Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Stack Fiasco (updated)

By now the name Joseph Stack and the north-west area of Austin, Texas have become a dinner table topic throughout the entire USA (never mind that I live and work within miles of the disaster). I decided to read Mr. Stack's suicide note and listened to a lot of the news coverage and other information about the situation. When I discuss the subjects of unintended consequences and some of the other political and social subjects in this blog, my intent is to heighten awareness of the very situation we saw today. I strongly recommend reading Stack's note and getting a full dose of the news coverage before jumping to any conclusions.

With that, I offer my own analysis.

As I have said repeatedly here, there is always a thread of truth to most crackpot conspiracy theories and Stack's comments are pretty close to being one. Yes, we have problems with how our government is handling the economy and many other things. I think Stack touched on some ideas that require serious thought, such as the government bail-out of various corporations and industries. Why is the U.S. tax code so complex that nobody can understand it? Why do religious groups get any tax breaks in a modern society? But...Is that any reason to burn your house down (leaving your wife and daughter homeless) and flying an airplane into an Austin, Texas office building housing the IRS and other companies? Uhhh...doesn't seem like even the act of a desperate man...more like a, well, crazy, self-centered man...

After a more careful reading of Stack's suicide note, I was trying to pull together his history with the IRS. He begins his history with the following statement:
Some friends introduced me to a group of people who were having 'tax code' readings and discussions. In particular, zeroed in on a section relating to the wonderful "exemptions" that make [religious] institutions [...] so incredibly wealthy. We carefully studied the law (with the help of some of the "best", high-paid, experienced tax lawyers in the business), and then began to do exactly what the "big boys" were doing. [...] We took a great deal of care to make it all visible, following all of the rules, exactly the way the law said it was to be done.

My understanding of this paragraph is that he joined a group of people who were attempting to exploit tax loopholes that he and some friends felt were already being exploited by religious groups and certain corporate interests. Anybody who has half a brain knows that you don't screw with the IRS. When you launch an effort to evade certain taxes by taking advantage of what you feel are loopholes in the system (even to prove a point), you need to be ready and willing to accept that you will be targeted as a tax cheat and to fight the IRS and potentially pay the price for your actions. Yeah, I feel that religious exemptions and some corporate tax shelters are wrong, and it is tempting to make a statement by exploiting them somehow. If you're going to fight like that, you have to be ready to lose. He did.

I really feel bad for the people that Stack left in his wake. To some extent, he accomplished what he wanted: To make people aware of his complaints about the current state of society and our country. What he has no way of knowing now is that only people willing to read what he wrote and give him an ounce of credibility will even give his ideas a passing thought. Those people are probably the same ones who already gave his ideas a passing thought. Everyone else (a majority of the world) will see him as a crackpot, a terrorist, an angry, deranged man with a beef with the IRS, and someone who cared more about his disagreement with the government than his own family. He will create a new reason for our government to encroach on our freedoms, in the name of "safety." Even if he had a legitimate beef with the IRS (I'm not sure it was legitimate), to disrupt the lives of the people he did in the name of shaking things up to effect change has only been counterproductive.

I'm sure that there are those who see me as as a nutjob of sorts, and wonder sometimes when I'm going to crack like Stack did. Let me assure you all that I'm neither a nutjob nor would I ever stoop to these tactics. If I were to crack, I would be more likely to cause harm to myself than to others. Heaven knows there is already too much violence in the world as it is, and we don't need any more. Whether you agree with me or not; whether I am frustrated with the world (I am, sometimes) or not; deep down I care about the world and hope for it to be a better place. I write here, in a public place, hoping that someone will think my ideas have some value, and will pass them along. With time, and some refinements by people much smarter than I am, I suspect that I will have some success in effecting change. I feel this is a heck of a lot more effective and lasting than flying a plane into a building.

Update: Feb 23, 2010 - An equally bad reaction

The family of Vernon Hunter, the only man (aside from Stack) killed in the crash, is filing a wrongful death suit in court against Stack's estate, naming Stack's wife Sheryl as the executor of the estate. Why? To quote a KVUE news story who quoted the attorney (Daniel Ross) representing Hunter's family, "Mr. Hunter had 8 grandchildren at various ages and they simply did not want any of them reading the details of the autopsy." Allegedly they can't keep the results of the autopsy from becoming public without suing Stack's estate.

I'd wager a cold lemonade that at least one of those 8 grandchildren probably watched some film with gore and guts in it, or CSI on CBS.

Seriously folks, aren't we getting just a bit too sensitive here? I really do feel for both Sheryl (as I said above) and for Vernon Hunter's family. I really do. It was a horrible thing and most of us wish it didn't happen. That all said, I really doubt that the autopsy results are going to make this horrible situation any worse than it already is. Those kids will be reminded of this incident from now until they rebuild the Echelon building, since its burned-out carcass sits right off to the side of the highway as a grim reminder to us all. What are we going to do next, put a big white sheet over the building and pretend it never happened? There are already loads of video footage of the crash and the resulting fire out on the Internet and everywhere else. This isn't something you can protect young eyes from seeing.

Sheryl Stack has enough problems right now. Think about it: Her husband burned their house down. Do you think homeowner's insurance is going to pay for this? It's arson, by the owner of the house. Do you think Sheryl is going to get any life insurance money? Her husband killed himself. Life insurance policies don't usually pay for suicides. I bet Sheryl has trouble sleeping at night with the thought that she actually lived with this man, and probably will have trouble trusting any man from here on out...and I can't say I blame her. If I'm speaking out of turn here, and Sheryl doesn't actually feel this way, I apologize, but what I'm trying to say is that she's going through her own version of hell right now that she almost certainly doesn't deserve. Why compound that problem with lawsuits, the only purpose being to prevent the public release of an autopsy? To be frank, the autopsy isn't really even news - what's news is that Vernon was killed by a lunatic. If I were a family member, that fact would be more devastating to me than any autopsy results. Again, I repeat myself, that my heart goes out to Vernon Hunter and his family - seriously. But they have to understand that they are not the only ones going through hard times right now.

Now my second bad reaction: Stack's (step?) daughter's (Samantha Bell) comment about Joseph Stack being a "hero" on Good Morning America. Yes, I know she recanted her statement, but the damage has already been done. I can only hope that the comment was an unintentional slip-up of words by someone still in shock. I've already gone over my objection regarding heroism in my earlier part of this posting. A response by someone saying, "If you don't like the tax laws, contact Congress. That is what the United States is about..." is coming close to being equally bad, though. Understand that there are many people who have been harassed by the IRS (or other agency) over the years. If you think contacting Congress would help, you may want to try it out sometime. While we have a comparatively better government than most countries, there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Finally, it is time we look at this incident in all its ugliness and try to take with it some hard lessons. Right at the top, that there really are people who are frustrated with "the system." Maybe it's time to find out why. The IRS has a particularly nasty reputation. I suspect that they've earned the distinction, in some cases. Maybe our government has been showing a serious lack of fiscal responsibility, and we all need to take a hard look at how there's no such thing as a free lunch. We teach our children that they are entitled to things rather than showing them that things are earned. Violence is presented as entertainment, while any enjoyment of sex is considered taboo. What kind of message does that send to society? Don't people get what they want through violence in stories in movies? This is not the first time that someone has acted in anger against a group of people because of frustration. Unfortunately, it won't be the last either. I put this act in the same category as the bombing in Oklahoma City, the shooting in Columbine, and so forth. All angry people. All people who were frustrated with "the system." All people who thought they were entitled to some sort of retribution. Those who don't act out in violence do so in more "acceptable," but equally destructive, ways. The feeling of "entitlement" is a dangerous thing, and we've become really good at spreading that feeling.

The worst things we can do is to give any justification to Stack's actions and to beat each other up because of what he did. If you're going to react to this, react constructively. Imagine what we could accomplish if, instead of feeling entitled to something, we used our talents to give something back to the world, even if in a small way. That would go a very long way toward preventing this kind of thing from happening in the future, and make the world a better place. Think about it.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

(500) Days Of Mar....Summer

Happy anti-valentines day.

I thought that in celebration of the day that the movie (500) Days of Summer was absolutely appropriate. Yes, it was. Funny that it was exactly what I expected, probably as touching, and bulls-eye on target with the past object of my affection. Perhaps the best line of the movie:
Tom's sister, Rachel: Look, I know you think that she was the one...but I don't. Now I think you're just remembering the good stuff. Next time you look back, I really think you should look again.

Excellent, excellent advice. Too many parallels to mention. If you're in a good relationship and you keep telling your single, depressed friends how they should just keep plugging along and eventually love will happen to them, then you probably won't like this movie much. If you're the one telling those same friends not to compromise their values, their feelings, their core self, and don't be crazy about someone who isn't truly crazy about you too, then you'll see the value of this movie. Finally, three of the funniest lines are at the very beginning, printed on the screen:
AUTHOR'S NOTE: The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

Especially you, Jenny Beckman.

Bitch.

I nearly fell out of my chair when I read that. While not really uplifting, and not particularly educational, the movie was entertaining and insightful and realistic. I was actually waiting for Summer to say, "I'm never going to get married. I just really want to become an international businesswoman, jet-set all over the world, and have men serve me for a change." After which Tom would say, "Well, then it doesn't seem like this relationship has much of a future. Where do you see this all going?" Summer would answer, "Don't worry about it." That is my version of Tom's experience. When you see this movie, look for the equivalent. It will be clear as day. That was the day Tom should have said, "Have a nice life," and I should have as well. Hindsight is always 20/20...

I hate Valentines Day. It sucks, and I'm glad it's almost over.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Chocolate Ice Cream Cake Log

Well, I just got back from the annual chocolate party that the childfree social group holds every year, and for the second year in a row, the chocolate ice cream cake log (photo courtesy of Judy S.) won the "best dish" award. Everyone was interested in the recipe, so to the best of my knowledge, here it is:

This year I stole much of the recipe from (and would like to acknowledge):
http://www.recipes4cakes.com/icecream/chocolate_cake.htm

Step 1: Make a thin cake

Ingredients:
  • 3 Eggs
  • 1 cup Granulated Sugar
  • 3/4 cup Cake Flour (I used all purpose flour and it worked fine)
  • 1/4 cup Cocoa
  • 2 teaspoons Baking Powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon Salt
  • 1 teaspoon Vanilla Extract
  • Pam or something to grease the baking pan with
  • Confectioners' (powdered) sugar
Instructions for cake batter:
  • Preheat oven to 425 degrees
  • Line a greased 15" x 10" x 1" Jellyroll pan with wax paper and grease again. Or, you can do what I did and take an approximately same sized cookie pan and line with parchment paper and spray lightly with Pam.
  • In a mixing bowl, and eggs and beat very lightly. Then add granulated sugar gradually, beating after each addition (or while adding the sugar).
  • Add 1/4 cup cold water to the egg/sugar mixture, and set aside.
  • In another bowl, sift flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt together.
  • Add wet ingredients (egg mixture) to dry ingredients, beating slowly, until combined.
  • Add vanilla extract and mix-in to the batter.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan, spread smooth, and bake for 12-15 minutes until done. Yes, it will look like you hardly have any cake there, but it will rise and you are not looking for it to be really thick anyhow!

When cake is done, sprinkle some powdered sugar on top of the cake, then turn the cake over onto a clean dish towel, remove parchment (or wax) paper, sprinkle other side of cake with powdered sugar, and roll the cake and towel together, forming the log. The reason for the towel is to shape the cake while leaving room for the ice cream and other goodies. It also keeps the cake from sticking to itself, creating an unusable mess.

Allow cake to cool. Don't forget to turn the oven off, if you haven't already (haha).

Step 2: Crunchy Cookie Stuff

Ingredients:
  • 1 box (9 oz) of Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers
  • About 3/4 stick of butter
Using a food processor or handy chopper, grind up about half a box of cookies into largeish/coarse crumbs. Soften the butter in the microwave and combine into the cookie crumbs. The butter prevents the cookies from becoming saturated with liquid and losing their crunch. When you get the cookie crumbs completely combined with the butter, you should have some cookie crumbs that have a bit of stickiness to them.

Some of this will be used to add some crunch in the layers of the log, some of them look/taste great sprinkled on top.

Step 3: Filling the Log

Ingredients:
  • Cake log (from step 1)
  • Half gallon of your favorite chocolate ice cream (my "favorite" this year was Blue Bell Dutch Chocolate)
  • Cookie crumbs (from step 2)
Carefully unroll log. Don't worry too much about cracks in the cake - these will get filled with ice cream and all will be okay. Relax!

You'll want to soften the ice cream a little. I don't recommend doing this in the microwave because it will get too soft, too fast. The easiest way is to put some ice cream in a bowl, and soften it by working it around a little with a large spoon. Once you have the ice cream of a consistency where it will spread, put a thin (1/4 inch) layer of ice cream over the entire cake. Sprinkle the ice cream with some of the cookie crumbs. Then roll the log up (be sure not to roll it with the towel this time), get the log into a dish of some kind, and put it in the freezer.

Take a short break.

Then get some more ice cream in a bowl and soften it like you did before. Get your ice cream cake log out of the freezer, put it in a serving dish (I used a glass baking dish, you can use whatever works well). Spread ice cream over the outside of the log, using strokes lengthwise so it has kind of a bark texture to it. Sprinkle some cookie crumbs over the top, and place some whole cookies around as a garnish of sorts.

Cover carefully (make a foil tent that doesn't touch the log) and freeze until ready to serve.

To serve, slice log into pieces and enjoy.

You probably don't want to make the log too far ahead of when you plan to serve it. A day in advance is good, but I wouldn't do it too much longer beforehand. I also wouldn't make it too soon before either, because it needs time to freeze up (or it will melt too quickly).

Whatever ice cream and cookies are left make a good snack after all the hard work you just put into making the log!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Clear as mud

I got a snail-mail letter from CLEAR today trying to get me to subscribe to their service. For those not in-the-know, CLEAR is essentially an Internet service provider (ISP) that operates over a completely wireless WiMAX technology network - under the right conditions, it is allegedly as fast as DSL or cable broadband services. CLEAR has been quite the buzz lately, flooding the media with ads. I have been asked several times about CLEAR by friends. Here are my thoughts:

To begin, I'll first state that CLEAR really encourages you to sign a two year agreement with a $170 (per device) cancellation fee. Message to CLEAR: Excuse me, but if you're not going to make any performance guarantees, why would I sign a two year agreement with you? Are you people out of your mind? I'd be happy to consider signing a two year agreement with you if you guaranteed a minimum standard of service that meets or exceeds the service quality I have experienced with my current cable Internet service or DSL. Can't guarantee that? Then I won't sign a two year agreement with you. Would you sign a two year agreement with a company or person you didn't know anything about with a $170 cancellation fee? That's right, I didn't think you would.

There's good reason to suspect that there are problems too. When I poked around the Internet for people who have had experience with CLEAR, there are a number of people who have indicated inconsistent service quality with CLEAR. Many people have had trouble obtaining the data rates that CLEAR claims to provide. Those that do mention that they don't get that rate all the time, and that CLEAR has had network congestion issues (not related to signal quality) as well. Home Internet service is provided by a wireless receiver that many people claim will not function well unless it is positioned near a window facing the broadcast tower. My home's layout simply can't accommodate that.

Then there's CLEAR's AUP (acceptable use policy). I won't bash CLEAR too much because all the ISPs have equally ridiculous AUPs, for the most part. What's not so clear (pun intended) is what they are going to realistically consider "excessive use" that will trigger bandwidth and/or traffic restrictions. Is it okay for me to watch several Netflix movies through that service? They also say they don't allow any kind of traffic that looks to them like I'm running a server, including gaming servers. So I'm not a gamer, but what if I were? Oh, and I should mention that I do run a ssh server on my system, which is extremely important to me (it allows remote access to my home network), and my mail gets pushed to me via a third-party mail forwarding service. Does this violate the AUP? Probably.

Finally, I see no mention of any kind of support for Linux and other UNIX variants. I'm not asking CLEAR to provide phone support for Linux users. I'm not asking CLEAR to write applications that make it easy to connect, like they would for Windows or Mac users. All I'm asking is that they have equipment available that doesn't depend at all on a Windows system (including initial set-up of equipment or service). Is a Linux driver available for their laptop adapter? Can I configure the home router with a web browser (that DOES NOT require Flash!). I don't know. Heck, even Verizon Wireless has Linux-compatible USB adapters!

I know two people here in Austin who have tried out other people's CLEAR service. One experience was horrible, with a signal barely being received, and the connectivity slow. Another person in a different part of Austin reported excellent service and good response time. This absolutely supports the claims by users in Atlanta (GA) who commented on the inconsistent service quality.

The bottom line: Austin, TX is pretty much blanketed pretty well right now with either at&t DSL or Time Warner RoadRunner (cable modem) broadband service. They each have their pros and cons, and the prices are close to each other (and to CLEAR, actually). What makes DSL and RoadRunner stand out is that I don't need to sign a term agreement with either to get a fairly reasonable price, and both companies provide pretty consistent service (you have some idea of what you're getting). With CLEAR, I don't know what kind of service to expect, and so far I don't have enough good reports to make a good decision. If you ask me, I would stick to DSL or RoadRunner until CLEAR gets past its growing pains. If you absolutely must have mobile Internet service, CLEAR may be worth trying. However, I would be very reluctant to sign any term agreement without a guarantee of service quality for the duration of the agreement. It would also help if CLEAR would make its coverage map their web site available in a non-Flash format for those who care about security and are open source advocates.

That, in a nutshell, is my opinion about CLEAR. I may go down to the local store and talk to someone there - I may consider changing ISPs if they let me have equipment and access without an agreement (perhaps a 30 day evaluation) and that it was all completely refundable (no termination fee) if it didn't work to my liking.

Update February 13, 2010:

I started looking further into CLEAR's web site, and it appears that the two-year agreement is currently more prevalent on the mobile plans. In the home or home office plans, the two-year agreement gives you a free receiver ("modem"), apparently, with no monthly service charges. According to their representative on chat, there are no additional taxes/fees aside from sales tax. I'll believe this when I see it, but that's what they're saying.

Linux is supported, but you have to dig deep to find any indication of this. The only place I was able to see this is when I looked at the specs on the device. Their online chat person verified this. Those of you with Windows or MacOS should be careful not to be too smug about this because any OS-specific problems could leave you in a similar situation when you upgrade your computer to new OS revisions. It is important for an Internet provider to be just that - an Internet provider. What operating system you use should not be an issue. That goes for any ISP - CLEAR, at&t, Time Warner, whatever.

Now for the bad news: There is a lot of talk on the broadbandreports.com forums about CLEAR service, and much of it is not positive. Now I know that the people with problems generally scream louder than those who don't, but what people are saying here are exactly what I have come to expect. The biggest complaint is the signal strength and overall performance. I covered that pretty well earlier. A really bad revelation is that they are considering connecting to the "modem" and modifying the configuration a violation of the terms of service. They have also done updates that have left people unable to turn off the network address translation (NAT), preventing people from using their own firewall and can no longer allow incoming connections to the customer equipment (what people were calling "port forwarding", which is kind of a misnomer). This is bad, because I would no longer be able to connect to my system via ssh if they did this.

In short: After about 2 hours of looking carefully (again) at the CLEAR web site, what people are saying in general on forums, and at the price and potential quality of service, I am still advising against going with CLEAR yet. They need to get past their growing pains if they're going to be a viable alternative to wired broadband, in my opinion.

I am particularly disappointed in the growing trend toward ISPs dictating what content they will allow on their networks. By content, I am talking about restricting service to specific operating systems, preventing incoming connections to home/small business computers, limiting total usage in a month, and trying to restrict the use of multimedia and/or gaming applications. I unhappily submit that this trend will probably continue, because it is in the interest of our government to apply increasing controls to prevent what they consider to be unacceptable speech, and very much in the interests of the ISPs to direct our usage toward advertising and other business-specific access. While this clearly is against what made the Internet what it is, people have been willing to allow companies like Adobe and Microsoft control what they do on the Internet with very little resistance. I don't wish to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but this is what you get when you allow groups with such powers to exercise control of a communications medium. Look at what has happened with TV and radio, for example, and look at the taxes and fees various governmental jurisdictions in the U.S. have assessed on telephone usage. My own opinion is that we are quickly and methodically watching the Internet become what other media has become, despite what the YouTube generation may think...

What would Jesus buy?

Tonight I saw What Would Jesus Buy?, a movie about how consumerism and excessive shopping has ruined the true spirit of Christmas. Yes, I know it's February, and yes, I know that Christmas was nearly two months ago. The title kind of grabbed me, and the message kept me watching. Think Affluenza for people with a YouTube attention span. Either way, I enjoyed it. The movie follows the tour of Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping spreading the word and warning about the onset of the shopocalypse. Add the Life After Shopping choir (or Stop Shopping Choir, depends on where you read) and the Not Buying It Band, and you have a seriously humorous group with some seriously important messages. In essence, they're trying to say people are buying more, enjoying it less, and spending less time with people they care about. Never mind that, go visit their web site and see for yourself.

Before that, I saw Food, Inc., a documentary about where our food really comes from. I think the biggest revelation I gained from the movie was the impact of corporations ' control of the food chain. Imagine being able to patent seeds (the seeds that grow the food you eat). That's exactly what the Monsanto Corporation does (see http://www.monsanto.com/seedpatentprotection/default.asp for the excuses for their practices). They go so far as to sue farmers who are growing crops next to farms with the patented seeds if these seeds happen to blow into the adjacent farms. In other words, they're the Microsoft of the agriculture world - trying to bully the world into being dependent on their product. You'd think it only happens with computer technology. I have no objection to a company being entitled to profits resulting from their research and development, but I'm really tired of corporate lawyers manipulating the legal system and using their unending supply of money to effectively drive the "little guy" out of business. That's not fair competition. The entire situation stinks, and it makes me ill to think that these kinds of people are making a disgrace of the free market system.

Then there's the 20/20 episode from Friday talking about the politicians who have cheated on their spouses. I'm tired of hearing about "family values" and the sanctity of marriage from these lying hypocrites. Sure, I'm willing to accept that people make mistakes. We all do. It isn't a mistake when they violate their own alleged core values, while they are willing to subvert the U.S. Constitution to force them on the rest of us.

I hear a lot about religious concepts (god) and wonder how some of these people sleep with their conscience at night. I ask again, would Jesus approve of the way his birthday (or resurrection) is being celebrated? What would Jesus buy? Would any of the other religious icons approve of a small group of people trying to own the food supply? How can men who are claiming to be so righteous treat their spouses and marriage as they do? These are perfect examples of how religion does not equal moral values. I've heard religious people try to argue that people who are atheist don't have any basis for moral behavior. I disagree. Moral behavior is based on the concept of being good stewards of this planet and the life that exists here. Most value systems generally boil down to treating others as we would like to be treated. If your moral compass only functions because the fear of a god has been instilled into your being, then you're not really a moral person - you're a robot. A truly moral person will do what is right no matter who or what is watching.