An Experiment In Scotch

I write to discover what I believe

Month: March 2012

The Negative Impacts Of Positive Laws

When I took my concealed carry license course here in Dallas, my class was made up of 30-40 mostly well intentioned, attentive folks. Demographically, it ran the gamut from young adult males to elderly women, white, black, hispanic, you name it. Most of the class was interested in what the instructor had to say and seemed to grasp the fact that owning and carrying a gun is a right, not a privilege. Based on the questions they asked, they understood the ramifications of a private citizen carrying a gun and all the assorted baggage that entails.

However, there were two young men who were clearly ignorant of those ramifications. One of them I’ll never forget. He wasted more of the class’ time asking inane questions revolving around when he could shoot someone than I’d like to admit. How the instructor didn’t kick him out of class I’ll never know. I’ve hoped ever since that day that he either failed his shooting test or the instructor refused to grant him a license. One egregious example was in reference to being cut off on the highway while he was riding his motorcycle. He asked if that gave him the right to shoot at the driver of the car. The rest of the class looked around in shock at this idiot who clearly thought getting a CHL meant becoming James Bond on a crotch rocket.

In all populations, the great majority of the citizens will be law-abiding, conscientious human beings with an understanding of right and wrong. But in all populations, there will always be a vocal minority for whom an understanding of anything beyond the realm of their limited mental capacities will be impossible. This kid was one of those. He was a malcontent, hopped up on testosterone, who was looking for a reason to show how tough he was and hoping to do it legally based on a law that dictates what citizens CAN do instead of what they CANNOT do.

In many ways, that’s the crux of the problem. Laws should be restrictive in nature, created to limit the freedoms of people based on the effects contrary actions would have on other people. Laws shouldn’t define freedoms, only remove them. It should not be up to a jury of our peers to specifically say whether we can do something or not, only whether we have done something that violated the rights of another. Passing laws like this is a slippery slope because it creates a question of what is protected under the law.

Which brings us to the case of Trayvon Martin, a unarmed Miami, FL teenager who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman. Under normal circumstances, one would assume a crime has been committed. Unfortunately, these are not normal circumstances. At question is the Florida law that says citizens of the state may use deadly force to protect themselves or their property when they believe they are in grave danger. The law is called Stand Your Ground and says that even if it is prudent for you to escape, you still have the right to defend yourself.

The slippery slope is of course how much territory is covered by the umbrella of a self defense law. This law, surely written by lawmakers who assumed it would only be used in situations involving physical violence, is being used to shield Zimmerman even though it is becoming rapidly apparently that he chased the unarmed teen down and shot him.

The details can be read here but the short version is that Zimmerman was a volunteer community watch patrolman with a record of calling in almost everything. He saw Martin in the neighborhood and called in a suspicious person. Then, instead of letting police do the work, he followed Martin with a licensed 9MM handgun even though the police dispatcher said not to. We can take a little side trip here and note that Zimmerman was an aspiring police officer who once attended a citizen police academy. At the risk of doing some couch psychoanalysis, he seems like the kind of person much like the kid I encountered in my CHL class.

What happened next is up for debate but the evidence seems to point out that Zimmerman followed and/or chased Martin and shot him. Zimmerman claims self-defense. That claim sounds patently false. Given the fact that he had no police authority and was never in danger if he hadn’t gotten out of his car, his claim to self defense resides on the unsubstantiated fact that Martin attacked him. However, if I’m walking along at night and someone is following me, I’m going to protect myself. If anything, Martin was the one who should be protected by the law in Florida. Zimmerman’s self defense claim stands in direct opposition to the fact that had Zimmerman, the aspiring but not yet ordained police officer, stayed in his car until police arrived-the only sane thing a normal person would have done-Martin would still be alive today and none of this would have happened.

The fact that Florida has a law that tells citizens specifically what they can do has opened up a can of worms surely never intended by lawmakers. There is no reason to have a law on the books that says you don’t have to run even if it’s prudent to do so. Without this law, it’s clear that Zimmerman has committed some crime because it’s not prudent to chase down an unarmed black teenager just because you think he looks suspicious in the gated community you are patrolling. Only this law is preventing Zimmerman from being indicted and it seems like a travesty to any casual perusal of the known facts.

In our CHL course, we were taught that once a bullet leaves the gun, we are completely responsible for its path and results. Unfortunately, lawmakers in Florida have passed a law that may transfer the responsibility from the shooter to the victim in a case that it was clearly never intended to cover. Passing a law that says you may stand your ground and shoot someone even if escape is a viable alternative is an example of a law designed to dictate your freedoms instead of limiting them based on the effect they have on others. When the law is used to shield someone who went out of his way to put himself into a situation fraught with danger, we’ve gone too far. George Zimmerman should be arrested and prosecuted for murder. There is no other rational outcome. And yet, he may not be because of this law.

Trayvon Martin would not be dead if George Zimmerman had acted in a rational manner. Zimmerman, clearly an individual with will to power desires, went out of his way to inject himself into a situation where he could play policeman. Without the authority to do so, nothing should stand in the way of a criminal trial. It will be a travesty of the highest order if he is allowed to go free because Florida lawmakers passed a law that shields him contrary to untenable circumstances.

Meditations On Meaning

“I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done, and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 2:10-11

Once upon a time in a land far away, meaning in human life was simple (though not easy) to acquire. It was dictated to you, either physically because you were starving and living on the edge of death in the case of the earliest civilizations or culturally through your king, monarch, dictator or God. For the greater part of human history, the idea of finding meaning was as silly to most people as the idea of buying bottled water for $2 was to my grandfather. Before the huge advancements in quality of life, especially in the developed world in the 20th century, the idea of trying to find meaning in your life was limited to fulfilling the base needs of shelter and food in many cases. If you were lucky enough to have shelter and food, meaning was likely imposed on you through religion, at least in the Western world.

However, man’s search for meaning has always existed at some level in society as evidenced by the entire book of Ecclesiastes where The Teacher, at the end of his life, details his corporeal search for any meaning. He finds all secular meaning wanting-wisdom, pleasure, toil, riches, none of them infer any meaning on ones life. He concludes that only through God can we achieve meaning because it is only through God that we may experience life everlasting. And this is how it was for a long time, and still is for a great many.

Then the existentialists came along and screwed everything up. When Nietzsche surveyed the scientific and philosophical landscape known to man at the time and declared “God is dead”, he effectively killed off the only way we could impart meaning on our lives. Without God (and realize it’s a mistake to take Nietzche’s words literally; they represent the idea that we paltry humans had acquired enough knowledge to decide that the mythologies which had ruled our conscious for millennia were no longer necessary as explanations for our physical world) The Teacher from Ecclesiastes is left rudderless in a voyage to find meaning. Without God (or Buddha or Mohammed or Zeus or whatever theological implementation of a Higher Power the culture we were born into believes), who can we turn to embody our puny lives with meaning (and why is so important)? Or so Nietzche said albeit more poetically and eloquently.

The materialism of the late 20th century only served to make matters worse. As society became more secular in nature, farther removed from the thought of a meaningful God, it also became more materialistic. “Keeping up with the Jones” became the rule. But we found that with each thing we acquired, the amount of meaning it imparted on our lives lessened, like any addict can tell you about the particular drug of choice. The constant search for something else to acquire for our fix of externally provided meaning rapidly becomes an exhausting rat race as the materialistic pellets the dispenser keeps kicking out seem to be less and less potent. Whether we turned to material things, alcohol, drugs or sex, we found that meaning was always fading away from our grasp.

With God out of the way and our basest desires met by a continually increasing standard of living, we discovered that life was still empty. Theologians would argue that by turning our focus away from the internal face of God and focusing on the secular, external materialistic world, we effectively killed our chances of ever finding meaning. The Teacher in Ecclesiastes had to be on to something, right? And in fact he was though I can’t speak to what God has to do with it since if I could, I’d likely be a great deal more famous. What The Teacher was on to was the fact that meaning must be created from an intrinsic internal process that avoids the pitfalls of constantly chasing wisdom or riches or pleasure. Our chronic dissatisfaction with our lives in the face of increasing standards of living like health and physical comforts is one of the great paradoxes of Western civilization. Happiness, which in many ways is a synonym for meaning, comes not from the external pursuit of some goal but from the internal factors that we use to interpret our own reality. How we integrate the events of our lives internally dictates our level of happiness with those events. That’s why a lowly coal worker in the mines of West Virginia can seem like the happiest person on earth while a titan of business living on the Upper East side of Manhattan can commit suicide in despair in spite of everything he owns. Happiness cannot be acquired externally. It has to come from within through a set of characteristics that dictate how we view the events of our lives.

That’s the premise of a book I just finished reading called Flow – the psychology of optimal experience. Essentially, to be truly happy, our goals must be independent of the cultural environment we find ourselves in. Our goals and the achievement of them must be intrinsicly derived and not set based on our beliefs about what society or anyone else thinks is appropriate. Buying a new car to impress the neighbors will result in that familiar feeling of reaching a long-sought goal only to discover the happiness accrued is fleeting and meaningless. Materialistic goals are inherently risky for this very reason. But mental or physical goals are equally dangerous.

Most of us know the feeling of achieving a long term goal. Maybe we want to run a marathon or learn a new language or travel to a new country. A great deal of effort goes into achieving this goal and when we do, we are strangely let down. So we set another goal and work towards it. The inherent problem with this approach is the entire focus is on the future. We are taught and molded from the beginning of our conscious days that things in the future are worth striving for. We study so that we can go to college. We go to college because it will allow us to get a better job. We work hard in our job so that we might get promoted. We save money so that we might retire. This focus on the future is evident in all cultures but it is ingrained in Western civilization. Of course, our culture dictates this because a civilization filled with people who care nothing for the future won’t last very long. Society is the benefactor of our focus on the future at the expense of our ability to create an enjoyable life.

An enjoyable life, both at the micro and macro level, is built through a focus and attention on the present. This doesn’t mean avoid all long term goals. But to imbue meaning on life, the achievement of those goals must involve the ability to focus on and enjoy the day to day steps required to reach them. Someone who trains for a marathon without actually enjoying the training will be able to cross it off her bucket list but the overall event will be meaningless. A person who learns a new language without being fully focused and attentive to the small steps along the way will be disappointed in the result. Enjoyment and meaning come from doing something for its own sake and nothing more. As soon as we decide to do something for any other extrinsic reason, meaning is impossible. This is what “Flow” is.

The general discontent that is so prevalent among humanity in the face of increased standards of living is created because we have always assumed that if we could just [insert any particular goal you care about here], then we’d be happy. But it turns out the old saw about how life is a journey not a destination is in fact true. Without the ability to treat everything along life’s path as a journey to be experienced and enjoyed, the destination will always be disappointing. And in fact, once we can turn attention to the actual journey, the destination becomes irrelevant.

The existential anxiety, that existential hum that Kurt Vonnegut talked about and said only went away with heroin use, is our constant companion because something within us expects our life to be meaningful but we are ill equipped to create that meaning ourselves. So we constantly chase something in the future, a new car, a new job, a new wife, a new religion, only to find out that that new thing is just as devoid of meaning as the last one was because we cannot learn to focus on the present and all the wonders it affords us. The psychological evidence presented in the book points to happy, fulfilled people as those who can find enjoyment in the journey regardless of the destination. There are people who have been in harrowing circumstances who still report enjoyment and fulfillment because they are able to focus their attention on the present and work their way out of the predicament while others immediately fail and die because they cannot see beyond their situation. Meaning doesn’t just come from the enjoyable times in life, it’s present always in lives of this nature.

I’ll admit, happiness and enjoyment have not been what you might consider hallmarks of my life. I have always been focused on the future either through the potential of a job that might be better, a relationship that might be better or more money that might afford something else to acquire. My ability to focus on the present has been retarded though hopefully not stunted. Nine months ago, I left a job in hopes of finding something that could make me happy. Now I realize I was on the wrong journey, that nothing in the external world could make me happy. I’m about to start a job that those same nine months ago would have sounded uninteresting and unsexy. Today, after a great deal of learning, I’m genuinely excited to be working there. I’m looking forward to working with a good friend on challenges I don’t yet know anything about. I’m still not good at getting over that existential anxiety but I’m getting better at it. This book has helped a great deal in realigning my focus on what increases meaning in life but it’s going to be hard. Still, I’m looking forward to the challenge.

I’m hoping to have several more essays come out of what I’ve read and learned from this book. For now, I highly recommend it to anyone who finds their current lives full of despair or anxiety. It’s a fantastic exposition on what the attributes and characteristics are of filling your life with enjoyment and meaning.

Fast Paleo Goulash

I came across this great looking recipe for Hungarian goulash last week. I’m going to try it soon but since I only had 45 minutes today for lunch, I made a fast version with hamburger that turned out pretty good. It can’t compete with anything cooked in a slow cooker for hours but it makes a great 1 dish meal that you can make in under an hour.

1 pound of ground beef, bison, venison, elk, whatever. I used grass fed beef from a local farm.
1 onion, chopped
1 yellow squash, diced
1 zucchini, diced
1 bell pepper,diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced or run through a garlic press if you’re lazy and in a hurry like me.
paprika (I just threw some in until it looked nice and red)
cumin (ditto)
1 tablespoon of tomato paste
1 cup of beef broth
black pepper to taste
salt to taste
coconut oil (I liked the flavor it added but some people might just stick to the lard)
lard (yup, lard. It’s good for you. Trust me, anything that comes from bacon is good for you)

Brown the beef in the coconut oil. Remove all of the above from the pan. Melt the lard and add the onions, paprika and cumin. Saute for until it looks and smells good, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and tomato paste and stir everything together. Add the meat back in along with the squash, zucchini and peppers. Add the broth and stir everything together. Cook on medium heat until the broth is reduced by half. Add pepper and salt if so desired. I added a little more cumin because I’m addicted to the stuff.

I ate it straight out of a bowl but you could serve it over sliced cabbage or cauliflower rice. The upside is that if you leave and come back home later, your house will smell fantastic.

Thinking About What We Think About When We Think About Food

At the risk of sliding down an exceptionally slippery meta-cognition slope, I’ve been thinking about food and thinking about thinking about food a lot lately. This is partially due to what many observers from the Western world would see as a rather restrictive diet I’m currently on (where diet does not mean “A fad to lose weight” and instead simply refers to the food I choose to eat). It’s also caused in part by attending a lecture by Michael Pollan last Thursday in which he talked about the average Western diet, specifically American, its effects on weight and health and rules from his Food Rules book which is 240 pages meant to give you guidance on what you should and should not eat (if the neurotic anxiety sensors in your head just went off, don’t worry, you’re not alone. While I appreciate Pollan’s desire to simplify food choice through simple, common-sense rules illustrated with pretty pictures, the last thing I want to deal with is 240 pages of what I should and should not eat. “Eat Food, mostly plants, not too much” was a far better idea from Pollan though I’d hazard a guess it’s hard to sell many books with only 7 words.) Thinking about food is an interesting activity, one fraught with potential pitfalls and obsessive tendencies (not that I would know anything about obsessing about eating Oreos). We all know people who seem incapable of thinking about anything else even when fully sated. We also know people who just don’t seem that concerned with food. Typically the former have trouble curbing their eating while the latter go on to obsess about something else.

At a micro level (micro enough for our purposes), hunger and the relief of it are a classic example of the pain-pain avoidance conundrum. For most of our history, the idea of skipping a meal would have been something beyond ludicrous requiring mental gymnastics we were actually incapable of performing. Tell my cat she’s going to have to skip a meal to lose some weight and not only will she walk circles around the bed until you get up and feed her, she’ll probably also claw your eyes out and maybe take a dump in your shoe just for good instructional measure. Animals are fundamentally designed to avoid pain at all costs which of course is a fantastic way to stay alive long enough to get ones genes into the next generation. What helped the continuation of the species ten thousand years ago might now be slowly (or quickly!) killing us today as we are not designed from a physical standpoint to voluntarily choose pain over pleasure.

Avoidance of pain and pursuit of pleasure happens at a subconscious level. At that level, our ability to think and rationalize about food entails very little choice. If we see a maple glazed donut, regardless of when we last ate, we are likely to at least momentarily crave it and consider having just one bite because after all, we can always go to the gym tonight and work it off. That’s the avoidance and delay of pain working. Our bodies know that even if we’re not particularly hungry currently, we might be in the near future when the mammoth we killed is consumed by saber-tooth tigers and the caloric input of that maple glazed donut might come in handy.

If you are slightly salivating over the thought of a warm maple glazed donut, you’re not alone. I’m positive I could go to the local donut shop and polish off 4 or 5 of them right now. Thinking about food has been shown to actually causes an insulin spike in people susceptible to hyperinsulinemia resulting in more cravings and higher intake of food. However, some really promising work in the field of habituation has provided evidence that through cognitive thought at the conscious level we can reduce cravings caused by the subconscious or unconscious level. Studies show that direct thought regarding consuming particular foods in abundance can actually reduce cravings of said foods. For example, imagine a box of 30 maple glazed donuts. Imagine yourself eating them all. Not in theory but actually imagine reaching out for the first one. Imagine consuming it bite by bite. Think about what it would taste like, the texture. Get another one. Maybe have a sip of coffee. Get another one. Work through the entire box until you have eaten all 30 (if you can make it through 30 without causing yourself to throw up, you’re mentally stronger than I am). Your future cravings for maple donuts (and I would guess donuts in general, though not ice cream as the study showed that this technique was not transferrable to other items) will be greatly reduced. This is due to habituation. In the same way people who live on a feedlot don’t notice the methane cloud they live in, you won’t “notice” maple donuts and thus won’t crave them.

This is the difference between actually thinking about food and allowing the subconscious to dictate how we think about food. It’s not easy work to overcome but it is doable. Unfortunately, most of us never rise above the subconscious when we think about food. Even though we are surrounded by food, we allow the old mechanisms of pain avoidance to dictate when we eat and what we eat. This is strongly encouraged by our food industry through the constant bombardment of our senses with sounds and images designed to avoid our conscious filters and make their way to our subconscious, rational claims regarding the hydrating properties of Diet Coke notwithstanding. I watched an hour of television last night and probably saw 10-15 commercials regarding food. Almost all of them are designed to subvert your conscious ability to decide when you should eat and instead go straight for the gut (literally, in the sense they try to stimulate your cravings for their products).

This gets to how we are constantly manipulated against our own rational wishes (or in support of them in the case of those of us who want to stay hydrated and who discover that a big important sounding medical committee has said that all drinks are hydrational and thus, when we don’t feel like drinking water, we should just have a big bottle of sugar labeled “Powerade” or “Diet Coke”.) Food marketers are exceptionally good at what they do and their ability to manipulate our choices is based on the very instinctual desire to avoid pain and increase pleasure that we must overcome if we’re going to be healthy. Once upon a time, marketers just showed us food and that was enough to get us to buy it. Now, they are combining instincts in a more insidious message. Carl’s Jr currently has an ad with Kate Upton that combines the base instinct of eating 750 cheese and jalapeno stuffed calories of hamburger with the base instinct to hump Kate Upton (my guess is that the target market for the commercial isn’t elderly women). If you haven’t seen it (and if you haven’t, you don’t watch much TV between the hours of 6 and 7 PM), go over to Carl’s Jr website and take a gander. What probably would have been considered pornography in the 40s is suddenly a hamburger commercial and I’ll be damned if I’m not hungry again (and wanting to hump Kate Upton. Stupid instincts).

McDonald’s currently has an ad that combines that hunger instinct with our desire to be the first to get anything, a ploy Apple is exceptionally good at. In it, 4 people line up outside a McDonald’s to be the first to try the new Fish McBites, the latest FrankenFood from our friends at Mickey D’s wherein they take flaky Alaskan pollack and coat it with a insulin increasing breading and provide it in Snack, Regular and Shareable (or what I like to call “Mistakes I make while drunk in the drive through”) sizes. Even if you think you are immune to the ploys of these marketers, I can tell you that you aren’t. The amount of money spent to find out what will make you eat Fish McBites is probably astounding and the result is effective.

All these things conspire to make it difficult to eat reasonable portions at regular intervals of things that are actually food (and things with more than 5 ingredients aren’t food, according to Michael Pollan, a good rule to live by which effectively eliminates all items at McDonalds except coffee and a salad which sounds like a disastrous combination on a road trip, the quintessential time I want McDonalds). How can we and our weak little impulse control ever hope to eat well?

We have to accept the fact we’re going to live in pain for a little while, a state of affairs that almost every one of us desires to avoid at all cost. It’s not waterboarding pain but it is the understanding that to truly be healthy we won’t ever have the rush of dopamine and pleasure that comes from eating an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s Everything But The… or an entire pack of Thin Mint cookies. There is ample evidence that sugar and refined carbohydrates are just as addicting as cocaine. Breaking that addiction requires the cognitive understanding and desire to deal with a great deal of pain over the short (and possibly medium) term. Most of us really aren’t that dedicated to changing. I remain unconvinced that I am even though 20 days of almost pure Paleo eating has fundamentally altered how I feel. Still, addictions are lifelong battles as anyone with an alcoholic in the family can tell you. And that speaks to why food addiction is even harder to break away from. If you’re doing lines of coke off a hooker’s ass or drinking a fifth of Jack Daniels after work and with your morning coffee, chances are your family will support you at almost any cost if you commit to cleaning up. But if you commit to stop going to Baskin Robbins or to quit the Sunday morning donut ritual, your family will likely metaphorically take a dump in your shoe the same way my cat does. So far, sugar addictions haven’t reached the same level of societal opprobrium that other fun addictions have. Thus, getting your family and friends to support what you are doing is far more difficult even though that support is fundamentally critical to your success. You’re likely going to have to have twice the resolve necessary to kick a food addiction unless it’s extreme and they are talking about taking you out of the house when you die through the bay window.

Changing eating habits requires the conviction that the pain involving the life-long battle against almost everyone who desires to get us to eat sugary, processed crap is worth the long term benefits to our mental well being and health. As any smoker can tell you, that conviction is hard to come by. Once upon a time, ten thousand years ago, being healthy meant eating enough food to make it to the next day. In our Western civilization, we now have to come to terms with health being completely antagonistic to our impulses and rely on the wonderfully large cerebral cortex that we’re endowed with to explain how pain today is going to pay off with pleasure in the future. I can tell you from personal experience that it’s not an easy battle but it is one that can be one if you stay vigilant and make as many rational decisions about food. Understand that your subconscious is trying to subvert you at every turn and you can win the battle against unhealthy foods.

In Defense of Innocence

“Sed nec de suspicionibus debere aliquem damnari diuus Traianus Adsidio Seuero rescripsit: satius enim esse impunitum relinqui facinus nocentis quam innocentem damnari.” – a person ought not to be condemned on suspicion; for it was preferable that the crime of a guilty man should go unpunished than an innocent man be condemned. Trajan writing to Adsidius Severus

“Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty.” – Exodus 23:6-7

From time immemorial, just men have seen the slippery slope necessarily emerging should society develop the habit of convicting the innocent. Conviction of the innocent reduces us all to the level of the guilty, unable to stand above in judgment because the judgment becomes capricious. But this need to avoid convicting innocent men stands in opposition to the Old Testament attitudes of justice and retribution. Our prosecutorial system is designed to be as aggressive as possible and in fact, should a prosecutor allow a guilty man to go free, his stay in office would become terminal. So we have these two competing desires in our judicial system today and as the world has become more black and white, the very people charged with protecting those innocent of crime work far harder to improve their conviction rate so that they may stay in office.

Certainly, we want our prosecutors to aggressively pursue charges against alleged criminals but at what point do we wish they could turn off the desire for conviction and realize that particular cases require a more deft touch? As the science behind our forensic analysis gets more and more advanced, shouldn’t we err on the side of allowing a guilty man go free if the evidence casts a large shadow of doubt on the guilt of a convicted man? Of course, when the crime involves a child, it’s even more difficult step back from the fray for a more balanced look.

Ernie Lopez spent nine years in prison until this past January when his conviction was overturned based on what appears to be abysmal defense representation at trial. At question is whether the child that died in his care in 2000 was the victim of a crime or a statistic in a growing understanding of how young children die from blood clotting diseases. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, hardly a bastion of liberal hearted compassion, feels the latter may be true given the evidence dug up by NPR, ProPublica and PBS Frontline. The child Lopez was convicted of assaulting had a blood clotting disorder that caused bruising that might mimic physical and sexual abuse. Lopez’s original defense called no medical witnesses, a lapse of epic proportions in a case where a man was convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison. Yet, in our judicial system, where prosecutors are lionized and move up the political spectrum and defense attorneys are maligned as protectors of the evil, how often must this happen? Defense attorneys are notoriously underfunded, especially court appointed ones and certainly we have to believe the talent pool for court appointed attorneys must be quite shallow. It must take a saint to voluntarily defend the dregs of society in need of court appointed attorneys. We have become a society that turns its back on the conviction of the innocent in many ways because it is difficult to consider and even more difficult to fix. No one wants to allocate resources to the defense of the indefensible. And so we have episodes like Lopez and dozens of others, innocent men and women convicted of crimes they didn’t commit.

Our desire for retribution is strong, based on evolutionary and cultural traits that abhor the idea of unpunished guilt. Without justice, we have anarchy and no civilization can stand for that. It is important that the guilty are punished to protect our culture. Yet, if we are to consider ourselves something above the animals, surely we must do everything in our power to prevent even one innocent conviction. It should be the moral charge of prosecutors to tread carefully instead of rampaging in to battle attempting to win at all costs. But of course, as in all things these days, politics comes into play in a myriad of ways and in Texas, you won’t be a prosecutor for long if you seem easy on crime. We as a society should demand equal treatment of both the accused and the victim until guilt is decided. Even then, we should always be prepared for the chance we made a mistake as evidence or science comes to light. The rectification of those mistakes should be clear and immediate, casting no doubt on our desire to protect the innocent and learn from our mistakes. Unfortunately, as in the case of Lopez, it’s far easier to see things as black and white, leaving a man to sit in a cell for nine years for a crime he likely didn’t commit only to promise to prosecute him again once he is released.

Testing A Rails and Backbone App with Jasmine – Part 1 (of possibly 1 parts so far)

I’ve been playing around with Backbone.js in my Rails work but I haven’t gotten around to testing the Backbone code until today. There are quite a few tutorials out there but my basic setup took some digging around and I thought I’d document the steps I took to get a brand new Rails app in a state where I could test the JavaScript code I’m writing.

My application is going to be an ESPN Headline browser essentially using the ESPN Developer API. This API really isn’t very interesting in that it gives about zero useful information to non-paying developers but there isn’t much I can do about that. If you want to follow along, you’ll need to request an API key from ESPN. This first part doesn’t involve any actual calls to ESPN so you can skip that step for now. All the code for this app is up on Github.

I’m using the Rails 3.1.3 and the lastest Jasmine code. The first thing you need to do is install the jasmine gem by adding it to your Gemfile
[sourcecode language=”rails”]group :test do
gem ‘jasmine’
end[/sourcecode]

Once that’s done, run “bundle install”.

There is some jasmine initialization that needs to happen once the gem has been installed so run “bundle exec jasmine init”. This will create configuration files for jasmine as well as some sample tests and javascript that you can safely delete. At the time of publication of this post, Jasmine seems to still be expecting an earlier version of Rails because the generated code ends up in the “public” folder and the configuration files all reference that generated code. If you’re using Rails 3.1.3 and the new asset folders, you just need to update the jasmine.yml file in spec/javascripts/support to reference those folders. More on that in a minute.

Once we have the gem installed, we can write our first test. I’m following the convention of this guy and arranging my test code into spec/javascripts/** and my javascript into app/assets/javascripts/** where ** will match models, collections, views, etc. Fire up the Jasmine test runner by executing:
[sourcecode language=”rails”]rake jasmine[/sourcecode]
and then hit localhost:8888 in your browser. You should see something like this:

Those five tests are the sample ones that Jasmine created. A conscientious developer would delete those but I’m lazy. Plus, it makes me feel better that five tests already pass. Now, we’re ready to write our first test. I created Headline.spec.js in spec/javascripts/models to contain the test code for my Headline Backbone model.

[sourcecode language=”javascript”]describe("Headline model", function () {
beforeEach(function() {
this.headline = new Headline({
headline: "My Headline",
description: "a description",
source: "ESPN News",
byline: "Brett Bim"
});
});

describe("when instantiated", function() {
it("exhibits the attributes", function() {
expect(this.headline.get("headline")).toEqual("My Headline");
});
});

});[/sourcecode]

This is a really basic test that in actuality is testing Backbone functionality more than code but it’s a good first starting point to make sure everything is set up correctly. Refresh localhost:8888 and you’ll find out it’s not.

As you can see, Headline is not defined which is expected given that we haven’t defined it yet. Let’s do that now. Create Headline.js in app/assets/javascripts/models and add this code to it:

[sourcecode language=”javascript”]var Headline = Backbone.Model.extend();[/sourcecode]

This creates our model. Save the file and refresh localhost:8888. Surprisingly, you get the same failed test. This is because the Jasmine gem does not automatically reflect the asset structure from Rails 3.1.3. You need to explicitly specify where your files are. You can do this by going to spec/javascripts/support and opening the jasmine.yml file. There is a section for source files. You need to tell it where your source files are and add references to backbone.js and underscore.js as well.

[sourcecode language=”bash”]src_files:
– public/javascripts/prototype.js
– public/javascripts/effects.js
– public/javascripts/controls.js
– public/javascripts/dragdrop.js
– app/assets/javascripts/underscore.js
– app/assets/javascripts/backbone.js
– public/javascripts/application.js
– public/javascripts/**/*.js
– app/assets/javascripts/**/*.js[/sourcecode]

I’ve added the three lines pointing to app/assets which will inform Jasmine where to find those files. Once that’s done and the file is saved, we can refresh localhost:8888 again.

And our first test passes. We should now have Jasmine up and running for testing all our Backbone code. Stay tuned for another episode of “One Post Every 8 Months About Random Crap” where we discuss writing tank driving software using Lisp.

Just Because You Can Kill Someone With It Does Not Make It Insecure

This weekend, Github had what an impartial, understated observer might call a small dustup related to how the Rails web framework functions “out of the box”. For those amongst my non-technical audience (well, your eyes have probably glazed over at this point anyway), Github is a company that provides hosting of source code using a tool called Git. Github has become uniquely popular in the tech circles and hosts (insert some large number here) of projects, most of which are open source (which means not proprietary). Source control allows developers to track the history of code among other functions I won’t get into. If you are in the non-technical portion of my audience and are still reading, God bless you.

What happened at Github roughly goes like this. Github is built on Rails which is a hugely popular web framework that makes it dirt simple to create a pretty decent website. So at this point, we have the facts that Rails is hugely popular and Github is hugely popular. So lots of people are involved. Rails is what’s called an MVC framework. The MVC stands for Model-View-Controller. A Model is a representation of your data. A View is a way to display that data. A Controller facilitates the interaction between the two. This is a 10,000 foot view but will work for our purposes. In a real world example, you might have an ordering system for widgets. You might then have two views, one which shows you all the orders in your database and another that lets you create new orders. You would have an Order model that represented a physical order in the real world with customer information, product information, etc. The controller would manage interactions between the view and the model such as saving the order to the database, deleting orders, showing how many trillions of dollars you made last month selling widgets to Bill Gates, etc.

The beauty of Rails is that it makes it extremely easy to build a web site. You can go through this fantastic Rails tutorial in a weekend if you are motivated and starting writing a website on Monday. This was undoubtedly one of the goals of the creator of Rails because at every turn, when the decision is between hard or easy, he seems to have chosen easy. This is a GOOD THING. As with all GOOD THINGS (like scotch and kittens), decisions have to be made that may have some unpleasant side effects. Let’s go back to your trillion dollar widget web site. The only way an order should be able to get into your database (or be deleted more importantly) is through your view which of course you secured using authentication that is robust and thorough. However, in Rails, the models have what could be called a safety mechanism. The default behavior is that any attribute on a model (say Email on the Customer model) is open for mass assignment unless you, as the developer, take a certain precaution to prevent it. Mass assignment means that if an attacker gets control of the request between the web browser and the server, he can manipulate the data in the request to be whatever he wants. It’s right there in the documentation. This is a BAD THING in many people’s eyes.

Let’s take a little detour that might help. I have a gun (because I live in Texas and every one in Texas has a gun in the back of their pickup and a deer on the hood of the pickup.) The gun (you can assume I only have 1 gun for the purposes of this discussion but no one in Texas has one gun) I have is a Springfield XD 9MM semi-automatic pistol. I’m going to let you in on a little secret. My XD was created with the express intent and purpose of shooting bullets. The target of those bullets may vary but the general purpose of the gun is unchanged regardless of the target. It’s designed to shoot things.

However, luckily for me, the makers of the XD had the foresight to include mechanisms called safeties on my pistol. For the sake of this argument, you can also assume that all guns have safeties. This is probably not exactly true but the population of guns that don’t have safeties in this day and age is small enough to be ignored. Why does my gun have safeties? Because there are times when you would prefer that the gun did not go off when you pull the trigger. There are three safeties on my XD (other guns have one or two, it all depends on the make and model). The first is a trigger safety. It’s essentially a dual trigger that locks the main trigger in place so that it can’t go off if the gun is dropped or bumped. The second is a grip safety. It’s a small lever in the butt of the grip that must be fully and completely depressed before the gun can fire. This prevents accidental discharges if the trigger were to get caught on something. Finally, there is a loaded chamber indicator and a striker indicator that tell me when there is a round in the chamber and when the striker is cocked. This is more of a logical safety in that I can always be aware of the status of the pistol.

The safeties are nice but again I return to the essential raison d’ĂȘtre for any gun which is shoot bullets. If I pick up the gun, depress both safeties and there is a bullet in the chamber with the striker cocked, depressing the trigger will result in said bullet flying out the other end in the general direction the gun is pointing. This fact about guns does not entail A SECURITY VULNERABILITY. If I take a gun into a bank and start shooting people, the gun is not displaying some inherent security flaw. The operator of the gun has a personal responsibility to use the gun in morally and legally just ways. It is up to me as the shooter of the gun to know and be cognizant of this fact. There are ways to make a gun perfectly safe and they turn it into an expensive paper weight because the only way a gun is perfectly safe is if it is physically impossible to get a bullet to come out the business end of the gun. But then we don’t really have a gun, do we?

What does this all have to do with the Rails issues at Github (other than the fact you may want to shoot yourself if you’re still reading)? It is my contention (and this is mostly conjecture but reasonably based conjecture in that Rails has a philosophy and mass assignment fits that philosophy) that it is the express intent of Rails to make building websites easy. If Rails forced developers to prevent mass assignment on all models, it would be distinctly harder to build web sites. However, Rails does have a mechanism for preventing mass assignment and it’s detailed right there in the docs and the tutorial. Rails essentially says this: “I don’t want to get in your way of building web sites so there are features of Rails that make it easier to build websites at the expense of possibly doing something that allows people to hose up your website. Use at your own damn risk.”

There are a lot of people weighing in on this issue at Github and many of them seem to think that mass assignment is a security vulnerability inherent in Rails. I do not see how this is the case. Just as the gun has no way of knowing if I’m shooting innocent people in a bank or paper targets at the range, Rails has no way of knowing what attributes of any model you want exposed for assignment. It’s not the gun’s or Rails duty to police your behavior. As a user of Rails, you have the responsibility to understand the framework and work within the limits and guidances it provides you. I would argue that Rails even goes farther than the safeties on the gun because it has an explicit way to prevent mass assignment which keeps an attacker from destroying your web site. If you choose to avoid the safeties built into Rails, it’s your fault if you kill someone. That does not make Rails inherently insecure.

Anything in the world can be perfectly safe but it’s always at the cost of perfect liberty. It’s a tradeoff we make constantly at all kinds of levels. It strikes me as coming down far too near the perfectly safe side to advocate mass assignment as a security vulnerability in Rails. We could make Rails perfectly safe but then it stops being a framework that enables you to build web sites easily and becomes something else entirely. Take some personal responsibility for your actions and do the legwork required to properly use the framework.

Lent 2012 Day 10

We’re ten days into the Lenten Experiment and overall, I have to say it hasn’t been as hard as I would have expected. First some stats. In the first 10 days, I’ve gotten up by 5 AM seven times, by 5:30 2 times and by 6:30 once. That last time was the second day when an extremely late Mavericks game conspired to throw me off track early on. However, for those other times, I feel pretty good about achieving the goal. Even the days at 5:30 were mostly a matter of deciding to get out of bed more than a sleeping til 5:30 problem.

I’m settling into a rhythm of feeding the cats at 5 followed by meditation and then a small amount of yoga. Not surprisingly, the cats, specifically the one who shall not be named but likes to walk circles around the bed until I wake up and feed her, have adjusted to the time schedule change by being hungry at 4 AM instead of 5 AM as they were before. This is probably just the simple math of being fed earlier in the evening though I like to think of it as their demonic desires made real in the ongoing attempt to drive me insane. The dog doesn’t seem to care one way or the other.

It’s starting to become easier (as easy as 5 AM ever is) and the past several days, I have even put the alarm (the clock on my phone) back on the bedside table. Initially, I put it in the music dock in the kitchen for the first several days so that I would be forced to get out of bed and start moving. I know my habit and it is to turn off the alarm and say screw it in that dark, subterranean moment of the morning when logic and reason are still sleeping and my amygdala is in control. By going to the kitchen, I can get enough blood to my brain to realize what’s going on. But this week, I’ve settled into enough of a habit to just wake up with the alarm goes off. They say (the proverbial “they” who used to sit around newspaper copy rooms coming up with things to spread into the common wisdom but who now just run influential blogs like TMZ. I really have no idea who “they” are but I’m positive they are the source evil of all innocuous seeming proclamations we recite in support of whatever we need support of) that it takes between 21 and 28 days to form a simple habit like drinking a glass of water a day. Those same “they” say it may take up to 250 days to establish an actual life changing habit. I think the key to my success is that initially the habit was imposed externally in that “I want to do something for Lent” kind of way but that now it has become a matter of enjoying getting up at 5 AM (no I have not started drinking scotch at 5 AM leading to such crazy proclamations though I’m not going to lie, scotch sounds good right now.) More on that extrinsic versus intrinsic evaluation in a bit.

There have been days where it’s been difficult and as with most things in life, those are the days that teach me the most. Just yesterday was a 5:30 day and it was only a 5:30 day through sheer will (and the aforementioned guilt). I had a couple of beers at the Stars game the night before and made exceptionally poor nutrition choices as well (I have no idea what they fry the french fries in at Bubba’s Burger Grill at AAC but it might be 14 year old virgin blood blessed by Saint Ignatius of the Holy Friar for all I know. Those things are insanely good.) all of which contributed to waking up with a pounding headache and no physical desire to accomplish anything other than four or five hours of feeling sorry for myself.

As an aside, the combination of Eat Real (total Paleo diet) and this little Lenten experiment has colluded to make poor decisions much easier to determine on a daily basis. Once upon a time, two beers and a Volkswagen size serving of french fries would have had no measurable impact on my health. Now, those things represent a serious setback. How many things do we do on a daily basis out of habit or convenience that our body has adjusted to but that are actually detrimental not just to our physical health but also to the productive output of our mind? Yesterday didn’t turn out to be a waste but it was a struggle when compared to this morning. Our bodies are amazing things that can adjust to multiple stimuli and nutrition but that doesn’t mean any of that is good.

Back on track, those tough days are the days when decisions I made 12 hours previously have an immediate and observable influence on my ability to reach goals I’ve set for myself. I have to make a conscious decision to go to bed at a decent hour (where decent hour can be 11 if my nutrion and exercise are right but must be 9 PM when it’s not) every day. I can’t stay out late without the explicit understanding that I’m sacrificing a long term goal for short term pleasure. This is not how I’ve lived the great majority of my life. Long term goals, while nice, are not nearly as much fun in the short term as drinking beer and staying at the bar until close. The discipline required to create a lifestyle conducive to getting up at 5 AM for forty days is not one of my most endearing qualities. I feel like I have always lived a reasonably examined life but never to the degree involving deciding whether to leave a party at 9 PM because I really do want to get up at 5 AM.

Long term goals are nice to have but to achieve them, you have to make small decisions on a daily basis that add up to success. I’m currently reading Flow, a book about living an examined and enjoyable life. Without going into a great deal of detail and stealing the thunder from the potentiality of some future essay on the book, it describes why some people can find enjoyment in everything in their lives while others (most others, frankly) mope through life constantly annoyed or bored regardless of their life situations. The central theme is the idea of flow which is the feeling of complete engagement and total involvement in a particular activity. The author discusses how long term goals can be detrimental to happiness because achieving long term goals involves many small steps in the interim that once summed up result in the long term goal. Setting long term goals without engagement in the small steps leads to unhappiness as even when people reach the goal, they feel empty because the goal has been achieved and there is nothing to replace it. So they set another long term goal and off they go, ignoring the potential for enjoyment and happiness in the day to day steps required to achieve anything. Often, people set goals based on extrinsic desires, e.g. I want to get a raise so that I can buy a better car than the neighbors instead of based on intrinsic desire, e.g. I want to change fundamentally how we do something at work because it interests me which might lead to a raise because of increased efficiency. There seems to be significant evidence that happy people are intrinsically motivated.

I’ve begun to approach getting up at 5 AM with this idea of flow, specifically extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, in mind. I’m not particularly good at it yet but each day, instead of thinking how long it is until Easter or how few days have gone by since Ash Wednesday, I focus on the moment of waking and moving to the living room, finding fascination in how my mind awakes and begins another day. It’s a total shift in attention that has changed “getting up at 5 AM” from a task or chore to a way to better understand myself and my habits. Initially, I began this journey because of an extrinsic goal, “I always give up something for Lent because it seems like that should make me a better person so what’s it going to be this year?” I have to admit, the first week was hard and I can’t help but think it was because of this extrinsic focus, doing something just because you think you should or to impress other people (not that that was ever the goal given the fact most people think you’re insane when you tell them you get up at 5 AM). But this week, as attention shifted from “I should be doing this” to “It’s fascinating to get up at 5 and see how things are different”, suddenly it’s not as difficult. How I focus my attention dictates whether I’m going to enjoy an activity or not. This seems like common sense but it’s so easy to forget in the day to day activities that seem boring and difficult.

What does all this mean? It’s hard to say that after ten days, I’ve fundamentally changed in a way that will lead to getting up at this hour for the rest of my life. First of all, it’s not particularly convenient as it relates to a social life. This would obviously be a bigger deal if I was 25 but still, a night out might not end until midnight and that makes 5 AM difficult. It requires constant focus on the ramifications of decisions. However, as weird as it sounds, I’m starting to enjoy being up at this time. The world is quiet and it’s easy to ignore the attention sapping activities that seem to pop up through the day. So I’m conflicted going forward after the forty days as to what might happen. Luckily, I have thirty more days of craziness to make that decision.