My Name is Legion

Two recent news items featured a routine business activities that by rights would never have been noteworthy. The first involved a man selling his company on the best tax terms he could get. The second involved a company hiring some security guards. Why should anyone care about these unremarkable transactions?


Maybe because the businessman selling the company in the first case was former vice-president Al Gore. The buyer as also named Al. Al Jazeera. The New York Times explains:

Al Jazeera did not disclose the purchase price, but people with direct knowledge of the deal pegged it at around $500 million, indicating a $100 million payout for Mr. Gore, who owned 20 percent of Current. Mr. Gore and his partners were eager to complete the deal by Dec. 31, lest it be subject to higher tax rates that took effect on Jan. 1, according to several people who insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. But the deal was not signed until Wednesday. …

Going forward, the challenge will be persuading Americans to watch — an extremely tough proposition given the crowded television marketplace and the stereotypes about the channel that persist to this day.

“There are still people who will not watch it, who will say that it’s a ‘terrorist network,’ ” said Philip Seib, the author of “The Al Jazeera Effect.” “Al Jazeera has to override that by providing quality news.”

With a handful of exceptions (including New York City and Washington), American cable and satellite distributors have mostly refused to carry Al Jazeera English since its inception in 2006. While the television sets of White House officials and lawmakers were tuned to the channel during the Arab Spring in 2011, ordinary Americans who wanted to watch had to find a live stream on the Internet.


Gore will now be part of the new outlet’s advisory board. The second otherwise dull item was that the Journal News was hiring security guards. Don’t thousands of businesses do that? Well yes, but the Journal News was the anti-gun newspaper that published the names of registered gun owners in its area in order to shame them. Now they’re defending themselves with guns.

The Wall Street Journal writes “under normal circumstances, a company’s lawful security arrangements would hardly be newsworthy. But as we noted Monday, the Journal News provoked the bitter backlash that so frightened McBride by publishing a report in which it named residents of the two counties who have done exactly what the Journal News has now done: lawfully availed themselves of their rights under the Second Amendment.”

Caryn McBride [the editor], was receiving vaguely menacing “negative correspondence” and phone calls. At least twice she made reports to police, in one case telling them “she was worried because an email writer wondered ‘what McBride would get in her mail now.’ ”

The cops told her there was nothing they could do, for the communications were not true threats and thus “did not constitute an offense.” That didn’t reassure McBride, who was understandably worried that the missives might have come from a dangerous criminal. So she decided to protect herself with guns.



One can only wish Al Gore and McBride both prosperity and safety respectively. Neither has apparently done anything wrong. But the irony that the former Democratic Party stalwart was trying to wriggle out from under having to pay his “fair share” to the taxman or that the anti-gun newspaper was defending itself with guns will probably not escape readers.

Nor will it pass unnoticed by those following the contrasting fates of Washington DC residents David Gregory and Army private Adam Meckler. One is a celebrity journalist and the other a former enlisted man. Neither has been accused of harming anyone, but their situations are now a world apart.

It’s been more than a week since police in Washington, D.C., opened an investigation into NBC’s David Gregory’s possession of a “high-capacity magazine” that’s prohibited in the District on on national TV. Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier’s spokesman refused Monday to respond to whether Mr. Gregory had even been interviewed yet. This is a rather curious departure for a city that has been ruthless in enforcing this particular firearms statute against law-abiding citizens who made an honest mistake.

In July, The Washington Times highlighted the plight of former Army Spc. Adam Meckler, who was arrested and jailed for having a few long-forgotten rounds of ordinary ammunition — but no gun — in his backpack in Washington. Mr. Meckler, a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, says he had no idea it was illegal to possess unregistered ammunition in the city. He violated the same section of D.C. law as Mr. Gregory allegedly did, and both offenses carry the same maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine and a year in jail.


These anecdotes bring into focus an issue that is rarely presumed to exist in a society in which everyone is supposedly equal before the law: exception handling. “Exception handling” is the process by which a system deals with anomalous or unforeseen events.

In the real world there are exceptions to every man-made rule and we recognize their occasional necessity at sight.  If one were told there were armed men at a school there might be a moment of worry — then we learn they’re just the President’s bodyguards. Rule meets exception. Handled.

What is less widely appreciated are the economic costs to exception handling, a fact is well known in the IT industry but often missed by political theorists. In the computing world everyone knows that the best case is where code is so well written that exceptions occur rarely. Moreover exceptions are handled according to severity and level with the resulting error information channeled with design performance in mind. Because error handling across different parts of the system (i.e. domains) is expensive, you deal with things at the lowest level you can properly do so.  Otherwise a poorly designed exception system can slow things up by several hundred fold.

But none of these considerations seem to apply in public life  If anything best exemplifies spaghetti code it is the politically correct legal system. It is riddled with unworkable  provisions, unaffordable mandates, conflicting penalties and special interest loopholes. It’s nightmare code. The legal system can be thought of as a Congressionally written source program which,  when fed into government, is somehow supposed to compile into executable code.


It probably doesn’t compile at all.  The only way anything works at all is through the ingenuity of old hands on the job, who by the application of unofficial rules, winks and nods and shortcuts manage to get things from 9 to 5.  In other words the entire thing is a mass of exception handlers. Nothing can be just routine except rejection. Everything that actually happens must be just a little bit special. What can go wrong in such a system was explored by programmers in a book titled Anti-Patterns.  Some, but not all of the pitfalls are listed in this Wikipedia entry. But the reader may recognize these dire symptoms as the condition of runaway government.

Bystander apathy: When a requirement or design decision is wrong, but the people who notice this do nothing because it affects a different group of people.

Big ball of mud: A system with no recognizable structure.

Race hazard: Failing to see the consequence of different orders of events.

Anemic Domain Model: The use of the domain model without any business logic. The domain model’s objects cannot guarantee their correctness at any moment, because their validation and mutation logic is placed somewhere outside (most likely in multiple places).

God object: Concentrating too many functions in a single part of the design (class).

Accidental complexity: Introducing unnecessary complexity into a solution.

Action at a distance: Unexpected interaction between widely separated parts of a system.

Blind faith: Lack of checking of (a) the correctness of a bug fix or (b) the result of a subroutine.

Cargo cult programming: Using patterns and methods without understanding why.


And my favorite: “Coding by exception: Adding new code to handle each special case as it is recognized”. Coding by exception is really a recognition that you’ve put the wall in completely the wrong place and that unless one opens an increasing number of doors in it then nothing will work. It’s an admission that things are so screwed up that without fancy footwork you’ll wind up arresting yourself.

A world in which it’s bad for a prosperous plumber not to pay his “fair share” but OK for Al to sell to Al for $100 million; where a newspaper can do what it denounces or where a journalist can commit a crime on TV may not yet be a world where there are legal exceptions, but it’s getting there.

This is probably how politically correct systems function, if at all. They create multiple categories of exceptions to everything. There are exemptions handed out by race, religion, ethnic origin, fame and political affiliation. Eventually they make such a mockery of the rule that when the system actually operates unmodified it is an exceptional event. In such a morass it no longer even pays to know what normal is. All that is necessary is to make sure you belong to the exceptional category.

And having arrived there things are “fixed”. But not in the correct sense.

The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99


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