This theme is a placeholder until I have the time to fire up Ye Olde Photoshoppe and whip up some new graphics for a new look.
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
These days, when you see a picture of a guy in fatigues, carrying an automatic rifle, a pistol in a thigh rig, and doorkicker boots, you usually have to look at the caption of the photograph to tell whether it depicts a member of the U.S. Army's Stryker Brigade on patrol in Baghdad, or a member of the Chattanooga PD SWAT team preparing for a "dynamic" no-knock entry at an American residence.
Now, I don't have a problem with police officers. I know, and respect, many of them, and the profession as a whole is full of decent people who get lousy-to-unspectacular paychecks for dealing with the dregs of society every day.
That said, I am very concerned about the direction into which law enforcement is drifting, especially in the "Special Weapons and Tactics" branch. Don't get me wrong--I don't have a problem with the concept of SWAT. These are the guys that cops call when things go sour, and I am convinced that there's a proper place and purpose for SWAT teams.
The problem here is threefold, however. It concerns the utilization of SWAT teams, their use as budget enhancers, and their mindset.
Utilization is a big issue. Originally, SWAT was established and used only for the hard cases--terrorism, barricaded suspects, and the like. Then the War on Drugs expanded in scope, and then someone in Congress had the genius idea that you can just pad the operational budget of your expensive SWAT team and police department in general by charging property with crimes, because that way you don't have to go through that pesky "due process" business. Find a bag of pot in a car, seize the pot and the car, and auction off the car without even having to charge the owner of the car with a crime. Later on, that concept (called "asset forfeiture") was expanded to encompass anything that might be remotely drug-related, to the point where police can (and routinely do) seize cash from people if they have reason to believe that it was used in drug transactions. The standard of suspicion has predictably decreased to where they seize the cash merely because it's a large enough amount, because why would you have so much cash on you if you're not slinging dime bags at the middle school? Oh, and the burden of proof is reversed, too--instead of the state having to prove that the money was obtained through illicit activity, you're the one who has to prove that it wasn't.
Now, a SWAT team is an expensive budget item. You have highly trained police officers who are issued very expensive equipment. You have to pay the salaries of the officers involved, and their continued training, and in return you get a SWAT team that may find utilization once a week, month, or year, depending on the size of your city and its crime culture.
Naturally, the folks who count the beans and set the policies came up with two ways to make the budget item marked "SWAT" look better on the annual budget request. First, they started utilizing SWAT for jobs other than high-risk situations involving armed subjects. (Not much of a stretch, they said, because when you serve a warrant, you have to assume that the folks inside are armed, anyway.) So now you have SWAT teams serving warrants, too, and they serve them as a SWAT team does, with all the gear and fanfare, lest the chief has to justify just why he needed the money for all the kit if it just gets left at the station every time the boys go out.
Next comes the use of SWAT as a budget enhancer. The War on Drugs is largely about money at this point. What drug cop wants to see an end to it if he'd not only be out of a job (what interest does the DEA have in actually winning the War on Drugs?), but also deprived of a steady source of revenue for the department? You see, under asset forfeiture rules, not only can they seize grandma's house if they find grandson's pot plant under growing lamps in the basement, but they also get a kickback--a portion of the seized assets flow back to the agency which made the arrest and seizure. It has gotten to the point where you have entire departments that are financed solely by asset forfeiture funds--they don't have an annual budget anymore, but rather get their entire annual operating budget from seized money.
Now, every time you tie a financial incentive to the enforcement of a law, it's bad policy. It encourages the enforcers to cast the net as widely as possible. For the police department, it's a no-lose scenario--they get the money to run their shop, and they look good if their arrest numbers are high, tangible and financial proof that they're doing their jobs. Before too long, the mission is no longer "Protect and Serve", but "Find Me Some Cash". The War on Drugs is the perfect alibi to soothe the conscience of the individual officer when he relieves a moving violator of the four thousand dollars in cash he was carrying around for whatever reason when he got pulled over, and it's the ideal moral justification to toss into the faces of those who dare speak up against the practice. (What, you have a problem with the cops taking ill-gotten drug money from the dealers? Are you some sort of doper yourself?)
The problem, of course, is that the state has a piss-poor record when it comes to confining the use of its shiny new powers to the purpose for which they were intended. (Just do a quick Google search on "RICO abuses".) If you hand a club to a police chief or a Federal agent and tell him that he can only use it against terrorists, mobsters, or drug dealers, he will sooner or later try to expand those definitions to justify nearly unlimited use of that shiny new club. Tie a financial reward to the use of that club, and you accelerate the process exponentially.
Then there's the problem of mindset and perception. Gallons of ink have been spilled on the discussion of what some call "The Militarization of Mayberry". Cops usually take offense to that term, saying that they should be allowed the use of any and all gear that lets them get the job done. However, when you use cops as revenue enhancers, and you tell them they're fighting a war, you end up with a police force that is unsuited for its original job, the impartial enforcement of laws. Then the issue is not the gear (which is indeed necessary for commando-style raids), but the necessity of the job that requires the gear.
When you dress like a soldier, carry the same equipment as a soldier, talk like a soldier, train like a soldier (and in many cases, alongside a soldier), and you're told that you're fighting a war, then sooner or later you'll feel like a soldier, and then you'll start acting like one.
The problem with that is that the mission of the soldier and that of the cop are fundamentally incompatible. The soldier is there to kill the enemy and break his stuff. The cop is there to impartially enforce the law with the least amount of force necessary for the job.
Lastly, there's a psychological aspect to cops that look like stormtroopers. When even the non-criminal element of society raises an eyebrow at the sight of a cop who looks like the soldier of an occupying army, then you have a perception problem. Our boys and girls in Iraq and Afghanistan have learned that you can get the population riled up against you if your bearing and appearance are overly aggressive. They're taught to not kick in doors that don't need kicking, to remove the dust goggles or sunshades before talking to locals (making the eyes invisible depersonalizes an individual), and generally try to avoid losing the goodwill of the populace through moderation of force. Now, if our soldiers have learned the value of even these small measures to avoid alienating a foreign populace, why are so many cops still in denial about the cumulative psychological effect of hundreds of incidents where a SWAT team busted into the wrong place, dragged the wrong folks out of bed with the aid of automatic rifles, flashlights and balaclavas, or shot the wrong people dead?
I don't want my police to look like they're an occupying army. More importantly, I don't want to feel as if they are. I don't want to feel apprehension when I see a cop by the side of the road or in my rear view mirror, even though I have no reason because I have done nothing wrong. In a day and age where so many cops are focused on finding something wrong at any price, whether it's for monetary reasons or simply to save face, and where cops openly refer to non-cops as "civilians", I simply don't trust the motives of the officer underneath those blue lights unconditionally. That's mostly the fault of the politicians who passed the laws which made the officer a creator of criminals and a revenue generator rather than an impartial enforcer, but that is the fallout of the War on Drugs, I'm afraid, and it won't go away while we encourage our police at all levels to wage that war. That's because the War on Drugs is a war against ourselves, and you can't win that one, no matter how hard you try.
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Lyra is eight months old today.
In just 240 days, we went from this:
There are many things that amaze me about these kids every day. For example, I'm constantly amazed at how different Quinn and Lyra are already shaping up to be, now that their personalities are starting to form. From the start, Lyra was a completely different baby. She's more alert and aware than Quinn was at her age, and she uses her hands far more--Quinn never even tried to hold his own bottle even when he was going on a year, and Lyra constantly tries to seize it. She's a frequent and enthusiastic thumb sucker as well, whereas I've never seen Quinn's thumb in his mouth in almost three years. (Yeah, he'll be three on Valentine's Day...time flies.)
Same DNA background, same hospital, same house, same foods, same attention, and even most of the same clothes (hey, we're cheap, and who cares if she's mostly wearing blue?), and they're already totally different kids.
Oh, and all you dads out there who have a leave-the-house kind of daytime job? You're both lucky (for the breaks you get), and unfortunate (for all the firsts you miss), but there's one thing you need to keep in mind. When someone asks you whether your wife works, you need to reply, "Hell yes, she does--she's staying at home with the kid/s."
It's not that parenting is physically or intellectually difficult, but there are two things that make it one of the hardest jobs I've ever done. First, there's all the stuff you need to be able to manage at the same time, and under challenging conditions. (Try to change a kid's poopy diaper while the phone is ringing, and the other kid is doing that non-stop, low-level whining for attention.) Then there's the fact that you're on the job all the time, without much of an opportunity for sanity breaks. There's a constant, low-level stress(with occasional spikes during the day) that has a cumulative sort of effect, and it does chip away at your mental state after a while.
So, get a baby sitter every once in a while, and take your SO out to a dinner that doesn't involve bibs and airplane noises, and they'll stay sane. And for all that is good and proper, don't ever assume your stay-at-home spouse doesn't have a "real job".
My brother gave Quinn a Tom & Jerry DVD for Christmas. The other day, I sat down with him to watch it, and it's a gem. It's a collection of all the original 1940s and 1950s Hanna/Barbera/Quimby cartoons, not the later (crummy) Gene Deitch or Chuck Jones ones. These are the ones that won seven Academy Awards.
There's something utterly hilarious about the over-the-top cartoon violence mostly inflicted on hapless Tom. I hadn't seen any of the Tom and Jerry cartoons in ages, and it occurred to me that the entire series, Academy Awards and all, is not only one of the best animation features of all time (if not the best), but also completely politically incorrect.
What is it about the PC mindset that's so infuriating to me? It's not the intentions of the people perpetuating it. Well, maybe it is--these are the folks who preach that violence is always unacceptable under any circumstances, even in self-defense, and that's why the current generation needs to be shielded from the images of a cartoon cat getting its tail smashed in a waffle iron.
I watched a ton of violent cartoons as a kid. I've watched poor Tom getting his butt handed to him by Jerry many times, and the more outrageously the manner of it, the funnier it was. I've watched Elmer Fudd go full-auto on Bugs many times with that double-barreled shotgun of his, and I can't count the number of times I've laughed at Wile E. Coyote's Acme products backfiring on him. (For someone who's never had a good experience with the product line, he was unreasonably brand-loyal.)
Yet even at six or eight or ten years of age, it never occurred to me to stick my brother's hand into a waffle iron, or throw him head-first into the open fridge. Why is it that I was able to see the cartoon violence in context, and to correctly classify it as caricature, yet the current guardians of youth welfare think that the current generation of kids lacks that ability, and that only complete non-exposure will prevent them from playing Tom to their little baby sibling's Jerry?
Of course, now that I'm a bit older, I recognize a bit of a libertarian bent in the old cartoons. It occurred to me that all the characters on the receiving end of the most gratuitous cartoon violence are almost always the ones who initiated force against their opponents. Jerry wants to be left alone--it's only Tom's initial aggression that triggers the epic onslaught. It's the same with Bugs Bunny, and the Road Runner--the good guys are always minding their own business until the bad guy comes around and tries to eat them, at which point the violence is not only hilarious, but completely justified as well. There's a great educational message here: Don't give an attacker what he wants, give him a hammer in the face.
Of course, that kind of message is equally unacceptable to the PC crowd, isn't it?
Monday, January 14, 2008
Alright, alright...enough with the snark. Here's something other than black-on-white.
Amber on green looks okay in a word processor, but not a web browser. The new background is supposed to be a parchment sort of color, and the ink is red instead of dark blue because it matches the color palette of the header image better.
Wow...I'm talking color palettes and color matching. That's just one step away from taking an interest in interior design, and watching Christopher Lowell, right?Oh, and fflliberty...thanks for suggesting Open Office. I toyed with it a while back when it was just barely 2.0, but I didn't know you could change the text and background colors just like in WordPerfect Mac. I just downloaded the latest version, and it works like a charm. It's also file-compatible with MS Office, and has a nicer full-screen mode to boot. I think I'll use it for a few weeks and get comfortable with it, and if I don't find myself missing any Word features, then I may just toss Office 2007 off the hard drive.
Sunday, January 13, 2008
The office package on this PC is Office 2007, which is all shiny and glitzy. It's very comprehensive, weighs in at 623MB on the hard drive, and sports a new look that makes its predecessors look like relics from the dark ages of computing.
However, there are two things it still cannot do. The first is to remember its cursor position in a previously edited document. When you open a document, it dumps you at the beginning of it by default, and you have to scroll down and insert the cursor in the proper position before you can start typing away. That's a pretty minor grievance, but it's one of those little things that save five seconds every time I open a document.
The other thing is something that only one word processing program has ever managed to incorporate: different colors for text and page background. I'm not talking about differently colored text that prints out as such, but rather text that only shows in your color of preference on screen, yet prints out as regular black-on-white text.
I don't like to look at black text on a white background on backlit screens. It's like watching ants on a light bulb. Word used to let you display white text on a blue background as an alternative, which is an improvement, but it's still not quite the way I want it, and they seem to have dropped that option in Word 2007 anyway.
On my old Macs, I run a 1990s-vintage word processing program called Corel WordPerfect 3.5. It lets you configure any background color and any text color you'd like to see on the screen. To my eyes, amber text on a dark green background looks most relaxing, and that's what I have set in WordPerfect. That color scheme greatly reduces eye strain, and the ability of WordPerfect to let me make all documents appear in that fashion makes it my favorite word processor. I even put up with having to export the document into HTML and then re-import and -format it into Word, which is a bit of a hassle.
Why is it that no other word processor offers this simple feature? Or do any of you know how to make Word do what the long-discontinued Mac version of WordPerfect delivered ten years ago already, and let me specify a text and background color of my choice?
(Yeah, you can change those system-wide through Display Properties > Appearance > Advanced, but then all document windows in all applications change color.)
Friday, January 11, 2008
Quinn woke up this morning at 6AM, crying up a storm. I went to check on him, and he had gotten sick from the seafood lasagna last night, vomiting all over his bed and the floor.
Then he got up to meet me at the door, covered in puke and all, wanting to be comforted. (I challenge anyone to not give your kid a hug when he desperately wants one, even if he does have barf on his jammies.)
So, it was early shower and bubble bath time. Now we might as well stay up, since his sheets are in the wash anyway.
Thursday, January 10, 2008
I drove my brother down to Boston yesterday for his return flight to Germany. It was kind of odd to come back to Boston after ten years--I didn't have any problem at all finding my way around, but some features were definitely not there in 1997. The Mystic River bridge was a new one to me, for example.
Apparently, MA passed some new and (more) draconian gun law that stipulates a mandatory year in jail for anyone caught with an unlicensed pistol there, loaded or unloaded, in your person or in the vehicle. "Unlicensed" means "not accompanied by both a Massachusetts FOID and a home state permit, and not locked in a triple-locked safe at least two zip codes away from its ammunition." They don't recognize NH Pistol Permits, of course.
This may seem a cowardly cop-out from the guy who once wrote an essay called "A Declaration of Civil Disobedience", but we can't currently afford for me to take an unpaid year-long hiatus, so I grudgingly disarmed before driving into MA.
I don't know that the justice system of a state deserves that kind of title when they are perfectly willing to take a year of someone's life for the offense of having the wrong piece of steel in our possession. Then again, all the states have even higher penalties for possessing the botanical equivalent of a bottle of vodka, so we're already a very long way down the slippery slope of victimless crime enforcement. Sadly enough, part of the reason for that is the cheerful consent of people who defend their gun rights tooth and nail, yet don't bat an eyelash when their neighbor gets hauled in and locked up for ten years because he grew some funny tobacco in his basement.
I hate to be a pessimist, but I look at the way things are going, and I have to concur with Tam. A storm is coming, and it's going to catch a lot of folks in the open.
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
Finding the polling place in our new home town was easy...all I had to do was to follow the increasingly thick path of yard signs until I reached the parking lot in the middle of the Great Yard Sign Forest.
The habit of plastering yard signs all over the roads is still somewhat amusing to me. Are there really people who have no clue who they're going to vote for right until they drive to the polling place, and who make a decision based on the signs along the way?
"Okay, I'll just vote for whoever has the most signs up. That's thirty-three for Paul, thirteen for Romney....guess it's Ron Paul today."
Or maybe it's like one of those commercials where they just repeat the name of the place as often as possible so it'll get burned into your memory?
"Huckabee....Huckabee...Huckabee...must vote for Huckabee."
Anyway, voting was (dare I say it?) fun. Very small-towney, with the polling place set up in the top floor of the local library on Main Street. I made my little mark next to Ron Paul's name, for what it's worth. Unless Dr. Paul decides to go independent if he doesn't get the Republican nomination (and let's get realistic--he won't), that'll be the only time I'll get to vote for my candidate this year. Come November, it'll be nose-holding time once more.
Monday, January 7, 2008
We registered to vote a few days after we moved in, so we'll be able to vote in the primary tomorrow. Robin and I are both registered as "Undeclared", which means that we can decide on the day of the primary whether we want to vote in the (R) or (D) primary.
The field on both sides leaves me mostly cold. On the Democrat side of the ballot, we have a power-hungry shrew whose main bribe is the promise of "free" health care for everyone, a Rorschach candidate who has so little substance that his main thing is the voicing of vague generalities so everyone may project what they want onto him. a blow-dried trial lawyer-turned-Marxist, and a handful of nuts.
On the Republican side, we have a RINO from NY who was for gun control before he was against it, an actor who's a lot like the current President except with a deeper voice, a former Mass. governor who apparently believes in the wrong Jesus (or believes in him the wrong way), an authoritarian war hero with a temper problem, and yet another former governor of Arkansas who "doesn't believe in evolution", and who apparently believes in the right Jesus (or believes in him the right way), and a handful of nuts.
I think it's not much of a secret that we'll be voting on the (R) ballot tomorrow, and that our two votes are going to go to the only guy in the race who does more than give lip service to the Constitution, even if that means the majority of the population sorts him in with the handful of nuts. (That would be the Congressman from Texas, Dr. Paul.)
On a side note: something about Mike Huckabee is deeply unsettling to me. Every time I see him, or listen to one of his speeches, he reminds me of Greg Stillson from Stephen King's The Dead Zone--the "aw, shucks" populist who is a raving nutcase underneath the rolled-up sleeves and the winning smile. Maybe it's the "I don't believe in evolution" thing, or the fact that he once told his fellow Baptists that "we need to take this country back for Christ", or the fact that he's supported by the Evangelicals (how'd the last candidate you backed work out for you and the country, folks?), but something about Huckabee definitely rubs me the wrong way.
On yet another side note: does anyone else find it amusing that the conservatives openly wonder whether Romney could be loyal to the U.S. and the Constitution before the Mormon church, or whether Giuliani could be loyal to the U.S. before the Catholic church, or whether Obama isn't really a sleeper Muslim who wants to impose Sharia on all of us...but they don't even think about asking that question when an ordained Baptist minister enters the race--one who's already publically stated he wants to "take the country back for Christ"?
Anyway, I have no illusions about Dr. Paul's chances to become the next President--the message of limited government (and by extension, limited government loot) is highly unpopular, and the country isn't buying what he's selling. But at least we won't have wasted our votes by voting for the lesser of two evils yet again.
Friday, January 4, 2008
Apparently, the "One Laptop Per Child" project is faltering, because Intel just pulled its support.
The article linked has a picture of two little Nigerian kids looking at the OLPC computer, which is being trialled in Nigeria at the moment.
Call me a cynic, but my first thought at seeing the picture was the mental picture of a little eight-year-old Nigerian boy, hunched over that hand-cranked laptop at the kitchen table, and typing furiously:
I am Chief Accountant with the National Oil Nigeria
PLC (N/Oil) and member of 5 MAN Contract Executive
Review Panel (comprising 2 Snr.Staff of CBN and 3
Snr,Staff Of (N/Oil) set up by present Civilian Regime
of President Obasanjo. So far we have come across a
surplus of the sum of US$27M.(Twenty-seven Million
Dollars)which was as a result of deliberate
over-invoicing of certain contracts awarded by
Contract Award Committee of the cooperation..."
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
Driving the sprogs to their new vet, I listened to the radio, and apparently there were a bunch of college football games played just a few days ago. Seems they all go by some variation of "Bowl"--Rose Bowl, Cheetos Bowl, you probably know what I'm talking about.
One of the local radio folks had the idea for an addition to the college football bowls--have one played annually at the football field up here at Dartmouth, and call it the "Hypothermia Bowl".
We got more snow yesterday and the day before that. It seems that this past December was the snowiest on record in NH since 1880-something.
The good news is that keeping the ice and snow off the trouble spot (and a few tubes of silicone on the backed-out roofing screws) seems to have stopped the leakage. If we're still drippage-free by the weekend, Quinn can move back into his room.
After paying the snow plow guy a nice chunk of beer money for his repeated services, we went out to Sears in West Lebanon today. We got a 28" two-stage self-propelled snow blower, and I've been trying it out for the last hour or so. That puppy throws the hell out of some snow, that's for sure. It only slows down when you try to clear more than a foot of packed snow, but on new snow, it roars through a foot of the stuff like it's not even there.
Another nine hundred dollars...but I'm thinking it'll pay for itself after the thirtieth time I clear my own driveway, instead of paying Mr. Plow $30 to do it each time.
Where the frak does it say anywhere in the Constitution that the government has the authority to take money out of my pocket and give it to to other folks to make sure their Teevees don't stop working?
I think as inept as folks working in government usually are, some of them know exactly where to spend the cash to keep the masses quiet and docile. If you shut off the flow of the electronic opium to the lower-income households, the peasants are likely to a.) riot and do other nefarious things outside of the house due to sheer boredom, or b.) actually go to the library, pick up a book, and start forming an opinion that has a more solid foundation than a ten-second newsbite. Neither of those scenarios are terribly comforting to The Authorities.
Tuesday, January 1, 2008
A few days ago, I started a little experiment.
Before we moved to New Hampshire, I sold or gave away most of my small collection of vintage Macintosh systems. The only ones I retained were a Powerbook 3400c (because it's still useful with its built-in CD-ROM and network connection, because I have an entire spare 3400c for parts in case something breaks, and because it'll make a dandy first computer for Quinn), and a Color Classic (because it's cute as a button.)
Now, the Color Classic is an obsolete computer by any standard of the definition. While the Powerbook can run Office 2001, Internet Explorer, and other modern software, the little Color Classic doesn't have the wheaties to cruise the web or serve up YouTube videos. It's an all-in-one akin to the original Macintosh, a small beige box with a floppy drive and a very sharp and crisp 10" Sony color monitor built into the case. The main processor runs at 16 MHz (even cell phones have more powerful CPUs these days), and the system has 10MB RAM and an 80MB hard drive. It runs Mac OS 7.1, and very little else.
When I purchased my Alphasmart Neo, I discovered the benefits of minimalist computing. The Neo only does text--no web browsing, no email, no WiFi, nothing but you and whatever it is you want to commit to paper. In the six months since I bought it, my word count has increased dramatically, because the Neo's One-Trick Pony nature allowed me to concentrate just on my work, without distracting me with Instant Messages or tempting me with games or a Wikipedia safari.
Well, I took another look at the Color Classic, which had been stored in my closet since I got it for free from one of fellow Robin's Ph.D. candidates at UT a few years back. Then I realized that the little Mac might have the same decluttering effect on the creative process, since it couldn't run serve up any modern distractions, either.
So, I dusted it off, replaced a dead PRAM battery that prevented it from booting up (the original half-AA cell had finally run dry after 14 years), and fired the little thing up.
And you know what? There's something liberating about that old technology. You don't get Google or streaming video, but that little Color Classic boots from a cold start to the OS 7 desktop in ten or twelve seconds, and shuts down instantly. I spent a few hours on the Internet looking for a suitable word processor that would let me save my stuff in a format the Windows box would understand (I do my final formatting and printing from Office 2007 on the modern machine), and found one called Nisus Writer that actually fits on a single floppy.
I wasn't expecting too much from Nisus Writer. I mean, how sophisticated can a program be that fits on a floppy disk and takes only 1MB of system memory to run?
Pretty sophisticated, it turns out. Nisus Writer, last updated in the early 1990s, lets me do everything I usually do in MS Word. It has a thesaurus, a spell checker, word count, and all the formatting features I routinely use. It even opens previously edited documents to the precise location where you left off, which is something that Word still hasn't learned even in the 2007 version. In addition, Nisus Writer saves its files in plain text format, which can be copied to a floppy and then opened by Word (or any other word processor) on the XP box without any loss in formatting.
Well, if you use a piece of hardware for a specific purpose only, and it does that job as well as any modern hardware, can you really brand it as "obsolete"?
Now the Color Classic is sitting on my desk as the in-house writing machine. I still use the Neo whenever I go out, or feel the need to move around in the house, but the Color Classic now serves as the screen-and-keyboard version of the Neo. It doesn't take up much space, it looks good on the desk, it's just as useful as any other computer for the limited task of word processing, and it's fun to use. Electronics recycling at its best, no?