"I came here to drink milk and kick ass. And I've just finished my milk." - Moss, The IT Crowd

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Setting the Record Straight on Prepaid, Part 4

What is Regulation E and when does it apply?

Well, if I were to answer that question thoroughly with plenty of examples and detailed explanation, it would take about 20 or 30 pages and you would be ready to fall asleep by the end of it. I know, because I wrote a document like that for a previous employer. I’ll give a simplified overview here; it won’t cover all the nuances, but should give you a reasonable idea of what’s going on.

Regulation E applies only to consumer accounts. It does not apply to accounts held by business entities, or to anything which is not an “account” as defined in the regulation (which is why it generally doesn’t apply to non-reloadable prepaid cards). The best-known parts of Regulation E protect the consumer from being liable for the full amount of unauthorized charges or electronic transfers, as long as the disputed charge meets certain requirements (for example, you can’t call a charge “unauthorized” just because the merchant who charged your card later refused to let you return an item you decided you didn’t want) and the consumer reports the unauthorized charge within the timeframes set out in Regulation E. The cardholder agreement for the GPR card will provide information on how the cardholder can report unauthorized charges.

Setting the Record Straight on Prepaid, Part 3

It’s not a bank account. Why does a GPR card have FDIC insurance coverage?

While the funds of all the prepaid card customers in a specific GPR card program may be held together in a single pool of funds in a custodial account, the FDIC-insured issuing bank and its regulators require the program manager to maintain an accurate accounting of the amount of funds associated with each individual GPR card account, and to retain identifying information about the primary cardholder for each card account. Because the underlying owners of the funds (i.e., the cardholders) are known and individually identifiable, and since the exact amount belonging to each cardholder is known, each cardholder receives FDIC insurance protection up to the full FDIC limits on his or her card account. That is, the custodial account may contain in excess of $250,000 (the limit of each individual depositor’s FDIC insurance coverage at a specific insured bank), but each card account is fully insured up to the FDIC limits regardless of the total sum held in the custodial account. This issue was settled by an FDIC advisory opinion issued on commingled deposit accounts (in that specific case, for payroll cards) as of August 16, 2002. A further clarification affirming the applicability of this rule to stored value cards and other “nontraditional access mechanisms” was issued by the FDIC on November 13, 2008.

Setting the Record Straight on Prepaid, Part 2

What’s the difference between reloadable and non-reloadable? And who’s got my money?

Let’s talk a bit about how prepaid cards work behind the scenes. For a given prepaid card brand, the company which processes the card transactions, arranges production of the physical cards, manages the distribution channels, provides the customer service, and levies the card fees, is the “program manager.” The program manager, as a rule, is not a bank, which means that the program manager does not serve as a repository for the customer’s funds. The customer’s funds are stored in an account at an actual bank, known as an “issuing bank.” The account the funds are stored in is known as the “custodial account” because the issuing bank is acting as the custodian of the funds.

Setting the Record Straight on Prepaid, Part 1

This blog post will be a departure from what I’ve written so far. My two rules to date have been (1) no discussions about my work and (2) no discussions about my personal relationships. However, I’m going to bend Rule # 1 a bit today.

See, I’ve worked for several years in prepaid debit cards, although I’m not employed in the industry currently: my work primarily involved general-purpose reloadable cards, or “GPR” cards, sold directly to individual consumers. I’ve had a bunch of different roles, but most recently my job responsibilities involved analyzing legal and regulatory compliance issues. Regulation in the prepaid space is not normally a topic I’d opine on in a public forum, but I feel like I need to counteract some of the misinformation that is being propagated in news coverage of the prepaid space.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Thought for the Day

"The beet was Rasputin's favorite vegetable. You could see it in his eyes."
- Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Thought for the Day

"'But in her heart what every woman wants is to be some kind of goddess, I think -- men pick up a ruined echo of that thought and try to put them on pedestals ... but what a man senses is not what a woman wants. A woman wants to be in the clear, is all. To stand if she will, or walk .... Or to drive, Homer. A man will not see that. He thinks a goddess wants to loll on a slope somewhere on the foothills of Olympus and eat fruit, but there is no god or goddess in that. All a woman wants is what a man wants -- a woman wants to drive.'"

Ophelia Todd speaking in "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut," by Stephen King

Friday, May 6, 2011

Thought for the Day

"Faith" is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see—
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.

- Emily Dickinson

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Thought for the Day

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

- Wallace Stevens, "Anecdote of the Jar"

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Update on PFC Manning's pre-trial confinement

I was very happy just now to read the most recent blog update from the attorney representing Pfc. Bradley Manning. It was published yesterday, and confirms that Manning is now being held under normal, humane conditions of detention. Seeing our government respond to public pressure to act ethically and humanely by finally doing the right thing is deeply gratifying. It makes me a little more hopeful for my country's future.

More of this, please. We still have an entire extra-judicial prison at Guantanamo that has to be shut down. Fair and humane treatment of those prisoners, with meaningful access to a legal system that is not a kangaroo court, doesn't cease to be a moral imperative just because they are not U.S. citizens.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Really, America?

A headline from MSNBC yesterday: "Bin Laden's death rekindles 'enhanced' interrogation debate."

Really, America? Is this who we are as a nation? Do we respond to the death of the guy who was, apparently, the primary architect of the 9/11 plot, by deciding this gives us free rein to go torture some more people? If this is how we behave as a country, what have we become?

When you torture prisoners, you lose all moral authority to tell others not to do likewise. The recognition of that fact was the entire basis of the Third Geneva Convention. You cannot get around this basic fact of human morality by labeling your prisoners "unlawful enemy combatants" or anything else. You can call them "Satan spawn" if you like - that still does not sanctify torture, anymore than it did during the Inquisition.

For an excellent unpacking of the practical reasons why torture was unlikely to have played any role in gathering the information that led to tracking down bin Laden, please see Heather Hurlburt's article today in The New Republic. For the moral case against torture, consult Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, if you consider yourself a Christian. If you are not a Christian, consider this: if your parent, child, sibling, spouse, or other loved one was picked up near a field of battle (for example, because they happened to live there or be traveling through at the time of conflict) or even on it, how would you feel if your loved one was tortured because someone suspected that they *might* have information which would give a small advantage to one side's army? Even in the unlikely event that they happened to possess such information, would you feel any less furious, destroyed, and heartsick? Would you ever, ever under any circumstances feel that your loved one's torment had been somehow justified?

Spawning more fear, pain, and hatred in the world should not be the role to which we aspire as a nation.

Thought for the Day

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, "Is it good, friend?"
"It is bitter -- bitter," he answered;
"But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart."

- Stephen Crane

Monday, May 2, 2011

Thought for the Day

"Awhile the Spirit paused in ecstasy.
Yet soon she saw, as the vast spheres swept by,
Strange things within their belted orbs appear.
Like animated frenzies, dimly moved
Shadows, and skeletons, and fiendly shapes,
Thronging round human graves, and o'er the dead
Sculpturing records for each memory
In verse, such as malignant gods pronounce,
Blasting the hopes of men, when heaven and hell
Confounded burst in ruin o'er the world:
And they did build vast trophies, instruments
Of murder, human bones, barbaric gold,
Skins torn from living men, and towers of skulls
With sightless holes gazing on blinder heaven,
Mitres, and crowns, and brazen chariots stained
With blood, and scrolls of mystic wickedness,
The sanguine codes of venerable crime.
The likeness of a throned king came by.
When these had passed, bearing upon his brow
A threefold crown; his countenance was calm.
His eye severe and cold; but his right hand
Was charged with bloody coin, and he did gnaw
By fits, with secret smiles, a human heart
Concealed beneath his robe;"
- Percy Bysshe Shelley, selection from "The Daemon of the World"

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Thought for the Day

"There goes one who had called on gods he does not believe in. How will it be with him if they have really come?"
- Farsight the Eagle, The Last Battle

Saturday, April 30, 2011

In other news, atheists STILL not destroying our nation

As an agnostic, I was really happy to read this opinion piece from the Washington Post. I don't want to dissuade anyone from their personal religious beliefs, if they get strength and comfort from them; I just want respect for my right not to worship God and not to be pressured to participate in public expression of belief in God. I'm not uncomfortable being around people who are praying, or holding hands with others while they say grace, or listening to other people talk about how important religious faith is in their lives. In return for respecting their religious observance, I want respect for my choice not to bow my head and close my eyes in an indication of obeisance to a God whom I do not worship; for my choice not to attend church services which profess beliefs contrary to my own; for my refusal to invoke a God whom I do not worship for my wedding ceremony; for my repudiation of the notion that strictures based primarily on religion (e.g., against homosexual behavior and abortion) should be codified in secular law; and for my willingness to talk about my personal beliefs.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Thought for the Day

"Get married, in any case. If you happen to get a good mate, you will be happy; if a bad one, you will become philosophical, which is a fine thing in itself." - Socrates

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Thought for the Day

"Let's get one thing straight: Agnosticism is not some kind of weak-tea atheism. Agnosticism is not atheism or theism. It is radical skepticism, doubt in the possibility of certainty, opposition to the unwarranted certainties that atheism and theism offer."
- Ron Rosenbaum

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Putting the "God" in "Godwin"

Posting this link just to cheer myself up. Read Mike Godwin's letter to the FBI from when he was general counsel of the Wikimedia Foundation. No, seriously, do yourself a favor and read it. If you have any appreciation of legal humor, this will make you smile.

More needs she the divine than the physician

I haven't posted much original material lately because, frankly, I've been spending too much time reading news and doing research, and it seems like 99% of what I find is so damn depressing. It's easy to start feeling hopeless and helpless, and those sentiments make it hard to keep writing about the things you believe need to change. I know that my blog posts are not going to change the world or, most likely, ever be read by more than a tiny handful of people, but I feel strongly that I should try to use the free time I have right now to speak up about the things that I see going awry in my home country. I didn't have the luxury of time to do much of that during the war-mongering legislative nightmare that followed 9/11, beyond writing a few e-mails and standing to be counted at a couple of anti-war demonstrations; and I believe I have a duty to speak my conscience in writing, to stand up and be counted in a more public way, now that I am fortunate enough to have a little time to do so. What's difficult is motivating myself to keep the words flowing.

Writing public blog posts that can be readily connected to my real-world identity makes me anxious. I am a private person who likes having a quiet life and getting along with my friends and neighbors. It's not easy to speak out on controversial subjects when you believe that your government is more interested in quieting dissent than in righting wrongs, and when you know that your words may one day be held against you in a job interview by someone who believes that blind obedience is better than integrity, critical thinking, and compassion. But while these are valid reasons for feeling anxious, they are not valid reasons for failing to stand up for what is right. Principles should matter more than personal convenience, and I struggle constantly (as I think most people do) to integrate that belief into actual daily life in a constructive way. I need to keep writing in this blog - and, if you're reading, I need your encouragement to help me keep at it. Otherwise I'll end up just staring at my computer screen, feeling guilty for not posting, and wondering how in the hell my country is going to pull itself out of the mess that it's in.

I love the United States and my home state of Texas very deeply, although I'm sure many people whose idea of patriotism is "America first, right or wrong" would be surprised by that. It is the fact of that love that drives my need to speak. Just as you feel duty, out of love, to tell a dear family member or friend that their behavior is self-destructive or morally bankrupt, I feel, as a U.S. citizen and registered voter, a duty to speak when my country's government does things that I know are morally wrong. It's not giving aid and comfort to the enemy - it's being a responsible citizen of conscience. It's the only way I can live with myself.

My preference is to minimize talk about my personal frame of mind on this blog. We live in a confessional society, where the right to privacy is trivialized and many people are willing to sacrifice all privacy and dignity for even a fleeting chance at the most debased kind of fame. But I'm finding it necessary to talk a little more about what motivates me in order to break through this dry spell and get my writing mojo back. (All this is by way of apology for the lengthy personal digression above.)

What I actually wanted to post about today was the recent revelations about the prisoners at Guantanamo that have come out from the recent Wikileaks release of additional classified documents received from Bradley Manning. The extrajudicial prison camp at Guantanamo, where officially sanctioned torture once ran rampant and the rule of law was held in abeyance, is a permanent stain on the honor of the United States. MY country. MY honor. There is no way to simply remedy what we have wrought here, to just make it right through the physic of good governance. That is why I quoted Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth in the title of this essay. This should be troubling all of us, because the smell of what the United States has done in Guantanamo will never entirely dissipate no matter how long we scrub our hands. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten it.

These actions were taken by OUR government, in OUR names. Yours and mine. And our government has not yet begun to take responsibility for its actions. This should outrage every American citizen of conscience who, like me, is actually foolish enough to believe that tosh in the Declaration of Independence about "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Being scared of the boogeyman is not a sufficient reason to deprive any person of those rights. These rights apply to ALL persons, not just American citizens. Not just white English-speakers who believe what you believe. Believing that your electability may be hurt if you release someone unjustly imprisoned, because some voters are scared of the boogeyman, is not an excuse for continuing to violate human rights on an ongoing basis.

All our country can do at this point is atone, much like that was all we could do after the scandal of the Japanese-American internment camps in World War II. But the process of atonement cannot begin until we actually cease engaging altogether in the morally repugnant behavior that we need to atone for. One of my reasons for voting for Barack Obama was that he stated clearly, unequivocally, that the camp at Guantanamo must be closed, as a matter of principle. That promise now lies in ruins, and it is becoming increasingly clear day by day that this was not a serious commitment - it was just another political bargaining chip to be gambled away in the name of cutting deals to get half a loaf.

The fact that thousands of Americans died on 9/11, and that so many of us were devastated with heartbroken horror on that day and for many days thereafter, is no excuse for engaging in morally repugnant behavior of our own in some misguided attempt to punish a small gang of terrorist criminals, many of whom already died in their own attacks. I said this before we invaded Afghanistan, and I said it before we invaded Iraq. No one in power was listening then, and I don't expect anyone in power is listening now. But that is no excuse for failing to speak up, which is why I felt compelled to post today.

The other thing I wanted to say is that Bradley Manning DID speak up. He spoke up in the most powerful way anyone has in this country since the Pentagon Papers. It's appropriate that he's being court-martialed, because his alleged actions broke the law and the trust invested in him as a member of the military. He's also a bona fide hero. He knew that he was taking a huge risk, and he did it anyway, because he thought Americans should know what their government -- elected by them and paid for by their tax dollars -- was doing in their name, and that this imperative was more morally compelling than his conflicting duties as a soldier. No doubt, like most whistleblowers, he also had other, less altruistic motivations for what he did. It doesn't change his heroism. I don't think I would have had the courage (perhaps foolhardiness) to do what he did. But I'm glad he believed that accountability and integrity in government policy were more important than secrecy and privilege.

I also have no doubt that there has been some damage done by the papers leaked by Bradley Manning, and that there will be unfortunate unintended consequences.  However, I would rather have the damage and unintended consequences of sunlight on our government's actions than the slow and steady corrosion caused by unchecked and unchallenged government privilege.

Thought for the Day

"Those who reveal truths which most people would prefer to ignore are typically hated, and are often those most severely punished."
- Glenn Greenwald

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Thought for the Day

"Without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public."
- Bradley Manning

Monday, April 25, 2011

Thought for the Day

"Thieves, the goddamn lot of you! Thieves and leeches! Fucking vampires sucking the will from people whose only goddamn crimes were to be frightened and tired! And you don't help them! You don't listen to them! They get no truth from you! All you do is scare them with stories of something that doesn't exist!"
- Spider Jerusalem, Transmetropolitan

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Thought for the Day

"And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money changers, and the seats of them that sold doves, and said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.
"And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them."
- Matthew 21:12-14

Friday, April 22, 2011

Thought for the Day

"If you'd let me bring the chloroform, we wouldn't have had to put up with all this jibberjabber."
 - Amy Farrah Fowler, The Big Bang Theory

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Thought for the Day

"The free enterprise market mechanisms of incentive and reward have brought more and better goods and services to more people here and throughout the world than any other system in history. Yet those mechanisms are not indestructible. If they are to be preserved, we need an institutional framework that operates in their support. That support lies in the direction of a more democratic form of private property ownership."
- Russell B. Long's floor statement to the U.S. Senate, 17 November 1983, on the Employee Stock Ownership Act of 1983

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Thought for the Day

"Above all things, good policy is to be used, that the treasure and moneys, in a state, be not gathered into few hands. For otherwise a state may have a great stock, and yet starve. And money is like muck, not good except it be spread. This is done, chiefly by suppressing, or at least keeping a strait hand, upon the devouring trades of usury, ingrossing great pasturages, and the like."
- Francis Bacon, Viscount St. Albans, "Of Seditions and Troubles"

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Thought for the Day

"Consultants’ recommendations have the same semantic properties as campaign promises: it’s almost freakish if they are remembered in the following year."
- Matthew Stewart, The Atlantic, June 2006

Monday, April 18, 2011

Thought for the Day

"As Abraham Lincoln said so well, 'The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves — in their separate, and individual capacities.' Citizens reasonably resent a government that milks them to feed programmes that fail Lincoln's test. The inevitable problem in a democracy is that we disagree about which programmes those are. Some economists are fond of saying that 'economics is not a morality play', but like it or not, our attitudes toward taxation are inevitably laden with moral assumptions. It doesn't help to ignore or casually dismiss them. It seems to me the quality and utility of our public discourse might improve were we to do a better job of making these assumptions explicit, and of seriously and respectfully considering whether our ideological opposites, be they socialists or Atlas Shrugged fans, might have one or two worthwhile points."

- W.W., The Economist, 15 April 2011

Friday, April 15, 2011

More TSA Inanity

I wasn't planning to post anything else today, but this news item on CNN made me change my mind.

Guess what? If you think that our airport screening procedures are pointless security theater that violates your constitutional rights, and you have the audacity to express that opinion within earshot of a TSA functionary, you may be -- no, not the Ebola virus -- A TERRORIST. Yes, that's right, expressing contempt for the procedures used by the TSA is one of the "behavioral indicators" that the TSA is training officers to rely on when deciding whether a passenger is "high risk."

Many people have said it, but it's worth repeating here: 1984 was meant to be a cautionary tale, not an instruction manual.

Tax Whimsy

This ditty was inspired by pondering the recondite nature of AMT in my car this afternoon, after spending too much time attempting to understand what my tax prep software was doing. (If you are not a CPA or a tax attorney, I do not recommend doing this, as it is likely to trigger an existential crisis.)

I do not like you, AMT;
How you compute is hard to see.
How much would we all have to pay
Just to make you go away?

Or, if you prefer, expressed as a haiku:

O, dear AMT,
How inscrutable you are.
And now my brain hurts.

If there is one characteristic of the U.S. income tax system that people can agree on regardless of political affiliation, surely it's that AMT is a hot flaming mess. Any tax form which includes instructions like the following makes me want to poke myself in the eyes with a sharp pencil: "First figure any ordinary income adjustment related to (3) above. Then, refigure Form 4684, Form 4797, and Schedule D for the AMT, if applicable, by taking into account any adjustments you made this year or in previous years that affect your basis or otherwise result in a different amount for the AMT."

I accept paying taxes as a necessity for the maintenance of civilized society. Asking people to read these forms, however, is just SADISTIC.

Thought for the Day

"Go back to bed, America. Your government is in control again. Here. Here's American Gladiators. Watch this, shut up. Go back to bed, America. Here is American Gladiators. Here is 56 channels of it! Watch these pituitary retards bang their fucking skulls together and congratulate you on living in the land of freedom. Here you go, America! You are free to do as we tell you!"

- Bill Hicks

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Thought for the Day

"I think the basic sentiment applies: When are we going to say we have finally had enough? Hey, here's a suggestion - how about when it's become "standard operating procedure" for the government to put its hands in a six-year-old girl's pants? ... That seems like it should be a pretty good line in the sand, doesn't it?

"In any other context, if you saw a stranger doing that to a six-year-old girl, wouldn't you kick that person's ass? Wouldn't you at least try? Even at some risk to yourself? I bet you would. So why do we walk by when the government does it? Have we really become such cowards that we are willing to put up with six-year-old girls being groped because we think otherwise we can't be 99.999% safe?"

- Kevin Underhill, Lowering the Bar

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Thought for the Day

"Boris Fyodorov, the late finance minister of Russia, struggled for much of the past 20 years against oligarchs, corruption, and abuse of authority in all its forms. He liked to say that confusion and chaos were very much in the interests of the powerful—letting them take things, legally and illegally, with impunity. When inflation is high, who can say what a piece of property is really worth? When the credit system is supported by byzantine government arrangements and backroom deals, how do you know that you aren’t being fleeced?

"Our future could be one in which continued tumult feeds the looting of the financial system, and we talk more and more about exactly how our oligarchs became bandits and how the economy just can’t seem to get into gear."

Simon Johnson, The Atlantic, May 2009

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Thought for the Day

"No government can exist without taxation, which is equally necessary to the republic and to the monarchy. The sovereign who labors in the public cause must be paid by the public; the judge the same, that he may have no need to prevaricate. The soldier must be supported that he may commit no violence, for want of having whereon to subsist. In like manner, it is necessary that those persons who are employed in collecting the finances should receive such salaries as may not lay them under any temptation to rob the public. These various expenses demand very considerable sums, and to these must still be added money that should only be laid apart to serve for extraordinary exigencies. This money must all be necessarily levied on the people; and the grand art consists in levying so as not to oppress. That taxes may be equally and not arbitrarily laid on, surveys and registers should be made, by which, if the people are properly classed, the money will be proportionate to the income of the persons paying. This is a thing so necessary that it would be an unpardonable fault, in finance, if ill-imposed taxes should disgust the husbandman with his labors. ...

"The sovereign ought frequently to remember the condition of the poor, to imagine himself in the place of the peasant or the manufacturer, and then to say, 'Were I born one among the class of citizens whose labors constitute the wealth of the state, what should I require from the king?' The answer which, on such a supposition, good sense would suggest it is his duty to put in practice."

- Frederick the Great, Essay on Forms of Government, 1777

Monday, April 11, 2011

An exhausting job

You know, I've been pretty harsh on President Obama in this blog, and I think deservedly so. When you run for the highest elected office of what is probably still the most powerful nation in the world, you sign up for being held to a much higher standard than the rest of us schmucks. However, I saw something today that made me feel some pity for the guy.

Here's a picture of Barack Obama from the end of March 2011.

Here are pictures of Barack Obama from November 2008.

The fact that the job is wearing him down is not an excuse for hypocrisy and a failure to stand up for the beliefs he expressed on the campaign trail. But it does make me have more sympathy for him, because it makes me think that perhaps he also finds distasteful many of the actions he's taken as president.

Here's a suggestion, for what little it's worth. Stop listening to the people who tell you that you always have to make ugly compromises in order to get anything done at all. Try taking a stand once in a while, rather than constantly calculating what will get you re-elected. Expressing a clear vision and implementing it may not get you re-elected, but neither will alienating principled voters who supported you last time around because of the beliefs you claimed to espouse. See if living like a person who has real values doesn't lighten the load a bit.

Thought for the Day

"Nihil tam incredibile est quod non dicendo fiat probabile: nihil tam horridum, tam incultum, quod non splendescat oratione, et tanquam excolatur."

["Nothing is so unbelievable that oratory cannot make it likely: nothing so frightful or so squalid that it does not shine through eloquence and thereby become polished."]

- Marcus Tullius Cicero

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Thought for the Day

"I want the power to act as I please in a way that is legal and I expect not to be harrassed or hindered simply because a small group of people that also act like me happen to do things that are illegal. I expect to be able stand anywhere on the sidewalk my taxes paid for that I damn well please and if, as may happen, the police get itchy about it, I expect NOT to have my pockets searched just because I'm standing there.

"I expect to be innocent until proven guilty. I demand that my government realize that they work for me, not the other way around. I insist that laws be crafted by those that represent the people should actually SERVE constituent interests rather than special interests rife with rich coffers built by past piss-poor laws. I expect evidence to be utilized when building policy rather than silly faith-based propaganda. I seek the richness of knowledge and joy over the false happiness of extravagant wealth.

"I expect my fellow citizens to disagree on anything they wish except that we have the right to disagree. I expect businesses and merchants to work within the framework of reality and common sense, not the false battlefield set up by politicians paid off in the legal bribes we call lobbying money. Most of all, and I mean MOST OF ALL, I expect this country and its representatives to be loyal not to a flag or the gang-like ideology of our country, but rather to our ideals and our freedoms."

- Dark Helmet, commenting on Techdirt

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Bits and Pieces


Aren't you proud the U.S. didn't vote for this resolution? (OK, that time I was being sarcastic.)


THIS is what our politicians are spending their time on? Really? Nice use of misdirection, guys. (Then again, I may be giving them too much credit for scheming to distract the public with wedge issues. It's equally likely that most of them just want an excuse to look at porn at work.)

Thought for the Day

"There are two things that are important in politics. The first thing is money, and I can't remember what the second one is."
- Mark Hanna

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Income inequality: Houston, we have a problem

Earlier this week I had an interesting conversation on Facebook about Vanity Fair's recent article on income inequality in the U.S., and I've been struggling for the last few days to put my thoughts into the form of a coherent essay. It's easy to look at income disparities and be shocked by them, but it's far more work to articulate what has gone awry in the underlying processes that have brought those disparities into being; the widespread deleterious effects of allowing those processes to continue unchecked; and what ought to be done to restore more balance to the situation. I've been reflecting on my beliefs about fairness and the proper role of government in income distribution, and... it's complicated. It's very difficult to find solutions to the problem of rising income inequality that satisfy all of my fundamental beliefs. I think it's essential that we start applying ourselves more seriously to this problem, though, if we want the United States to continue being a country of opportunity and innovation. Believe it or not, there are people near the top of the wealth pyramid who think so too.

Thought for the Day

"Perhaps it is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged against provisions against danger, real or pretended from abroad."
- James Madison, letter to Thomas Jefferson, 13 May 1798

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Thought for the Day

Overheard:

"I'm not an anarchist; there's just no system of government that I like."

"A system that doesn't involve pigs with their heads in the trough would be good."

Monday, April 4, 2011

Thought for the Day

"In political and philosophical theories, as well as in persons, success discloses faults and infirmities which failure might have concealed from observation."
- John Stuart Mill

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Thought for the Day

"The manufacturing aristocracy of our age first impoverishes and debases the men who serve it and then abandons them to be supported by the charity of the public."
- Alexis de Tocqueville

Unfortunately, de Tocqueville went awry in thinking that the "manufacturing aristocracy" was "one of the most confined and least dangerous"
ever to exist in the world. He did not foresee the extent to which this aristocracy would control mass media, public education, and campaign finance; or the necessity for political candidates to raise vast sums of money in order to use mass media for purposes of mounting credible political campaigns.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Thought for the Day

"Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear."
- Thomas Jefferson

Friday, April 1, 2011

A Friday Palate Cleanser

Some fun stuff for Friday:

Kitty Jesus. (No disrespect to Jesus intended; I think he'd find this funny too.)

The worst restaurant in the world. (I can only aspire to write scathing reviews this well.)

Fug Madness 2011, Bjork Bracket: Lady Gaga vs. Nicki Minaj. (Also browse the comments.)

The joy of crazy religious pamphlets. (I have a Seventh Day Adventist tract this guy would appreciate.)

Thought for the Day

"Some people are born bullshit artists, others learn to become bullshit artists, but if you fall into neither category and have ambitions in that direction, you may need my bullshit generating software."
- Richard E. Quandt

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Enough to make your head spin

As someone who opposed invading Afghanistan and invading Iraq, and who now opposes the United States' current participation in Libya's civil war, I have been forcefully reminded in recent days of the old adage about how politics makes strange bedfellows.

I remember the commentators and politicians who were all too eager to stifle debate by throwing around words like "treason"and "comfort to the enemy" to describe anyone who didn't unreservedly support wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as the obvious, logical response to an elegantly simple and extraordinarily devastating terrorist plot executed by a non-state actor (Al Qaeda). In some quarters, using support for these wars as patriotism litmus tests continues on. Never mind that the nation of Afghanistan never flew planes into the World Trade Center (and that Pakistan has provided safe haven to Al Qaeda just as much as Afghanistan ever did), or that Iraq and Saddam Hussein didn't even have demonstrable ties to Al Qaeda.

But it's a new dawn, a new day, and a new President. And now that the President dropping bombs is a Democrat, it seems like many of the same people who were happy to beat the drums for war in Afghanistan and Iraq have suddenly discovered the following: (a) wars cost a lot; (b) wars are very hard to end once you start, especially if you have no clear criteria for victory; (c) using advanced weaponry does not guarantee a swift and tidy outcome; (d) involving yourself as a foreign actor on one side of a domestic war can result in unintended consequences for decades to come; and (e) the longer a war goes on, the more people die.

Thought for the Day

"The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact. The very word 'war,' therefore, has become misleading. It would probably be accurate to say that by becoming continuous war has ceased to exist."
- George Orwell, 1984

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Thought for the Day

"I don't know the meaning of the word 'impossible.' Or 'ill-advised.'"
 - Gus Hedges, Drop the Dead Donkey

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

When is regime change not regime change?

In his speech last night, President Obama stated that the U.S. had "a responsibility to act" as "an anchor of global security and advocate for human freedom." Leaving aside the self-congratulatory nonsense about the U.S. behaving as an advocate for human freedom around the world, let's accept this premise.

Obama goes on to say that, "I made it clear that Gaddafi had lost the confidence of his people and the legitimacy to lead, and I said that he needed to step down from power." We worked with the U.N. to get a no-fly zone authorized, we have not acted alone, etc. We will "support the aspirations of the Libyan people." Apparently, we are going to provide logistical support to the rebels, help with jamming Qaddafi's communications, and "pursue the broader goal of a Libya that belongs not to a dictator, but to its people."

Yet in the same speech, Obama states that "broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake." Don't get me wrong, I have no desire to see the U.S. mired in another Middle Eastern land war - that would be why I was against the U.S. initiating a no-fly zone in Libya in the first place. But it raises the question: if regime change is not the goal of the NATO military mission, then what is?

Thought for the Day

"As our international power and interests surge, it would seem reasonable that our commitment to republican principles would surge. These commitments appear inconvenient. They are meant to be. War is a serious matter, and presidents and particularly Congresses should be inconvenienced on the road to war."
- George Friedman

Monday, March 28, 2011

Crime and Punishment

Which do you consider more heinous: breaking an oath and revealing national secrets because you believe the greater good depends on it, or committing cold-blooded murder?

Leaking the Pentagon Papers was the former. The massacre at My Lai was the latter.

Delivering classified materials to Wikileaks was the former. Killing unarmed Afghan civilians and staging the murder scene to make the killings appear "justifiable" was the latter.

Reasonable people can certainly argue about whether Daniel Ellsberg's leaking the Pentagon Papers or Bradley Manning's leaking diplomatic cables was justifiable as a moral duty or contemptible as a breach of national security. However, it would be an extraordinary stretch to argue that these leaks constitute a greater crime than premeditated murder of unarmed civilians in a war zone.

Thought for the Day

"The fact that HAMP was an embarrassment appears to have led to the bizarre conclusion that the remedy is better modification theater."
- Naked Capitalism

Friday, March 25, 2011

Saying you won't rubber-stamp something is not taking a stand

Gotta love the headline of this article in TG Daily: "FCC takes stand on T-Mobile, AT&T merger."

If you actually read the article, the Wall Street Journal apparently quotes an unnamed FCC official as saying, "There's no way the [FCC] chairman's office rubber-stamps this transaction. It will be a steep climb to say the least."

Dude. When did a regulatory agency refusing to rubber-stamp something become "taking a stand"? If this doesn't perfectly encapsulate the obsequious reverence that we've come to expect from most top federal regulators towards big business, I don't know what does.

Thought for the Day

"I don't believe in one-way streets - not between people and not while I'm driving."
- Tracy Jordan, 30 Rock

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Thought for the Day

"Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you are is that you very often succeed."
- C.S. Lewis, The Magician's Nephew

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Worse than no clothes: the Texas Medical Board has no teeth

In case you thought the Texas Medical Board existed largely to protect patients from bad doctors, I recommend that you read this article in the Texas Observer about Dr. Rolando Arafiles, his alleged acts of malpractice in Winkler County in West Texas, and the ensuing campaign of intimidation against the nurses who reported him. (Dr. Arafiles's status as a "public figure" may be subject to debate, so I'm throwing the word "alleged." However, I find the allegations of malpractice to be wholly credible, albeit astounding.)

When I use the term "malpractice," I'm not blowing smoke. The guy is accused of, among many other things, having "sutured part of a rubber tip removed from suture kit scissors to the wound on Patient A’s right thumb." You can read more about his numerous poor medical decisions in the complaint filed by the staff of the Texas Medical Board. It's bad. Really, really bad.

Thought for the Day

One thing that even the dim bulbs in the media should understand by now is that there is in fact a class war going on, and it is the rich and powerful who are waging it."
 - John Cole

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Thought for the Day

"War in Libya is justifiable only if we are going to hold compliant dictators to the same standard we set for defiant ones. If not, then please spare us all the homilies about universal rights and freedoms. We’ll know this isn’t about justice, it’s about power."
- Eugene Robinson

Monday, March 21, 2011

Here we go again

So, back on March 8th, I posted my thoughts about why implementing a "no-fly zone" in Libya would not be a good idea. The U.S. government proceeded to promptly ignore my advice. (Apparently, I am not one of our lizard overlords. Damn.)

I don't take much consolation from the fact that the U.S. is at least doing this in support of a U.N. resolution, rather than unilaterally. Yes, the Arab League initially favored a no-fly zone for Libya (although not, as the Foreign Policy Journal notes, for Yemen or Bahrain); but, predictably, that support has withered now that the reality has set in of what it actually means to enforce a no-fly zone. And, as far as I know, Arab League nations have not made any arrangements to help defray the costs of a no-fly zone in Libya. (For once, Dick Lugar and I agree on something.)

Thought for the Day

"Freedom and democracy are what we talk about. Values are what we do."
 - Tom Scocca

Monday, March 14, 2011

Resources about the crisis in Japan

If you have friends or family in Japan, Google has a crisis center with a person finder, shelter resident lists, and more. You can donate to the Japanese Red Cross through Google's page, or to the American Red Cross at RedCross.org.


Here are some useful links for keeping up with the news out of Japan:
For more background on nuclear reactors:
New content on this blog may be spotty for the next few days, but I'll try to at least check in and post a few links every day.

ETA: Things are taking a turn for the worse.

ETA 3/14/11 11pm CDT: A decent USA Today update.  Kyodo News Headlines says that small amounts of radioactive substances have been detected in Tokyo, but doesn't have an accompanying article at this time.

ETA 3/15/11 8:30 am CDT: This is bad. Scroll down to the paragraph with the IAEA update. According to AFP, the disaster has now been upgraded to a 6 on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

A summary of more-or-less current statistics about the disaster by the Telegraph.

ETA 3/15/11 9:45 am CDT: Good update from the NY Times. One piece of encouraging news: the most recent radiation levels reported from outside the plant have fallen off from their highest levels.

ETA 3/16/11 10:35 pm CDT: A bleak update from the NY Times.

    Thought for the Day

    "The tapestry of circumstance is intricate and dense."
    - Wislawa Szymborska

    Sunday, March 13, 2011

    This is what democracy looks like

    Let me start by saying that I'm not a big fan of unions as they often exist in practice. Too often unions are focused on extracting dues from members and ensuring jobs for every worker who pays up for membership, regardless of the worker's actual competence and effort on the job. As someone who has worked in a government office in the past, I think that a culture in which poor performers have job security sows the seeds of waste and dysfunction, and frequently chases off the best employees, who see better-compensated job opportunities elsewhere that actually reward merit. (Of course, we manage to have this problem in Texas without collective bargaining for public employees.) And unions often end up supporting a non-merit-based culture to curry support from the bottom 50% of performers, rather than focusing on promoting fair treatment, fair wages, humane leave policies, and good healthcare.

    That said, I also believe that the existence of unions is responsible for many of the benefits enjoyed by most full-time employees in the United States: the weekend, paid time off, a 40-hour standard work week, healthcare benefits, a minimum wage, and family and medical leave. (Not including overtime here, because so-called "exempt" employees - basically, most people on a salary - don't receive it.)

    Thought for the Day

    "It's all arranged. And all for your own good. We'll be able, with the money you earn, to make Narnia a country worth living in. There'll be oranges and bananas pouring in -- and roads and big cities and schools and offices and whips and muzzles and saddles and cages and kennels and prisons -- Oh, everything. ... Now don't you start arguing, for it's a thing I won't stand. I'm a Man: you're only a fat, stupid old Bear. What do you know about freedom? You think freedom means doing what you like. Well, you're wrong. That isn't true freedom. True freedom means doing what I tell you."

    - Shift the Ape, The Last Battle

    P.J. Crowley forced out at State Department

    @PJCrowley has "abruptly resigned" from the State Department. That is, he was forced out due to commenting honestly about the treatment of Bradley Manning in detention at Quantico.

    This is a sad day for the United States. P.J. Crowley is clearly someone who cares about what is right more than he cares about advancing his own career. We need more of these people in the highest levels of government, not fewer.

    Saturday, March 12, 2011

    Thought for the Day

    “The problem is that some of the people are sold by money and they go against their own people. I am sure people are watching and I may be, like, dead or something, but I shouldn’t lie at this point, because there are a lot of lives at stake.”
     - 14-year-old schoolgirl speaking to NYT reporter in Tripoli

    Friday, March 11, 2011

    On the Lighter Side

    After all the sad and terrifying news coming out of Japan, I think it's time for some cheerier content this Friday. I hope some of these links will bring a smile to your face, at least for a little while:

    The Muppets Alignment Chart (Funnier if you enjoy RPGs.)

    Maru, the box-loving Scottish Fold cat who lives in Japan, is OK. (Hint: watch the videos.)

    A movie review from Cracked.com that made me laugh until I cried. (I swear this movie actually exists.)

    A TV movie review from Go Fug Yourself that made me laugh until I cried. (I'm a sucker for any post that manages to work in a mention of the Piggly Wiggly grocery store chain.)

    Actual legal case names. (If you can read these without laughing, you're made of sterner stuff than I am.)

    Thought for the Day

    "Drinking keeps me warm and approachable."
     - Arthur Wells, Better Off Ted

    Thursday, March 10, 2011

    The Martyrs of Chihuahua

    The Texas Observer has an article which does a much better job than anything else I've seen of explaining why Marisol Valles (who is 21 years old and has a small child) felt she had to step down as the police chief of Praxedis G. Guerrero for her safety and the safety of her family. Read what is happening to these women in Chihuahua as they try to overcome corruption and reclaim their country. Their bravery is inspiring, but what is happening to them is heartbreaking.

    Do Zombie Banks Eat Brains?

    Naked Capitalism has an excellent article on the term sheet proposed by the states' attorneys general and federal regulators for settlement with the national mortgage lenders over allegations of loan servicing abuses, illegal foreclosures, etc. Naked Capitalism's contention is that the motivation for the push to get this deal finalized, without taking time for further in-depth investigation of fraudulent practices, is that a more thorough examination of the lenders' liabilities for fraudulent actions would demonstrate that their actual financial position is far more precarious than it has been portrayed by Timothy Geithner and company.

    Radicalization

    I've been avoiding writing about the Congressional hearings on "extent of radicalization" in the U.S. Muslim community because the whole thing makes me so mad I want to spit, and it's difficult for me to write about it with a semblance of rationality. But I'm going to do my best.

    Do I think there are some Muslims in the U.S. who have developed radical views, who may be egged on by religious or social leaders who advocate or condone violence? Sure. I also think that there are some white supremacists, Christian fundamentalists, Tea Partiers, and conspiracy theorists (from both the far left and far right wings) who are susceptible to being egged on by religious and social leaders who advocate or condone violence.

    You know what I DON'T think? That everyone who plasters a Confederate flag on their car, wears a cross around their neck, advocates abolishing the income tax, or believes that 9/11 was an inside job is a threat to my or my country's safety and well-being. And I don't think that people are automatically suspect as any kind of threat to me or my country because they choose to practice Islam, either.

    Thought for the Day

    "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress."
    - Frederick Douglass

    Wednesday, March 9, 2011

    Bad Astronomy's top 14 astronomy pictures of 2010

    Make yourself feel better with a little beauty.

    I'm serious. You really need to see these.

    Take down that takedown notice right now, you whippersnappers!

    This is so meta that I can hardly stand it: apparently 20th Century Fox sent a DMCA takedown request to Google... to tell Google to remove links to the pages at ChillingEffects.org which show the original takedown notice that lists the links to the content Fox wanted taken down.

    I need to go lie down now.

    Read the story at Techdirt.

    I do not think that "respect for civil rights and civil liberties" means what you think it means

    When a federal agency (in this case, the Department of Homeland Security) conducts an internal investigation to determine whether the civil rights of U.S. citizens were violated by improper surveillance, how can such an investigation possibly be meaningful if no detailed accounting of its findings is ever produced? If a tree falls in the forest but everyone who could hear it has been kept outside the forest's perimeter, did it make a sound?

    In this case, DHS's Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (OCRCL) responded to a complaint by the ACLU by conducting an investigation of whether the DHS acted improperly by engaging in domestic intelligence collection on non-violent protest groups which espoused policies critical of the U.S. government (particularly with regards to the Iraq war).

    Promises, Promises

    More and more, I regret voting for Barack Obama and making a campaign contribution to him in the last Democratic presidential primary. During his presidential campaign, Obama talked up a meaningful commitment to civil liberties, human rights, and transparency in government. His campaign stance as a defender of of these core principles has been utterly belied by his actions since taking office. The main changes I've seen under Obama have been (1) the passage of healthcare reform, which was turned into a giant giveaway for the insurance companies; and (2) the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" - laudable, but hardly the same as actively pursuing equal rights for LGBT individuals in all walks of life. [Edited to add: I had my civil liberties hat on and forgot all about bailing out the crooks on Wall Street! Yup, he did some of that too. Although I guess that doesn't really constitute a change.] Attempting to enumerate Obama's broken promises here would take so long as to undermine my goal of posting some original content each day, so I'm going to confine myself to one broken promise today: Obama's failure to shut down the United States' disgraceful extralegal prison in Guantanamo.

    Thought for the Day

    "The prize, however, must surely go to the unknown soul who started 'A Company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is.'"
    - Burton G. Malkiel

    Tuesday, March 8, 2011

    The real cost of developing new drugs...

    ...and why it's lower than you might think.

    The Make-Believe Billion

    The study that Slate bases this article around seems credible and well-researched. It was published in BioSocieties, a peer-reviewed publication of the London School of Economics.

    A whole new meaning for "Drive-By Truckers"

    GPS chaos: How a $30 box can jam your life

    Good article from the New Scientist about how GPS is woven into many critical aspects of daily life, and the havoc that can result when GPS signals are jammed or spoofed.

    Forget about bomb scares shutting down airports: apparently one trucker with a portable jammer is all it takes to disrupt air traffic control.

    Thanks to @pleenok for the link.

    You cannot wage democracy

    You cannot wage democracy. You cannot rain it down from above as some kind of payload carried by missiles and bombs. When a country's people want democracy, they must bring it about from within. The heavy lifting must be done by the citizens who will ultimately vote within and administer the democracy itself.

    Instituting democratic reforms in an authoritarian system generally involves the removal of leaders who believe that they will be stripped of their wealth, power, privileges, and/or continued physical existence if they step down. Naturally, these leaders tend not to go gently into the night, and casualties among would-be reformers are to be expected. The more objectionable the despotic regime, the more atrocities are to be expected as it fights against its demise.

    The fact that deaths, torture, and atrocities are the common currency of dying dictatorships does not make them in any sense morally acceptable.