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  • Finally The End of Overdraft Rape?

    Posted on May 2nd, 2008 Brian No comments

    I hate debit cards. With a passion. Your money is in your bank account for less time, thus earning less interest. Also, they don’t come with the same level of consumer protection and fraud liability as the good old-fashioned credit card. To boot, they are a huge money-making scheme for the banks. Their popularity has been artificially inflated with clever marketing campaigns that tout their one supposed upside: You can’t spend more than you have in your account.

    Except it’s bullshit. If you’re a smart person, you keep as little money in your checking account as possible, since it bears little or no interest. Unfortunately, with debit cards, it’s really easy to lost track of how much you should keep in your account. So you drain your account – but instead of your card being denied, the bank “helpfully” transfers money from your savings account, under the guise of “overdraft protection”. And they charge your a huge fee – like $20. So your morning latte just cost you $23.57! Great!

    Now, of course, they have to notify you of your overdraft. But what notification scheme do they choose? Oh, right, the United States Postal Service. They send you a letter, telling you that you’ve just overdrawn your account, and that they’ve taken their fee, and you should really transfer some more money into your account. But, being the postal service, the letter doesn’t get there for three days; and, as a normal American, you buy a lot more stuff during that three days of ignorance.

    You buy lunch: $7. Overdraft. Another $20 fee.
    You pop in for a beer at the pub: $4.50. Overdraft. Another $20 fee.
    You swing by the store for a gallon of milk: $2.69. Overdraft. Another $20 fee.
    And so on – for three more days!

    The end result? A little screw-up turns into hundreds of dollars in bank fees and a dozen letters in your mailbox. Oh, did I mention they won’t let you opt-out of this service? Hot damn those banks sure are helpful!

    Hopefully, it’s about to change. Buried near the end of this NYT article on impending changes to credit card regulation is this tiny little gem:

    The proposal also seeks to regulate overdraft protection, banning companies from assessing a fee unless the customer chooses not to opt out of that service.

    One can only hope.

  • Suicide Rates Among Veterans

    Posted on March 17th, 2008 Brian No comments

    Matt over at Machination wrote a little blurb on veteran suicide rates. I was immediately suspicious as to whether the statistic of 6,256 suicides in 2005 was actually meaningful, or whether it was just an attempt to play shock-the-public. Suicide is much more common than people generally realize. More people commit suicide every year than are murdered. (And if that isn’t an indication of how screwed up civilization is, I don’t know what is. But I digress.)

    Let’s take a few minutes with Google and a calculator: First, let’s pull the national suicide rate for 2005: 89.4 suicides per day. If there were 6,256 veteran suicides in 2005, then that means there was 17.1 suicides per day among that group. Divide that by 89.4 suicides per day for the general population, and it turns out that 19.2% of the suicides every day are by people formerly serving in the military. Good to know. Now, is that actually significant?

    If all other things are equal, then we would expect veterans to commit suicide at a rate proportional to their representation in the population. So let’s get the total U.S. population of veterans: 26,403,703 people. That means veterans make up about 9.3% of the U.S. population.

    And there you have it: Veterans make up 9.3% of the population, but make up 19.2% of the suicides. The evidence suggests that veterans really are more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

    Unfortunately, the only good numbers for the number of veterans are from the 2000 census, so we could be a bit off on our percentages; but it seems doubtful that the percentages changed enough from 2000 to 2005 to skew the results significantly. Also, it should be pointed out that the number of suicides per day reported above was only for 45 states. Since our other statistics are for the entire population, that means that unless the other five states had zero veteran suicides in 2005, then the percentage of suicides for veterans is actually greater than reported. So the problem is even worse than the numbers here show.

    It looks like the numbers from CBS check out. It’s nice to see reporters checking their facts now and then. Good job!

  • Huge New Target Opens – We Won’t Be Shopping

    Posted on March 6th, 2008 Brian No comments

    The new Target store is open, and it seems everyone is excited about shopping there. It’s undoubtedly good news for the neighborhood, and good news for the District, but unfortunately it’s not good news for Hedda and I. We won’t be shopping there.

    See, we’ve been personally boycotting Target for several years, since learning that they tolerate pharmacists who refuse to fill prescriptions for the morning-after pill. It’s a hard boycott for us, because we both really like the store, their merchandise, and their prices. But as long as Target values the personal and arbitrary religious beliefs of an employee more than the professional medical opinion of a board-certified physician, then they won’t see a dime from us.

  • Waterboarding in the Press – 106 Years Ago

    Posted on February 21st, 2008 Brian No comments

    The current debate over the use of waterboarding seems new and fresh and relevant. But if working on a digital archive of historical newspapers has taught me anything, it’s that we’ve pretty much already done everything.

    I’d never thought to search for waterboarding in Chronicling America, but the post on boingboing this morning led me to do a search for water cure, with some fascinating results.

    1902 WaterboardingIt turns out that practice was just as fraught with controversy then as it was now. It prompted a Congressional investigation, and the court-martial of a general (although he was acquitted).

    It was even used as a discipline tool in a Kansas mental hospital! The article states that the torture was used on patients who failed to follow the orders of the institution’s head, Miss Houston, who administered the punishment herself. The practice ceased when Miss Houston was replaced as head of the hospital by the ostensibly more gentle Miss Gower. She merely had the problem patients “strapped to a bench and whipped.”

  • Convergent Evolution of Terrorist Tactics

    Posted on November 13th, 2007 Brian No comments

    Over at Wired, there’s a great little editorial on one player’s discovery of so-called terrorist tactics in Halo 3.

    Whenever I find myself under attack by a wildly superior player, I stop trying to duck and avoid their fire. Instead, I turn around and run straight at them. I know that by doing so, I’m only making it easier for them to shoot me — and thus I’m marching straight into the jaws of death. Indeed, I can usually see my health meter rapidly shrinking to zero.

    But at the last second, before I die, I’ll whip out a sticky plasma grenade — and throw it at them. Because I’ve run up so close, I almost always hit my opponent successfully. I’ll die — but he’ll die too, a few seconds later when the grenade goes off. (When you pull off the trick, the game pops up a little dialog box noting that you killed someone “from beyond the grave.”)


    The structure of Xbox Live creates a world composed of two classes — haves and have-nots. And, just as in the real world, some of the disgruntled have-nots are all too willing to toss their lives away — just for the satisfaction of momentarily halting the progress of the haves. Since the game instantly resurrects me, I have no real dread of death in Halo 3.

    Terrorism is a military tactic – a tactic of last resort. We decry the tactic as shameful and unfair, but we continually fail to realize that it is a rational tactic for combatants with nothing to lose, fighting a lopsided conflict they cannot hope to win. It is a tactic we cannot defeat by invading any place for any reason (real or imagined), because it is born of the inequalities inherent in civilization. Despite its apparent general ineffectiveness as a tactic, terrorism will continue to re-evolve because a chance at minor success is a better option than no chance at success.

    Faced with such a hopeless situation, what would you do? As the gamer above demonstrates, each of us are not as far removed from such tactics as we’d like to think.

  • A Wooden Nickel for the Media

    Posted on November 9th, 2007 Brian No comments

    So, I guess there’s something going on about whether or not Clinton’s campaign left a tip after dining at a restaurant in Iowa? Whatever. Who the fuck cares? I guess the news media.

    Buried at the end of technology article, about Clinton’s new instant-media-response web site, is this great little gem:

    “You people are really nuts,” [the waitress] told a reporter during a phone interview. “There’s kids dying in the war, the price of oil right now — there’s better things in this world to be thinking about than who served Hillary Clinton at Maid-Rite and who got a tip and who didn’t get a tip.”

    Amen, sister.

  • Freezing Spam-Pumped Stocks Maybe Not Such a Good Idea

    Posted on March 9th, 2007 Brian No comments

    You've got mail!You’ve seen the spam. It’s some of the most insidious, and some of the most profitable. Con artists blast emails around the world touting a “hot tip” on some worthless stock that they’ve purchased. The laws of probability mean that some idiots out there will fall for the scam and buy the stock. After the price has been run up sufficiently, they dump the stock. The scammer makes a tidy profit, and the dummy is stuck with a worthless stock. There’s a sucker born every minute.

    Now, the SEC is looking to take the incentive out of the practice by freezing trading on stocks targeted by such spam. It’s being hailed as a brilliant move across the Intertubes. Most notable is Google’s very public endorsement of the plan. If the SEC starts cracking down on these scams, then maybe they’ll stop spamming!

    Stop a minute, though, and take a step back from the seething rage you feel for the crap in your inbox. There are a couple of negatives to this plan that deserve scrutiny.

    First, the SEC is making themselves inadvertent accomplices to blackmail. If the SEC consistently shuts down trading on spammed companies’ stocks, then it is only a matter of time before spammers extort honest companies under threat of falling beneath the SEC’s hammer. Remember: These scams usually involve small companies which are not traded on major exchanges. These little guys are probably not in a position to fight the SEC, and may very well pony up to avoid further damage to their company. At least in the current scenario, the sucker is the one losing out. With the new scheme, it becomes possible to zero in on a helpless target.

    You've got more mail!Second, in response to the SEC’s move, it seems quite likely the spammers will execute a classic risk-distribution strategy: diversify, diversify, diversify. Spam is ridiculously easy to send out, and just as inexpensive. The criminals here can easily spread their penny holdings around much more than they already are, and then spam a much broader range of companies. In theory, they could pump a thousand companies’ stocks one week, and target another thousand the next. The SEC cannot hope to keep up with a flood of that kind, and the companies and markets won’t bear that type of interference for long.

    In short, this entire idea is destined for failure. We’ve known for a long time that the solution to spam is simple economics. If you remove the profitable endpoint from the scenario, the spam will stop. Unfortunately, it’s impossible remove the profit from stock pump spams. We’ll have to find another way.

    (Photos modified from the originals (Mail and we’ve got mail) by GoldenEel and anna banana, respectively; used and redistributed under a CC BY 2.0 license and a CC BY-SA license, respectively.)

  • Emperor Daley Continues His Reign

    Posted on February 28th, 2007 Brian No comments

    Richard Daley wins again. Not that anybody is surprised, but it is noteworthy that he will have run the city for longer than his father when he completes this term. Yes, that’s right: A father and son combined have held Chicago’s top executive slot for almost half a century.

    As a Chicago-area native, as one who lived in the city for several years, as one who holds it near-and-dear to his heart, it is easy to compare Chicago and DC.

    Both cities are undeniably corrupt, but the differences in execution and approval, are remarkable. It is a commonly-known fact in Chicago that a little grease helps move the skids when the broad shoulders get down to work. People understand it, and they look the other way unless there are clear problems to safety, health, or community. The city Just Works, and the minor corruption greasing the skids is accepted because of it. In DC, corruption is seen as rampant, and attempts to root it out have entrenched it only further. The city doesn’t work, and the blame is pointed squarely at the malfeasance of the public servant.

    Both cities feature scandal-ridden dynasties of public servants. Daley was beset with hiring scandals, fundraising scandals, and a myriad of other minor Machine accusations. But in the meantime, Chicago has been transformed from rust, crime, and grime into a shining jewel. Mr. Barry was set up for a cocain sting by a hooker, imprisoned, and elected to the city council. The city still suffers from many of the same crime and class problems it did twenty years ago, despite the major re-awakening of many areas of the city.

    Both cities have floundering school systems. This just seems to be a major problem for everybody. 🙂

  • I Hope You Voted for What You Wanted

    Posted on November 10th, 2006 Brian No comments

    I am seeing a lot of exuberant posts from Democrats, or more often from anti-Republicans, around the blogotubes. After they’ve finished dancing, I hope they hold accountable the party for which they so eagerly cast their votes. Don’t forget, this is the party that ran people on a “Peace Candidate” platform who voted in favor of the war almost consistently. You’ve put these people in office, and if they turn out to be jokers, I am holding you accountable.

    The problem is this: Thud says:

    So here’s the choice as I see it: Admit that the Democrats had an agenda that appealed to voters more than the Republican agenda. Or admit that the Gop [sic] candidates are so atrocious even the independents were willing – no, eager – to vote for the proverbial yellow dog.

    I cannot admit to the first, since their agenda hasn’t changed in twelve years, and neither has the electorate. The situation has changed, but even in that the supporters seem to be covering their ears and humming as to the actual agenda the Democrats as a party are espousing. In fact, the Democratic leadership have even been saying publicly to not expect much change in Iraq and that impeachment is off the table. They have no plan for universal health care beyond what has failed for the last century. They have no plan to address the widening disparity in income beyond what has failed for the last century. The list goes on and on.

    I cannot admit to the second choice, either. If this were truly a case of Yellow Dogism, there would have been a viable independent choice from who they would be defecting. In our political arena, they are hamstrung into choosing between Red or Blue, Democrat or Republican, Evil or Less Evil. They didn’t run from Independent Politics, they ran from Republicans to Democrats.

    I choose the (like our political system) unmentioned third choice: I admit that the Republicans really are that bad. It is quickly forgotten, however, that the Democrats aren’t much better. Despite the debacles of their reign, almost half the country still thinks so, or the Democrats would have completely swept the Republicans from office. And what about the massive percentage of people who simply didn’t vote? What is their perception of the current system?

    I see the Independents, as well as a huge-but-unknowable number of Democrats and Republicans, swaying back and forth because they are too afraid to try something new. They are too afraid to vote for what they want, rather than against what they don’t want. The problem is, when you vote against what you don’t want, the chances of getting what you want go down dramatically.

    An illustration is in order. Let’s pretend we’re voting for fruit: Orange, Strawberries, Grapes, Apples, Apple Cores, and Pears. Okay, so an Apple Core isn’t exactly a fruit, but I ran out of clip art.

    Which fruit do you pick?

    So let’s put down some demographics: The people who really like Apples (in blue) despise Apple Cores, and the Apple Core lovers (in red) hate Apples. There is another, larger, group who really prefers Strawberries (in green), but they tend to dislike Apples and Cores rather evenly. When it comes time to vote, the Apple-leaning Strawberry-lovers are told that if they actually vote for Strawberries, they’ll be forced to eat Apple Cores! And the Core-leaning Strawberry-lovers are told the same thing, except that in their case they’d be forced to eat icky Apples!

    So they split down the middle, but when they do that, the constant fighting and pulling between the Apple-lovers and the Core-lovers ends up pulling everybody down to Pears. Nobody even really likes pears – they’re just so tough to eat! – but at least they don’t have to eat Apples or Cores.

    Nobody likes Pears, but that's what we get.

    But what if the Strawberry-lovers realized that, in reality, they were the majority? What if they realized that, if they really wanted Strawberries and all worked together, they would get Strawberries? Not only do they get to eat Strawberries, but suddenly the possibility of getting the fruit one really likes opens up the door to all of the people who had stopped voting because they never thought it possible they could get what they wanted! Now, the silent minority for Oranges and Grapes come out of the woodwork, hoping and now given a realistic chance to convince people that Grapes and Oranges really are the best fruit. Even the few people who like those tough-to-eat Pears start participating. Everyone who wasn’t an Apple- or Core-lover before suddenly sees their ranks swell, as the finally have the fair chance to get their fruit.

    The majority gets what the want.

    The moral of the story should be clear.

  • Election Results

    Posted on November 9th, 2006 Brian No comments

    Election day is over, and so is the recovery. Kevin Zeese lost in Maryland by a substantial margin, garnering roughly 1½% of the vote. It was sad to see so much effort by people who really care about radical politics come to such a conclusion. However, as he says in his election night talk, this is the beginning of something.

    This candidacy was all but perfect: The policies were right, the candidate was impeccable, the two major parties were both polling abysmally low, and three other parties all rallied to a single flag. The high point was when Kevin smashed open the debates, drawing cheers from all comers regardless of their partisan ties. So if the stars were so aligned, why was his ass handed to him?

    The machine of our politics is rigged against him. Fair coverage in the media was all but non-existent. For example, that first debate, the one that he won? The Post cut him out of the front-page picture and didn’t mention him until the seventh paragraph. Anecdotes like this abound from my wife’s campaign trail, resulting in a laughable affair in which the media forced the discussion onto puppies and skin color, while the candidate who was talking about real tax reform and real pullout from Iraq and real campaign finance reform was ignored.

    The Washington Post is Yellow to the core.To that end, I have lost almost all respect for the Washington Post as an organization of journalistic integrity. I know what the story was, and I could see what they printed. Do they always omit salient facts so blatantly, or only when they have an agenda? Do they ever not have an agenda? How can we know? To paraphrase a former colleague of mine: At least in the era of Yellow Journalism, you knew that everybody was bought and paid for, and by whom.

    At the very least, some of the workings of the so-called machine have been exposed or inferred. That can be used to advantage in coming years. And even 1½% is almost 25,000 people. That’s 25,000 people who not only heard the message and agree, but who had the courage to stand up and dismiss the fear mongering and mere rhetoric of the major parties. If each of them were to give a mere $10 in the next election….

    Of course, who knows whether the votes were even counted correctly?