Common Sense

The pseudonymous Orat, known to me from America’s Debate, asks Do “We” have more rights than “I”? He then provides a reasonable-sounding argument leading to a negative conclusion. I intend to show why that argument is fatally flawed.

Let’s start by considering the classic “Tragedy of the Commons” scenario, with a group of farmers sharing a commons where their livestock graze. If one of the other farmers overuses that resource, causing its depletion and making it less available to me, do I personally have the right to stop him? No, I do not. Neither do any of the other farmers, individually, in the absence of a contract. The overuse continues, and we’re all worse for it in the end. There are only two ways to avoid this. One is to create a contract, limiting use of the shared resource for the sake of ensuring its continuance. This approach runs into a host of problems. How does one become a party to this contract, or cease to be one? How are the resources apportioned? Most importantly, how is the contract interpreted and enforced? Surely it cannot be enforced by individuals taking up arms against one another unilaterally. No, we need something resembling a court, and that court needs recourse to force that may not be exercised by any of the individual farmers. The judges, even if drawn from among the signatories to the contract, require recompense for their time which could otherwise be spent furthering their own individual interests, so there must be some kind of fees or taxation. Voila, we have a government, whether we call it that or not, and “we” acting through it do indeed have rights that “I” alone do not. It’s not a particularly good kind of government, though, mostly reactive and mostly driven by whoever complains the loudest. Don’t we deserve better?

Indeed we do. What we’re dealing with is the “forgotten right” which is the right of access to one’s fair share of community resources without having them depleted or spoiled by others’ selfish action. I just saw dozens of knees jerk, so let me make clear that the existence of community resources does not imply the non-existence of private property, or of protection of individual property rights. However, not all property can be held privately, and not all that can should. Nature does not respect the boundaries we set up, for example. The air we breathe and the water we drink, light and sound, do not conform to our political or economic notions. Any model based on a presumption that all property is or can be privately held is simply counter-factual. Of course, you won’t find any specific mention of this forgotten right in the oh-so-holy US constitution. You won’t find any explicit definition of general welfare or eminent domain either. For all of their collective genius, the framers didn’t set out to write the perfect all-encompassing document; in fact, that they chose not to is part of their genius. Some things probably seemed so obvious to them that they didn’t bear elaboration, such as the fact that humans eat and breathe or the fact that the sun rises each day. The idea that there are community resources and that there is a right of access to such resources was probably one such thing, so familiar to all of them that denial of their existence never seemed probably. The sophistry required for such denial, and the level of selfishness that it attempts to justify, would not have been familiar to them. Nonetheless, I am quite sure that they were familiar with and comfortable with the idea of community resources remaining available to the community. That is how things had been here since the Mayflower landed, and elsewhere for centuries before.

Instead of anarchy, then, and instead of having each contract become a government unto itself, we have the idea of a social contract which covers all of the things that are just too cumbersome to deal with one by one by one, differently everywhere. As the interpreter and enforcer of that contract, the government does have rights to act in ways that individual citizens may not. The exact contents of that contract are of course subject to endless debate, but certainly encompass the preservation of individual rights including the forgotten right. The government may, and indeed must, engage in acts that might otherwise be regarded as theft in order to preserve that right, just as in other circumstances what a government does might be considered murder if done by an individual. The answer to Orat’s question, then, is yes. It’s so obviously yes, so long as people are not perfectly informed and perfectly rational and do not occupy a world where nature politely bows to human boundaries and notions, that no debate should ever have been necessary.

Busy Times

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday at Storage Networking World in Orlando. First, I just have to say that Orlando is a strange place. The hotel where we stayed was more like a little town than a hotel as you’d usually think of it, with a couple of dozen buildings spread over a large area. The trade-show hotel was similar, covering not quite as much area but built up higher. From the upper floors I could see all of these homogeneous mega-development islands, separated by a sea of green. It’s a little disconcerting, even though it’s really just an extreme form of a sprawly development style which has taken root everywhere.

The trade show itself was crazy. The atmosphere was, if anything, more intense than the first O’Reilly P2P conference a few years back (the previous record-holder for shows/conferences I had personally attended). Storage networking is really coming into its own, after years of mostly-deserved obscurity. The gear is more mature now, and people are finally thinking of ways to take advantage of storage networks in ways beyond basic no-added-value slicing and dicing and virtualization for its own sake. There’s a greater awareness of the potential for treating a SAN like a pipeline, where you can plug in multiple devices or appliances to provide specific functionality instead of dumping them everything into the hosts or disk arrays. If you want to add a function, you can now add it in a way that carries along the CPU cycles and buffer space and bandwidth that it needs instead of stealing them from hosts and disk arrays that need those resources to perform other tasks.

That, of course, brings me to my experience as a Revivio employee at the show. To put it simply, we were mobbed. Lines were forming at our booth. Everybody wanted to talk to Mike (our CTO) or Kirby (marketing VP) and be seen doing so. We were getting as much attention as anybody at the show, out of all proportion to our size or market presence. For someone who usually lives in the trenches, seeing things only from the perspective of solving hard technical problems, it’s quite an eye-opener to see how we’re perceived by the rest of the industry.

Nonetheless, I’m glad to be back, back to home and hearth and weekdays spent with those familiar technical problems. And no flamenco dancers on stilts.