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Tuesday 31 August 2004

What’s in Tino’s Gadget Bag?

We’re preparing for a trip here at Tino Manor, and so I’ve been double-checking all my gadgetry. While I had it all laid out, I took a picture, and if you follow the link you can interactively explore what’s in there. It’s a whole new paradigm! Totally in your face!

Tino Bag, Small

This is probably best done with a largish display, as the full image is 1178x804. It’s only 74K, though, thanks to the magic of compression.

Posted by tino at 16:49 31.08.04
Monday 30 August 2004

C-SPAN Pay Per View?!

A few minutes ago I switched to C-SPAN, to see whether they had any coverage of the Republican convention or the hooha surrounding it. The regular news channels are all going on about the random crap they spend so much time on. CNN is talking about Paul Hamm, Fox News is talking about Elian Gonzalez of all things, and MSNBC has, of course, Don Imus in a stupid hat. C-SPAN 2 has Ralph Nader talking in a monotone about the need to tax financial ‘speculation’.

But when I changed channels, this screen popped up on the DirecTV TiVo:

TiVo Screen

That’s right. DirecTV’s system thinks that ‘Washington Journal’ is a pay-per-view show worth $3.99.

Obviously someone has screwed up somewhere, but this really shouldn’t happen. I pay these jokers at DirecTV $50 a month for TV service; I don’t think it’s asking too much that they’d have some safeguards in place to prevent this — or at least that they’d hire people who know, without any ‘safeguards’, that freaking C-SPAN is not a pay-per-view channel. Idiots.

Posted by tino at 09:08 30.08.04
Tuesday 24 August 2004

Confusing Cause and Effect

So now teachers are being told to use purple ink instead of red when correcting students’ papers, according to the Boston Globe.

Purple is less hostile and threatening than red, apparently:

A mix of red and blue, the color purple embodies red’s sense of authority but also blue’s association with serenity, making it a less negative and more constructive color for correcting student papers, color psychologists said. Purple calls attention to itself without being too aggressive. And because the color is linked to creativity and royalty, it is also more encouraging to students.

“The concept of purple as a replacement for red is a pretty good idea,” said Leatrice Eiseman, director of the Pantone Color Institute in Carlstadt, N.J., and author of five books on color. “You soften the blow of red. Red is a bit over-the-top in its aggression.” […]

“I do not use red,” said Robin Slipakoff, who teaches second and third grades at Mirror Lake Elementary School in Plantation, Fla. “Red has a negative connotation, and we want to promote self-confidence. I like purple. I use purple a lot.” […]

Sheila Hanley, who teaches reading and writing to first- and second-graders at John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Randolph, said: “Red is definitely a no-no. But I don’t know if purple is in.”

Hanley said a growing contingent of her colleagues is using purple. They prefer it to green and yellow because it provides more contrast to the black or blue ink students are asked to write in. And they prefer it to orange, which they think is too similar to red.

Hm. So we’ll try a little experiment:



Quick: which of those statements is more hostile?

See, in reality ‘Get bent, jackass’ is more hostile, because it’s a rude imperative and it calls you a jackass. But you were fooled because the benign and even friendly ‘Hi there, darling’ is in red, and thus hostile.

What? You say that you noticed that the statement that called you a jackass was more hostile, regardless of its color? Amazing.

Color psychologists have all kinds of theories about how the feelings that different colors appear to inherently bring about in people. Green is supposed to be relaxing, and blue is supposed to make you either feel cold or not hungry or both. There may be something to this, I don’t know.

But the reason that red markings on their papers cause students stress is not that they’re red: it’s that more often than not they indicate that the student has done something wrong. Mark errors in purple, and students are going to stress out over seeing their papers covered with purple marks. And all of this is without even examining whether it’s necessarily a bad thing for students to be jarred by seeing that they’ve made a lot of mistakes. If you really wanted to eliminate stress, you could just not mark the paper at all and give everyone an A+. But is the point self-esteem, or education?

Every ten years or so, the officially acceptable way to refer to what I would call a retarded person changes. The Binet-Simon scale used to include moron to describe people with IQs from 50 to 69, imbecile for 20-49, and idiot for anyone under 49.

These words are all insults today, but they were just clinical terms to begin with, meant, in fact, to refer to these states of intellectual development without being insulting. Moron is from Greek, meaning, well, moron. Imbecile is from an obsolete French word meaning ‘weak’, and idiot is ultimately from idios meaning ‘own’ or ‘private’; an idiot, the lowest on the scale of feeble-mindeds, lives in his own world.

But moron, imbecile, and idiot are all insults today. So is retarded, which was used after moron etc. came to be seen as offensive, and special, which replaced retarded after people caught on.

Today I think the official term is developmentally disabled or mentally handicapped. These probably have too many syllables to really make the jump into common usage, but I still think I can already see these terms’ obsolescence on the horizon. Mental retardation is not something that people will ever look on neutrally, like hair or eye color. No matter what you call the mentally deficient, that term will come to be an insult when applied to people of ordinary intellectual capacity, and not long after it will be seen as an insult to the true idiots, imbeciles, and so forth.

You cannot hope to ever turn mental retardation into just another one of a person’s many characteristics, no matter what euphemisms you cook up. And you cannot hope to ‘lessen the blow’ of a school paper that’s full of mistakes simply by changing the color of the ink you use to point out these mistakes. It’s the condition, not the term retarded, that’s ultimately undesirable in a person, and it’s the error, not the circle around it, that is undesirable in a school paper.

Posted by tino at 10:23 24.08.04
Monday 23 August 2004

More Lazy SUV Journalism

I really do promise not to do this too often. But it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

I don’t mean to pick on Warren Brown of the Washington Post again, because overall he seems like a pretty reasonable person. However, he doesn’t seem like much of a journalist, even when you take into account the fact that he’s writing car reviews, which are supposed to be about his opinions.

Mr. Brown reviewed the 2004 Volkwagen Passat GLS 4Motion wagon recently, and the headline the Post stuck on the article was ‘A Smooth Alternative to the SUV’.

Mr. Brown likes the Volkswagen Passat GLS 4Motion station wagon; he recently used it to drive from Washingtonia to New York to catch a plane for his Alaskan vacation. All of his luggage fit in the back of the car, without even folding down the rear seats: he could have fit three more people in there!

Not if those people had any luggage of their own, of course, but that’s another matter. He was pleased with the capacity of the wagon.

That made me nosey. At rest stops along the New Jersey Turnpike, I peeked inside of various minivans and sport-utility vehicles on apparent holiday treks. They were easy to spot — with bicycles hanging from their rear hatches and kayaks and water skis attached to their roofs, that sort of thing.

Empirical observation showed that those larger vehicles, many of them substantially bigger, had no more cargo space, carried no more stuff, or were capable of carrying no more people than the Passat GLS 4Motion wagon. Many of the behemoths were equipped with four-wheel drive, or all-wheel drive, as noted by exterior labeling. As its name implies, the Passat GLS 4Motion wagon comes with all-wheel drive, too.

[…] But although we didn’t take up as much space on the highway as the gargantuan runners, we seemed to use almost as much gasoline — especially considering that the GLS 4Motion is equipped with a relatively small, in-line four-cylinder, 1.8-liter, 170-horsepower, turbocharged engine.

Where to even begin with this? This is the guy who concluded that people in Alaska are less ‘vain’ and subject to ‘whims’ based on a few observations — observations that are contradicted by statistics — while on vacation.

Now he’s using ‘empirical observation’ — a tautology, that — to conclude that ‘substantially larger’ SUVs and minivans are actually not capable of carrying any more cargo than what must be the ‘substantially smaller’ VW Passat Wagon.

I’m not going to bother with a table of measurements — they’re hard to format nicely — but rest assured that he’s wrong on nearly all counts.

passat-in-a-boxThe Passat Wagon is 184.3 inches long, 68.7 inches wide, and 58.6 inches tall. Excluding ground clearance (which is one place where the Passat Wagon is significantly different from SUVs), the Passat Wagon, if it were a rectilinear block, occupies 387 cubic feet.

Okay, maybe I will do a table. The Washington Post asks you to trust empirical observation, and gets it wrong. Here at Tinotopia, we prove things:

Total volume (cuft.)Cargo volume (cuft.)Volume vs. Passat% Cargo volume

There are two SUVs here that are ‘substantially larger’ than the Passat Wagon, and two that aren’t. The Land Rover Discovery and the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen are each about an inch longer than the Passat; the Discovery is five inches wider than the Passat, and the G-Wagen two inches wider. Both are about a foot taller than the Passat, which, I suppose, is what makes them ‘behemoths’. They only ‘take up more space on the highway’, these ‘gargantuan’ vehicles, in the sense that they cast longer shadows. And yet they do offer more cargo volume. The smallest SUV, the Mercedes, offers over twice as much cargo space as the Passat, and it does it more efficiently, too, with about 15% of the total volume of the ‘vehicle block’ being available for cargo, as opposed to only about 9% of the Passat. The ‘substantially larger’ SUVs, the only things you might be able to legitimately call ‘gargantuan’ ‘behemoths’, offer up to four times as much cargo volume as the Passat. This is only to be expected, but what’s interesting is that they, too, are substantially more efficient in their cargo-volume-to-total-volume ratio.

I have only used SUVs here, but the Passat Wagon would compare even less favorably on these strange terms with minivans.

When I was a young man, back there in journalism school, there was a person there who put forth the proposition that you should never make assume anything in journalism, because when you assume you ‘make an ass out of u and me’. Ha ha ha ha ha. Get it? Assume = ass/u/me. Ass.

It’s impossible to argue with reviews exactly, because they’re supposed to be expressions of opinion. With time, the readers come to understand the critic’s biases and they learn to apply the critic’s opinions to their own world. For instance, Tom Shales, the Washington Post’s head TV and movie critic, hates movies and TV. Some of his movie reviews even get character names and major plot points wrong, raising questions of whether or not he actually saw the movies in question. Once you know this about Shales, though, you can better assess just what his opinion is worth.

What Brown is doing is worse, though, because he’s spreading out-and-out, verifiable falsehoods. It’s as if Tom Shales said you should go see Alien vs. Predator because all the other movies out his week were silent and in black-and-white. With subtitles. In Polish.

The truth is, of course, that there are a wide range of awful movies showing, every one of them in full color and with bum-rattling audio effects, all the better to distract the viewer from the ‘plot’. Even Tom Shales wouldn’t try to tell you otherwise.

But Mr. Brown’s ‘empirical observations’ are accepted as journalism. This car is a ‘smooth’ alternative to SUVs, according to the Post’s headline people, even though it gets lousy gas mileage and doesn’t hold as much. Go figure.

Build a station wagon, make it look beefy, and call it an ‘SUV’, and it’s somehow offensive. Build a very similar vehicle, call it a ‘station wagon’, and it’s delightful. Brown spends half of his review talking about how comparable are the Passat Wagon and the broad class of vehicles known as ‘SUV’s. Why is it, then, that one of those comes in for constant, mindless attack?

Specifically: why are so many people so minutely concerned with what others choose to consume? An all-wheel-drive station wagon is okay, but there’s something wrong with an all-wheel drive ‘SUV’ that differs from the station wagon most significantly in that it’s a few inches taller and sits a bit further off the ground. One is just a practical vehicle, while the other is evidence of ‘vanity’ and ‘arrogance’ and all sorts of other things. I don’t get it.

Posted by tino at 14:24 23.08.04
Friday 20 August 2004

A Good Customer Service Experience at McDonald’s

Since I complain so much about customer service, it’s only fair that I write about good experiences I have, too. Unfortunately these don’t come too often. I’m distinguishing ‘good’ experiences here as ones that are surprisingly good, as opposed to merely competent; I don’t think that merely being able to complete a transaction and pay my money without too much pain necessarily qualifies as a ‘good’ customer-service experience, though it is a successful one. A ‘good’ experience by my criteria here is one where someone in the business of selling some good or service goes out of his way, in a way that his competitors do not, to make the experience as smooth and easy as possible.

On Monday, I happened to be in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, in a hurry, and in need of lunch. Most of the Washington area is continually operating at about 110% of capacity, but in Tyson’s Corner it’s more like 120%, so this presents some challenges. I fought my way through traffic to the McDonald’s near the intersection of Routes 7 and 123, and was — well, not pleasantly surprised, because the whole reason I went to this particular place was because I knew they had their act thoroughly together — let’s say I continued to be impressed.

I was going through the drive-thru. This particular McDonald’s has all the latest McDonald’s technology to help out, namely the order-confirmation screen. This screen, next to the order box, displays for you what the cashier is entering into the system, so you can spot errors and correct them before they become a problem. This particular McDonald’s has two order boxes and two of these screens, so if the line doesn’t move immediately after someone places an order, the next car in line can place an order anyway.

But they weren’t using any of this stuff, because during a 120% Tyson’s Corner lunch hour, they aren’t fast enough. Instead, they had two people standing out in the parking lot. As soon as I pulled up, one of them came up to my window and asked me what I wanted. As I told him, he jotted it down on his clipboard and read it back to me. When I confirmed that he’d got it right, he repeated the order in Spanish over the radio clamped to his head. He then ran back to the car behind me. There was a steady flow in, presumably because people knew that they could get food here without spending a lot of time in line. The Taco Bell around the corner — visible from the McDonald’s — had a conspicuously-bare parking lot.

By this time the car in front of me was moving, so I pulled up. The other McDonald’s person came up to my window and told me I owed her $5.01. I paid with exact change, but if I hadn’t she had one of those belt-mounted change dispensers, and, presumably, a pocket full of dollar bills.

As soon as I handed over my money, the line had again moved, and I pulled up; actually, the line never really stopped moving, because as soon as a car would pull up to the window, an arm would stick out of it holding a bag. This McDonald’s was actually processing cars through the drive-thru at about a normal walking pace. I don’t think it would be possible to safely do it any faster. And I’ve never seen any other McDonald’s — or any of the allegedly competing fast-food restaurants in the Tyson’s Corner area — do anything like it. I’m sure that this McDonald’s isn’t utterly unique in using this method, but they’re certainly one of the rare exceptions to the rule.

The employees, in addition, seemed happy and friendly, which is something you don’t often find at McDonald’s. I can’t blame them; it cannot be a very fulfilling way to spend your time, slogging between the fry machine and the shake machine while the customers are looking daggers at you because their order is taking forever. But when the management has decided to do the job well, it’s possible for the employees to feel proud of what they’re doing. McDonald’s serves an important function, feeding people, and, when things are humming properly it does it amazingly efficiently. To be a part of such a well-organized system is… not inspiring or uplifiting, certainly, but at least not degrading. And employees who don’t feel degraded might actually give a shit, and this feeds back into the whole thing, improving the experience and efficiency yet again.

This is the spirit of my customer service rules and complaints: It is possible to do whatever you’re doing correctly, so why aren’t you doing it that way?

Posted by tino at 12:51 20.08.04
Thursday 19 August 2004

You Don’t Know Who Your Customers Are

Customer-Service Rule #15 is: Customer-profitability accounting is almost totally inaccurate. This means, broadly, that you almost certainly don’t know how profitable a given customer of yours really is, and when you figure that you can afford to give a customer the shaft rather than solve your problems, you can’t be sure what this is going to cost you.

Gizmodo is a weblog for the gadgetrati, edited by one Joel Johnson. Today Joel wrote a glowing review of the Sidekick II, a mobile-phone-like device sold by T-Mobile. He was effuse in his praise for the device. No, ‘effuse’ and ‘praise’ and ‘glowing’ are not strong enough terms. He says:

I’ve just spent a week using the T-Mobile Sidekick II, and I think it’s probably one of the best mobile devices I’ve ever used.

That’s what everyone wants to read at the head of a review of their product, I’d imagine. But Johnson goes on in the next two sentences:

And I can say, with total conviction, that I will never, ever purchase one and neither should you. In fact, after the experiences I’ve had today with T-Mobile, I’m not sure I can ever recommend one of their products again.

Why? Because of a classic customer-service failure. He writes, in part:

So for the last three months, I’ve been going back and forth with T-Mobile trying to get my service working and my account to where it should be. Everything seemed to be fine, after about eight or nine separate phones calls - I had the second line I wanted, there was a slight billing error that was being looked into, but service was happening and they would let me know what was up with the overcharges.


When I called and reached a rep named Patty, I explained what had happened - something I always have to do, despite asking many times for it to be noted properly on my account - and after about an hour was able to finally reach the resolution that the overcharges on my billing would be removed. Keep in mind that this is after she had told me that she would be willing to credit back about a third of them if I “admitted and understood that T-Mobile had done nothing wrong in this matter.” Of course, I told her that was rank bullshit, and pressed on. Finally, after speaking to her manager she was able to get approval to make a one-time charge. Already pissed, I asked her, “So are you saying that in this case, T-Mobile was actually wrong?”

“I’m not saying that, sir, but I’m not saying you were wrong, either.” […] I had finally gotten everything taken care of.

Until I tried to use my phone. It was still off, so I called T-Mobile again, not twenty minutes after hanging up with Patty the first time. Long story longer? There was no notes from Patty about giving me a credit. She lied to me. The refund - the one she calculated the taxes for - was a lie. She even made notes on my account indicating that she’d tried to placate me, but ultimately I was inconsolable.


And if it were even one lie, and one screw up… I ignored this for three months, giving them chance after chance to make it better. To continually screw it up, inconvenience someone who was just trying to use their service, who paid bills early is just incredible, and is indicative of an overarching deficit of concern throughout the entire company that I’m finally starting to recognize. I’m used to shitty service - I am an American, after all - but this has been so beyond the pale that I can’t justify using their service any longer, nor can I in good faith recommend them to anyone else.

The last person I spoke to was nice, and wanted to let me know how much he sympathized with me, but ultimately said he was powerless, and that in this instance - and I made him verify this to me, repeat it back so I could make sure I heard it - he had to trust T-Mobile over me. My only recourse, he said, was contacting Customer Relations via email and hope they got back to me with some resolution. No one within Customer Care - the people you can speak to on the phone - had any power to resolve my problem.

My mobile phone is through T-Mobile, too, and I’ve had pretty much the same experience. I would already have fled T-Mobile for another carrier, as it happens, were it not for the fact that none of the other carriers have offered phones that meet my needs for the past year or two.

And here’s the thing: every single dispute I have had with T-Mobile has resulted, after many hours on the phone, in everyone being in total agreement about the problem, everyone agreeing what needed to be done to solve the problem, and then T-Mobile saying that they could not do what was necessary to solve the problem. Furthermore, in every case this has been due to some procedural roadblock on the T-Mobile side, a procedural roadblock that nobody, it seems, is authorized to circumvent. Their official policy seems to be that they would rather have dissatisfied customers than take zero-cost steps to make their customers happy.

It might be interesting to see what T-Mobile does after this. Joel Johnson isn’t Walt Mossberg, and Gizmodo is not the Wall Street Journal. That said, it’s fairly influential among the kind of people who want to read, daily, about what new gadgets are available. These people tend to spend more on gadgets than the average bear, and it can hardly be good for T-Mobile’s business to have its approach to customer service exposed to them like this.

Posted by tino at 15:40 19.08.04

Racist Metro Staff & Lazy(?) Journalism

The Washington Post reports that Metro — the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority — will give ‘special training in customer service’ to employees who deal with the public ‘in the face of rising complaints about uncivil transit employees’.

Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said yesterday that one station manager faces “very serious disciplinary action” after a pregnant woman and her husband complained that he screamed at them, brandished a broom and pushed the husband because they inquired about a broken escalator last week.

Huh. I can’t say I’m particularly surprised at this, but what’s interesting is the way the Post characterizes that encounter in the fourth paragraph of the article, quoted above. A fuller description of the incident appears further in:

“I asked him if the escalator was broken, and he didn’t say anything,” Jade Freeman said. “He pushed his seat back and threw up his arms, very annoyed. I put my ears on the little holes [in the plexiglass of the booth] and said, ‘Um, is the escalator broken?’ He got up and just started saying things. He wasn’t answering my question; he was throwing tantrums.” Jade Freeman said that after asking for the station manager’s name, she went through the fare gate and saw him repeatedly slam his name tag against the glass. He opened the door to the booth and stepped out, she said. Robert Freeman rushed back to his wife. “He was coming at me,” Jade Freeman said of the station manager. “He said, ‘Get the [expletive] out of my station.’ ” The station manager picked up a nearby broom, the couple said. “He turned to me and said, ‘You think you can come down here and harass me because you’re white!’ ” said Jade Freeman, who is Asian. Her husband is white; the station manager is African American. Then he tossed the broom aside and shoved Robert Freeman in the chest, the couple said.

Why does the Washington Post not mention that this was a RACIALLY-MOTIVATED HATE CRIME until the twenty-first paragraph of the story? Interesting, that.

Posted by tino at 15:09 19.08.04
Tuesday 17 August 2004

Do They Really Think This Is Going To Help?

From Wired News:

[…] So it’s no surprise that hardened electronic activists are planning to jam up the servers of GeorgeWBush.com, GOP.com and related websites, once the Republican National Convention gets underway Aug. 29. “We want to bombard (the Republican sites) with so much traffic that nobody can get in,” said CrimethInc, a member of the so-called Black Hat Hackers Bloc. It’s one of several groups planning to distribute software tools to reload Republican sites over and over again.

Here’s the thing: unless you already believe that Bush & Co. are supremely evil and NEED TO BE STOPPED AT ALL COSTS!!!!1 — in which case you’re probably planning to vote for John Kerry anyway — the main lesson you’re likely to take away from this is that the Democrats include in their ranks people like this.

These are people who will stoop to Dirty Tricks against their enemies, and who will further publicly admit this. Dirty Tricks have long been a part of partisan politics on both sides, and there is no reason that they will not continue to be a part of partisan politics in the future. But I think that this is what people are talking about when they talk about the lately-displayed ‘arrogance’ of the Democratic party: these people (some of them, anyway) are so dismissive of even the possibility that others might disagree with them that they’re willing to admit for publication that they plan to use illegal means to attempt to keep the other side from communicating. That is pretty arrogant.

But I cannot see how something like this is supposed to help. Does this kind of thing make John Kerry and his party look better or worse to the average undecided voter? One of the Democrat activists’ frequent complaints, if one of the less-substantiated ones, is that the GOP is trying to suppress the opinions of people who don’t agree with them. The GOP doesn’t even have to make their own counterclaims: the Democrat activists are happy to give the press the scoop right from the horse’s mouth.

Posted by tino at 22:56 17.08.04
Sunday 15 August 2004

Journalistic Laziness and SUVs

In today’s Washington Post, there’s a column by Warren Brown headlined ‘In Alaska, Cars Are an Inferior Mode of Travel’. The same thing can probably be said of the other forty-nine states and the District of Columbia, too, but there you are.

This column seems to have appeared in the Post’s business section, though honestly in the contextless limbo of the online newspaper, it’s hard to be sure. In any case, Warren Brown is the Post’s automotive columnist.

From the Seward, Alaska dateline at the top of the column, and from the general fuzzy-headedness of the whole thing, it smells to me like Mr. Brown is on vacation in Alaska, and, in the slower moments — perhaps while Mrs. Brown was taking a bath or something — he has been perusing the road maps, having exhausted the literary possibilities in the Guest Services Directory of the Fairbanks Motel 8.

This seems plausible to me because I’ve done the same thing, and one of the things I’ve noticed about Alaska is that there are in fact a good number of towns that do not appear to be served by any roads at all. Apparently everyone and everything gets in and out of these places via railroad, airplane, hot-air balloon, and dog sled; according to the Alaska DOT, about 30% of Alaska’s population live in such road-less places. From the Post column:

All this makes Alaska’s road maps relatively easy to read, because there aren’t that many roads on the map. Indeed, in some towns, such as little Talkeetna, which has two paved streets, the visitor is just as likely to find a single-engine plane sitting in an airfield adjacent to a private home as he is to find a sedan in a single-car garage.

This does seem to be borne out by the facts. The Alaska DOT says that Alaska has sixteen times as many aircraft per capita than the rest of the United States, and six times as many pilots per capita. 13% of the commercial airports in the U.S. are in Alaska, even though Alaska is home to only 0.2% of the American population. Warren Brown again:

It is not so much that Alaska is anti-car or anti-truck as it is that the state’s legendary winters and wild and rugged interior naturally relegate private road runners to an inferior place in its transportation scheme.

I don’t think it’s that. There are 820 vehicles for every thousand Alaskans (compared to 750 per thousand in the US in general), and 738 drivers per thousand people (versus 670 per thousand in the whole country). Alaska has more miles of road per capita (23) than the rest of the country (15), too. Admittedly, most of Alaska’s roads are unpaved, but if you only look at those roads that are part of the National Highway System, Alaska is even further ahead, with 3.33 miles per capita compared to a nationwide 0.6 miles per capita.

So this place — where ‘private road runners’ are ‘relegated to an inferior place’ — has more cars, more licensed drivers, and more miles of road per capita than the rest of the United States. Nevertheless, Brown says:

In such a milieu, practicality surpasses ego, and vehicle cost and effectiveness take precedence over whim in vehicle-buying decisions.

Huh. Okay, if you say so. Remember, though that this is a ‘milieu’ where people own more vehicles than in the rest of the United States.

In any case, this would seem to imply, though, that outside of such a milieu, ego and whim take precedence over vehicle cost and effectiveness and practicality. I wonder what this columnist drives? Is it a Lada? A Yugo? Even the very blandest car I can think of, a Saturn sedan, involves a bit of what I think he’s referring to as ‘ego’, inasmuch as Saturn drivers are usually hung up on how unbelievably practical their cars are, and how anyone who buys anything else is driven by baser instincts.

He still goes on:

Thus, in comparison with the rolling fleets of exotic metal often seen on the streets of the District, New York City, Miami and Los Angeles, there is a relative dearth of luxury automobiles and sport-utilities in Alaskan towns.

Aha. This column is much more stream-of-consciousness-y than you usually find in the Washington Post, but I think that I may have been able to figure out the central point of this thing: In Alaska, where Men Are Men et cetera, people Do Not Drive Luxury Cars and SUVs.

Thank goodness for the Washington Post. As their TV commercials say: If you don’t get it (i.e. if you do not subscribe to the Post), you don’t get it (i.e. you are not properly informed). Phew! No longer do we have to live in ignorance of what Real Men (i.e. Alaskans) drive and how this differs from what the fops and dandies in places like Washington, DC drive — because, of course, the car you drive is some kind of window into the innermost recesses of your soul.

It’s probably true that there are fewer ‘luxury’ cars in Alaska than in the rest of the country, though I can’t figure out how to get statistics on this. There appear to be at least five Cadillac dealers, two Mercedes-Benz dealers, one Porsche dealer, one Lexus dealer, one Land Rover dealer and one Hummer dealer in Alaska, but I suppose these places mainly sell their wares to people who ship cars back to Seattle. Or perhaps they don’t sell anything at all and they stay in business just to give their owners something to do during the long winters.

Statistics are available on SUV ownership, though. The Census Bureau’s Vehicle Inventory and Use Survey for Alaska (pozor: PDF!) shows that between 1992 and 1997 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), Alaska’s number of SUVs increased by over 55%. This might be why Alaska’s SUV-to-licensed driver ratio is 1:8.48, which is the third-highest in the country, after only Colorado and Wyoming.

The District of Columbia, on the other hand, which this professional Washington Post journalist specifically derides for having too many SUVs, is actually fifty-first on the list, with fewer SUVs per driver than any state: there’s one SUV in DC for every 31.52 licensed drivers. This is approximately one-quarter of the SUV-age in Alaska, which is a ‘milieu’ — remember now, you read it in the Washington Post, one of America’s most-respected newspapers — where people eschew SUVs.

Let’s review:

  1. This guy’s facts are verifiably wrong, because he based his column on a few isolated observations and made some assumptions.
  2. Not only that, but the actual statistics seem to directly and strongly contradict his assumptions.
  3. And he chalks his erroneous conclusions up to ‘ego’ on the part of the people in the city where his column was published.

And someone at the Washington Post took this piece of tripe off the fax machine or the e-mail, or however they get columns from people in Alaska, set it in type, and printed several hundred thousand copies of it this morning. Warren Brown will get paid for having written this thing.

Ah, but anything’s good material as long as it makes SUVs look bad!

I find this particularly interesting, as earlier this year I noticed and wrote about a howler by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker that did much the same thing. Gladwell’s article was worse than today’s column, though: Warren Brown was just phoning it in in the middle of August, while Gladwell was writing a long article allegedly backed up with statistics and science and interviews and a paragraph on the back of each one. The only problem there was that the statistics that Gladwell cited themselves directly contradicted his thesis, if you bothered to look through them carefully. Oops.

I’m beginning to think that I should start a new category here for these kinds of stories: ‘SUV bellyaching’, perhaps. SUVs have this strange power to make certain kinds of people froth at the mouth, and to make respected journalists ignore reality simply because they want the statistics to match their preconceived notion.

Posted by tino at 23:53 15.08.04
Tuesday 10 August 2004

New Tinotopia Feeds

Okay, I’m probably going to regret this, basing my self-esteem as I do entirely on the level of traffic that this website sees. But that’s not important. What’s important is that I do right by you, my Public.

To that end, I have established a number of new RSS feeds here, to make it that much more convenient for you to enjoy Tinotopia. The feeds are:

  • Tinotopia Full Text Feed
    This is the weblog you’re reading now, in convenient RSS form. Only the five most-recent entries are included, but you might want to consider this if your web browser breaks down or something.
  • Recently Noted
    This is the bottom-right sidebar on the main Tinotopia page. These are for those things that strike me as interesting, but not so interesting that I actually have anything of my own to add.
  • Urban Planning Clippings
    As above, but specifically having to do with urban planning.
  • Phonecam Pictures
    An archive of pictures taken with the camera built into my phone. This is where the pictures from the top of the left-hand column on the main Tinotopia page go when they get old.
  • Tinotopia Gallery
    This is an easy way for you to keep current with the photos in the main gallery here. This way you won’t have to rely any more on a picture randomly showing up in the upper right-hand corner of the weblog to know that there’s more new smooth Tino goodness in the gallery.
  • All of this stuff should work out of the box, but as I do not really read my own feeds, please let me know if something seems wrong.

    Posted by tino at 18:36 10.08.04
    Monday 09 August 2004

    Sudden Bush Hatred Fatigue Syndrome

    Lileks today writes about being struck recently by Sudden Bush Hatred Fatigue Syndrome. I have to wonder whether it is just coincidence or the result of some ramping-up of rhetoric, because I was laid low by the same thing last week.

    I listen to Air America a lot. XM Radio has two political-talk channels, ‘America Left’ and ‘America Right’, and even though I disagree politically with the people on ‘America Left’ — which is just an Air America feed pirated from WLIB in New York — I find them more entertaining. ‘America Right’ is far too full of patronizing bloviators for my taste.

    In any case, Air America didn’t give me SBHFS. Air America is no different, really from right-wing talk radio like Rush Limbaugh, except that Al Franken & Co. spend a lot more time talking about right-wing media than the righties do talking about left-wing media — which is saying quite a lot. Al Franken’s whole show (“The O’Franken Factor”) seems to be about Bill O’Reilly; every time it tune in to Franken he’s going on about O’Reilly. But the purpose of Air America is to be explosively Left, and to complain about George Bush and friends in the same way that right-wing talk radio has complained about liberals for years.

    This week, for the first time in a while, I picked up the New Yorker. For the past few months, they’ve shown up in the mail and been stacked in a neat pile. The New Yorker’s star dimmed considerably in my estimation after they published a real stinker of a statistical-analysis piece on SUVs by Malcolm Gladwell. Everyone is welcome to their opinion, but in the New Yorker I do not expect to read stories that undermine their own arguments by simply ignoring facts which are inconvenient.

    Anyway, this week’s New Yorker — the August 9 & 16 issue — just crossed the line for me. I’ve subscribed to the magazine for quite a while; it’s easily my longest continuous magazine subscription, because it’s one of the very few general-interest magazines left in the United States. It’s not about anything in particular: once in a great while now, they run an interesting short story; there’s always some comment on the news; there are those amusing anecdotes in the front; and I like a lot of the cartoons.

    The only unifying element about the New Yorker — if you can say it has one at all — is that it’s assumed that everyone reading it is a good deal brighter than the average person, and thus the magazine generally manages to avoid insulting one’s intelligence. Until now, that is.

    Here are some excerpts from the first three things I started reading in this week’s issue:

    The very first paragraph of actual copy in the magazine, in a ‘Talk of the Town’ bit about the Democratic convention:

    There’s a case to be made that it hardly matters how eloquent or effective John Kerry was at the Democratic National Convention last week. What matters infinitely more is that George W. Bush is the worst President the country has endured since Richard Nixon, and even mediocrity would be an improvement.

    In what is, as a whole, and interesting article under ‘Annals of War’, broadly about two soldiers who were killed in Iraq, and the procedures for repatriating their bodies:

    As a unit of the élite 82nd Airborne Division, Bravo Company found itself in some of the fiercest fighting last year during the advance on Baghdad. Its hundred-and-thirty-off paratroopers are among the Army’s best-equipped soldiers, and none died during formal hostilities. The dying came later, after President Bush declared the mission accomplished.

    And a few paragraphs later in the same article:

    For months, Bravo Company ate nothing but M.R.E.s, packaged rations that, htough monotonous, are lean and sanitary. When the Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root showed up in July, to open a field kitchen, the rich, fried food, perhaps in combination with new microorganisms, made everyone in the company sick for a few days.

    In an article in the movie-review section about ‘Fahrenheit 9/11 and the documentary tradition’:

    Whatever you think of Michael Moore’s immensely satisfying movie about the awful Bush Administration and its destructive policies — and reasonable people can disagree, of course — one thing the cannot be said about “Fahrenheit 9/11” is that is an outlaw from the documentary tradition.

    Ahh, such nuance, such subtlety. Such je ne sais quoi, that’s what separates the French and the New Yorker of today from the ordinary rabble — according to the polls, this means about 50% of the population of the United States — who might believe that, you know, Islamofascist terrorists are the big problem, not George Bush. What naivete you find on the prairies, Julian!

    All of thiswaw is an insult to my intelligence. Either the New Yorker is of the belief that my opinions will be swayed by such cheap tactics — “Oh, this was after the mission was ‘accomplished’, eh? Ooooh, that Bush, just trying to kill off poor minorities! And lying, of course, always with the LIES!!!!!” or that I already agree with them but that I need constant but flimsy reassurance (“So they got sick from eating HALLIBURTON food, eh? Dick Cheney probably planned that personally — several years ago when he ran the company. It’s all part of the conspiracy!!!!!”) that my opinions are valid.

    And as for the New Yorker telling me ‘what matters infinitely more’, I think that I’ve reached a point in my life where I can decide for myself what matters. What matters to the New Yorker, apparently, is throwing rocks at the President. That’s certainly their right, but the result, for me, is that I don’t trust them. You’ll find that people get sick whenever you radically change their diets overnight, but to the New Yorker, that verifiable fact is not as important as the opportunity to hang something on Halliburton. What else are they going to ignore or distort just because it’s convenient for propping up weaknesses in their broader argument?

    So that’s the New Yorker. On Sunday, then, over breakfast, I glanced through the Washington Post and found more of this garbage.

    In the magazine section (with an article about Marine Corps recruiters in Howard County, Maryland, headlined on the cover ‘Uncle Sam Wants Your Children’, the Gene Weingarten column this week is headlined ‘The News Could Be Verse’. It’s news as poetry, how droll:

    Mission accomplished, you Iraqis are free.
    We’ve returned your country, no COD.
    Congrats! Our best wishes! We hope things stay calm!
    We’re sure you’ll do fine, just like South Vietnam!

    Yah. Fine. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!!!!!!1 There was a banner on an aircraft carrier over a year ago that said MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!!!!@! LIES!!!1 HALLIBURTON!!!!!! GUANTANAMO!!!!! ASHCROFT!!!1 VIETNAM!!!! QUAGMIRE!!!

    The other little poems are much the same.

    And speaking of Guantanamo, this was in the comics section:

    Boondocks [detail] 8 Aug 2004

    Ahh, good one. Real comedy, that. You see, the joke is that Aaron McGruder, the author of Boondocks, is being held incommunicado at Guantanamo Bay for daring to expose the hypocrisies of the Bush administration! He finally went too far in criticizing the United States’ attacks on peaceful Afghanistan and Iraq, and he’s been hauled away. Everybody laugh at the funny joke!

    Of course, McGruder is not in Cuba, unless he’s yukking it up over cigars with Castro. Instead he is at liberty somehow in AmeriKKKa, despite the best efforts of capitalist white-supremacists to keep him down. In pre-war Afghanistan and Iraq, on the other hand, you could be locked up, shot, or fed into a shredder for criticizing the government. But pointing that out would only distract from Bush’s LIES!!!!1, so instead we’ll joke that cartoonists are being hauled off to prison. Ha! Ha!

    In an interview in December 2001, McGruder was asked about whether he felt any pressure to change his political tune:

    Q. You don’t feel like you’re under siege, then?
    A. No, because the Syndicate has not asked me to do anything different. And I’m in 250 newspapers, and none of them have asked me to do anything different. So I’ve been doing exactly what I want, and I haven’t felt any pressure to do otherwise.

    But let’s not let reality get in the way: we’ve got a war to lose here, if only we can somehow lose our will.

    (The full strip is actually a swipe at the Kedwards campaign, presumably because they are insufficiently in favor of redistribution of wealth, affirmative action, and reparations.)

    Why should I take these people at all seriously? There is undoubtedly serious criticism that can be made of the Bush administration, of the dubious legality of the prison in Guantanamo Bay, of the prosecution of this war, of the government’s smoke-and-mirrors economic policy, and of the rapidly expanding government bureaucracy.

    But I don’t see any of these arguments being made, at least not in a big way and in public. All I see is a bunch of unsubstantiated garbage about Bush’s National Guard record, and, more generally, blind, spewing hatred of the man personally. It’s not possible to have a political discussion in this country these days, because the Left has become the boy who cries LIES!!!!1 and the ‘right’ has justifiably plugged their ears. During the Clinton administration, the Republicans set up a permanent investigation that in the end could only nail Clinton with diddling an intern. Because Clinton had been investigated without visible result for much more serious offenses, nobody really cared: So he diddled an intern; at least he didn’t (fill in blank).

    When the background noise of your rhetoric is that someone — in this case George Bush — is akin to Hitler, should you ever dig up any actual dirt on the guy nobody’s going to care unless your dirt turns out to be that he’s gassed six million Jews and taken over most of Europe. And that’s assuming that anyone who doesn’t already share your faith still gives a damn what you have to say.

    Posted by tino at 14:05 9.08.04
    Friday 06 August 2004

    U-Scan Till Scandal in Front Royal

    We don’t have much news here in Front Royal, which might be why we make the most of what little news we have.

    I have written before about the hazards of bad user interfaces on self-service tills. Well, now it’s possibly bit someone in the ass; in the Warren Sentinel’s words, a man’s life hangs in the balance. I don’t know whether I’d go that far: he’s likely facing a $25 fine. See what I mean about making the most of the news?

    On Tuesday, a four-woman, three-man jury took just 30 minutes to return its verdict after hearing nearly seven hours of testimony and argument stemming from [Warren County Zoning Administrator Gordon] Jones’s ill-fated trip through a malfunctioning automated teller machine at Food Lion on July 18, 2003.

    Jones contended he paid the machine — which was left open despite an apparent inability to take money, credit cards or coupons that day — with a combination of 12 Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea $1 coins and some change. Jones testified he was dumping the coins he received in change from a stamp machine at the post office earlier in the day. The Front Royal Post Office is located across the street from the Warren County Government Center where Jones works.

    Jones testified he was trying to keep a promise to his mother to avoid fast food after being diagnosed with diabetes by buying a rotisserie chicken and boxed baby spinach, along with a six-pack of diet soda at the grocery for his lunch that day.

    Of course, the whole situtation is murky as hell; it should have been easy to determine whether or not everything had been paid for by counting the money in the machine and checking to see whether or not it was light. Apparently it didn’t even occur to anyone to do this. Jones maintains that this is all part of a vendetta against him on the part of the manager of the Food Lion.

    The two front-page stories in this week’s Warren Sentinel, complete with all the intrigues, conspiracies, and even a zoning dispute of all things, are included in their entirety below the fold. If you happen to live in the Warren Sentinel’s distribution area, I strongly urge you to buy a copy of the paper; I would hate to think that I am cutting into that fine publication’s circulation by reproducing this here, but the Sentinel doesn’t have much of a web presence.

    I am beginning to think that I should establish a ‘Front Royal’ category here in order to collect all these little tales of Twin-Peaks-On-The-Shenandoah.

    Jury verdict questioned in grocery theft case
    Zoning chief takes leave ending judge’s ruling on guilty verdict verdict

    The Warren Sentinel

    Warren County Zoning Administrator Gordon Jones will take leave pending Warren County Circuit Court Judge Dennis L. Hupp’s Sept. 10 ruling on a defense motion to overturn a jury’s guilty verdict on a single petty larceny charge.

    On Tuesday, a four-woman, three-man jury took just 30 minutes to return its verdict after hearing nearly seven hours of testimony and argument stemming from Jones’s ill-fated trip through a malfunctioning automated teller machine at Food Lion on July 18, 2003.

    Jones contended he paid the machine — which was left open despite an apparent inability to take money, credit cards or coupons that day — with a combination of 12 Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea $1 coins and some change. Jones testified he was dumping the coins he received in change from a stamp machine at the post office earlier in the day. The Front Royal Post Office is located across the street from the Warren County Government Center where Jones works.

    Jones testified he was trying to keep a promise to his mother to avoid fast food after being diagnosed with diabetes by buying a rotisserie chicken and boxed baby spinach, along with a six-pack of diet soda at the grocery for his lunch that day.

    A teenage cashier overseeing four U-Scan machines stopped Jones and his cart containing approximately $15 to $20 worth of goods after seeing a light flashing on U-Scan-4 indicating what she testified she assumed was a payment problem.

    “Something for nothing, that’s what this case is about,” substitute prosecutor Alex Iden told the jury during opening arguments.

    “We just thought the evidence was inconclusively in favor of the prosecution,” said jury foreman Jennifer A. Keys in explanation o the verdict. Asked how evidence can be inconclusively in favor of the prosecution when reasonable doubt rests with the defense, Keys corrected herself.

    “Conclusively in favor o the prosecution. We found that the prosecution definitely had the stronger case.”

    The other six jurors stood by Keys perception and their verdict.

    The seven jurors perception of that stronger case revolved around Jones’ admitted evasiveness about the dollar coins he said he paid with and his failure to identify the 12 Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea coins to police at the time he was questioned at the scene.

    “He stated in court that he was purposely evasive. It counted against him,” juror Pat Flowers said. “They were asking him what form of currency he used and he said he didn’t remember. How do you not remember? It was too soon after the transaction for you to forget what type of currency you used.”

    “We felt it countered his three character witnesses… because he said he was personally evasive in dealing with the police,” Keys added.

    The three character witnesses whose testimony in support of Jones the jurors dismissed due to his admitted evasiveness about his payment method were former Warren County Treasurer Doris Miller, Warren County Sheriff’s Office Captain Billy Chapman and local architect Fred Andreae. All three, who said they have known Jones for six to eight years, called Jones “an honest and truthful person.”

    In explanation of his evasiveness, Jones testified he was holding the dollar coin information as a trump card for when the scanning machine was opened in front of police and he could say “now count 12” of the distinctive coins out, “there is my money.”

    However, U-Scan-4 was not opened while either the police or Jones was still at the scene, though Jones said he requested it be opened. Kaufman and her assistants denied hearing Jones make such a request.

    The store’s security video cameras, which Jones also said he asked be viewed while police were there, were, as was U-Scan-4, on the blink that day, Kauffman testified.

    “Why didn’t you just openthe machine while the police were there, this could have all been settled right then?” Gunter asked Kauffman.

    “I just didn’t think about it,” she replied.

    A third party Kauffman asked to attend the opening of U-Scan-4 an hour or two after the incident also testified. Central Coca Cola o Winchester employee Shawn McDaniel testified he was present when Kaufman opened the ailing UScan-4 machine. The machine has three slots, one far coupons, one for cash and one for coins, McDaniel verified.

    Under cross-examination McDaniel said he didn’t know what was in the coin slot because it was not opened in his presence.

    During questioning by Gunter, Kaufman later testified she didn’t think McDaniel understood how the U-Scan machines were set up and that he did, in fact, see in all the slot receptacles.

    Gunter said he was “very disappointed” in the verdict but holds out hope the judge will uphold his argument that the jury’s verdict was flawed.

    Should Hupp agree with defense arguments to overturn, Gunter said the judge has the option of either finding his client not guilty or ordering a new trial.

    Should Hupp uphold the verdict he is likely to impose the jury’s sentencing recommendation of a $25 fine.

    The Class I misdemeanor has a sentencing range of up to a year in jail and a fine of from 1 cent to $2,500.

    But as Gunter told the jury, a guilty verdict jeopardizing Jones’ credibility and career was the ultimate sentence his client faced.

    *  *  *

    Seven jurors stand by their verdict, citing defendant’s ‘evasiveness’

    The Warren Sentinel

    A seven-plus-hour jury trial is not exactly par for the course on misdemeanor petty larceny charges involving approximately $20 of goods that never left the store and which may have failed to be auto scanned, purposefully or not.

    However, defense attorney Eugene Gunter noted that in effect his client Warren County Zoning Administrator Gordon Jones’ life and career were on the line.

    “He may have made an honest mistake. He said he would correct it if that was the case but he was never given an opportunity to do that. He did not shoplift, an act that would certainly destroy his life,” Gunter told the jury.

    Gunter characterized the case as one of credibility, his client’s versus an admittedly malfunctioning auto-scan machine and a store manager with an axe to grind over a zoning violation Jones said he cited Ruth Kauffman for about three weeks prior to the July 18, 2003 incident.

    But the jury was unimpressed with the defense case.

    “Why would such a man do something like this, was he mad things weren’t moving faster, was he upset the machine wasn’t working correctly? That’s not the question — he did it. The facts are what the facts are. The witnesses saw what they saw,” Iden concluded during closing arguments shortly after 7 p.m.

    However, defense counsel Eugene Gunter argued that no human being saw Jones fail to pay as he said he did, nor was the machine opened in front of Jones and police.

    Gunter pointed out that the prosecution’s case was built on three store employees’ assumption that an admittedly malfunctioning machine correctly indicated Jones failed to scan all the items with which he was leaving the store.

    “All the testimony today bears down to whether that machine was working properly. That’s what you’re asked to convict on, the evidence of the machine,” Gunter said in closing.

    “Venom, vindictiveness, viciousness — that’s what this case is about,” Gunter told the jury.

    The defense argued that Food Lion Store Manager Ruth Kauffman had a personal vendetta against Jones over a zoning ordinance violation Jones testified he cited her for on June 30, about three weeks before the incident.

    “She said ‘I’ll get you, I’ll have you arrested for trespassing.’ Well here we are today — I guess she got him,” Gunter said.

    Kauffman was called as a hostile witness by the defense after the prosecution failed to call her to testify, even though she was the person who swore out the warrant against Jones three days after police allowed Jones to leave the scene without filing charges. The prosecution also tried to block Kauffman’s testimony as a hostile defense witness.

    “Why?” Gunter asked.

    On the stand Kauffman denied having ever received the June 30 zoning violation letter from Jones and also denied calling him at work to threaten him with arrest if he returned to inspect her property.

    However, the defense produced a zoning violation file on Kauffman containing a letter dated June 30, 2003, as well as expert testimony from a GIS employee who handles the county’s computer maintenance.

    Eric Patton cited 22 years’ experience working with computers to indicate he would have detected any alterations made to the letter’s content or file name. He said he found the Kauffman letter in the county computer system at the request of Jones and County Attorney Doug Napier following their trip to pick up the warrant for Jones’ arrest on Oct. 6.

    Patton said the computer log showed the zoning violation letter to Kauffman was created around 11:15 a.m. June 30 and completed some nine minutes later. He testified he could have detected and dated any alterations to the file name or content of the letter but found no such evidence.

    Jones testified he didn’t tie the Food Lion manager to the June 2003 zoning violation case until he and Napier picked up the warrant with Kauffman’s name as the complainant on Oct. 6. The warrant against Jones with his Locust Grove address apparently languished in the FRPD files for nearly three months before Jones’ name was recognized as a county employee.

    County Administrator Doug Stanley was then notified there was an outstanding misdemeanor warrant for Jones.

    Following the verdict and a private meeting with Jones, his family, who was in attendance Tuesday, and Gunter, Stanley informed the media of Jones’ leave pending a final decision on the verdict. He would not speculate further on Jones’ future with the county.

    Posted by tino at 13:38 6.08.04