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I wrote about this on my own blog, and someone from Hacker News came and posted a highly critical comment about me. They concluded:

"The reason you were downvoted and will continue to be downvoted is because you don’t discuss topics with any intellectual integrity."

The comment was interesting since it was such a pure, mirror reflection of what the commenter was doing. For instance, they posted anonymously, whereas I always write using my real name, yet they called me a troll. They also accused me of repeating myself, though they had also repeated themselves many times. You can see the comment here:


As the post indicates, I'm feeling ambivalent about Hacker News right now. Sometimes the conversations are really interesting, but there is also a lot of noise. Sometimes I learn a lot by participating in the conversations, but other times I feel like I'm talking to people who have no interest in understanding what I'm trying to say, and who are willing to use downvoting as a method of shouting me down.

I'm ambivalent. I enjoy this forum, but I'm also thinking I should probably invest my energy elsewhere. I've been reading this site for almost 2 years now, and I've learned a great deal, and every day there are interesting new articles posted. All the same, I get bored with conversations where I think the other person isn't really interested in hearing what I might have to say. And no doubt, vice versa, of course - clearly I upset someone, if they were willing to pursue the conversation to my own blog (where I was writing about Hacker News).

I don't agree with the drive by anonymous poster to your blog, but I do agree with the downvotes you got below http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1821175. (And no, I was not the downvoter.)

The open question was how big of a stick the government should wield, and your response was to implicitly ask whether the other person believed in capitalism, and if not then should we go with communism? This is a straw man comparison. There is a world of difference between saying that the government should punish bad behavior harshly, and saying that the government should have any active role in the day to day management of businesses.

In particular Stiglitz' proposal is that executives who can be shown to have engaged in fraud and theft, be punished for it. He further seems quite unhappy about corporate governance issues that in practice make it very hard for shareholders - the theoretical owners of a company - to have any direct ability to control compensation of CEOs, or to get an accurate picture of what their own company is doing.

The appropriate discussion to have about this is whether Stiglitz' characterization of the behavior is correct. And, if it is, then whether his proscription would be reasonable, and whether or not it would solve more problems than it causes. It is not to accuse someone of not believing that capitalism works.

No where did I bring communism or capitalism into the conversation.

And, mind you, I am not critical of the anonymous poster on my blog - everyone has a right to be critical. But it did make me think twice about whether Hacker News is the right place for me to invest my time.

No where did I bring communism or capitalism into the conversation.

Really? From http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1821175 I find:

Do you feel that economies where the bulk of economic activity is organized via free actors engage in voluntary exchange tend to be more dynamic than economies where the government plays the major role in organizing economic activity?

What are you talking about if not capitalism? Then you go on to say:

If not, on what basis would you justify allowing the existence of non-governmental economic activity?

That sure as heck looks like a reference to something that famously happens in communism.

And both were straw men when referring to the parent comment. Which in effect boiled down to saying that it was possible that it could be easier to discourage gaming the system by providing bigger punishments for bad behavior than it is to do it by providing bigger incentives for not gaming the system.

Which actually seems like a good point to me. Increasing punishment would mean punishing CEOs that all agree have done something wrong, possibly with prison. Providing counter incentives means what? Do we give them more money than they would have made gaming the system as a thank you for not having gamed it? I for one would find that hard to swallow, and I doubt I'm alone!

Returning to the main thread of this conversation, it is up to each of us to decide how to spend our time. If you're not getting value (enjoyment, learning, reputation etc) for energy spent here or anywhere else, you shouldn't do it. If you are, you should continue to do it, and maybe should do it more. I can't make the decision for you. But that anonymous poster struck me as out of line, and doesn't seem to me to be the norm for this community.

But again, I think the anonymous poster was well within their rights. Everyone has a right to complain, and I welcome criticism of any sort. But it does make me re-think where I invest my time.

btilly, nowhere did I bring communism or capitalism into the conversation. It is interesting that you think I did. This is the where so many of these conversations break down: people use these words differently, and so, often a diverse group of people, not understanding each other's vocabulary, will end up talking past one another, each thinking that the other means something else.

You wrote:

"Which in effect boiled down to saying that it was possible that it could be easier to discourage gaming the system by providing bigger punishments for bad behavior than it is to do it by providing bigger incentives for not gaming the system."

Correct, which is I why I suggested that larger fines might be a reasonable option to look at. In the article, Stiglitz' points out that the fines that are now imposed are laughably small compared to the money that some of these people made in the financial deals discussed in the article. To my mind, the next obvious step is to increase the fines, till they offer a reasonable incentive not to engage in a particular activity. As I wrote before "I can think of a lot of incentives that might be put in place to help align the interests of those writing the mortgages and those who are receiving the mortgages". Larger fines for misrepresentation would be the most obvious incentive to try here.

I could go into some detail about the different ways that people have historically used the words "capitalism" and "communism." However, past a certain point, such writing becomes incredibly tedious. Strunk and White, in their book Elements Of Style, compare normal writing to legal writing. No one can write well, they say, who doubts the intelligence of their reader. Good writing depends on assuming good will on the part of ones readers. They contrast that to legal writing. When lawyers draw up a legal document, they assume the document will be read in bad faith. After all, if 2 parties still have good will between them, they rarely need to consult their written agreements. It's when all good will is gone that people pull out the contracts. Therefore legal documents need to be written with great redundancy and verbosity, to try to drive out any ambiguity and to try to cover every edge case.

Not mentioned in Strunk and White is the case where the reader bears no ill will to the writer, but through inexperience with the subject is unable to reach conclusions that the writer regards as obvious. For this latter kind of reader, a simplified kind of writing is sometimes required, and this kind of writing resembles the kind of writing you would do if you were assuming bad faith on the part of the reader - it is a kind of writing that tries to define everything, and drive out ambiguity. I often engage in this kind of writing when I'm trying to explain things to my customers.

This kind of writing can be compared to the kind of software that tries to take into account every edge case. We all know that, for non-trivial software, there is a substantial gap between the effort needed to get the software working for the simplest case, versus the effort needed to ensure that the same software takes into account every edge case that it might face. The first kind of coding tends to be fun, the second kind of coding tends to be tedious.

I'm willing to engage in that latter kind of writing for my job. Should I make that kind of effort on Hacker News? Such writing can be exhausting - it is often a verbose kind of writing, and, above all, it needs to be a very careful kind of writing. There are places where I recognize the importance of making such an effort - at work, and with certain friends when a subject is emotionally charged, and when I've undertaken some substantial responsibility. I find that I'm only able to write like that for maybe 5 or 6 hours a day - it takes too much out of me to focus at that level for much longer than that. Does it make sense for me to invest some of those hours on Hacker News?

To the extent that I can assume I'm being read in good faith, I can write with some shortcuts. That is the way I have conversations with friends. If I can't assume good faith, then I need to engage in much more careful style. As I said, this only seems worth it to me when the stakes are high.

You can, perhaps, understand my ambivalence? On a subject like the one involving the article about Stiglitz, yes, I could spend 2 hours putting together a careful essay explaining my views, how they formed, who I've read and how it influenced my thinking on the subject, and why I think an important aspect of the article is being overlooked. But am I being paid to to spend 2 hours that way? If not, I can probably spend those 2 hours more profitably elsewhere.

Thus, as I said, I'm ambivalent about continuing to participate on Hacker News.

I upvoted this because I think it's an interesting discussion despite the fact that I disagree.

Let me ask you this: Can you think of any online discussion boards with better discussion than HN? The reason I ask is because my its nature I think Internet discourse always devolves into a garbage as a function of community size. Another way of putting it is that you can have a good Internet community as long as it doesn't get too big. In my mind HN is a notable exception in that it is large enough that it should be complete crap, but the core values of the community have held the line longer than could normally be expected.

Even reddit or slashdot, which I would hold up as having quite a few intelligent commenters, still gets drowned out by the in-humour and mindless memetics. So despite being far from perfect, I still consider HN the best discussion on the net.

dasil003, you ask "Can you think of any online discussion boards with better discussion than HN?"

I often have better conversations when I meet up with friends at a coffeeshop. For me, Hacker News is in competition with all the other things I could be doing with my time, rather than merely being in competition with other online discussions. Hacker News may be the best place online for discussing concerns relevant to startups, but it still suffers from many of the problems that all online discussions suffer from, including anonymous posting. For me, the question is whether I should engage in any online conversation that isn't directly related to work. Is it worth the effort? Every minute that I spend discussing issues online is a minute that I'm not doing other things, such as discussing similar issues with close friends of mine in real life, or writing software, or responding to personal email, or exercising, or going to a museum, etc.

How is that response to my question? Obviously HN can not be anything but an online discussion forum, and it can only be judged on those merits. How you choose to spend your time is well beyond the scope of my consideration.

It is possible that the scope of our considerations do not overlap.

Yeah but I upvoted you for the sake of debate. I feel cheated.

dasil003, I think Hacker News is a good online forum for discussing issues that are relevant to startups.

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