Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Great Moments In Bad Business Ideas

Here’s the first three paragraphs of the AP article that enabled me to meet my daily quota of eye-rolling:

More than 1,800 people showed up to help ABC's "Extreme Makeover" team demolish a family's decrepit home and replace it with a sparkling, four-bedroom mini-mansion in 2005.

Three years later, the reality TV show's most ambitious project at the time has become the latest victim of the foreclosure crisis.

After the Harper family used the two-story home as collateral for a $450,000 loan, it's set to go to auction on the steps of the Clayton County Courthouse Aug. 5. The couple did not return phone calls Monday, but told WSB-TV they received the loan for a construction business that failed.

I am neither a carpenter nor a businesswoman, and if you want to run a successful construction company I’m not the person you should turn to for advice. But I do know enough to ask this: if you live in a “decrepit home,” and instead of fixing it yourself you require eighteen hundred volunteers to spruce it up for you, what the hell makes you think you've got what it takes to run a successful construction company?

Monday, July 28, 2008

To Protect And Serve

Police in Sarasota, Florida willfully put an entire McDonald’s worth of customers at risk so the cops could add another notch to their drug-arrest bedpost:

Undercover police officers stormed a McDonald's restaurant and ordered diners and employees to the ground as they tried to catch a suspected cocaine dealer Thursday [July 10].

The Sarasota police officers were dressed in black, carried rifles and wore masks when they ran into the restaurant on the corner of Beneva and Fruitville roads. They burst through the door at dinner time, yelled for patrons to hide under tables and chased a 24-year-old man who hid in a bathroom.

It was a drug sting that went bad because of a milkshake.

Police say the arrest would have gone smoother if the suspect, Juan T. Dixon, had not stopped at the door of the restaurant to go back and grab his shake from the counter.

It was supposed to work like this: A confidential informant and an undercover detective waited inside the restaurant to sell Dixon an ounce of cocaine and 100 Ecstasy pills for $950.

(Don’t try this yourselves. Having that many drugs in your possession is a very serious crime, unless you’re a cop selling the drugs so you can arrest the people who buy them from you.) The story goes on to explain:

More than a dozen officers waited outside, including Lt. Steve Breakstone, who organized the operation. His role was to radio for squad cars to drive up for the arrest once the deal was complete.

The uniformed officers were supposed to swoop in and arrest Dixon in the parking lot. The deal, according to reports, went as planned -- with Breakstone calling for the squad cars when Dixon was about to leave.

Then, the milkshake.

With the squad cars zooming into the parking lot, Dixon turned around to get his drink from the counter.

When he got back to the door, he saw the cars waiting for him and, realizing he was about to be arrested, he ran for the bathroom.

He shoved a boy out of the way and hid inside.

The police officers burst through the door and yelled for everyone to get down. A customer, a woman who did not want her name used, ducked under a table and worried that the masked men were robbers, not police.

"I thought it was a gang," she said. "I mean, they had masks and guns and I never heard anyone say, 'police.' I thought these guys were coming to rob us."

Undercover officers routinely wear masks during drug buys to conceal their identities.

Some might say that law-enforcement agents in free countries don’t hide their faces from the citizenry, especially not where terrorizing members of same. But the Sarasota police say it was necessary because:

Breakstone and Sarasota Police Chief Peter Abbott say officers had no choice but to rush into the restaurant because they thought Dixon was armed and might flush the drugs down a toilet or barricade himself in the restroom.

"We had to go get him, or this thing could have been much worse," Breakstone said.

(Yeah, if Dixon flushed the drugs the cops would need a new stash for their next raid.)

Breakstone and Abbott would not say whether detectives or the suspect chose the McDonald's as the location for the deal.

There were no injuries. Dixon was arrested and jailed on drug trafficking charges.

According to police reports, he still had the drugs on him when he was arrested.

But no weapons. The cops didn’t send a dozen armed masked men into a busy restaurant to pick up a dangerous man who was threatening others. The police sent in a dozen armed masked men so they could brag about another drug bust. And save their stash for the next one.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Freedom Is For The Rich

Poor people are like five-year-olds: they can’t be trusted to make their own food choices, but need a wiser, more mature person to make these choices for them.

That is the attitude of the Los Angeles city council, which has voted to impose a one-year moratorium on new fast-food joints in south-central L.A. That’s the poor part of town, where many residents stubbornly persist in gorging on unhealthy Big Macs rather than organic arugula salads. So the city council figures the best way to solve this problem is to make Big Macs unavailable to the poor folks in question.

There’s no limit to the number of fast-food joints that can be built in the more prosperous parts of the city, however.

Here are two questions I’d love to ask the councilmembers pushing this legislation through:

1. What is the minimum annual income a person must make before you think he can be trusted with a fast-food joint in his neighborhood?

2. Don’t you think people below that income minimum should be denied the right to vote? Seriously: if you sincerely believe a person is too stupid to even eat without government guidance, how can you possibly trust such a person to help make big, important decisions like “Who should be Commander In Chief of the most powerful nuclear-armed military in the world?”

Bad food choices can only lead to a fat ass and a high cholesterol level. Bad presidential choices can lead to the extinction of all life on earth. And if I can’t even trust you to feed yourself without causing damage, how can I possibly trust you to have any say in the laws and leaders under which I must live?

(Link shamelessly stolen from Radley Balko at Hit and Run.)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Elvis Is God: The Proof Is Here

Recent discoveries indicate that Elvis Presley, the King of Rock And Roll who died for the sins of humanity and then rose from the dead to appear unto His followers at Burger Kings and Waffle Houses throughout America, also lived 1,800 years ago when his image was carved into the decorations on a Roman coffin:

'Fans seeing this face from the distant past will be forgiven for thinking that their idol may well have lived a previous life in Rome,' said a spokesman for Bonhams, which is auctioning the item in October.

This Elvis probably dates back to about 200 AD – about 1,750 years before the birth of rock'n'roll.

But it could even date to 400 BC, experts claim.

The bust is an authentic acroter­ion – an ornament often found on the corners of sarcophagi, stone burial chambers where the most important people were laid to rest.

If Elvis worship isn’t your theological cup of tea, you can try visiting Nigeria, where the name of Allah has been found twisted into the gristle on a cut of meat.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Default Dollars

Unlike many members of my generation (X), I have absolute confidence that I’ll receive Social Security payments when I’m old. Thousands of dollars each month, in fact. Granted, with inflation that’ll only be enough to buy a jar of peanut butter and perhaps a loaf of stale bread, but the important thing is that when government accountants tally the actual number of US dollars I paid versus the number I’ll eventually receive, they’ll be able to tell me “See? You did get back all the money you paid into the system!”

If necessary, I’ll supplement my income by writing and selling freelance financial-advice articles with titles like “Save Money On Toilet Paper: Wipe Your Ass With Dollar Bills Instead.”

Yet my vision of the future sounds downright optimistic compared to The Economist, which contemplates the thought that America might do the unthinkable: default on its national debt.

THERE is a story about a science professor giving a public lecture on the solar system. An elderly lady interrupts to claim that, contrary to his assertions about gravity, the world travels through the universe on the back of a giant turtle. “But what supports the turtle?” retorts the professor. “You can’t trick me,” says the woman. “It’s turtles all the way down.”

The American financial system has started to look as logical as “turtles all the way down” this week. Only six months ago, politicians were counting on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the country’s mortgage giants, to bolster the housing market by buying more mortgages. Now the rescuers themselves have needed rescuing.

- snip -

The GSEs [government-sponsored enterprises] are not the only liability for the government. IndyMac’s recent collapse is the latest call on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). The FDIC has some $53 billion of assets, so it is better funded than most deposit-insurance schemes. But if enough banks got into trouble, the government would be on the hook for any shortfall. The same is true of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, which insures private sector benefits, but is already $14 billion in deficit.

In the end, the turtle at the bottom of the pile is the American taxpayer. But that suggests that, if Americans are losing money on their houses, pensions or bank accounts, the right answer is to tax them to pay for it. Perhaps it is no surprise that traders in the credit-default swaps market have recently made bets on the unthinkable: that America may default on its debt.

From the perspective of the average American, what would defaulting on the national debt actually mean? Your insights here would be most appreciated; I haven’t the time to add any of my own, as I’m too busy preparing for my future by doing absorbency-comparison tests ‘twixt Washington and Charmin.

Always Bring A Pitchfork To A Knife Fight

Here’s a tantalizingly vague story about a woman whose attempt to use a knife to rob an old man failed after the man fought back with a pitchfork:
A Palmetto woman has been taken from the hospital to jail after stabbing a man with a knife, then being stabbed with a pitchfork … Deputies say 25-year-old Sarah Moore stabbed 72-year-old Robert Smith after she asked him for money and he wouldn't give t to her. That's when Smith armed himself with a pitchfork and fought back.
How did this guy manage to “arm himself with a pitchfork.” Was he carrying concealed? Did the mugger attack in a farm-supply store? Whatever the answer, I suspect Sarah Moore’s destiny lies somewhere near the bottom of the prison social totem pole.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Peak Oil And Generic Economic Doom

Having grown up in the 70s, I have vague memories of hearing words like “inflation” and “energy crisis” whenever my parents watched boring grown-up shows like The News. That’s why I refuse to gripe about gas prices: because I don’t want to turn into my mother.

I will, however, gripe about peak oil, since they never said anything about it. Jackson over at the Art of the Possible wonders how high we can expect gas prices to rise, and was surprised to learn that his worst-case scenario is my best-case one:

I have suffered something of a failure of imagination. Now that I think about, a truly catastrophic increase in the price of oil is the only reasonable scenario to consider when one is trying to imagine a worst case scenario. I personally don’t regard that as the likely scenario, but it is a reasonable scenario, and certainly one that policy makers should consider. During the chat, when I offered what I felt was a fairly bad scenario, Jennifer saw it as a “best case scenario”:

(07/16 08:14 PM) Jennifer: My main concern regarding peak oil involves personal transportation. The majority of Americans live in situations where daily life is impossible without a form of cheap, fast individual transport enabling folks to travel dozens or even hundreds of miles in a day. And where personal transport is concerned, there’s no viable replacement on the horizon for the internal combustion ngine. Mass transit only works if a large number of people live and work in the same general area.

(07/16 08:15 PM) jackson: Jennifer, suppose for a moment gas goes up to something like $6 a gallon and stays there for 10 years. What changes do you think people will make?

(07/16 08:18 PM) Jennifer: If gas goes up to $6 a gallon there’d be a shift to more fuel-efficient cars (as we’re seeing already), and far-distant suburbs would become less desirable places to live (ditto), but frankly I think “gas reaching $6 and staying there” is a scenario so best-case as to be implausible. I suspect gas will continue getting more and more expensive. And government will continue making things worse; despite everything, there’s still plenty of snob-zoning laws forbidding high-density housing and so forth.

Supply declines aren’t the only way oil can hurt America’s economy. It’s only been a couple of years since I learned about the oil bourse: for nearly four decades, the US dollar’s been artificially propped up by being the only currency used to buy oil. If you’re Japan buying oil from Saudi Arabia, you don’t use yen or rials; you have to buy dollars first.

If you stand on a street corner and ask everyone who passes “Do you think it’s a good idea to have our currency’s stability dependent on a substance whose supply is largely controlled by religious fanatics who tend to hate our guts?” every last one of them will say “no.” Unless they work for the government.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Win A Little Girl For Only A Quarter!

No politics here, just pure cuteness: a restaurant surveillance camera shows a toddler climbing up the dispenser slot of one of those control-the-claw toy-vending machines, and getting stuck inside.

I'd almost consider having a kid of my own, if I could guarantee she'd provide such excellent story fodder.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Sad Symbolic Irony Of The Week

The blimp rented by the Ron Paul campaign to advertise its pro-personal freedom message is now aiding the U.S. government in its ongoing effort to clamp down on evil people who alter their state of consciousness with any non-prescription drug other than alcohol:

The Skyship 600 blimp has been a headturning advertisement for Fuji Film, rock band Pink Floyd and presidential candidate Ron Paul.

Now the 197-foot airship that looks like a gigantic white balloon features only an American flag.

The blimp's latest lessee: the U.S. government.

In a $1.6 million collaborative test project conducted by the Navy, Coast Guard and newly created National Office of Global Maritime Situational Awareness, the blimp has been equipped with radar, sensors and electro-optical infrared cameras to provide six weeks of surveillance of the Florida Straits.

The goal is to catch drug smugglers, immigrant smugglers and environmental law breakers, as well as to aid in search-and-rescue missions at sea.

Goals listed in order of importance.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Resignation Anniversaries

Damn, I hate being played for a sucker. Like many Americans, I voted for a bunch of Democrats back in 2004 and ‘06 because I was damnfool enough to believe them when they said “America’s going in the wrong direction because the Republicans have all the power. Give us Democrats a majority in Congress and all that will change.” So we gave them their majority and two years later nothing has.

The telecom immunity bill passed the Senate yesterday, and if it’s ratified into law then the fourth amendment effectively becomes obsolete, especially the whole “hooray for America where they can’t spy on you without a warrant” part.

It’s enough to make you wistful for the Golden Age of Richard Nixon. When he got caught doing illegal surveillance stuff he had to resign rather than get Congress to pass a law saying he retroactively did nothing wrong.

Nixon resigned on August 8, 1974. Next month, on the 34th anniversary of that day, the Strangebedfellows alliance and the Accountability Now PAC will be collecting pledged donations in a one-day “moneybomb” campaign coordinated by Trevor Lyman and Rick Williams, previously known as the brains behind the Ron Paul money bomb.

Blogger Mona over at The Art of the Possible interviewed the two of them about telecom immunity and the money bomb with help from her new research assistant: me. (This is a much better set-up than my last job over the Internet, where my boss turned out to be one of those spambot writers whose links plague comment boards all over the Web.)

Monday, July 07, 2008

McCain Does NOT Equal Bush

Reason number 19,476 I have the wrong instincts to ever be a successful politician: if I were running for President and the current officeholder (a two-termer, no less) belonged to the same political party as me, I’d think it’s a good thing if folks at my campaign rallies considered me the equal of the Commander In Chief.

But the Secret Service detail assigned to John McCain disagrees, which is why they sicced police on an old woman holding a handmade “McCain = Bush” poster at an open-to-the-public campaign rally on July 7, as seen in this recently posted YouTube video.

Warning: the video’s editor went way overboard with his use of the “ominous silent pause for a brief explanation” technique. And while I understand and agree with the grave seriousness of the whole continued-erosion-of-free-speech thing, I also know there’s no point trying to be ominous in a video showing a guy wearing a bright green full-body vegetable costume depicting Bush and McCain as two peas in a pod.

But that guy only appears once, just before the first footage of Cindy Kreck, the sign-carrying librarian cited for trespassing (and later due in court). When the videographer interviews her at the end, she asks, “Why would Republicans who voted for Bush find it offensive that a sign says Bush equals McCain or McCain equals Bush? Why is that offensive?”

The answer ties in with reason number 19,477 I’ll never be a successful politician: presidents who know the Secret Service distrusts citizens who compare them to their own party’s candidates probably aren't supposed to take it as a compliment. But if I ever learned the Secret Service considered me-comparisons a threat, I’d work this into my resume and every conversation I have for the rest of my life.

“I notice you’re wearing black shoes! They remind me of the black shoes *I* wore that time the Secret Service kicked a little old lady out of a campaign rally because she had a poster comparing the candidate to me.” (Pause before continuing in a much lower voice.) “I never told them I was bad news. They figured it out on their own.”

(Found on Metafilter.)

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