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The first half is an argument with a strawman:

It can be done, but you have to make it a deliberate project and put some time and thought into it, rather than just stumbling on a bunch of programmers in a cafe.

The story about the programmers in the cafe was not evidence for any claim. It was just an explanation of what set me thinking about the problem. It's not a pillar holding up anything, so attacking it proves nothing.

(Incidentally, a moment's thought would have made it clear that I have in fact "put some time and thought into it." I've spent 24 years as a professional programmer, during which I've observed thousands of programmers working for all sizes of companies. Plus I've seen first hand the transformation undergone by roughly 200 YC-funded founders so far.)

The second half is fallacy:

But rather than pointing out fallacies, a better way to refute Graham's evolutionary argument is by reductio ad absurdum. ... Our ancestors lived in a world that was shrouded in darkness half the day, therefore we would be happier without electric lights.

This supposed refutation can itself be disproven by reductio ad absurdum, because it could be applied to any explanation of our inclinations based on how we evolved.

(Bad example, incidentally. There do seem to be conflicts between electric lights and human biology: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/02...)

Neither of these arguments even attempts to refute the central point of the essay. In case anyone wants to try it, the central point is that in an organization organized as a tree structure, structural forces tend to give each person freedom in inverse proportion to the size of the whole tree. That we work better in groups of 10 than 100 I feel is obvious enough not to need justification. The argument from evolution is just an attempt to explain why groups that size work.

Though on the whole my reaction is "I want my 20 minutes back," there was one encouraging thing about this experience. Even these dishonest DH5s are more civil than Atwood DH2ing about my choice of metaphors.




Your "(Incendentally, a moment's...)" comment makes me sad. Obviously Roth spent well over a moment reading and contemplating your essay. The fact that you disregard his thoughts so flippantly, along with those of other intelligent people, makes me wonder whose opinions you would respect.

He clearly states he thought your central point was: "It will always suck to work for large organizations, and the larger the organization, the more it will suck," because "humans weren't meant to work in such large groups."

How is this so different than your stated thesis that: "the central point is that in an organization organized as a tree structure, structural forces tend to give each person freedom in inverse proportion to the size of the whole tree. That we work better in groups of 10 than 100 I feel is obvious enough not to need justification?"

His refutation relies on examples of humans partaking in behavior that they were not originally "evolved" to do. It is a direct response to your reliance on evolution. If you thought the whole point of your essay was "obvious enough not to need justification," then why did you write a whole essay on the subject?

To address your central point, I would cite the space program. Humans were obviously not evolved to be space-faring creatures, and yet hundreds (thousands?) of human intellects in concert (in a tree-structured organization) managed to land a man on the moon. The idea of synergy, where many humans in an organizational structure can accomplish more than any single human's evolved capabilities, has long been recognized (http://www.complexsystems.org/magic.html). Many people that work in such organizations draw personal satisfaction from the fact that they are furthering what they consider a greater good, rather than their own personal desires. Where a start-up glorifies individuals, organizations tend to glorify the whole. The fact that this is not satisfying to some does not mean it is not satisfying to others, and certainly does not imply that “You were not meant to have a boss.”


I felt like I gave that aspect of his post the reply it deserved. I'm not accusing him of not having spent a moment on it, but of missing things a moment's thought should have shown him. It's actually charitable to attribute that to an oversight.

And you're right, he does state something close to the central point of my essay. But if you keep reading, that's not the part he tries to refute.

Your last paragraph is actually the most thoughtful response I've read about this whole controversy. But I think you're wrong to say that startups glorify the individual. The startup founders I know are on average more idealistic than people working for big companies. They tend to be the ones who want to make the world a better place; though there are of course exceptions, the people working at big companies are the ones who tend to think of their job as something they do mainly for the money.


Let's try something else. I claim that founders tell themselves (regardless of truth value) that they want to be:

"Making the world a better place (and getting really damn rich)."

The justification for this attitude is that one can supposedly participate in a positive-sum game for both parties -- one party is you, the other is the world. This is the altruistic lure of market structures. Whether or not you agree with that non-zero-sum stance (do markets actually tend to produce such situations, all externalities considered?), I think the "making a lot of money indicates I'm filling a truly needed demand" mentality produces entrepreneurs who unnecessarily tie their personal increase in wealth to the feeling of an increase in some greater good.

But we do get pretty cool products out of this, whatever the psychology involved.


holy sh*t!!! nickb = pg ????


Worlds are colliding...


Score: -inf, Slashdot-like whining.

Well it is his site, deal with it. In the meantime please stop polluting my damn RSS feeds. Please consider the comments feature a side effect of this site's PRIMARY FUNCTION and not worthy of news itself. Thanks!! (GRRRRR)


You haven't addressed Pg's unstated presuppositions. His 'telos' is that the programmers should be happy -- although only circumstantial evidence is presented it is likely he is correct that large organizations undermine such.

Of course, persons can sacrifice for the greater good or a greater civilizational vision. This produces societies, not tribes. Your space program example serves to illustrate what is possible in the context of such a vision.


"This supposed refutation can itself be disproven by reductio ad absurdum, because it could be applied to any explanation of our inclinations based on how we evolved."

Your argument doesn't do what you think. Just because every evolutionary psychology argument can be attacked this way doesn't make it a bad attack. The logic in your essay is far from being able to pass scientific scrutiny. Maybe you don't care.... This IS a fundamental problem in evolutionary psychology. Why do we engage in some weird behavior? Because it was adaptive. How do we know it was adaptive? Well, we wouldn't engage in it otherwise.


Perhaps it's weak, but why call it dishonest? It is plausible enough that I'm not convinced by your response, so it's reasonable to suppose it was sincerely made.

The argument itself I need to think more about.

a. I tend not to be convinced by arguments that invoke nature. It's a heuristic at best. Like you said it didn't bother me since it never claimed to be more than circumstantial evidence.

b. Your 'central' point was certainly the most interesting, but it wasn't clear it was central. In fact, I can't see how your style of essay can admit a central anything. Which is a strength, IMO.

In general I don't care as much about accuracy as I do about interestingness. I found myself recently looking back on notes from your essays of 3 years ago. I was quoting 1 in 3 sentences, sometimes 1 in 2. And these were long essays! It's safe to say that's not true anymore.


If you didn't mean for the story about the programmers to carry any weight, I'm happy to ignore it. I assumed it was in the essay to bolster your argument.

This supposed refutation can itself be disproven by reductio ad absurdum, because it could be applied to any explanation of our inclinations based on how we evolved.

No, that's overbroad. It could be applied to any argument that takes the form, "Our ancestors evolved to do x, therefore we will be happier if we do x." And, indeed, all such arguments are false, for the reason stated in my post.

Neither of these arguments even attempts to refute the central point of the essay.

I believed I had identified the central point of your argument. If you want to designate a different aspect the main point, that's your prerogative, but nothing in the essay prioritizes one over the other, and in fact the title refers to the evolutionary argument rather than the "central point." I don't have any thoughts about the "tree-structure/inverse freedom" point.

I'm not going to respond to your accusation of dishonesty, except to ask what DH number you'd assign it.


Christ, I wish people would give the man a break on this essay.

Instead of parsing the perceived inconsistencies in the words, how about looking at the spirit of what he's trying to do.

Look at the default use of people's minds who have been trained to solve difficult problems are being put to today: In bureauacracies on menial things that won't mean much of a difference in the world.

What is the problem with someone saying: "This is wrong, and I'm going to say it. I'm going to push the meme out there that this is bullshit and the default should be to maximize your return on your talent and work, and have a positive impact on society as a result."

If a metaphor or phrasing or analogy is misconstrued, who cares? That's too subjective anyway. If the default spirit was imbued in more technical people than not, I'm guessing we'd be in a better place.

[descend from soapbox]


Neither of these arguments even attempts to refute the central point of the essay. In case anyone wants to try it, the central point is that in an organization organized as a tree structure, structural forces tend to give each person freedom in inverse proportion to the size of the whole tree.

Already done: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=142597

If I hadn't already done it, I wouldn't bother with it now, though, because:

Even these dishonest DH5s are ...

Roth's contribution is CLEARLY NOT DISHONEST (couldn't resist the uppercase here). I get the impression that the chance you would ever take advantage of any refutations to plug holes and thus further improve the standard of your essay collection is precisely zero. It's all about "picking a winner" (this term actually appears in paulgraham.com/disagree.html) instead of advancing towards the truth. Readers of your essays will do best by just enjoying the incredible density of ideas, then deciding for themselves which ones to accept, rather than following the "comment" link at the bottom.

If anyone has a link to an instance where Paul Graham helps the search for the truth by conceding a nontrivial point in an argument, I would be grateful. That would help repair my impression, and probably some other people's as well.


Roth's contribution is probably not dishonest, it's just shoddy thinking.

Paul is not saying that there's some kind of moral or ethical imperative to working in small groups. He just observes that it works well. So there is no fallacy, though I can see how Roth could have gotten this mixed up.

Second, it is just silly to try to refute the notion that we might be good at and enjoy anything we might have evolved to do. For one thing, that's clearly the case -- evolution works well. For another thing, PG's not trying to prove anything, he's relating his personal experience and forwarding a theory that might explain it.

The fact that people were so bothered by this is the most telling fact. As Abbie Hoffman used to say, if someone ever says something that gets your goat, they struck gold!


You can say many things about this article but I am not sure dishonest is one of them. In fact it seems quite clear that it accurately presents the authors opinion and is thus honest.


I mean the techniques he uses are dishonest. He doesn't seem like he's trying very hard to get at the truth. He's arguing like lawyers do.


DH1?


I think it's possible to argue carefully, thoughtfully, and with 100% good intentions, and still be guilty of intellectual dishonesty.

Example: the honest, well-intentioned pastor who delivers a sermon on creationism. I witnessed one of these last year -- I was stunned by the intellectual dishonesty as he made a false statements about what "science" and "scientists" say, but understand that he's a loving man who cares deeply and authentically for his congregation.

The fact that he believes what he's saying doesn't change the dishonesty of his arguments.


148-day-later-update: I may have been misguided here. There's a difference between being wrong, and being dishonest. Dishonesty implies deception -- intentionally misleading people.

The pastor in my example misled people with wrong arguments, but it was unintentional. While this type of action can lead to horrible results, it's hard to call the pastor "dishonest" if he didn't intend to deceive. Perhaps a better descriptor would be "fool" or "ignoramus".


For those actually interested in the central point of PG's essay, the topic is given first rate treatment in book on Triarchy theory by the late Gerard Fairtlough: "The Three Ways of Getting Things Done - Hierarchy, Heterarchy and Responsible Autonomy in Organizations (http://triarchypress.co.uk/pages/book1.htm).


Thanks for the reference, I added it to my list of books to read.


I can't help but think some of this reaction to your essay is going over your head. Sort of similarly to how the essay itself went over some other people's heads.

You're taking inputs and synthesizing them in the context of intellectual, emotional, biological contexts all in parallel. You're artfully communicating these intuitions to other people using all of those contexts. The ideas and messages are very complex and subtle because they involve life and human nature. It is not posible to reduce these intuitions down to a purely rational argument.

This "output" then is taken as input by other people (each hugely rich and complex). They process it. Some approximation of your original intuitions form in their minds. Some of these people will "get it". Others will not.

Trying to respond to the people who didn't understand what you meant using purely intellectual tools will not necessarily yield results. Because it's highly likely that nonintellectual aspects of what you're saying and how you're saying it are the causes of interference that are preventing the concepts from getting across.

In that sense what you wrote is not perfect. But I don't think it can be perfect. You need to choose one set of tradeoffs over another. You're choosing to be bold and decisive rather than measured and cautious.

There are plenty of deeply important true statements that can't be proven true. How much time and effort you want to put into trying to convince every last person of your ideas is your own business. There are a lot of people who do understand and appreciate what you're thinking.


When you label Atwood's response a DH2, you're saying his response was a weak form of disagreement with the central point of your Boss essay.

I agree, but I think you're missing a bigger point than your essay's thesis.

In your definition of DH2, you say:

  "So if the worst thing you can say about something is to criticize its tone, you're not saying much."
Atwood and other "distasteful" responses aren't saying much about the essay's central point. True. But the central point of your essay is of less interest than another point, say a well-known entrepreneur's view of the world and of MegaCorp programmers in particular.

  "It matters much more whether the author is wrong or right than what his tone is."
I think it depends on what the author is arguing and who the author is. If the author is a presidential candidate and he's arguing some trivial point but showing utter contempt to women in the debate, then the real story is his treatment of women and not the trivial point. The candidate doesn't get the luxury of dismissing outrage to his contempt by saying the critics simply don't get his trivial point.

You keep trying to redefine all criticism as refutations of the central point, even though many of those criticisms didn't object and even agreed with your main assertion.


I'm not sure if I'm disagreeing, but what I perceive from the essay is slightly different than your central point.

For instance, if you titled the essay 'the inverse relationship between personal freedom and organization size', I don't think it would elicit such an outcry (or any attention whatsoever). Instead, you state that the loss of freedom makes going into large organizations a bad choice for certain groups of people (namely, programmers, because programming is about freedom).

The programming community is made up of many people with different backgrounds, mindsets, and interests. While I myself may program for the freedom to create things, I know other people who program for the fun of it, and others who program because its what they know how to do. All of these types of programmers exist in the startup community, because a startup can mean much more than just programming freedom to them (it can mean money, prestige, adventure, a challenge, etc). If I am disagreeing at all, I would only do so concerning the scope of people that 'programming freedom' applies to. I think only a small subset of the startup community really thinks this point is meaningful - the rest do not give it much weight.

I think the main point of the essay is to convince people to startup early in their careers, even out of college. (If 'you weren't meant to have a boss', what are you meant to do?) You back it up by saying that corporate culture, from your experience, does more harm than good from a startup's perspective (especially in the matter of programming), and you explore that line until you come up with a good model that explains why corporate culture is harmful in its essence.

In contrast, many people don't think that programming freedom is a powerful incentive to starting up early, and are disagreeing because that is the only evidence that you provide to back up your claim that 'you weren't meant to have a boss'.


Right. Even if Pg decisively proved that an optimal group size is c. 10, this has nothing to do with leadership within the group. Groups of lions and monkeys also have 'bosses', us. selected through battle.

Perhaps Pg should go mano-a-mano with Zed Shaw.


<<This supposed refutation can itself be disproven by reductio ad absurdum, because it could be applied to any explanation of our inclinations based on how we evolved.>>

Which incidentally means that all such arguments are fundamentally flawed, the classic is/ought dilemma.

Pg's argument moves from 'is' to 'ought' without explanation or justification.


The modern world is so complex. Perhaps humans evolved to operate best with n vectors of freedom, but most are uncomfortable or unable to operate with m>>n vectors of freedom.

So perhaps you are right about humans, but wrong about freedom.


Paul, your scaling up the war. Don't forget your words carry much more weight than ours, and with that comes fear and aggression. The proof of that is your essay, that went from you're own thoughts and observations to a reason to discuss about discussion. I believe we are beyond all this. I know we are.




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