May Contain Blueberries

the sometimes journal of Jeremy Beker

Whenever there is a group of people who intend to work together, whether a couple through marriage, friends planning an outing, citizens guiding a country, or employees running a company, decisions need to be made. Inevitably there are agreements, disagreements, and compromises. There are thousands of methods by which decisions can be reached, but the way in which a decision is reached and the motivations of the decision makers can indicate much about the health of the partnership.

The cynical question “who wears the pants in the family?” is often used to imply that there is one person in a marriage who is in charge. (We will ignore for this discussion the mysoginistic nature of the question.)

The same question can be applied to a company. When there is a conflict, large or small, between parties in the company, who wins? In examining this problem, I divide a company into two main areas: primary functions and support functions. Primary functions provide the stated, outward product or service the company offers while secondary functions are required to run a business but are not specific to any particular business sector. For example, at an automobile company, the engineering department or assembly department would be primary functions while the human resources or accounting would be support functions.

I have observed that as a company grows in size, the balance of power shifts from the primary functions to the secondary functions. In a small company, the majority of the employees are focused on the primary functions and the support functions are usually very small (often woefully small). This results in a very strong alignment between the public goal of the company and the majority of the employees of a company.

What happens as a company grows? The support functions must grow to answer the needs of a larger organization. No longer can one person handle all the accounting and human resources duties by themselves. Departments must be created and staffed.

This poses a huge risk. As with all organisms (and yes, a company is an organism made up of people, just like you and I are made up of cells), organisms desire one thing above all else; survival. The larger the organization, the larger this survival instinct becomes. And a desire to survive often leads to a high degree of risk-aversion.

Avoiding risk is a dangerous thing depending on how the organization responds. Sadly, the common way to avoid risk goes something like this:

  • A problem occurs (i.e. bug in software, lawsuit, etc.)
  • A process or procedure is created that would have caught that particular problem
  • That process is rolled out for everyone to implement

The problem with that methodology is that each process that is created takes time away from the core mission of a company. As an example, let us assume that FooBar Inc. makes widgets. Each widget takes 10 hours to complete, but 1% of the time a widget jams in the machines and causes 20 hours of downtime. This sounds horrible! So FooBar Inc. implements a new process that changes the manufacturing process by introducing a QA step on every widget. Sounds like a great idea. However, it adds 1 hour to each widget manufacture.

  • Old System: 100 widgets takes 1000 hours + 20 hours of downtime
  • New System: 100 widgets takes 1100 hours

So, in this scenario, a seemingly good idea (extra QA) actually makes the situation worse for making widgets. And this type of decision is made every single day in companies. A singular bad thing happened resulting in a policy that is applied to all scenarios. By not accepting that some risk is unavoidable or that the cost of avoiding some risks is greater than the risk themselves, companies fall into a spiral of creating more and more time consuming processes which eventually stifle their ability to achieve their stated goals.

At some point in the life of most every company there comes a tipping point. A point where the support organizations that oversee these policies and procedures take over. It is hard to see, but can be answered by our original question.

Who wears the pants in your company? When there is a conflict between a support function and a primary function and it is presented to your senior leadership, which way do they decide?

A lot can be judged by that decision.


I’ve been thinking recently about the human characteristics that are critical to match when looking at a workplace: what works, what doesn’t, what causes stress. While there are certainly characteristics about workplaces that are truly unacceptable (threats, harassment, etc.) there is still a broad range of workplace environments that could be considered normal: large company, small company, strict hierarchical, flat management, etc.. How does one look at oneself and determine if you will fit in well with the company philosophy?

In third and fourth grade, I was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons, the classic role playing, swords and socery game that was the passion of so many children and supposed to bring the satanic downfall of society. My friend Josh and I played somewhat infrequently in art class for a year or so. I enjoyed the game, but never became a die-hard player. D&D passed out of my life for a while until I got to college and my friends included those who were still avid players. I still found it hard to play regularly, but I always enjoyed the process of the game and the details that went into creating a character even if actually role-playing that character posed a challenge to me. Physical characteristics and abilities were well defined and quantified through the use of dice roles and formed the basis of how your character operated in the world. More abstract philosophical predisposition was wrapped up in a stat called alignment.

Alignment is a categorization of the ethical (Law/Chaos axis) and moral (Good/Evil axis) perspective of people, creatures and societies.

In D&D, mixing characters of different alignments can have unpredictable results. It should be obvious that mixing a character with a Good alignment with one of and Evil alignment is bound to cause problems, but the challenges of Lawful/Chaotic mixtures can be more subtle but critical to this discussion. Since I believe that we all strive to the Good end of the spectrum, we will restrict ourselves to how the Lawful/Chaotic axis effects our lives.

At its most basic level a person characterized as Lawful Good is one who believes in following rules and respecting authority as the source of positive action in the world. While a Chaotic Good person has a strong inner moral compass to do good as they see it, without regard for established, reognized authorities. For example, the stereotypical medieval knight would be Lawful Good as he follows a strict moral code shared among all knights while Robin Hood did good deeds based on his own internal moral compass.

How does this effect the workplace? Companies have an alignment as well. An organization such as IBM could be seen to be a Lawful organization. It has a traditional view of management hierarchy with well established rules and codes of conduct. Whereas a company such as Google might be considered more Chaotic as it has a more free-wheeling style and supports some level of autonomy from its employees. While all of these characteristics are a sliding scale from Lawful to Chaotic, having a general match is critical.

Picture a Lawful Good employee at a Chaotic Good company? The company will expect the employee to have an internal sense of what they want to acomplish while the employee will be grasping for a level of structure that probably does not exist.

Chaotic Good employee and Lawful Good company? The situation is no better. The employee will be constantly fighting against a system they don’t see the need for while trying to reach the same goals.

Real world examples are of course more nuanced than this, but having a good understaning of the workplace environment you will mess with the best is critical as you look for work in any company. Learning these traits about a company is critical to your happiness and success at a company and you should think about them.

And if you are unsure, take an alignment test, you may learn something!

Changing relationship between employees and employers No long term commitment Employers complain and blame employees Failure to realize it is a two way street

In April of 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay entitled Politics and the English Language. In his essay, he drew a correlation between the quality of diction and writing and the quality of political thought by the population of the United States. He saw a shift in the English language, especially in its use in politics, towards communication which was not intended to inform the reader but to obscure the intentions of the writer or the facts being shared.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.

Orwell’s observation of political speech in the mid-40s is just as true today as it was then. Serious issues that affect the lives of every person are distilled to meaningless simplifications. And issues which have virtually no impact on citizens daily lives are exaggerated into rallying cries to bring forward the anger of one political base or the other. (I have intentionally not given any examples of each as I don’t want to give this article a partisan bias. All politicians do this.)

As a lover of technology and one who always hopes that technology will be an enabler of a better and more educated future I hate that the advance of technology has made the situation worse in many areas. Television created the “sound bite.” Twitter and Facebook translated it to an electronic medium that requires or encourages short dialog. While a short phrase can be well crafted, it lacks the ability to give the detail that I feel is required to bring about an informed audience.

An informed audience is critical in all aspects of life, not just politics. I do not believe there is ever a situation in life where being less informed about a topic better prepares you for dealing with it. Computers and engineering certainly.

In my professional and personal life I am becoming well known for being pedantic. In the realm of technical discussion being specific in your communication is critical. Jon Postel codified this idea for computing as “be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others.” [1. Robustness Principle ] It is a simple idea that you should be specific and critical of any information you send to others to ensure its meaning is exact while being generous in receiving information from others if their intentions are clear.

This rule applies to human communications as well. Returning to Orwell:

It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

I see that in my office; the repeated use of inaccurate or incorrect language when discussing projects results in inaccuracies spreading from person to person. By not using precise language, people are unable to explain how our products work. This miasma of uncertainty grows over time causing confusion and mistakes.

I find myself worrying that I have become a curmudgeon on this topic. I insist on being pedantic and have been known to take on an inquisitor-like persona in an attempt to extract the actual meaning from someone I am talking with. I hope, however, that I can be a small agent in executing on Orwell’s desire:

The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.

I hope that you will take the time to read Orwell’s essay and begin taking “the necessary trouble.” He finishes with a set of guidelines for better writing and speaking that are worth taking note of. They will make all of us better writers and speakers. They even help with writing shorter tweets.

In early July of 2012, life was different. Marissa Mayer had not yet been appointed CEO of Yahoo. The US House of Representatives had only voted 32 times to defund the Affordable Care Act. Amtrak’s downeaster train service was about to break its annual ridership record. And I was not yet married to my wonderful wife.

But sadly, my iPhone 4 decided it didn’t want to charge its battery anymore, so while I was able to do a final over-the-air backup, it slowly ran out of power and went to sleep. Being the pack rat I am, I did not get rid of it but held onto it in the hopes that some day I would fix it.

THAT DAY HAS COME! I ordered a replacement dock connector cable and installed it this morning. After a few minutes with a friendly charger, my trusty iPhone 4 woke from its long 16 month nap, slightly confused.

I thought it would be interesting to compare a snapshot of where I was with my iPhone nearly a year and a half ago to where I am today. So I present to you 16 month old iPhone screenshot with today’s!

iPhone5 iPhone4

I was quite surprised by the changes. Clearly there is the difference between iOS 5.1.1 and iOS 7.0.4, which to me is shown by the brightness of most of the icons but also in my choice of background image. My current one is from the great photographer John Carey at Fifty Foot Shadows who published a set of images specifically designed to take advantage of the parallax effect in iOS 7.

There is also a clear change in the way I manage and use apps on my phone. I used to obsessively keep everything I used on a single home screen forcing me to use folders. Since then, I have given up using folders on my main screen (they now reside on a second screen to the right) which allows me to have the apps I use most within a single tap.

My app choices are still similar with a focus on location based items and social media. It is quite fun to have an app that Tiffany I wrote, Amiko, on my home screen. I also have embraced podcasts to a much larger extent and have moved beyond Apple’s built-in app to start using Pocket Casts (although I am eagerly awaiting Marco Arment’s new app, Overcast).

Notable apps

  • Amiko - The best way to stay in touch with your friends and not forget those who are out of sight. (You really think I wouldn’t promote our app first?)
  • Pocket Casts - Much better than Apple’s app, but still has some weird UI/Interactions
  • Pocket - Great “read it later” suite including iPhone, iPad, web, browser integration, and app integration
  • Reeder - Best RSS reader in my book
  • Tweetbot - Funky, but I love their style
  • Dark Sky - Best. Weather. App. Ever. It saved our wedding. What else can I say?

Apps which have fallen by the wayside

  • Instagram - To be blunt, they have turned into dicks since being acquired by facebook. The public spat with Twitter that serves their purpose and not their users just pissed me off.
  • Daily Burn - Nothing really wrong, I just switched to using My Fitness Pal (but still not as much as I should)

So I hope you have enjoyed my trip down memory lane. Soon enough I will update my old phone and it will go into service as my car iPhone (replacing my iPhone 3G which is currently serving that purpose).

[Updated to answer questions]

  • The Flickr app has replaced Instagram. I like that I have better control over the posting and the images are full resolution. It allows me to share wherever I want and doesn’t edit my post text (f-u Instagram for removing @ mentions). I also think the design is spot on.
  • I am using reminders, not so much as a “do this thing at this time” but more as a general place to jot down quick things. So, for example, I have a list of possible iOS App ideas and a list of features/bugs I need to fix in Amiko.
  • While I do work to address notifications, I think the reason there are more on the old screenshot is that given that I used so many folders, I had many more apps “present” on the home screen that could show a badge (they roll up inside a folder)


At the gym this morning, I was talking with Terry and we were discussing our mutual love for IFTTT, a great tool for automating actions on the internet. Specifically we were talking about ways to get videos we are interested in watching into our Pocket feeds. I am a big fan of Wil Wheaton’s TableTop web series (and you should be too). But, rather than having to check YouTube for new episodes or get some sort of email notifications, I just wanted new episodes to be inserted into my Pocket feed whenever they came out so I could see them on my computer, iPad, or iPhone.

The first step is rather cumbersome, but everything after that is easy. I am going to assume that you already have a Pocket and IFTTT accounts and you have linked your Pocket account to IFTTT.

Go to the Youtube playlist you want, like the TableTop one.**4F80C7D2DC8D9B6C**

Now, take the part I have highlighted above (the playlist ID, 4F80C7D2DC8D9B6C) and insert it into this URL:**4F80C7D2DC8D9B6C**

(I do not get credit for this, I found it on Elliott Bledsoe’s website: How to - Subscribe to a YouTube playlist using RSS)

Step 2: Create a new rule in IFTTT


Create a new rule in IFTTT using the RSS channel with the URL you created in Step 1. The Action will be to add a new item to Pocket with the URL of “EntryURL.” You can see my TableTop rule here: Save new TableTop episodes to Pocket

That’s it!

Unrelated to the recent events showing that our data on the internet is even less secure than many thought, I’ve developed a certain fascination with having VPN connections available for my mobile devices. Most articles that discuss using mobile devices stress the importance of not doing sensitive (or any) work while on public WiFi networks. The ability of other to sniff your data is just too easy. As a result, I have configured my devices to connect to my home server which runs Strongswan so that all my traffic gets tunneled to my house before exiting onto the internet. (And yes, I know that my ISP has full access to the data once it leaves my home, but there is no general solution to avoiding that.)

I am by no means an expert at setting up VPNs, but I have gotten my setup down pretty well. But one frustration was that my OS (Fedora) did not have any facility to include information that Strongswan generated about connections in the system log files in my daily Logwatch reports. All I ended up with was a huge collections of lines like this:

charon: 05[IKE] IKE_SA vpn-ikev2[306] established between 
   A.B.C.D[C=US, O=Confusticate, CN=bree]...
   W.X.Y.Z[C=US, O=Confusticate, CN=Thinkpad]
charon: 05[IKE] CHILD_SA vpn-ikev2{296} established with 
   SPIs c7b686bf_i cc98f0a4_o and TS ::/0 === 2001:340:e496:6::/64
charon: 15[IKE] CHILD_SA vpn-ikev2{296} established with 
   SPIs c2f5678a_i cc8fbed8_o and TS ::/0 === 2001:340:e496:6::/64
charon: 04[IKE] closing CHILD_SA vpn-ikev2{296} with 
   SPIs c78fe56bf_i (26135 bytes) cc53191a4_o (48092 bytes) and 
   TS ::/0 === 2001:340:e496:6::/64

So after looking at those for a few months I finally wrote my own scripts for Logwatch to get me some prettier output:

--------------------- Strongswan Begin ------------------------
IKE_SA Connections Initiated:
      A.B.C.D 10 Time(s)
   Main Mode IKE_SA:
      A.B.C.E 2 Time(s)

IKE_SA Connections:
      A.B.C.D[C=US, O=Confusticate, CN=bree]...[C=US, O=Confusticate, CN=Thinkpad]
         Established 10 Time(s)
         Destroyed 10 Time(s)

CHILD_SA Connections:
   vpn-ikev2: ::/0 === 2001:340:e496:6::/64
         Established 38 Time(s)
         Destroyed 38 Time(s)
         Data In 1.113M
         Data Out 3.015M

---------------------- Strongswan End -------------------------

I have attached the scripts and configuration files to the end of this post. There are a few configuration files and the script itself; the tar file is laid out just like they need to be placed in your Logwatch configuration directories (mine are in /etc/logwatch). I have only tested this on my system (a Fedora system) so your mileage may vary. I am happy to get any reactions or ideas (ideas with patches are even better).

Download: logwatch-strongswan-0.0.1.tgz

Update: Uploaded code to GitHub.

So, the July jobs report came out. I was curious as to how the different news agencies were covering it. Amazing the different spin they put on it. Can you match the quote to the news outlet?

Economy’s job engine revved up in July

U.S. Added 163,000 Jobs in July; Jobless Rate Ticked Up

Jobless rate jumps as economy adds only 163,000 jobs

July jobs report: Hiring picks up, but unemployment rises

Are they even talking about the same facts? #1 is MSNBC, #2 is the NYTimes, #3 is Fox, and #4 is CNN. CNN and the NYTimes take a balanced approach, Fox and MSNBC are loopy.


In the aftermath of the events in Aurora, Colorado the old arguments about gun control are starting to bubble to the surface again. How this is even an argument baffles me. I work under the assumption that everyone, extremists from both sides of the spectrum, agree that people getting killed is a bad thing. The anti-gun control arguments seem to follow two themes:

  1. Guns make people safer
  2. The 2nd Amendment says individuals can have guns

Let’s quickly examine each. Gun control opponents are proud of the fact that the United States has some of the least restrictive gun control laws and the highest gun ownership in the developed world. Sadly, the United States also has a nearly 15 times higher gun death rate too. According to research done by Politifact Virginia (Rep. Jim Moran says U.S. gun homicide rate 20 times higher than other western nations), comparing the United States to 23 other developed countries with median incomes over $12,276, the United States gun deaths were 3 per 100,000 people. The other 22 combined? 0.2 per 100,000 people. How this can show anything other than less guns equals less gun deaths is beyond me.

If we look at a striking example, let’s investigate Japan, a country with arguably the most restrictive gun control laws (for the tech geeks out there, the US could be said to be default-allow, Japan is default-deny). Using data from 2008 (A Land Without Guns), we, in the United States, had more gun deaths in the last 8 hours than Japan had in the whole year. The whole year!

A followup argument is usually: “If someone wants to kill you, they will find a way.” I don’t buy that. Frankly, killing someone with a gun is comparatively easy than using any other easily accessible weapon (knife, bat, tire iron, etc.) And killing a lot of people with those other weapons is very hard to do. Don’t even bring up bombs and other methods to kill people. Making an effective bomb is hard. Much harder than buying a gun. And just go and try to but bomb-making supplies and see how fast the FBI is knocking on your door.

But if we accept the premise that “people will find a way to kill?” What does the data tell us (UN data linked from: Global homicide: murder rates around the world). Using the same countries from the gun stats above, how does the US stack up in overall homicide rates? We win again! 5.9 homicides per 100,000 people. Next highest? Finland with 2.8 per 100,000. Average among the other 22? 1.5 per 100,000.

Guns don’t make people safer. The facts don’t support this. Anecdotes, sure; facts, no.

How about the Constitutional argument? Let’s start with the text:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

A bit more murky. The Supreme Court has upheld the individual right to gun ownership (District of Columbia v. Heller) but also held that the right is not unlimited and can be restricted. Justice Scalia states “We therefore read Miller to say only that the Second Amendment does not protect those weapons not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes…” The Court has left open the possibility that regulation of “non-typical” weapons is reasonable.

I hope that the various groups will finally start coming together and developing common sense restrictions that might help bring the United States more in line with the rest of the developed world. I don’t want to spend my time in movies as I did this past Sunday tracking everyone who walked into or out of the theater.

Related Articles worth reading:

  • Jason Alexander’s essay on the Aurora massacre

In 142 days I will be getting married. While it happens to be that my choice of a partner is a woman, I am not marrying Tiffany because she is a woman. There are approximately 3.375 billion woman out there that I am not marrying. I am marrying Tiffany because I love her and want to spend my life with her as an individual. The fact that my choice is a woman is due to a particular set of genetic settings, nothing more.

Last night when I saw the announcement that 59% of North Carolina voters approved a state constitutional amendment which withholds the same right I have to choose the person I love to marry from a subset of their neighbors, brothers, sisters, and friends, I felt a host of emotions. Anger, disgust, dismay, shame, guilt.

Everyone should be clear on what is happening here. A majority of citizens is telling a minority of citizens that their love is worth less than theirs. It is that simple. It is not “protecting marriage;” no one has shown that any damage will occur to heterosexual marriage if homosexual marriage is allowed. No one is suggesting we ban divorce. It is not “for the children;” no one is suggesting infertile couples can’t marry. It is pure, unadulterated bigotry and discrimination. And it is disgusting.

I support gay marriage rights. I will be renewing my ACLU membership today. I suggest you find an organization that supports equal rights for everyone and support it too.