Thursday, July 28, 2005

"ET" to Phone Home... Again

I just read on Dark Horizons (a sci-fi news site) that there are murmurs of doing a sequel to E.T., complete with Drew Barrymore and Steven Spielberg.

At first thought, I thought this was a horrible idea. As a kid who saw E.T. and enjoyed it immensely, I thought, "Nothing good can come of this." The more I thought about it, though, the more I started to think that it's not a half bad idea. But if they do the movie, they should change it somewhat to make it fresh and interesting. I kind of like this idea:

The aliens, mad about our little E.T. buddy almost biting the big one due to those mean Earth scientists, decide that this little blue rock must be taken over. They attack with their lasers and radiation weapons, killing Elliott in the opening salvo. Drew Barrymore, as a grown-up (and scantily clad) Gertie, has to fight them off with guns, grenades, and guts. In the final scene, she must fight hand-to-hand against the very E.T. that was abandoned on Earth years before. She helped to save him 25 years ago, but now, all she feels the stinging pain of vengeance.

I don't know about you, but I would go see it!

Friday, July 22, 2005

Mandatory Insurance Laws

I just got through paying yet another insurance payment to my car insurance company, and I thought I'd take a few moments to put these thoughts out there.

I personally think that insurance is a complete waste of money, and insurance companies are the second dirtiest industry in this country today only behind the tobacco industry. I don't spend a cent on insurance that I don't have to because in my mind, it's like gambling in Las Vegas, except you're betting on the odds of something bad happening (e.g. getting into a wreck) instead of something good happening (e.g. winning a million dollars). I don't like gambling except as a rare entertaining diversion, yet I am forced to by law.

My car is paid for, free and clear, and has been for several years. Given a choice, I wouldn't spend a cent on insurance for it. Yet every six months, I still have to send a check to an insurance company for liability insurance. In case someone's not familiar with this concept, liability insurance pays other people for any damage I might cause in case I do something stupid and cause a wreck. In the state of Georgia, liability insurance for a car is required in order to legally drive it. If you don't have liability insurance and you get caught, there are stiff fines and possibly even jail time, and the real possibility that you'll lose your car.

The concept, of course, is that everyone who drives a car should be financially able to pay for any damage they cause while doing so. If I don't have liability insurance and I cream a $100,000 Mercedes, the owner of that car would be stuck with the bill since I don't have $100,000 sitting around to pay for it.

My problem with the concept is that there are a whole bunch of flaws that turn the nice thought into just a bunch of laws designed to screw ordinary people and to make insurance companies a lot richer. Here is my laundry list of problems with mandatory liability insurance laws:

  • Many people still don't have the mandatory liability insurance, so if you want to be covered in case someone hits you, you still have to have uninsured motorist insurance, which covers you in case someone without insurance creams your car. Whether or not the person who hits you has insurance, the damage to your car will still be paid for. If you are making car payments on an automobile loan, uninsured motorist insurance is almost always required as a term of the loan.
  • In theory, since everyone is now required to carry mandatory liability insurance, the cost of uninsured motorist insurance should be drastically reduced, practically next to free, since there are significantly fewer uninsured motorists on the road. In reality, the cost of uninsured motorist insurance has only gone up. The insurance companies are pocketing all of the extra government mandated income.
  • There are people in the world, like me, that could pay for any damage that I may cause while driving. At least, I could certainly handle the cost of any damage I may cause up to what my liability insurance would pay. It wouldn't be particularly easy or convenient for me, but I could still do it. By forcing me to pay for liability insurance, the government is taking away my freedom to choose how I spend my money and how much financial risk I can be willing to take with my money. In this sense, I consider my thoughts on this issue to be Libertarian or even Conservative (gasp!).
  • Forcing people to have mandatory liability insurance can actually encourage people to drive less safely. Why? Because if I don't have insurance, I am a lot more likely to drive very carefully, because I don't want to lose a lot of my personal wealth for being stupid and causing an accident. If I know I won't lose anything, I would probably be a lot less worried about damage I might cause to other vehicles. I find it hard to believe that I'm a weird rare exception.
  • When government forces me to spend money on something, I consider that to be a tax, and as a tax, I believe that the receivers of that money should be held accountable to the taxpayers as to how much they can charge and what rules they must follow. The insurance industry, especially automobile insurance, is highly unregulated. They can charge whatever they want and act however they want, and the people have no choice but to keep paying because government requires it. The cases of insurance companies screwing people out of legitimate claims are too numerous to list here, and it's just not right. Oh, these government mandated payments aren't tax deductible, either, and as far as I know, there aren't any programs to help low-income make these government mandated payments.

So although I think the motivation for requiring people to have liability insurance is a good one, I strongly disagree with actually enacting it into law. I don't want to get stuck paying the repair bill for someone else's stupidity any more than the next person, but mandatory liability insurance laws doesn't prevent that, they only cost responsible people a lot of money and make insurance companies a lot richer.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Why No More Comments?

Well, there's an chance that some of you may notice that I have disabled the ability to post anonymous comments to my blog entries, and I wanted to take a moment to explain.

First, let me be clear about one thing: I do not want your personal information. Frankly, I don't care who you are, and all things considered, I would just as soon let you post anonymously to your heart's content. I do not have this blog to spam people with penis enlargement e-mails, to boost anyone's Google ratings, to collect a nice fee for ads, or any other ulterior motive other than to convey a brief sense of what goes on in my head. Hopefully you have noticed that there are no ads and, for the record, will NEVER be any ads on this blog, no matter how popular it may get.

Unfortunately, though, it was the recent victim of link spam, otherwise known as blog spam or comment spam. Basically, someone has set up Web-bots to automatically post massive amounts of crap.

What kind of crap? Well, when I got home tonight, I noticed that there were 35 new comments in my latest blog entry. All of them were either white supremacist trash, solicitations to get to know Jesus, or other such crap. Obviously, if anyone read some of these comments before I was able to delete them, I apologize and assure you that it was most definitely without my consent and it won't happen again. Some of them had Web site links embedded, designed to boost crap Web site ratings on Google. I deleted them all, of course, and changed the settings on this blog so that only "members" of the blog can post comments. A member is someone I have manually added to be able to comment, so if anyone particularly wants to be able to post comments, e-mail me and let me know. (If you don't know my e-mail address, then sorry, but I don't know you well enough to allow you to post comments.)

If you're not familiar with the seedier side of the Internet, you may be asking yourself at this point why someone would do something like this. Though there are many answers, the vast majority of people who do this kind of thing are the type of people I call "schoolyard bullies." They're the people who make other people's lives miserable for no other reason than the fact that they can. They aren't able to make any positive contribution to the world, so in a pathetic attempt to feel important, they try to destroy everything to bring it down to their level. Obviously, it doesn't work and only makes them look sad and foolish, but on an Internet where people can—and should be able to—stay anonymous, it's just a way that these worthless people get their cheap thrills.

I guess in a weird kind of way, I should be happy. After all, until now, my blog has been just an anonymous corner of the Internet that not many people knew or cared about. Now, apparently, it has attained a high enough status on the public radar to be worthy of vandalization. In a way, this incident makes it clear that my blog is now more popular than just one of the billions of throwaway places that litter the 'Net. Of course, it makes me sad that there are schoolyard bullies in the world and that we have to take away their toys, but not only will I live and be happy in spite of it, I'll keep posting so that everyone else can know the ramblings of a tired mind.

The funny thing is that though I don't have a specific name ("Anonymous Coward" will do just fine, I think), I have an idea who may have pointed the blog spam bots to my blog. And to that person out there, wheverever you may be, I'd just like to say that I'm glad you cared enough to stop by, and I hope you enjoy my future posts! :-)

Update: Hey, I was right about my assessment in the last paragraph. My secret admirer posted a reply and confessed. The conversation since has been rather amusing to me; you should check it out if you have a few minutes to waste.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Three Letters from Congressmen

Wow, two updates for the price of one! This weekend, I got another letter from a different Congressman, this time from John Linder of the U.S. House of Representatives. Also, I dug through some old mail and found that I had indeed also received a reply from Johnny Isakson, which is three replies for three letters. First things first: I offer my apologies to Mr. Linder, who I incorrectly identified as one of my senators in the earlier post. In fact, he is the Seventh District Representative from Georgia. The two senators, of course, are Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson. It was a stupid mistake made in the heat of trying to get the entry posted. And, of course, I hope no one took my earlier post as a knock on Senator Isakson, whose letter I promptly received before the other two.

The text of my letter was exactly the same as that posted in the comments of my earlier post. I've posted Senator Isakson's and Mr. Linder's complete replies to me in the comments of this post. I've reviewed both letters below for no good reason other than I've got a little time to kill today. These reviews are based solely on somewhat objective measures, not on politics or beliefs.

On informational content, the clear winner is Saxby Chambliss. His was the only letter I received that exceeded a single page. While normally I admire brevity and succinctness, Senator Chambliss's letter clearly had more "guts" to it than the others did. He was the only one who mentioned any details about what Congress is doing to resolve the problems facing Social Security. He quoted sources, dropped names of political rivals he's working with, and made a stand on the issue. Well, as much of a stand as a politican can make, anyway.

On personalization, Johnny Isakson gets kudos. His was the only letter that didn't seem to be a form letter in its entirety. I was very impressed when at the end of his letter, he says, "[T]hank you for your suggestions on how best to reform social security. Rest assured, I will keep your thoughts in mind as Congress discusses this vital issue." Nice. Although whoever typed this forgot to properly capitalize "Social Security," at least one of them tried to make me feel like someone read the letter that I sent and responded specifically to what I wrote. I think all of the signatures were printed on the letters instead of personally signed. I've copied scanned pictures of all three below.

As mentioned before, Saxby Chambliss's signature is broken by the print on the letter. If the letters were raised or made of some sort of wax ink, I could explain it away, but they're not. Johnny Isakson's signature was obviously printed. When I did a high-res scan of it, you can actually see the aliasing ("jaggies") produced by the printer, and worse, you can actually see spots where the resolution of the printer isn't quite up to snuff. The content of the letter was the most personal, but the signature was obviously a printout.

John Linder's signature at a glance looks geniune, as if it were made with a blue magic marker. Why anyone would sign a letter with a magic marker is beyond me, but whatever floats your boat, I suppose. The places where lines in the signature intersect (e.g. where the extension line of the capital J crosses through the rest of the name) are darker blue than other places in the signature, which is clever. However, when I flip the letter over (does that make me a flip-flopper?), there is no bleed-through at all. Now I don't know if you remember when you were five and drew on paper with a magic marker, but my mom would always fuss at me if I didn't have something under the paper I was drawing on to absorb the extra ink. The letter's paper doesn't really look special, and I would expect the same bleed-though to happen on it if Mr. Linder had really signed the letter personally, but there is none, nada, zip. Just to test my theory with scientific investigation, I got out a Sharpie® and signed my name on an unused part of the letter. I didn't have blue, but you can see the results below of what happens when red is used:

I'll let you decide what to make of the signatures. By all means, post a comment and let me know if those thoughts run deep.

As for style, it's a toss-up. Saxby Chambliss's letter is printed on a slightly thicker stock of letterhead; the other two letters are on thinner paper. This gives it a bit more of a professional and "Congressional" feel to it. John Linder's tone was a bit more informal than the others, and I've got to admit that it makes him seem a little more like just an average kind of guy than the others. Saxby Chambliss was never anything but formal and, one could argue, slightly inapproachable. Saxby Chambliss's letter was the only one that used the standard convention of having the person who typed the letter's initials at the bottom. There is a small "SC:ca", indicating that the letter was written by Saxby Chambliss (initials SC) but typed by someone else ( initials CA). However, this was slightly undone by the fact that all three letters were watermarked with The Great Seal, but Saxby Chambliss's letter was printed with the watermark upside down. John Linder's had the watermark with the correct orientation, but it was marked with the wrong year (2004, instead of 2005 as the other letters indicated). Oh well, I guess I'm just being picky now, and I certainly would never base my vote on whose watermarks are correct.

If you find this entry remotely amusing or interesting, I highly recommend that you read The Senator Prank by John Hargrave, who pretended he was a fifth grader and wrote to all 100 U.S. senators (as of 2003), told them that he wants to be a comedian when he grows up, and asked them what their favorite joke is. And, of course, I highly encourage you to write to your own Congresspeople or even President Bush and let them know what you think about the issues of the day.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Found... Finally!

Update: This is an update to an earlier post about my new cell phone woes.

Well, I finally have cell phone service with Verizon. After the guy I talked to yesterday hadn't called back by noon, I called their customer service department once more, this time in obvious exasperation. I laid the whole story out, including that she was the fourth person I had talked to (I also went to a local Verizon store on Saturday, which accomplished nothing). I said that I was having serious doubts about Verizon. After all, if it was this hard—almost a week and counting—to get my phone set up, then how would they respond if I had any other problems?

Dionne, the customer service rep, asked me for one number, the order number from when I originally placed the order. She looked it up—something that no one else I had talked to had been able to do—and said that the order looked fine. She explained that she'll have to build me an account since the old one somehow got overwritten. She asked if she could call back in ten or fifteen minutes, and I said sure, if it will mean that I can get the problem taken care of once and for all.

Well, ten or fifteen minutes later, Dionne called back and said that it was taken care of, I can dial *228 now. I did, and it worked! So I made a test call, and it worked too! I asked why in the world it took that long and talking to four different people (actually around ten, when you include being transferred from department to department) for that ten or fifteen minute problem to be fixed. She said she didn't know, all they had to do was build a new account (with the company discount, of course!), and that she wished that I had talked to her first. Well, I do too, Dionne, and I'm glad that someone at Verizon knows how to handle this problem.

Of course, I still have to wonder, how did my account get overwritten in the first place? I asked Dionne about this, and she said that apparently what had happened is that 1) I ordered the phone and service, 2) they created an account and shipped me the phone, 3) before I got the phone, someone else ordered a phone and service and activated their account, 4) since I hadn't activated my account yet, it took that as the next number in the block, and 5) I had heartache.

Shouldn't their systems know about this possibility and reserve new numbers and accounts for at least several days to get the person who ordered service a chance to activate it? It seems to me that what happened to me would be virtually guaranteed to happened to anyone who ordered service over the Internet. If that were true, I would think that there would be some serious hell to pay at Verizon, so I'm guessing that for most people, it works fine. I'm guessing that for some weird reason, it was just my order that got screwed up. I hope that the problem I went through doesn't just get lost in their system and chalked up as a glitch. I would hope that they really care enough to not want any more customers to have to go throught what I have.

Oh well, I guess we'll see, and if you order Verizon service through the Internet, good luck to you. In the meantime, I've got some free phone calls to make...

Monday, July 11, 2005

Milking the Sheep

I usually make a deliberate effort to keep my blog rather apolitical, mainly because I want people to leave comments without getting into arguments. I have been working on a political blog to go side-by-side with this one, but I haven't published it yet. Maybe someday when I'm feeling particularly ornery, when you least expect it, BAM!—it will pop into existence Emeril-style.

Most people who know me, though, are well aware (too aware, sometimes) that I'm a rather liberal Democrat. As such, I have engaged in various Democratic pursuits in support of the party and the candidates. And, as I expected, this seems to have had the rather unfortunate side effect of getting me on mailing and calling lists that I really would rather not be on.

This morning, bright and early, I got a call from a fellow who said he was with the "Friends of John Kerry." Wow, a Friend of John Kerry was taking time out his busy day to call little ol' me! What could have I done that was so special to rate a personal call from a genuine Friend of John Kerry?

He explained that he was trying to get support for a bill in Congress to provide free medical insurance to every child in America. He said that they have a list of names of supporters of the bill with over half a million people on it, but they are trying to get over a million names before taking it to Congress. He wanted to know if he could put my name on the list of supporters. Sure, I said, I think that every child should have health insurance, and those who are not able to because of their parents' financial situations should have it provided.

Of course, I was just humoring the guy. I mean, I didn't lie, because that's how I really feel. But he wasn't fooling me and I sure as heck wasn't fooling myself; I knew what was inevitably going to come next. Sure enough, he didn't let me down.

He then explained that in order to reach as many people as possible, they needed funding to continue the campaign to get names on the list, and asked if I could make a donation to their cause. Of course, they could accept credit cards for my convenience. Yep, there it was.

I wasn't really rude, but I probably wasn't especially tactful, either. I said, "I'm not going to give you money, I don't even know you!"

His response genuinely amused me. He said, and these are his exact words, "I told you, I'm with the Friends of John Kerry. You know John Kerry, don't you?"

I almost literally laughed. Was he kidding? "Well, of COURSE I know John Kerry, but I don't know YOU. All I know is that you're an unsolicited caller trying to get money from me. I don't have any particularly good reason to believe you." At that point, I decided to try a slightly different tack. "Say, if I were to give you money, exactly what would it be used for, anyway?"

He said that it would be used to cover administrative costs of the campaign to get names on the list of people who support that bill, because we have to show Congress that all these people are concerned about that issue. He then proceded to explain that when people give money to anyone, like say, the Red Cross, a certain amount of it goes to pay administrative costs because they're so expensive.

I said, "Well, that's one of my issues with what you're telling me. It sounds like ALL of this money is going to administrative costs. Is any money going to actually do something productive? Like say, helping to pay for insurance or medical costs of children?"

No, he said, and at least they're up front about that. The money would be used solely to get the word out and get names for the list.

I told him that I'm sorry, but I think my money could be much better spent—and much more effective—in places other than paying for telemarketers. At that point, he could plainly see that he was not going to get any of my money, so he said thanks for the support and hung up.

You know, I have friends who are staunch Republicans, the kind who are involved in various endeavors and who provide financial support to the bast— er, people who run that party, and I know that the kind of calls like I got this morning are not a uniquely Democratic thing. I have little doubt what kind of organization this guy is involved in. They call and ask people for money, and when they get lucky enough to get some, they keep it for themselves. I don't know whether or not they'll actually turn the list of names over to John Kerry as a list of supporters for some sort of bill to provide health insurance to children, but I'm guessing probably not. One thing's for sure, though, they will definitely sell that list to anyone else who will give them a few bucks for it. It's downright seedy, and it really hurts me to know that there are people out there—good, honest people who want to help out and make the world a better place—who will fall for this kind of crap.

I can think of about a hundred things that could be done to end these kinds of shenanigans, but the sad truth is that as long as a political party can make a few more bucks by selling the names, addresses, and phone numbers of its supporters, it will continue. And what's even more true than that is that as long as scummy scammers can milk people's goodwill for a few bucks, they will always be eager to try. (sigh.)

I hope I'm not sounding preachy, but if you give to a political party—or any other organization or charity, for that matter—please be aware that there are bad people out there who want to use your goodwill and take a few of your bucks. No matter how much you support a charity or cause that someone calls you about, remember that these people are still telemarketers and their goal is to get you to give up your hard-earned cash. Never ever EVER give out any personal information to a stranger who calls you, no matter WHO they say they're with or how much they seem to already know about you! If you want to donate to a charity or a cause, make sure that it is with someone you already know and have heard about, and especially, make sure that YOU are the one initiating the transaction and that the money is going to who you think it is going to.

Be kind. Be giving. Be involved. But more than anything else, be smart. Because to scammers, you're nothing more than just another sheep to be milked, and I'm sure that giving money to pay scammers is a cause that we can all agree is most definitely NOT worthwhile.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Lost Without a Trace

Update (July 11): I talked to customer support today. I posted the nitty-gritties at the bottom of this entry.

Well, this is sort of weird.

Almost my whole family uses Verizon Wireless as their cell phone service provider. I subscribed to Cingular three years ago becuase they had a special discount plan with my company. Now, Verizon does too, so last Wednesday, I decided to switch so that I could talk to my family long distance without ever having to worry about whether it's a night or weekend. (Plus, I'm getting almost twice the non-Verizon minutes for just two bucks a month more.)

So I got on the Verizon Web site, picked a plan and a phone, and gave them more personal information than I was really comfortable giving anyone. (They want my driver license number!!?) They shipped it FedEx two-day, so last night when I got home from work, I had a shiny new phone waiting for me on my doorstep.

It was like Christmas. I tore into the package and took out all of my "Welcome to Verizon!" shtuff. I threw the contract terms aside and pulled open the bag that had written on it in big black letters, "READ YOUR CONTRACT TERMS BEFORE OPENING THIS PACKAGE!" I waited in anguish while the phone took three and a half hours to charge up. Finally, I was able to register it and start using my shiny new phone!

There was a sticker on the front LCD that said to dial *228 to activate my phone. So I eagerly punched in *228 and hit send. "Welcome to Verizon Wiress over-the-air programming. This call is air-time free. Para español, oprima tres... Press one to program your phone. Press two to update your roaming capabilities. (Not feeling too adventurous, I pressed one.)... I'm sorry, but we are unable to program your phone at this time. Please call Verizon Wireless from a land line phone and a customer service representative will be happy to assist you."

¿Qué es esto? It didn't work? Maybe their system was just glitching. I tried again. Same thing. I tried several more times. Nothing. I tried calling their customer service number. They're closed, and won't open until 11:00am EST on Saturday! So I grudgingly went to bed and slept in. (Okay, the sleeping in part wasn't so grudging.) At 11:00am EST, I called customer service.

They asked me for my name and cell phone number. The cell phone number is printed on the receipt that they sent me with the phone, so I gave it to them. The girl on the other end says, "That's not the information I have. I'm showing that that number belongs to a Miss Cunningham." I told her that that was just plain incorrect. She asked me for my name again. I told her, and after a few seconds, she says, "I don't see any orders under that name. What's your Social Security number?" Again with the personal questions! I'm half-tempted to ask her what her favorite sexual position is, but I bite my tongue and grudgingly give her the number.

At this point, there sure is a lot of gruding stuff going on, and I'm thiking that can't bode well for my future relationship with Verizon Wireless.

Anyway, she again says that they have no record of that account, and they'll have to assign me a new number. Okay, I say, let's do that. She then tells me that they can't do that, I'll have to call a different number on Monday. Apparently, all record of my ordering service with Verizon Wireless has been lost without a trace, in spite of the fact that I'm sitting here holding a brand new LG VX7000 cell phone, a customer receipt, and a welcome package.

MONDAY!!? I can't activate my phone for another two whole days after already waiting one? Crap, it really is like Christmas! You have all these pretty boxes laying around with stuff you know you're going to love inside, but you can't open them up and use them yet; no, you have to just let them sit there and taunt you until some arbitrary date in the unbearable future!

Oh well, Monday it is, I guess. I can't believe that they would have their support set up in such a manner that one wouldn't be able to active his or her phone as soon as he or she gets it. I can't help but wonder if they've ever lost any customers in the time between when they received a phone and when they activated it.

In the meantime, I guess I'll browse around the Internet to see if there are any cool hacks for this phone. Who actually pays for ring tones, anyway? Maybe if I get really bored, I'll call my new cell phone number and yell at Miss Cunningham to give it up, it's mine now.

Update: Well, I just got off the phone with customer support yet again. He reiterated that they cannot find me anywhere in the system. He said that he's going to have to create a new account for me, but that they can't activate the phone until tomorrow morning. Why? Because apparently, "The IT guy who has to do it leaves at four o'clock." Are they serious?

Now I am irritated. I can't understand for the life of me 1) why this is so complicated, and 2) why they don't have people available to solve these problems when they come up, even during so-called normal business hours! If Verizon wants to make a good positive impression on customers from day one, they are failing miserably. It has now been three days and counting since I received my phone and welcome package, and I still can't use it.

Stay tuned, there's more to come, I'm sure...

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Tie a String...

Have you ever see the little cliché picture of a finger with a string tied around it? You know, the little picture that is supposed to indicate a reminder for something?

I just have one question: How in the world can you tie a string around your own finger, when you need that finger to tie the string? All of the little pictures I've ever seen have nice little round bows, as if it was tied with the delicacy of a shoelace. Well, for the record, I've tried to tie a string around my finger like that, and it's just not possible.

The truth is that you need someone to help you by tying the string around your finger. And if you've got someone to help tie the string, why can't that person just help you remember whatever it is you're supposed to do?

Just a thought...

Saturday, July 02, 2005

A Letter from my Congressman

Update: This post is an update to an earlier comment I made in my "Stamped or Metered" entry on May 19, 2005.

In addition to the letter from my homeowners association, I also received in the mail today a letter from one of my senators, Saxby Chambliss. I won't get into the Social Security discussion again right now, but I do want to talk a little bit about the response itself. I'm a little honored that he bothered to reply, but disappointed in that it is obviously a form letter that someone pulled out of the "Social Security" stack. I'll post the entire text of my letter and his response in this post's comments in case you're curious about the exact exchange, but in this post, I have to at least show you his signature:

Notice that it's in blue, as if signed in person with a felt-tip pen. It kind of makes me feel important that a big-time US senator thought about me for a few minutes in his busy day. However, if you look closely, notice that the bottom loop of the "y" in "Saxby" is broken by the typewritten "l" in "Chambliss." Hmmm...

I do wish that his staff person who read and processed my letter had at least modified the basic form letter by putting something like, "Thank you for your ideas," or "I will consider the suggestion you have made," or at least something that indicates that the letter wasn't just OCR'ed and tagged as "Standard Social Security response letter number three." Oh well, at least I did receive a response, and one jam-packed with information about Social Security, and it pretty much spells out what his position on the issue is.

I never received a reponse from John Linder, my other senator, so I'm guessing that he's actually still pondering the idea carefully and taking his time so that the response will be really important and insightful.

The Evil Homeowners Associations

I find myself having to rant yet again. There's just so much stupidity out there, it's hard sometimes to find time for the happy things in life. Oh well, here goes.

Today, I received a letter in the mail from my homeowners association (hereafter called "HA," because "homeowners association" is too much to type). In case any of my readers aren't familiar with these evil organizations, they are organizations set up to, in theory, make sure that people's property values don't down go down because of boneheaded neighbors doing stupid things to trash up the neighborhood. In practice, all HAs I've ever heard of exist to pretty much make normal people's lives hell by irritating them with petty complaints. I've never heard anyone say, "Gosh, my HA really helped me out!" The only comments I've ever heard about HAs were that they were bothersome at best or downright evil at worst.

For example, today I got a nastygram from my HA. It says that I'm in violation of the covenant (the agreement between a homeowner and the HA). To get back into compliance, I need to: "Weed eat around all beds, edge around the beds to redefine the edges, clear out grass/weeds from beds and apply fresh pine straw through out."

Now, you have to understand that I am basically a lazy person, and I hate yardwork; nevertheless, I do try to keep my yard from being a jungle. I would call my efforts around average, which is really what I shoot for. Some of the landscaping in my neighborhood looks a lot better than mine, some looks a lot worse. You also have to understand that this is not the first such letter I've gotten from my HA. In a typical year, I get three or four of them for stupid petty stuff.

Also, you have to understand that HAs have legal backing, and in theory, if you don't comply with their whims, they can sue you and force you to. And to top it all off, you have to pay them yearly fees for the privilege of living in the neighborhood. My fees are around $320 a year, but depending on where you live, they can be a lot more or a lot less. At the last HA meeting our neighborhood held, we had around $150,000 sitting in the bank from fees collected, and this amount has never shrunk on a year-to-year basis. This really adds to my resentment of my HA because I feel like I'm paying a bunch of money expressly for the purpose of periodically being harassed with nasty letters.

My personal opinion is that in theory, HAs are a good thing. To make the implementation live up to the idea, a few things need to happen. First of all, they need to stop bugging me and other people like me. These stupid letters need to be sent only to egregious violators of the covenant. Why? Because my average-looking yard is not lowering any of my neighbors' property values. Even if I had a below-average yard, they still need to keep their stupid letters to themselves. Only if my yard looks genuinely terrible should I get a nasty letter. If I had an old jalopy up on blocks in my yard, then yeah, I should get a letter. If my edges aren't golf course manicured, then they should leave me the hell alone. After all, I paid $200,000 for this property, and if I want my edges a little undefined and it's not hurting anyone, that should be my perogative. Second, I think that all HAs should put in writing some maximum amount of money that they will ever keep in the bank, adjusted for the cost of inflation. If the balance ever goes above that amount, everyone receives a discount on the fees they have to pay that year.

I'm half tempted to run for president of the HA for my neighborhood. It's really something that I could probably win uncontested, because it's a pain-in-the-ass kind of thing that no one really wants to do. When elected, I could then not-so-respectfully tell the agency that runs our HA to go to hell and to take a fresh bale of pine straw with them to spread through out. Then I could go find another agency to run things here and specifically instruct them to never bother the residents unless at least two complaints from two different residents are received about someone.

I would have done it already, but like I said, I'm basically a lazy person.

A buddy of mine at work once told me a story about an HA he's a member of in Florida. Because his house is in a touristy neighborhood, the HA fees there were outragous. If I remember correctly, they were like $1,500 a year or so. Anyway, one of his neighbors needed to replace his roof because some shingles had blown off. He spent a lot of money getting a nice new roof put on. The problem is that they no longer sold the exact model of shingle that he had on it before, so he picked out the closest one he could find and had them use it instead. My buddy said that he honestly didn't notice any difference, but the HA did. Apparantely, this guy and the guy who ran the HA were not on good terms, and the HA had pestered him several times about such stupid stuff before. This time, the HA sued him for modifying the appearance of his house without the HA's consent. That was the proverbial straw the broke the camel's back, and he fought back. He countersued for several thousands of dollars for harrassment and won. Guess who had to pay him the money—that's right, the rest of the residents of his neighborhood. So the HA's repeated stupidity actually cost the residents a bunch of money in addition to the $1,500 they had to pay in fees that year.

I think I'm going to go take some pictures of my yard and save this letter.

Friday, July 01, 2005

A Spectacular Mistake

Because they said it a lot better than I could have, this is the text of a statement from the Electronic Frontier Foundation released last Monday, June 27, 2005:

Today the Supreme Court issued a ruling that could impede makers of all kinds of technologies with expensive lawsuits. The long-awaited decision in MGM v. Grokster states that [peer-to-peer] software manufacturers can be held liable for the infringing activities of people who use their software. This decision relies on a new theory of copyright liability that measures whether manufacturers created their wares with the "intent" of inducing consumers to infringe. It means that inventors and entrepreneurs will not only bear the costs of bringing new products to market, but also the costs of lawsuits if consumers start using their products for illegal purposes.

"Today the Supreme Court has unleashed a new era of legal uncertainty on America's innovators," said Fred von Lohmann, EFF's senior intellectual property attorney. "The newly announced inducement theory of copyright liability will fuel a new generation of entertainment industry lawsuits against technology companies. Perhaps more important, the threat of legal costs may lead technology companies to modify their products to please Hollywood instead of consumers."

The Supreme Court has also ordered the lower court to consider whether peer-to-peer companies Grokster and StreamCast can be held liable under the new standard. StreamCast is confident that it will pass muster under the new, multi-pronged test.

MGM v. Grokster was brought by 28 of the world's largest entertainment companies against the makers of the Morpheus, Grokster, and KaZaA filesharing software products in 2001. The entertainment companies hoped to obtain a legal precedent that would hold all technology makers responsible for the infringements committed by the users of their products. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), along with StreamCast counsel Matt Neco and Charles Baker of Porter and Hedges, defended StreamCast Networks, the company behind the Morpheus filesharing software.

The entertainment companies lost their case in District Court, then lost again on appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The lower court rulings were based on the Supreme Court's landmark decision in the 1984 Sony Betamax case, which determined that Sony was not liable for copyright violations by users of the Betamax VCR.

You know, most of the time, I admire the level-headed decisions that the Supreme Court makes. But when they get it wrong, they almost always do it in a pretty spectacular fashion that will have negative repercussions for decades to come. Anyone remember studying Plessy vs. Ferguson in history? It was the case that reinforced "separate but equal" laws. The decision was made in 1896 and lasted until it was overturned in 1954 by Brown vs. Board of Education. This is one of those instances in which I think that the Supreme Court really screwed the pooch. This time, it wasn't to civil rights, but to another of the foundations of what is supposed to make this country great.

This is yet another significant blow to what used to be one of America's most vaulable assets: its ingenuity and innovation. What this means is that if you make a product and people co-opt it to use for illegal purposes, YOU can be held liable, regardless of legal and legitimate uses your product may have. Before last Monday, this was not true. It's what allowed for such devices as VCRs to exist (a legal battle that was resolved over 20 years ago).

So now, when people (as a lot of software is developed by individuals, not companies) develop new products, they not only have to worry about the normal concerns of whether or not people will want it and whether or not it's safe, they also have to have crystal balls to determine whehter people will start using it for illegal purposes.

I hate to sound like an alarmist, but is it any wonder that we're losing our technological edge in the world today? Is there really any doubt that America will soon be a second-rate country when it comes to innovation, one of the basic underpinning of our whole economy? Not in my mind. People in this country today are scared to be clever because the smarter you are, the more jealous companies will go after you to protect their precious revenue sources. Now, our lawmakers and courts are openly complicit with corporations in this effort. I know that if I ever release or contribute to any open source software, I will only do so anonymously, because I don't want anyone coming after me. (Note that the products that the defendants produced in this lawsuit were not open source, but the same principles apply to ALL software.)

What is really nagging me at this point is that I wonder what effect this will have in other industries? The gun manufacturing industry has lobbied quite successfully for years that they should not be held liable for the illegal uses of their products. It seems to me that this decision completely overturns that argument, because now, they should know in advance what the people who use their products will use them for. It will be interesting to see if this case is used as a legal argument in those lawsuits. Of course the gun manufacturing lobby has lots and LOTS of cash that it generously gives away to politicians, so I doubt that anything remotely logical will make a difference.