46. @Jessica Boxer –

    > @TRX
    > > “We’re paying you $RATE! What do you mean you don’t know?”
    >
    > If they are paying you $RATE then it is incorrect to answer “I don’t know”, the correct
    > answer in that case is “I don’t know and this is what I will do to find out”.

    I would submit that this is always the best answer, even if $RATE == 0.

  47. The reactions of various clients to “I don’t know” has occasionally been interesting.

    What did you expect? Clients hired you to provide solutions, not problems. It’s your responsibility to provide either an answer or a path that would lead to an answer if followed.

  48. The difference between influence/persuasion and manipulation is simply whether you’re telling the truth.

    Being willing to lie to someone is to reduce them to an object: a pawn on a game board without inherent human value. Sometimes that’s appropriate (e.g. warfare, espionage) but not in a civil society where “we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal”.

    And of course the easiest person to lie to is yourself. Feynman was definitely right about that, along with the dangers that poses to any pursuit of knowledge!

  49. > “this is what I will do to find out”.

    Of course. I didn’t think I’d have to explain it in detail here, though…

  50. Actually, Jeff Read, selling licenses is not where the money will be. Selling subscriptions is. And, if anything, the subscription model of software increases the marginal benefit of open sourcing by removing much of the benefit of code secrecy. People will subscribe to services, expressed in software, because to do so is convenient and compatible with what their colleagues are doing, even if that service does stuff they could have done themselves, for free, with just a little more effort. And subscription and group-enabled software takes on a life of its own that is not threatened by software functionality cloning. The only way to defeat a subscribed service that already has traction is to offer something noticeably *better*, in functionality or usability, or cost over time.

    You should know, Jeff, that static software licenses are already dying. Not dead yet by any means, but the trends are clear for anyone to see.

  51. Another example of how open source made less of a dent in software economics than was promised: editor wars. Yes, editor wars, albeit the old traditional vi-vs-emacs war is over, and emacs lost. The new wars are between vim and proprietary, feature-rich extensible editors like Sublime Text with very nice interfaces.

    As it turns out, it’s difficult to write a program with much appeal outside its developer base without a “users are customers” mentality. Which is most easily achieved when the users are, in fact, paying customers. So by being wiling to purchase proprietary software, hackers these days can afford themselves a much nicer hacking experience than was possible with the two old defaults.

    Disruptions of this sort, where the proprietary overtakes the free by catering more to user needs, will become more commonplace. This isn’t even the first. The first occurred when Apple released Mac OS X and bludgeoned Linux back into statistical-noise levels of desktop market share.

  52. @Jessica
    >This is not Richard Stallman style open sourcing, this is Eric Raymond style open sourcing. Or to put it another way, Microsoft is not doing so out of any sense of philanthropy, but out of a sense that it is commercially to their benefit to do so, an argument that might fairly be said to have been entirely created out of whole cloth by our host.

    Richard Stallman’s style of open sourcing isn’t quite “philanthropic”. It’s not philanthropic if you believe that open source is a moral imperative, and that the negative consequences for society if open source doesn’t win are severe. A better example of philanthropic open sourcing would probably be Linus Torvalds.

    • >an argument that might fairly be said to have been entirely created out of whole cloth by our host.

      You know, it occurs to me that though I have explained this privately to a few people, I may never have said in public how I got the idea that open-source “altruism” could be explained in terms of selfish incentives felt by individuals.

      The seed of the idea was in a paper in the seminal anthology The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. There was a paper on food-sharing behavior in African green monkeys that explained it as a hedge against variance. Basically, foods that can be gathered reliably were not shared; high-value food that could only be obtained unreliably was shared.

      The authors went on to observe that in human hunter-gatherer cultures a similar pattern obtains: gathered foods (for which the calorie/nutrient value is a smooth function of effort invested) are not typically shared, whereas hunted foods (high variance of outcome in relation to effort) are shared. Reciprocal altruism is a hedge against uncertainty of outcomes.

      When I was casting about for a generative explanation of open-source commons behavior, what came to mind is that coding is like hunting rather than gathering – a high-variance activity (sometimes you succeed, sometimes you fail spectacularly, and outcomes are uncertain) which thus evokes instinctive reciprocal gifting.

      It wasn’t actually a long step from there, via neoclassical economics, to the fully developed model of open-source incentives for which I later became famous.

  53. Yes, editor wars, albeit the old traditional vi-vs-emacs war is over, and emacs lost. The new wars are between vim and proprietary, feature-rich extensible editors like Sublime Text with very nice interfaces.

    I’ve got Sublime Text on both my work Mac and my home Mac.

    I two weeks ago I started learning Emacs because if I’m going to invest time in learning an editor to the extent I already know vi/vim, it’s going to be an editor that I can use across most/any OS an employer may require, or that I may need to use.

    • >I’ve got Sublime Text on both my work Mac and my home Mac. […] two weeks ago I started learning Emacs

      As usual, when reality and Jeff Read collide, Jeff Read loses.

  54. As usual, when reality and Jeff Read collide, Jeff Read loses.

    There may be some slight hope for him; earlier he gave some indication of understanding the concept of what a contract is.

  55. @ Jeff Read
    >the old traditional vi-vs-emacs war is over, and emacs lost.

    No offense, but I’m not convinced that’s the case. There are many add-ons being developed for both editors; and Evil has made it possible to use Vim’s more ergonomic and composable commands while enjoying Emacs’ awesome power and flexibility; this seems to have attracted quite a few Vim users to Emacs. If you search the Web for emacs vim evil or something to that effect, you’ll find more than a few articles about this. I recommend especially these two:

    * Emacs as My : Vim Survival Guide
    * The Amazing LISP Vim

  56. When I was casting about for a generative explanation of open-source commons behavior, what came to mind is that coding is like hunting rather than gathering – a high-variance activity (sometimes you succeed, sometimes you fail spectacularly, and outcomes are uncertain) which thus evokes instinctive reciprocal gifting.

    There’s a lot to this, but I think the determining variable is a bit different for software than for hunter-gatherers’ food. It’s not the difficulty in obtaining the software that counts, it’s the risk that bad software poses. For things like operating system kernels, compilers, and encryption protocols, where the risk to the entire user community is very high if the software is of poor quality, open source makes a lot of sense. For low-risk programs like word processors, games, and music composition programs, while buggy software is disliked and can cause a lot of damage to users’ personal data, bugs in such software are not nearly as universally threatening as, say, Heartbleed. So economically speaking the gain to be obtained by closing the source outweighs the loss of collective risk mitigation that would be enjoyed by opening the source.

  57. @ESR

    Neat, because it actually predicts when code is NOT shared even though it would make, from the viewpoint of the total collective outcome, perfect sense. “Gathering” type coding is not shared.

    Business spend an inordinate amount of money on ERP and similar business software, in the sense of customizing them. (On the licences too but that is a different story.) These customizations are often very similar. The same code gets written over and over. Sometimes they are turned into vertical products, add-ons, but still not shared. Why? Because there is hardly any risk.

    E.g. customer says “I want a button that puts on either a sales or purchase order for every product offered by a given vendor of mine, or brand, quantity 1, so that I can easily order or send out a collection of samples for marketing purposes.”

    I am 100% sure I can do this without any bugs. I can also estimate accurately how long it takes. We can even have a good ballpark estimate how much time hence money it saves to the customer. The risk and volatility is very low. When I get bored of having done this for the tenth customer and wrap it into an add-on package, there is still little risk. The effort invested in the wrapping is not high, still not buggy, and pretty sure if there were buyers for it before, there will be in the future too, it is not like vendors sending samples will go out of fashion. It is very, very clearly “gathering”.

    And perhaps that is why the coding part of line of job feels boring and unheroic. Oh well. But the non-coding aspects are cool. But now I realize that low-risk gathering can’t be expected to be interesting.

    Are there any common ways in coding to increase both risk and payoff? Usually you want to reduce risk, but when it is too much like gathering… you could go for higher risk if there is a payoff. On the whole a risky code with high pay off would one that would automate chaotic and complicated but time consuming activity. Such as your CVS migration stuff. Such as coding itself through code generation, or something else. I could actually imitate you and try making a tool that would automatically migrate databases from competing ERP systems…

    • >Are there any common ways in coding to increase both risk and payoff?

      Tackle harder problems.

      >I could actually imitate you and try making a tool that would automatically migrate databases from competing ERP systems…

      And that would be an excellent example of tackling a harder problem.

  58. @Jeff Read

    >.NET (…) ‘s true niche was client- and server-side vertical applications (…) convince Ruby on Rails kiddies to see the advantages of the Microsoft platform then it makes sense to open-source .NET as a loss leader.

    Or turn Dynamics into their next flaghip. That is, after all, a range of client and server side verticals…

    Or flagship-booster. Do you know what Dynamics does? Sells Office and Windows. Oh, they are clever. In every new version NAV can do more and more awesome Excel stuff. Interestingly, it always requires upgrading to the latest Office. Such a coincidence! :)

  59. I see a connection with the classical (Aristotelian) theory of rhetoric. This is understood as three parts: logos, pathos & ethos. The last one of these, ethos (but with some overlap with pathos), is where I see the key connection–I understand ethos to mean something like “credibility”, or speaking from the position from which particular truths can be told.

    So when Eric says:

    “I have spent decades becoming the kind of person to whom speaking the clearest truth I can formulate, even when it’s uncomfortable for me or socially frowned upon by others, comes as naturally as breathing. Audiences sense this naturalness and respond to it.”

    He is describing his own ethos: effortlessly plain-speaking, hard-truth-telling Eric, with a reputation as such—and describing the connection that this establishes with his audience.

  60. >>I could actually imitate you and try making a tool that would automatically migrate databases from competing ERP systems…

    >And that would be an excellent example of tackling a harder problem.

    Or EMR/EHR systems, if you could.

  61. > gathered foods (for which the calorie/nutrient value
    > is a smooth function of effort invested) are not typically
    > shared, whereas hunted foods (high variance of
    > outcome in relation to effort) are shared.

    Er. Nuts and potatos will last a long time; they’re worth hoarding.

    Even with a couple of hunting partners, you’d probably have trouble eating a whole antelope before it went bad.

  62. Even with a couple of hunting partners, you’d probably have trouble eating a whole antelope before it went bad.

    Even with a couple of hunting partners you’d probably have trouble *carrying* a whole antelope home, much less eating it before it went bad.

    Plus they didn’t eat the meat and leave the test to rot, they used everything usable.

  63. Shenpen: I could actually imitate you and try making a tool that would automatically migrate databases from competing ERP systems…

    ESR: And that would be an excellent example of tackling a harder problem.

    Greg: Or EMR/EHR systems, if you could.

    That’s actually pretty close to the type of problem my company is working on. (Not that you should feel dissuaded.)

    To be more accurate, we’re not trying to migrate databases, but we are trying to make disparate databases that track semantically compatible information usable through a single common interface. For example, two databases, with different engines and different schemas, but both storing electronic medical records (EMR). We’re currently taking a federation approach to this – you would write a program that sends a query expressed in CLIF (looks like LISP) to our program, which breaks the query up into sub-queries which each database can answer (consider: one DB knows people and their medical histories, including observed symptoms; the other knows symptoms and their common diagnoses; the query asks how many patients might have signs of kidney damage). Each subquery gets mapped into each DB’s respective schema (e.g. translated to SQL), sent, answers collected, joined, and presented back to your program.

    It’s a tough problem. We’ve been hammering at it for years. Partly due to having to have database optimization expertise; partly due to the semantic obstacles to solving such a problem in the general case. (Someday I hope to add more and more common types of information to a central model, where the more EMR databases you add, for example, the easier the next one becomes, and the easier related information like general personnel records becomes, and eventually we hit critical mass and any new DB could be integrated semantically with anything currently covered by the model as the new one is being stood up.)

    • >Now if esr would only apply wu-wei to himself vis-a-vis his beliefs on manmade climate change.

      I already have. You, on the other hand, have chosen gullible foolishness. I’m happy with my choice.

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