The Illusion of Protection

cancer sunscreenIn The ethics of sunscreen Seth Godin explains how, in the US, sunscreen is marketed using measures such as SPF (which is largely irrelevant when it comes to protecting consumers from skin cancer and aging) and claims such as ‘waterproof’ (which is often outright false.) He then goes on to ask the question (emphasis mine):

How can consumers look at this example and not believe that the regulation of marketing claims is the only way to insulate consumers from short-term selfish marketers in search of market share, marketers who will shade the truth, even if it kills some customers?

Why Government Is The Problem

As a libertarian I see the problem quite differently… Government claims its moral responsibility and its very justification for existence as protecting its citizens. This has led to millions upon millions of regulations from the critical to the absurd.

Government Erodes The Private Market’s Value

Given such a broad blanket of “protection” it is only natural that consumers assume that an industry which provides an important protective product would not be allowed to make false claims and market based on irrelevant factors.

With a government monopoly as the ultimate arbiter of consumer protection there is little incentive for independent consumer protection organizations to exist and those that do are perceived as having little value by the population at large. Consumer Reports may seem like a large and successful organization, but it is dwarfed by the various government agencies charged with protecting consumers. You may think that people do value Consumer Reports, and I would agree with you. But they don’t value it very much. The proof is in the price…. you can get a full year subscription for only $26.00 and I doubt that you would pay significantly more than that.

On the other hand if you knew, absolutely, that there was no government agency (supposedly) looking out for your interests then I bet you would be willing to pay for information on the safety and effectiveness of important products.

Government Lowers The Quality Of Consumer Protection

Not only that, but consumer protection would then be an industry not just a company here and there. The companies in that industry would be forced to compete in providing better and better information to guide consumer’s buying decisions.

Government Encourages Corruption

In Seth Godin’s article he points out how the sunscreen industry has been fighting the FDA for decades to prevent more stringent regulation. As a citizen that finds the FDAs repeated buckling to industry influence distasteful you cannot just decide to fire them.

If you had hired a private company to advise you on health products such as sunscreen and you found that they were concealing important information due to the influence of product manufacturers you would fire them immediately. In fact, you’d probably follow that up by pursuing damages from them.

No consumer protection business would survive long if it kowtowed to product manufacturers.

How Could Government Do Better?

As mush as I would love for it to happen, I don’t see government receding from the consumer protection industry and a private market springing up in its place any time soon.

Even so, I see a better role for government organizations such as the FDA. What is needed is not another regulation, but investigation of violations of basic moral principles. If what Mr. Godin says is true then the sunscreen industry is committing fraud and we would be well served by an organization that investigates and then prosecutes fraudulent businesses.

We don’t need another complicated set of regulations. We need enforcement of basic moral principles that a child can understand… “Don’t deceive your customers.”

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Taking Stock of WikiLeaks

Julian Assange has declared that geopolitics will be separated into pre-“Cablegate” and post-“Cablegate” eras. That was a bold claim. However, given the intense interest that the leaks produced, it is a claim that ought to be carefully considered. Several weeks have passed since the first of the diplomatic cables were released, and it is time now to address the following questions: First, how significant were the leaks? Second, how could they have happened? Third, was their release a crime? Fourth, what were their consequences? Finally, and most important, is the WikiLeaks premise that releasing government secrets is a healthy and appropriate act a tenable position?

Let’s begin by recalling that the U.S. State Department documents constituted the third wave of leaks. The first two consisted of battlefield reports from Iraq and Afghanistan. Looking back on those as a benchmark, it is difficult to argue that they revealed information that ran counter to informed opinion. I use the term “informed opinion” deliberately. For someone who was watching Iraq and Afghanistan with some care over the previous years, the leaks might have provided interesting details but they would not have provided any startling distinction between the reality that was known and what was revealed. If, on the other hand, you weren’t paying close attention, and WikiLeaks provided your first and only view of the battlefields in any detail, you might have been surprised.

Let’s consider the most controversial revelation, one of the tens of thousands of reports released on Iraq and Afghanistan and one in which a video indicated that civilians were deliberately targeted by U.S. troops. The first point, of course, is that the insurgents, in violation of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, did not go into combat wearing armbands or other distinctive clothing to distinguish themselves from non-combatants. The Geneva Conventions have always been adamant on this requirement because they regarded combatants operating under the cover of civilians as being responsible for putting those civilians in harm’s way, not the uniformed troops who were forced to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants when the combatants deliberately chose to act in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

It follows from this that such actions against civilians are inevitable in the kind of war Iraqi insurgents chose to wage. Obviously, this particular event has to be carefully analyzed, but in a war in which combatants blend with non-combatants, civilian casualties will occur, and so will criminal actions by uniformed troops. Hundreds of thousands of troops have fought in Iraq, and the idea that criminal acts would be absent is absurd. What is most startling is not the presence of potentially criminal actions but their scarcity. Anyone who has been close to combat or who has read histories of World War II would be struck not by the presence of war crimes but by the fact that in all the WikiLeaks files so few potential cases are found. War is controlled violence, and when controls fail — as they inevitably do — uncontrolled and potentially criminal violence occurs. However, the case cited by WikiLeaks with much fanfare did not clearly show criminal actions on the part of American troops as much as it did the consequences of the insurgents violating the Geneva Conventions.

Only those who were not paying attention to the fact that there was a war going on, or who had no understanding of war, or who wanted to pretend to be shocked for political reasons, missed two crucial points: It was the insurgents who would be held responsible for criminal acts under the Geneva Conventions for posing as non-combatants, and there were extraordinarily few cases of potential war crimes that were contained in the leaks.

The diplomatic leaks are similar. There is precious little that was revealed that was unknown to the informed observer. For example, anyone reading STRATFOR knows we have argued that it was not only the Israelis but also the Saudis that were most concerned about Iranian power and most insistent that the United States do something about it. While the media treated this as a significant revelation, it required a profound lack of understanding of the geopolitics of the Persian Gulf to regard U.S. diplomatic cables on the subject as surprising.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ statement in the leaks that the Saudis were always prepared to fight to the last American was embarrassing, in the sense that Gates would have to meet with Saudi leaders in the future and would do so with them knowing what he thinks of them. Of course, the Saudis are canny politicians and diplomats and they already knew how the American leadership regarded their demands.

There were other embarrassments also known by the informed observer. Almost anyone who worries about such things is aware that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is close to the Russians and likes to party with young women. The latest batch of leaks revealed that the American diplomatic service was also aware of this. And now Berlusconi is aware that they know of these things, which will make it hard for diplomats to pretend that they don’t know of these things. Of course, Berlusconi was aware that everyone knew of these things and clearly didn’t care, since the charges were all over Italian media.

I am not cherry-picking the Saudi or Italian memos. The consistent reality of the leaks is that they do not reveal anything new to the informed but do provide some amusement over certain comments, such as Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev being called “Batman and Robin.” That’s amusing, but it isn’t significant. Amusing and interesting but almost never significant is what I come away with having read through all three waves of leaks.

Obviously, the leaks are being used by foreign politicians to their own advantage. For example, the Russians feigned shock that NATO would be reassuring the Balts about defense against a potential Russian invasion or the Poles using the leaks to claim that solid U.S.-Polish relations are an illusion. The Russians know well of NATO plans for defending the Baltic states against a hypothetical Russian invasion, and the Poles know equally well that U.S.-Polish relations are complex but far from illusory. The leaks provide an opportunity for feigning shock and anger and extracting possible minor concessions or controlling atmospherics. They do not, however, change the structure of geopolitics.

Indeed, U.S. diplomats come away looking sharp, insightful and decent. While their public statements after a conference may be vacuous, it is encouraging to see that their read of the situation and of foreign leaders is unsentimental and astute. Everything from memos on senior leaders to anonymous snippets from apparently junior diplomats not only are on target (in the sense that STRATFOR agrees with them) but are also well-written and clear. I would argue that the leaks paint a flattering picture overall of the intellect of U.S. officials without revealing, for the most part, anything particularly embarrassing.

At the same time, there were snarky and foolish remarks in some of the leaks, particularly personal comments about leaders and sometimes their families that were unnecessarily offensive. Some of these will damage diplomatic careers, most generated a good deal of personal tension and none of their authors will likely return to the countries in which they served. Much was indeed unprofessional, but the task of a diplomat is to provide a sense of place in its smallest details, and none expect their observations ever to be seen by the wrong people. Nor do nations ever shift geopolitical course over such insults, not in the long run. These personal insults were by far the most significant embarrassments to be found in the latest release. Personal tension is not, however, international tension.

This raises the question of why diplomats can’t always simply state their minds rather than publicly mouth preposterous platitudes. It could be as simple as this: My son was a terrible pianist. He completely lacked talent. After his recitals at age 10, I would pretend to be enthralled. He knew he was awful and he knew I knew he was awful, but it was appropriate that I not admit what I knew. It is called politeness and sometimes affection. There is rarely affection among nations, but politeness calls for behaving differently when a person is in the company of certain other people than when that person is with colleagues talking about those people. This is the simplest of human rules. Not admitting what you know about others is the foundation of civilization. The same is true among diplomats and nations.

And in the end, this is all I found in the latest WikiLeaks release: a great deal of information about people who aren’t American that others certainly knew and were aware that the Americans knew, and now they have all seen it in writing. It would take someone who truly doesn’t understand how geopolitics really works to think that this would make a difference. Some diplomats may wind up in other postings, and perhaps some careers will be ended. But the idea that this would somehow change the geopolitics of our time is really hard to fathom. I have yet to see Assange point to something so significant that that it would justify his claim. It may well be that the United States is hiding secrets that would reveal it to be monstrous. If so, it is not to be found in what has been released so far.

There is, of course, the question of whether states should hold secrets, which is at the root of the WikiLeaks issue. Assange claims that by revealing these secrets WikiLeaks is doing a service. His ultimate maxim, as he has said on several occasions, is that if money and resources are being spent on keeping something secret, then the reasons must be insidious. Nations have secrets for many reasons, from protecting a military or intelligence advantage to seeking some advantage in negotiations to, at times, hiding nefarious plans. But it is difficult to imagine a state — or a business or a church — acting without confidentiality. Imagine that everything you wrote and said in an attempt to figure out a problem was made public? Every stupid idea that you discarded or clueless comment you expressed would now be pinned on you. But more than that, when you argue that nations should engage in diplomacy rather than war, taking away privacy makes diplomacy impossible. If what you really think of the guy on the other side of the table is made public, how can diplomacy work?

This is the contradiction at the heart of the WikiLeaks project. Given what I have read Assange saying, he seems to me to be an opponent of war and a supporter of peace. Yet what he did in leaking these documents, if the leaking did anything at all, is make diplomacy more difficult. It is not that it will lead to war by any means; it is simply that one cannot advocate negotiations and then demand that negotiators be denied confidentiality in which to conduct their negotiations. No business could do that, nor could any other institution. Note how vigorously WikiLeaks hides the inner workings of its own organization, from how it is funded to the people it employs.

Assange’s claims are made even more interesting in terms of his “thermonuclear” threat. Apparently there are massive files that will be revealed if any harm comes to him. Implicit is the idea that they will not be revealed if he is unharmed — otherwise the threat makes no sense. So, Assange’s position is that he has secrets and will keep them secret if he is not harmed. I regard this as a perfectly reasonable and plausible position. One of the best uses for secrets is to control what the other side does to you. So Assange is absolutely committed to revealing the truth unless it serves his interests not to, in which case the public has no need to know.

It is difficult to see what harm the leaks have done, beyond embarrassment. It is also difficult to understand why WikiLeaks thinks it has changed history or why Assange lacks a sufficient sense of irony not to see the contradiction between his position on openness and his willingness to keep secrets when they benefit him. But there is also something important here, which is how this all was leaked in the first place.

To begin that explanation, we have to go back to 9/11 and the feeling in its aftermath that the failure of various government entities to share information contributed to the disaster. The answer was to share information so that intelligence analysts could draw intelligence from all sources in order to connect the dots. Intelligence organizations hate sharing information because it makes vast amounts of information vulnerable. Compartmentalization makes it hard to connect dots, but it also makes it harder to have a WikiLeaks release. The tension between intelligence and security is eternal, and there will never be a clear solution.

The real issue is who had access to this mass of files and what controls were put on them. Did the IT department track all external drives or e-mails? One of the reasons to be casual is that this was information that was classified secret and below, with the vast majority being at the confidential, no-foreign-distribution level. This information was not considered highly sensitive by the U.S. government. Based on the latest trove, it is hard to figure out how the U.S. government decides to classify material. But it has to be remembered that given their level of classification these files did not have the highest security around them because they were not seen as highly sensitive.

Still, a crime occurred. According to the case of Daniel Ellsberg, who gave a copy of the Pentagon Papers on Vietnam to a New York Times reporter, it is a crime for someone with a security clearance to provide classified material for publication but not a crime for a publisher to publish it, or so it has become practice since the Ellsberg case. Legal experts can debate the nuances, but this has been the practice for almost 40 years. The bright line is whether the publisher in any way encouraged or participated in either the theft of the information or in having it passed on to him. In the Ellsberg case, he handed it to reporters without them even knowing what it was. Assange has been insisting that he was the passive recipient of information that he had nothing to do with securing.

Now it is interesting whether the sheer existence of WikiLeaks constituted encouragement or conspiracy with anyone willing to pass on classified information to him. But more interesting by far is the sequence of events that led a U.S. Army private first class not only to secure the material but to know where to send it and how to get it there. If Pfc. Bradley Manning conceived and executed the theft by himself, and gave the information to WikiLeaks unprompted, Assange is clear. But anyone who assisted Manning or encouraged him is probably guilty of conspiracy, and if Assange knew what was being done, he is probably guilty, too. There was talk about some people at MIT helping Manning. Unscrambling the sequence is what the Justice Department is undoubtedly doing now. Assange cannot be guilty of treason, since he isn’t a U.S. citizen. But he could be guilty of espionage. His best defense will be that he can’t be guilty of espionage because the material that was stolen was so trivial.

I have no idea whether or when he got involved in the acquisition of the material. I do know — given the material leaked so far — that there is little beyond minor embarrassments contained within it. Therefore, Assange’s claim that geopolitics has changed is as false as it is bold. Whether he committed any crime, including rape, is something I have no idea about. What he is clearly guilty of is hyperbole. But contrary to what he intended, he did do a service to the United States. New controls will be placed on the kind of low-grade material he published.
Secretary of Defense Gates made the following point on this:

“Now, I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets. Many governments — some governments — deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation.”

“Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.”

I don’t like to give anyone else the final word, but in this case Robert Gates’ view is definitive. One can pretend that WikiLeaks has redefined geopolitics, but it hasn’t come close.

Taking Stock of WikiLeaks is republished with permission of STRATFOR.

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Video – Why I Don't Miss Consulting :)

This video shows what it’s like to be an IT vendor… except that everybody in it is far nicer than they typically (but not always) are in the real world:

Thanks to Adam Monago for finding this one.

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That government is best which spends least

In reviewing the comments to my posting of Not Yours to Give by Davy Crockett I began to think of my favorite section from Thoreau’s Walden and Civil Disobedience.

I heartily accept the motto – “That government is best which governs least;” and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, – “That government is best which governs not at all;” and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best an expedient; but most governments are sometimes inexpedient. The objections which have been brought against a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also be brought against a standing government. The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it.

I would propose a revision of Thoreau’s famous phrase to “That government is best which spends least” and, for the more radical, the natural extension “That government is best which spends not at all” has great appeal.

If you are interested in experimenting with forms of government and social organization, whether libertarian in nature or otherwise, you may want to look into the seasteading movement.

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Not Yours to Give by Davy Crockett

Lately I’ve been helping out a client with a history project and have been reading a lot of old books. While reading “The Life of Colonel David Crockett” by Edward Ellis I ran across this speech. It’s not appropriate for that site so I thought I would republish it here. (The book was published in 1861 and is now in the public domain.)

If only we had more people today who shared the good Colonel’s views…

One day in the House of Representatives a bill was taken up appropriating money for the benefit of a widow of a distinguished naval officer. Several beautiful speeches had been made in its support. The speaker was just about to put the question when Crockett arose:

“Mr Speaker–I have as much respect for the memory of the deceased, and as much sympathy for the suffering of the living, if there be, as any man in this House, but we must not permit our respect for the dead or our sympathy for part of the living to lead us into an act of injustice to the balance of the living. I will not go into an argument to prove that Congress has not the power to appropriate this money as an act of charity. Every member on this floor knows it.

We have the right as individuals, to give away as much of our own money as we please in charity; but as members of Congress we have no right to appropriate a dollar of the public money. Some eloquent appeals have been made to us upon the ground that it is a debt due the deceased. Mr. Speaker, the deceased lived long after the close of the war; he was in office to the day of his death, and I ever heard that the government was in arrears to him.

“Every man in this House knows it is not a debt. We cannot without the grossest corruption, appropriate this money as the payment of a debt. We have not the emblance of authority to appropriate it as charity. Mr. Speaker, I have said we have the right to give as much money of our own as we please. I am the poorest man on this floor. I cannot vote for this bill, but I will give one week’s pay to the object, and if every member of Congress will do the same, it will amount to more than the bill asks.”

He took his seat. Nobody replied. The bill was put upon its passage, and, instead of passing unanimously, as was generally supposed, and as, no doubt, it would, but for that speech, it received but few votes, and, of course, was lost.

Later, when asked by a friend why he had opposed the appropriation, Crockett gave this explanation.

Several years ago I was one evening standing on the steps of the Capitol with some members of Congress, when our attention was attracted by a great light over in Georgetown. It was evidently a large fire. We jumped into a hack and drove over as fast as we could. In spite of all that could be done, many houses were burned and many families made houseless, and besides, some of them had lost all but the clothes they had on. The weather was very cold, and when I saw so many children suffering, I felt that something ought to be done for them. The next morning a bill was introduced appropriating $20,000 for their relief. We put aside all other business and rushed it through as soon as it could be done.

“The next summer, when it began to be time to think about election, I concluded I would take a scout around among the boys of my district. I had no opposition there but, as the election was some time off, I did not know what might turn up. When riding one day in a part of my district in which I was more of a stranger than any other, I saw a man in a field plowing and coming toward the road. I gauged my gait so that we should meet as he came up, I spoke to the man. He replied politely, but as I thought, rather coldly.

“I began: ‘Well friend, I am one of those unfortunate beings called candidates and—

“Yes I know you; you are Colonel Crockett. I have seen you once before, and voted for you the last time you were elected. I suppose you are out electioneering now, but you had better not waste your time or mine, I shall not vote for you again.”

“This was a sockdolger…I begged him tell me what was the matter.

“Well Colonel, it is hardly worthwhile to waste time or words upon it. I do not see how it can be mended, but you gave a vote last winter which shows that either you have not capacity to understand the Constitution, or that you are wanting in the honesty and firmness to be guided by it. In either case you are not the man to represent me. But I beg your pardon for expressing it that way. I did not intend to avail myself of the privilege of the constituent to speak plainly to a candidate for the purpose of insulting you or wounding you.’

“I intend by it only to say that your understanding of the constitution is very different from mine; and I will say to you what but for my rudeness, I should not have said, that I believe you to be honest.

But an understanding of the constitution different from mine I cannot overlook, because the Constitution, to be worth anything, must be held sacred, and rigidly observed in all its provisions. The man who wields power and misinterprets it is the more dangerous the honest he is.’

” ‘I admit the truth of all you say, but there must be some mistake. Though I live in the backwoods and seldom go from home, I take the papers from Washington and read very carefully all the proceedings of Congress. My papers say you voted for a bill to appropriate $20,000 to some sufferers by fire in Georgetown. Is that true?

“Well my friend; I may as well own up. You have got me there. But certainly nobody will complain that a great and rich country like ours should give the insignificant sum of $20,000 to relieve its suffering women and children, particularly with a full and overflowing treasury, and I am sure, if you had been there, you would have done just the same as I did.’

“It is not the amount, Colonel, that I complain of; it is the principle. In the first place, the government ought to have in the Treasury no more than enough for its legitimate purposes. But that has nothing with the question. The power of collecting and disbursing money at pleasure is the most dangerous power that can be intrusted to man, particularly under our system of collecting revenue by a tariff, which reaches every man in the country, no matter how poor he may be, and the poorer he is the more he pays in proportion to his means.

What is worse, it presses upon him without his knowledge where the weight centers, for there is not a man in the United States who can ever guess how much he pays to the government. So you see, that while you are contributing to relieve one, you are drawing it from thousands who are even worse off than he.
If you had the right to give anything, the amount was simply a matter of discretion with you, and you had as much right to give $20,000,000 as $20,000. If you have the right to give at all; and as the Constitution neither defines charity nor stipulates the amount, you are at liberty to give to any and everything which you may believe, or profess to believe, is a charity and to any amount you may think proper. You will very easily perceive what a wide door this would open for fraud and corruption and favoritism, on the one hand, and for robbing the people on the other. ‘No, Colonel, Congress has no right to give charity.’

“‘Individual members may give as much of their own money as they please, but they have no right to touch a dollar of the public money for that purpose. If twice as many houses had been burned in this country as in Georgetown, neither you nor any other member of Congress would have Thought of appropriating a dollar for our relief. There are about two hundred and forty members of Congress. If they had shown their sympathy for the sufferers by contributing each one week’s pay, it would have made over $13,000. There are plenty of wealthy men around Washington who could have given $20,000 without depriving themselves of even a luxury of life.’

“The congressmen chose to keep their own money, which, if reports be true, some of them spend not very creditably; and the people about Washington, no doubt, applauded you for relieving them from necessity of giving what was not yours to give. The people have delegated to Congress, by the Constitution, the power to do certain things. To do these, it is authorized to collect and pay moneys, and for nothing else. Everything beyond this is usurpation, and a violation of the Constitution.’

“‘So you see, Colonel, you have violated the Constitution in what I consider a vital point. It is a precedent fraught with danger to the country, for when Congress once begins to stretch its power beyond the limits of the Constitution, there is no limit to it, and no security for the people. I have no doubt you acted honestly, but that does not make it any better, except as far as you are personally concerned, and you see that I cannot vote for you.’

“I tell you I felt streaked. I saw if I should have opposition, and this man should go to talking and in that district I was a gone fawn-skin. I could not answer him, and the fact is, I was so fully convinced that he was right, I did not want to. But I must satisfy him, and I said to him:

“Well, my friend, you hit the nail upon the head when you said I had not sense enough to understand the Constitution. I intended to be guided by it, and thought I had studied it fully. I have heard many speeches in Congress about the powers of Congress, but what you have said here at your plow has got more hard, sound sense in it than all the fine speeches I ever heard. If I had ever taken the view of it that you have, I would have put my head into the fire before I would have given that vote; and if you will forgive me and vote for me again, if I ever vote for another unconstitutional law I wish I may be shot.’

“He laughingly replied; ‘Yes, Colonel, you have sworn to that once before, but I will trust you again upon one condition. You are convinced that your vote was wrong. Your acknowledgment of it will do more good than beating you for it. If, as you go around the district, you will tell people about this vote, and that you are satisfied it was wrong, I will not only vote for you, but will do what I can to keep down opposition, and perhaps, I may exert some little influence in that way.’

“If I don’t, said I, ‘I wish I may be shot; and to convince you that I am in ernest in what I say I will come back this way in a week or ten days, and if you will get up a gathering of people, I will make a speech to them. Get up a barbecue, and I will pay for it.’

“No, Colonel, we are not rich people in this section but we have plenty of provisions to contribute for a barbecue, and some to spare for those who have none. The push of crops will be over in a few days, and we can then afford a day for a barbecue. ‘This Thursday; I will see to getting it up on Saturday week. Come to my house on Friday, and we will go together, and I promise you a very respectable crowd to see and hear you.

“‘Well I will be here. But one thing more before I say good-bye. I must know your name.”

“‘My name is Bunce.’

“‘Not Horatio Bunce?’


“‘Well, Mr. Bunce, I never saw you before, though you say you have seen me, but I know you very well. I am glad I have met you, and very proud that I may hope to have you for my friend.’

“It was one of the luckiest hits of my life that I met him. He mingled but little with the public, but was widely known for his remarkable intelligence, and for a heart brim-full and running over with kindness and benevolence, which showed themselves not only in words but in acts. He was the oracle of the whole country around him, and his fame had extended far beyond the circle of his immediate acquaintance. Though I had never met him, before, I had heard much of him, and but for this meeting it is very likely I should have had opposition, and had been beaten. One thing is very certain, no man could now stand up in that district under such a vote.

“At the appointed time I was at his house, having told our conversation to every crowd I had met, and to every man I stayed all night with, and I found that it gave the people an interest and confidence in me stronger than I had ever seen manifested before.

“Though I was considerably fatigued when I reached his house, and, under ordinary circumstances, should have gone early to bed, I kept him up until midnight talking about the principles and affairs of government, and got more real, true knowledge of them than I had got all my life before.”

“I have known and seen much of him since, for I respect him – no, that is not the word – I reverence and love him more than any living man, and I go to see him two or three times every year; and I will tell you, sir, if every one who professes to be a Christian lived and acted and enjoyed it as he does, the religion of Christ would take the world by storm.

“But to return to my story. The next morning we went to the barbecue and, to my surprise, found about a thousand men there. I met a good many whom I had not known before, and they and my friend introduced me around until I had got pretty well acquainted – at least, they all knew me.

“In due time notice was given that I would speak to them. They gathered up around a stand that had been erected. I opened my speech by saying:

“Fellow-citizens – I present myself before you today feeling like a new man. My eyes have lately been opened to truths which ignorance or prejudice or both, had heretofore hidden from my view. I feel that I can today offer you the ability to render you more valuable service than I have ever been able to render before. I am here today more for the purpose of acknowledging my error than to seek your votes. That I should make this acknowledgement is due to myself as well as to you. Whether you will vote for me is a matter for your consideration only.”

“I went on to tell them about the fire and my vote for the appropriation and then told them why I was satisfied it was wrong. I closed by saying:

“And now, fellow-citizens, it remains only for me to tell you that the most of the speech you have listened to with so much interest was simply a repetition of the arguments by which your neighbor, Mr. Bunce, convinced me of my error.

“It is the best speech I ever made in my life, but he is entitled to the credit for it. And now I hope he is satisfied with his convert and that he will get up here and tell you so.’

“He came up to the stand and said:

“Fellow-citizens – it affords me great pleasure to comply with the request of Colonel Crockett. I have always considered him a thoroughly honest man, and I am satisfied that he will faithfully perform all that he has promised you today.’

“He went down, and there went up from that crowd such a shout for Davy Crockett as his name never called forth before.’

“I am not much given to tears, but I was taken with a choking then and felt some big drops rolling down my cheeks. And I tell you now that the remembrance of those few words spoken by such a man, and the honest, hearty shout they produced, is worth more to me than all the honors I have received and all the reputation I have ever made, or ever shall make, as a member of Congress.’

“Now, sir,” concluded Crockett,”you know why I made that speech yesterday. “There is one thing which I will call your attention, “you remember that I proposed to give a week’s pay. There are in that House many very wealthy men – men who think nothing of spending a week’s pay, or a dozen of them, for a dinner or a wine party when they have something to accomplish by it. Some of those same men made beautiful speeches upon the great debt of gratitude which the country owed the deceased–a debt which could not be paid by money–and the insignificance and worthlessness of money, particularly so insignificant a sum as $20,000 when weighed against the honor of the nation. Yet not one of them responded to my proposition. Money with them is nothing but trash when it is to come out of the people. But it is the one great thing for which most of them are striving, and many of them sacrifice honor, integrity, and justice to obtain it.”

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Build a Better World in One Simple Step

Note that I didn’t say one easy step. Unfortunately the default programming of humans seems to be tribal competitiveness. However I believe there is a cure. A cure that doesn’t cost a dime.

Have you ever noticed how, most of the time, when a person you love and care about says or does something you instantly find a way to interpret it in a positive light and even if you can’t find a positive interpretation you assume that it was a mistake or, at worst, due to ignorance. Now take that same action, that same statement, and imagine it coming for someone you abhor or distrust. You know, one of them. A person who you struggle to be in the same room with. Notice how differently you react…

Evolutionary biologists tell us this is rooted in our tribal hunter gatherer roots. A time when anybody not part of your closest circle of companions was a competitor in a life or death struggle for resources. Generation after generation has honed this behavior or, quite simply, ceased to exist.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t compete with the stranger I pass on the street for my very survival or for the survival of my loved ones. I can offer that stranger a smile and both our days are a little brighter, a little warmer, because we connected as humans. Humans with nothing particular to gain. Just humans saying I don’t know you, but I bet you’re a good person too.

So that leads us to my proposal. You don’t have to smile at everyone you see. That might be a little uncomfortable or even creepy 🙂 What I intend to do for the month of May is to assume that whatever somebody says or does they are, at their core, a good person and I will do my best to interpret their every action as if it were being done by the person I love and respect most in the world. I’m willing to bet that this will make it a great month. Won’t you join me?

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Curing the Curse of Creativity

Learn a few tricks to keep your creativity high and avoid the negativity that can arise when your ideas haven’t yet come to fruition.

Earlier today, my friend @cianna tweeted “Contemplating further revelations about potential negative effects of my constant business & big ideas: Erosion of confidence. Sadness.”

First, an introduction is in order. I’d like you to meet your best friend. A friend you’ve known all of your life, but that you’ve likely never knowingly had a conversation with. This friend has carefully watched everything that has ever happened to you and tirelessly looked out for your safety and happiness. That friend is your not-conscious mind. Say Howdy!

You see, there is a part of your mind that is reading this blog post, and perhaps you can even hear the words you are reading inside your head now. This part of your mind, the conscious mind, is very good at a few things. It is the home of logic, language, and short term memory.

We’ll come back to the conscious mind in a bit, but first let’s learn a bit about the not-conscious mind. This is all the parts of your mind that are, ahem, not the conscious mind 🙂 To understand it better I want you to imagine a short story.

So, take a deep breath, relaxxxx, and imagine for a moment that you are flying in a small plane over a remote and unexplored part of the world. As you look down outside the window you see a magnificent landscape and you are filled with the joy and wonder of being alive and discovering new things. Each moment bring new vistas to you that overwhelm you with their beauty and you imagine the joy people will feel when you bring back pictures and stories of the wonders you’re discovering.

A moment later you are shaken from your reverie as a the engine sputters, groans and stops suddenly. A lesser trained pilot might be worried, but not you. You react quickly and with precision. Just a moment ago you had seen a beautiful field filled with bright green grasses and wildflowers in every color of the rainbow. As you run down your checklist for an emergency landing you set your optimal glide path and execute a small turn. You couldn’t be better prepared to land in that field if you had been planning to go there all along.

After the bouncy landing you’ve learned to expect when touching down in an unprepared field you quickly roll to a stop and give thanks to the excellent training you’ve had over the years learning to fly.

Just as your heart starts to slow from the excitement a thought crosses your mind and a smile breaks out across your face as you think of the adventure within an adventure you are about to embark on. Something new to explore!

You quickly finish shutting down the plane, pop the door open, and leap out onto the field with a cry of Joy. The smell of wildflowers fills your nostrils as you breath deeply. With a mischievous smile you kneel down and kiss the earth giving it a hearty thanks for welcoming you back. Lifting your head back to the sky you spy a wondrous sight. Just a moment ago you were in an empty field with your plane, but now, right in front of you, is a small group of obviously primitive people. A bit wary, you stand back up and each of them kneels down to the earth, kisses it, utters a strange noise, and rises just as you did. Quickly your concern fades as you intuition tells you that these are an open and friendly people. An innocent people.

And thus, the game of mimicry begins. Over the days and weeks, try as you might, you are unable to form the sounds that make up their language and these people prove just as incapable of speaking yours. Nonetheless you learn to communicate by making signs and as you grow to know them better you learn that by putting emotion into your communication there is a depth and nuance that you know you had never achieved with the spoken word. These people live without a filter on their emotions and you are sometimes amazed at how much they say without saying anything at all. With time, and your natural ability to notice interesting details, you learn to read their emotions just as well as they naturally read yours.

You are welcomed into the village of The People, as you’ve come to think of them. You are fed, sheltered and taught to avoid the dangers of their beautiful, but often harsh world. You learn over time, that The People take the honor of being visited by a guest very seriously and though it sometimes makes you uncomfortable, each of them finds ways, some small and some large, to help you, protect you, and bring you joy.

You come to understand that The People seem strangely devoid of logic and live lives filled will emotion and, as time passes, you learn that the best way to repay their service, the only way that they recognize, is to thank them with a gratitude that comes deep from the heart. The happiness you give them with your thanks is a gift that they treasure more than any other.

Strangely, you find that they hold all emotions dear, negative and positive alike. While you never get used to this yourself, you do come to accept it as an integral part of who they are.

You have many adventures with The People. Adventures that you will cherish for the rest of your life, but eventually you manage to repair your plane and you know that it is time to return. A tinge of sadness strikes you as you think of leaving The People behind, but it is wiped out by the joy in knowing that, now that you found this magical place, you can return whenever you want to.

The time has finally come to return and as you lift off in your plane know that you’ve grown immensely in the time that you spent with The People and you are ready to help others learn the simple lessons you learned with them.

I trust you enjoyed my little story, and yes, there was a point. You see, The People are your not-conscious mind.

While your conscious mind can only do one thing at a time (although it can switch what one thing it is doing very quickly) your not-conscious is capable of doing many things. While the research isn’t conclusive, studies show it is at least thousands of things at a time and it may be much higher. You have a whole village of workers inside your head!

Much like communicating with The People, you can’t understand their language and they can’t understand yours. Your only way of communicating with your not-conscious mind is through emotions, symbols, and vivid imagination.

Your not-conscious mind, just as The People, has clear goals. It constantly looks to keep you safe and make you happy. Unfortunately it does not have the benefit of logic and does this from a purely emotional perspective.

Your only real way to reward your not-conscious mind is with heartfelt thanks. Being able to say thank-you, and really mean it is a skill that you just might find useful elsewhere too.

You may be wondering just what all this has to do with creativity.

First of all, creative ideas are a gift from your not-conscious mind. Each time one of those ideas pops into your head is a good time to practice giving thanks. After all, it has provided you with so many great ideas over the years and it has protected you tirelessly. Doesn’t it deserve a thank-you?

You may have noticed that I treat my unconscious mind like a separate person living inside my head. Don’t worry, that is not one of the signs that I’m crazy. From the perspective of your conscious mind it really is a separate thing and I promise that your life will get better if you treat it as such. If not you can have 100% percent of your money back for this post 🙂

One of the reasons we experience negative emotions around our unfulfilled creativity is that your not-conscious mind, which has given you all of these great ideas, is upset that you haven’t done them all and that you didn’t even care enough to say thank-you. That’s not very nice! 🙁 Remember that it isn’t logical, so it doesn’t understand that you had good reasons for not go through with the ideas. Just thank it and it will be much happier with you. As a side benefit. When you not-conscious is happy with you you will experience greater creativity and better memory recall.

Did I forget to mention that your not-conscious is in charge of memory? One sure sign that your not-conscious is unhappy with you is forgetting things. Have you ever run into someone and struggled to remember their name, only to have it pop into your head immediately after you no longer need it? Yep, that was your not-conscious being a brat because you had upset it. As a side note, one of the quickest ways to upset your not-conscious mind is to not get enough sleep. Sleep is its play time and it likes to play!

Another reason negative emotions arise from unfulfilled creativity is that your conscious mind, has decided to make a purely logical judgement about what you’ve accomplished, sees all of these ideas that it would be awesome if you had completed and says, “that sucks!” One of the jobs of your conscious mind is to judge things. Good/bad, right/wrong, etc. Unfortunately this part of the conscious mind isn’t particularly well connected with the logic part. Just remember that you had a good reason (although perhaps not a logical one) why you made your decisions. It wouldn’t be logical to dwell on the past, so just get going with making good choices in the future.

Priorities and rules help keep the logical part of your mind happy. I try to never have more than one big important thing in progress at a time and I make sure to have scheduled time that I do not work on that big important thing. This allows focus, one of the most important keys to productivity, while still allowing room for playing with new ideas. I also feel free to decide that the big important thing is no longer important and cancel it. If I find I am canceling big important things too often it is time to make a commitment to not have any more big important things make my list for a pre-defined time period, usually one month. That forces me to either focus on the big important thing without canceling it or to relax for a bit and not have any big important things for a while.

I’ve got a lot more to say on this subject, but it’s time to get back to my current big important thing. If you found this helpful, I would appreciate a comment below and I’ll continue to post on the subject.


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A Beautiful Visualization of Source Repository Activity

Michael Ogawa has created a mesmerizing animated visualization of the activity within source code repositories named code_swarm. This is truly a case of a picture being worth (at least) a thousand words.

Go check it out at


A moment from the Eclipse project

A moment from the Eclipse project

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New Metric: C.R.A.P.

The good folks at Agitar have proposed a new metric, C.R.A.P and an Eclipse plugin crap4j for executing it.

C.R.A.P. combines a method’s complexity with its coverage to come up with a single number that can help you determine if somebody will say,“Oh crap!” when they have to work with it. The formula is:

CRAP(m) = comp(m)^2 * (1 – cov(m)/100)^3 + comp(m)

Read their article for details on deciding if a system is crappy or not.

To test the flexibility of Panopticode I decided to implement a C.R.A.P. Supplement. It took a little over an hour.

Looking at the results I was pleased to find that only one method in Panopticode exceeds Agitar’s C.R.A.P. threshold of 30. Unfortunately that leads me to believe that 30 is too high. Right now, there is a lot of spike code in Panopticode right now that I consider crappy ;->

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Teaser: Breaking the Build in Panopticode 0.2

In the last post we learned that Panopticode 0.2 will allow us to create arbitrary reports using a SPARQL SELECT query. Another feature in Panopticode 0.2 is to use a SPARQL ASK query to break the build.

An ASK query looks very similar to a SELECT but without any elements to return. If the query matches any data it returns true, otherwise it returns false.

Rewriting last post’s SELECT query as an ASK query would look like:

 PREFIX rdf: <>
 PREFIX panopticode: <>
 PREFIX java: <>
 PREFIX emma: <>
 PREFIX javancss: <>

   ?package         rdf:type                       java:Package           .
   ?package         panopticode:name               ?packageName           .
   ?package         java:hasFile                   ?file                  .
   ?file            panopticode:filePath           ?filePath              .
   ?file            java:hasType                   ?class                 .
   ?class           panopticode:name               ?className             .
   ?class           java:hasExecutableMember       ?method                .
   ?method          java:methodSignature           ?methodSignature       .
   ?method          emma:hasLineCoverage           ?lineCoverage          .
   ?method          javancss:cyclomaticComplexity  ?ccn                   .
   ?lineCoverage    emma:coveredPercent            ?lineCoveragePercent   .

   FILTER (?ccn > 1) .
   FILTER (?lineCoveragePercent <= 80.0)

Panopticode 0.2 will come with an Ant task that automatically breaks the build when an ASK query returns true.

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