Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Rant: The closed-source black hole

So despite my best efforts, I seem to have ended up in an actuarial career path. The only question now is how best to get ahead in that path.

As a tech geek, one approach that makes sense is to learn the programming languages and toolkits associated with actuarial science. There are many of these for different tasks.

One common task is asset valuation, and possibly the most popular tool for this is a software package called MoSeS. As far as I can tell, it's basically a new interface and a huuuuuge set of libraries slapped on top of Microsoft Visual Studio.

And that's all I can find out...

I've searched Amazon. Apparently there's no such thing as a MoSeS textbook. There's no such thing as a MoSeS user manual (at least not that they're willing to sell separately).

I've tried Google. There's no such thing as a MoSeS help page or online documentation. The absolute best I can find is a bunch of newsletters on Towers Perrin's website, which at least confirm that MoSeS uses C++ syntax but don't tell me an awful lot else. I can't even figure out how to buy a copy.

In fact, every single line of enquiry I've followed reaches their website and then stops dead.

Why? Because if they provide no documentation, people will be forced to buy their training courses. Because if they provide no purchasing info, they'll be able to negotiate prices on a case-by-case basis (with all the arm-twisting that implies). Because, when you get right down to it, actuarial companies are usually rich enough to pay over and over and over.

Now of course Towers Perrin have every right to do that - it's their product so they make the rules. But as a long-time FOSS user, I have serious trouble getting my head round this concept. I keep thinking "that's a stupid way to behave, if they keep on like that then someone will fork the codebase". And then I remember, oh yeah, it's closed source so no-one can do that.

The actuarial world has always been relatively slow to adopt change. This is a natural side-effect of e.g. working with pension schemes that will almost certainly survive longer than the people currently maintaining them. Sadly, in software terms, it appears that actuaries have gotten as far as 1976 and stopped there. This is a damn shame, especially since I have to work in this industry.

I now have a mission in life: to get good enough at FOSS programming, actuarial science and copyright law that I can help create an alternative to this intensely painful arrangement.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

The Downside

Today I'm feeling slightly irritated with skepticism. This doesn't happen often, so it's possibly worth discussing why.

Skepticism isn't a state so much as a goal. It involves a constant churn of invalidated notions, and an excessive focus on seeing, hearing and speaking no falsehood. As Feynman puts it: "The first principle is not to fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool."

In general, the effects of this are good. I have a somewhat better idea of what is sensible than the average human being. I'm better able to recognise when the emperor has no clothes. I recognise when my beliefs are not secure, and I am careful to state any caveats that may apply.

In many situations (particularly the regulation-happy financial industry), this is a good thing. In other situations, it sucks...

In particular, I've been reading about Cold Reading and Bavarian Fire Drills and similar psychological tomfoolery. I understand far better than most how these principles work. And yet I know I'll probably never manage to pull one of them off.

That's because I'm pathologically honest. If I were to try bluffing my way past a gate guard with the tried-and-true "don't you know who I AM???" tactic, I'd be forced to stop and say "well actually you probably don't know who I am, but you should let me through anyway. Pretty please? Alternatively, don't hit me too harOWWWWW!"

Needless to say, this is sub-optimal. Especially when the time comes for salary renegotiation.

There's really only one solution for it: I need to train myself to lie better. Now in the scientific world this would be a bad thing, because it would mess with people's "data hygiene" (although scientists tend to have access to fairly strong "data disinfectants"). In a long-term friendly relationship, this would be a bad thing, because it would damage the basis of trust. In many other situations, it's just unnecessarily cruel.

But in adversarial situations, such as the salary renegotiation or bartering in a market or dealing with evangelicals*, effective lying - or at least the charisma that's required to lie or bullshit effectively - is a survival trait.

Next question: how precisely does one exercise this faculty? Answers on a postcard.

* I've got into a habit where, if I wind up in a conversation with someone trying to convert me, I make a comment like: "Look, I've been in this debate for years, and I know all the arguments really well. So if I come out on top, that doesn't necessarily mean a lot."

This is the point where I realise I'm doing something wrong.

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