Monthly Archives: January 2010

A little while back there was a big to-do about a group called Kopbusters that set up a sting on the cops in Odessa, Texas. The basic gist is that former narc and now pro-pot activist Barry Cooper was approached about some allegedly corrupt cops in Odessa. Cooper and his group, called KopBusters, made a house up to look like a “grow house” where pot is grown. Nothing illegal and nothing demonstrating probable cause, but still the sort of thing that cops look for when determining whether or not drugs are being grown indoors. They got the raid on video. Since that big splash, it has been alleged that the KopBusters planted the tip that the cops used for the raid. However, since it was an anonymous tip there are still questions about whether they really had probable cause. On the other hand, if the KopBusters did plant a tip, that is illegal, though KB is denying it and it all becomes a matter of which side one chooses to believe. Google “KopBusters” and “Odessa” for all sorts of information, much of it contradictory.

This post is only tangentially related to the Odessa raid and is more concerned with KopBusters themselves and the advancing degrees of disgust I felt on reading about them. Not because they’re bad people or even that their cause isn’t worthy. If they catch corrupt cops, they’re doing the public a great service. Further, while I am not in favor of large-scale drug decriminalization, I do favor decriminalization of pot and I am skeptical of the lengths to which we go on the War on Drugs. So in many ways I am on the same page as they. In fact, it’s that more than anything that makes me irate.

It’s not easy for proponents of drug legalization to be taken seriously. Advocates are often their own worst enemy in this regard and KopBusters are exemplars of this. People are not going to listen to some kid with long, shaggy hair and Birkenstocks on law enforcement. They lack credibility because it seems obvious that they want pot legal because, well, they want to smoke pot. People that don’t want to smoke pot – and whose support you need – are not particularly likely to climb on board. As much as one might believe that the arguments should be evaluated on their own merits, who is making the argument is crucial. Potheads for Pot Legalization is a PR Loser. Likewise, people that hate authority in all its forms are not likely to carry people that… well… don’t hate authority in all its forms.

The first sign that KopBusters was not a group that I was going to be donating to any time soon was when I went on their websites and they repeatedly refuse to identify police officers as anything except “kops”. Spelling “cops” with a “k” for the group’s name for the sake of trademarkability and recognizability is one thing, but it’s different when you’re crossing the line into disrespecting the people that you disagree with (whether they deserve the respect or not). You also want a webpage to load correctly, which theirs does not uniformly do (this is only a minor quibble, however). Hawking Cannibis Culture magazine is also a bad idea. Cooper himself has long hair, pictures of himself indulging in pot, and a couple interviews where the guy looks and sounds stoned.

This is not who you want leading the cause.

You want well-spoken, clean-cut guys with short hair wearing suits. You want guys that refer to the police officers as Officer This and Lieutenant That. You want to deprive the opposition of any and every argument you can make that you are not dead serious about what you’re doing. You want people to believe that you support legalization because you believe the War on Drugs is wrong and not because you hate “kops” and want to smoke pot with impunity. That Cooper himself is a former narc could have been a godsend to the movement, but it was squandered away by Cooper’s need to express himself in his appearance.

This is exactly not to say that Cooper is wrong here. I really don’t know. He says in the video that he’s doing this for Yolanda Madden, the young woman arrested and convicted on dubious grounds for drug possession. To the extent that she was railroaded, he’s letting her down.

Category: Courthouse

US News has a list of ways not to study. These are things that I wish I had thought of when I was in college. I didn’t do nearly as much studying as I should have. This one in particular stood out:

Many students think if only they found the perfect place to study, studying would be easy. So they spend inordinate amounts of time scouting and trying out various locales—first their dorm room, then the coffee shop, then the library, then the grass, etc. Such elaborate “setup” time can be a major time waster, and even worse, can make you feel that you can’t study unless you are in your ideal study spot. Better idea? Find a reasonably quiet place and just get started. You’ll get more comfortable as you get going.

In the Southern Tech University Library, they had these little study closets. For $50 a semester, you could rent one out. It was a closet-sized chamber in the library tower where you had a desk, peace and quiet, and not much else.

I have attention span issues and it was always pretty difficult to get me to stay on-task when there were always so many other things I can do. Some semesters in the dorm I had a non-computer desk specifically for reading and studying. But with my roommate Hubert around and frequently entertaining, it was a bit of a challenge to stay focused. When Saresh and Dennis joined us in our four-person setup, it became even harder. Then again, we did have a separate room that was generally quiet, so I can’t use that as too much of an excuse.

In retrospect, I wish I had rented out a library closet. Keeping me away from instant messenger, the TV shows that Hubert and Dennis would watch, and so on could have been invaluable. And unlike the Quiet Room in our four-person digs, I couldn’t easily switch back and forth whenever I “needed a break”. I wasn’t a bad studier when I had little else to do but study, but the world is full of distractions.

Of course, the problem with the library closets now is that as far as I know there is no Internet support and more and more studying requires having the Internet around or at least a computer. I guess these days the latter is not a problem because laptops have become so ubiquitous, but unless Sotech has implemented and stepped up WiFi support, that limits the closet utility (assuming that the closets are still there).

Though I am no longer in school and no longer need to study, I still find that I have difficulty getting work done in my play area. I wrote my most recent novel mostly at a coffeehouse and on our kitchen table. I’m not even sure I could do the latter now that we have wireless networking. On the other hand, wireless networking has lead to me doing most of my computing on a laptop on a sofa. At this point, perhaps my computer console is dry enough that I could use it for writing. What would be perfect is a closet that I could rent somewhere. It would have to be cheaper than the coffeehouse.

Category: School

Sometimes it feels like the TSA or DHS has a list entitled “Things We Want To Take Away From Passengers” and whenever something happens like what happened over Christmas, they just draw the first five options. This was one of the dangers when, after 9/11, we turned airline security over to the government. Unlike the airlines, the government has no incentive to make flying (and what happens before flying) convenient in the slightest. It’s the airlines that suffer when people decide that the if they’re going to spend four hours (including airport time) to fly 300 miles, they might as well drive six hours and pocket a few hundred dollars. At least then they don’t have to worry about what they’re going to do with their hair gel. But there’s not much the airlines can really do about it.

Sometimes, however, it works to their advantage. If they decide to further limit the amount of time that you can have personal electronics on for a plane trip, they can sell you DirecTV and other inflight entertainment options. Their incentives to treat customers well ends the moment that they can charge you a buck to treat you well.

Incidentally, that’s one of the knocks against the Kindle. Having been a frequent flier lately, I’ve found that one place I do a lot of reading is on the plain. You don’t have to worry about turning them off or on. It’s not unlike the fact that you don’t have to worry about them being charged.

I wonder if we could get Amazon to team up with Apple, Sony, Microsoft, and a bunch of other companies to try to lobby the government into getting the FAA to loosen up on the electronics ban.

Category: Road

Some conservatives and libertarians are gloating over the failure of Philadelphia’s WiFi service. It seems that few of the WiFi models are working as intended.

For libertarians and conservatives, this is a positive development because not only were they right, but by and large they didn’t want it to work in the first place. Personally, I consider this to be rather unfortunate. Though the government is failing when it comes to WiFi, it’s not like the market has produced a better track record. When I was at the mall the other day and wanted to check my email on my phone, I couldn’t use the WiFi without paying a subscription fee or an exorbitant one-day charge. A subscription could be worth it, except that different places use different carriers and unless I intend to go to the same places on a regular basis, getting widely available WiFi service would cost a pretty unreasonable amount. If we had a good city-wide system, though, the subscription prices could be far less unreasonable.

It’s not too much unlike the big, bad old days of cell phone usage before we had national networks. While many lament all of the cell phone carrier mergers, it’s had the wonderful effect of creating nationwide coverage available without roaming fees. Back when I was with a local company called ColColl, leaving the city meant paying extraordinarily high rates. It’s possible that the market could do for WiFi what it did for cell phones, but it hasn’t happened yet. Our best bet, at this point, is through cell phone towers. These yield lackluster speeds and reliability, though that could change. It would have been really, really nice if cities could have picked up the slack here.

The notion of city-provided Internet access is not inherently doomed to failure, though. Beyreuth, Delosa, where Clancy was raised and where her parents still live, have city-provided cable and broadband. The existing cable provider screamed bloody murder and tried to stop it legislatively, but they failed. Everyone out there, including my libertarian-minded conservative father-in-law, like it a great deal. When the profit-seeking, private broadband providers you have are relatively indifferent to your business because you have limited options, sometimes the government really isn’t worse.

So why did it succeed in Beyreuth and not Philadelphia? A few reasons, I’d wager. The first is that Beyreuth stepped into an existing industry. People were already comfortable with wired broadband and so they could count on a reasonably large customer base. In a way, they took advantage of the gambles that the cable providers had to take in offering the service in the first place. Another issue, though, is that Beyreuth is a relatively small city with an educated population (due in part to the local university). Such ventures may be easier in cities where there are large percentages of people who are demographically suitable for high-speed Internet. It’s possible that a WiFi program in Beyreuth could work where it would fail in a more urban area with a more economically diverse population.

Category: Server Room

I’ve only seen USA’s TV show Psyche once and have no desire to see it again. Even so, I love this promo:

It’s only funny because because of how ridiculous the original is:

Category: Theater

As some of you are aware, Netflix has signed a deal with Warner Studios. The gist of it is that Netflix will not send out new movies for 28 days after their initial release. In return, Warner will take a more liberal position on allowing Netflix to stream movies. Reactions seem mixed. Newsome does not like it at all. I think that this is a fantastic deal for Netflix and not a bad deal for Warner, though not in the way that Warner thinks.

The ability to get new releases on Netflix was always spotty for the first few weeks. For those that absolutely, positively must see the movie the day it comes out on DVD, they can still go to Hollywood Video and see it. Otherwise, a month isn’t going to kill anybody. Opening up Warner’s vault for online viewing, though, is a great get for Netflix. I truly believe that streaming movies is going to be the future of Netflix’s operations once they get the distribution mechanisms better placed. They can work out distribution easily enough – indeed, they’ve already started with the XBox360 – so the sticking point is the backwards-looking studios. The more they get the studios to go along, the more I believe that it will be to everyone’s – including the studios – benefit. If having more tiers in the release (four months to DVD sale, five months to DVD rental, eight months or a year to streaming) gets the studios on board, that’s certainly a price worth paying.

Category: Theater

Noam Schieber has a fascinating article in The New Republic about how one of the problems with our manufacturing sector is that we’re not producing people equipped to manage it:

Since 1965, the percentage of graduates of highly-ranked business schools who go into consulting and financial services has doubled, from about one-third to about two-thirds. And while some of these consultants and financiers end up in the manufacturing sector, in some respects that’s the problem. Harvard business professor Rakesh Khurana, with whom I discussed these questions at length, observes that most of GM’s top executives in recent decades hailed from a finance rather than an operations background. (Outgoing GM CEO Fritz Henderson and his failed predecessor, Rick Wagoner, both worked their way up from the company’s vaunted Treasurer’s office.) But these executives were frequently numb to the sorts of innovations that enable high-quality production at low cost. As Khurana quips, “That’s how you end up with GM rather than Toyota.”

Having gone to a university (and specifically a college within the university) more vocational than elite, I hadn’t realized any of this. It makes sense, though. I have a degree in Computer Information Systems from Southern Tech University’s College of Industrial Technology. One of the reasons I attended Southern Tech was because it actually had a CIT. My runner-up choice, The University of Ouachita, had an Management of Information Systems major in the College of Business, but I had decided by that point I was wanting something more tech-oriented than business-oriented. Besides, Southern Tech had an MIS major, too. The main difference between Southern Tech’s CIS program and its MIS program was that the former was more technology-oriented and the latter more business-oriented. I was a CIS major and my roommate Hubert was an MIS one. In retrospect, I probably should have gone MIS.

However, the College of Industrial Technology is almost exactly the sort of thing that Schieber says is missing these days. It has various majors that are geared straight too industrial management. For instance, I minored in Industrial Supervision. One of the more lucrative majors in the CIT was Industrial Distribution. Though the CIT is one of the main reasons that I attended Southern Tech, it’s not a college that the university particularly values. You know all of those bumper stickers that say “University X – College of Y Alumni?” The CIT never, ever had one.

Nor was it the destination of choice for the ambitious. Most did as Hubert did and went into MIS. Had I known that I had the ability to excel in the college environment, there’s a good chance I would have done the same. I was one of only four people in both the CIT and the Honors College. That’s actually misleading, because at the time they inexplicably put Childhood and Human Development in CIT and two of the four of us were CHD majors (and would today be classified in a different college). When I was looking at writing a thesis, I discovered I would have been the third student in the history of the colleges to ever write a thesis from the CIT. This despite the fact that the CIT was one of the colleges that existed at the founding of the university.

So I guess it’s no surprise, what Schieber says. Some of it may be circular. People don’t want to go into fabrication management because it’s a declining industry. Then the lack of people able to oversee it in the US unites with other factors (cheaper labor and facilities offshore, being the primary) to hasten the decline.

My grandfather on my mother’s side lacked a college degree, but I assume was a relatively smart fellow (he died before I was born). He made his way to become a foreman at the local plant where they built whatever it was that they built. With the accessibility of college and with colleges tending to divert people away from factory management, in today’s environment he probably would have gone to college and majored in something else. This can create something of a dearth (or the appearance of one) of leadership-material coming off the factory floor into supervision as those that would have worked their way up gaining a better understanding of operations along the way instead come straight out of college and do something else.

But we’re not there, yet. When I worked for Wildcat, there were production managers that had in their younger years worked the floor. One got a college degree at night, though the other didn’t. Wildcat was a relatively small company and you could excel without the need of HR departments drafting meaningless degree requirements. I’m not sure how true that is at larger plants, though.

Here’s a follow-up, explaining that the Japanese and Germans, constrained by higher labor costs than the US, made lemonaid out of lemons and focused more on productivity than cost-cutting. Ecco and I had a back and forth about unions a while back wherein he cited the German model as a successful one with the implied question of why it didn’t work out that way here. Perhaps the answer to that question is contained in the second piece: American companies always could compete on price because they had the domestic market to support it. Because of that, we were unprepared to be undercut by foreign competitors. Had we focused less on labor costs to begin with, perhaps we would have been better equipped with more scalable production models that manage to do a whole lot more with only somewhat more resources. But now we have the worst of both worlds (in the auto industry, at least), unions limiting the workforce flexibility that could turn things around on one end and the quick, lazy fix of offshoring production on the other.

Category: Market

My old car Rudat has, alas, gone to that great junkheap in the sky. My folks chose to scrap him rather than put the repairs in place so that it would pass safety standards. The car drove fine, for the most part, except when it would inexplicably stop. It made it 11 years and 210,000 miles, so no complaints.

When we go back to Colosse, we typically do not rent a car. This was particularly true when there were three cars hanging around. Still true with the two remaining, a Ford Mustang convertible and the Ford van.

Mom and Dad left for a cruise the day after Thanksgiving, so we had our choice of cars to take to visit her family in Beyreuth. The van has seen better days. It’s poor reliability, tape player instead of CD player, and the lack of a power plug made us decide to take the Mustang.

I had driving the Mustang around the Mayne area (the part of Colosse where I grew up) and had some real fun driving it with the top down. It was a great reminder of the fun I used to have with the old convertible when I was 17. It also made looking around easier because I had so much vision.

Without the top down, though, I can’t say that I’m a big fan of the Mustang. Most notably, convertibles have poor 360 when their tops are up. It’s also a particularly short car, though I don’t know how much of that is “Mustang” and how much “convertible”. The handling was nice in the overall.

However, what I found frustrating about the car is that it had the worst size vs interior space ratio of any car I have ever driven. There is not enough space for our suitcases in the back, the rear legroom is virtually nil. Overall, it seems less spacy than the Escorts I’m used to driving. Despite all of this, though, doesn’t have the small-car maneuverability that the Escort does. The handling was nice overall, but it was nice for a car of its size. It’s wider longer than the Escort and yet feel more cramped in every direction except width.

Maybe I need to go through a midlife crisis to appreciate sporty cars. Some day it would be cool to own a turbo engine vehicle of some sort, but if I do, I doubt I could ever get that far away from practicality. The mileage on a Mustang may be better, but I can’t imagine driving it enough for that to make a huge difference. It’s not exactly a long distance car.

I think I’m just unhip to the very fiber of my being.

Category: Road

Slate’s advice columnist, Dear (p)Rudence, has been doing “web chats” for a while along with the regular letters column. I have yet to actually bother to connect to one in real time, but the transcripts provided are usually pretty entertaining, and evidence that Ol’ Rudie (at least the current one) doesn’t quite have a good handle on what’s rude or not when it comes to politeness advice.

My bone of contention comes in with her advice regarding someone who continually gives the “gift” to someone of a donation to charity in their name.

D.C. Metro: I have a family member who sends a gift of some animal to the Heifer fund as a Christmas present to us every year. Every year I get more and more offended, as this is not a “gift” to anyone except themselves, as they get a tax deduction. My kids understand about giving to charity, but I cannot explain how this is a “gift” to us. I would like to tell this person to please stop sending these donations as “gifts” and only a card is fine.

[Ol’ Rudie]: What a good lesson for the kids! A family member makes a contribution in your family’s name to a wonderful cause, and you want your children to understand this isn’t really a gift but a tax deduction, and you want to demand a refund from the giver…

My first objection, however minor, is that Ol’ Rudence immediately misconstrues the position of the writer. They aren’t asking for a “refund”, simply that the giver refrain from such a “gift.” They aren’t even asking for a gift of any sort – a simple greeting card would suffice, as they write.

When challenged, Rudence responds with an even snarkier attack:

[Ol’ Rudie]: Clarksville, I hope everyone on your list knows you’d rather get a puce scarf from the sale rack than a donation to a worthy cause in your name.

The larger problem I have with this idea is that “giving to charity in someone’s name” is a rather smug, self-serving gift. When done unbidden, the social message it sends could well be that the “giftee” is a person who wouldn’t think to give to charity on their own and thus, the “gift” from the “giver” is making up for their moral shortfall. Or the social message, depending on choice of charity, is “I gave to them, you should be giving too.”

The little cards saying “Hey, I gave $XX to Charity Y in your name” have all the social tact of a card saying “Merry Christmas! By the way, if you didn’t donate to Charity Y you’re a terrible person, but don’t worry, I got you covered.”

Now this isn’t always the case. If there is an adult who has a specific connection to a charity, or has requested that people give in their name for instance, it’s probably fine. For example, a monetary donation to a local soup kitchen where your friend or family member regularly volunteers would probably be a wonderful thing, or a donation to an animal shelter or Humane Society/SPCA for an animal lover who has expressed a desire to support those organizations (and might not have financial wherewithal to make a donation of their own), would probably be taken as a truly thoughtful gift.

On the other hand, to do it to a kid? First of all, most children (the younger, the worse in this regard) do not have the mental ability to make that kind of connection. The abstract “I gave to someone in your name”, in a kid’s mind, is going to degenerate into “I gave your gift to somebody else.” Second of all, making the choice of which charity to give to yourself, rather than giving the “giftee” that option, adds the pressure of socially trying to force the person into some public acknowledgement of the “goodness” of the charity. While the charity in question may indeed be noble, people have a tendency to rebel against such a pressure.

Especially in the case of a kid, there are many better ways to handle such a thing. You want it to be as direct as possible. If you’re going to give to an animal shelter, take the kid to an animal shelter, have them make the donation in person, and maybe volunteer some of your time helping to clean up or exercise/feed the animals. If you’re going to give to a childrens’ hospital, have the kid visit some of the sick kids there (like in the cancer ward) and make some new friends to write letters or email to. If you’re giving long-range? Well, bite the bullet and send a real gift, at least until the kid’s reached the age of 10, and then ask them what kind of a charity they’d like to give to.

Category: Coffeehouse

English banks are phasing out checks:

After more than three centuries, the humble check is set to become a historic relic after British banks voted to phase it out in favor of more modern payment methods.

The board of the UK Payments Council, the body for setting payment strategy in Britain, agreed on Wednesday to set a target date of October 31, 2018 for winding up the check clearing system. The board is largely made up of Britain’s leading banks.

As others have suggested, it’s likely that this move will be redundant. Probably not for everybody, though. The advantages of checks is that anybody can cash one. I assume that between now and 2018 that they will work it so that it will be easy for people to accept funds into their bank account with a minimum of fuss. It’s not difficult now, of course, but you still have to kind of get set up for it. Right now, when I go to an automatic draft, all of the information I need is… on my checks. Just the other day I was trying to figure out if there was a good way that I could buy my sister-in-law an iTunes gift card without having my having to open an iTunes account. Apple does not seem to want things to work that way, so I thought about finding someone that did have an account, paying them, and then having them buy the gift card. But right now it’s an open question as to who can easily accept online payments. While checks presented their own problem (in this case, it would take too long), it’s still the universally accepted form of payment.

For credit cards to have worked in the first place, one of the things that needed to happen was for the consumer not to be charged to use it. This means that the retailers could not charge you an extra 50c for a credit card transaction over the regular purchase price*. This was a bitter pill for a lot of retailers to swallow (and many ignore the rule), but it ended up helping the retailers as well as the banks because it got people used to using credit cards. Since they do charge retailers and vendors, though, this would not be the case for people that presently accept checks for free. On the other hand, I don’t know if they get charged when you send money directly from your account to theirs.

However they do it, though, they’re going to need to find a way to differentiate between businesses and people. If you make money transfers simple and easy, you’re going to see a lot of businesses preferring that to credit cards and the banks lose a significant form of revenue. Likewise, if you treat individuals like banks, they’ll just wants checks or cash. Or they could charge everybody for everything to make sure they get their cut. Sure seems like this is where everything is headed. On one hand, if it actually costs the banks $1.60 to cash a check (that was a shock) then passing that on to consumers could be fair play (although, it’s worth pointing out, that’s precisely what they prohibit retailers from doing). On the other hand, the whole thing could simply reinvigorate the cash economy for all person-to-person and maybe business-to-person (instead of person-to-business or business-to-business) transactions.

That brings me to James Joyner’s supposition that the question is not whether checks will go the way of the dodo, but whether cash will. As much sense as that makes in the eyes of many, I find it extremely unlikely that will ever be the case. Privacy concerns would create a tremendous backlash. I say this as someone that believes that Americans’ supposed concern for privacy is generally overestimated. By making everything digital, you’re turning over every single transaction over to either the government or corporations. Sure, we mostly do that now, but that’s because most of the time we don’t care. Sometimes we do.

Further, the assumption that it would even be possible is only valid insofar as everyone has an account from which they can stuff and draw money. That’s true a good bulk of the time and if necessary could be true even more, but we live in a country where some people still don’t even get a valid form of photo identification. In order for this to work, you would have to give everybody an account and you would have to force there to be no minimums. You’d need some entity to look over all of this. Banks often do it now, but they do it because there is money in it for them. For those that they right now do not serve? Not so much money in it for them. So do we create a Public Option for banks? That’s a path fraught with peril.

Ever since credit cards first really hit the seen, a lot of “forward thinkers” have said that they’re eventually going to replace cash. There are reasons to believe that they may, but honestly I put it in the same category where I put cloud computing and the notion that all computers in the future will be smartphones/PDAs. I’ll believe it when I see it and not a moment before.

* – They are, however, allowed to have “cash discounts”. What’s the difference? As near as I can tell, the credit card companies are saying that you can discriminate against credit cards as long as you discriminate against personal checks or any other non-cash forms of payment.

Category: Market