Ferguson’s Prosecutor Problems

by on Nov.26, 2014, under politics, society

I was asked what I think should have been different about the grand jury in Ferguson. You know, where a cop fired a gun at least 10 times and killed someone, witnesses disagree on what happened, and then the prosecutor who presented before the grand jury used the opportunity of announcing the verdict to whine about the media for 20 minutes.

The grand jury process might have worked with a different/independent prosecutor. Charging a police officer is already a problematic thing given how closely prosecutors work with police on a daily basis. Some data points on this specific situation:

– Robert McCulloch is already known to be an unenthusiastic presenter to a Grand Jury when police officers are involved:

– Immediately after the shooting, there were people demanding an independent prosecutor:

– McCulloch is also President of a charity that supports Police Officers and Firefighters’ families. That’s not a bad thing, but it is another clear indicator that he might not be objective:

– Right after the killing, a video of Michael Brown stealing a pack of cigars was leaked to the media from the prosecutor’s office. Because shoplifting $3 worth of merchandise justifies getting gunned down in the street – and because they were interested in helping the police.

– Read the Grand Jury testimony. Wilson is walked directly to why he felt his life was in danger. He isn’t interrogated – he essentially appeared in front of the Grand Jury with the prosecutor interested in establishing that he was in grave danger, and that his actions were justified. He is allowed to go on and on about how intimidated he was by someone the same height as him, and dismiss any other options before he drew his gun, but not asked about emptying his clip to gun down a fleeing suspect:

– Here’s one analysis of testimony:

– Here’s some other analysis of the grand jury testimony:

– The context of all of this is very racially divided city with a bad history. The rejection of any call for independent oversight happened in a town already convinced the local justice system was out to get them – and they weren’t wrong:

– This is not a new problem. I think that the protestors have hope that this is the time people will pay attention. It’s not hard to find examples of police violence. The statistics I could find reported some number between 400 and 1100 police killings a year. I have no doubt that most of them are justified by circumstance – but even if 3 out of 4 are justified, that’s almost a person a day wrongfully killed by police. Do you believe that the justice system that they work with every day takes a hard, uncompromised look at the circumstances?

When the people in charge are so arrogant that they don’t even attempt to avoid conflicts of interest and abuses of power, they are very difficult to trust. If you still did for some reason, anyways.

My friend Curtis also had some thoughts:

“It is the grand jury’s function not ‘to enquire … upon what foundation [the charge may be] denied,’ or otherwise to try the suspect’s defenses, but only to examine ‘upon what foundation [the charge] is made’ by the prosecutor. Respublica v. Shaffer, 1 Dall. 236 (O. T. Phila. 1788); see also F. Wharton, Criminal Pleading and Practice § 360, pp. 248-249 (8th ed. 1880). As a consequence, neither in this country nor in England has the suspect under investigation by the grand jury ever been thought to have a right to testify or to have exculpatory evidence presented.”
– Justice Antonin Scalia – 1992 – US vs Williams

“And you must find probable cause to believe that Darren Wilson did not act in lawful self-defense and you must find probable cause to believe that Darren Wilson did not use lawful force in making an arrest. If you find those things, which is kind of like finding a negative, you cannot return an indictment on anything or true bill unless you find both of those things. Because both are complete defenses to any offense and they both have been raised in his, in the evidence.”
– Prosecution instructions to jury members in the Daren Wilson Grand Jury Session

There is no “presumption of innocence” in a Grand Jury. There is no probable cause determination in a Grand Jury. The prosecution from their opening remarks to their summary statements were actively trying to block this indictment. I’m pretty sure the trial (if it had happened) would have just been more of the same.

All the white people lecturing about the proper way to protest might want to consider that when you are repeatedly ignored, you are likely to raise your voice.

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Mom’s Echoing Again

by on Nov.11, 2014, under politics, society, Uncategorized

So my mother posts some fairly right-wing essays, and then asks for respectful debate on them. I’ll give it a try, but if something is simply dishonest or wrong, it’s not an issue of politeness for me to point it out.

Seriously, read the essay first. You can tell by the author credits in his bio where this is headed, but still give it a try.

For starters, anyone who ignores simple inflation when throwing spending numbers around is intellectually dishonest at the jump. This error is compounded by ignoring that the country has grown over the period he’s talking about, so of course all figures are going to grow. Medicaid and Medicare costs are subject to the unsustainable increases in the cost of medical care, so they are also artificial accelerators in the fake numbers.

Finally, lumping Social Security in with all entitlement spending ignores the demographic spike of baby boomers hitting retirement age over the last few years. If you wanted to reason about the issue of entitlements, you’d separate Social Security, or at least acknowledge the issues in including it. If you need scary numbers, you count Social Security the same as food stamps or unemployment to make your point.

Real subtle to slip in this, too: “…minimum wages, maximum hours, and mandatory benefits for employees, or rent control for tenants. ” – which is simple regulation of commerce, not the creeping tendrils of the welfare state. No one who talks this way is attempting to make a reasoned case for anything. They are only trying to rile up people that are already receptive to the message, and further insulate them from reality with shoddy reasoning designed to convince them that the other side are all idiots who don’t see “obvious” things, instead of people who don’t accept the same framing.

For example, the framing of approaching the entire set of issues of common social welfare as one single issue, and then only with dollars and cents. That’s no way to consider or conduct complex policy that affects the health and well-being of people. I’m not saying to ignore money, because of course we want to get value for what we spend. I’m saying that money is not the start and end of the conversation.

And that’s the most obvious bullshit in the whole thing. Poverty *is* diminished by welfare spending. It’s preferable to be poor in America in 2014 instead of 1964, or 1914. Social programs are only successful if we achieve zero poverty? Is it really so hard to imagine that despite some waste and fraud, real people benefit from what we spend on social programs? Millions of children, elderly, and disabled people get housed and fed this way. Despite this fact, social programs are often characterized as setting money on fire.

The structural problems in our economy are growing poverty pretty fast, too – real wages are flat over the last 40 years despite a six-fold increase in worker productivity and greatly reduced job security and retirement benefits, while housing and health care continue to climb as a percentage of income, pushing people closer to the edge. The fact that we subsidize too-low wages with social programs, instead of the wages being high enough to not need them is also part of the issue.

I can’t blame people who can’t reason more effectively, but I can blame people who won’t. This guy knows – or should know – his version of “facts” as presented have obvious errors of reasoning in them. This does not qualify as debate.

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An interest with no lobbying group: Welfare Recipients

by on Feb.10, 2013, under politics, society

Since I became aware of politics, I’ve seen resentment whipped up towards people collecting welfare, characterizations of them as lazy, and word of mouth anecdotes to “support” the idea that welfare is a need created by laziness. Whether these anecdotes are any more real than Lemonjello and Orangejello is beside the point, or at least my point. Also besides the point are the hundred reasons why this program exists.

I want to talk about something specific: the scapegoating of welfare and the people who receive it. The reality is that people in this position are desperate, struggling to survive, and humiliated by the situation. I think the people resenting them are not only demonstrating a lack of empathy – they are showing a lack of understanding.

Here are some facts about TANF, the cash benefit program that most people are thinking of when they say “welfare”:

– Less than 5 million people (under 2% of the country) receive a cash benefit
– More than three out of four of these recipients are children.  (
– For a family of three, the maximum benefit in Ohio is $434/month. This is generous, compared to say, Arizona, which pays $278/month.
– None of these are ever inflation adjusted. Tennessee has been paying the same $185/month to a family of three since 1996.
– The cost of TANF had declined significantly since 1996. (

Total cost of TANF in 2011: 33.6 billion, which a little less than half (about 16) coming from the Federal government.

Some things that cost lots more:

– $673 billion this year on defense
– $405 billion/year to subsidize home ownership (
– $150 billion in subsidies to finance, utilities, telecom, and oil/gas (
– Separately, each of these tax breaks: Forgiveness of capital gains tax at death, deducting local and state taxes, ( …and…deducting our charitable contributions – or using the the tax law to subsidize our charitable giving.

So, is it a good investment to use .05% of the federal budget on this? Worth discussing, but everything’s worth discussing.  What is more likely, that one dollar in 20 of defense spending is wasted, or that we are too generous with our poorest?

Yes, the budget deficit and the debt are a problem. The barriers to solving them are the refusal to discuss revenue, social security, and defense. Poor kids are not the issue.

Is there any better reason for this scapegoating besides lack of a lobby and crypto-racism?

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Measuring Software Development and Testing

by on Sep.08, 2009, under society, tech

I posted this to the context-driven software testing list I’m on. If you want a quick primer on where the people I am talking with are coming from, go here. I’ll comment anything interesting that comes back from it. This was going to be a response to (a) request for industry standard metrics, but then a distillation of what I think about discussing software development and testing with managers fell out.

It’s very easy and true to say that the application of universal/typical/broadly applicable measurements for software quality is a bad and dangerous idea. Manufacturing measurements of quality don’t work, every “quantitative” measurement is based on qualitative data points and collection, etc.

The management theory we are engaging with believes that all business activities can and should be measured, that there is always a way to measure success, progress towards goals, and see the impacts of changes to process. Whether it is volume/cost/productivity/calls per unit/worker/mile/day, baseball statistics, etc, management of virtually every industry and occupation is believed to have been improved by this type of analysis.

It’s easy enough to see how someone approaching software development from this context grasps at bug counts, reporting dates, lines of code, or anything that smells like something that can be used to get a handle on what is happening and what to expect. Learning a business and developing a good enough “feel” (or bundle of heuristics, if you like) is hard and time-consuming anyways; for those without the background, even if they do have the intellectual horsepower, they are not going to learn fast enough from the insular, insecure, and often brilliant people they find in our field.

In the Power-Point(y-Headed boss) world most of us work in, managers want easy and universally applicable ways to get their bearings. These people need some idea whether they need to start shaking things up or stay the course, they need to be able to demonstrate their own positive impact, and so forth. How do we help these people feel warm and fuzzy about progress towards goals, measuring quality, success, etc? What can they do to help, and how will they know?

We need to not only be able to say what It Depends on, but to educate them about how to think about software quality and productivity in testing. How can we positively reframe the context? I’ve thought about what other contexts we might substitute to replace the manufacturing quality approach. Here’s three I’ve tried so far.

Since writing software is really more of a creative exercise, I have had some limited success asking people to think of it like other writing; focus on the verb and reflect on what it means. I’ve seen many writers say that they never finished a article/story/novel/etc, they simply ran out of time or patience (usually someone else’s) to keep improving it. This gets some nods sometimes, but doesn’t end any “But how do we measure it?” conversations.

Another approach I’ve tried is to say that writing software is like building a house while having to fabricate all the materials. Maybe you have a really skilled 2×6 developer and a really crappy electrical box developer, or he’s the same guy. This seems even farther away though, and lends itself too easily to people trying to participate in the metaphor incorrectly and missing the message that the process is not as simple as proper component assembly.

The other context I could compare it to is managing a research lab. How do you measure breakthroughs? How do you compare the impact of one breakthrough to another? How to you measure the impact of a breakthrough coming one month, week, or day earlier than it otherwise would have? This may be satisfying when you consider that managing a research lab consists of creating a quiet environment with sufficient resources and reliable experiment facilities for best thinking results, but still doesn’t address the issue of measurement and management. Also, this usually translates as “just stay out of the way”, which no one really wants to hear.

None of these frame the problem of the testing context. Testing metrics would be a measurement of how good we are at finding a percentage of a variable quantity dependent on multiple factors. I can probably list a lot of factors to talk about what “It Depends” on here, but still not something anywhere near enough to coherent for 8th grade reading levels and three sentence attention spans.

I’m thinking we may need to solve the software development context problem before we get to the testing one. That requires explaining and selling qualitative methodologies as intellectually rigorous and somewhat reproducible. Measurement? Er…

What do you think? Can you help me reframe the problem statement?

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Net Neutrality Is In The Air

by on Aug.25, 2009, under politics, society, tech

It might seem that we are winning, or at least not losing the net neutrality war right now. Or are we?

By we, I mean everyone that is not in the telecommunications business, and by winning, I mean that we are not dealing with our network providers deciding whose content and programs we can or can not run across the “last mile” of our internet connections. Web pages, cable tv, voice…it’s all bits. VOIP, streaming media, the democratization of media, the connection of the free world and even the explosion of what we used to call e-commerce back in the Nineteen Hundred and Nineties all happened because the network providers were not allowed/didn’t think of/were too incompetent to restrict access to the Internet.

Since many of our network providers (Time Warner, etc) are also content providers, they must be watched carefully so they do not abuse their position to advantage their other businesses. This is hugely important for fostering innovation. The last 15 years changed how we live, and simply couldn’t have happened if new ideas needed sponsorship and funding in order for an audience to see them.

If you are opposed to Network Neutrality, please issue yourself a generous dividend from the telecommunications provider you must have an ownership stake in and start considering your exit strategy. If you do not have any such financial position and still think that cable and telcos have your interests in mind, please shoot yourself.

I believe that our present and future is best served when we operate in the kind of market where new ideas can thrive, and the open Internet has shown itself to be an incredible laboratory for this. Net Neutrality was the plank in Obama’s platform that let me know that we were moving past “A Series of Tubes” in Washington, and that the good guys might even win this one. So far, so good, and it is a victory for all of us and our future that so far, anyone can set up a website and/or web service that anyone can get to.

However, another front in this fight has been ignored…up until now. Here is fresh evidence that some people in Washington are paying attention.

Previously, mobile providers have locked down on what we can do and how we can do it, and we’ve let them. The multiple handset makers and carriers provided at least the appearance of competition. Then, the breakthrough: Apple’s App Store. In less than a year and a half: 65,00 applications, 1.5 billion downloads, and from what I can tell, a lead as a mobile platform that is going to be really hard for anyone to catch up to.

A typical life cycle for a technology is for it to appear as innovation, to go through a generation or two of refinement, and then to become commoditized. Everyone enjoys the benefit of competition to provide the commodity, whether it is cars, groceries, or anything else where we have choice and open competition. Apple’s dark genius is that they only appear to have provided a platform where mobile apps can be commoditized and innovated on…as long as you support their hardware on their exclusive carrier.

In reality, they control the hardware, the operating system, and even the developer kit. This is similar to their personal computing model, except adding the idea that they get to evaluate and decide which applications can be run. Everyone craps on Microsoft about their competitive practices, with plenty of justification. Developers can still write whatever software they want for Windows, and don’t need to get Microsoft’s approval to release it to consumers. Microsoft doesn’t control the hardware AND pick your ISP, either.

There is a great deal of change and innovation to come over the next couple decades until we get to ubiquitous portable computing. Maybe application virtualization could make our mobile devices simple interfaces, provided wireless platforms and carriers don’t prevent it.

If we could go back to 1990, would we have let Windows become the standard for at least the next two decades? What will we think about the App Store in 2029?

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