We live in a panopticon, congrats.

Plan of the Panopticon
Plan of the Panopticon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A panopticon is a building designed in the late 18th century by Jeremy Bentham. Designed to be a prison, it allowed a single watchman to observe all inmates of an institution without them being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. It was a method of control, it was a method to ensure compliance, it was a method of punishment.

It was not designed to be something nice for the prisoners, only useful for the watchman who’s job was made significantly easier at keeping everyone in line.

In the last decade, we have built a panopticon in the western society – This is the largest social experiment ever.

The public panopticon

With the Boston Bombing, it made it crystal clear that we now live in a world where there are so many digital photos and videos that given any public event, anyone can watch anyone else with very little effort. With inventions coming down the pipeline like Google Glass, this will simply become that much more pervasive.

Reddit went crazy with amateur detective work during the early days, listing over a dozen different suspects based simply on their dress (The blue robed man), their backpack (Some runner with a similar backpack), the fact they went missing suddenly a few months back (A poor guy with some mental issues who disappeared from his school). All from the multitude of pictures and videos they were able to collect of the event.

All of whom ended up being completely innocent people just standing around watching a marathon. Thank god we don’t have lynch mobs anymore, right? Thank God we have a informed and careful media that doesn’t simply publish unsubstantiated photos of innocent men based on amateur detective work, right?

Oops…

Crowdsourcing can be a good thing to raise money for good causes, to create new business opportunities, and to build new tools that are freely available for all to use.

However, crowdsourced panopticons are an immensely dangerous tool, and we are exposed to them now everyday. Our privacy disappeared with Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. We can try to take it back, but when a significant portion of your social life and social circle communicates using those tools. There really isn’t any escape without social isolation.

We live in a public panopticon of our creation.

This isn’t a question of privacy anymore, this is a question of actual freedom. There are regularly stories of people losing jobs because of a Twitter post that wasn’t politically correct enough, or of a photo that got posted that shouldn’t have. Individuals are told to be very careful at parties with alcohol, lest one of their friends get a photo of them intoxicated and tag them in it.

We lose our freedom because we are made to be afraid to say the truth, afraid to say our beliefs, afraid to say anything that deviates from popular opinion. Many reasonable voices are silenced, afraid that if they err in what they say, or if they change their mind a few years later they will be punished for their past sins.

We cannot say anything if it isn’t politically correct or “nice”.

The only voices that get heard are the anonymous ones, the ones who already have power, or the loud-mouths who don’t care to begin with. Actual dialogue is reduced to fearful whispers, and arrogant rants. Since we live in a panopticon, many live with an overwhelming fear that we aren’t doing enough, aren’t doing it right, that our mistakes will chase us for the rest of our lives.

We fear that people are watching our every move, our diets, our lives.

We fear the watchmen, but the watchmen are ourselves.

The private panopticon

Joseph McCarthy
“I love Facebook” (Photo credit: History In An Hour)

Today, an oppressive government has no need for a Stazi, it is trivial to see who everyone else relates to simply through their followers and friends on Twitter and Facebook. Joseph McCarthy would have a field day. “Are you now, or have you ever been a communist?” is answered by a quick glance at our Twitter or Facebook timeline.

Even if we didn’t post the items ourselves, it is not hard to data mine and put 2 and 2 together to figure out the answer to that question. This is the entire essence of big data, believed to be used for marketing purposes, but in recent days shown to be used for far more than that.

The NSA and CIA spy on Americans (and non-Americans). This is not surprise, and is a bit of a tautology. However, the extent of the spying still was restricted by the capacity of the technology and, hopefully, the limitations of the law.

The PRISM program disclosure demonstrated that now there is no limitation. They have access to the panopticon we have created to combine with their own already extensive structure.

It is clear that the PRISM program shocked all of us, and seeing it so clearly laid out in those slides demonstrates how complete and penetrating it is in our society. Yet, this is a panopticon our own creation. We built those walls that we lie in, we placed the watchman there ourselves out of fear that one of our our fellow inmates may try to hurt us. This should not be a surprise to anyone.

Now our leaders assure us that this is all perfectly legal, we shouldn’t mind the fact that they can listen into our phone conversations, view our private emails and facebook discussions, that they can watch us at any time with the thinnest of motives. Don’t worry, they won’t abuse it… really.

It’s for our safety you see. It’s to protect us from ourselves.

“If you have nothing to hide, then why worry about it?”

We are all sinners, we all make mistakes. We all have something to hide between us and God. If the watchman can see everything we do, he has the power to make us doing anything he wants. If we disagree with what the watchman feels is nice or right, then we could be in a lot of trouble.

Power has always attracted abuse, and absolute information will bring absolute power to him who controls it the most.

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Lord Acton in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, 1887

Are we so dull that we have forgotten this? Are we so satiated by our consumer culture that we are ok with giving this power away without a fight?

Information is power, anyone who has studied financial mathematics knows this. Arbitrage and acquisition of money without creation of value is best achieved by a imbalance in information.

The Republicans will do nothing about this, the Democrats will do nothing about this, nor will the Liberals, Conservatives, NDP, Labour Party, or any other party running for office. They want to control the levers of power, not break apart this massive machine. That information is the potential to rule with almost absolute power, why would they ever consider getting rid of it?

What can we do about it?

I don’t know. I know protests are ineffective, as will voting for any politician who is already in the system, and the media doesn’t seem to be having much effect.

Perhaps that’s what many, including myself, missed in Orwell’s 1984. A absolute totalitarian society wouldn’t arise through a violent takeover, but through people simply giving up their privacy for convenience and baubles.

Big brother is watching and we all seem willing to let him do so.

Big Brother is watching you
Big Brother is watching you (Photo credit: duncan)

KJR

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IBMimmix news

System i Main Menu
Ah… the old green screen. Boy will it be nice to move some of these functions to a clean immix install.

Note: name is still in progress, but I like it for now IBMimmix for the IBMi module for immix.

So, IBMimmix is really coming together. It currently integrates entirely with an existing IBMi authentication and security structure. This means management of immix access controls is as simple as adding existing IBMi users to proper groups; such as IMXUSR or IMXADM. We have a preliminary RPG report display and saving structure in place, and should have the ability to interact with spooled documents and printers right within immix, making it a lot easier to get PDFs or administer this area of immix.

Other features are coming which will allow for rapid integration of existing IBMi programs into a web environment. If you program on IBMi, you should keep your eyes on this blog for screenshots and details. This could make your life a lot easier with creating attractive and useful frontend displays and outputs for your clients without sacrificing all of the existing green screen work.

Some future features will be building a AERIS IBMi Appsuite into the framework so users of the advanced accounting platform will be able to interact with it using the immix interface, opening up a whole new world for those users.

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My love for good, accessible and clean documentation

Panda Rose Visual Guidelines (© 2013 Panda Rose, ARR)
Panda Rose Visual Guidelines (© 2013 Panda Rose, ARR)

When I was in first year at the University of Waterloo, a very large number of friends I had took a course on “technical writing.” It was generally regarded as a smart move with the co-op program since it immediately gave them a benefit they could leverage with early co-op terms before they got more experience under their belt.

I don’t follow the herd well, so I did the thing I usually do. I bought the textbook and decided to teach it to myself. I read it religiously twice through. Once during the school term and once while I was working at the Canadian Space Agency, and used it as a reference many times.

Unfortunately, I don’ t have it anymore because it’s hideously out of date and was in bad shape, but I do have an old copy of the Canadian Press Stylebook on my shelf and Strunk and White kicking around for when I need to verify something.

(I guess it’s important to note though that I don’t follow any of the rules with my blog. This is a free-for-all as far as I am concerned.)

When I wrote up the documentation and procedures for the Payloads team at the CSA, I really enjoyed doing it well. The material was dry most of the time. So, to make it more interesting I spent considerable time laying out the documents so they looked good and matched the CSA’s rigid guidelines. This really energized me, I loved the look of the documents when I printed them out on the high quality printers — They were clean and I could see they followed the rules I had learned from my technical documentation book.

I’ve done a some documentation with wikis, such as Gracefultavi documentation for QA at Net Integration since then. As well, since I program a ton, I’ve documented lots of code code. However, I haven’t really spent the time building up a solid, accessible document template and series of documents until recently. For many years, I thought I’d be able to do it in a wiki, but it has a few properties that make writing clean documentation very difficult.

  1. It’s too easy to clutter a page with nonsense and lack of structure. While the wiki languages generally force a header-level structure. I found that many people ignored these entirely and every page was all over the board, even when you spent the time trying to clean it up. Without a large force of people dedicated to it, like Wikipedia, many pages just got cluttered and useless.
  2. It’s too easy to edit and publish. It is always possible to get the pages to date, since there isn’t a formal publish point. Thus, it is very easy to publish pages that are only half-completed with the intention of completing them later. This generally leads to many pages that are incomplete or wrong making the entire wiki questionable for accuracy and more work than when you started.
  3. It’s too hard to make custom pages for special needs, or it’s too easy to make pages that are an entire mess. You either have a WYSIWYG or HTML editor or you don’t. If you don’t, then good luck making fancy pages without macros. If you do, you can now do whatever you want on every page based on day-to-day whims. Since everything is on it’s own page, one change in look and feel makes all of the content look out of whack with each other.

This all combined to make me not really enjoy building documentation up for many year. I actually found myself thinking it was just a short joy, during a early university period of my life. Similar to how I used to love writing 500 page novels as a teenager, but haven’t been able to get myself to sit and structure out one in a long time.

Panda Head Guidelines (© 2013 Panda Rose, ARR)
Panda Head Guidelines (© 2013 Panda Rose, ARR)

Recently, I was inspired by some work I’ve been doing around ISO27002 and some visual guidelines documents I’ve received.

Since we are going to change the Panda Rose logo entirely soon, I decided to take the new branding and formally write up guidelines around wordmark and logo use both for internal documentation and external uses. With the intention of cleaning up the brand identity and providing answers to all of the questions developers have been asking around how to use elements like the wordmark correctly.

When I started, I didn’t want to end up in wiki-hell where the project would die. So, I decided that I would not only formally define how the stuff was to be used, but also ensure the documents worked within the Word 2010 system for templating and structure. I could learn a new skill and, in theory, create a template that would allow fully accessible PDFs.

As a bonus, the template and style sets could be reused specifically for other documents that are generated for Panda Rose — something to happen very soon with the large amount of immix and standards documentation coming for both internal and external use.

Everything is win-win-win, as long as I enjoyed it enough to follow through.

Luckily, as I proceeded defining the structure and building page after page, I realized how much I loved creating these. I enjoyed spending the time not only getting the typography and the look right, but also making sure it presented the material in as clear of a fashion as possible to ensure that any end user could read it and not miss important details.

I rediscovered that I enjoyed creating clean, and accessible documentation.

Security Guidelines - Remote Access (© 2013 Panda Rose, ARR)
Security Guidelines – Remote Access (© 2013 Panda Rose, ARR)

In the last few days, I went even further and started to construct other documents defining our corporate structure. For example, I have been creating a formal security guidelines document for Panda Rose. Inspired by ISO27002 and IBM documentation for the IBMi, I thought I would start with this and work up to a formal security framework.

While we already have clear procedures and structures laid out around this in our internal wiki, I felt that I was enjoying building these documents so much that I would take a swing at that. It was a good check on if I enjoyed building these as it allowed my security geek side to play as well.

Now, I find myself spending more time than I’d like to admit on it. This is beyond spelling out stuff that’s already in our internal wiki. I find myself thoroughly researching the techniques we are using and making sure they are best practices, adding pieces to improve the quality of our servers, and removing security procedures that are useless and irritating to end users.

By forcing myself to write it in a final product fashion, documentation became a fantastic way to force myself to make sure what you are writing is as valid as possible. When what you are writing is not just an editable wiki, but something that is intended to be a final product, at some point, I may hand this to someone and say, “this is the guidelines, please follow them.”

There is no easy opportunity to go back and change them when it’s finalized.

This is it. This had better be good.

And oh man is it fun. I research every word, every detail and I’m learning so much along the way. All this while also ensuring that Panda Rose will improve as a organization with every step. Good documentation and guidelines make for a good organization. Accessible documentation ensure consistency and structure to the organization. Clean documentation ensure that everyone will be able to understand the follow it.

But most of all, writing good, accessible and clean documentation is just plain fun.

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The best way to lose is to not change.

Abandoned house behind Rockland Lake
Abandoned house behind Rockland Lake (Photo credit: Elephi Pelephi)

Last year, I read in Harvard Business Review that the most difficult position for a business to be is at the top of it’s sector. You are making lots of money and doing well, but you are also the target of all of the competing organizations and, to make matters worse, you generally require the world to stay the same as long as possible to stay up there. Otherwise, you need significant capital investment in innovation because you can’t just copy your competitors as they try to imitate you.

Everyone is watching your every move to find mistakes or little ways they can crack your castle. Case in point, look at Apple. It’s surprising how much everyone enjoys taking the top guy down a notch whenever they can.

Ironically, the article mentioned that being number two is actually pretty sweet though. Tou have the most money of the non-top players, you can copy the good innovations that the top guy has and build on them yourself. You usually have enough capital to invest in solid R&D, and since you aren’t at the top, your shareholders are not as adamant about “not wasting money on R&D.” Samsung has done a great job copying Apple and then doing minor innovations to make their products just a touch better for short periods of time.

For many years, I believe Apple got around this issue by having a genuine salesman, Steve Jobs , convince the shareholders to allow for some pretty heavy investment in design and development. That it would pay off in the long run. It really did, the stock took off, the iPad, iPhone and App Store really have changed how we all interact with the world, and are the best selling products in their sector.

However, with the new CEO, who is not a saleman, but more of a technocrat, they are slowly sliding. The investors are demanding dividends instead of value creation. They don’t see that iPhone is still outselling everyone else. No one is pointing out to them the fact that the profits last year by Apple dwarfs the entire revenues of Google. They don’t have a CEO who is able to show them that investment in good R&D generally implies higher yields down the road in exchange for lower yields right now like another iPhone or iPad. They don’t have a CEO who knows how to rile the troops and make them uncomfortable with where they are at. The iPhone 5 was the most boring update I’ve ever seen.

Why do you think Apple is sitting on such a stockpile of money? Why do you think every update they are doing is incremental or price based?

Steve Jobs understood the cardinal rule about the universe – Always expect change. You don’t ride a wave by swimming behind it.

Unfortunately, many businessmen, technocrats, politicians, and general elite hate this rule. It’s so much easier to work and plan if everything stays the same. Over the past decade I’ve read article after article with this common mistake. Many assume, or hope, things will always stay as they are and if they don’t stay as they are, they assume that we need to work 100% to maintain the status quo.

This is the birth of the Capitalism is the best system of economy, democracy (or our variant of it) is the best system of government, the current layout of federal and state powers are the best way to do it. This is why we hear “Don’t ever question the status quo.”

This is not due to maliciousness though, it’s due to the fact that the status quo, a stable system, is the easiest system to control. Technocrats, politicians, and elites are already in power. They want the system to stay the way it is so their plans (some of which are utopian) can be enacted as they see fit.

This is the key to why they will all eventually fail.

You cannot stay in power indefinitely by forcing a status quo. While, in theory, if you maintain the status quo as long as possible, you will be on top the heap as long as possible. if you control the change, encourage it, and guide it, you will survive the fact that the world changes and we must all change with it.

But, simply put, the best way to lose is to stand still. The game is always changing, the world is always changing, and even if you control everything, general complexity theory will eventually kick in and all of your models and theories will be for naught.

Absolutely nothing is permanent. Once you realize that, it’s a whole lot easier to move on to better things.

Sometimes it sucks, but that’s what faith in the future is for.

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The myth (and lucrative business) of “entrepreneurship”

English: Cedar Rapids, IA, June 26, 2008 -- Th...
Photo by Greg Henshall / FEMA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve learned a couple of pretty important lessons in my life:

  1. If everyone is zigging, you should zag. (AKA. Don’t buy the stock that the professors are buying.)
  2. Selling false hope is a common trick used to scam people out of money. (Self-help books are a common method.)

Number one is fairly obvious – in a soccer game, you don’t want to be where the ball is, you want to be where the ball is going. If you ever watch a young soccer league though, you’ll know what most people do in business. A small crowd of kids chasing after a ball – Brownian motion.

Number two is what “entrepreneurship” has become in the last 15 years. Before I was in university (in the 90s), it was “consulting,” but it’s the same basic idea. Various gurus (false prophets?) are going around North America telling us all “If you just quit your job and do this vague undefined task that you love to do, you’ll become insanely rich and not have to worry about work ever again.”
All you have to do is buy this book, pay to attend this founders roundtable, join this MBA class, pay to pitch to these VCs, buy from these financial consulting, etc. Do you notice the trend here? All you have to do is pay for it.

Note, you don’t always have to pay though, there are tons of well sponsored events with many large businesses presenting that would just love to have you attend and listen to how they are going to disrupt the world with technology x or idea y. The more people that attend these ones, the better. The money to be made isn’t from your ticket, but from your attendance. Ie. the new Facebook model of business, sell your users to your customers. This works especially well because the users are self-chosen. People who are interested in the new magic tech that will help them break through to the other side with their idea.

Yes, if you pay to attend the talk with the one founder who did break through the brick ceiling and come out reasonably unscathed on the other side, you might learn that one trick they did to become rich.

Yes, if you attend the found round table with Facebook’s lead engineer presenting how their updates to the API will change everything and that you should build apps on it right away if you want to be taken seriously as a business, you may just have that breakthrough moment.

However, I’m sorry to be blunt, but statistically you won’t.

Worse off, you’ll be falling for the Texas sharpshooter fallacy in the worst way possible. You will only see people who were successful and miss all of those who wasted their savings, ruined their marriages, hurt their friends and destroyed their career in the vague hope that their idea would be worth a billion dollars some day.

You’ll have fallen for the false prophets in the hopes of false profits.

My advice, which I give for free and you can take it if you want is: Enjoy your friends, build a beautiful family, find hope, joy and peace where you can, and when they all zig, you zag.

Only then can you get ahead of the ball.

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Selling nothing is great way to make lots of money.

Vaporware?
Vaporware? (Photo credit: Brett Jordan)

I was watching Duck Dynasty. Yes, yes, It’s not real, I know. Regardless, it is pretty funny. In this episode, I ran into a really interesting concept that goes against everything the techie and software developer side of me stands for. In the episode, they had sold a ton of cooking DVDs through catalogues, and had only produced the cover the DVD. The DVD content itself did not exist. They were able to prove a market for the product and only then proceeded to make the DVD to sell. The joke was them running around to produce this crazy DVD that the main characters in it didn’t even realize they were doing.

In other words, they sold vaporware, and a whole lot of it, and only when they new they’d recoup the costs of the DVD did they actually make it. (I’m guessing if they didn’t recoup the costs, they’d have returned the money with some standard excuse.)

Throughout my entire technically inclined life (high school, university and beyond), I’ve been told to despise vaporware. In fact, I think this is why many developers really dislike salespeople. “Vaporware” is more of a dirty word than f*** or s*** in many circles. The only other term I think is equally used as a perjorative is FUD. Yet, in this circumstance, it worked wonderfully – it provided the capital they needed to make the video well, and if enough sales weren’t made they would simply use one of the standard stock excuses you hear and return the money.

It hurts me to say this, but selling nothing is a great way to make lots of money. Note I’m not saying that you should sell nothing and get paid for it, I mean selling something you don’t have yet and use that to raise funds to build it.

Sounds a whole lot like Kickstarter actually. Except, in this circumstance, if you don’t deliver, you will have legal consequences unless you give the money back (and even then.) However, in this circumstance, it’s a lot easier to convince people to pay in because it isn’t a donation, but an actual purchase.

So what to make of this? Personally, I don’t know. I know my team has some amazing ideas for hardware and software, but we don’t have the capital yet to follow through like we want to. Yet, to sell it without already having it built seems somehow wrong, even if the client gets the product in the end (and may even not realize that it was vaporware at any point.)

However, I’ve learned in my life the propaganda and ideologies that have been ingrained in me sometimes are dirt wrong. So, this is definitely something I need to kick around in my head a lot more.

As a rule, I’ve always either sold a product we had, or a service we were ready to provide as soon as the contracts were signed. However, if you were selling thousands of products to thousands of people, and you had a plan to have it ready by the time they expected it delivered, if you got the money, what to make of that? More people will be happy to get a good product and you will be able to continue to sell it after the initial bang.

Selling nothing seems to be a great way to make money and, in the end, make a great product from scratch.

What are your thoughts?

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The myth of cheap tech experts. aka. technical debt.

network spagetti
network spagetti (Photo credit: versageek)

A common issue I’ve seen time and again around computers is the myth of cheap tech experts. You may have heard these lines before:

“Why would I need a professional programmer for my website, my cousin just graduated from *insert design college here* and can do it for us.”

“My friend, Jennifer, knows how to wire up a network, we can use her for cheap IT.”

“We can just outsource (IT, programming, etc.) to these really cheap group (and their salesperson has totally convinced me that their employees will care about us), they will totally know our unique needs and we’ll save tons.”

or the worst to me,

“Security (or insert other specialty here) is easy, we don’t need an expert for that.”

These statements above are all correct. You can do those tasks, in the short term, for cheap. You can build a quick website, you can set up a quick network, you can cheaply outsource to overworked people who don’t care about your organization, or you can patch up a few security holes and pray no one finds the ones you don’t know about. However, doing this is similar to patching the hole in your roof by covering it with plastic, it keeps the water out, but also can cause much worse and more expensive problems in the long run.

Credit Card
Credit Card (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)

To use a common term, you are now taking on technical debt.

Note, this doesn’t mean hiring people you know is a bad idea. Because you know your cousin, you know your nephew, and you know your friend, you are more knowledgeable of their skillset and, in general, know that they would be less likely to betray your trust. However, getting suckered by a good outsourcing firm who invested properly in marketing that looks really sharp, snazzy and capable (note, the more they spend in marketing, the less they are spending on their customers) is more common than you’d think.

The issue here isn’t that they are related or known to you. The issue is that you are using them to save money, not to do the job correctly. You get technical debt when you try to save without consideration of the actual time and costs of doing a project correctly. Technical debt you will have to pay off later if the project continues.

The sad part is many young and very qualified firms make this mistake as well by severely undercharging for their labour and then overworking themselves to the point of producing a lower quality product within the timeline and budget.

And the worst part is that everyone suffers in the field because prices are artificially surpressed to the point that qualified people don’t bother working in the field because they can’t make what they are worth without spending all of their time cleaning up other organizations technical debt, an incredibly frustrating and unsatisfying job.

“There is time to do it right.”

I worked for a very old consulting firm for many many years where that was their long-discarded slogan. However, it always stuck with me. It implies to relax, calm down, take a deep breath and let the experts do their job. You hired them to make things work correctly.

You wouldn’t go to a surgeon or a dentist and demand that they get it done in less time than they are spending to do it correctly. Heck, even in jobs where you don’t spend 15 years training for it – you shouldn’t tell a bricklayer or a carpenter to cut corners and get those walls up in half the time at a quarter of the price (or if you did, you would be asking for trouble in the future and likely a visit by Mike Holmes.)

Why should you not do the same with an expert job in a technical field? You hired them to do a job for you and commonly it’s a job that’s central to your organization. If the network goes down, even for a day, that’s almost one full day of lost productivity. In an organization of 100 people, that’s ~ 100 work-days lost. In perspective, that’s nearly a third of a year.

“But it improves my efficiencies at half the cost!”

Yes, IT and computers are great at improving efficiencies in corporations – even with systems that have technical debt. However, we all need to realize that the myth of cheap tech experts is costing us all in likely billions of person-hours of work every day throughout the world. This is where those security breaches come from. This is where the badly documented networks that are difficult to upgrade come from. This is where the locked-in outsourcing firms come from. This is where we are losing money. It’s the credit card of the technical world. You may save $10k a month with these guys, and end up having to pay $4k a month later, but if we all accept that “there is time to do it right”, you’ll save $25k a month in efficiencies and not have to worry about eventually paying off that technical debt.

Yes, it cost more upfront, but it saves you money in the long run. Like buying a house with a big down payment.

Good skills are very rarely cheap (theologians and philosophers excepted). If you want it done correctly, pay the right price, and remember there is always time to do it right.

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