Thursday, April 09, 2009

Have you ever legalized marijuana?

Over the holidays I read a neat book called Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, by Dan Ariely. The book is a fascinating glimpse into several bizarre and unfortunate bugs in our mental software. These bugs cause us to behave in weird but highly predictable ways in a bunch of everyday situations.

For instance, one chapter explains why bringing an uglier version of yourself to a party is guaranteed to get you more attention than other people who are arguably better-looking than you are. I personally do this all the time, except that I'm usually the ugly one. The same principle explains a ploy used by real-estate agents to get you to buy ugly houses.

Another chapter explains the bug that causes you to be a packrat, and shows why you desperately hold on to things you own, even if you know deep down that they would rate lower than pocket lint on eBay.

In any case, well, good book. I'm going to harsh on it a teeny bit here, but it's only one tiny part towards the end, one that actually has little to do with the rest of the research presented in the book. I still highly recommend it. It's only about a 4- or 5-hour read: beyond the reach of most social-network commenters, perhaps, but you can probably handle it just fine.

So: about that harshing. Dan Ariely, who seems like a pretty fascinating guy in his own right, independent of his nifty book, says something that's kinda naïve towards the end. It doesn't seem naïve at all when you first read it. But naïve it is.

Towards the end of the book — and I apologize here, since my copy is on loan to a friend at the moment, and you can't search inside the book on Amazon.com no-thanks to the book's publisher, so I can't double check the exact details — but towards the end, Dan works himself into a minor frenzy over what seems like a neat idea about credit cards.

Credit Card Buckets

Dan's idea is simple and appealing: let's partition credit limits into "buckets". People are always maxing out their credit cards, and it leads to all sorts of financial misery, since the rates are always by definition just epsilon short of legal usury, so most people can never, ever pay down the debt.

Dan's idea is more or less as follows: you divide up your credit card available balance into "buckets", where each bucket represents a type of expense. You might, for instance, have a bucket for rent and utilities, a bucket for alimony, a bucket for chocolate and desserts, a bucket for sports and leisure activities, a bucket for dining out, a bucket for home improvement, a bucket for groceries, and a bucket for discretionary spending, or "misc".

Each bucket would have its own credit limit, and the sum of all the individual limits would be your credit limit. Let's assume you pay off your credit card entirely every month — not typical, but it simplifies the explanation. Each month, you'd have a certain amount of money to spend on each bucket, and you would not be allowed to spend more than the limit for that purchase type.

OK, so that's the way I understood the proposal. There were several pages devoted to it, as I recall, so I may have missed a few nuances here and there, but I'm hoping I've captured the essence of it.

As an aside, I read a short diatribe many years ago by a working mom whose kids were always asking her why they couldn't spend more money on entertainment purchases like video games. She was having trouble getting through to them, so one month she took her paycheck, went to a bank, and got it issued to her in 1-dollar bills. She took the bills home and piled them up on the table in front of her kids, who were amazed at the giant pile of money she had made. She then went through her budget with them, stacking the bills into piles by expense type: this many dollars for rent, this many for utilities, this many for groceries, this many for soccer uniforms, etc. At the end there were only a couple of dollars left, and the kids soberly realized that they needed to wait about 20 years and then start downloading games illegally online.

Anyway, Dan's idea was kind of similar. In order to train consumers not to overspend in a given category, leading to overall overspending, they would be able to opt-in to a program that partitioned their credit, and presumably it would lead to much wiser, more deliberate spending.

It seemed logical enough to me! It sounds similar to calorie-counting: I've found that explicitly keeping track of my calorie consumption each day does wonders for lowering my overall calorie intake. Along the same lines, I am 100% sure that if I had an explicit budget, rather than just a vague gut feel for how much I'm spending, then I would spend less money each month. We don't really have a proverb for this concept, but we do for the opposite: "out of sight, out of mind". If your budget is in plain sight, well then...

Plus the idea of having types in my credit-card accounting was all the more alluring since I'm a programmer, and I "get" the idea of types. Types are great. Dan is effectively suggesting a strongly-typed approach to credit-card spending, so the programmer in me was all for it.

Evil Banks (as if there's any other kind)

Unfortunately, this story has a sad, bitter ending. Normally I would want to add: "like all overly-strong-typing scenarios", but that would just be mean. So I'm not saying it!

Dan goes on to explain that banks are far too evil, or at any rate far too self-serving to implement his incredibly cool idea. He actually took the idea to at least one bank, meeting with their board of directors and presenting the idea. How cool is that?

Dan says the bank executives seemed to like his idea, and indicated that it might be a great way to get new customers. Credit cards are all pretty much the same (i.e., loan sharks), so they need to find ways to differentiate themselves. A nifty credit-bucketing program seemed like something marketing could run with. They all said they'd look into it and see about maybe implementing it.

And then... nothing. They never implemented the idea! Not even a little prototype of it. Nothing.

Dan theorized that profit margins, as always, are the culprit here. Even if banks could potentially sign up more customers on the promise of better spending control, there's a fundamental problem here, which is that credit cards make money for the banks based on spending. If consumers aren't spending as much, the banks won't make as much profit!

Banks make money off credit cards in at least three ways: they charge the merchant a fee at point of sale, they charge you interest on the loan, and they charge you fees such as the overdraft fee when you inadvertently overspend your limit. All those ways require you to make purchases, and the last way actually requires you to overspend your limit — exactly what Dan's idea is trying to prevent!

I suppose a truly evil bank might look at buckets as an opportunity to screw you on fees for each individual bucket. But Dan seems to think that on the whole, the fear of decreased margins — induced by the suddenly more rational consumer spending — is what is preventing banks from implementing his idea.

At the time I was reading the book, I thought, well gosh, I hate banks. In fact, I don't even use a bank — I now use an investment brokerage that has banking services on the side. You don't have to be rich to do this, and it saves you from ever having to walk into a bank again. And if you choose this route, then whenever you walk into a bank you will immediately be struck by what amazing ghettos they are: little brick buildings with little vaults holding your little dollars, little lines to talk to little tellers who provide you with little help... they're awful. They stink. I detest banks; I've found the whole notion loathsome for at least ten years before hating them became globally fashionable a few months ago.

So yeah. Dan had me. The banks are evil. That's why they aren't implementing his idea. Case closed.

The little winged nagging programmer angel on my shoulder

So just like Memento Guy in L.A. Confidential, my mind wouldn't let the case close forever. (Why can I remember Rollo Tomasi but not the actor's name? Oh wait, Guy Pearce. Him.)

For the next couple of weeks, Dan's situation replayed in my head like a bad song. I myself have given presentations to boards of executives in the past, usually presentations that had come to naught, and I felt a certain empathy with him.

As it happens, I also served time in Amazon.com's Customer Service Tools group for four years, leading the group for the latter half of my stay, and I know a thing or two about credit-card processing. Not a whole lot, but definitely a thing or two.

And I'm a programmer. Just like you. (You might not know it yet, but you are. Trust me.)

The programmer part of me started wondering: how would I implement Dan's idea? What would it take to add "bucketization" to credit cards?

And the programmer part of me started to get a sinking feeling in the pit of his... uh, its... stomach. It got the chills. And a fever. At the same time. Why? Because it, by which I mean "a part of me that wishes I could forget it", has been on software projects like that before.

The little nagging voice in my head started enumerating all the things you would need to do, like counting so many sheep. First I imagined I worked at the bank, some poor schmuck of a programmer wearing a suit, working bankers hours and golfing every day at 3pm. So, you know, pros and cons. Then I imagined my boss coming in and saying: "Steve, we gotta implement Buckets. The board just approved it. Make it happen. Yesterday."

Aw, crap. OK, what to do. First, we need a spec. So, like, I ask my boss a few preliminary questions:

  • Can customers control the buckets, or are they fixed?
  • If fixed, how many are there? What are their names?
  • Let's assume for the remaining questions that they are NOT fixed, since a predefined set of buckets would be "insanely stupid" and rejected by customers. So, how many buckets can a customer make? Min and max?
  • Can customers give the buckets names? If not, do they have to use numbers?
  • What characters can they use in the name? What's the maximum length? If we need to truncate the name in a printed statement, how do we truncate it?
  • Can a customer change their buckets mid-month?
  • Can a customer change their buckets between months? What if their balance is nonzero? Can they transfer balance between buckets?
  • Can a customer change the name of a bucket? Do names have to be unique?
  • Exactly how does a customer name a bucket? Online? Over the phone? By snail mail forms? Talking to bank teller? All of the above?
  • Same question for all other configuration settings. How? Where?
  • Do credit-card customer service reps have to know about the buckets? How much do they have to know? (hint: everything) Is there training involved? (hint: yes)
  • Do the customer-service tools have to be redesigned to take into account this bucketization?
  • What about the bank's customer self-service website?
  • What about the phone interactive voice-response tree?
  • What about the software that sends email updates to the customer?
  • What about the software that generates printed billing statements? How exactly does it represent the buckets, the individual spending limits and balances, the carry-overs from month to month, the transfers, the charge-backs, the individual per-bucket fees?
  • What about the help text on the website? What about the terms and conditions? What about the little marketing pamphlets? Should they try to explain all this shit, or just do some hand-waving?
  • Can a customer insert a new bucket into the list? How are the credit limits of the remaining buckets re-allocated? What if adding a new bucket puts one or more of the older buckets over the limit? Do we charge fees? Do we tell the customer they're about to be charged a fee right before they create the bucket? Is it, like, OK/Cancel? Do we send them a follow-up email telling them they just fucked themselves over? What exact wording do we use?
  • Can a customer delete a bucket? What if there's money in it? What if it's overdrawn? How do we represent the overdraft fee in the database? How do we show the deletion event in their bill?
  • Can a customer merge or consolidate buckets?
  • What if a customer has an emergency situation, plenty of limit in other buckets, and they really really need to charge to a couple of buckets, but they want to avoid an overdraft fee? What do they do? Are the buckets mandatory or discretionary?
  • How the hell do we even tell if they're buying "chocolate", anyway? The vendor doesn't tell us the purchase type. How do we know how to charge the right bucket? What if it's ambiguous? What if the buckets overlap? Does the customer need a point-of-sale interface for deciding which bucket to put the charge in? Can they do "separate checks" and split the charge into several buckets?
  • Where are you going? Answer me!
  • WHAT THE EVER-LOVING *FUCK* ARE YOU PEOPLE SMOKING? HUH? HAVE YOU EVEN THOUGHT ABOUT THIS PROJECT FOR MORE THAN A MILLISECOND? THE SPEC FOR THIS PROJECT WILL BE 5,000 PAGES! IT WILL TAKE THOUSANDS OF MAN-YEARS TO IMPLEMENT, AND *NOBODY* WILL UNDERSTAND HOW IT WORKS OR HOW TO USE IT, EVEN IF WE SOMEHOW MANAGE TO LAUNCH IT! IT'S FRIGGING IMPOSSIBLE! IT'S INSANE! __YOU__ ARE INSANE! I QUIT! NO, WAIT, YOU'RE FIRED! ALL OF YOU! AAAAAAAAAUUUGH!

The little nagging white-robed behaloed programmer whispering in my ear was getting pretty goddamned irritating at this point. And it asked a LOT more questions than the ones in the list above, which is merely a representative sample. My stress level began approaching what I might call "Amazon levels", and I don't even work there anymore. Thank God.

But for all its downsides (e.g. as voiced by my brother Mike, who was in the Navy on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf during the 1990s Gulf War, and later worked at Amazon, and declared after four years that Amazon was _way_ more stressful), Amazon did teach me a valuable lesson, namely that YOUR IDEA IS INSANE. It doesn't even matter what it is. It's frigging insane. You are a nut case. Because anything you try to do at Amazon these days involves touching a thousand systems, all of which are processing gazillions of transactions a second, and you want to completely redo the database schema, and you don't even know the answers to these fucking questions, DO YOU?

I suppose I should think of it as a valuable experience. If nothing else, I understand Complexity in a way most people will, mercifully, never have to.

Anyway, I hope I've imparted the basic flavor of my thinking after having been totally bought into Dan's idea. Here's how I (now) envision the days just after Dan's meeting with the bank executives:

Day 1: (executives): Managers, we'd like you to look into this incredible new idea from Dan Ariely. We think it could revolutionize consumer credit-card spending in a way that makes everyone love us and sign up for our services, dramatically increasing both our profit margin and our overall customer satisfaction. And it's an incredibly simple idea!

Day 2: (managers): Programmers, project managers and marketers, we'd like you to flesh out this idea from On High, and give us some time estimates. We all know we only have a budget of about 2 months for ideas from the Board this year, so let's try to make it fit. How long will it take?

Day 3: (grunts): A billion years. We quit. Fuck you.

Day 4: (managers): Executives, we think it will take about 3 years. It's surprisingly hard. We wouldn't be able to do anything else at our current staffing levels. Should we move forward?

Day 5: (executives): Two years? Good lord! For a project that _might_ increase our profit margins and customer satisfaction, but could also cause customers to be so confused that we have to triple our Customer Service headcount? We don't think that sounds... well, reasonable. Although it would be a very interesting experiment, it's simply too expensive for us to attempt. Should we tell Dan? Well... it might be patentable, and we might be able to get around to it someday if there's a sudden glut of programmer expertise, so... maybe we'd better just sit on it for now. Who's up for golf?

In reality I'm sure it went down a little different from that. For instance, they may have had the Day 5 meeting late, and then gone to a strip club instead of a driving range.

But I'm pretty sure that aside from the mundane details, that's exactly how it went down. Because that kind of shit happened at Amazon pretty much every week I was there, for almost seven years. (And astonishingly, we actually managed to launch at least half those crazy ideas, by burning through people like little tea lights. But that's another story. Plus, no bank can execute like Amazon can. Banks just don't have the culture for it. Bless 'em.)

Legalization

So. I'm two glasses of wine into this whine. I'm going to go get a third glass, mark the calories off in my spreadsheet, and then wrap up. If you don't know what's coming by now, then you're pretty stupid, but on the plus side you're an amazingly fast reader, so I'll go through the motions anyway.

<gets third glass>

It doesn't actually matter what your stance is on the legalization of marijuana, for purposes of this little essay. You could be radically opposed to it on religious, moral, or "parental" grounds. Or you could be so radically in favor that you've been laughing hysterically and rubbing your hands together incessantly ever since you started reading this post. If you know what I mean. Or you could be somewhere in between, moderate and yet open-minded.

It doesn't matter.

This blog is about complexity, the bugbear that haunts software developers, program managers, project managers, and all other individuals associated with trying to launch new software projects and services.

Dan Ariely would have made a great VP (that is, Vice President). If you think that legalizing marijuana is a black-and-white, let's just decide it and get the frigging thing legalized once-and-for-all issue, then you too have some VP blood in you.

VPs have what my brother Mike refers to as "Shit's Easy Syndrome".

You know. As in, shit's easy. If it's easy to imagine, then it's easy to implement. Programming is just turning imagination into reality. You can churn through shit as fast as the conscious mind can envision it. Any programmer who can't keep up is an underperformer who needs to be "topgraded" to make room for incredible new college hires who can make it happen, no matter what "it" happens to be, even if they have to work 27 hours a day, which of course they can because by virtue of being new college hires, they have no social lives and no spouses or significant others, and they probably smoke a lot of crack from being in the dorms so they can stay awake for weeks at a time.

That's the kind of programmer we need at our venerable institution. And we are completely anti-slavery, for the record.

Shit's Easy syndrome is, well, pretty easy to acquire. Heck, you don't even have to be a VP. Directors sometimes get it if they stay away from the code for too long.

As for the rest of us, well, we ought to know better. YOU, as a frequenter of reddit and a programmer (wannabe or actual, it doesn't matter), you ought to know better.

Let's ask our little naggy angel: what would it take to legalize marijuana?

I don't know the answer, and I'm certainly no expert, but I've been on enough projects like this to know how to start asking the right questions.

What exactly do you mean... "legalization"?

So... one minor, teeny-weeny almost insigificant caveat before I continue: I have smoked marijuana (and inhaled it, deeply) on more occasions than I can count. And yet I'm almost undoubtedly smarter than your kid that you're so goddamned worried about. I skipped three grades (3rd, 7th and 8th), entered high school at age 11 and graduated at age 14, took A.P. courses, had stellar SAT scores, was a U.S. Navy nuclear reactor operator, went to the University of Washington and earned a Computer Science degree, worked at major corporations like Amazon.com and Google for many years as a senior staff engineer and/or senior development manager, and now I'm an internationally famous blogger.

I don't usually dwell on that, but today it's relevant. It's relevant because I've smoked a LOT of pot, and I dare you to prove that it has impaired me in any scientifically detectable way. We would debate, and you would lose; nevertheless I double-dog dare you.

So, well, sure... from that perspective, yeah, I'm in favor of legalization. The laws are stupid. Legalize it, already. For cryin' out loud. Jeez.

However, from a programmer's perspective (and keep in mind that I was also an Engineering Project Lead at Geoworks for 3 years, a Technical Program Manager at Amazon for a year, a Senior Development Manager at Amazon for about 5 years, and now I'm a plain-vanilla programmer with 3.5 years at Google, so I've done it all), the idea gives me the chills. And a fever.

Because laws are pretty much like programs. You have to specify their behavior at almost (not quite, but almost) the same level of detail, using a language that's almost as crappy as our programming languages today — English. Or whatever your native language is: it sucks too. If you don't believe me, ask a lawyer. Or try to write a technical spec in your native tongue that the programmers don't ultimately poke full of holes.

Aw, don't try. Don't even bother. Just trust me on this one. Today's natural languages are completely unsuitable for specificity, and "legalese", as much as we all love to ridicule it, is our collective best effort to permit being logical, specific, and unambiguous.

I have more respect for The Average Reddit Commenter than I have for, well, the average commenter in any other forum, period, assuming that "period" is stevey-legalese for "except for LTU, news.ycombinator and their ilk, mumble mumble."

But the Average Reddit Commenter has gone too far. Everyone these days, when debating the merits and demerits of marijuana legalization, seems to have completely overlooked the fact that it's HARD. It's a project of vast, nearly unimaginable complexity.

Think about it. What kinds of laws do we have about alcohol and tobacco? Is it just one law each, saying "it's legal" or "it's illegal?" Of course not, and you're insulted that I asked such an obviously rhetorical question, yet intrigued by my line of reasoning. Admit it! How is marijuana similar to alcohol? How is it different? How is it similar and different to tobacco?

Let's let the little angel ask a few preliminary questions, just to see where it takes us, shall we?

  • Is it legal to drink alcohol in a TV commercial? No? OK, what about marijuana, then? Can you smoke it in a commercial? Can you SHOW it? Can you talk about it? Can you show marijuana smoke at a party, without anyone actually being seen smoking it? Can you recommend its use to children under the age of 9? What exactly are the laws going to be around advertising and marijuana?
  • Do we let everyone out of prison who was incarcerated for possession and/or sale of marijuana? If not, then what do we tell them when they start rioting? If so, what do we do with them? Do we subsidize halfway houses? Do we give them their pot back? How much pot, exactly, do they need to have possessed in order to effect their judicial reversal and subsequent amnesty? A bud? An ounce? A cargo ship full?
  • Is it legal to sell, or just possess? If the latter, then how do we integrate the illegality of selling it into the advertising campaigns that tell us it's legal to own it?
  • If it's legal to sell it, WHO can sell it? Who can they sell it to? Where can they sell it? Where can they purchase it? Are we simply going to relax all the border laws, all the policies, all the local, state and federal laws and statutes that govern how we prioritize policing it? All at once? Is there a grandfather clause? On what _exact_ date, GMT, does it become legal, and what happens to pending litigation at that time?
  • Are we going to license it? Like state alcohol liquor licenses, of which there are a fixed number? What department does the licensing? How do you regulate it? Who inspects the premises looking for license violations, and how often? What, exactly, are they looking for?
  • Is it OK to smoke marijuana at home? At work? In a restaurant? In a designated Pot Bar? On the street? Can you pull out a seventeen-foot-long water bong and take a big hit in the middle of a shopping mall, and ask everyone near you to take a hit with you, since it's totally awesome skunkweed that you, like, can't get in the local vending machine? If it's not OK, then why not?
  • Can you drive when you're stoned? What's the legal blood-THC level? Is it state-regulated or federal-regulated? For that matter, what is the jurisdiction for ALL marijuana-related laws? Can states override federal rulings? Provinces? Counties? Cities? Homeowners associations?
  • What exactly is the Coast Guard supposed to do now? Can illegal drug smugglers just land and start selling on the docks? Are consumers supposed to buy their marijuana on the street? What happens to the existing supply-chain operations? How are they taxed? Who oversees it?
  • Can you smoke marijuana on airplanes? Can airplanes offer it to their customers in-flight? Is it regulated in-flight more like tobacco (don't get the smoke in other peoples' faces) or alcohol (imbibe as you will, as long as you don't "appear intoxicated"?) What about marijuana brownies? Are you allowed to eat it in areas where you're not allowed to smoke it?
  • Can an airplane captain smoke pot? A ship captain? A train conductor? The driver of a car? An attendee at a Broadway musical? A politician in a legislative session? What is the comprehensive list of occupations, positions and scenarios in which smoking pot is legal? What about eating pot? What about holding it? What about holding a pot plant? What about the seeds?
  • Speaking of the seeds, are there different laws governing distribution, sale and possession of seeds vs. plants vs. buds vs. joints? If so, why? If not, why not?
  • What laws govern the transportation of marijuana in any form into or out of countries where it is still illegal? What policies are states able to enact? Is it OK under any circumstances for a person to go to jail over the possession or use of marijuana? If so, what are those circumstances?
  • Are there any laws governing the use of marijuana by atheletes? U.S. military personnel? Government employees? Government contractors? U.S. ambassadors, in title or in spirit? What are our extradition laws? What do we do about citizens who are subject to the death penalty in countries like Singapore for the possession of sufficient quantities of what we now consider to be legal substances?
  • What about derivatives? Are the laws the same for hashish? How do we tell the difference? What if someone engineers a super-powerful plant? How do the new laws extend to a potential spectrum of new drugs similar to THC?
  • For driving and operating machinery, do we have legal definitions that are equivalent of blood-alcohol percentage, and if so, what are these definitions? How do we establish them? How do we figure out what is actually dangerous? How do we test for these levels? When they are established, do we we put up signs on all roadways? Do we update the Driver's Education materials? How do we communicate this change to the public?
  • How does legalization impact our public health education programs? Do they have to immediately retract all campaigning, advertising and distributed literature that mentions marijuana? How does legalization interact with the "Say no to drugs" programs? Do we need extra education to differentiate between a drug that is now legal (but wasn't before) and drugs that are still illegal? What's our story here? What about other drugs that are even less addictive and/or less intrusive than marijuana?
  • Monsanto is eventually going to sue the living shit out of someone for using genetically-engineered pot seeds. Can they sue individuals with a single plant in their windowsill? (answer: yes) Will Oprah step in and help that beleaguered individual? (answer: we'll see!)
I'm not an expert, and in fact I've gone to extra-special effort to avoid all possibility of being accused of having researched this subject. I know NOTHING about it.

But the questions, they're bugging me. How the hell do we implement all this? Sure, it's "legal" in Amsterdam, or so they say. I've never been there, and I suspect their laws are way too vague for the overly-litigious United States of America.

I hope it's obvious that we can't say "it's just like tobacco" (it's not) or "it's just like alcohol" (it's not), or (God help us) "it's just like doing alcohol and tobacco together, so take the intersection of their laws".

Marijuana, whether you like the idea of legalizing it or not, is a project. It requires an implementation, and the implementation is a lot like that of a software project. The US federal government is analogous to "The Company", and the states are analogous to "The Teams" that comprise the company. Some of them have free time; some do not. Some of them agree with the overall goal; some do not. And every single miniscule little detail has to be worked out, and written up, and voted on, and approved, and then specified, and implemented, and enforced.

And there will be bugs. And loopholes. And unexpected interactions. The best-laid plans will go awry.

People will die. It's a certainty. Some people are going to die as a direct consequence of legalization of marijuana. I don't like it, and you don't like it, and most of us would probably argue that it shouldn't hold up legislation or legalization indefinitely... but we have to take it into account. Because if it's YOU who dies, smashed to death on the iceberg by your skunkweed-stoned ship captain, you're going to be REALLY pissed off. I guarantee it.

Shit is NOT easy. Remember that. Shit is NOT easy. If you think it's easy, then you are being naïve. You are being a future VP. Don't be that way.

Try to think about how you would implement it. Yourself. If your boss came to you and said: "Make it happen. Yesterday." Have you ever legalized marijuana?

I haven't. But I wouldn't want to be the people who decide how to legalize it. Their asses are majorly on the line. Even more than ours were at Amazon.

My advice: give it some time. Hell, give _Obama_ some time. Whether you still like him or not, he's not a frigging King, he's a President. He can't make stuff happen overnight by waving his magical sceptre. He just can't. I don't know what you were thinking, but "overnight" is a pipe dream, and "a few months" is definitely "overnight", in presidential terms.

Moral of the story: Shit is not easy. Stuff takes time. Months. Years. Decades. It's OK! You'll still be here. Count your calories. Exercise. And you'll still be here to see it all happen.

Patience. It's a wonderful thing. I can't wait!

138 Comments:

Blogger John Brewer said...

It seems like there's actually a model we could use for legalizing marijuana. From 1919 to 1933 alcohol went from being legal to illegal back to legal again. It happened.

Lots of people died when alcohol was illegal. More probably die now that it is legal.

And technically, marijuana is legal in California for medical use. There seem to have sprung up an infrastructure of growing clubs and the like around it in a relatively short period of time.

3:36 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger John Brewer said...

Actually, upon reflection, all that's really needed is for the federal government to butt out of the issue except where interstate commerce or international trade are concerned. The states can then work things out in parallel.

That approach also has the advantage of being constitutional, unlike the current federal marijuana laws.

3:45 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Eric TF Bat said...

Congratulations, Stevey - you've just invented fractals.

Or to put it another way: now that you've got a comprehensive list of reasons not to do X, substitute some other value for X. Like: legalizing the sale of chocolate to adults. If you can't find just as many things to worry about in that value of X, you ain't trying.

3:46 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Igor Clark said...

Hmm, I deleted my first comment about your double-dog dare and how it relates to that old thing about absence of evidence not constituting evidence of absence, 'cos then I got into a little logic trip about whether non-scientifically detectable impairment was logically possible, and decided I hadn't adequately considered the complexity of the subject. Maybe I've been impaired somehow over the years ;-)

Great rant. Shit is hard.

3:47 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Manrico Corazzi said...

Wonderfully written, as usual. Entertaining and yet brain challenging. Maybe there's room for some nitpicking, but I... don't "triple-dog dare" :D :D :D

3:53 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Andre Masella said...

The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce actually has a bucket system for their VISA cards. It has a number of fixed buckets and different merchants are keyed to different buckets. It is purely informational though. You don't pay off on a per-bucket basis. It also means that buying from a place like Walmart will put the entire purchase in one bucket even if it should be split across several. I guess it's a practical subset of a flexible user-defined system. The task of associating merchants with buckets is still quite large.

3:59 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Harry McIntyre said...

You smoked weed while operating a nuclear reactor???

4:19 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger TJIC said...

I enjoyed the first 2/3 of your essay, but the latter 1/3 (the payoff) rubs me the wrong way.

Politicians from the two major parties have made careers out of, and gotten rich off of, pandering to popular prejudices and passing whims for over a century, and now the laws of the nation and of the states are about 1,000 times more verbose and complicated than they need to be ... and you accept, without criticism, this bloatware / malware, and accept the argument that patching it is too hard?

The US functioned pretty darned well in the 18th and 19th century with no laws on the books re: marijuana. There were no laws over consumption, no laws around importation, marketing, etc.

Here's a proposal: do a search and replace on the entire US code, changing every reference to "marijuana" to some fictional (or unobtainable) substance.

Will marijuana then be entirely unregulated? No, of course not. All the existing laws that tax imports will apply. All the existing laws that deal with consumer safety will apply. All the existing laws that deal with deceptive advertising will apply, etc.

It's just that no law specifically directed at marijuana will continue to exist.

The US Code is not a finely tuned machine like Amazon's code base, led by geniuses, maintained by geniuses, and ruthlessly tested in the crucible of the marketplace every day.

99% of it it is a geological record of corruption, election pandering and graft.

Personally, I'd like to see a constitutional amendment that burned off the undergrowth - repealing all laws passed since some arbitrary date - maybe 1900. Sure, there are some good laws that have been passed since then, but we can re-pass those as needed.

The point is that the thicket is a bug, not a feature.

4:29 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Jake said...

> You smoked weed while operating a nuclear reactor???

And people died.

I'll have to disagree with some parts of your post, I've often found most managers and VPs are content to allow poorly designed, terrifyingly over complicated solutions to stay in use because "It's complicated, it would take too long, blaah, blaah, blaah." When it comes down to it, all programming work falls into two buckets: you're either writing new code (fun!) or supporting legacy code (shove glass into my eyes!). Given the sheer joy most of us experience when creating an empty project in your IDE of choice, I would suggest most programmers should err towards the side of optimism rather than being the gruff pragmatist ala "Have you legalized marijuana, you simple minded FOOL!"

5:03 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger DeMonet said...

> The US Code is not a finely tuned machine
> like Amazon's code base, led by geniuses,
> maintained by geniuses, and ruthlessly tested
> in the crucible of the marketplace every day.

*slightly hysterical laughter*

Have you _seen_ Amazon's code base ?

5:24 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Rico said...

> I hope it's obvious that we can't say "it's just like tobacco" (it's not) or "it's just like alcohol" (it's not), or (God help us) "it's just like doing alcohol and tobacco together, so take the intersection of their laws".

It should be the union, not the intersection. For example:

> Can you smoke marijuana on airplanes? Can airplanes offer it to their customers in-flight? Is it regulated in-flight more like tobacco (don't get the smoke in other peoples' faces) or alcohol (imbibe as you will, as long as you don't "appear intoxicated"?)

Well, the union seems like a good choice:

You can not blow smoke in someone else's face, AND you cannot appear intoxicated.

I think it would be a good first iteration.

5:29 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger benk said...

Your argument supports that legalizing cannabis will be a lot of work. This does not mean that rapid decriminalisation of adult possession and adult intent to sale of less than an ounce is not possible. There is already legislation that covers the consequences of hurting others while impaired. For example, if you drive a ship into an iceberg while impaired from thc now, you'll be done for more than posession.

What I really want is the end to the huge discrepancy between what's sane and moral and what politicians _say_ never mind do.

The dual of the VP is someone who thinks that a problem is so complex they need to spend 5 years thinking about it before writing a line of code.
Maybe we should also worry about that problem.

5:52 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger watters said...

Couldn't we just write a crappy rough draft of the law, mark it "beta" and fix the bugs (or not) later? Call it government 2.0 or something.

6:07 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Jay Bazuzi said...

Yes, shit is hard. We shouldn't let that scare us off, when the shit is important shit.

Apply for several credit cards, put little labels on each (food, clothes, sex toys), and pick the right card for each purchase. You don't need the bank to implement this & figure out the rules for you; do it yourself.

Marijuana prohibition is stupid and harmful, so we fix it because that's the right thing to do. It' hard, and we do it anyway, because it's the right thing to do.

We know it's possible, because it has been done. She because there's a lot of questions doesn't mean you should walk away.

The good news is that we already have a bunch of people who's job it is to figure out the hard stuff called "laws". And if you look at the enormous number of laws we have today, you can see that they don't shy away from the opportunity to make new laws, talk about them on TV, and then sleep with their interns.

To make hard shit in to shit of medium difficulty, we do take conservative steps and react to the results. (Agile, anyone?) Legalize for 21+ only; 0 blood-thc-content for operating a motor vehicle, not allowed in an enclosed public space, overturn marijuana convictions, don't give them the pot back, you must have a license to sell it.

Alcohol (which is way more dangerous) is already legal, so we know we can do this.

I hereby volunteer to make all the decisions necessary to get from marijuana prohibition to the first stage of legalization.

6:08 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Stefan said...

Well, I heard of a guy who went on a complex and useless project. He wanted to replicate the Rails framework in JavaScript! That's a clear sign, he wasn't afraid of difficult problems.

So, I don't understand why this blogger has been engulfed by analysis paralysis. :)

Joking aside, there are simple solutions to these problems.

1) Forget buckets. Let's go back to the drawing board. What is the goal? What do we want to achieve? We want people to reign in their spending. I would do this: Outlaw credit cards, allow only debit cards. Of course, if you want/need to borrow money (take a credit) you could go talk to a bank... It just shouldn't be easy to get credit.

2) Has anyone calculated how much it costs to deal with the (currently) illegal drugs? All the money that is thrown to the problem, and it only gets worse. As others have observed, alcohol has been prohibited after the WWI. How well did that work? You are also very much mistaken when you say that marijuana once legalized will take lives as opposed to the current state of affairs. Marijuana is not legal (yet), but has it occurred to you that what is happening in Mexico is drug-related? By the way, while the US is fighting a useless and expensive war far away in Afghanistan (what is the strategic objective I may ask?), Mexico has become unstable and the violence there is spilling over the border. Is the US clear about its priorities?

As for the implementation (the legal framework), we don't need a perfect implementation from day one. A working one would do. Improvements can be added later.

6:08 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger TatianaSoftware said...

so... given that for pretty much anything, you can find a list of questions as long as your arm, how do you decide what shit is too hard to do and what shit is just so hard it needs time to design an implementation and what shit is reasonable to do in a two month VP-given deadline?

6:19 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger JTresidder said...

Law's hard, let's go shopping!

6:23 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Eli_Courtwright said...

Great rant!

One important difference between credit card buckets and marijuana legalization is that the latter can be done in increments. With credit card buckets, you'd have to produce a complete working system before it benefits a single person. With marijuana legalization, you can make relatively minor changes to the law with immediate benefits which don't have far-reaching repercussions.

For example, the federal government can stop making raids on places that provide medical marijuana to cancer patients. Eric Holder has already announced this, and he's not even in favor of legalization. This has immediate benefit without interfering overly much with the other systems you mentioned.

Also, many (though not all) of the issues you described are state issues rather than federal ones. Whether you can smoke cigarettes in bars varies by locality, and presumably this would be the same for marijuana.

Ultimately, many of these issues would be decided by the courts rather than the legislature. We have a common law system that thrives on vague laws being interpreted and refined by rulings on specific instances of conflicts between different laws, principles, and common sense.

Obviously I'm hand-waving, and your essay is 100% correct about how difficult this would all be. I've thought about some of these issues before, but you mentioned others that had never occurred to me, and I don't have good answers for many of them.

Still, we can legalize incrementally, let states and localities handle the minutia, and allow the courts as always to hammer out a set of standards over time. This legalization a lot more doable than the impossible-once-you-really-think-about-it credit card buckets (though I did like the analogy).

6:26 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Steve Cooper said...

And this is why Britain will continue to have a monarchy for centuries. The benefits of being a republic will never outweigh the effort of arging about what to put on postage stamps.

6:30 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Cory Foy said...

I'm just happy I'm not headed to be a VP. Having also been on the end of the credit card processing, I started thinking about all of the crap we'd have to do to make that happen, and was thinking, "There ain't nothin' simple about that."

6:37 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger VonKüngelstein said...

> When it comes down to it, all programming work falls into two buckets: you're either writing new code (fun!) or supporting legacy code (shove glass into my eyes!). Given the sheer joy most of us experience when creating an empty project in your IDE of choice, I would suggest most programmers should err towards the side of optimism rather than being the gruff pragmatist ala "Have you legalized marijuana, you simple minded FOOL!"

PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING PROTOTYPING

6:45 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger N said...

Tongue is misspelled as tonuge. Enjoyed the essay, by the way.

7:05 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Ed said...

Your analogy only works if you believe the state should be providing total top-down control for society. It should not be surprising that every state that tries this can't handle the complexity and fails. Essentially you've made yet another argument against totalitarianism. Yawn.

The point of a free society is that the vast bulk of those open design questions are left up to each person to decide for themselves.

Should it be permitted to smoke marijuana on airplanes? That's up to the owner of the airplane. I'm guessing they would say "no" because it would offend more customers than it pleased. If some enterprising person wants to start WeedAir, they can go right ahead.

7:06 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Robert Höglund said...

Can't say that I would care if the captain who managed to run me over with his super tanker were high as kite after smoking pot, drunk or just tired. I would be just as dead.

Great read anyawy!

7:09 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger leoboiko said...

I'm with benk: legalizing may be hard, but decriminalizing ain't. It has been done in Portugal more or less easily, and I see no reason why it shouldn't be done in every country, like, yesterday. Prisons are for robbers and murderers, not potheads.

7:13 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Joe said...

Great post. May I ask what investment house you use, and how I, too, can NEVER GO TO A BANK AGAIN!

(pant, pant, pant)

7:27 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Max Erickson said...

Is there someone who is really angry about pot not being legal yet that you are writing this to? Yourself?

As others have posted, decriminalization presents fewer issues and is a good first step, and as much of your post indicates, 'it's hard' isn't a reason not to do something.

7:32 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Roel said...

Ugh, it usually gets ugly when programmers start applying their programmer-think to the law - but seldom does it get as ugly as this (I'm both a programmer and a lawyer). This thing (at least the last part) reads like something that would be modded 'insightful' on a Slashdot thread - and no that's not a compliment.

Law is not like programming (nor should it be, or was it ever intended to be). Laws are not written to be unambiguous, directly applicable to any set of facts and ready to produce an answer. That's why there are lawmaking processes in several steps, judicial controls in several steps, why the law changes over time - usually slowly, like the social mores they embody do.

I guess you're a smart guy, but please don't post about stuff you don't know anything about.

7:32 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Sonic Soft said...

I have a problem with your statement that pot is "legal" in Amsterdam. Why you used those quotes again?. Your argument is because the US is "over-litigating"? wow, seriously? I'm sorry, but you need to show me that the Dutch are that Loosey-Goosey (if you know what I mean...)

7:43 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger marketect said...

*Maybe* lame duck Obama puts effort towards legalization. Until then his focus is on another term. ...time passes... Ok, second term is here. Dem's ask "Is legalizing marijuana worth the risk of alienating moderates in the next election?" The answer is no. Welcome to the machine.

If you're looking for "change you can believe in" just keep on believing. If you're looking for "change that is happening" you might see the _free state project_.

Politicians are optimizing path of least resistance to most power - top of hill.

GOP VOICE OVER: "Democratic leadership wants your kids hooked on crack, when are they ever going to learn."

This does not optimize their path.

Sitting around counting calories waiting for legal weed? Good luck with that. DC is a lost cause.

7:47 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Celebes said...

RE: Buckets

It's not implemented at the card level, which as you say, would be super-complex. But it can be implemented at the aggregation level.

Mint.com is a financial aggregator, you give it logins for all your bank and card websites (I shudder, but I do it anyway), and and it scrapes your transactions. Then it lists them all and categorizes them as shopping, food, auto, etc. You can override and update categorizations as needed.

Then you can set monthly budgets for, say, 'restaurants', and every day it updates your spending, and when you hit ~80% of your budged (or go over) in a category, it sends a text or email to that effect.

Gets the job done, and covers all your credit card and bank info at once, so it's easier to use than if it was at an individual card site.

Also: good point on legalization.

8:00 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Erez Sh said...

While I appreciate the complexity required of the Law, I think you are overrating the difficulty of legalizing.
For two reasons:
1) There are existing models (like Amsterdam) you can use as a template.

2) In the spirit of modern programming, all you need is small refactorings. I argue that three, and only three, changes are required to produce positive results:
A) Legalize the possession of marijuana for consumer quantities (just throw a magic number, as law-makers like to do)
B) Make usage (smoking or otherwise consuming) of marijuana legal only in private (basically the way things are now, but without breaking the law)
C) Allow everyone (and no-one else) who already has license to sell medical marijuana, to sell it to whoever they want.

Now just sit back and let the market work.
More marijuana will be produced, more will acquire licenses to sell, weed prices will gradually (yet rather quickly) drop, tax revenues will rise, and drug cartels will start losing money (or at least earn less).
All this without any major change to public lifestyle.

Now apply more laws as you see fit, for instance: Increase supervision on quality of marijuana, lax the rules further, redirect "war on drugs" funds to education, etc.

8:09 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Aaron Davies said...

this sort of thing is the reason the government exists. it's what they're there to do. do you really think it'd be more complicated than all the economic crap they're in the middle of (mis)implementing right now?

8:10 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Gazarsgo said...

The idea of "credit card buckets" to track spending, but more specifically, transaction aggregation and reporting, are implemented by both Bank of America in their MyPortfolio site, and more spectacularly by Intuit's online Quicken tools.

You need some sort of Bank of America savings or checking account to use their MyPortfolio online tool, but Intuit's Quicken is available online at www.quickenonline.intuit.com

I do find it a little amusing that you completely neglect one of the most important tasks of project planning and management: scope limitations.

8:26 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Alex Feinman said...

Massachusetts is in the middle of this refactoring. Having decriminalized (it's now just fine-able) possession of small amounts of marijuana at the State level, cities and towns are now dealing with the fallout. Many are scrambling to enact local laws outlawing public consumption, the way that public drinking is banned in some towns.

And in this particular case, there are a few interfaces we can inherit from, of course (smoking and alcohol). But like all multiple inheritance it leads to some serious questions.

And yeah. Now that I'm doing pure design, I occasionally catch myself thinking Shit Is Easy, and then the implementers get that deer-in-the-headlights look, or glaze over when I start mentioning how writing two lines of perl should "only take a few hours"... it's pernicious.

8:41 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Samuel A. Falvo II said...

You write: We don't really have a proverb for this concept, but we do for the opposite: "out of sight, out of mind".

We actually do have such a proverb: You cannot manage what you cannot measure.

8:55 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Erika said...

I think the high level point is getting lost in these comments. Think back to the original example about credit card buckets. The book author had decided that banks would not implement his idea because they are evil. He assumed that implemementation is easy.

The same mistake is being pointed out in the secind example. Most people who think that marijuana should be legalized think it is easy as flipping a switch. In reality, there are a lot of questions raised by that "simple" decision.

We should not limit ourselves to only taking simple actions, but neither should we ignore the complexity of the actions we choose to take. We have to ask ourselves the hard questions even if we decide many of them are irrelevant and consiously decide to defer answering others.

8:58 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Bob Appleyard said...

Whether you still like him or not, he's not a frigging King, he's a President. He can't make stuff happen overnight by waving his magical sceptre.

Historians have inferred that trousers were quite popular in Rome during the 4th and 5th Centuries, based on the number of times (three, I think) that they were banned by emperors.

9:01 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Walter said...

Sorry Stevey, in this case you are wrong. It seems like perfectly good reason gone awry. It is like everything started to look like a nail to you.

In the context of your article, people and society are not like computers, laws are not like computer programs, law makers are not like computer programmers, and the simile credit card buckets – pot legalization does not hold.

9:03 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Daniel said...

And, yet, my bank has buckets.

9:07 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Steve Yegge said...

Roel, you've chosen to weigh in by pulling your dick out and waving it in front of everyone. Since you went to the effort, being a programmer and a lawyer and all, we all congratulate you. It's a fine, big dick.

But I can't help but notice you've contributed nothing to the discussion. The only concrete thing you've said is that laws change slowly... which is the obvious consequence of my thesis: the legal space here is complex, more so than most redditors appear to understand, and it needs to be changed slowly, very carefully, and with due consideration.

So in that case... you're agreeing with me, then? Or were you just wanting to show us your dick and sort of leave it at that?

9:19 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Steve Yegge said...

Daniel, Eric TF Bat, and the rest of you who have seem to have almost deliberately missed the point here: please read Erika's comment. It's dead-on accurate.

9:28 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger malvim said...

Man, I'm from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and we have a CRAZY drug dealing problem here, people die all the time from gangfights and shit.

Most people here seem to have a severe case of the "shitseasies", and I was thinking about this exact problem (with just as many questions) like a month ago.

Thank you for the read.

9:31 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger David House said...

Nice post. Important to read it as it was intended (I presume) -- "legalisation would be hard" -- rather than as it came across in certain places -- "legalisation would be too hard".

9:50 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger seutje said...

is it just me or are half of those pot questions answered ages ago already?

the other questions are just retarded and blatantly obvious

quit trying to reinvent the wheel when a perfectly usable wheel is right in front of u.

u don't let ppl out of jail coz what they did isn't a crime anymore... it was still a crime when they did it

seriously, next time u have a question, think real hard if the answer isn't out there already, if not, it's prolly a fucken retarded question to begin with

9:55 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Earbyter said...

Great questions :)

I have never legalized marijuana, but I think I would start with:

decriminalization (although I have no idea what that would involve realistically),

implementation of more scientific, less biased education and awareness programs (please no more misinfo),

and funding the research needed to answer questions about the biobehavioral effects of the THC molecule.

Knowledge is power.

Peace.

10:06 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Scott said...

portugal did it and it worked out fine:
http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/2009/04/02/portugal/index.html

10:07 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Rufus T. Firefly said...

As to Ariely's banks idea, Stevey makes some good points. When reading the Ariely book, a book I did not like, my first thoughts were about how complicated a task his banks idea would really be.

As to legalizing marijuana, however, Stevey makes points that are entirely bad ones.

Marijuana decriminalization--making mere possession not punishable by any criminal penalty--is not only a moral imperative, but is a change that is simple to implement. Yes, a proper respect for human rights requires the immediate release of those incarcerated merely for possession as well. No, riots will not ensue. There is already a massive amount of dissent re the marijuana issue, yet no riots have been sparked because of it. Yes, smoking will be treated similarly to drinking with respect to his other questions. There is no reason to suspect that it would constitute an especially complicated change in law and policy, relative to other changes. If we never make any changes, mistakes will never be fixed. But even if it were especially complicated, unlike the case with the banks idea, that can't count as a good reason not to do it, because incarcerating otherwise innocent people for merely possessing pot is a violation of basic human rights that all but the most mean-spirited and/or stupid amongst us believe in, even though not all of us really care--even enough to really think about the issue or even to frame it in a clear way.

Legalizing sales, etc., is an entirely different issue, but is also not an especially complicated one, especially if it is left primarily to the market to control, subject to an extra vice tax of course.

The question is not whether marijuana should or should not be decriminalized, as Stevey implicitly frames it, as if the government has free reign to criminally prohibit whatever it happens to feel like criminally prohibiting. The question is--given that any reasonable conception of morality absolutely requires the government to cite a very damn good reason in order to justify ripping an otherwise innocent citizen away from the life he or she has chosen, and in some cases away from their spouses and children, putting them in a cage, and seriously impinging on their future job prospects--whether a person's mere possession of pot is a good enough reason. And if you think it is a sufficient reason for criminal punishment, you are either a mean-spirited person, irrationally prejudiced against people who smoke pot, or else you are just incredibly dumb, because your position is as far away from being correct as laws allowing slavery were.

10:48 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Joe Nuxoll said...

I don't smoke pot, so I don't care about that whole subject... but I do care about software complexity (both in user interface and underlying architecture). I have a fundamental issue with your point.

Stuff is hard to build. Duh. We all know that - engineers and management alike. A simple concept inevitably implies a host of complex systems to make it happen. That's why engineers make more money than hair stylists.

If you have some bad experience with non-technical managers that didn't accept estimates and proposed timelines, then that's a different story. From your writing, it looks like a the mere thought of having to accomplish a highly complex technical task annoys you, and that is bothersome.

For example:

"Day 3: (grunts): A billion years. We quit. Fuck you."

That really should read (for example):

"Day 3: (grunts): Approximately 30 sprints (3 week work cycles), or a total of 90 weeks using the current level of specification we have fleshed out. This completion estimate will be revised after each sprint until we reach our final goal or come upon a workable compromise in design and delivery time. We also worked up 3 different scaled versions of the plan, based on some close work between engineering, design, and product management - all of which take significantly less time, but compromise on aspects of the original proposed design..."

We know stuff is hard to build, but a knee-jerk reaction to asking for the seemingly impossible is NOT the formula for doing great things. Just stay in a position at a company (or your own company) that encourages real discussions about building products, rather than episodes of lost-in-translation.

"In 10 years time, we will land a man on the moon and return him back to Earth safely." (next part omitted from the media coverage) "What the F! Are you freaking nuts Mr. Kennedy? You are SO going down for making that promise!"

11:08 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Tomy said...

I think a lot of commenters are missing Stevie's point. It's a hard problem, and perhaps we shouldn't ascribe to malice what can be explained with difficulty (I won't say incompetence, yet.)

My only chuckle is the same DeMonet had. I have seen and touched Amazon's code base (at least all the C++ parts, since I was the senior C++ guy on a small team that ported to a later and stricter G++), and neither 'finely tuned", "genius", nor "ruthlessly tested" were any of the terms that came to my mind.

At least when I was at Amazon, the QA department consisted of the general public, and the bug reporting system consisted of a pager.

Hey, Stevie was even my boss for one week. I think he's just being polite.

11:14 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Ian Bicking said...

My understanding of how marijuana is legal in the Netherlands is that they did it in a kind of lazy way. They just knocked a few laws off the book (or maybe they never made them, I don't know the history), and then the police use some kind of discretion. Marijuana still somehow "appears" there despite there being no legal way to import it or grow it. Selling it is ambiguous. This is not a great solution, but it's also very much like a programming hack -- it basically gets the job done even though it's clearly a horrible and incomplete solution.

Another thing that can be used to make this easier is that the law does have abstractions in it. There are classes of drugs, and reclassifying marijuana would cause a huge number of laws to be automatically reinterpreted with a more-legal sense of marijuana. If we classify marijuana the same as alcohol, a lot of these questions are answered, and further legislation can resolve the problems that emerge.

11:23 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger RangerX said...

You can always hire a contractor to work out the details instead. Like Portugal:

http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=10080

Or, for those aural learners (who are rumored to exist):

http://www.cato.org/dailypodcast/podcast-archive.php?podcast_id=870

Portugal decided on this path after giving a panel of researchers the task to figure out how to lower drug usage, EXCEPT by legalization. After they came back with the options, decriminalization of possession and usage of personal amounts (defined as a 10 day personal supply) was unanimously decided on. Eight years later, they now have the lowest usage rates in the EU. The 15-19 age group, which is a key demographic in predicting future drug usage, is lower than ever.

I don't think you can argue with results like that. No matter how "hard" it is.

11:41 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger polxian said...

Somehow we've managed to legalize alcohol. That's one model. Holland has legalized marijuana. Thats another model. Portugal has legalized all drugs (to good effect).That's three models we can base legalization on. It's been done, it can be done again. Considering the astounding amount of damage criminalization does to otherwise harmless individuals, it's also a very important issue.

11:47 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger etherial said...

re: buckets

I have three credit cards. One I pay my bills with, one I buy my toys with, the other I save for emergencies. Not really, I don't use any of them. But that's the easy way to implement buckets.

12:09 PM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Mahmudul Hasan said...

etherial's idea is very neat and elegant.

I actually loved that book.It is based on research data conducted by the Author, and a very well-written book.

12:21 PM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Ron said...

> Is it legal to drink alcohol in a TV commercial?

No, but it should be.

> No? OK, what about marijuana, then? Can you smoke it in a commercial?

Sure. Why not?

> Can you SHOW it? Can you talk about it? Can you show marijuana smoke at a party, without anyone actually being seen smoking it?

You can do all those things under current law.

> Can you recommend its use to children under the age of 9? What exactly are the laws going to be around advertising and marijuana?

No one is advocating legalizing pot use for minors. So no.

> Do we let everyone out of prison who was incarcerated for possession and/or sale of marijuana?

Yes.

> If not, then what do we tell them when they start rioting? If so, what do we do with them? Do we subsidize halfway houses?

The question of what social services we as a society ought to be providing to the needy has nothing to do with legalizing pot.

> Do we give them their pot back?

Of course not. Their pot is long gone.

> How much pot, exactly, do they need to have possessed in order to effect their judicial reversal and subsequent amnesty? A bud? An ounce? A cargo ship full?

All of the above.

> Is it legal to sell, or just possess?

Both.

> If it's legal to sell it, WHO can sell it?

Anyone.

> Who can they sell it to?

Any consenting adult.

> Where can they sell it?

Anywhere that it's legal to sell cigarettes.

> Where can they purchase it?

Anywhere that it's legal to buy cigarettes.

> Are we simply going to relax all the border laws, all the policies, all the local, state and federal laws and statutes that govern how we prioritize policing it?

Yes.

> All at once?

Yes.

> Is there a grandfather clause?

Huh? What does that mean?

> On what _exact_ date, GMT, does it become legal,

The instant it is signed into law.

> and what happens to pending litigation at that time?

It all gets dismissed. All the prep work for this can be laid long before the law is actually signed, since it will be clear that it's going to happen long before it actually happens.

> Are we going to license it? Like state alcohol liquor licenses, of which there are a fixed number? What department does the licensing? How do you regulate it? Who inspects the premises looking for license violations, and how often? What, exactly, are they looking for?

TBD and up to the states.

> Is it OK to smoke marijuana at home?

Of course.

> At work? In a restaurant?

No. Existing prohibitions on smoking would apply. You probably wouldn't even have to rewrite them since I suspect they merely talk about "smoking", not specially "smoking tobacco."

> In a designated Pot Bar?

Of course. Like a cigar bar.

> On the street?

Depends on the municipality.

> Can you pull out a seventeen-foot-long water bong and take a big hit in the middle of a shopping mall, and ask everyone near you to take a hit with you, since it's totally awesome skunkweed that you, like, can't get in the local vending machine?

No.

> If it's not OK, then why not?

For the same reason smoking a cigarette in a shopping mall is not OK.

> Can you drive when you're stoned?

No.

> What's the legal blood-THC level?

Zero.

> Is it state-regulated or federal-regulated? For that matter, what is the jurisdiction for ALL marijuana-related laws? Can states override federal rulings? Provinces? Counties? Cities? Homeowners associations?

Varies. Use alcohol laws as a model.

> What exactly is the Coast Guard supposed to do now?

You can't be serious?

> Can illegal drug smugglers just land and start selling on the docks?

No, they have to go through customs just like any other imported good.

> Are consumers supposed to buy their marijuana on the street?

Supposed to? What the heck does that mean?

> What happens to the existing supply-chain operations? How are they taxed? Who oversees it?

Huh? The existing marijuana supply chain would immediately dissolve upon legalization. That's the whole *point* of legalization, to get rid of all the smuggling and gang turf wars in the current supply chain.

> Can you smoke marijuana on airplanes?

No. You can't smoke anything on airplanes. Why should marijuana be any different?

> Can airplanes offer it to their customers in-flight?

No.

> Is it regulated in-flight more like tobacco (don't get the smoke in other peoples' faces) or alcohol (imbibe as you will, as long as you don't "appear intoxicated"?)

Tobacco. Obviously.

> What about marijuana brownies? Are you allowed to eat it in areas where you're not allowed to smoke it?

Yes, of course. Why would you doubt it?

> Can an airplane captain smoke pot? A ship captain? A train conductor? The driver of a car?

No, no, no, and no.

> An attendee at a Broadway musical?

Sure, before or after the performance, in designated smoking areas.

> A politician in a legislative session?

Yeah, right.

> What is the comprehensive list of occupations, positions and scenarios in which smoking pot is legal?

The same ones that have existing safety-related regulations about e.g. using legal drugs that have drowsiness as a side-effect.

> What about eating pot? What about holding it? What about holding a pot plant? What about the seeds?

What about them?

> Speaking of the seeds, are there different laws governing distribution, sale and possession of seeds vs. plants vs. buds vs. joints? If so, why? If not, why not?

No. Why should there be?

> What laws govern the transportation of marijuana in any form into or out of countries where it is still illegal?

The same laws that govern the transportation of *anything* into or out of countries where those things are illegal. Why should pot be any different?

> What policies are states able to enact?

Too broad a question.

> Is it OK under any circumstances for a person to go to jail over the possession or use of marijuana?

Of course.

> If so, what are those circumstances?

If they violate the law. For example, if they smoke pot in an aircraft lavatory.

> Are there any laws governing the use of marijuana by atheletes?

Have to pass on this one, I just don't know. Are there any laws that apply specifically to athletes? I suspect not.

> U.S. military personnel?

Of course. Different rules apply to soldiers.

> Government employees? Government contractors? U.S. ambassadors, in title or in spirit?

No, no, and no.

> What are our extradition laws?

What about them?

> What do we do about citizens who are subject to the death penalty in countries like Singapore for the possession of sufficient quantities of what we now consider to be legal substances?

The same thing we do with anyone suspected of an act that is a crime in their country and not in ours. I don't know what that is, but the law in this case is obviously well established.

> What about derivatives?

What about them?

> Are the laws the same for hashish?

No one is talking about legalizing hashish.

> How do we tell the difference? What if someone engineers a super-powerful plant? How do the new laws extend to a potential spectrum of new drugs similar to THC?

The FDA has the authority to regulate such things if necessary.

> For driving and operating machinery, do we have legal definitions that are equivalent of blood-alcohol percentage, and if so, what are these definitions?

Yes.

> How do we establish them?

We set them to zero.

> How do we figure out what is actually dangerous? How do we test for these levels? When they are established, do we we put up signs on all roadways? Do we update the Driver's Education materials? How do we communicate this change to the public?

All these questions are moot if the legal level for driving is zero. That is the reason for setting it to zero.

> How does legalization impact our public health education programs?

Well, for starters, they will no longer have to lie to our children about how dangerous marijuana is.

> Do they have to immediately retract all campaigning, advertising and distributed literature that mentions marijuana?

It depends on what the material says. But given that most of the material out there is bullshit, the answer is probably yes.

> How does legalization interact with the "Say no to drugs" programs?

It undermines them. But since everyone knows "say no to drugs" is a bad joke that is not a bad thing.

> Do we need extra education to differentiate between a drug that is now legal (but wasn't before) and drugs that are still illegal?

Probably.

> What's our story here?

Marijuana is now legal. All the other stuff that used to be illegal is still illegal. Why do you think this is complicated?

> What about other drugs that are even less addictive and/or less intrusive than marijuana?

What about them?

> Monsanto is eventually going to sue the living shit out of someone for using genetically-engineered pot seeds. Can they sue individuals with a single plant in their windowsill? (answer: yes) Will Oprah step in and help that beleaguered individual? (answer: we'll see!)

This has nothing to do with legalizing pot.

See, that wasn't so hard. Only took me about ten minutes.

12:36 PM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Evgeny said...

Hmm ... Jamis Buck is actually creating this app called Buckets (now renamed to be BucketWise). And it does exactly what you describe, only difference is it does not try to make banks implement it ... it is more like calorie counting, you do it "manually", youself, at your own house, with your own rules.

He has two screencasts that showoff his work, and they are worth a look.

http://weblog.jamisbuck.org/2009/3/24/buckets-preview

http://weblog.jamisbuck.org/2009/4/9/bucketwise-preview-2

Coincidentally his take on credit card buckets screen cast was posted a couple of days apart from your rant. Great minds ... read the same books?

12:44 PM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Marko said...

Interesting article and good points were made, but I don't buy it in the end. For any issue and software alike, the particulars can be sorted out with some thought. The organizational structure can manage larger scale complexity, and both corporations and government handle projects of this scale *all the time*. Take any project, delivering electric power or TV transmission to every home, a space program, restructuring INS into DHS, Iraq war, managing McDonald's, Wal-Mart's or Dell's global operations. Yes the cost of a larger scale change will always be higher than small incremental steps, but you have to put everything into a perspective. If legalization would cost $1 billion to implement, even though that *sounds* like a large number you have to compare it to the budget. Even though Iraq war has *infinite* particulars to consider for, you have to put it in the scope of the military organizational structure. So creating a complex sounding list of requirements only helps to create an illusion of insurmountability to those who don't understand the management of complex systems, but doesn't server to justify *not* implementing something one bit. In fact just passing the law and letting the system work it out at a more detailed level would work well enough in this case. Even the Constitution itself is a relatively simple document, while being the foundation of the entire legal framework. That means you don't have to specify the particulars at that level, you declare an objective, and flesh out the details iteratively at different levels of organization.

1:10 PM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger vegai said...

"Because laws are pretty much like programs. "

Indeed. The less lines, the better.

1:17 PM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Dogma said...

I think you're arguing that *everything* is hard, and legalization of pot is one example. You could take just about any topic make all of the same arguments.

As such it's not much of a statement. Shit is hard, as you say, but I don't think you've convincingly argued this particular shit is harder than other shit, so unless you're generally arguing for doing nothing, you're not saying much.

Having said that, I enjoyed your essay.

1:43 PM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Bartosz R said...

"Software is hard" Knuth

1:48 PM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Astrobe said...

It is not rare that a little mathematical statement that looks obvious results in an extremely long proof.

One can also think of the famous butterfly effect is another variation: small change, big effects.

Consequences disproportionate to cause are typically caused by the fact that the system where it takes place is in some kind of unstable equilibrium state.

For software systems, some people are looking for a stable equilibrium state, so that their application don't break down completely when adding a minor feature. Some other people prefer the unstable equilibrium state, because they can change the behavior of the application in interesting ways with minor modification.
However, in the real world, people are looking for both kind of state, sometimes in different parts of the same application. The name of the game is to find a "not too unstable" equilibrium state.
It seems to me that it is the whole point of many debates about software engineering.

2:12 PM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Winston said...

It's a plant. Again, it's a plant. How many laws do we need for azaleas? Moss? Sugar cane? Coffee? Cannabis is not even in the same realm as tobacco or alcohol. Nicotine is powerfully addictive, as is alcohol. Cannabis has been shown repeatedly to be non-physically addicting. Coffee is more dangerous than cannabis due to withdrawal symptoms from addiction. Is marketing coffee to kids a crime? Or just bad taste?

Smoking cannabis is unhealthy. Smoking anything is unhealthy. What laws do we have against smoking grass? Like real lawn grass. It will make you sick, and can kill you, but we don't feel the need to legislate against it. If I want to eat unhealthy food, that's legal. Also THC has been shown to help prevent alzheimers, and kill cancerous cells along with myriad other medical benefits. Neither alcohol nor coffee, sugar, fried foods, have any medical benefit. Tylenol is legal, however too much can kill you. Can children buy as many bottles as they want and use it on a plane, train, bus, etc.? No amount of cannabis can kill someone. It is physically impossible to die of overdose. And no one ever has. How many aspirin related deaths are there a year? No cannabis legislation is needed if the education is present that cannabis is completely safe, with no harsh adverse side effects, can be ingested safely, and poses no threat to anybody except big pharma and tobacco. It's a plant. Coleus, the most common house plant, contains a psychedelic drug. Nutmeg will make you trip balls. There are dangers, and drugs all around us, however it is our most basic right to decide what goes in OUR body. That's right, my body is MINE and no one an tell me what I can or cannot put in it. Coronary heart disease is the US's number one killer, but do we outlaw trans fats? I can't believe McDonalds is legal, and LSD, psylocibin mushrooms, peyote, ayahuasca, DMT, and all other drugs are illegal. Everybody knows mcdonalds is bad for you, yet people still eat there, and no laws are trying to stop people from killing themselves slowly. Even if cannabis were a dangerous drug, it would still make no sense to prohibit it considering all of the other activities we engage in regularly. Driving a car is dangerous. Hundreds of thousanda of fatalities a year, and base jumping is very dangerous, but these things are legal. If government prohibited all of the potentially dangerous activities we engage in, there would be an uproar, possibly an uprising! No more candy, fried food, skydiving, driving, extreme sports, firefighters or police, underwater welding, skyscraper construction, etc. Why do we single out some "dangerous" things, and not others? Bottom line- It's a plant. No need to legislate. No need to prohibit. No need to argue, just hit this...

2:34 PM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Caisse said...

So, you have an overall point that's been reiterated by Erika: legalizing marijuana is a complex issue whose implementation would be difficult and would come with its own new set of questions. I think we can all agree on this.

I have two problems with what you wrote:

1) Software dev is not like writing legislation. You are trying to think about this issue from a programming perspective and write a "spec" for the implementation of the law to legalize marijuana. But, legislating != programming. You do not need to be able to treat every possible case that could arise (at least not initially). Roel said it very well:

> Law is not like programming (nor should it be, or was it ever intended to be). Laws are not written to be unambiguous, directly applicable to any set of facts and ready to produce an answer. That's why there are lawmaking processes in several steps, judicial controls in several steps, why the law changes over time - usually slowly, like the social mores they embody do.

You are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. We do not need to decide what the law should be for every possible case involving marijauna (which seems pretty intuitively obvious). Laws are often ambiguous. They are interpreted over time and their "implemention" often determined by precedent. I'm no lawyer, but this much seems clear.

2) It has been done before. Just because it's never been done in the US doesn't mean it's never been done before anywhere (several posters mentioned Portugual). We could look at their successful "implementation" and modify it to our needs, like a legislative template.

In any case, I enjoyed the article.

3:03 PM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger hnkang said...

What about legalizing hemp? It has a multitude of useful applications without the mind-altering effects of marijuana. What's that you say - it could easily be confused for marijuana and therefore make enforcement more difficult? Ok, let's ban baby powder so no one won't mistake it for cocaine.

3:25 PM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Jess Austin said...

The thing is, our drug prohibition is evil. We provide organized crime with a business more profitable than any legal enterprise. This has destroyed Mexico and Columbia, as well as large portions of our own country. We turn citizens into criminals, and criminals into powerful businessmen. We build more prisons and fill them with people who have harmed no one. All of that, is evil. And none of it has happened because not doing it would be "too hard".

You have the "complexity" argument exactly backwards here. Have you really confused action (locking up those who use and sell drugs) and inaction (just... not locking those people up)? Shit ain't easy. No shit, on the other hand...

4:27 PM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Mark said...

Nice article.

The advantage of the legal/social arena is that changes can be introduced incrementally, and each increment is much more measurable in its effects.

New laws always bring unintended consequences. That shouldn't stop us from making forward progress.

4:57 PM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Dan Ariely said...

I think you will be happy to know that Bank of America is now working on creating basically the same idea I was proposing -- so hopefully in the near future we will get the answers to some of your questions and we will see how people react to such cards.

Irrationally yours

Dan Ariely

5:08 PM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Jon Ericson said...

It's easy to misunderstand your point (if I really understand it). Neither of these problems are impossible to solve and they might not be terribly hard. But they require N steps each of which might take years in order to accomplish.

I'd love to have a flat tax so that next year I won't have to waste my evenings reading about Midwest Disaster Relief. But it ain't going to happen by then. The best I can hope for by next year is that the public will notice that Congress has been spending money under the guise of the income tax system for years and demand a change. You can't change the structure of an organization in a short period of time without experiencing significant pain.

5:30 PM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Travis said...

Why are you legalizing marijuana? The answer to that question dictates the answers to your other questions. Here's an example:

Assumptions: marijuana is still 'bad', but making it illegal is not working. We want to ease the burden on society and raise taxes.

From there you can move on to: it's legal to buy, it's legal to posses, but it's not legal to consume. And it's not legal to sell (though you can have 2 plants for personal decoration).

The idea is that you don't notice if people smoke in their homes, but you do notice if they pull out a bong in the mall, try to fly a plane, etc.

And yes, my solution still has a few rough edges: I want the gov't to sell and tax it, provide education over its effects and fund education initiatives.

The part of my presidential campaign that I'm struggling with is the logistics of moving the US from having a long summer break to three shorter breaks spaced throughout the year. There's going to be some logistical difficulties with that one...

6:10 PM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger markm247 said...

I wonder how much better this post would have been if you hadn't smoked all that pot.

6:29 PM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Steve Yegge said...

I think, on the whole, that the comments here are getting more reasonble; perhaps the knee-jerk reactions are the ones that come in first.

Nice to see Dan Ariely commenting. Great book, Dan! Loved it.

A few people are still insisting on talking about side points, like whether it should be decriminalized (answer: obviously yes, and that's actually happening). But that's very different from full legalization, especially if we want no ambiguity or gray areas that are left up to law enforcement to interpret as they please. Decriminalization is a complete red herring here.

Since I tackled a pretty controversial topic in this entry, I actually handled the "main" point pretty delicately at the end. My rant here is in many ways a reaction to the sudden disillusionment with Obama I'm seeing on Reddit and elsewhere. The core message I was trying to get across here, is that simple ideas are often much more complex than they seem at first, and that they often take a very long time to implement.

I think it's also worth reiterating what a few folks offsite have said, which is that Obama clearly does NOT want to be personally associated with the legalization of marijuana or other drugs. That doesn't mean he doesn't want it to happen! It just means he doesn't want political fallout from it. If he waved his sceptre and legalized it today, tomorrow's headlines would read "Obama killed my baby!", since no doubt there would be a drug-related car crash happening somewhere in the country.

It seems pretty clear to me, having read both of Obama's books, that he's going to make all the right things happen, but that he's going to do it subtly and without drawing attention to himself or his administration.

Last point: for all the lawyers complaining that laws != programs, can you please take a look at the whole picture? A body of law includes everything -- the laws themselves, the judicial rulings, the law-enforcement interpretations, the secondary by-product laws (e.g. around advertising), everything! A body of law IS a program, one running on the machinery of federal and state and local governments. You're taking far too narrow a view, and missing an important point as a result -- namely, that in order to absorb the impact of full legalization and integration of marijuana into our society and legal system, a massive amount of work will need to be done by many distributed parties. This will take time, and people really need to stop panicking over the Obama administration's refusal to make it an explicit political priority right now, today.

OK, one more observation: this blog was a milestone in several ways for me. It's the first time I "came out" over my past marijuana usage, and I did it largely as a belated reaction to my continued outrage over how the media treated the Michael Phelps thing a few months back.

This entry was also the first time I "came out" on my real feelings about Amazon and their ridiculous problems. I've been professionally quite respectful towards my former employer for the past 3.5 years, and I think enough time has passed that I should be able to start telling you what really goes on in that place.

Finally, I hope people realize that simply talking about legalization as a project, however difficult, is going to be a major step in helping people currently on the fence over the basic issue start to come to terms with the idea that it's really going to happen at some point.

Anyway, to recap: this entry is (mostly) to try to educate the impatient about the complexities of real-life situations, in an effort to get them to chill a little.

6:34 PM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Hugo Arts said...

Could everyone stop referring to Amsterdam as if it were a country? I have the benefit of being born there, and it's a little annoying. First off, Amsterdam has no laws concerning pot, The Netherlands has them. Second, those laws put pot firmly into the illegal category.

The big "however" is that the government maintains a "condonance policy" essentially saying that under certain highly specific conditions, possession of weed will not be prosecuted. For example, it may only be sold in so-called coffeeshops, only a few grams per transaction. You may not possess more than 30 grams at any time.
You may grow a maximum of five plants at a time.

Coffeeshops need a license to be able to sell pot. Many municipalities flatly refuse to give out such licenses, something they are allowed to do.

In short, pot is illegal but "legal" in The Netherlands (not just in Amsterdam).

6:42 PM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger james said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7:25 PM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger james said...

I may have misread your post, but are you saying that if Amazon ran the US government then marijuana would be legalized? I’ll add an item to the backlog.

7:27 PM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Ashoka said...

Nice post! love the way you have broken down the credit card problem. Shit is surely not easy! However 3rd glass of wine might have been bit too much don't you think? I'm not a legal expert but I think a similar thing was done in UK around 2003-2003.

May be the way to go on legalization POT is to do it step by step. Iteratively!

Again, good article.

12:37 AM, April 10, 2009  
Blogger Mardak said...

Why do you jump to the conclusion that the laws have to be made so complex?

For example, should it be illegal for pilots to smoke on an airplane? Would an airline want their pilots to fly when high? Do they need a law to make sure pilots don't?

Companies can enforce their own policies. Cities can have their own local ordinances in addition to state laws.

If marijuana was legalized, why does the federal government need to immediately try to create some master plan that is suitable for all states, cities, and companies?

In programming terms, each city can come up with an implementation that works for them. If some parts turn out to be similar, refactor and extract the common parts to a higher level, i.e., the state.

1:28 AM, April 10, 2009  
Blogger Ben Williams said...

Why yes, yes I have legalized marijuana. OK, I decriminalized marijuana possession by voting yes on Massachusetts ballot question 2 in 2008, which passed with 65% of the vote. As many others have pointed out by now, shit is hard, but it gets a lot easier if you approach it incrementally.

5:14 AM, April 10, 2009  
Blogger DJMooreTX said...

There is a fundamental difference between writing laws and writing programs:

Computers need programs to function, at all. The bucket example is a good one: without both administrative policies, and the programming code to implement them, the idea can never be put into practice. If there are any errors or gaps in the code, the idea will fail.

People, however, will for the most part function just fine without laws. In the absence of laws, people do whatever they damn well please. Some choose their behaviors wisely and thrive. Others choose poorly, and fail, in which case they either learn, or die.

This process is called "evolution", and it is known to work very well in terms of generating diverse solutions to a large set of complex and otherwise intractable problems.

There's a economic analog, called "capitalism".

In any event, it is absolutely possible to simply...delete a law. It is not necessary, or in many cases, even desirable, to write a replacement.

Example: The Supreme Court recently struck down part of the Washington, D.C., gun control regulations. They did not propose alternatives. They simply deleted the old law. Poof! Gone! (Of course, D.C. promptly wrote a new set of equally offensive and counterproductive regulations, but that's not the fault of the Court.)

This happens regularly (although not often enough, in my opinion) at all levels of jurisdiction. Courts void laws, legislatures repeal laws, laws simply fall into disuse and are forgotten.

The more laws you write, the more you will run into exactly the problem you describe. The solution is to simply not write laws that are not absolutely necessary. People will seek and find their own solutions to problems, and successful solutions will, on average, persist and spread.

There will be failures. That's a necessary part of the system, the negative feedback loop.

There will be parasites. Excellent! Both biological and computer systems become more robust when routinely challenged by parasites, which tend to exploit flaws in the system. Either the system adapts (by, for instance, checking for buffer overflows) or it dies, clearing the way for a more robust offspring.

In any event, however, there is no reason why bad laws cannot simply be deleted.

8:46 AM, April 10, 2009  
Blogger Steve T. said...

I dare you to prove that it has impaired me in any scientifically detectable way. We would debate, and you would lose; nevertheless I double-dog dare you.

How, exactly, would it be anybody's business if you had impaired yourself?

That said, I think most people suspect that different people experience different long term effects from smoking weed. I've known a few folks that seemed like they would have enjoyed their life a lot more if they had never started -- or maybe they would have turned stupid anyway from bad genes or something. For the majority, of course, no such issues. Sort of like alcohol, and with the same element of uncertainty when you choose to start using.

10:26 AM, April 10, 2009  
Blogger Vladimir said...

In fact, the article mainly shows, quite convincingly, that writing software is much harder than many other human activities.

The buckets idea looks easy in a book, is probably quite easy to apply to oneself (similar to calorie counting), but turns into a nightmare of a software project.

The marijuana legalization idea looks easy on first sight, most of the questions asked are easy to answer, but it would turn into a nightmare of a project if the legislative process had to use the same principles as software construction.

A lot of stuff in "real life" is not that hard, primarily because biological and social systems, unlike computers, are self-regulating, flexible and resilient. People don't throw null pointer exceptions when they don't find what they're looking for.

6:29 PM, April 10, 2009  
Blogger yDNA said...

I could hear George Carlin's voice for the part of the angel asking all those questions, delivered in his rapid-fire style.

7:06 PM, April 10, 2009  
Blogger Arslan ibn Da'ud said...

Not that I expect legalization to happen anytime soon, but your 'shit is hard' argument against marijuana legalization falls afoul of one simple principle. Which I could explain, but ESR explains a lot better.

There are thousands of legislators who, if they got the urge, could attack the legalization problem, and address it far better than you or I could in our armchairs. Its their career, and their calling, to solve problems like this. (Me, I'd rather code.) So let them worry about if you can smoke while driving, manning a ship, on Sunday, etc. I'll stick to hacking Ruby :)

The hard part, of course, is to get those lawmakers focus and organized on solving The Problem. When coders get organized you get Linux and Apache. Lawmakers can work on the problem either top-down (eg Obama signs a bill freeing the weed and everyone says "Make it happen yesterday"), or bottom-up (eg enough grassroots efforts and votes convince the lawmakers that this is the next big political issue. Which it isn't today, but might be someday.)

So yes, shit is hard. But that didn't stop Linus...he didn't have to do it all himself. Don't let it stop you.


As for credit card budgets...er buckets, you can see that's less amenable to the bazaar model...each customer has to invent their own budget. It's not really a task the banks can do for them; sensible defaults just don't exist here. Personally I've always thought that managing a budget is just about as hard as freeing all your mallocs properly, and much for the same reasons...it works ewell for very simple finances, but just doesn't scale. Not even to the level of personal finance you've got after a few years on your own. Maybe personal finance needs something on the order of garbage collection.

7:16 PM, April 10, 2009  
Blogger Douglas said...

The implication is that politicians don't do things because they are difficult to implement. Maybe responsible politicians delay to make sure the details are defined, but others often push simple laws through and "let the courts sort them out."

8:55 PM, April 10, 2009  
Blogger Shredder said...

Nice post about the real world. I'd better adjust my overly simplified model... Just finished my tax return. What a headache! I will never want to be a lawyer ;-)

12:13 AM, April 11, 2009  
Blogger Chris said...

Thank God marijuana has no detrimental effect on the ego. ;)

1:44 AM, April 11, 2009  
Blogger Robert said...

Interesting post. Got me thinking about other ways in which designing software and crafting laws are similar:

http://onedozendevelopers.blogspot.com/2009/04/whatever-happened-to-drunken-blog-rants.html

11:12 PM, April 12, 2009  
Blogger Dr Loser said...

And then there's always Case Law.

I can't think of an equivalent to Case Law in the software field. Maybe it's bug-tracking ... except that it isn't, really. Anyway, from sitting in on the occasional law-school lecture, I've taken away two basic thoughts:

(1) A hell of a lot of these people seem to be blue-eyed blond(e)s. And what's with that chinos thing, anyway?
(2) They do seem to bang on about Case Law a lot. Maybe they have something.

I don't think "law as software" is a useful analogy. Software is expected to conform to the requirements of a self-limiting market. Law is expected to conform to society, which is a whole lot more nebulous. Some (but not necessarily I) would argue that this is why Law Doesn't Work Very Well.

8:42 AM, April 13, 2009  
Blogger phil jones said...

As someone said above (and deserves repeating) :

"We have a common law system that thrives on vague laws being interpreted and refined by rulings on specific instances of conflicts between different laws, principles, and common sense."

THAT is the difference between software and law. Law gets implemented by humans making interpretations.

Code gets complex because adding new code that other code doesn't expect, or removing old code that other code relies on, just breaks stuff.

In law, new regulation (or new holes in regulation) get handled by courts who can apply their own intelligence to resolve confusion or ambiguity.

Your point about not expecting Obama to solve this or any other complex
problem over-night, is well made though.

9:06 AM, April 13, 2009  
Blogger Anton Sherwood said...

It's 1913 and the Cabinet of Balonistan is considering legalizing the horseless carriage. A number of questions have been raised about parking, the design of turn signals, whether or not to require catalytic converters and antilock brakes ....

I think it safe to say that what's delaying the repeal of Prohibition II is not the problem of perfecting all relevant laws in advance, but the fear of being blamed for whatever drug-related Bad Thing may make headlines afterward. "All Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed," particularly if the suffering is largely confined to a minority safely hidden away in prisons and hospitals.

By the way, a couple of commenters have said "obviously, zero blood THC while driving"; this is unreasonable. Formal studies are scarce, of course, but anecdotal evidence says driving high is far less bad than driving drunk. Also, THC remains in the system long after its effects have faded (this is why pee-testing went out of fashion in the private sector: it's more likely to catch the employee who did a bong two weeks ago than the one who smoked crack yesterday).

10:57 AM, April 13, 2009  
Blogger Michael Harrison said...

Steve, I live near Washington DC, mostly against my will. That city is full of long gray furniture-like office buildings full of people, both cynical and earnest, who make a living figuring out this shit. We love hard shit here. Our whole federal government needs hard shit to figure out, to keep feeding the beast. So, pot legalization? Bring it on!

11:01 AM, April 13, 2009  
Blogger Big Fat Whiner said...

Brilliant, hilarious post.

Also, the first few comments (sorry folks, I didn't have time to read them all) were very sharp and also in a few cases hilarious.

I think for those of us who previously were unaware that "shit's hard", this should make them aware of the fact. (I knew this all along ;)

Obviously, the post shouldn't be taken as an argument *against* legalization (as I think some may have). Just pointing out that people shouldn't expect it to happen overnight.

But I think you perhaps miss (or gloss over) the prerequisite point that: first we have to decide (or convince lawmakers anyway) that we should legalize it. Second we can worry about implementation.

You may notice that laws are changed, added, and deleted (so to speak) all the time. And they don't limit themselves to implementations that will be "easy" or even "easier". ("they" being lawmakers.)

To whomever called our laws and legal system "bloatware/malware" -- you are absolutely correct. It definitely is that. But we pay people a lot of money to "maintain" and "enhance" our bloatware/malware laws, so it shouldn't really be an unassailable problem to legalize an illegal substance.

I bet Stevey (you humble, self-proclaimed genius, you) was paid tons of money to constantly deal with the ridiculous complexity at Amazon. So, too, are lawmakers paid tons of money (including their bribes) to deal with the ridiculous complexity of our laws.

BAM -- Lawyered.

11:40 AM, April 15, 2009  
Blogger Lev B said...

My credit card already has buckets. Predefined. So I don't see what's wrong with the idea.

12:24 PM, April 15, 2009  
Blogger Sony Mathew said...

i thought the point would be the usual "I understand complexity better than anyone and I say dynamic languages handle complexity better than anyone" - which is a very valid argument by the way - and beginning to convince me everyday I think about it.

I'm definitely the guy that would say legalize it and its easy-peasy. Hec - i don't have to do it so I don't care - I should be promoted to VP right now! or the Ruler of Dubai!

3:47 PM, April 15, 2009  
Blogger Big Fat Whiner said...

Sorry I have to leave one more comment. I started reading comments from the bottom up, and came across this gem from Vladimir:

A lot of stuff in "real life" is not that hard, primarily because biological and social systems, unlike computers, are self-regulating, flexible and resilient. People don't throw null pointer exceptions when they don't find what they're looking for.Vladimir -- this is the perfect counterpoint to Stevey's argument that "shit's hard". Simply brilliant. A similar thought was lurking in my brain, but I was not able to put it into words as well as you did. Nicely stated. As you say, stuff in real life is "not that hard" -- implying that it's not super easy -- but not as hard as coding. :)

12:06 PM, April 16, 2009  
Blogger RaginScotsman said...

Great post man. I think the chances of marijuana being legal is about as likely as them making cigarettes illegal though.
I aint holding my breath.

5:04 AM, April 17, 2009  
Blogger mrclay said...

I think you're overthinking things.

* Some very difficult and messy tasks are Worth Doing. E.g. ending slavery, Civil Rights Act, closing Gitmo, regulating derivatives, protecting credit card customers, etc.

* The current marijuana laws also lead to needless loss of lives, freedoms, and careers. What if Obama had been busted? What if you had been busted?

* Laws, unlike code, are never perfect. All they ever do is step in a direction (hopefully the right one).

* The work of marijuana law reform is actively being done by many thousands of people, so don't worry your little head :). E.g. California's AB 390, which is essential a DIFF for every CA law mentioning the drug.

* Yes, it will be tough. There are local, state, federal, and UN laws. On the plus side, the treaty is very unpopular and mostly held in place by the US, the federal CSA is constitutionally precarious, and marijuana's scheduling within the CSA is laughable and probably won't hold much longer.

9:28 AM, April 17, 2009  
Blogger Just that guy. said...

The main issues I feel are how to treat DWS (driving while stone)/ (and yes this is very hard) easy tests for quantity and so forth. As far as issues that don't realate to being being stoned and causing damages, you could just legally treat it like tobacco.

6:34 AM, April 22, 2009  
Blogger Bajan Kentaro said...

I think the real problem with "buckets" on credit cards, is that budgeting is a subjective things which should be done by the person ahead of time, similar to how designing is done in a different frame of mind from running/using a program.

If you have a budget and use simple arithmetic to track your expenses and limits, then the simple math is the buckets... but the reason why people go over is that they don't consistently apply themselves to budgeting exactly.

It might seem that technology can help by automating it, but the act of reconciling budget with expenses (past and possible) is not just a mechanical thing that you can outsource to the computer system; during this time, you strengthen your resolve to stick to the budget, which is the most important part... your thought process leads the spending, and that's where the time and effort needs to be invested.

9:03 AM, April 22, 2009  
Blogger Rickey Bowers Jr. said...

This is my first read of your blog. Very entertaining - was thinking through the latter list a couple weeks ago, myself!

Thankfully, the human mind is not just adept at creating complexity, but also functioning within that complexity. With social problems the difficulty of a solution is less of a factor when peoples lives are clearly being damaged by present policy.

We must weigh the damage being done to determine the urgency of migration. For example, the impact in California has been drastic despite only solving the easy parts of this complex problem. Routing young adults through the prison system for non-violent crimes has long-term damning effects - it's hardly a book sale.

One could argue the easy shit is what got us here in the first place. Now, we have to stand up and get our hands dirty!

11:03 AM, April 27, 2009  
Blogger Dmitri said...

People don't throw null pointer exceptions when they don't find what they're looking for. Vladimir.The problem with analogies is that they do not work very often. People do throw exceptions and we see that all the time. Some exceptions are handled to a certain degree, some are not and cause painful coredumps or even complete systems shutdown.
We call these singularities as crisis, revolution, war, etc.

At the scale of human civilization these disasters may be all right, though I am not sure about it. From an individual perspective some of those "coredumps" are fatal.
Most of us, as individual human beings, would prefer a gradual development and smooth changes. Whether that is possible is another question. We are bad at handling complexities and the only way to solve them could be breaking them down and starting over. Can we at leat do that in a non-violent way?

We leave at the time when legal systems are way too complex in many countries. Armies of people devote their lives to handle these systems instead of doing a productive work. Should we shake these systems off?
The solution could be in seeding ideas, which promote rather radical changes so that people get used to them first and only then to implement changes. A today heresy may become a norm tomorrow. Hence "Patience. It's a wonderful thing." :-)

1:23 AM, April 28, 2009  
Blogger Drew said...

Regarding the credit card bucket, people interested in that could try to use Wesabe.com to do something similar..

Just legalize the weed already sheash....

12:05 PM, May 08, 2009  
Blogger Xah Lee said...

This has to be the most idiotic essay from Stevey's pen.

The other one, would be the “Story Time” in March 2009. (runner up would be “A Programmer's View of Universe ...” and other such pure shit.)

About this essay, it's, like, philosophizing nothingness about a molehill.

i mean, what's Steve's point? Legalizing marij is hard? Is that it?

Is legalizing anything in our modern complex society not “hard”?

and what's with that credit card bucket sidekick? A preamble to get our minds ready about philosophization of having nothing to write about?

is the daily programing and corporate environment getting tiresome, and random dribble of think hack considered a nice break?

ummm... credit card buckets, what a inane idea. To whom is the idea creditable? The lenders? The borrower's mom? The nagging conscientious of the US consumers?

ummm... then there's the elaborate hack on the implementability. What is the point? Credit card system itself took decades, if not centuries, to implement, full fledged with legal and international issues. On the computing tech side of today, the system, the network, the billings, the web, the credit rating system, takes years if not decades to write from scratch. Sure, adding a bucket would not be trivial, but what is the point here?

On to, out of the blue, the phantasmagorical subject of “Have you ever legalized marijuana?” How it is, a favorite topic among the tech geeekers and other slacking lives.

So, what is the point? that it is difficult? Is there other legal issues that is not difficult? Are there legislative issues today that is not, in the style of this essay: “Have you ever legalized porn?”.

PS somewhere in the comments, Steve Yegge came to the rescue. It turns out, the essay is a just shell. Its more about his personal life, about Amazon, about Obama, about issues, about Michael Phelps. Hot damn. I am now the victim, a victim of crazy blogs. It robbed my time, misdirected my knowledge acquirement, conditioned me to participate in the mundane drivels, the idiots, the tech geekers, the “i reddit” fucks.

4:43 PM, May 15, 2009  
Blogger Jason said...

I have credit cards with a 7.5% interest rate. I pay them off every month. I do this because I have a budget. You don't need the bank to do this.

If you have quicken, or mint.com, or budgetapp for the mac you can easily keep track of your spending. Or you can do the envelope system where you actually put cash in an envelope and designate it to the expense it goes to. This give you a very clear picture as to what you are spending and where.

What do I do? I built a budget in excel. I set an amount aside for savings which goes into retirement accounts or a savings account (I pay non-monthly expenses out of here like insurance/taxes from here). I leave a set amount in my accounts for my regular monthly bills including groceries (with $50 of fudge room for unexpected things). Then I have a set amount of "fun money" which goes onto a separate debit card.

If I run out of "fun" money, well sucks to be me. If I've overspent on monthly expenses then I try to see what went wrong and either fix the area of overspend or I re adjust the budget (generally at the "fun" account's expense).

In other words this muti-card system is not needed or helpful (who really wants to carry around 15 cards for all their different expenses and how big of a pain in the ass is it when you need to pay for some emergency like an ER visit).

2:42 PM, May 19, 2009  
Blogger Jason said...

As for marijuana, I really think the president has better things to worry about at this point. I think it should be legal but really now is not the time. I think we could save a lot of money in prison costs, but now is not the time for that.

As for Obama, why not just ram the J through like he did the stimulus bill, and the new CAFE standards, and the new health care bill he wants to pass using reconciliation? (One party rule always results in stupidity).

2:48 PM, May 19, 2009  
Blogger Les said...

I would posted sooner, but had the munchies.

damn, imagine how smart you'd be without partaking. :) oh, that's right, can't prove hypotheticals. duuuuuude.

4:30 PM, May 21, 2009  
Blogger square said...

I loved the comment about legalese. The existence of legalese is an excellent demonstration of why we will never program computers in a "natural language". And also why Wolfram Alpha is annoying.

5:27 PM, May 21, 2009  
Blogger Logwad said...

It seems I'm a bit late to the comment party, but I find it amusing how you "came out" about pot and no one cares.

I think that speaks well for the future.

10:10 AM, June 09, 2009  
Blogger A.C. Sheppard said...

Great essay. Always thrilled when I come across an interesting carefully crafted blog.

Now ususally, before I post a comment I try to read all the responses first so that I can make a somewhat relevant comment. But for whatever reason the boohoo-I'm-smarter-than-you blog comment routines got to me today and I gave up. So first, let me just say I'm glad to hear there are people out there willing to think through the details of the reality we've boxed ourselves into. I couldn't do it and wouldn't want to and to be honest, like a lot of people, the word implement gives me the heebeejeebees.

For now though, until such things are implemented, I'll continue to try and stay patient with pot-head dealers who are always late and hate irregular buyers like myself and continue to dream of that day when responsible tokers can go to the corner store after a long Friday and pick up a tight little bag of green to relax with over the weekend.

1:34 PM, June 09, 2009  
Blogger Cosmo said...

Oh fuck, it's a plant. Break the law, ignore the man.

Seattle MJ is better and cheaper than what I bought in Amsterdam last week.

Jay
P.S. Can you possibly write a blog post that is less than 15,000 words? ;)
P.P.S. I still remember the old days smoking in neighbor's garage and playing D&D with you, good times!

7:58 AM, June 11, 2009  
Blogger Kevin Steffensen said...

The interesting thing about an incremental approach is that you can find creative ways to slice almost anything.

The post already admits that there are going to be bugs, so, how about finding a way to decrease the impact by applying more dramatic (and simplistic) change to a smaller sample size. For instance, you can make a large change to a small town instead of the whole country, adjust the laws until they fit, then expand the region, adjust laws again, lather, rinse, and repeat until the old laws can be removed.

The challenge here is trying to find the right sample region, and figuring out ways of indicating whether or not the current laws are successful or not. The advantage is that you do have actual data with which to make decisions, and your bugs are typically less harmful. Unfortunately, because these are laws and they govern people, the effects of some bugs may be that people will die. It is generally helpful to take some time upfront and brainstorm all possible risks (no matter how wacky they might be) just so that you can start thinking about ways to minimize those risks ahead of time.

Now let's delve into implementation details a little more...

As stated in the post, legalese is a pretty obscure language, and I imagine it doesn't lend itself well to writing very DRY code. However, there is one very powerful idiom that exists in the language. One that's almost as powerful as the Lisp macro, yet as hacked up as BASIC's GOTO. And that boys and girls is the loophole.

The loophole is a rather dangerous feature of legalese, and when used by inexperienced or retarded lawmakers, can lead to very nasty bugs. Hell, even when used by intelligent lawmakers (should they exist) it can lead to unintended side effects.

One thing that is nice about the loophole is that it can be written with very few lines of code. However, the deployment process in the U.S. legislation system is very rigorous, so it might take some time to remove it even if the loophole turns out to be extremely unsuccessful. Not only that, but the runtime (the executive system) is particularly slow and unstable and the evaluation of many functions are non-deterministic. There are many hackers who have found ways to manipulate the runtime to their advantage (a.k.a lawyers).

One way to slip past the rigorous deployment system is to design an auto-terminating loophole. Simply add a clause that makes the loophole expire after a configurable number of years. This has the advantage of having a system where loopholes can survive even when future lawmakers turn out to be a bunch of morons. They typically won't monkey patch the code here because they think it's a land mine waiting to blow up.

To be more specific, a possible loophole could be implemented by first defining a very precise region (including latitude and longitude coordinates). Then, you apply the loophole to the region by stating something like the following:

All laws pertaining to X may be overruled in the region defined in section n.n.n as outlined in addendum Z. Addendum Z can add another level of indirection by giving all power to a small local group residing in the defined region, should you be worried about the deployment process holding up future versions.

The power of the loophole manifests itself in the rather fuzzy clause--pertaining to X. A loophole containing this clause can be exploited in certain ways that can allow the strictly defined region to potentially find ways to create an anarchist society, depending on what the runtime determines to be "pertaining to X".

8:08 PM, June 14, 2009  
Blogger John Bachir said...

It's a complicated project, but the benefits are so vast, affecting so many people and so many aspect of society, that it is still worth it to implement it ASAP.

The first step is to legalize it at the federal level. Then, each individual state which chooses to can begin the work of legalizing it in whichever way they seem fit.

The benefits will be absolutely immediate -- the prison system (and yes, we absolutely should and will release people who are in prison for crimes that are no longer crimes, I'm pretty sure that is a meta law in most states, not sure about federal) -- the prison system will clear up -- the courts will not be tied up with frivolous cases -- people will consume fewer harmful and chemically addictive drugs and more marijuana -- people will generally be happier.

People will die? Well, a lot of people who are dying now because of the drug war and the prison system, will not be dying anymore. The net body count will decrease drastically in the first year, guaranteed.

10:44 PM, June 15, 2009  
Blogger CharlesMerriam said...

Too much engineering, not enough project management. Surprisingly, 60% of your questions are answered as "Use the same rules and policies all new laws always use." and another 30% are "Direct the FDA to draw up regulations using alcohol as a guide." Really. That's simple.

I think you pine for the credit buckets idea, which was probably shot down in the 'thousand cuts' method simply to avoid the real argument of 'others understand consumers better than you'. The latter argument, while true, causes hard feelings.

2:01 AM, June 18, 2009  
Blogger Anton Sherwood said...

The problem with a local pilot project has been seen more than once: if vice is tolerated in a small area, that area attracts consumers from far and wide, creating a concentration of "undesirables" who may well be more inclined to crime than average; the result is then trumpeted as clear evidence that repeal is a bad idea — although a real repeal would not have that concentration effect!

1:29 PM, August 31, 2009  
Blogger StoneCypher said...

These questions are a little less difficult if you look for answers before asking them.



]] Is it legal to drink alcohol in a TV commercial? No? OK, what about marijuana, then?

It's legal to smoke marijuana in a commercial today. It's common in many movie promotions. Television shows are allowed to show marijuana at the same time they're allowed to start saying "ass" (I think that's 8pm). Note cop shows, south park, That 70s show, et cetera.



]] Can you smoke it in a commercial?

Yes; watch an anti-drug ad some time. Same holds for other drugs. The Idaho Meth Project is particularly graphic.



]] Can you SHOW it?

Yes.



]] Can you talk about it?

Yes. Dude, have you ever seen an anti-pot commercial? They hand over fully packed bongs.



]] Can you show marijuana smoke at a party, without anyone actually being seen smoking it?

Yes. Or with. Either is fine.



]] Can you recommend its use to children under the age of 9?

No. But then again, you also can't recommend the use of milk to children under nine without the FDA's approval. Or cough medicine. Or delicious bread.




]] What exactly are the laws going to be around advertising and marijuana?

There very probably won't be any initially, other than standard issue truth in advertising and don't market for disease control. Tobacco and alcohol regulation are the result of campaigning by groups, not a traditional feature of our legal system. Eventually those groups will impose similar on pot, but really, who cares whether RJ Reynolds can be blatant in their commercials? The important bit is stopping the hundreds of people going to jail daily.



]] Do we let everyone out of prison who was incarcerated for possession and/or sale of marijuana?

Unfortunately no. Fortunately, almost nobody actually goes to jail for marijuana; it's almost always for related crimes, particularly unlawful posession of weapons in a dealer or grower's house.



]] If not, then what do we tell them when they start rioting?

"Stop rioting". Just like we do now.

1:48 PM, October 09, 2009  
Blogger StoneCypher said...

]] If so, what do we do with them?

Work detail.



]] Do we subsidize halfway houses?

Yes. Do you believe that we don't do that for potheads now?



]] Do we give them their pot back?

No. It was illegal. (Settle down, I'm a pothead too. That doesn't change that it was illegal and therefore remains seized. Besides, by now it's been destroyed.)



]] How much pot, exactly, do they need to have possessed in order to effect their judicial reversal and subsequent amnesty?

The question is faulty: it presumes that a change in the law negates the old law. Our legal system is explicitly structured against this, for the important reason of not criminalizing prior legal behavior; it carries however the structure in the other direction.



]] Is it legal to sell, or just possess?

Both. Like restaurants, tobacco stores, gas stations and convenience stores, you'll need a license.



]] If it's legal to sell it, WHO can sell it?

Anyone with a license.



]] Who can they sell it to?

Consenting adults, just like alcohol and tobacco. The line should be the same as those in the requisite states.



]] Where can they sell it?

Commercially zoned areas in a building with the appropriate license, just like any other business.



]] Where can they purchase it?

Uh, farmers and post-processing vendors? Did you think tobacco and whiskey were mined?



]] Are we simply going to relax all the border laws, all the policies, all the local, state and federal laws and statutes that govern how we prioritize policing it?

No, just the federal ones. The states have their rights to their own decisions.



]] Is there a grandfather clause?

No, that's not how our legal system works.



]] On what _exact_ date, GMT, does it become legal, and what happens to pending litigation at that time?

The 9 am EST (screw GMT) on the day after it's signed into law. These questions really have nothing to do with pot, you know; this is the exact same set of questions you answer about a new cancer drug or a new kind of housing insulation.



]] Are we going to license it?

Only if you consider a fast food joint to be licensed.



]] Like state alcohol liquor licenses, of which there are a fixed number?

That's actually a state (and in some cases, county) thing. There are only a fixed number of licenses in certain states.



]] What department does the licensing?

Who knows? Or cares? Either we expand the purview of an existing department or make a new one. That's a trivial problem.



]] How do you regulate it?

Through regulation. This isn't a difficult question, it's a meaninglessly vague question.



]] Who inspects the premises looking for license violations, and how often?

The new pot department.



]] What, exactly, are they looking for?

Rotten product, insect infestations, dangerous insecticides, animal feces, product bulking, et cetera. These are common sense questions, though.



]] Is it OK to smoke marijuana at home?

Duh.



]] At work?

This is up to OSHA. Generally yes, but there will be restrictions for people operating heavy equipment (you also can't operate a wrecking ball on some anti-depressants, so don't get in a bundle, it's just practical.)



]] In a restaurant?

That's up to the restaurant, just like smoking tobacco is. Many restaurants will quickly see the value of munchies.



]] On the street?

No, just like you can't drink on the street. Cigarettes are an ugly dividing case here, but basically public imbibing isn't cool for most things already.



]] Can you pull out a seventeen-foot-long water bong and take a big hit in the middle of a shopping mall

Theoretically, it's up to the mall. Practically speaking, nearly all malls will say no, to protect their family safe status. Some malls may provide side rooms, as many do for smokers today.

1:49 PM, October 09, 2009  
Blogger StoneCypher said...

]] and ask everyone near you to take a hit with you, since it's totally awesome skunkweed

This is just a dick move, and pretending it has anything to do with legalization is ridiculous. Leave people alone. People don't try to get you to take a drag off of their awesome Marlboro.



]] If it's not OK, then why not?

Because leave people fucking alone.



]] Can you drive when you're stoned?

This is a state's rights decision. In all but one of the states in which medical use is legal, yes, today.




]] What's the legal blood-THC level?

Stop pretending state decisions are federal decisions. They aren't.




]] Is it state-regulated or federal-regulated?

So you think these are hard questions because you just haven't bothered to look into the answers?




]] For that matter, what is the jurisdiction for ALL marijuana-related laws?

Federal, state, county and city, just like today, just like for alcohol and tobacco and cloves and nasal decongestant and caffeine.



]] Can states override federal rulings?

To be stricter, yes. To be less strict, no. Just like every law.



]] Provinces? Counties? Cities?

Counties, yes. Cities, yes. Provinces don't exist in America.



]] Homeowners associations?

No, of course not. What are you going to ask about next? The tire dealership? Homeowners' associations don't have any legal power of any kind; the only time they can push you around is when you sign a contract on moving in, and then only to the letter of the contract.



]] What exactly is the Coast Guard supposed to do now?

The same shit they already do: stop illegal things from entering the country (surprisingly, pot is not the only illegal thing), patrol for illegal trade, watch for fleeing felons, save drowning people from broken boats, patrol for foreign military interests, train rescue crews, pitch in during natural disasters and generally be the least well understood but actually most active branch of the US military. Almost none of what they do is pot related.

Are you actually suggesting that part of the difficulty of legalizing pot is finding something for a branch of the military to do? You might as well suggest Obama must cope with the decline in relevancy of Cheech and Chong movies.




]] Can illegal drug smugglers just land and start selling on the docks?

No: docks are industrial areas. They need to move about four blocks in-land and get a storefront.

Also they won't be smuggling and they won't be illegal.

What does this have to do with legalization?



]] Are consumers supposed to buy their marijuana on the street?

No, in stores, like with cigarettes. What does this have to do with legalization?



]] What happens to the existing supply-chain operations?

You think legalization is burdened by maintaining illegal operations?



]] How are they taxed?

By the tax man? With tax codes?

What does this have to do with legalization?



]] Who oversees it?

The ... IRS?

What does this have to do with legalization?



]] Can you smoke marijuana on airplanes?

No. Nor cigarettes. Nor cloves.

What does this have to do with legalization?



]] Can airplanes offer it to their customers in-flight?

Airplanes can't offer anything on fire, because it's a compressed oxygen environment. They can't offer you a piece of paper and a match.

What does this have to do with legalization?

1:50 PM, October 09, 2009  
Blogger StoneCypher said...

]] Is it regulated in-flight more like tobacco (don't get the smoke in other peoples' faces)

Ahem. That's not how tobacco is regulated on airplanes at all.

What does this have to do with legalization?



]] or alcohol (imbibe as you will, as long as you don't "appear intoxicated"?)

That's not how alcohol is regulated on airplanes.

What does this have to do with legalization?




]] What about marijuana brownies?

They're not on fire, so enjoy.

What does this have to do with legalization?



]] Are you allowed to eat it in areas where you're not allowed to smoke it?

No, because public intoxication is bad.

What does this have to do with legalization?



]] Can an airplane captain smoke pot? A ship captain? A train conductor? The driver of a car?

No, no, state's rights (generally no), state's rights (generally yes).



]] An attendee at a Broadway musical?

State's rights (generally yes).



]] A politician in a legislative session?

State's rights (generally yes).



]] What is the comprehensive list of occupations, positions and scenarios in which smoking pot is legal?

It's actually the comprehensive list for which it's illegal; you can order a copy from OSHA for $17. It's also intoxication in general, not pot; you can't get in a bulldozer after drinking Robitussin.



]] What about eating pot?

No difference.



]] What about holding it? What about holding a pot plant? What about the seeds?

There'll be some maximum held volume for each if you don't have a license. State's rights.




]] Speaking of the seeds, are there different laws governing distribution, sale and possession of seeds vs. plants vs. buds vs. joints? If so, why?

Yes, for the same reason that there are different laws governing ground beef and fully prepared hamburgers: they aren't the same thing, and the appropriate rules differ. You don't need to check ground beef for lettuce weevils and you don't need to check fully prepared hamburgers for the things that are already screened from ground beef, such as bone fragments.

Seeds are likely to be largely unregulated, but seeds sold for eating will need to be sterilized like nuts and sunflower seeds are.



]] What laws govern the transportation of marijuana in any form into or out of countries where it is still illegal?

We don't set the laws for other countries, it turns out. Similarly we have no laws about taking a beer into Saudi Arabia.



]] What policies are states able to enact?

Things which aren't in contrast with federal law or basic laws. Just like other laws.



]] Is it OK under any circumstances for a person to go to jail over the possession or use of marijuana?

States' rights. Generally, yes: if they're selling without a store permit, if they're selling pot that's rotten (some pot molds are potentially lethal), if they're selling pot laced with other stuff, if they have more pot than their license allows (which can also happen with canned soup), etc.

Most of these questions can be answered by the average grocery store owner or freshman law student, FYI; they're not open questions, they're just things you haven't bothered to find out.



]] If so, what are those circumstances?

This is up to OSHA, the FDA, states and a bunch of other agencies. There are like 30 agencies involved in saying it's okay for McDonald's to sell you a chicken sandwich, and the list of requirements is around a hundred pages. Generally speaking, the circumstances under which you'll go to jail are the same as for selling broccoli. Tainted, rotten, blah blah.



]] Are there any laws governing the use of marijuana by atheletes?

Nope. Nor are there for steroids, et cetera. Those rules are set by things like the baseball commission. Sports aren't governed by law.



]] U.S. military personnel?

That's up to the military, not the law.

1:50 PM, October 09, 2009  
Blogger StoneCypher said...

]] Government employees? Government contractors?

No. The safest place to have a job when using an unpopular but legal substance is the government.



]] U.S. ambassadors, in title or in spirit?

Uh, ambassadors aren't subject to the law. It's called "diplomatic immunity." You can kill someone in a car accident and drive away, and nobody can stop you.



]] What are our extradition laws?

No different than they are today. Extradition cannot apply to things done in this country by foreigners, of course, as the foreign nation cannot prosecute for things that are legal here. So this is actually a nonsense question.



]] What do we do about citizens who are subject to the death penalty in countries like Singapore for the possession of sufficient quantities of what we now consider to be legal substances?

Nothing. We don't set the laws in singapore. Same reason you can go to Amsterdam and get baked on TV, and make fun of the head of the DEA, and nothing will happen.

What does this have to do with legalization?




]] What about derivatives? Are the laws the same for hashish?

No. Similarly, the laws are different for raw coffee, processed coffee, brewed coffee and espresso. The laws are different for loose tobacco, processed tobacco and chaw.



]] How do we tell the difference?

You make a definition. For example, in America, if it's more than 12% butterfat, it's ice cream; otherwise it's ice milk. If it's more than 12% alcohol it's malt liquor; less, beer. Et cetera.

Is the gag "see how many things I don't know about the law and can pretend are open questions on grounds of my not knowing them"?

Don't you get angry when religious people do this about science?

Ignorance isn't compelling evidence of forthcoming problems, you know.



]] What if someone engineers a super-powerful plant?

Hi, this is 1961 calling. We invented something called "nuggets" which carry about seven times the THC delta 4 as schwag, and have a 20x prevalence of a different and better feeling isomer called delta 9.
Hi, this is 1977 calling. We've got a new kind of nugget with delta 5 carboxyl.
Oh hi, this is 1983 calling. We're the government and we've got something called "G13" which nearly quintuples the amount of THC per plant again. Watch out for P91 and P93 in the early 1990s.



]] How do the new laws extend to a potential spectrum of new drugs similar to THC?

They don't. Just like Prozac didn't get Zoloft out of FDA approval, neither shall THC do anything for, let's say, THD.

Is speculative chemistry the purvey of the legal system now?



]] For driving and operating machinery, do we have legal definitions that are equivalent of blood-alcohol percentage, and if so, what are these definitions?

Dude, go look it up. Stop asking stupid questions. This was defined in the 1950s by OSHA for pot.



]] How do we establish them?

Ask the 1950s.



]] How do we figure out what is actually dangerous?

For this, ask the 1960s. THC has a lower LD50 than water.

No, seriously. THC isn't toxic until you have so much of it in your body that it physically impedes things. Your primary risks are things like stomach rupture from eating six kilos of THC.



]] How do we test for these levels?

With science. Go ask a doctor. Medical safety testing is well understood.



]] When they are established, do we we put up signs on all roadways?

No. Have you ever seen a legal limit for alcohol sign?

Maybe we should also put up signs reminding people they can't drive with headphones on?

What does this have to do with legalization again?

1:51 PM, October 09, 2009  
Blogger StoneCypher said...

]] Do we update the Driver's Education materials?

Yes. Every year. Whether we legalize pot or not. Incidentally, you won't actually find a paragraph saying you can't drive on Heroin, even though you can't drive on Heroin.



]] How do we communicate this change to the public?

With the mighty power of every way we already communicate it for other things, such as teaching, training, words, commercials, books, advertisements, common sense, cops you can call on the phone and so forth.

Were you born with knowledge that it wasn't okay to eat a bunch of mescaline before taking a sunday drive?



]] How does legalization impact our public health education programs?

That's up to those programs. Probably basically not at all, except to distribute FAQ pamphlets.



]] Do they have to immediately retract all campaigning, advertising and distributed literature that mentions marijuana?

No. That waits for someone to take them to court. Just like everything else.



]] How does legalization interact with the "Say no to drugs" programs?

That's up to those programs, which are not a matter of the law.



]] Do we need extra education to differentiate between a drug that is now legal (but wasn't before) and drugs that are still illegal?

No. That's why in highschool nobody ever tried to teach you the difference between methodone and benadryl. Seriously, do you think about these questions at all before asking them?

Try the null hypothesis. It eliminates about 80% of these questions. The general form is "well, let's try contrasting it with how we handle things they sell in a store."



]] What's our story here?

I don't know. "It was a dark and stormy night?"

The law isn't about stories. Legalization isn't about helping private programs not look stupid.



]] What about other drugs that are even less addictive and/or less intrusive than marijuana?

What about them? Did you think that legalizing Prozac took pot into account? Marijuana is less addictive or intrusive than prozac.



]] Monsanto is eventually going to sue the living shit out of someone for using genetically-engineered pot seeds.

No, they won't. In America, almost no pot is grown outside. Monsanto also holds no patents on pot genetics, and people growing pot have a tendency to baby the plant, so pollen isn't accidentally stumbling on anything.

You ever hear of monsanto suing RJ Reynolds?

Incidentally, what does this have to do with legalization again?



]] Can they sue individuals with a single plant in their windowsill? (answer: yes)

Uh, no. Not even if it really is their genetics. Please stop pretending to understand the law.



]] Will Oprah step in and help that beleaguered individual?

No, she's too busy letting models who think buffalo wings come from actual buffalo tell people that vaccines cause autism.




Next time, please don't be so proud of your complete lack of research. Almost none of these are meaningful or valid questions.

1:52 PM, October 09, 2009  
Blogger TruePath said...

I would point out that what is "hard" is relative to the organization carrying out the project. Legalizing MJ isn't (technically) hard in the context of the US government, the resources used to draw up specs wouldn't even be noticed.

Of course it is politically super hard and once you realize that politicians have to choose between a tiny chance of legalization and other important policy changes it becomes more understandable.

5:17 PM, November 01, 2009  
Blogger Tom said...

I teach computer programming and design, and I have a simple phrase that puts it into perspective: 'Every thing is easy when you know how to do it' So your complexity is a product of being unprepared and knowledgeable not difficulty.

All your questions are what is called fact finding and needs analysis. It is not hard, just complex. Kind of how you eat an elephant, one bite at a time. Your hypothesis is that complexity justifies inertia, I reject that as being patently false.

Good rant though, Did a bowl pack at the 3rd glass of wine level and the rest flowed much better ;)

10:20 PM, November 03, 2009  
Blogger Amethana said...

I *think* the government of Norway have done it this way:

A central list of all controlled substances is kept along with different levels of illegality, and the laws refer to the list. Legalizing marijuana is as easy as changing it in that list, all other laws staying as they are.

It seems your lawmakers are horrible programmers.

8:08 AM, November 09, 2009  
Blogger Security Leaders Group said...

Would love to see your same methodology (haloed programmer on your shoulder) applied to:

1. Making it illegal not to have health insurance.
2. Pass international laws that solve global warming.

5:50 AM, February 04, 2010  
Blogger konst.lvov said...

That question list about legalizing looks like law in draft. Have you ever thought about political career? :)

7:25 AM, February 14, 2010  
Blogger daniel john said...

That's one model. Holland has legalized marijuana. Thats another model. Portugal has legalized all drugs (to good effect).That's three models we can base legalization on.
Term Paper

11:08 PM, February 17, 2010  
Blogger Potgnome said...

We could add a patchwork of new handling by letting new court cases judged by new understanding set precedence. Much like most corporate software I guess.

7:45 AM, March 02, 2010  
Blogger jpk said...

So, we shouldn't do things that are complicated and we might get wrong?

Not the most compelling argument.

Yes, the complexity is high. And yes, most people don't get that. And yes, few proponents or opponents see the unintended consequences. All true.

Yes, the analogy of software development and project management is reasonable. No argument.

But if we're not going to do anything but simple tasks that have little or no potential for unexpected consequences, we're not going to do much in this world.

If we refrain from any policy change that might have some unforseen downside, or any project in which the devil is in the details, we simply abandon the field to those who don't care.

So without minimizing the complexity, or the lack of appreciation of that found in most policy analysis, it's still morally bankrupt to say ah then, we should do nothing.

6:28 PM, April 08, 2010  
Blogger ivyrocks84 said...

Our government should legalize pot, but when was the last time our government used any common scense?

8:02 PM, June 20, 2010  
Blogger John-Mason P. Shackelford said...

The credit card buckets idea has been implemented to good effect by http://www.mvelopes.com/ and since it is not implemented in the credit card itself but across all credit cards you own, it is even more effective than the proposed solution.

7:12 AM, June 23, 2010  
Blogger Bill said...

I am still chuckling over your line about Monsanto eventually suing some poor stoner over genetically modified seeds.
What are the legal implications for credit processing companies providing services to medical marijuana companies? Something else to think about, a large bank losing it's license for violating fed laws.

2:17 PM, August 02, 2010  
Blogger jqb said...

This rant could just as well have been used to argue against giving women or blacks the vote. Perhaps with a bit more study of history and society you would come to realize the severe flaws in your analogy of law as program.

1:08 AM, December 14, 2010  
Blogger jqb said...

"We have a common law system that thrives on vague laws being interpreted and refined by rulings on specific instances of conflicts between different laws, principles, and common sense."

THAT is the difference between software and law. Law gets implemented by humans making interpretations.


Yes indeed, which sums up the wrongness of this post. How hard do you suppose it is to enable same-sex marriage throughout an entire state, then ban it, then enable it again, repeatedly. Think of the race conditions! What about the people who got married in between? Oh dear, oh dear, all those implementation details are overwhelming!

But the fact is that you can just write a law, or vote on an initiative, no matter how inane, or inconsistent with other laws ... and the whole dynamic structure of society shifts, flows into a new configuration ... it's nothing at all like the software systems you are comparing it to, it's more like how biological processes like metabolism or cogitation work.

1:38 AM, December 14, 2010  
Blogger jqb said...

Roel, you've chosen to weigh in by pulling your dick out and waving it in front of everyone. Since you went to the effort, being a programmer and a lawyer and all, we all congratulate you. It's a fine, big dick.

You're a jackass and not nearly as smart as you think you are.

1:46 AM, December 14, 2010  
Blogger jqb said...

Roel said it very well

Indeed he did, and it takes an intellectually dishonest pompous jackass to accuse him of pulling out his dick and not contributing anything to the discussion.

1:51 AM, December 14, 2010  
Blogger jqb said...

perhaps the knee-jerk reactions are the ones that come in first

But your knee-jerk reaction to Roel didn't come in first.

1:53 AM, December 14, 2010  
Blogger jqb said...

It seems pretty clear to me, having read both of Obama's books, that he's going to make all the right things happen, but that he's going to do it subtly and without drawing attention to himself or his administration.

Oh, so that is what this was about! Well, some of us smarter folk overcame that naivety early on.

A body of law IS a program

No, you goof, it isn't.

1:59 AM, December 14, 2010  
Blogger rischan said...

This was a gateway drug for you because you had to go buy it at places where other drugs were sold. By legalizing pot that would stop.

Legal Marijuana

9:34 AM, June 21, 2011  

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