Trust and Government / Trust in Government

Earlier today, I did a post on Facebook about the increase in the California Gas Tax (i.e., the per-gallon tax at the pump), linking to the Caltrans website on SB1. In the post, I noted: ” For all my friends who are concerned about the gas tax increase that goes into effect today (12c a gallon — c’mon folks — that’s perhaps $3 a tank — the cost of a burger at McDonalds! — you can afford that for better roads — esp. at a tank a week), here’s a great explanation of where that money is going, and how it is restricted. In particular, take a look at the list of projects being supported.”

Some of the reaction I got took me by surprise.

I don’t want to go into the specifics of the gas tax. There was a bunch of debate on how it would be spent, but that’s not the subject I want to address here. Let me repeat that for those that can’t hear: This is not a post specifically about the gas tax. Got it? Good.

What really took me by surprise was the level of distrust of Government. There was a clear and strong opinion from a segment that believed that the government would mismanage any funds that it was given, and therefore we shouldn’t let them have any. This is a position I’ve heard time and again from Conservatives and Libertarians these days. It is one reason why I believe people supported Trump — he was campaigning against the untrustworthy government. Never mind that he was equally untrustworthy and … pay no attention to that man behind the curtain … but I digress.

Now, when I was growing up, it was us Liberals that didn’t trust the government. But that’s because they were lying to us, not mispending our money.

I don’t expect anyone to change their position on trusting government from this post. Everyone can point to numerous examples where government has misused our trust. That’s not hard. Further, any parent will tell you that once trust is lost, it is very very hard to earn back. It takes time — but with government, we don’t even give it the time.

Rather, what I would like people to take away from this is as follows:

  • What is the better alternative? In many cases, these functions can’t be done privately or by individuals. Privatizing the process has not worked. We need to work to make Government better and trustworthy, not blow it up or write it off.
  • Government funding is complex. Incredibly complex. There are different pots of funds that can only be spent for specific purposes. There are rules and regulations that end up costing immense amount of money, put in place because people misused and did untrustworthy things before (one need look no further than acquisition regulations). What might seem simple and sensical to us is impossible at the government level because of regulations — and then ends up looking like waste.
  • In some cases, government behaves the way it does for the same reason you manage your house the way you do. You budget for a certain amount of money to come in based on some rosy assumptions (“Sure, I’ll get that raise.”), and then they don’t. At your house, what do you do? You defer repairing the roof or the air conditioner so you can pay your food bill. In government, you take money from transportation repair so you can pay your prison guards and highway patrol officers. Remember: It’s complicated.

Our government may be vastly imperfect and incredibly frustrating. It may do things that you don’t like. But it is still much much better than some of the alternatives out there. However, for it to work, we need to trust in it and let it work, not actively campaign to tear it down or blow it up (which, I believe, were Steve Bannon’s words, not mine).


A Very Fine Line

One of the reasons I’ve really grown to like the new Fox series The Orville is that it does what Star Trek did originally: tell stories that are commentaries on society and its foibles in the context of Science Fiction (which is something that, to my understanding, Star Trek: Discovery is not doing). Last week’s episode was a great example of that: a parallel Earth where laws were replaced by the Court of Public Opinion. If the public thinks you have committed an offense, you are down-voted. Get enough, and you get cleansed, unless you can reverse public opinion. Sound familiar today? But we are a society of laws, and people are not guilty by public opinion alone. We depend on facts.

What brings this to mind are all the sexual harassment claims coming out these days. The ends of the spectrum, of course, are clear. Is there any question regarding the Harvey Weinsteins, the Bill Cosbys, or the Donald Trumps? There are clear patterns occurring over many many years. Even with cases like Anthony Rapp and Kevin Spacey, clear patterns are emerging. At the other end are the clear good guys, who have always shown respect and listened to “no”.

But in the middle, where we do draw the line? When do we turn from a fact-based society and the court of law to the court of public opinion. There was an image going around Facebook of Pepe LePew grabbing the cat and the cat resisting, and the caption was: How do you think we taught this behavior? If we go back and look at the media from much of the 20th century, there is much behavior there that wouldn’t be acceptable today. If people were following the mores of the time, how can we judge them by today’s mores?

[I’ll note this is a deep question that goes beyond sexual issues: Do we judge the founders of this country differently because they legally owned slaves? The people of biblical days different because they stoned gays? We can look back and note the behavior would be judged differently today, but that’s hindsight. It’s wrong to us; it wasn’t wrong to them. Times change and values change and we move forward. Think about this: After the Civil War was over and slaves were freed, were the Plantation Owners criminally charged for their antebellum actions? Criminal charges are different than acknowledgement, reparations, and changing behavior from what you did in the past.]

What got me thinking about this was some recent items in the news that were single incidents, such as Jeremy Piven and Dustin Hoffman. For some of these, the public is reacting and taking action against someone even before charges are investigated, just because of the climate of the times — and even when the charge is denied. There is the assumption that the person making the charge is always truthful — wait, since we’re talking about past instances, is always remembering accurately. Remember, when we’re talking about incidents in the past, “truth” is relative. Memory can be faulty, especially in times of media frenzy.  Look no further than the McMartin Preschool case, where there ended up being no criminal charges. Further, there is often a clear difference between what one means by an action, and how that action is interpreted by another. Just ask anyone who is married :-).

At a computer security talk I once went to, a speaker hypothesized that the best attack against someone was to go to a conference room computer, load child porn onto it, and then delete it, and then make an accusation. After all, the offending pictures were there and deleted — there must be a coverup. When could these sex abuse claims cross that line?

I’m not saying I know the answer. I can’t draw a clear demarcation line, even if I would like to. I can clearly see the edges — the clear patterns of abuse over a long time, the clear patterns of no abuse at all. But for the onsie-twosie cases with no patterns, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to trot out the Court of Public Opinion, unless their is an admission. There are also concerns about incidents seemingly not at the level of patterns of abuse resulting in oversize reactions. Perhaps we should let the case go to the court systems to find out the real evidence, or figure out some way to make things more fact-based, and reactions more commensurate, to live up to our constitutional protection that one is innocent until proven guilty by some sufficient standard of evidence.

P.S.: I’m not sure we’re there yet anyway, when I watch TV and CBS is touting the Victoria Secret Fashion Show.


The Worst Programming Language

Yesterday, while reading my RSS feeds, a post came across titled, “Perl is the most hated programming language“.  The article was referencing a Stack Overflow report that was characterized as saying: “Perl, the Old Spice of programming languages, is the most disliked by a significant margin, reports Stack Overflow. Delphi, used by children to write viruses for adults, and Visual Basic, used by adults to write games for children, are running neck-and-neck for second place. Trailing far behind are PHP, for people who still don’t care about security, and Objective-C, for people who still don’t realize they work for Apple. Coffeescript, a language designed to make Javascript more annoying, takes sixth spot; Ruby, very briefly popular among people who wanted to write web apps without actually doing any work, lurks in seventh.”

Now them’s fighting words.

I also took a look at a discussion on the subject over on Slashdot, where the comments were equally derogatory towards Perl, as well as a number of other languages. It is a amazing the hatred cluelessness out there. This is a discussion that has been going on forever about what is the most hated, the worst, the ugliest, the … programming language. I know. I’m a Compusaur — I’ve been programming since the mid-1970s, cutting my teeth on languages like BASIC, FORTRAN IV, and APL, and I’ve used even older language. I’m also — and I can say this with absolute confidence — the person who has been programming in Perl the longest with the exception of Larry, it’s author. I’m Perl’s Paternal Godparent; Larry, Mark, Jon, and I were carpooling to SDC when he wrote the first version of Perl, and I’m the person who was doing combo Perl-QMenu scripts to support the BLACKER program. I’m the one who knows that Perl would not exist without the TCSEC (Orange Book), so don’t say the NSA hasn’t given you anything.  I wrote the first version of the history section in the Camel book, fuggahdsake.

But back to the question at hand: Whenever anyone tells you that something is the worst or the most hated, you must learn context. You think Perl is bad for readability? Try reading APL or LISP, and remember that COBOL was designed to be readable.  Different languages and different editors are good for different things. Almost everything has strengths and weaknesses.

Perl is best at what it was originally designed to do: Text manipulation and report generation. It is great for easy text parsing scripts thanks to regular expressions and associative arrays, and implementing state machine parsing tools isn’t complicated. I have a large tool that at its heart is perl; it is perl that helps me generate the California Highway pages. But is perl the best language for system administration (which is what the Stack Overflow folks do)? No.

I’ve worked with loads and loads of languages, from Algol to Zed (well, I’ve looked at a little Zed — it is a formal methods language like Ina-Jo or Gypsy). I’ve written large programs in Algol 68C and PL/I (actually, both PL/C and PL/I (X)). I’ve worked in BASIC (especially RSTS/E Basic, which was a model for some Perl syntax), Fortran IV and 77 and WATFIV, COBOL, C, Ada, and APL. I’ve even done some LISP and SNOBOL, as well as MINITAB. To me, the language I had the most is Excel Spreadsheet Macro Languages, for I’ve seen difficult to find errors in that language to devastate organizations.

But most of the “kids” responding to that poll grew up in a different era. They learn Java and C++ and drink the Object Oriented Kool-Aide. They deal with PHP and Python and hosts of other new scripting languages, and complain about the old — without realizing that the newer languages are building upon the foundations of the previous ones, correcting the mistakes for a new generation.

In reality, the programming language you hate the most is the one that you’re unfamiliar with, that someone wrote bad code in, with no comments, that you have to maintain. Just as you can write easy to maintain code in any language (including APL — but in APL you can write it in one line), you can write garbage in any language.

All it takes is talent.