Friday, October 17, 2014

Performance Enhancing? Nope... normalizing... But don't try to tell the DEA that.

There's a funny thing about my life... I'm not sure if this is comic, tragic, ironic or what...

I spent more than 10 years as a serious competitive powerlifter, football player, wrestler, and martial artist, and another few years as a just a hobbyist.

In that entire time, I never did a single "performance enhancing drug"... Never even tempted to do so.

Now I'm a broken down, fat, middle aged cripple... who the DEA looks at like I'm a drug dealer or abuser of "performance enhancing substances"... just to keep from getting fatter, more broken down, and more crippled.

I'm 8 years into the frank symptoms of chronic illness (which turned out to be a weird and rare kind of endocrine cancer, that almost killed me, and basically destroyed my endocrine system. I have been cancer free for almost 2 years now), and  I am now on damn near the exact combination of drugs that "juicers" would traditionally use for such things.

I take more testosterone every week than most steroid abusers would even think of... and I don't cycle it, I take it constantly, deep muscle injection every week.

I take an aromatase inhibitor to keep all that testosterone from converting to estrogens and testosterone antagonists (and giving me all the nasty side effects that not cycling off testosterone injections give you). We're experimenting with that one right now, but we may end up adding an estrogen/estradiol antagonist to the mix on top of the aromatase inhibitor.

By the by... those drugs are normally what they give to breast cancer and ovarian cancer patients. They actually say in the interaction warnings "do not take if you are a man"... unless of course you're a man whose body is producing too much estrogen, or converting too much testosterone into estrogens and testosterone antagonists, and blocking his ability to produce and use testosterone properly. If you're not one of those men, it dramatically increases the effect of testosterone (and other steroid hormones) on your body.

I'm on enough primary thyroid hormone to quite literally kill a normal person... in fact, not just "enough", the amount I take is several times the lethal dosage. It's still may not be enough for me. The doc just increased it today, and will probably increase it again in 6-12 weeks when we sort out the effects of the new meds. Sometimes athletes abuse thyroid hormones for weight loss, increased energy, and to boost other performance enhancing hormones naturally.

For allergies, and for inflammation pursuant to the endocrine issues, I take two different other steroidal medications (a glucocorticoid and a mineralcorticoid), which act as bronchodilators and anti-inflammatories.

To deal with some of the unfun and nasty side effects and after effects of the cancer (to improve metabolic function, energy, mental acuity etc...) I'm also taking enough creatine to put a normal person into kidney failure... For me, it actually makes my kidneys work better.

Because of the aftereffects of the cancer, the endocrine issues, and the side effects of the medications, I'm on megadoses of vitamins and minerals. I mean MEGADOSES.

Between all of those, my growth hormone production and DHEA production should be elevated through the roof... as if I was taking illegal supplementation of HGH. It's not... because my endocrine system is so screwed up.
For my edema (another lovely endocrine side effect, which can be made worse by my meds), I take more diuretics than the most abusive wrestler, gymnast, or bodybuilder. I've lost 24lbs in 24 hours, and 48lbs in 7 days just from the pills.

For musculoskeletal pain and systemic inflammation, I'm on more and stronger anti-inflammatories than any athlete rehabbing after a major injury (I take 1000mg of etodolac twice a day). I also get periodic shots of antiinflammatory medications directly into my knees.

Those let me get out of bed and walk. Without them... I just don't.

Between my normal blood chemistry, the damage the cancer did, and the side effects of medications, I've got polycythemia, and I'm a hyperclotter. I'm basically naturally blood doping.

To counter the aftereffects of the cancer and make the other meds work better (adrenal and pituitary support), I'm on enough stimulant medication (which is also a bronchodilator) to make the DEA look funny at my doctor... until he explains all of the above.

In fact, the DEA looks funny at several of the drugs I'm taking above. My doctors have had to explain to my pharmacists, and both have had to explain to the DEA... no, I'm not a drug dealer or abuser, I'm not a steroid abusing weight lifter... I'm just a guy who needs this stuff to live.

I should be taking actual pain killers too... I've got enough musculoskeletal  damage, neurological damage, and inflammation, that my baseline background pain is pretty substantial.

For those familiar with pain management, I live at about a 3-4 most days, with breakthrough to a 7 on good days, and 6 or 7 with breakthrough to 9 or 10 bad days.

That's with the meds. Without... there are no good days. There's just days I can get out of bed, and days I can't.

I simply refuse to take painkillers. They don't do a damn thing for me unless I take horse tranquilizer doses, and then they knock me out cold... or worse, leave me sami conscious and barely awake, but unable to think, or concentrate, or really actually sleep. Beside, I don't like the other side effects.

I've learned just to live with the pain, and take what pain reduction I can get with my other medications.

And by the way... this is a MASSIVE REDUCTION of the stuff I used to be taking, during the cancer. My primary care physician and my endocrinologist are both alternative and integrative medicine believers who hate drugs, and only prescribe the absolute minimum necessary.

I'm not overmedicated... if I go off of any of them, or all of them, nothing gets better and it all gets worse. We've done differential testing, going off one at a time and seeing the impact then going back on, then varying dosages... I'm definitely not overmedicated.

If anything, there are some other medications that might help me more. We're very slowly adding things in one at a time, so we can test and measure and adjust.

This isn't overmedication...

This is what happens, when your endocrine system completely loses the ability to regulate itself. It's trying to regulate through medication, what the body normally regulates naturally.

It's what I need to live, and be functional.

The worst thing is though... because of DEA actions, regulations, guidelines, and investigations... Several of my medications, that I need to live, and be productive, and actually be ME?

They're constantly short of them, or out of them entirely. Sometimes it's every pharmacy within 30 miles.

They don't stock them, they don't stock the dosages I need, or they don't stock enough to fill my scrips for a month.

I have to get hand written, signed scrips every month, I can't get refills, and I can't get more than a 30 days supply at once. If I'm caught with more than a 30 days supply, I can be charged with unlawful possession, and possession with intent to distribute.

I have to hand carry those scrips to the pharmacies, only for them to tell me that it might be a week, maybe two weeks, before they can fill the scrip; because the DEA production quota for that quarter had been exceeded, or the distributors orders were above the DEAs suspect threshold, or because they had sold out of all they could order for that month without the DEA investigating them, or because one scrip of mine was more than the DEA told that pharmacy they could keep in storage.

We won't even get into what the drugs themselves cost, or what they would cost without the regulatory and compliance burden to deal with these issues.

...And god help me if I actually took the painkillers I should be taking.

All this... because the medications that I need to live and function... are sometimes abused by other people to "enhance their performance".

... and somehow, some people still seem to think that the "drug war" is helping?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

What the heck is a Muscular Minarchist?

I am a Muscular Minarchist.

What does that mean?

Well, the way I've introduced the concept for the past 20 or so years is:
I am a cynically romantic optimistic pessimist. I am neither liberal, nor conservative. I am a (somewhat disgruntled) muscular minarchist… something like a constructive anarchist. 
Basically what that means, is that I believe, all things being equal, responsible adults should be able to do whatever the hell they want to do, so long as nobody’s getting hurt, who isn't paying extra
That’s a bit of “ha ha only serious” there… and really does fairly encapsulate my personal moral and ethical position… it’s the “elevator pitch” version as it were.

The next sentence of the elevator pitch is:
I believe in an absolutely minimalist government that provides a strong defense. I want a government that stays out of my wallet, out of my bedroom, and out of my business.
I realize that’s a lot to ask, but I don’t believe it should be.

I write, because from time to time I must express my anger, frustration, ire, pique, and general cussedness in a format that is unlikely to result in my imprisonment.

I can just see it now “Radical right wing gun nut takes out entire joint session of congress”

Hey a guy can dream can’t he?

Of course I’m not a radical right wing anything; I’m a radical about liberty.

 I make careful note that I am a philosophical libertarian (note the small “L”) and I take those principles seriously. It’s not just a question of politics, it’s a matter of morals and ethics.

Since I hold all involuntary collectivism as an inherent evil; that, by the very definition used by modern media ...and for that matter most who consider themselves "left" or "progressive" or "liberal"... is radical right wing.

The thing is, my opposition to involuntary collectivism is from all sides. I reject collectivist government, as much as I reject collectivist social policy, as much as I reject collectivist moral policy, or religion (not all religion, just the promulgation of involuntary collectivism through religion), or any other concentration of the power to coercively limit liberty.

I believe in Liberty, Responsibility, Service, and Honor… I guess I’m just funny that way.

Okay so who am I?

Personally, I’m a husband, a father of three, a son, and a friend. I am a sincere and faithful, but dissenting and schismatic, Catholic. I am a cancer warrior, because I didn't just survive cancer, I kicked its ass.

Professionally, I’m a veteran of the United States Air Force, an Aerospace Engineer and Computer Scientist by education; and an enterprise, infrastructure, systems, and security, architect and educator; by way of employment.

Passionately, I am a shooter, a singer, a guitar and bass player, a driver, a rider, a sailor, a pilot, a builder, a craftsman, a hunter, an outdoorsman, a reader, a writer, a poet, a cook and brewer, and a lover of fine food, and spirituous beverages.

Finally, by fundamental nature, I’m a hard core geek, about all of those things above, and more. I am by my nature compelled to learn, and love, and know, and understand, everything I care about; as fully and deeply as I possibly can.

I revel in my geekitude.

I work, play, game, read, speak, think, drink, and live, geek.

NOTE: This profile was originally published in 2005. The author was lazy and didn’t get around to updating it until October 16th 2014… when it was pointed out that in the intervening almost decade, he had somehow managed to acquire a wife and children (he met his wife shortly after the founding of the site), which he had neglected to mention.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Equally Human

The last few years have seen the spread of the toxic notion that all public portrayals of women, racial and ethnic minorities, religious minorities etc... must not present them in a bad light.

If they do dare to show any characters who are not white males as evil, villainous, "bad people", or even just unlikeable; such portrayals (and the artists who created them) could be, and frequently were, labeled as "racist", misogynist and the like.

This of course is itself racist and misogynist, because it infantilizes and dehumanizes those being portrayed.

Real humans have flaws and faults, and the flaws in any particular character say nothing about the nature of all humans who share some arbitrary identity characteristics with that character.
No single woman, no single black man, no single muslim; is a proxy for all woman, or black men, or muslims everywhere.

To be so reductionist and generalizing is absurd, and is in fact racist or misogynist.

This particular issue has been at the fore this past two weeks, because of the release of the thriller "Gone Girl"; whose female lead is a thoroughly nasty psychopath, who deliberately frames the men in her life for rape and murder.

Such a portrayal is NOT misogynist... Anymore than saying any portrayal of any white male as a sociopath is saying that all white men are sociopaths.

Such notions reveal more about the insecurities, sensitivities, and prejudices of those espousing them, than of the artist who created the characters.

In a New York Times piece about the film (and the controversy), Maureen Dowd says some things I think are worthy of consideration:

"The idea that every portrait of a woman should be an ideal woman, meant to stand for all of womanhood, is an enemy of art — not to mention wickedly delicious Joan Crawford and Bette Davis movies. Art is meant to explore all the unattractive inner realities as well as to recommend glittering ideals. It is not meant to provide uplift or confirm people’s prior ideological assumptions. Art says “Think,” not “You’re right.”"

Yes... indeed... when exactly did we decide otherwise, and who exactly did the deciding?

Of course I'm sensitive to the fact that for decades popular culture has often portrayed minorities as the scary badguys, or at best as gross parodies of reality... but you don't fix that by simply grossly distorting and dehumanizing minorities in the opposite direction.

For gods sake, how many wise, magical, non-threatening black men can hollywood cast Will Smith and Morgan Freeman as?

As a result of this "sensitivity", we have seen every movie where the bad guy isn't a white western European or American male, decried as racist or culturist or sexist etc... etc... etc...

This has resulted in the ridiculous whitewashing of villains. Books with muslim terrorists as the antagonists are made into movies with Belgian Nazis. Hollywood is breathing a sigh of relief that they can portray Russians as bad guys again, because they were running out of ways of making all the badguys white anglosaxons without seeming ridiculous.

Honestly, I think Hollywood really misses the days when they could just make all the bad guys nazis and russians. No "troubling implications" when swastikas are involved.

This dehumanization serves neither art, nor humanity. It's dishonest, disingenuous, and condescending.

We're not really equal, until we can be equally bad, equally good, equally ambiguous... equally HUMAN.

HP is dead... now stop molesting the corpse...

So, some of you know... and it's actually in my FB profile, that I'm a former employe of HP.

I've also worked with them extensively for many years as a subcontractor, as a strategic partner, and as a vendor that I had a very close relationship with. I've had a lot of great friends and colleagues in HP, and we've done some very interesting and innovative things together.

Over the past week or so, I've been thinking about what to say about HP's... really Meg Whitmans... plan to split the company in two.

I finally figured out what I have to say... and it's really simple.

The company that Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard built is finally and definitively dead... It's been mostly dead but vainly struggling for breath for several years, and with this final stroke, it's truly gone.

Now that there is no more hope, and the plug is being pulled, the faster we can bury the corpse, and reallocate the assets to something useful and productive, the better.

I'm sorry, I wish I could say something better... I wish the HP I loved working with for many years was still with us, or had any chance at all.

It doesn't, it isn't, and I can't.

Meg Whitman has continued to do what Carly Fiorina started... gut the company one quarter at a time, doing anything to temporarily prop up stock prices (and the executive managements bonuses) at the expense of the company as a whole, it's future business, and its customers.

This was the final cut. There is no more. It's over...

Gilmore Girls... Is it Just Me or?

A certain segment of the internet has been very happy for the past two weeks, because "the Gilmore Girls" has become available on Netflix streaming.

I've mentioned before that, unsurprisingly to anyone who knows anything about the show, and my own pop culture proclivities, I quite like it.

I was actually out of the country during most of it's original run, so I never got into it then. But on the recommendation... actually the incessant obsessive raving... of several friends (after I mentioned I really liked "Bunheads") I binge watched all seven seasons over the course of about a month, while I was recovering from cancer.

I'm total sucker for rapid fire, witty, snappy dialogue, full of clever jokes and pop culture references. Sorkin, Tarantino, the old screwball romantic comedies... And Gilmore Girls (and Amy Sherman Palladinos next show "Bunheads") hit all those points fast, hard, and frequently.

So much so, that Gilmore Girls scripts for a single 48 minute episode were often as long as feature film scripts (generally twice as long as TV).

The show is definitely worth watching if that's the kind of thing you like.

I've personally described the Gilmore Girls family dynamics as "If you made them Irish, and even more screwed up, they'd be a hell of a lot like my family".

One thing that's been happening these past few weeks as people have rewatched, or tried to convince friends and random strangers to watch... is that lists and summaries, and memes, and gifs are being created... because I guess that's what we do now with pop culture stuff.

The most frequent comments I've seen have been:


  1. "Lorelai is really rude" -- Yes, she is. And she's often obliviously self centered when she's not stupidly martyring herself, and totally irrational and ridiculous about... lots and lots of things. Which means she is exactly like a LOT of women I've known (and some I've loved). If the writing were not so good, and if Lauren Graham didn't have such great natural humor, timing, and presence, Lorelai would be unwatchable.
     
  2. "Is Rory just not that great a character? Or is it that Alexis Bledel is not a very good actress?" -- Yes
     
  3. "Is it just me... or are the side characters... and their actors performances... way better, more fun, more likeable, and more interesting" -- No, it's not just you. Yes, they are.
     
  4. Is it just me, or are Emily and Richard the best characters on the show" -- No, it's not just you. Yes, they are.

    However, in large part that's because Kelly Bishop (45 years on broadway, 1 tony) and Edward Herrmann (5 emmy noms, 1 win, 40 years on broadway 2 tonys) are truly wonderful actors, delivering performances that absolutely OWN every minute they're on screen.

    If there's a scene that could make a grown man cry (and there are more than a couple)... it's a safe bet that it's an Emily or Richard scene.
      
  5. "Is it just me, or are seasons 6 and 7... kinda... not very good? Maybe even bad" -- No, it's not just you. Yes, they are.

    Honest to god... I didn't skip them because I'm an obsessive completionist, but you can... and really, you might be happier that way.

    The shows creator and head writer (Amy and Daniel Palladino) left the show for seasons 6 and 7, and by the end of season five they had sorta written themselves into places that would've taken really great writers to get out of. They didn't have really great writers.
      
  6. "Hey, isn't that that guy, who was in that thing? -- Yes, yes it is.

    Gilmore Girls is one of those shows that somehow seemingly had everyone who was famous in the mid to late 2000s through today show up in some minor role for some episode... or even for a season or two. In particular there are a lot of indy movie stars, and a lot of alternative and improv comedians.

    Oh and because of Amy and Daniel Palladinos obsessive pop culture disorder, and extensive contact list in the music business, the show has a LOT of punk, new wave, alternative, underground, and folk musicians filling minor roles as well.

    If you're a music geek, you WILL find yourself running to IMDB to see... Yep, that WAS Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon... and hey... yeah, that's Carol King in the music shop and... and...


Anyway, if you're looking for an actual family friendly show, that isn't boring, that's well written, that's funny and fun, that's sweet, that you can watch with your wife, or your kids, or your grandma...

Check it out... it's worth your time.

Oh and check out "Bunheads" as well... The show is worth watching just to see Sutton Foster (6 tony nominations 2 wins) be Sutton Foster (and Kelly Bishop be even more Kelly Bishop than she was in "Gilmore Girls").

Monday, October 13, 2014

Cost is NOT Price, and Neither Cost, nor Price, are Value


Prices Provide a Misleading Measure of Dollar DevaluationForbes Magazine Online - Keith Weiner 
There’s not a human being alive who doesn't know the dollar is falling. Everyone over 25 has stories of what prices were like, way back when (and younger people have heard them). I remember when gasoline was 60 cents a gallon, and my mom remembers when it was 20 cents. 
Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen acknowledges the official objective to push the dollar down by 2 percent per year. This intention is behind the Fed’s ill-conceived loose money policy. 
It’s important to measure each drop. This is not just to keep a scorecard on the Fed, but because a change in the dollar skews historical comparisons and distorts business decisions, like giving increases to workers and pensioners....

Read the whole piece, and then come back...

The thesis statement of the piece is correct, in that prices provide a misleading indicator of currency valuation (and that our weak dollar policy is fundamentally wrong and destructive for that matter).

Unfortunately the author suggests that simply using a different price denomination and comparison is a less misleading indicator... In this, he's absolutely incorrect.

What you really want to compare is purchasing power parity (PPP) as measured by equivalent standard of living, expressed as a dollar cost in constant dollars normalized to average labor hour wage or compensation.

i.e. this item costs 5 minutes of average labor, this costs 8 hours, this costs 20 years; the cost to maintain this equivalent normalized standard of living across an aggregate population is 1940 hours of median labor wage etc... etc...

Note, this is NOT an expression of the fallacious labor theory of value, it is an explicit measure of purchasing power parity as actual cost, not currency denomination.

The critical function isn't price, and it isn't wage... it's cost, in this case expressed as a cost to value ratio as a normalized dollar (to make it easy to relate to wages and prices).

Cost is not price; it's a totalized measure of inputs including resources, time, and opportunity.

Some Advice to Salespeople (and Managers).... Selling vs. Making Money

Couple points for you salesfolks and account managers, particularly the newer ones, or people who have converted to sales from another discipline...

  1. Fire your customers. If a customer is costing you more than they are making you, stop serving them. Don't stop selling to them... If they want to keep giving you money anyway, fine... but DO NOT put more time or effort into them.

    Most importantly, DO NOT WASTE YOUR TEAMS TIME on them.
     
  2. See that guy? The one who knows everything about the product, and the customers, and the competitors, and all the strategic plans, and the market space comparisons, and the advantages and disadvantages and competitive analyses off the top of his head?

    Oh and he actually knows how to write and present?

    That guy whose involvement can close a sale all by itself? Or who can move you past the decisioning phase and into the negotiation phase?

    Yeah, he's an awesome resource... In fact, there's a strong temptation to just LET HIM DO YOUR JOB FOR YOU.

    Yeah...DON'T DO THAT.

    That guy is your chief architect or your product manager, he is not your  junior sales engineer. DO NOT WASTE HIS TIME.
Do you see the commonality here?


To be a good salesman, you need to know how to sell.

To be a great one, you need to know how to make your company money. 

These are not the same thing. 


Revenue is important, but generally, PROFIT is more important.

Every dollar earned, has a dollar cost associated with it; meaning the direct and indirect cost inputs into gaining that dollar. 

In information technology, as in many other industries, the costs of the sales process are often the single largest component of the marginal costs of each sale (yes, more than the amortized costs of development, and more than the cost of manufacturing and distribution. Generally the baseline run rate i.e. the amortized fixed costs related directly to the product... is the largest marginal cost component, and the customer acquisition and sales process is the second largest marginal cost component). 

Every minute, and every dollar, you spend on that process has to be weighed against the expected return (and by the way, unless you desperately need the revenue, or there are externalities at play, you need to have a minimum 4x expected return on gross totalized marginal cost including amortized fixed costs, just to break even on a sale). 

You have to understand the cost/benefit of the elements of your sales process, at least as well as you understand how to execute that process. 

Also, and in big picture terms more importantly; every dollar earned has an opportunity cost associated with it. 

You have to understand these inputs not just as direct costs, but as opportunity costs. Could you or your team be spending their time in more efficient or more effective ways? Could they be making you, and your organization, more money, doing something else?

Some advice to managers and organizations...

Everything I said above?

STOP SABOTAGING IT

Stop working against yourselves, by process and metric capture, and suboptimal incentive structures.

People will respond to their perceived incentives. We generally create incentives to sell unit volume, or gross revenue; and sales people respond to that, by maximizing the elements by which they are measured and incentivized.

Yes, we should encourage more sales, and greater revenue, but not at the expense of profit.

The mission isn't to sell more... it's to make more money.

If we want to make more money, we need to create metrics and incentives that will drive profit not revenue.

That doesn't mean don't measure sales, or revenue... It just means that it shouldn't be our key metric, nor should it be the key component to anyones compensation.

We need to start creating metrics and compensation plans that measure the efficiency and effectiveness of the sales process.

My suggestion? 

Create a primary metric and incentive structure based on total cost accounting of each realized dollar.

Totalize the amortized fixed costs, the marginal cost inputs, and the sales process inputs, and compute that as a ratio against realized dollars.

With that, you end up with a somewhat different set of metrics to work and manage against:


  • Total sales closed
  • Total unit volume
  • Average unit volume per sale
    -
  • Total realized revenue
  • Realized revenue per sale
  • Realized revenue per unit
    -
  • Totalized cost per sale
  • Totalized cost per unit
  • Totalized dollar cost per realized dollar
    -
  • Total profit per sale
  • Total profit per unit
  • Total realized profit
    -
  • Ratio of totalized cost to revenue per sale
  • Ratio of totalized cost to revenue per unit
  • Ratio of totalized cost to total realized revenue

These metric sets allow you to tune your process better, to define your requirements better to product management and marketing, to train your people better, to truly evaluate their strengths and weaknesses and help them improve and refocus as needed...

Fundamentally, they help you understand who is really making you money, how, and why; so you can compensate them appropriately, and both replicate and improve on their results.

Remember though, you cannot focus any single one of those metrics to the exclusion of all the others. Each metric tells you one single thing, one single area that is exceptional or could use improvement.

Oh and by the by... It's not just for managers... You should collect these metrics on yourself, and strive to improve them.

... and here's the really BIG secret...

Even if you're not a salesperson, or a sales or account manager; you should understand, and if possible, collect these metrics on yourself (and your team if you are a manager or leader) as well...

You simply change the word "sales" to "tasks" or "goal" or "product" or "accomplishment"; the word revenue to "benefit" or "achievement"; and the word "profit" to "value".


Sunday, October 12, 2014

What exactly do I do?

In theory, I work in technology for a living.

In particular, I work in enterprise, infrastructure, and information security architecture; more specifically as a consultant and educator in those domains.

Really, what I do, is I talk to people about their problems.

Then I think about them for a while, and I write about them for a while.

Then I try to teach people how to solve those problems, and I write about that...

Then I mediate between groups of people who both need each other and hate each other; with competing agendas and incentives and fears and desires, and problems and styles and personalities etc... etc... etc...

...and most of all, I try to find nice ways of saying NO without actually saying no...

...and after saying NO, show them how to actually DO, what they ACTUALLY need to do (as opposed to what they wanted to do, or thought they needed to do), in the least stupid and least harmful way possible.

... and if I'm REALLY REALLY good at it, and REALLY lucky... I manage to do all that, while making them think it was always all their idea the whole time.

I see no meaningful functional difference between this, and a therapist.

What I Know About Teaching

About a year ago, a friend of mine was preparing to teach a class that he'd never taught before... He's done a lot of one on one education and training, but I he had never taught a group class, and he was looking for some advice. 

I thought I'd offer him what advice I could, and so I wrote (most of) what became this piece down. I thought I had posted it to the blog at the time, but when I searched for it to reference it earlier today, I couldn't find it. 

I decide to post it now, revising it with the new bits and pieces I was writing today. 

Remember, this is about teaching a class, not giving a lecture or a presentation, or a demonstration or conducting a forum... those are all different environments, with different priorities and different techniques.
Here's what I know about teaching, from my own personal experiences, in more than 15 years as a professional educator and trainer (and they are two different but related disciplines), and as a training and courseware developer.

The Big Picture Stuff



Style and Philosophy

I have almost entirely moved away from traditional lecture classes (unless the courseware vendor or certification authorities require specific curricula and delivery).

I find that my students learn better, and that I teach better, in an interactive and participatory environment. An extended and guided conversation, with open digressions and contextual questions, answers, and explanations.

I believe in instructor lead, but participant driven, training and education.

As such, I tend to use a modified Socratic method to lead my classes into participation. I use a lot of leading questions, and logic and reasoning problems. I try to get my students to extend and generalize from examples and principles we've covered before, and then apply them to new situations.

I also encourage students to (civilly and constructively) argue and debate, both myself and each other.

When I think it'll be responded to well, I'll often deliberately misstate or poorly state or frame an idea, or deliberately misapply a principle or not fully extend a thought etc... in order to prompt my students into exploring the correct or complete thought. If they don't speak up on their own or catch me in it, I'll straight out ask them as I go "So, am I using this properly? Is there a better way? What if I did this... Was that earlier example wrong?"

Importantly, I always encourage... in fact, right up front I tell my students that I require them... to speak up if they think I'm wrong, or they have a different idea or different perspective, or a different experience.

HOWEVER... that doesn't work for all courses, or all students.

Different materials and subject matters lend themselves to different styles of instruction and presentation; and most critically, different students learn better with different styles and methods.

You MUST tailor your material, and your style, to your students, and the environment and requirements of that specific class.  

The Classroom Environment


Obviously, I work in non-traditional educational environments. I am not generally (though I have) teaching classes full of 10th graders.

My students are generally adults, who have at the very least, taken a lot of time out of their life to attend my class. Often, they have paid (or their employers have paid) several thousand dollars to attend. They tend to have an entirely different level of motivation and a different set of incentives, than other instruction environments.

Also, I tend to have my students for a minimum of two straight hours (for short talks given at conferences, demos at group events etc...), and frequently for 6-8 hours a day (sometimes even 10 or more hours per day), for two to five days (for professional education and training).

In this kind of environment, we get to go as broad and deep on the subject matter, as our time, and the amount of material we have to cover, allow; and what we cover is largely dictated by the desires and needs of the students.

In general, I like to start a bit later... I find that anything I teach before about 9:30am doesn't actually stick... so I keep the first part of each morning light, or I make it review and freeform Q&A from the day before... or introductions and personal stories on the first day.

We get up and move around at least once an hour, for enough time to go to the bathroom, and get a drink, have a snack... then, refreshed, we get back down to the material with renewed focus.

The same for lunch, particularly if I can get it catered in. We get up, move around, eat, talk to each other, get to know each other and share experiences... and we relax, and try to enjoy our time.

It's critical for both you, AND your students, to take time to relax, and decompress, and get comfortable, throughout the day. Stay hydrated, keep your blood sugar right, and your electrolytes right. Avoid getting stiff, and avoid strain headaches. You will be more efficient and more effective, covering more material with greater comprehension and retention, if you are relaxed and comfortable.

Then, at the end of the day, I don't like to try to teach the material up to the bell. I always like to give at LEAST the last half hour as a freeform Q&A and review of anything the students want.

So yes... it's a different environment than a typical secondary education classroom...

That said, I think that professional trainers and educators, have some valuable insights and experiences to offer in improving secondary and university education.

The Detail Stuff... Technique and Technicalities


Preparation

The most important thing, is to be prepared. You don't have to be a total expert on the material to teach a class in it, but you do have to know it, understand it, and prepare yourself with it (and with additional supporting material).

When I'm fully prepared for a class, I can be much more comfortable, extemporaneous, I can explain things better in a more engaging way, and I can change things up when it is necessary to, or when the class feels like that's where it's going etc...

Preparation allows me to be flexible, to be interesting, to be funny, to be personal, to be engaging; and lack of it, prevents these things... or makes them much harder...

...Or worst of all, makes them all there is, and no-one learns anything; except how good you are at vamping, or how well you can monologue at them off the printed materials.

Know not just the material you're teaching, but the history of it, the reasons and motivations behind it... how it got to be the way it is now. Understand the context of it, and how it will impact your students.

Even if all of this is not part of the class, people may ask questions about it, and again, knowing this stuff, and being prepared for it, will help you explain things better.

Personality

It's important to allow yourself to show through in the material. Be flexible. Use humor. Be personal. Change it up. Use personal examples and personal stories (when appropriate). If you don't have personal stories, use anecdotes from others, but make them real, personal, relatable...

It doesn't have to be directly personal, what it has to be is RELATABLE.

Be open... but don't make it about you, make it about the material USING yourself as the example, or as a pivot point around which your students can see and experience the material.

Repetition

You need to repeat yourself.

Anything important you say, you need to say it at least three times; and if it's REALLY important, it's preferable to say something three times three...

That's three times at once, then three times again a little later, then three more times again near the end.

You can, and often should, say it in different ways, so long as it's absolutely clear that you're really saying the same thing. You don't have to say it three times over and over again in a row, but the repetitions should be close enough together to be clearly reinforcing.

Some folks don't need or want repetition, and almost everyone is bored or irritated by it eventually, which we certainly want to avoid.

However, so long as the repetition isn't excessive (more than four or five times -or more than four or five cycles of three repetitions- in a single lesson, unless each repetition is reinforced organically as a subpart of the lesson), even if the repetition bugs them a bit, they'll RETAIN it better.

... so long as you maintain...

Engagement

Engage everyone, both as a group, but also individually. When you engage individually, so long as you do so in a way that everyone can see and hear, and isn't too specific to the individual, the audience can relate, and it's almost as good as engaging each of them individually.

Stop regularly and ask for questions; and make it clear when it's possible, that they can ask questions any time. If there's a point where you feel like you know there are questions, but no-one is coming forth, ask the question yourself, or ask leading questions of your students.

Engage your students with problems, exercises... bring them up to the whiteboard or chalkboard... Capture their attention fully, AND capture their intellect fully, AND engage their EMOTIONS... get them analyzing, and relating what you are doing, to themselves, their own knowledge and needs.

Use game design theory, and psychology, to your advantage.  A while back I wrote a piece on game design theory and engagement in sports, that I think has parallels and value to education as well.

Although it may not be immediately obvious exactly how this applies to education and training, I think you'll see the value, and I'm going to insert an extended quotation (feel free to skip ahead if you like):

"...Acquisition and retention are particularly critical to these games; and retention is achieved through engagement. 
The way game designers accomplish these missions are with spectacle, and reward psychology (positive and negative reinforcement through anticipation, reward and penalty; with a very strong bias towards reward, leavened by the occasional penalty), particularly competitive reward psychology. 
Something spectacular engages you for the duration of the spectacle. You are a passive participant. It attracts you, and fascinates you, but only for that moment. Retention requires maintaining engagement over time... becoming an active participant, either directly or as a metaparticipant. 
So... what does that have to do with sports? Or with spectator sports fans in particular?
Simple... Sports fans are players in a metagame.
 
Spectator sport fandom, although passively received (the fan isn't an active participant in the games they are watching); isn't a passive, receptive, entertainment experience (like a movie or television). 
However, much as television shows retain viewers by emotional engagement in the story (thus making them metaparticipants in the narrative); spectator sports retain fans by persistent emotional engagement with the sport, and particularly with their team (making them metaplayers in the game). 
Sports fandom, is a kind of play by proxy; much as horse racing, and other betting games (roulette for example) where the players interaction with the game is not part of the gameplay. This makes it a metagame. 
And metagames have the same success vectors as any other game. 
One of the things that makes Boston sports fandom so... passionate and crazy I guess is the best way to put it... is that a Boston fan is being fed with a near perfect reward psychology cycle. 
Boston teams win often enough (and often quite excitingly) to attract attention and generate spectacle. This  acquires new fans (or brings back those whose engagement has weakened); and it presses the "happy button" in existing fans, engaging their reward pleasure mechanism. 
Importantly though, Boston teams don't win so often that fans get victory fatigue, and need reward escalation to maintain engagement. 
When they're NOT winning, Boston teams are rarely just mediocre... they tend to alternate between "oh God so close..." and "total abject failure" (at least psychologically if not objectively). It may seem counterintuitive, but this is actually far more engaging than consistent high performance or even consistent victory. 
In terms of gaming theory, this 3 point cycle (victory, near victory, failure) helps create spectacle to attract and acquire participants; and helps create, reinforce, and increase engagement. 
Very importantly, it also helps maintain engagement (and thus retention) by reducing victory fatigue, anticipation fatigue, and expectation escalation. 
So... getting into that second and third part... 
Retention is achieved through continued engagement. When engagement is weakened or broken, you lose participants (gamers, fans). 
Engagement is created, reinforced, and increased; with spectacle, novelty, fascination, and competitive reward psychology as described above. 
Engagement is weakened or broken and you lose participants (gamers, fans) through frustration, demoralization, boredom, and fatigue. 
So, the challenge is to maintain or increase engagement over time.
In general, you deal with boredom and fatigue, through novelty. Change things up, so that a participants experience, expectations, and emotional engagement with the game are maintained, and thus they are retained. 
I mentioned victory fatigue above, but didn't define it, I should probably define the three elements of "game fatigue" now. 
Victory fatigue is what happens when a player receives too many rewards, or wins too much too easily. This tends to cause boredom, and frustration; because the rewards no longer feel like rewards. This weakens or breaks engagement. 
In an interactive game you can deal with victory fatigue (and to a lesser extent anticipation fatigue) by varying gameplay (introducing new and different ways of earning rewards) increasing challenge (NOT just increasing difficulty, though that is one way of doing so), increasing penalty for failure (though you can't do that too much or you break engagement through frustration and demoralization), varying rewards (making the rewards new, interesting, and different), or by increasing intensity or spectacle (making the rewards bigger or more desirable). These mechanisms keep the players anticipation and pre-reward engagement high, and their reward pleasure mechanisms responding strongly to the rewards. 
In most spectator sports however, you don't have those mechanisms available to you (or they are severely limited). The difficulty and rewards do escalate somewhat over the course of a season, but are basically fixed year to year (win a game, win a conference, win a division, win a playoff game, win a championship game). So, frequent and consistent victories, particularly championships, result in expectation escalation. 
The three major exceptions to this issue of fixed challenge and fixed rewards by the way, are motor racing, premiership style football (soccer), and NCAA football and basketball. Not surprisingly, the first two are the two most popular spectator sports in the world; and the third creates a degree of unreasoning passion far greater than any other sports in America. 
Anticipation fatigue is a more interesting issue. When you get that "so close" feeling too much, it actually tends to discourage and disappoint you, which increases frustration and breaks engagement i.e. "they get our hopes up every time then disappoint us every time... what's the point". 
Expectation escalation, is what happens when performance or rewards consistently exceed expectations (or consistently exceed the mean performance of a peer group).This causes people to "reset" their emotional expectation of what poor, acceptable, and excellent are, such that their median level of performance, even if it is objectively far better than average, is simply "expected". 
So, a team that wins 80% of the time, year after year, will eventually be expected to do so. If that team starts to win consistently less than 80%, even if they are still better than most teams and win 60% of the time; the emotional reaction of their fans will be the same as if they had objectively poor performance, rather than simply "less good". 
Lesser success can feel like failure, when you're used to greater success. 
Cycling between "not quite great", and "really bad" (even if "really bad" is actually mediocre statistically, the victories and near victories redefine emotional expectations such that mediocre FEELS like abject failure), actually creates and reinforces engagement, and passion; far more, and far more intensely, than consistently high performance. 
This by the way, is the exact same reinforcement cycle that creates and reinforces addiction. Reward (the high), anticipation (the process up to the high), and penalty (the come down and the jones). 
So... for Boston fans, it's like vegas slot machine designers were controlling things for optimum fan acquisition, engagement, and retention. 
It's an almost perfect metagame... arising without design... which is kinda neat.

I realize that was an extended, and somewhat esoteric digression, but I think it provides real value, and direct parallels with education and training. If nothing else, let me pull out a small subsection and slightly modify it:

  • Retention is achieved through continued engagement. When engagement is weakened or broken, you lose participants (or at least you lose their interest and attention)
  • Engagement is created, reinforced, and increased; with direct participation or metaparticipation, spectacle, novelty, fascination, and competitive reward psychology
  • Engagement is weakened or broken and you lose participants, through frustration, demoralization, boredom, and fatigue
It should be clear how those directly relate to engaging students attention and helping them learn.


Mirroring

After you've explained something important, ask particular participants to explain the point you've made, in their own words. If they don't get it quite right, lead them through figuring it out and explaining it properly.

Then ask THEM questions.

Then do it again with a different person, and ask them to explain it in a different way, or to come up with an example, or a scenario etc...

This is called mirroring. It's a communications exercise, that helps people understand what other people are saying, and how what they say is being perceived and understood by other people.

When you apply this to instruction, it serves those purposes, but it's also about making your students think through the problem or example or principle, and figure out how to relate to it, and relate it to others; rather than simply to repeat and regurgitate what they've been told.

It helps the student to truly understand and contextualize what they've learned, and to really show that they have done so.

It also helps you as an instructor, to be a better communicator, and to better understand how others communicate.

Comprehension and Retention

Finally... there is a basic instructional concept called the comprehension and retention cycle

  • See
  • Hear
  • Read
  • Show
  • Do
  • Repeat


To most effectively teach something, with the highest level of retention, your students should in some way:

  • See the material (with handouts, whiteboard/blackboard, slides etc...)
  • Hear the material explained (and remember the repetition above)
  • Read the material, both silently and aloud (or aloud to themselves in their own head, which is different from silently... it sounds silly, but there really is a difference. Try it)
  • Show them the material directly, in demonstration, preferably 3 different ways
  • Do what it is they have read, heard, and been shown, applying it and solving it or using it themselves; preferably in 3 different ways
  • Repeat it all again, preferably three times (or three times three for critical things); varying each time to explore the subject more fully, to maintain and increase engagement, and to allow the students different perspectives and examples to relate better to the material.


So... that's what I know about teaching and training... hope it helps.

Oh and one more thing...


Teaching is one of the greatest satisfactions, joys, and pleasures in my life. It helps me fulfill who and what I am... what I want and need to be.

I have learned far more from teaching, than I ever did from being taught... and perhaps separate from that... perhaps not... I have gained more insight and wisdom, about myself, and about the world, in so doing.

Take that as you will...

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Blogging is Not Dead... Quite

I haven't exactly given up on blogging, but I have cut back a lot, and there's a couple reasons why.

First, the cancer, treatment, and the... Aftermath and recovery I suppose is the way to put it... They took a hell of a lot out of me. More than I have ever talked about really... More than I even understood until I changed some of my medications and got a bit back that helped me see more of... Just how bad it got.

Combined with that, I haven't bought a new gun, or even been in position to talk about one in... I dunno, Four years maybe? Five? I don't even remember... I think... Yeah the last time I bought a new gun was a couple months before we moved to Idaho... So four and a half years ago?

Oh wait... I did complete two gun builds while I was in Idaho. I had the base guns before we moved, but I actually finished the builds in April 2011. So three and a half years. I've been selling guns off ever since actually.

Since Boomershoot 2011, I haven't been to a single shooting event, training class, etc... I've even missed the last couple gunblogger rendezvous, and at GBR in 2011, I was so sick and had tremors and pain so bad I couldn't shoot, or even go to the range events, except for a couple hours of the first one.

Bringing us to the next reason. Basically, other than the Boy being born, my life has been mostly suck most of the time since late 2010. When I felt something would be particularly interesting, or I really needed to get something out on "paper", or needed to vent, I'd write something... But I didn't feel like being the " all misery all the time" blogger.

It's not all personal though, there's also been a change in the environment that has significantly impacted my blogging.

There has been a massive falloff in the quantity and quality of both bloggers, and blog refers and commenters.

Blogging is essentially an interactive, almost collaborative process. Bloggers get inspired, or irritated, or motivated, by other bloggers, and the ongoing conversation with their readers and commenters.

Its a virtuous cycle of ideas and interests and inspiration and motivation and feedback and continuous expression and refinement of ideas.

Except its not so much that anymore.

There's much less of it, and what there is, just isn't as good.

Oh, there's still good stuff, but a lot less of it, and its fewer, farther between, and harder to find.

Then, when you do find it, the engagement and feedback and interplay isn't there, so it doesn't generate more good stuff.

The virtuous circle isn't happening.

Honestly, its just not as fun or interesting anymore. I've still got plenty to say, but saying it through blogging isn't scratching the itch like it used to.

People who used to be blogging and commenting and engaging in long and interesting conversations... Now they're "writing" text bytes 140 character at a time... And half those are used for hash tags. Or worse, they're just exchanging memes and info graphics that other people made.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but you can't talk about things with any depth or in interesting and original and insightful ways with stock photos and pithy captions.

Likes, and shares, and retweets may gratify the ego, but a conversation they do not make.

People are still reading blogs, but instead of reading the interconnected web of posts and comments in the blogosphere, they're reading single posts linked off of facebook or reddit. Most importantly, they're not really commenting on the blog posts themselves.

So, instead of the blog, I'm writing most of what I used to put on my blog, on Facebook.

That may seem hypocritical and contradictory given the paragraphs above, but its not.

I write short and medium length posts on Facebook, and I get more comments, more feedback, more interaction, than I EVER got blogging, even in the glory days. With the ease of reaching large audience who otherwise wouldn't have seen your writing with shares and likes et al... More people are taking what I'm writing and being inspired by it or motivated by it.

Unfortunately, it IS much more shallow interaction than the best days of blogging were. Its shorter, its less in depth, whatever you want to call it.. But at least there is an active conversation. An exchange of ideas and thoughts.

So, I save the really long or really deep stuff for the blog...

...Which by the by, no matter how good the post is and how much traffic the posts get still almost never gets more than a couple comments, most of which are either "good post, me too" or ignorant rants about how wrong and evil I am. I had insty link a post of mine last year, and still only got 15,000 hits on it, and NOT ONE COMMENT.

In fact, as I said above, it seems that most people are finding blog posts through twitter and Facebook, or on aggregator sites like reddit these days. Instead of commenting on the blog post, and sharing the converting with the author, they're writing their comments on Facebook, or the subreddit, or in tweets; and the conversation stays there.

So, I write the long deep stuff on the blog, and then I facebook it and tweet the link. I get no comments on the blog post, and dozens of comments and shares and likes on facebook and twitter, and other people write posts in response or are inspired...

...Which is kind of the point of blogging... at least for me.

"Bad" or "Wrong" or "I don't like it" is not equivalent to "Unconstitutional"

In a comment on someone elses post, another reader wrote "The DEA is an unconstitutional and illegal agency".

This bugs me... We frequently see these sorts of statements made about the DEA, the ATF, the federal reserve (where ok, there's at least a rational and reasonable though flawed argument to be made... most of the people shouting stuff like that above aren't making those arguments, but still)... Basically any federal agency that they don't like, or which enforces laws, or uses delegated powers which they personally don't like.

No, the mere existence of the DEA is not unconstitutional or illegal. It is perfectly constitutional in that it is an executive agency chartered to enforce the laws promulgated by the legislative branch.

The fact that the federal government has no constitutional authority to outright ban or criminalize such substances as the DEA is chartered to regulate, or to ban or criminalize their manufacture, use, or possession (and only limited power to regulate their sale. No, sorry, regulating interstate commerce and making such laws as necessary for the general welfare does not grant them such broad and deterministic powers... and Wickard v. Filburn is bad law and needs to be overturned), does not mean that all laws relating to such substances are illegal or unconstitutional. There are legitimate regulatory powers that such an agency may lawfully and constitutionally exercise.

AS CURRENTLY EXTANT AND IN THEIR CURRENT ROLES AND ACTIONS... The DEA often engages in unconstitutional behaviors, and acts to enforce unconstitutional laws. That much is certainly true. But they are not inherently unconstitutional, or illegal.

Those are actually really important distinctions. Not just semantics or distinctions without difference.

This is so, because you go about addressing the issues, and solving the problems, differently. Things which are blatantly and directly illegal or unconstitutional are best addressed in one way. Things which are peripherally so, are best addressed in a very different way.

You have to shoot at the proper target, with the proper ammunition.

Also, it's really important to remember, that "bad and stupid" or "harmful" or "undesirable", or "pointless"; does not necessarily mean "unconstitutional". Nor does "constitutional" mean "good", or "useful" or "effective".

That's not even a matter of judges discretion or interpretation... The constitution actually provides far less protection of rights, and limitation of powers, than people believe it, expect it, and wish it to (at least explicitly... the 9th and 10th amendments... there's much bigger and messier issue).

Carrying While Stupid

So, someone decides they want to become an "open carry advocate".

They do so, by buying a .22 (which is not a defensive weapon. It's for playing around and target shooting, and practicing cheaply), and having never shot or practiced with it... or near as I can tell had any training whatsoever; walks out of the gun store with it in a new holster on their hip.

This person is promptly approached by a young criminal who displays his own firearm (I believe tucked into a waistband or inside a jacket, not even drawn or in hand), and asks our hero, for their gun in return.

... and this is an indictment of the concept of open carry?

Oh lord no... it's an indictment of being stupid, and unprepared.

Three MAJOR issues here:


  1. You can not ever carry a lethal weapon (whether open or concealed) in public in less than condition yellow or orange. You must be alert, aware, and prepared to act as necessary.
  2. If you are going to carry a lethal weapon (whether open or concealed) in public, you must be trained, able, and prepared; to fight to retain it if necessary, with lethal force if necessary.
  3. If you are not prepared to use a lethal weapon if necessary, including being prepared to end another human life if necessary; you MUST NOT CARRY ONE. If you do so, you are a danger to yourself and to others.

IMPORTANT NOTES (particularly for those who would prefer we ban guns, or ban carrying them in public):


  1. "Prepared to if necessary" does not mean "want to do so" or "out looking to do so".
  2. This also does not mean that it is always the smart thing, or the best thing to do, in any given set of circumstances. You must use your best judgement given the situation. 

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Road Not Traveled

This story is making the rounds on Facebook this week:

Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman battling stage 4 brain cancer from San Francisco, plans to die two days after her husband’s birthday on Nov. 1 by assisted suicide. As part of her legacy, she’s launched a nationwide campaign she’s launched calling for death with dignity laws.

I understand where she's coming from. Chris's brother Rob made the decision not to treat his cancer. Chris made the decision to beat the hell out of his cancer.

Two different decisions, two different roads.

I won't debate Brittany's decision, I'm not in a position to pass judgement either way. She sees her options before her, the roads she could take, and she's choosing the road she thinks is best. She's dealing with the difference between a few months and six months.

We're familiar with that timetable; when the histologist's report came back on Chris's cancer the surgeon told us if he hadn't removed the main tumor Chris would have been dead in two months.

Geeks (and sci-fi geeks in particular) talk about alternate universes. Rarely are the alternative universes involved so easily defined. On one road Chris's cancer is removed just in time. On the other road, two more months are what kills him.

I don't often think about the universe that we don't live in. I try to actively avoid doing so actually. In that universe I'm widowed at 32, pregnant, and grieving my husband alone. I would have been in deep grief when Christopher was born. I'd most likely be living with relatives and raising a son without his father now.

In the universe we DO live in Chris is here for his son. In this universe Chris was there for his son's birth, his first words, his first everything. In this universe we're barely scraping by but Chris is alive and here with us. That's the road he's traveling, and therefore the road we're traveling with him.

Every now and then people who don't know any better do something to piss me off. They tell me how they couldn't do what I do, how they wouldn't be able to handle it, how it's amazing that I do what I do in the circumstances I'm in.

It pisses me off because it's a mix of pity and disbelief, and honestly I don't need to think about other peoples' lives or how much better things could be. When I dare to look at how much easier it is for other people, or how much better life could be, the self-pity monster comes out and messes me up. Just going into that headspace can screw me up for days.

Because yes while my life is "so much harder" than the lives around me (or what the lives around me look like superficially), I don't draw strength and resilience from that comparison. I don't strive to have their supposedly easier lives.

I draw strength and resilience from the knowledge the surgeon gave me that day. Out of the two roads before us, Chris and I are traveling the road that leads to the better future.

The other road didn't have Chris. This road does. This is my best possible future, hardship and all, because this future includes Chris.

That's why I get up every morning and why I keep trying to improve our lives, because I know what the other road looks like. I'm much happier to be in this life.

Mel



Monday, October 06, 2014

Windowpanes, Pencils, and Paperclips

Yesterday I wrote something on facebook that bears repeating here:
A comprehensive understanding of the pencil problem, combined with a thorough understanding of the broken window fallacy (and its inputs and corollaries... Hazlitt for example), makes a pretty good inoculant against socioeconomic lies and stupidities. 
Although they are implied by the conditions above, perhaps one should also specifically reference the scale and complexity problems, the perfect information fallacy, the perfect man fallacy, and the law of unintended consequences...
Some of my readers were unfamiliar with the pencil problem.

In comments, the novelist Ryk Spoor provided a decent explanation, which I'm going to paraphrase here, with my own edits and revisions (and the addition of the last bit, about planning and control):
No one man, can make a pencil, or at least a pencil which could be sold economically. 
In general terms, the pencil problem, is that even simplest and most common objects in our civilization generally require an immense number of people and inputs; to not merely build, but manufacture and sell in sufficient numbers, to make it worthwhile to build them cheaply (or at least so that they can be sold economically). 
The applies to everything from cars and computers, to pencils, to paperclips. 
If you wanted ONE paperclip, it would be an epic undertaking, from locating the appropriate ores, refining them, turning them into steel, figuring out how to draw the steel into the appropriate size of wire, and then finally producing the paperclip from that wire. The amount of effort involved in it would be months of your labor, assuming you had the talent and resources to do it at all. 
Instead, you go to a store and buy a 100ct box of them for a dollar; or even at minimum wage, a few minutes of your time for a hundred of the things. 
Multiply that by all the different types of goods and services in a modern civilized society, and it starts to become clear just how many people, in how many different specialties, with how much infrastructure, are needed to keep everything running. 
Given that scale and complexity, it should also be clear how impossible it would be to plan, control, and manage, anything approaching a national economy or infrastructure centrally; or in fact in any way other than as devolved and decentralized as possible.
The original statement of the problem in this way came from an essay by Milton Friedman (which was a restatement of an earlier essay from Leonard Read, which was a restatement of Hazlitt, which was a restatement of Bastiat and back down the chain).

A video of Friedman explaining the problem:


4,3,2,1, sauce

How to make a quick no cook sauce off the top of your head, and out of your pantry...

A few days ago, we were making chicken tacos, and Bobby asked me "Hey, can you make some taco sauce, something like Taco Bells hot sauce?"

I thought for a few seconds, confirmed we had some ingredients, and said "Yeah, I can do that, no problem".

You can make almost any kind of sauce by combining various flavors and seasonings in the 4,3,2,1 formula.

Your basic inputs are "sweet" "hot" "salty" "savory" "sour" and "spices/seasonings", and elements which are blends of the above (for example ketchup is sweet, salty, and savory... but mostly sweet).

You want a moderately hot "taco sauce", it's 4 sweet, 3 hot, 2 "savory", and 1 "spices".

For example:

  1. 4tbsp - Heinz ketchup (gotta be heinz. it's the flavor and texture profile)
  2. 3tbsp - Franks Red Hot (it's the right balance of hot, sour, and salty)
  3. 2tbsp - "zesty" italian dressing
  4. 1tbsp - Spices to taste, but including cumin, and chili powder (chipotle powder in this case)

That particular 4,3,2,1 combo makes a really great taco sauce... Somewhere a bit over Taco Bell "hot" sauce in heat, but smokier, more savory, more flavorful overall.

If you want something sweeter and smokier, change it up from ketchup to a tomato based BBQ sauce.

Want it a bit saltier and "meatier"? add a dash of soy and a dash of worcestershire.

Want it a LOT saltier and meatier and less sweet? Replace the italian dressing, with A1 sauce.

Want it a lot more savory and pungent? Replace the italian dressing with dijon mustard.

You can make any flavor profile you want.

Want a much better and spicier than store bought BBQ sauce, but don't feel like brewing your own?

  1. 4tbsp very sweet and smoky BBQ sauce (e.g. K.C. masterpiece)
  2. 3tbsp franks red hot
  3. 2tbsp A1 sauce
  4. 1tbsp of mixed dijon mustard, worcestershire sauce, cumin, black pepper, and chipotle powder.

For some real fun, take that mix, add 4tbsp of ketchup, two shots of espresso (brewed not grounds), 2tbsp real dark maple syrup (the fake stuff doesn't have enough flavor), and 1 more tbsp of dijon...

...then simmer it all out for 20 minutes or so.

You'll thank me for it.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Information Security... Backwards, Broken, and Bigger.

I just did an entire two day class on information security issues (which could easily have been a two week class, or a two month class), where I spent 3/4... Hell, 7/8 of the class not actually directly dealing with the issues in question, or just using them as examples of the bigger issue.

The official title of the class (delivered at the ISC2 global security congress last weekend) was "Big Data and Information Security: opportunities, challenges, and changes in the way we all use and manage information".

I based the class on a nonconventional definition of "Big Data" as a set of information oriented capabilities (not data oriented, information oriented, and not any specific technologies etc..), and a high information model of information awareness, and information management.

I spent most of those two days teaching people how to break down the problem and reorient themselves to it; to actually have any real understanding of what the problem REALLY is, why its a problem, and how to deal with it...

...Because everything we have been doing in information security up to now fundamentally misunderstands all of those things, and is oriented incorrectly to properly address them, or more specifically the larger problem, and the greater mission.

This is not because we are incompetent or stupid... But because our tools for seeing and understanding the problem, and then addressing it, have been so limited.

We have literally been doing everything backwards for decades... And what success we have had is because those attacking us have had similarly limited tools and understanding.

Now, that's changing... And we have to do everything entirely differently...

Not just "more of the same, only harder, and smarter, and more efficiently"... We have to reorient entirely.

Our model is unfixably broken, so any success we have is limited, and cannot easily be applied to other problems. We just keep throwing more and more resources, more layers, more patches and Band-Aids...

16 hours with some of the smartest and most experienced people in my field in the room... And by the end, I think... I hope... I might have made a dent in helping them understand that the model we have is unfixably broken... And what we need to replace it with.

We can't fix it or extend it, or improve it... We have to replace it.

Once you replace the model and reorient yourself to it... Problems don't disappear... But they become much easier to understand, to break down, and to address the smaller elements that make up the larger problem, in the context of that larger problem, and in service to the larger mission.

What am I talking about?

It's all in the title(s).

Friday, September 26, 2014

Shellshocked, Vectors, and Vulnerabilities.

So, the Shellshock vulnerability...

Yes, this one really is the biggest vulnerability to hit UNIX-like systems in decades.

Yes, it is in the wild now, and yes, it IS a major problem.

So yeah... you really do have to pay attention to this one. 

Briefly, many UNIX-like systems, including most Linux systems, Mac OSX, and many others, use, or at least have installed on them, a variant of a program called "bash' (the "Bourne Again SHell").

To say that it's one of the most widely used pieces of software in the world would be a dramatic understatement.

Recently, it has been discovered that most bash variants (and by the way, there are hundreds of them, if not thousands, extending back to 1989), when invoked with certain variables, can be forced to execute malicious code.

There are already patches available for many systems which will either fix or mitigate the problem, but there are literally millions of systems out there, and it will take a lot of time and effort to fix them.

There are also many systems which either can't be fixed for some reason or another, or whose owners don't even know that there is a problem.

These days, just about every piece of computing hardware out there that isn't an actual Windows server or PC,  runs a UNIX-like OS; and many of those have some variant of the software in question installed on them by default.  Even if it's not actively used on the system, many systems have it installed by default, and few bother to remove it.

Even if you don't run any UNIX-like boxes, your vendors, your partners, your bank, your power company, your... everything... runs them.

...Hell, your TV or stereo might be running linux these days, and your router probably is.

Do YOU know what operating system is running on every single piece of computing hardware in YOUR company? In every embedded system? In your printers, your photocopiers?

Also, because this vulnerability extends back so far, it's entirely possible... actually it's a damn near certainty... that the code containing the vulnerability in question has been reused in other software (including other shells not considered bash variants, and other entirely unrelated software); which may now also be vulnerable.

So, the gory details...

https://www.us-cert.gov/ncas/alerts/TA14-268A

Read the CERT link, then read this:

http://arstechnica.com/security/2014/09/bug-in-bash-shell-creates-big-security-hole-on-anything-with-nix-in-it/

And this;

http://arstechnica.com/security/2014/09/concern-over-bash-vulnerability-grows-as-exploit-reported-in-the-wild/

And if you want some technical depth, this:

http://www.troyhunt.com/2014/09/everything-you-need-to-know-about.html

I don't have much else to add about the vulnerability itself... but I do want to talk about a common problem with how people think of and respond to issues like this.

Confusing Vectors with Vulnerabilities.

I'm noticing a lot of folks out there seem to think that because they're not running a web server, or that they're not providing services to the internet, that they're not impacted by this vulnerability.

That is absolutely not the case.

It's very important to understand, the attack vector for this vulnerability is not JUST web services; that's just the most common and simplest way to exploit it remotely, and the first exploit seen.

This should be obvious, but any service that may pass unvalidated (or poorly validated) remote input to any external shell or command parser, is a potential point of compromise.

There are any number of common services that may do this, including DHCP and autoproxy config, various SSH configurations, various VPN services, some remote management or configuration services, GIT and other code and content management systems, various file sharing and syncing services, various media services, various backup and archive services...

Also remember the vulnerability applies to local command execution and local services as well, not just remote. This is a vulnerability in a core component of the operating environment, not just in any particular service.

Unlike most other operating systems, where an application or service might perform an external function for itself, or through a system API; because of UNIX-like systems fundamental architecture and long standing convention, almost any process might invoke and pass input to an external command parser or shell for almost any reason. When they do, it's usually the default shell for the system, or for the UID the process runs under, and often that default is bash.

Even if bash is not the default for a system or user, some processes may invoke bash explicitly, to avoid potential environment, syntax, or parsing errors (or simply because that's what the programmer was comfortable with).

Also, even if a process explicitly invokes a command parser or shell other than bash, it is common to find that bash has been aliased or linked to the command for the other shell. In many environments, running the command "sh" will in fact invoke a bash shell.

Finally, as I noted above, bash is so ubiquitous, and the code for it has been around so long; it's entirely likely that other shells and command parsers (and possibly other types of software as well) share this same vulnerability.

Again, these should be obvious, but it's surprising how easily we allow ourselves to overlook or forget the basics.

Don't assume you're safe just because you're not running a web server on the machine, or because the machine isn't providing services to the internet, or because you're " not using bash".

Address the vulnerability, not JUST the vector.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The problem with "Wouldn't it be..." and "Wasn't it..."

Progressive ideas usually begin with:

"Wouldn't it be great if..." (progressives are generally theorists)

Ok, right there with you so far...


Conservative ideas usually begin with:

"Wasn't it great when..." (conservatives are generally empiricists)

Yup, that works for me too...


The complication is the next step, taken by both progressives and conservatives:

"Since that would be great, it is our moral obligation, to use the force of government to MAKE it that way"

... and that's where we part ways.


The problem, is that I believe I have no moral right to force MY personal beliefs, preferences, or ideas on anyone else (no matter how "great" or "right" they may be).

I also believe that we have a moral obligation to use the force of government as little as possible (even if doing so may be "for the greater good").


Of course, that's where the kicker hits, from both left and right...

"Since you oppose something which is great, and which is a moral obligation, you must either be stupid, or evil"

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Salute silliness....

Ok... on the latte salute thing...

Seriously?

This, is what you want to make a thing out of?

Ok yes, the guy is commander in chief, has been for six years, and he SHOULD know the basics of military honors and courtesies by now. It was a MINOR gaffe.

But if the president hadn't returned the salute, all y'all who are bitching about the latte, would just be bitching about him not saluting instead... because of course, the point isn't what he actually did or didn't do... it's that he's "the bad guy".

And don't give me some garbage about disrespecting servicemembers, and how as a servicemember or veteran you're personally offended etc... etc...

That's bull.

He was attempting to acknowledge the salute, he just didn't know the proper form for the situation, and reflexively returned the salute without thinking.

This is not some giant issue of disrespect, to the Marine, the corps, servicemembers, or veterans. If anything, it's an embarrassment to HIM

Guess what... I've accidentally rendered salutes with something in my hand... and so has every other service member, ever.

I'm reasonably certain that everyone who has ever served more than a few months, has accidentally rendered a "coffee salute" or a "cola salute"...

...and in so doing, earned themselves a bit of pain, a moderate to severe amount of embarrassment, possibly an ass chewing, and likely a big dry cleaning bill.

I've also accidentally rendered a "sharpie" salute, a "wet paint brush" salute, and on several occasions "lubricant" salutes. I've even rendered more than a couple "briefcase in the face" salutes (and seen many more).

I have thankfully been spared the joys of the "firing pin in the eye" salute, the "m9 slide" salute, and the "field knife salute", but I have witnessed them.

And of course, there's the ultimate faux pas, the "grenade" salute (live, smoke, teargas, or otherwise)... which yes, has actually happened, many, many times (though I've never witnessed it, I have Army and Marine corps buddies who have).

In no case were my improperly rendered salutes disrespectful to the recipients; they were embarrassments to ME personally.

Saluting becomes such an ingrained reflex that it is totally automatic... it's muscle memory...  and you actually have to remember to stop yourself when you need to (for example, when you have a coffee cup in your hand). You also end up developing the habit (out of self defense if nothing else) of keeping your right hand free whenever possible, and of scanning other peoples right hands, to see if they're occupied or not.

In fact, it's one of the reasons I developed the habit of wearing my watch on my left wrist, and wearing no rings on my right hand, even though I'm right handed. I don't like having anything on my right hand, wrist, or forearm to grab or snag. When you need to wear a lanyard, a retention strap, a ground strap etc... (anything tied, strapped or clipped to your hand wrist, or forearm), you develop the habit of wearing it on your left when possible.

I've known commanders to have semi-official policies in their commands specifically NOT to salute  anyone in that command (or return salutes, no matter the rank) when they have certain things in or around their hands (drinks, POL, paints and solvents, open containers of any kind, sensitive electronics, weapons, ordnance etc...), specifically to avoid this sort of thing happening by reflex.

Obama has never served, he's never had the saluting rules drilled into him, nor has he ever developed the habit of keeping his right hand free when possible, and checking it before saluting.

So he made a minor gaffe.

... Oh that's leaving aside the fact that by the conventions of military courtesy, HE DOESN'T ACTUALLY HAVE TO RETURN THE SALUTE.

I keep saying, stop making this piddling stuff an issue... and YES IT IS PIDDLING STUFF. It just makes you... and by extension everyone associated with you... look petty and stupid.

There are plenty of good reasons to dislike Obama. There are plenty of REAL, important, BIG issues to raise hell over. The fact that he doesn't know when NOT to salute isn't one of them.

He's just started another shooting war for gods sake, and we're talking about COFFEE.

---

You can stop reading now if you like because I'm going to get into the obscurity of protocol etc... but the next bit might interest you...

__

So... What exactly is the proper rendering of military honors and courtesies in this situation?

That's not as simple as you might think... there are actually a rather large and complicated set of rules, regulations, conventions, and traditions; and they vary by service, circumstance, and occasion.

FIRST: The Personal martial salute, is an honor and a privilege, accorded only to those who serve, or have served, honorably. 

There are many formal and personal military honors and courtesies which may be accorded to individuals, entitled by their official status or position. There are even many different types of personal and formal honors which are considered salutes.

The personal martial salute is unique among them, in that it is a privilege only accorded those who serve, or have served, honorably; in the service of, or in command of, the Uniformed Services of the United States.

Uniformed service members in honorable standing, veterans in honorable standing, and under certain circumstances civilians in the military chain of command (The president {and former presidents in honorable standing}, any person currently exercising constitutional and statutory national command authority {this is not always the president. It may be the VP, Speaker of house etc..}, the secretary of defense and the service secretaries while acting in their statutory military command duties, and Ambassadors while exercising their ambassadorial rank and duties as the highest representative of the U.S. government within their accredited sovereign territory); are accorded personal military honors and courtesies, including the privilege of the personal martial salute.

By convention (though it is not absolutely required), unless diplomatic protocol supersedes, military honors and courtesies (including personal honors and courtesies such as the personal martial salute), are extended to equivalent persons of allied or friendly foreign powers (foreign heads of state, senior officers etc...); and may be accorded to those of honorable and lawful hostile powers.
Note: For many years, the honor and privilege of the personal martial salute, was not accorded to veterans or servicemembers out of uniform (except under certain special circumstances). A few years ago standards were revised to allow those not in uniform, who would otherwise be accorded the privilege of the salute; to do so when appropriate to the honor of the service, and the nation, at their own discretion. 
Appropriate times might generally be (but of course are not limited to): 
  1. At formal ceremonial events, retreats and reviles, service events, veterans events, commissioning or decommissioning and retirement ceremonies, funerals, memorials and the like.
  2. When making certain official or recognized oaths or pledges of honor or service. 
  3. When receiving certain official or recognized awards or honors.
  4. When it is appropriate to honor the colors, the service, or the nation (raising, lowering, commissioning, retiring, presentation, or formal parading of national, state, and certain ceremonial, official or service flags or "colors". Playing of the national anthem. Playing of the service song of ones service, or ones brother services).
The privilege of the personal martial salute, does NOT apply to government service civilians of assimilated rank (regardless of other personal or formal honors), unless they are otherwise accorded the privilege.

Although other government officials may be accorded formal military honors and courtesies, including some personal honors and courtesies, they are not accorded the privilege of the personal martial salute. By convention however, service members will often offer the personal martial salute to high government officials (VP, cabinet members, Speaker of the house, Senate majority leader, state governors, ambassadors, service secretaries etc...) on ceremonial occasions of greeting, or as a token of respect.

It is not appropriate for these officials to return the salute, unless they are otherwise accorded the privilege; though acknowledging the salute with a polite nod or personal salutation such as "Good Morning Sergeant" is courteous and appropriate.

SECOND: This unique honor and privilege can be stripped. It can also be restored.

Prisoners, confines, or detainees who have not been convicted of any crime which might bring dishonor on the service or the nation, (including lawful military combatant prisoners of war), are accorded the privilege of the personal martial salute.

The privilege of the personal martial salute is not accorded to any detainee, prisoner or confinee, who has been convicted of an offense against the honor of the service or the nation. If, on discharging all punishments and conditions of any sentence for such crimes; the servicemember is allowed to return to honorable service, or is dismissed, separated, or discharged from service under honorable conditions; they are once again accorded the privilege.

The privilege of the personal martial salute, is not accorded any service member, or veteran, currently in any other than honorable status or condition (including uncharacterised discharges, dismissals, and separations). This may also include servicemembers and veterans who are legitimately convicted in recognized civilian courts, of offenses which would bring dishonor on the service or the nation; unless they are through some action returned to honorable status (reversal of conviction, pardon, commutation with restoration of honorable status, petition for upgrade of discharge etc...).

Yes, if a veteran who was honorably discharged is convicted of a serious crime after they are discharged; even if the offense is in no way connected to their service or the military, they MAY be considered to be in an other than honorable condition, for purposes of military benefits, and military honors and courtesies.

This determination is by no means certain, and in general honorable status or condition can be restored after all penalties and conditions of any criminal sentences have been fulfilled or discharged (though this is also by no means certain).

THIRD: Saluting is required of and among, all members of the SEVEN Uniformed Services of the United States... but is never REQUIRED of Civilians. 

... Wait... SEVEN?

Yep, that's right, there are seven Uniformed Services of the United States, not just "the military" as most think of them.

  1. United States Army
  2. United States Marine Corps
  3. United States Navy
  4. United States Air Force
  5. United States Coast Guard
  6. United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps
  7. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps
As a courtesy, the privilege of the personal martial salute (and other personal military honors and courtesies) may be extended to the commissioned and warrant officers of the United States Maritime Service; however this is not required.

FOURTH: Who is required to salute, when?

Unless otherwise noted or excepted, all service members on duty, or in uniform; when outdoors, or traveling in or on vehicles (official, or personal if the servicemember is clearly visible), or horseback (but not vessels, which have their own special rules); are required to salute commissioned and warrant officers (and civilians accorded the privilege), upon meeting, or when entering or passing through their immediate presence or nearby line of sight (by convention, within range of a spoken conversation).

Unless otherwise noted or excepted, those of lower rank should first render the salute to those of higher rank(including the president, or person exercising national command authority or performing constitutional or statutory military command duties, but not other civilians), and should hold their salute until it is returned or otherwise acknowledged, or until the senior has left the juniors immediate presence or nearby line of site.

Enlisted personnel are not generally required to salute each other.

The services have varying rules and conventions about saluting when they are wearing headgear or not, whether they are under arms or not (carrying a weapon), whether they are under colors or not (carrying a flag, guidon, pennant etc..) and whether they salute while indoors or not (excepting when formally reporting or certain other formal interactions). They also have differing definitions and conventions about what is or is not considered indoors or outdoors.

To avoid excessive saluting; unless otherwise required (as listed below), it is the general convention in most services and commands, to only salute a higher ranking officer the first time one sees them for the duty day.

Certain formal interactions may require salutes to be rendered even when it would not otherwise be required to do so (either in general, or by specific exception as noted below).

These may include (depending on the customs of the service, and the command in question):
  1. Formally reporting to an officer or command (this may include saluting those of lower rank, if they are the commander of, or official designate for the officer or command being reported to).
  2. Formally relaying an order or command, or delivering a report or official communication, to an officer or command (or their designate).
  3. When acting as the leader or commander of a formation, detail, or other organized group of servicemembers; to render salutes and other honors and courtesies as appropriate. 
  4. Formally assuming, relieving, or being relieved of command or responsibility (whether temporarily or permanently), for a command, formation, detail, post or watch command, or other organization, or official or formal command duty.
  5. Formally assuming, relieving, or being relieved of certain other official or formal non-command, "non-line" or "outside of normal chain of command", responsibilities or duties 
  6. Formally assuming, relieving, or being relieved of custody or responsibility for certain items and materials such as keys, badges, codebooks and codekeys, classified documents, and other such items of sensitivity or importance
  7. Formally assuming, relieving, or being relieved of a guard or sentry post or duty.
  8. Formally assuming, relieving, or being relieved of custody of, or responsibility for, a prisoner. detainee, or confinee (including lawful or unlawful foreign combatants); or any formation or group thereof.
  9. Formally assuming, relieving, or being relieved of custody of or responsibility for a "color", "honor", or other ceremonial item or duty.
  10. Awarding, presenting, officially citing, or receiving; military, diplomatic, governmental, or other officially recognized citations, honors, or awards (medals and commendations for example)
  11. Formally rendering military, diplomatic, or other recognized honors and courtesies.
  12. Formally participating in the swearing or affirming, of certain oaths or affirmations.
  13. Participation in official commissioning, decommissioning, retirement, discharge, separation, and other similar events and ceremonies. 
  14. Participation in courts martial, administrative or command disciplinary or investigative actions, or activities thereunto.
  15. When legal, political, or diplomatic protocols, require that formal or personal military honors and courtesies, or other specific saluting practices, protocols or conventions be observed.
  16. When lawful orders, command policies, or service conventions and traditions; require that formal or personal military honors and courtesies, or other specific saluting practices, protocols or conventions be observed.
Except in certain formal interactions such as above, those of higher ranks (particularly very senior officers) are not absolutely required to return the properly rendered salutes of lower ranks; though they should generally make every reasonable and appropriate effort to do so.

No matter the rank or circumstance, if at all possible, any properly rendered salute, honor, or courtesy, from anyone accorded the privilege; should be returned or acknowledged with appropriate respect and courtesy.

That said, the higher the rank, and the greater the rank differential; the greater consideration given of the seniors time and attention.

The servicemembers who salute the most aren't privates... they rarely see or interact with senior officers; they're colonels and generals. Almost everyone they see, all day, every day, has to salute them, and many of those salutes have to be returned.

Many, but not all... generals would spend all their times doing nothing but, if they were always required to return every salute.

If a general is busy, rushing out of his chopper, and has his briefcase in his right hand, and his left on the bird, he's not expected to stop, swap hands, and salute the airmen manning the stairs. He might... and he might not... and honestly, nobody gives a damn either way.

It is the custom of all the services, that recipients of the medal of honor, whether in uniform or not, are to be rendered the personal martial salute first, by all those accorded the privilege, regardless of rank (including the president, if a veteran, or at his own discretion if not). They are only required to return the salute (as per regulations and conventions of the service) if they are on duty, or in uniform; though as with all accorded the privilege, they should acknowledge salutes with appropriate respect and courtesy.

It is also the custom of all the services, that all proper salutes rendered by recipients of the medal of honor, to those on duty, or in uniform; be returned with an appropriate personal martial salute, regardless of rank (excepting those not accorded the privilege, such as prisoners; and under the exceptions noted below).

FIFTH: Depending on the customs and conventions of each particular service or command, servicemembers are generally not required to render or return a salute if:

  1. On duty, but in civilian clothing, and not otherwise required to salute as above (servicemembers may serve in roles allowing or requiring them to wear civilian clothing while on duty. In these circumstances they may salute if appropriate, but are not generally required to do so except certain formal circumstances as noted above).
  2. Engaged in routine work, duties, or activities (playing sports, physical exercise etc...); whether on or off duty, in or out of uniform; where doing so would unduly interfere or cause a safety hazard
  3. In a public non-military place, or at a public event, outside of a military context (church, non-military social functions, theaters, sporting events, in public or mass transport, etc...), even if such places or events are owned, operated, controlled, or administered by the military.
  4. In a public or group gathering, such as a meeting, and not otherwise required by specific convention or regulation to salute (as you would when delivering a formal report)
  5. Acting as a member of, but not leading, a formation or detail (unless so commanded)
  6. The act of saluting would block or impede safe and free movement through a portal or passage (one should safely clear the portal or passage, then salute if required)
  7. Their hands are required for a railing, line, handgrip, or otherwise for safety or movement
  8. Their hands are full, and their right hand cannot be conveniently and safely be cleared; UNLESS what they're full of is a "signal" (signal flags, whistles or other visual or audible signaling devices which can be used to render a salute) a "color" (an official or ceremonial flag, pennant, guidon, standard, baton, or other official or ceremonial symbol of command, office or authority) a weapon (in which case the appropriate personal martial salute should be rendered, if safe and appropriate to do so), or other item which can be used to properly render a personal martial salute (there are literally hundreds of possible items and salutes). 
  9. Following a lawful command, order, or policy, to not salute, or to follow specific saluting practices and conventions.
  10. Required to follow legal or diplomatic protocol superseding military protocol, which would render a salute improper or inappropriate.
  11. Doing so would cause the servicemember to present an unmilitary or unprofessional appearance; would appear to or actually be disrespectful, discourteous, insolent, or mocking; or might otherwise be prejudicial to good order and discipline (for example, if a servicemember were on duty, but in costume as santa claus). 
  12. Doing so would otherwise be unsafe, unreasonable, or inappropriate
If any service member, regardless of rank, is for any reason unable to render or return a salute when it would otherwise be appropriate or required (or if any person is rendered a salute when they are not accorded the honor and privilege to return it); they should acknowledge the salute (or the presence or passage of the individual due the courtesy) with appropriate respect and courtesy.

Conventionally, this consists of a polite nod, and optionally (STRONGLY recommended for juniors acknowledging seniors) offering a verbal salutation (by rank, rank and name, or rank name and title or honorific) if and as appropriate i.e. "Good Morning Sergeant", "Good afternoon General Banks Sir", "Good evening Mr. President" etc...

Uhh... yeah... that's... a lot of stuff... 

Yes... yes it is... and I'm pretty sure I'm missing or forgetting some stuff, or never knew it, and couldn't immediately find it in the standard manuals and references (I did check before writing this).

It get's REALLY complicated when you are dealing with joint service, and international joint service situations... Remembering who salutes what, where, when, and how... or doesn't; when there's officers of varying, possibly unfamiliar rank, from 28 different nations, plus their corresponding diplomats and elected officials... it's really not very fun.

There are literally entire military and diplomatic career fields who figure out nothing but this stuff...

Honestly though, most servicemembers don't need to know most of this stuff most of the time... there's 5-8 basic rules (depending on the service), a few reasonable exceptions, and some well known traditions and conventions; with the servicemembers expected to always do their best to behave in appropriate, professional, courteous, respectful, and military manner.

Much as it seems, the military doesn't ALWAYS treat everyone below the rank of Colonel, as if they were a particularly stupid child with behavioral problems... Just most of the time.

So... Back to Obama and what he should have done?

By general convention, exiting a vehicle, descending a stair, and with a cup in his hand; the president should not have returned the salute by hand.

As I noted above, when it is reasonable and appropriate to do so, anyone accorded the privilege should try to appropriately and properly return any salute properly rendered them; however, a senior officer is generally not expected or required to stop what they are doing, clear their hand, and return a salute rendered to them by a junior officer or enlisted man.

It is a nice courtesy if they do, but it's not offensive or disrespectful not to.

It is entirely appropriate to acknowledge a salute with a respectful nod, and optionally an appropriate verbal salutation.

So he shouldn't have saluted; he should have nodded, and if he had time, said "Good morning Sergeant" or something similar.

After reviewing... or more likely skimming... all the protocol above... it's really not quite so simple huh?

Not exactly surprising that someone who doesn't the proper saluting protocol and habits drilled into them for thousands and thousands of hours; and who is extremely busy, and has a lot on their mind; gets it wrong now and again?

Understand... I'm not defending Obama... I don't have to, because in this, he requires no defense.

He's just initiated another shooting war, and we're talking about lattes?

How do you defend that?