Wednesday, May 6, 2009

External link: My Manhattan Project

This is an excellent article in New York Magazine about a software engineer on Wall Street.

Some quotes and thoughts.

> "Over time, the users of any software are inured to the intricate nature of what they are doing."

Well put. This is the heart of all software successes and failures. Software is the perfect tool to lie to others and lie to ourselves with. It is the ultimate obfuscatory tool if you let it be.

Thomas Jefferson fought against a Hamilton-supported economy based on industry and banking. Hamilton was right, of course, but Jefferson had a good point. A detail of that eighteenth century debate that has intrigued me is: If financial instruments were already obfuscated to Jefferson in the 18th century, imagine what it must be like now? This article confirmed my intuition for what must have been going on: software sold and maintained by an external company helped to obfuscate the transactions to everyone involved. Of course the technology should have allowed it to be understood too but sounds like some monopolies of thought took hold because it was short-term profitable for them to. It was Jefferson's worries manifest in twenty-first century technology. Maybe there is some law lurking like "The Law of Constant Obfuscation" -- at any given time technology will permit obfuscation to a constant level.

> “Mike,” he told me when denying my request, “can you really look for people dumber than you and then take advantage of them? That’s what trading is all about.”


> "I was very good at programming a computer. And that computer, with my software, touched billions of dollars of the firm’s money. Every week. That justified [my salary]. When you’re close to the money, you get the first cut. Oyster farmers eat lots of oysters, don’t they?"

Rationalization is such a powerful force! As is momentum. Feynman has an excellent point in one of his books where he's talking about forgetting why he worked on the Manhattan Project. He joined because, like his collaborators, the idea of Hitler having unilateral nuclear power was unimaginably scary. But, after Hitler was defeated, he forgot why it was he was working on this project and the momentum of the technical challenge remained. He regretted that he didn't re-evaluate his thinking after the VE day.

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