Wednesday, January 16, 2008

pardon the mess while we remodel.

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.

playing SEALs and robbers.

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

eight months later.

Lyra is eight months old today.

In just 240 days, we went from this:

Lyra, Day One

to this.

Lyra Christmas 2007

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". 

fly your geek flag.

Without consulting Google or Wikipedia, tell us one of the claims to fame of Mr. Ron Obvious from Neaps End.

the hilarity of violence.


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

by popular request.

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

question for fellow keyboard jockeys.

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.)