Saturday, January 26, 2008

Stop making stupid lists!

Having had a scientific education I know something about the basic problems of classification. You're facing this enormous variation of a real life population and now you have to recognize and define properties, devise some way to measure them and then group them together in a way that not only makes sense, but gives you some useful insight in the world you're trying to analyse. So welcome to the wonderful world of taxonomy! Originally the term taxonomy referred to the classifying of living organisms; however, the term is now applied in a wider, more general sense and now may refer to a classification of things, as well as to the principles underlying such a classification.

Talking of classifying living organisms, one of the most well known people in this field is Linnaeus. A strength of Linnaean taxonomy is that it can be used to develop a simple and practical system for organizing the different kinds of living organisms. Over time, our understanding of the relationships between living things has changed. Linnaeus could only base his scheme on the structural similarities of the different organisms. The greatest change was the widespread acceptance of evolution as the mechanism of biological diversity and species formation. In short, the properties Linnaeus had chosen to create his hierarchy of species were feeble at best. Even less well known is that Linnaeus originally established three kingdoms in his scheme, namely Plantae, Animalia and an additional group for minerals, which has long since been abandoned for obvious reasons.

Some have argued that the human mind naturally organizes its knowledge of the world into systems. This view is often based on the epistemology of Immanuel Kant. Anthropologists have observed that taxonomies are generally embedded in local cultural and social systems, and serve various social functions. Let's face it, people simply like order. It neatly organizes the chaos around them. Of course this isn't true. The chaos is still there, we just don't see it anymore. Any ostrich will tell you that is a smart move. A good example is our love for hierarchies. In the real world, there are very few real hierarchies. Tim Berners-Lee, arguably the inventor of the World Wide Web, put it this way:
Many systems are organised hierarchically. The CERNDOC documentation system is an example, as is the Unix le system, and the VMS/HELP system. A tree has the practical advantage of giving every node a unique name. However, it does not allow the system to model the real world. For example, in a hierarchical HELP system such as VMS/HELP, one often gets to a leaf on a tree (..) only to find a reference to another leaf (..) and it is necessary to leave the system and re-enter it. What was needed was a link from one node to another, because in this case the information was not naturally organized into a tree."

Accepting that the basic way to order information was a network gave us the World Wide Web and killed off the hierarchy based Gopher. BTW, the term taxonomy may also apply to relationship schemes other than parent-child hierarchies, such as network structures with other types of relationships. Taxonomies may include single children with multi-parents, for example, "Car" might appear with both parents "Vehicle" and "Steel Mechanisms"; to some however, this merely means that 'car' is a part of several different taxonomies. The basic problem is not taxonomy itself; it's the people who devise and use them.

I agree, this introduction was a bit longer than I intended and so far I have only scratched the surface. I will refrain myself from going into the Tractatus of Wittgenstein or any work of some major philosopher for that matter. I just want you to understand that there is a whole world beyond classification. It's not just drawing a few lines on the back of an empty cigar box and scribble some labels above them. I think that is why I rarely venture myself into the field of classification and preferably only if I have to. And even then I'm painfully aware that I'm probably making some pragmatic and arbitrary choices rather than designing a classification that will stand the test of time.

Classifying people is even more dangerous. The best and the worst have tried and failed. Classifying people has been one of the core evils in human history. It has been used as an excuse to murder, deport, mutilate, enslave, exile and torture people throughout time. It's what I've been calling "labeling" all the time.

One of the people who cannot restrain himself to venture in this field is Bruce Byfield, who is an excellent technical writer by the way. And he'd better restrict himself to this field, because his talents on other fields are - let's say - limited. In one of his most recent articles, he tries to classify the FOSS community and consequently fails. I can easily find myself in several categories, which means the classification itself is of little use.

Yes, I do object to Microsofts business practices, which means that according to Bruce I must "hate Microsoft". No, I do not hate Microsoft, because that's an emotion. I merely think that the industry would be better off if its influence would deminish. That's an opinion based on valid arguments, which is by any measure a significant difference. I do use proprietary software from time to time because there is no other way to fulfill my needs. Which makes me a "mainstream advocate". And yes, I find $150 for an Operating System an outrageous high price, which makes me a "bargain hunter". On the other hand, I maintain several FOSS projects, so I'm an "Open Source developer" as well.

I fail to see how of a combination of my spending habits, my hobbies, my attitude to certain business practices and the choice of my software are a valid way to put me in one category or another. In short, I cannot escape the conclusion that this is just another stupid list. It pretends to be a useful aid "to navigate you through the community", but as a matter of fact it is of no use to anybody. And poor Bruce is not alone. Every now and then a blogger, an editor or a writer of some kind ventures in a field he knows so little about.

I have some little advise to you all: read the Tractatus of Wittgenstein for starters, try to understand it and come back later. Having faced your mental limitations will have been such a humiliating experience that you'll think twice before you ever publish such a stupid list again.


MrCopilot said...

1.I totally Agree with You!

2.That is All.

Anonymous said...

You are right, there are two types of people; those who categorise people and those who don't.

Anonymous said...

This was one of the most interesting blog posts I've ever read. Unfortunately, you don't seem to live up on you're own standards. Let's have a look at one of your recent posts:

Recently, a few misguided people published their rants on the internet. [...] Most of these people aren't developers or have used anything else than their good old Windows.

While you're not using an explicit label here, you generalize and thus classify people. You provide no proof of your claims.

Do one need to be a developer to recognise flaws of the platform? Wouldn't it be possible that smart people understand the flaws of a platform after minor usage, only? But it continues:

You got to take those 1000-dollar suits with lots of money and their carefully articulated PR-mumbo jumbo more serious than a bunch of badly shaven T-shirt and torn jeans wearing kids.

Although probably mean in a funny way, you're also insulting people by classifying them. This is more obvious here:

Those who can do it. Those who can't become editors who visit Microsoft parties and network with the suits.

Again, you're using "suits" as a label to classify people. See also here:

I don't care if I hurt the business of your drunk, 1000-dollar suit, so called "friends", Iain.

Now, "suits" are drunk. What's that if not a label?

But there's more:

Linus once said, "the difference between commercial programs and Open Source is that the latter is created with love".

By quoting him, you obviously agree with the sentence. However, this is again a classification and a label: Why should people working on commercial program not love what they do?

Another example:

In the old days disciples had to make a masterpiece to become a master. They were not really paid for that, it was just a proof of what they could do. There was a part of their soul in that piece. Our modern Open Source community is made of people like that.

This, of course, starts as an appeal to tradition. Just a minute of thought reveals that people back then made masterpieces without pay to become a member of a cartel. Their intention was to make lots of money when a member of a restricted class called "masters". You provide no proof they put a piece of their soul into it. The finishing sentence is, again, a label. Where's the proof that the modern Open Source community is made of people like that? Supposing they ever existed?

Additionally, by speaking of "Free Software" you seem to support the ideas of Richard Stallman. And isn't he one of the most active ones who classify people, putting them into arbitrary classes called "free" and "non-free"and accusing people producing the later as "unethical" and "immoral" and additionally setting up an institution spreading his ideas? And didn't you fall prey to his arbitrary classification if you ask:

If free speech disappears, what does free software mean?

"Non-free software" is a result from free speech as well, not just "free software". That shows that these terms have nothing to do with each other, despite the propaganda spread by Richard Stallman.

So, while you were right -- in my opinion -- to criticize Mohit Joshi for associating such different ideas as "Open Source" and "Free Software" with the label of "communism", you seem to fail to note that he didn't start the classification and labeling but Richard Stallman. Have you been objective when criticising the first but not the later?

However, apart from these previous fallacies, a great post!

The Beez' said...

Hey, Rufus is back again! Always an interesting comment, never an email address. It has been suggested (not by me) that you're a Microsoft munchie..

But ok, here we go. You comment most on one of my early columns which I later was not too happy about and largely took back. Just follow the link at the end.

It may not appear to you that there is a significant difference between a description in an article and dedicating an article to a label.

I may or may not agree with certain ideas, that doesn't mean I'm a follower. Sometimes I just use quotes to throw certain ideas back in somebodies face if there is a discrepancy between words and acts. An FYI I'm much closer to Torvalds than Stallman.

If there great fallacies in my articles, it must be your (rather clever, admitted) comments.

Anonymous said...

I guess you're not going to believe me now, but I seriously didn't recognize the blog entry above with your previous one on Which is probably due to the fact that I wasn't impressed by the previous one (obviously).

I didn't even know you wrote a reply to my comment.

Locking back with my emotions cooled down, I honestly apologize for the harsh formulations of the comment.

On the other hand, people in the "Free" Software and Open Source world are quick with labels, whenever they see something they don't like. Labels such as "Microsoft munchie.."

Another convenient label is FUD, isn't it? After endless discussions hitting labels like that, it's hard to stay calm sometimes. I'm human, after all.

However, I really like the "Stop making stupid lists!" blog entry! It's a good advise to everybody, since we all need to use labels and should thus be very careful when using them. This includes you, too. ;-)

Alasdair said...

After such a brilliant debate, I feel a bit reticent about leaving a comment. You two are clearly interested in getting some clarity. I applaud that, and note the stark contrast with the vast majority of blogs & editorials out there.

One point struck me on one of my favourite hobby-horses, so please let me add my own opinionated bleat.

A hierarchical structure is a wonderful tool, but I am tired of computer-aided tasks being forced into this paradigm. Real tasks that real humans need help with are much better served by a cross-linked data design with no hierarchy or classification, yet hardly any software provides that functionality.

I don't want to pick on KDE, but here is an example; Take the KDE menu. Whoever decides what categories to house a program has a very different understanding than mine, resulting in a long search, often terminated by 'sod it. I'll just use the command line'.

I anyone wants an example of an alternative approach, have a look at 'PersonalBrain' from This approach can host hierarchies, but is not tied by that structure. In short, This approach should be the next level of evolution for hierarchies.

Alex said...

That's weird.

I chose to compare the same 2 posts!!!!

check them out on

I even thought that one of them copied the other.

And, by the way, the author of the second article commented on my overview.