No penalty for mistakes

It's rather interesting how this has evolved.  Governmental agencies (IRS, FBI, Police, FAA, FCC, etc) have an enormous amount of power to "catch the bad guy".  Unfortunately, as one might expect, there are times when mistakes are made, and a "good guy" is falsely accused, and sometimes prosecuted, fined, and/or imprisoned.  When time goes by and it comes to light that a mistake in fact was made, there is no penalty to the authorities.  This is a very bad system, as by its nature, it encourages action but does not encourage accuracy.  This is like trying to guide a child by rewarding them for good behavior, but doing absolutely nothing for bad behavior.  That is a model that simply does not work.

There was a case highlighted recently on "Penn & Teller's Bullshit" regarding a man who was arrested, tried repeatedly, and harassed for years by an overly zealous District Attorney.  He is confined to a wheelchair, and in constant pain as the result of an automobile accident.  This is a life which is miserable enough, but then he was targeted as a possible illegal drug seller, with his own prescription drugs as the contraband.  His doctor prescribed his pain medication, and he had on-hand a 30 day supply.  This was apparently over some "limit" and so he must be a drug trafficker.  His house was placed under surveillance and even though no evidence was found supporting the theory that he might be reselling drugs, the DA decided to go ahead and arrest him.  Police burst into his house, terrifying his family, searched the premises, and hauled him off.  After spending some time in jail, his case was tried and he was found not guilty.  The DA wasn't willing to let it go at that (although he'd already been subjected to a lot of indignity, expense, and inconvenience for no good reason), and so he filed an appeal.  The case was tried several more times over the following years, and the poor guy's family just couldn't move on.  The DA apparently stated to him that "I can do this indefinitely".  What?? Why does this jerk still have a job?  This is not serving the public interest in any way, and should not be tolerated.  The trouble is, this wonderful DA has no reason NOT to behave this way.  He has nothing to loose!

How is this at all acceptable?  If there were penalties for such mistakes, then this sort of abuse would not be allowed to continue.  In addition, the DA would be motivated to be really SURE about the case before escalating it to arrest and prosecution.  As it stands now, there is no such motivation.  Lives can be ruined, and the DA can simply shrug and say "oh gee, I was wrong".

The IRS is another agency which historically has a bad reputation for similar actions, and for wielding seemingly limitless power.  Sure, they need to be able to find tax-dodgers and prosecute them, but they have no reason to be careful at all.  If the IRS decides to audit an individual or company, that person/company must comply with the audit, expending time, money, and effort for as long as the IRS agent wants to keep digging.  When it turns out that there was no merit to the audit, the agent walks away.  There is no reimbursement for the time and expense caused by the fruitless audit.  So, there is no reason (other than resource limitations on the IRS side) not to fire off audit after audit, in the hopes that one or two will actually end up with some money being made for the IRS coffers.  Who cares how many innocent people are damaged in the meantime?

The FAA can suspend a Pilot's license any time they like, and drag the individual through an investigation.  Sometimes this is a good thing, and the "bad guy" gets busted, but all too many times the person is not guilty of any transgression, and is sent on their way.  For a hobbyist pilot, this isn't too horrible as not being able to fly is just inconvenient and dealing with the whole procedure is a pain.  However, for the professional pilot, this means no income for the duration of the suspension.  This can be devastating to a person's family finances, and so care should be taken.  Because there is no penalty for a mistake, care is frequently not taken, and families are forced into bankruptcy as a result.  Here are two interesting cases.

How about people who are sent to prison for a crime they did not commit, only to be exonerated many years later?  James Bain from florida served 35 years.  Oops, sorry about that, James. They are released and expected to go on with their lives, but their lives have been ruined.  Where's the compensation?

I could go on and on in this vein, but I don't believe that is necessary.  If stiff penalties were levied against these agencies automatically in the result of a mistake, including compensation for the victims, then they would be more inclined to be very sure of their facts before "getting the bad guy".  Why do I say automatically?  Most individuals do not have the available resources (time, money, etc) to file suit in these cases, and let's face it, most of the time they simply aren't going to win.  When these incidents occur, the poor folks who have this happen to them frequently have no money left over for a suit when all is said and done.  Some attorneys might take such a case with the promise of a percentage of the settlement, but since the odds of successfully winning a case against the "powers that be" are low to begin with, this isn't a workable solution either.


Rushing at the last minute while driving – is it worthwhile?

We've all done it – we're driving somewhere, and as we get closer to our destination, we're watching the clock, gritting our teeth, and clenching the steering wheel because we know we're going to be late.  So, we stuff our foot down and try to make up for lost time.  I know I've done this many times, and recently while doing this, I began to do some mental math and I questioned whether or not it really made a difference.  Nevertheless, I kept my foot glued to the floor, cut off 3 people, narrowly missed a school bus full of Nuns and orphans, and screeched into my parking spot … late anyway.

Later, I decided to do some number crunching and see if my off-the-cuff mental calculations were correct.  I decided to use a 100 mile trip as a model (mainly because it's a reasonably long trip, and also makes the math nice and neat).  My assumption was that cruise speed will be 65mph, and when the driver decides to go into "rush" mode at the end of the trip, it'll zip up to 80mph.  Of course, with traffic, those aren't necessarily realistic numbers that you could sustain for any length of time, but we'll use those as a best-case.  This means that any time saving we calculate will be less in reality, but we should get a good "feel" for how this plays out.

The graph below shows what happens when you go into "rush" mode.  The blue part of the bars is the cruise mode part of the trip (so the first one is all cruise, no rush), and the red part is kicking into high gear.  In each successive trip, I started the rush 10 miles earlier, until the last trip is all rush.  The number to the left of the bars is the trip time in minutes.  As you can see, the trip would normally take 92.6 minutes.  By rushing the last 10 miles (which was the trigger behind all this), only 1.7 minutes are saved! 

 Here's another way to look at it.  As you can see from this second graph, if you rush 10% of the trip, you save around 2% on the trip time.  If you rush 20% of the trip, you save a whopping 4% on the time.  Even if you rush for ALL of the trip, it only gains you something like 23% time savings.

What does this all mean you ask?  What's the bottom line?  Well, based on the information above, it's clear that rushing the last part of a trip really doesn't buy you much.  In fact, one could argue that for short trips, rushing the bulk of the trip would only save you 25% on time, so for a 20 minute "around-town" trip, you'd be saving a whole 5 minutes.  It just doesn't seem worth the hassle, extra gas burned, extra risk of incident, and nervous engergy required to shove your way through traffic in a vain attempt to maintain that "rush" speed.

So, next time you are late for an appointment, don't stuff your foot down, just accept the fact that you should have left earlier, and that there is nothing you can do at this point, and continue on.  Oh, and thank me for saving you gas, blood pressure, and tires.  And send me a check.  Yea, that's the ticket.

I’m a PC!

I'm probably alone in my views on Microsoft's "I'm a PC" marketing campaign, but here goes anyway…

I'm a PC?  Really? Oh, well then I'm a toaster … and my wife is an egg whisk.

One of the points of marketing is to get people to believe you, and believe the wonderful things you say about your product, and ultimately to purchase said product from you.  Having as the cornerstone of your marketing campaign obvious lies, is really not all that bright.  Obviously, the guy/gal on the commercial is not a pc, but you could say that they "identify" with the PC and so you could let that slide.  The other one they keep saying is "Windows 7 was my idea".  Was it really?  Since that's obviously patently untrue, and we've caught you in lie #2, why should we pay any attention to the rest of the material?  I find this sort of advertising campaign insulting, not cute.

I thought the PC vs Mac ads were brilliant.  Funny, to the point for the most part, and entertaining.  Microsoft's attempt at doing a better campaign is pathetic at best.  They need to fire their lame marketing company and hire the firm who crafted the Priceline ads with William Shatner.  They are silly, but entertaining, and other than a bit of fun, don't insult the audience's intelligence.  Or how about the very simple concept Travelocity has going with a ceramic gnome.  Brilliant!

Old laws

Our legal system seems to have a problem which does not seem to be being addressed in any effective manner: Laws are enacted (put on the books) on a regular basis, but they are not re-examined for relevance on  a regular basis.  This means that laws once put on the books tend to stay on the books, no matter how ridiculous they are.

We've all heard of crazy out-dated laws such as:

It is illegal to carry an ice cream cone in your back pocket on Sunday in Georgia.

A fine of $25 can be levied for flirting in New York. This old law specifically prohibits men from turning around on any city street and looking "at a woman in that way." A second conviction for a crime of this magnitude calls for the violating male to be forced to wear a "pair of horse-blinders" wherever and whenever he goes outside for a stroll.

It is illegal to drink a beer while sitting on your front porch (a 78 year old man was cited for this recently)

There are also slightly less obvious laws:

In California if you carry a handgun around, it's a misdemeanor.  If you carry around two sticks with a short length of chain or rope linking them, it's a felony!  (well, just think of the damage you could do with two sticks as opposed to a gun – of course sticks are more dangerous.  Sheesh!)

And some laws are right and true and make perfect sense to keep:

In California, A city ordinance states that a $500 fine will be given to anyone who detonates a nuclear device within city limits

And some laws are obviously not enforceable, so why do we have them?

In California, Animals are banned from mating publicly within 1,500 feet of a tavern, school, or place of worship.

We need periodic reviews of laws to eliminate the chaff from our legal system.  Currently, old laws are simply not enforced, and most people are completely unaware of them.  This is bad as it is ripe for abuse.  It makes legal harassment quite easy in that at any given time, it's likely you are violating some crusty old statute that nobody knows about, and subject to harassment by some law enforcement official who has decided he/she doesn't like you for some reason, and wants to make your life difficult by selectively enforcing some old law.  Selective enforcement is really a bad thing.  It's a recipe for civil abuse and for confrontation, and it waters down other laws too.  It gives those with authority seemingly arbitrary power to throw their weight around whenever they choose.  There have been many cases of this sort of thing (just scan YouTube if you feel like getting annoyed).

How do we solve this problem?  Periodic review of laws would be a great start.  We have far too many laws cluttering up the books.  It's much easier for people to be compliant, and much easier for enforcement if the tangle is smaller.  If laws were put on the books with a "review date" or "expiration date", so they had to be reviewed and re-confirmed in order to remain, that would help too.  Of course, there is a possibility of a law which IS needed falling off the books accidentally because somebody didn't manage the expiration date & review process properly.

Banks and adjusting loans

With the downturn in the economy, many people have been hit hard (myself included).  Some have fared better than others, and the government stepped in and said that banks should negotiate loan adjustment in hardship cases. Problem solved, right?  Ah, but then there is reality.

I'm not sure how people managing banks manage to keep their jobs.  There seems to be a complete lack of thought and analysis in what they do.  No wonder our banking industry is such a mess.  Let me give you a couple of real-world examples from people personally known to me.

The Motorhome

The main breadwinner was laid off, and after some time it became clear that luxury items would have to be the first to go.  The mortgage was given priority with the limited funds available, and the motorhome was not paid for 3 months.  This got the attention of the bank, who wanted the loan brought current, or the vehicle surrendered to the bank.  The balance was $40,000 and there were several years left on the original loan schedule.  Since bringing the loan current wasn't possible given the limited funds available, a proposal was made to the bank to resume loan payments, but the missing 3 months worth of payments would be added to the end of the loan.  One would think this would be a pretty good solution for the bank.  They'd loose no money in the end, and not have to spend time and money taking any action.  Of course, the wizards at the bank decided it was not a good deal for them, and so the vehicle was repossessed.  The bank spent money to hire a company to repossess and store the vehicle, money to store it and auction it, and when it sold, they made less than $20,000.  So let's see, they are now out of pocket $20,000 right off the bat, and they aren't going to make any more interest on the loan.  Why yes, what a sound business decision to make! (sigh)  Even if they had done the deal and the people had flaked on the loan a few months later, they would have still been able to repossess the vehicle and so forth.  They had absolutely nothing to loose.  But you know what?  I bet they all got nice fat bonuses that year for their hard work and business acumen.

The Home

Another couple had a reduction in salary, and they knew by doing some simple projections that they would soon run out of money and be unable to pay their mortgage.  In order to prevent this from happening, they contacted the bank to arrange a loan adjustment.  Surprise! The bank said that they would not even talk to them about an adjustment until they were 3 months in arrears!  Well, that's certainly a dubious strategy.  Once people are in arrears, it is extremely difficult to fix the problem.  Also, for this couple to allow that to happen just to start a conversation is ridiculous.  Their credit would be immediately impacted (a long term effect, for no good reason – they were attempting to be good stewards), and they would be dicing with the possibility of a foreclosure.  In a booming real estate market, I can see that a bank might take this sort of approach in the hopes that they could foreclose, and sell the property for a big profit.  However, perhaps they haven't noticed that we don't have a booming real estate market at the moment.  Perhaps they enjoy having a large inventory of properties which they can't sell, are costing them money (taxes, etc), and are a hassle to rent (especially as it's becoming more and more difficult to find qualified renters).  Once again, where is the thought and strategy that is supposed to be employed when in a money management business like a bank?

I don't think that banks should be altruistic charities and simply forgive loans, or make crazy deals to make their customers happy.  On the other hand, I don't think that it's wise to make stupid business decisions which cost the bank money in the long run.  In our current environment, the name of the game should be "Minimizing Losses" and "Survival".  What is it going to take for them to "get the memo"?  If they keep making such bad decisions, we'll have bailout after bailout and the whole industry will sink.

The Chipophone

The Chipophone. A chiptunes electric organ. [VIDEO].

Kudos to this guy for not only coming up with this idea, but following it through to completion!  He took an old electronic organ ('70s vintage), and replaced the innards with his own circuits.  The entire project is designed to enable to operator to accurately reproduce tunes from video games!  Not only did he pull this off, but he apparently learned to play a bunch of tunes.  It's clever, so I like that.  His commitment to a rather silly project, is commendable too.

looking angry in photos

We've all seen them; photos of kids trying to look tough and pissed off, sometimes even throwing in one of those ever-so-clever gangsta signs. Apparently, they are trying to emulate Rap artists. I just have to say – I'm hoping yet again that this trend will go away soon.  I mean really, this is just silly.  Nobody is impressed.  Nobody is "oooo, scared".  So what's the point?  You just end up looking like somebody with tourette syndrome and maybe whatever ailment Joe Cocker had.  Oh yea, and pull your pants up please.

This stuff is even infiltrating traditionally conservative business.  Take our old friend Bill here:

I suppose a good thing about all this concern about "representin' " is the decreased accuracy, and therefore a lower fatality rate.  Click on the picture below, this article is very well written: