Monday, October 8, 2007 17 Comments

Duelnode: another free startup idea

Of course, most free things aren't worth crap. And "free software" is certainly no exception. However, since I already spend most of my day working on free software, when I think of stuff that there is no possible way I will actually do, I feel the need to share it with the world, as if I was some kind of deranged homeless person.

This is not actually my most shameful confession. It is not even my second most shameful confession. My second most shameful confession is that not only am I working on free software, I'm working on my own programming language. This is so shameful that what I tell most people what I'm doing, I don't even bother. I just say I'm writing a novel.

But my most shameful confession is that I once applied to business school. Fortunately, they had the good sense to reject me. Probably because of that essay I wrote about my summer in Orania with the Boeremag. I guess that's not what they mean by a threatened minority group.

I do know a little of the black arts of capitalism, however, and from that perspective, my previous startup idea - Uberfact - leaves a lot to be desired. The problem is that it's not actually a service, it's just an idea. A "technology," as I would say if I were working the room. "With our patented technology, you can..."

(Of course it is not patented either. I am a full-on Richard Stallman free-software communist. I hoist the red and bloody flag of the no-intellectual-property-anywhere liberation front. Everywhere else I am as black a black reactionary as they come, I make Pio Nono look like Barack Obama, but I say free the code, man. Because information wants to be free.)

Duelnode is actually a website that, with the extremely rough marketing description I'm about to present - do they call it a "PRD?" Are they still calling it that these days? I've been out of this crap for a while - you could actually go out and build. In fact, I have registered the DNS name, and if you have a plausible plan to build Duelnode I will give you the domain free. Email me.

And if you think it's a good idea but you think I'm a total asshole and you don't want to deal with me at all, you can call the product by its generic name, a dueldrome. Duelnode is just another dueldrome. There should be only one, there can be only one, if Duelnode is built properly there only needs to be one. But there need not be only one.

Of course, there are many dueldromes and many duels. But a true duel is a contest of two. And one alone may claim triumph. Our aim at Duelnode is to crown a new generation of young heroes, the iron, eagle-crowned champions of Web 2.0, the strong and silent gods of the late-night Dew-and-Domino's dorm-room bull session.

As in Uberfact, the purpose of the Duelnode is to discover the truth. But by sharpening this process of discovery to a pure conflict of two wills, we reduce the struggle of ideas to its essence: the fight for power.

A duel is not a debate. It is not a discussion. It is not a conversation. It is certainly not a collaboration, except perhaps in the French sense of the word. It is a battle of enemies. There are only two outcomes: vindication and humiliation. Granted, every man has an inner ass, and every woman too, and in any clash of arms both sides may enfool themselves. But in no contest may two emerge triumphant. One alone may walk unscathed and undefeated from the Duelgon, axe moist with the ichor of his broken foe.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Duels at the Duelnode are not fought, of course, with axes. They are fought by typing. We are not building the monomachial equivalent of Internet hunting. A duel is simply a contest of words, an argument, a flamewar, such as has infested the electrons since Usenet was a little boy.

What's new about the Duelnode is that it, or any other dueldrome, is a place where people can hold structured arguments. They don't just rant past each other for pages and pages, like we do at UR. They actually have to construct a logically sound rhetorical structure, however stupid each of its points may be.

A Duelnode duel always has two participants: a challenger and a defender. Typically the defender is older, wiser and more respected, and the challenger is younger, smarter and more annoying. This may be inverted, of course, but under any circumstance the challenger is the party who demands satisfaction, and the defender the party who accepts.

Together, challenger and defender enter the Duelagon - the ancient chamber of honor, whose name evokes the Greek words for "two" and "pain." They shake hands (virtually, of course), bow to the north and south, salute the east and west winds, and then begin the duel. Typically there is no time limit. Battle is simply to the finish. However, arbitrary rules may be devised and mutually accepted, ideally by the combatants' seconds - it is ungentlemanly for the duelers themselves to bandy words over the terms of honor.

The challenger begins the duel by asserting a proposition. A proposition is a clear and unambiguous statement of fact, morality, aesthetics, or any mix of the three. "George W. Bush is a tyrant" is a proposition. "Eric Clapton is a better guitarist than Yngwie J. Malmsteen" is a proposition. "The Maine was blown up by a secret team of al-Qaeda frogmen sent back in time by Nikola Tesla's three-way time machine" is a proposition.

A proposition must be supported by an argument. An argument is a combinatoric statement that depends on a number of subpropositions, using the familiar AND and OR operators. So, for example, we might argue that Eric Clapton is a better guitarist than Yngwie J. Malmsteen, because either (a) Clapton is God, OR (b.1) Clapton has actual soul, AND (b.2) Yngwie's frantic shredding sounds like a rabid weasel with its claws stuck in an autoharp. (Of course there should be an actual graphical UI on this, so that it's not utterly and completely geek-o-rama.)

The defender then responds to the challenger's argument, for each proposition either (a) conceding it; (b) dismissing it contemptuously, as unworthy of serious consideration; (c) equating it to some other proposition stated by the defender, or negation of some proposition stated by the challenger (ie, putting a symbolic link in the argument tree); or (d) responding with a counterargument.

Arguments may depend on supporting documentation. All supporting references must be in publicly available and freely redistributable form. No reference to any information that is either behind a subscriber firewall, or available only on paper, is honorable. Ideally, supporting documents should be uploaded to Duelnode itself, but if copyright permissions prohibit this they must be hosted on a site with a stable archive policy. Furthermore, Duelnode does not attempt to distinguish between trustworthy and untrustworthy sources.

The process of argument construction continues until the tree is fully populated. In other words, until each dueler has given the other complete and final satisfaction. The resulting duel is saved permanently - disk space being cheap. After the duel is closed, it cannot be edited, and anyone can browse it during combat or after. Dueling in private, while presumably an optional feature for our fat-walleted corporate customers, is simply pathetic. As Hunter S. Thompson put it, it's like hunting wild boar from the back of a pickup truck with a can of spraypaint. The whole point of the duel is to humiliate your enemy in public, to ride him, to make him your pwny.

To maximize the quality of the duel, and ensure that as many arguments as possible are aired and expressed, our duelers may be assisted by the public at large, acting as kibitzers. Kibitzers are just commenters. While their comments are not in any way official and need not be responded to, they may weigh in on either side of any proposition, offering friendly and helpful advice to our sweating, roaring gladiators.

Kibitzers are not recapitulating the duel at some lame, peanut-gallery level. They are improving it. A duel does not have a single message board, to which all and sundry may post their little orts of wit and wisdom. It has two. To comment on a duel, you must select a dueler to support. Therefore, a duel's kibitz thread consists of people who basically agree with each other and are on the same side, and therefore it tends to consist of signal, rather than noise. Typically the aim of kibitzing is to suggest lines of thought the supported dueler should explore, references that may be fatal to his enemy, and so on.

But how does Duelnode decide who wins? Well, obviously, either side can concede defeat at any point. If they intended to lose, they would have never entered the Duelagon. But sometimes accepting their sad and abject pwnage, especially at the hands of a master dueler, is one way to salvage a little grace from the bitter experience of defeat.

However, normally this is not the case. While at least in any question of fact, one side must be right and the other wrong, people who are wrong don't, in my experience, tend to admit it. They get all petty and whiny, they sneer and brag and bluster. If you just asked the duelers themselves, what you'd hear is that both sides are both vindicated and humiliated. Which is obviously quite impossible.

This is where Duelnode ties in with Uberfact. Kibitzers (and duelers themselves) can organize themselves in Uberfact-style factions. A duel of factional champions is an excellent way to explore any disagreement between any two groups of people, whether they are wingnuts and moonbats, Sunnis and Shia, Catholics and Jews, etc, etc. Remember, the Internet routes packets - not punches, bullets or dirty bombs.

Moreover, Duelnode's uberfactions may not dedicate themselves to some specific cause, but to Truth itself - or at least the truth as they see it. Of course, everyone has his or her own truth. And often, they are stupid and suck. Nonetheless, when we have a completed duel and we have a variety of well-organized factions each of which has picked a winner and a loser, we have as much information about the conflict as we could possibly compose.

A good example of where Duelnode is needed is this How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic page. Of course, the title of this page really should be How to Condescend Pompously and Officially to a Climate Skeptic. But it isn't. And each "talking point" should include a complete rebuttal, constructed by actual climate skeptics, and then rebut that rebuttal with another argument by the author, Dr. Einstein, or "Coby Beck" as he so modestly dubs himself. But it doesn't. (Let's just say that anyone who's willing to disagree with Alexander Cockburn, Freeman Dyson, and Luboš Motl is a braver man than I.)

What I'd really like to see in the global-warming "debate" - which is not actually a debate, of course, but a battle - is a Duelnode duel between two men who really have a reason to despise each other, such as Michael Mann and Steve McIntyre. Frankly, in a decent century, these two would have already settled their disagreement with pistols. Certainly each thinks of the other as a small and dishonest man, little better than a criminal. Why can't the world have a place where they can have it out, where they can give each other the satisfaction honor demands?

Certainly it would be great sport. Or, in other words, great entertainment. To be very crude, great entertainment means many eyeballs, and many eyeballs means lots of ads for penis enlargement, Coffee Fool ("See what the coffee companies don't want you to know!") and sleazy subprime mortgages. Hey, Google employs half the smart people in the Western Hemisphere, and it has to pay them somehow.

But this is not to say the "technology" is actually worth anything. It's just a matter of building the website, something anyone who knows Ruby on Rails can do in a few days. After that it's all graphic design. Which means that someone should be willing to do it for free. I'd like to think that someone can put together a Duelnode with no ads, like Wikipedia or Craigslist, which like all the rest of this communist free-software crap just exists for the purpose of pathetic, egotistical self-aggrandizement by people who were obviously picked on in high school. However, I have registered both and, so would-be Duelmasters can take their pick. Whatever, dude. I'm a free-software hippie!

One way to think of a dueldrome is as the adversarial equivalent of a wiki. It turns out that "wiki" just means "fast," but I always think of it as having some kind of Kumbaya we-all-love-each-other bogus-Hawaiian love-and-peace connotation. Maybe it's something you chant on Kill Haole Day. Run fast, haole! Wiki wiki!

But anyway, there is no reason at all why you can't add a simple dueldrome module to any wiki in the world. The dueldrome: for when we can't just get along. I get the impression that most wikis are seething masses of pent-up tension and general chimpanzee behavior. Certainly La Wik herself would be much improved by a weekly duel.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am dead serious here: I want to hear about your programming language.

October 8, 2007 at 1:23 PM  
Blogger B. Broadside said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

October 8, 2007 at 3:19 PM  
Anonymous tggp said...

I was thinking about you when I read A Priori and How to Convince Me That 2 + 2 = 3 by Eliezer Yudkowsky. One of the main points of the former is that traditional rationality is about rules you obey and don't want to get caught cheating on, whereas Bayesianism is about discovering the truth, and beating someone else in an argument doesn't get you that. One person who sometimes hangs out there is pdf32s aka Chris Capel, who has also had an interest in formalizing arguments. You can read more about that here at his site. You might also be interested in the debate site Be Contrary.

October 8, 2007 at 6:21 PM  
Blogger mtraven said...

Here's an existing site that is sort of in the ballpark -- but does not have anything approaching a detailed argument structure like you suggest. I've been involved in an effort to turn web arguments into Bayesian evidentiary networks, with some way to capture different points of view.

There have also been past efforts, none very successful (Third Voice, critlink), to add annotation to the web which would allow people to talk back to web pages. Maybe it's time for another run at this.

October 8, 2007 at 6:25 PM  
Blogger Studd Beefpile said...

There is also, which seems similarly motivated.

October 8, 2007 at 6:40 PM  
Blogger Faré said...

My friend Gustavo Lacerda had similar ideas about the argumentation part, though he may have failed to combine it with Uberfact. So, when do you start your startup?

PS: is your language thing crazier than TUNES?

October 8, 2007 at 6:45 PM  
Anonymous Herr Ziffer said...

Two men enter. One man leaves.

I like this. It has elements of Herman Hesse's Glass Bead Game, as well as Mortimer Adler's Synopticon. Like the story about the single joke book in the state prison, from which prisoners would read off the number of the joke to garner laughs rather than go through the trouble of actually telling the jokes (the punchline being 'some people know how to tell a joke and some people don't'), these duels can be indexed and then referred to by number. Perhaps after a while Presidential debates can be shortened to response: 5; rebuttal: 78; counter-rebuttal: 54, and so on.

Brilliant idea, Mencius. Does your programming language support dueling?

October 9, 2007 at 6:24 AM  
Blogger Byrne Hobart said...

Would there be a mechanism for dealing with 'tangled' arguments? For example, if Smith and Jones are debating the proposition "If you could meet any person, living or dead, who would it be?" And Jones defends "The living one," would it be acceptable for Smith to say "The dead one. See Amin's case against Buckley in a previous debate, 'Human Corpses are Delicious'."? At that point, it just end up like Wikipedia all over again: one side says "See Wikipedia's article on Noam Chomsky!" and the other says "See Wikipedia's article on Controversies about Noam Chomsky!" and the whole thing is a wash.

I suspect that, if you allow debaters to cite previous debates, you'll end up with something very useful: it will be possible to trace arguments back (taking an argument that was originally an independent proposition, but which was then cited by arguers) and move down the tree to find out who thinks in axioms and who believes in empiricism.

October 9, 2007 at 6:49 AM  
Blogger Tanstaafl said...

The problem with intellectuals is they think every problem can be resolved with logic and reason. And yes, that's one of the problems that can't. Pol Pot demonstrated one "solution" to navel-gazing. I wonder if he got a domain name for it.

At least Gödel did something useful with his noodling. He reasoned that reason is incomplete. Atheism denies this truth, as does Internetstartupism.

October 10, 2007 at 11:42 AM  
Blogger Aaron Davies said...

kant was the one who told us reason wasn't enough, and look where that got us

p.s. heinlein is spinning is his grave

October 10, 2007 at 1:10 PM  
Anonymous Björn said...

I have posted a similar idea, a lot less elaborated, on Cambrian House a few days ago:

It is also not on the top of my list of projects to tackle, though. But should you ever finish your programming language and come back to this, perhaps we could join forces ;-)

Convince Me looks pretty good, though.

October 10, 2007 at 2:14 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Some quick, rather random responses (Dawkins beckons):

Voting in Duelnode is really secondary. The main goal is to produce a detailed and comprehensive exploration of opinions. Byrne's point about standardizing the discussion is excellent.

ConvinceMe is unimpressive. It strikes me as a classic bad Web 2.0 company. If you look at their "debates," the content is at the YouTube comment level already - fatal.

The business problem with user-contributed content is how to attract good content. Reddit was a success because it started with good content. It now has stoopid content, but plenty of users. Hey, if that's what you want, fine. But if you start with stoopid content, you're done.

This is why Duelnode tries to focus on providing a forum for smart debate. An excellent way to bootstrap, for example, would be to invite well-known intellectuals or bloggers to field-test the system.

An email suggested that duelers also need to be able to construct and agree on a glossary. Certainly. There are many, many more features that could be added.

Another way to think about the idea is to imagine using a Duelnode-like design for actual litigation. After all, the idea of an adversarial approach to truth is hardly original!

Not all problems in human affairs can be resolved through logic and reason. Sometimes, for example, bullets and bombs are necessary. But that doesn't make logic and reason a bad thing.

As for the programming language: I would say it is considerably crazier than TUNES.

For example, one of my main goals is to keep the spec under 1000 words. Preferably under 500. That's just for the informal (English) spec, of course - the system is self-defining from there on up.

Or it will be. When it's done. Which it isn't. However, the general goals are the same as in TUNES - world domination and all that. I mean, why not?

October 10, 2007 at 3:49 PM  
Anonymous Alan said...

Too bad you're against the geekfest.

I suddenly had this vision of the arguing sides represented graphically on an isometric battlefield.

"Summon argument!:(Whatever)"
Equip, premise
Equip, supporting evidence


And a creature would pop out of the ground with various stats derived from something like commentator votes, which would then attack their opponent's likewise represented argument.

Victory could be determined by stats, meaning that the representation would mostly end up being irrelevant to further argument. Alternatively, victory could be decided by which lines go anywhere.

But it would definitely be entertaining to watch.

Less amusingly, I have a question. How does the duelnode architecture prevent me from abusing it? Perhaps I missed it, but it looks pretty idealized. Is the challenger in any way forced to respond to the defendant's counterthrusts? Are there even incentives not to simply argue past each other?

October 12, 2007 at 7:32 PM  
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