Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Is it a bug or a feature?

Computer programmers have a grand tradition of claiming that the unwanted behaviors of their creations aren't bugs at all. Coders make tradeoffs in the name of simplicity (or in the name of something), and once the decision's been made to do it one way, it's too bad if you don't like the results: it's a feature, not a bug.

For instance, consider the browser engine that powers Firefox. The developers made a conscious decision to build their browser around Web standards, and to make only a limited effort to handle sites that use old or Microsoft-specific code. Some websites that look fine in Internet Explorer look wrong in Firefox, and the Firefox developers consider that a feature of their browser (hooray for standards compliance!), not a bug. Draw your own conclusions if you want, but the developers probably won't be moved.

Well, the phrase has crept into non-technical writing, to describe all sorts of situations where what looks like a problem is, in reality, a smart compromise.

The New New Philosophy (The New York Times Magazine)
"Is the Knobe effect [people's apparent tendency to say that harms caused by indifference are intentional, but benefits caused by indifference aren't] a bug or a feature?"

It's a feature, not a Bug!

Real estate developer indicted (The Philadelphia Inquirer)
It's not a bug; it's a feature.


What users took to be a mistake or a design flaw had in fact been carefully programmed into the system.

And now that computers have taken over our lives, maybe it's time to start applying that idea more broadly.

To local government, for instance.

[The article goes on to discuss a local real estate scandal, arguing that the red tape and inefficiency of local government can benefit politicians personally.]
Carbon traders on the ledge (Salon's How the World Works blog)
says that early carbon trading experiments allowed too much carbon to be produced, but finding the correct price for carbon allowances is "a feature, not a bug."

Absence of Torture Tape Librarian [at the CIA] a Feature, Not a Bug (Emptywheel blog)
'cuz librarians don't destroy enough evidence

A Feature, Not a Bug (The Atlantic's Asymmetrical Information blog)
arguing it's fine that carbon tax revenue will decrease as society becomes more carbon-efficient, because the loss will just be made up by raising other taxes or cutting spending

Popovich Upset About Scola Trade (AOL Sports Blog)
"In most cases, I'd say San Antonio's forced thrift is a feature, not a bug. They must keep sane in the market; there's no other choice, there's literally no money to hand out. But the pitfalls of counting dimes and nickels may have caught up to the Spurs."

Democratic Debate Reaction: Health Mandates Are a Bug, Not a Feature (Sentinel Effect blog)

Padilla 3: A Feature, Not A Bug (Obsidian Wings blog)
"The fact that Jose Padilla has become 'like a piece of furniture' is not an unforeseen effect of his interrogation. It's the whole point. It's a feature, not a bug."

It's a feature, not a bug (The Carpetbagger Report blog)
arguing that Republicans' taste for privately-run but publicly-supported programs encourages corruption and inefficiency. Notes that a Republican Rep. asked "Why should we put the federal Department of Education in charge of all student loans?" -- because the Dept. didn't catch on to private lenders' bribery sooner.

Neverending Hackery: A Feature, Not A Bug (Tiny Revolution blog)
uses two stories from journalist and transparency advocate Robert Parry to argue that conservative media executives are shutting down good journalism and replacing it with crap. In other words, that the low quiality of journalism is a feature, not a bug.

In one example, Brent Scowcroft, who was assigned to investigate Iran-Contra, let slip in front of Newsweek correspondents that he would have advised one the Iran-Contra figures to lie about what happened; a higher-up editor said "Sometimes, you have to do what's good for the country."

It's curious that so many of the uses of the phrase I found were on liberal politics blogs. Most of these came from Google searches, so it's partly that PageRank favors blogs so much.

Perhaps it's the subject matter: in political debate you often have to show why what appears bad is in fact good, or why what's bad for us is good for them. When policy is complex, you often have to defend some counterintuitive ideas. And when an author says "it's a feature, not a bug," they're promising to manhandle your first impression and convince you it's dead wrong.

Finally, maybe there's some cultural reason it's the lefties that are picking this meme up. Fads flourish in one place but not another for the craziest reasons, or for no reason at all. Here in the SF Bay area, we're swimming in both lefties and Silicon Valley geeks; maybe the same is true in your metropolis. Perhaps, like a strain of influenza crossing a species barrier, "it's a bug, not a feature" just needed the right environment to jump from geeks to politics bloggers.

Anyways, I'm sorry this post was so long. Wait, I shouldn't be apologizing for the length. It's not a bug, it's a feature, not a bug.

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