people switching and other misc. links

  • Totally awesome to see that a couple high profile tech doers and thinkers, Mark Pilgrim and Tim Bray, are switching back to Linux from OSX.
  • In his switching article, Mark makes the point that XCF (gimp’s format) is not particularly open, and is apparently undocumented. Norman Walsh expounds. I think this is a good example of what I talked about at LWE– open standards very often mean more than open source when it comes to protecting and controlling how you use software.
  • This form of re-mapping the world and this form of re-mapping are both very cool, as is bldgblog, where I found them. (see also the incredibly crazy post about the world’s largest diamond mine.)
  • see here for a great, concise list of what is wrong with webapps, though the poster calls it ‘what is wrong with web 2.0’. Despite thinking that webapps have inherent, unconquerable suckiness, likely I will post tomorrow (well, sometime before GUADEC) about why I’m going to abandon Evo for gmail as soon as I finish my job, and why I’m rapidly abandoning abi for writely for any document that other people are likely to see. Sad, but fixable- hopefully my post will explain what is wrong in enough detail that it points people towards what is fixable.
  • It seems unlikely that I’ll ever finish the intended post I had on this, but every developer and every would-be linux desktop marketer should go to Apple’s new ‘Get A Mac’ page. Read the list of features they are pimping; read how they are pimping them. I’m not saying that GNOME developers should work only on things on that list, but every time you start a project or add a feature, you should compare it to that list and if it isn’t on that list, the bar for ‘is this really, really good for users, or for helping developers do kick ass things for users’ must be very high. Similarly, if you’re marketing the linux desktop, think about that list, and how it is presented- really excellent stuff.

crowding out of intrinsic motivations- aka, the bounty problem

A couple GUADECs ago, I agreed to do some good old fashioned research for the board on the issue of ‘crowding out of intrinsic motivations’- in other words, what happens when you start paying volunteers? I had been told by someone (I believe by the excellent Karim Lakhani) that there was good research demonstrating repeatedly that paying volunteers can have a counter-intuitive effect- that paid volunteers end up working less. I didn’t do the follow-up research, unfortunately, so I was unprepared to discuss the issue when bounties came up a few months later in a GNOME Foundation Board meeting at GUADEC.

While reading Karim’s dissertation (verdict: excellent and interesting- a blog about that when I finish it) I came across a reference to a key paper in the field. Today, in between world cup matches, I finally sat down and found the paper (here), and started reading it. Thanks to the excellent, I was able to find an even better series of papers citing that one, providing context and lots more information. I strongly recommend anyone thinking about bounties or other financial incentives in a free software context read in particular ‘Motivation Crowding Theory: a Survey of Empirical Evidence’, by Frey and Jegen. (Ignore the economics; skip to the examples, which are really interesting.) Herewith some notes and comments:

  • while at first the idea is counterintuitive, the basic notion is straightforward: when people do things for their own intrinsic goodness (i.e., for reasons other than payment), introducing payment can reduce the amount of invovement.
  • Clearest example I’ve found in the quick literature skim so far: an experiment on parents who used Israeli child care. The parents had to pick up their kids at the end of the day; being late was not punished financially, but obviously was an inconvenience to the teachers. When fines were instituted, presumably parents would get more timely in picking up their kids, since they had whatever motivated them previously, plus the fine. The opposite occured- parents became worse at picking their kids up on time when the fine was in place. The real kicker? The fine was canceled… and parents did not return to their original level of picking kids up on time. They had been permanently (at least for the duration of the experiment) ‘ruined.’ (Referenced article is here, but not available publicly, unfortunately; I read about it in Frey and Jegen.)
  • The basic psychological rationale behind crowding out theory is that as soon as you pay people (or introduce other ‘forcing’ incentives, like increased managerial oversight of employees), you’re reducing the sense of self-determination and self-esteem, and so their intrinsic motivation- doing it because they want to help others, or because it is fun, or because they are embarassed to seem like they don’t care about their kids.
  • This isn’t all bad- there are also examples of ‘crowding in’, where external incentives can strengthen pre-existing intrinsic motivations- for example, if laws are structured to imply to citizens that citizens are trusted, they may in fact act in a more trust-worthy manner because they feel more valued/respected/etc.
  • There is at least some controversy about this theory in academia. There is a faction of behavioralist psychologists who argues that the whole thing is BS. However, both of the papers by economists that I read suggested that this faction’s research was deeply flawed and conclusively disproved by the first paper I linked to. There are apparently also a number of economists who don’t believe that this effect can be more significant than positive economic incentives (i.e., they believe that increased pay will always increase supply, without exception); the second paper I linked to seems like a fairly conclusive debunking of this position.
  • I have not yet seen references to research into community-wide crowding out; i.e., if I’m offered money to do bug work, does that crowd out incentives for Elijah and Olav? (The anecdotal evidence would suggest ‘no’, but perhaps that is partially because of the large gap between volunteering and full-time jobs- bounties may be different in this respect.)
  • Directly relevant to GNOME, there is some research that indicates that paying volunteers can reduce their overall level of contribution. Specifically, it concludes that those paid small amounts in correlation with volunteering work fewer hours than the average volunteer, while those paid large amounts end up working more hours than the average volunteer. The data is survey based, rather than experiment-based, though, so I’m a little leery of placing too much weight on it- the effects may well be correlation and not causation, though the study authors do attempt to control for other causes.

So, uh, what does all this mean? Not sure it means a whole lot, exactly- none of the research is so strong as to be conclusive or suggest direct guidelines for a bounty-issuing volunteer organization. It does suggest to me that we should consider doing more reading and research before substantially expanding payments to volunteers. Given the suggestion that these communities are fragile (i.e, that once you’ve destroyed the sense of intrinsic motivation, it doesn’t come back) it suggests that this isn’t something to be trifled with without thought. Finally, it suggests that there is a very, very good psych/econ paper lurking in google’s bounty system- surely this is one of the widest-scale experiments in potential crowding out ever, and if someone can figure out a clever way of measuring the impact, they should have a very good paper and very useful advice for us on their hands.

Anyway, the last two papers (not the first one, it is by psychologists and substantially more unreadable than the other two) took me only a couple hours to read; I’d suggest that anyone interested in this topic should suck them down and give them a read.

More great moments in trolling

By moving much of our flame-inducing conversation to planet, an inherently controlled environment, we’ve mostly killed the most serious GNOME trolls. Hence, we don’t get nearly as many quality moments like this anymore. That post was apparently the web’s first instance of the key phrase, but it was only one of many responses to the classic GNOME troll, oGALAXYo, who would later go on to such successes as goneME. oGo was the classically troubling troll, in that he did actually occasionally contribute something useful, and you wanted to encourage that, but most of the time he was just gigantically irritating, and you wanted to strangle him. The post above suggests which way we leaned. Not coincidentally, oGo also stimulated John Fleck to do some useful pondering on whether or not Free Software selects for people who are nice.

world cup!

Sadly, I probably will have to watch most games delayed, like I did today, but I’m excited to wake up in the morning tomorrow, flip on TV, flip on IRC, and snag whatever random futbol fans are in #gnome to watch soccer together :) Doing that regularly four years ago was a lot of fun, and I look forward to doing it again the next couple weekends.

the excellent licensing wisdom of rlove

<rlove> luis: I don’t think J5 got your blog post.
<luis> I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, I’m at work
<luis> only the one sentence that came through wordpress moderation
<luis> certainly my point was not an ‘us v. them’ dichotomy
<rlove> exactly, your point was more on the power of the license
<luis> right
<rlove> nothing about who was good or who was bad
<rlove> but that that was all made moot by the license
<luis> right
<luis> maybe I should s/company/aggregations of people/ in the post ;)
<luis> or s/company/copyright holder/
<rlove> yes, the latter
<luis> maybe s/company/joint copyright holder/ ?
<rlove> or do what I do and punch people in the face with your thesis: “The license is the great equalizer”
<rlove> or some snappy conclusion
<luis> I’m not *quite* so cynical as to not trust you, for example, if you decided to implement lovix tomorrow, I would probably use it whatever the license
<rlove> and I appreciate that
<rlove> and I’d probably add features, just for you
<rlove> little luis-inspired easter eggs
<rlove> even with lovix, though, you have no chips without the right license
<luis> what about your undying love for me?
<rlove> what if I died and my estate was run by crooks?
<rlove> or I declared Chapter 11?
<rlove> or — god forbid — Chapter 7?
<rlove> I am just saying. You want some chips.
<luis> let us just post this conversation to our blogs and smite our doubters with it.

(Yes, I’ll probably post a more serious response when I’m home from work.)

on trusting open source companies

Dave: but you’ve hit on the head exactly why you can’t trust Sun (or Novell, or RH) any further than you can trust their licenses. I love Glynn like a brother, I like Danese, and Simon Phipps and Jon Schwartz appear to be incredibly sharp and fairly clueful, and so I’m optimistic that the company will do the right things in the future. But what if the corporate winds change? Danese is already gone (and apparently was frustrated); what if the stock slips again and Schwartz and Phipps are the sacrificial lambs? At that point, all the community has is the license, and Sun’s licensing choices… typically at best they signal that Sun is ‘first among equals’, at middling they indicate strong distrust of the community, and at worst they indicate outright attempts to block interoperability with the community. When Sun actually trusts communities, and signals as such by treating the community as equals and giving the community the power to fork (aka by putting their jewels under GPL-compatible licenses), then the community should (and I think will) trust them back. But not until then.

Re: MPL and firefox, lots of people justifiably weren’t happy until it was triple licensed (which didn’t completely resolve netscape/aol’s privileged position, but at least ameliorated the problem). I personally still don’t completely trust them (because of the trademark issues about which I’ve blogged about before) but until I or someone else comes up with a trademark license that actually respects freedom two I probably should shut up about that :) (Or maybe I mean ‘respects powerplay two… another post, I guess.)

HP’s marketing and HP’s reality

Great post in the excellent This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics discusses HP’s new branding, and what PC’s could be:

[S]oon the word “revolution” got dropped from “personal computer revolution.”  “Personal” vanished from “personal computer.” And both words disappeared into “PC.”…Still, there is hardly anything you own that is more personal.

It then goes on to discuss how HP has followed up that brilliant reimagining of who they are by… having better backup and antivirus software.

So, for the folks interested in marketing- go read the post. Good stuff. For those who aren’t- we know your software is ‘computer’, but how is your software revolutionary? How is it personal? Good, simple questions to ask.