Monday, September 22, 2008

Why all economists should downgrade to a real job...

I just ran across this /. story and read the linked Stanford article as well. I probably shouldn't have, because now I got myself into all kinds of trouble by writing the authors of that rant the following email:

Dear Professors Mendelson and Lee,

It is nice to see that in times where many people try to free themselves from the clutches of closed-sourced and closed-minded applications, you jump right into the breach and make a wonderful little theoretical case helping out the poor beleaguered millionaires. The fact that "embrace and extend" has been wreaking havoc for decades for engineers all around the globe who just want their standards to be adhered to certainly doesn't matter when yachts are on the chopping block. Oh no, that mustn't happen, can't let the "dumb masses" take over those precious slices of market share. One of these days, pay the computer science departments at your respective schools a visit. Maybe to give a talk on this very subject? They'll help you out with a slightly more educated perspective about what's good for whom. Of course, I doubt that you care.

Warmest regards,
Dr. Peter Froehlich

Only time will tell whether they will mobilize enough support over in the new business school to run me out of here for saying such bad things. If I ever hear back from them in any way, I'll let you know... :-)

Update 2008/09/26: I actually got a reply from Haim Mendelson, sort of predictable but not quite. Here it is in full:

Dear Dr. Froehlich,

We try not to let our social or political beliefs affect our science. If you don't like commercial software firms, don't buy their software, but please don't try to silence researchers who analyze their optimal strategies. In fact, a cold analysis of these strategies may be more helpful to you than ranting.


Maybe you want to let that sink in for a second. I of course totally agree that I sent a ranty email, but the rest of his reply is almost as ludicrous as raising cattle on the moon would be for the next, say, 100 years. In my reply, I properly quoted his pieces and interspersed mine, but that won't work well here so I'll just post it in one fell swoop:

Hi Professor Mendelson,

First, thank you for writing back.

Why did you end up in business school? Why did you write this paper and not one of many other possible papers? Of course your "social and political beliefs" have affected your work, just like they have affected mine. Hiding behind some veneer of objectivity like FOX news may work when you chat with freshmen, but not here.

Your positive position on "embrace and extend" and associated network effects is based on the hope that I won't have that choice anymore, is it not? If I still had it, the commercial vendor couldn't possibly win. Even if I am not a programmer, I can easily find someone to add the feature I need, probably with a quicker turnaround too.

You know very well that I am not silencing anyone. If I was in a position to control what you publish, what your salary will be next year, where you can live based on what your write, then you'd actually have a claim. But I am in no such a position. In fact, I think it's great that someone can actually get paid and make a career based on this kind of research.

I may have couched my email to you in a nasty rant, but the central point that the things you encourage are bad for everybody *except* that one company and it's subsidiaries stands. The prime example for "embrace and extend" is Micro$oft, and if you dig a little you can find out that it has mostly succeeded in making things like the web or collaborative work a lot more difficult for everybody by violating established standards or not publishing specifications for their own. That's why I encouraged you to spend some time with engineering types in your respective computer science departments. Even people who agree with you in terms of "social and political beliefs" will, if they are honest engineers, explain to you what the problems are.

And regarding your "cold" analysis: I don't know too many people who needed to be told what you write about. Did you think it wasn't obvious that big company can outspend a bunch of part-time hackers in the short run?

Let me close with this: I am giving you a hard time about all this because I have a glimmer of hope that you'll follow up and reflect on who really needs your help. I know I may not get anywhere with this, but I had to try. If I upset you with my original email I am sorry about that. In my defense, I wanted to make sure I get a reaction.

All the best,

I did not receive another reply yet, and I doubt I ever will. He already threw a lot of the "default" academic dirt my way, and while he could follow up with something like "you don't understand economics, you're an engineer after all", or the ever popular "you're just a communist and I have no time for your lunacy," I probably won't hear anything ever again. Good riddance, too. I am just glad he didn't have a substantial defense, otherwise I would have had to spend the time to construct a more comprehensive attack. :-)

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