Sunday, June 26, 2005

Not Showing Contempt for the Court - Trying Hard to Conceal It

This Thursday the Supreme Court issued one of its most damaging, ill-conceived decisions of the last half century. The Court just expanded Eminent Domain past all reason and gave away everyone's home and land to the wealthy and the politically connected. Until a few days ago the government had the right to condemn property and appropriate it for public use. Roads and railways have to go somewhere. Schools must be built. The military needs bases. Governments could condemn the property, pay the owners and renters the fair market value and lay asphalt or put up buildings.

In New London, Connecticut the city council gave over a working class neighborhood to a private developer who plans to build offices for Pfizer. Susette Kelo fought the government for the right to keep the lakefront home she'd always dreamed of. She lost in her state's highest court and appealed to the nations highest court. Two days ago the Supremes ruled that "public use" includes "raising property taxes". If a proposed use might raise more taxes or bring in a business a government can condemn your house or business and sell it to a developer.

Think about it for a moment. Suppose you plan ahead a little and realize that the land you bought will be next to a highway or airport some day. You suck up the taxes, sit on it and wait to sell at a profit. Not any more. If a developer says "I can put something here that will make money and pay more property tax than this putz" he has first right to your land. Up until this week I thought real estate was a good investment. Now I won't touch it with a big stick and rubber gloves. As soon as the big boys decide they can make money all it takes is a quiet word with the county commissioner. Then you accept their low-ball offer or take whatever the county decides to give you. Which will certainly be less than you could make by waiting and selling it when the time was right.

If your family saved and bought a house with a good view you're out of luck. A rich person with a few connections can own it by showing that his new house will have higher property taxes and cutting a deal with the city to declare your area "blighted". That's more or less what happened in Lakewood, Ohio. The mayor declared that houses in the area had to meet a minimum standard of 2-car garage, three bedrooms, two baths and a 5000 square foot lot. Since homes in this older neighborhood didn't meet the standard they could be condemned. Now she will be able to make it stick.

We've already seen this evil weed bear fruit in Freeport, Texas. Homes and established businesses including a fish processing plant are being taken to make way for a marina which might attract hotels and restaurants. The whole thing is being financed by a $6 million dollar publicly financed loan. Not only do the speculators get your home, they get the people to pay for their adventure. No doubt when the whole thing is finished they will get a special tax break for bringing (low-paid service sector) jobs to the city. Thursday's decision gave the city council the go-ahead.

For those who believe in private property this decision is unspeakable. For those who believe that government should provide some protection against the worst depredations of the powerful it is unthinkable. If you value property rights or the security of your own home scream at your Representatives and Senators to change this.

Toughest Grandfather in the World

A 73 year old Kenyan farmer was attacked by a leopard.

And killed it.

With his bare hands.

By reaching into its mouth and yanking its tongue out by the roots.

What can you possibly add to that? The "Clang! Clang! Clang! Clang!" of four solid brass balls kinda drowns out everything else...

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

An Immodest Proposal

The recent conviction of Tyco executives on charges of massive fraud and theft, the acts of terrorism on the part of the California energy traders and the use of thimerosal in vaccines even after the pharma companies knew it increased the risk of autism got me thinking about personal responsibility and business ethics.

Ever since 1873 or 1886, depending on how you want to cut it, corporations have enjoyed the rights of persons in the United States. Until then corporate charters could be and often were revoked when the legislature decided the company didn't serve the public good. Personally, I'd like to go back to those days, but it's part of the legal tradition now. So, corporations are people. And unlike real breathing human beings you can't throw them in jail or send them "up a long ladder and down a short rope".

Not only are they people, most of them are potentially immortal sociopaths by strict definition. In every for-profit corporate charter that I am aware of the officers have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize stockholder equity. Translated into English that means that anything they do has to be judged by a single standard, getting the most possible money for the owners no matter what. Conscience is forbidden by the Sacred Law of Contracts (La! The Heavens open. Saint Ayn and the Prophet Adam Smith descend and make the Holy $ign of the Dollar). If it will increase the value of the shareholders' assets the company is required to get rid of its employees' pensions, pollute the air, lobby Congress for special breaks and club cute little kittens and puppies to death (as long as the adverse publicity doesn't exceed the benefits of smashing fuzzy little animals).

What can you do to moderate this? Corporate responsibility doesn't make any sense historically. The whole point of a corporate entity from the Adventurers' Companies on down has been to insulate the assets of its owners and officers from any bad things that might happen to the firm.

The answer seems to be to treat them just like people.

These days tough-on-crime measures like Three Strikes, You're Out laws are very popular with law and order conservatives. Get caught at three serious crimes and you're in prison for the rest of your life. While you're in prison you can't do business on the outside. You can't enter into contracts. Economically you're the next best thing to dead.

Why not do the same thing to artificial people that you do to flesh and blood ones? If we're going to be consistent bring the Big Hammer down on corporate citizens who screw up three times. On the conviction for the third felony or serious misdemeanor the corporate charter would be revoked. Federal marshals or the County Sheriff would auction off the assets and give the proceeds to the creditors. Anything left over would go to the stockholders. In states with victim restitution laws some of it would go to those harmed by the actions of the former corporation.

It's consistent. It's simple. It's just.

The adventerous can add a wrinkle or two. It's a tenet of neo-liberal economics that everything has a value and that value can be expressed as money. Human life has a monetary value. Insurance actuaries calculate it down to the penny and pay out accordingly.

Regular people are motivated by things like patriotism, love, hate, and duty. They can be expected to understand these things. By fiduciary duty the only thing a corporate entity is supposed to understand is money. It should follow then, that since lives can be converted into money, money can be converted into lives.

The abstract worth of a human life isn't something that bottom-line-oriented CEOs should have to bother themselves with. So let us frame the question in terms they can understand. Money. The theft or fraud of the actuarial value of the median American's life would be the equivalent of a homicide. Ken Lay would ride the pipe for genocide on a par with the Nazi Holocaust. As a concession to the many worthwhile things a company does and in the spirit of human fairness a conviction wouldn't mean death for all of the employees. Only the CEO, President and Board of Directors would have to pay the ultimate penalty and redeem the rest.


Sunday, June 19, 2005

This is Tiel, the most wonderful woman in the world.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Book tag

Mushtaq and Tiel have asked me to take a turn at Book Tag. So here goes

  1. Total number of books I own - About 3500. The estimate I gave Tiel doesn't include a bunch of technical books in the basement. For most computer stuff I've decided to subscribe to Safari instead of buying. It's $20 a month, but it saves shelf space, and you get a discount if you decide the dead tree editions are worth owning
  2. Last book I bought - We get a lot of books online and preorder many before they're actually released, so the latest ones we've bought might not be the latest ones to arrive in the house. Given that, the latest nonfictions are The Mongols by Curtin and The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion by Will Eisner and Umberto Eco. The latest fictions areCharlie Stross' The Atrocity Archives and Toad's Alchemical Adventure by Vivien Laitwood.
  3. Last book I read - Nonfiction, Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia 500BC to AD 1700 . Fiction, Lois Bujold's Paladin of Souls.
  4. Five books that mean a lot to me
The hard part is keeping it down to five.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

For People Who Carry Too Much Stuff Around

When my wife calls me her "White Knight" she means it in the Lewis Carroll sense. I haul around way too much stuff, as much as ten or fifteen pounds not counting books. Backpacks and messenger bags have their place but can't go everywhere. Things are jumbled together, and the small pieces get lost on the bottom. Purses aren't acceptable for American men. Calling one a leathery man bag doesn't help. Besides, I'd end up leaving it on the bus.

No, I need clothes that can carry things and keep them organized. My basic equipment includes:
  • Phone/PDA
  • Wallet
  • Keys on lanyard
  • Leatherman Tool and bit set
  • Inova or Streamlight flashlight
  • Field dressing or pocket first aid kit
  • iPod
  • Voice recorder
  • Paper
  • Pen
  • Memory Stick
  • Metal match, lighter or waterproof matches
  • Pocket knife (got bit by the leatherman tool once too often)
  • A week's worth of medication
  • Wire tightening tool
  • Camelback (usually empty)
  • Life-giving caffeine

Those are the basics. For special occasions there might be other things - a camera, computer repair tools, space blanket, GPS unit, compass, water bottle or a book. To complicate matters Oregon and Washington are very reasonable about concealed carry . Sometimes I take advantage of those laws and need clothes that will conceal a small pistol or revolver, dejammer, and a couple of reloads.


5-11 Tactical
, recently spun off from Royal Robbins, specializes in carry-friendly clothes.

SigArms recently introduced its SigTac line of clothing. From what I've seen they are almost identical to 5-11's line. The main difference is that they trade on Sig's good name in firearms.

Scottevest is the line of clothes for gadget lovers. They started off making vests for wearable computing enthusiasts but have branched out to include jackets, pants, hats and accessories. All of their clothes have more pockets than a herd of kangaroos and conduits to wire all of your electronics. They aren't set up as well as the other two for firearms.


A number of manufacturers make pants specifically for concealed carry. One of my favorite is the Blackie Collins Toters line. They've got clever nylon-lined double pockets that can hold a full sized pistol, spare magazines and a pocket knife. They only do two things - serve as jeans and a holster - but they do them very well. The first time I wore them I was in a room full of police officers and didn't get the "You're carrying, aren't you?" look.

5-11's "tactical" pants have plenty of pockets (including internal pouches for kneepads) and fasteners and don't look too much like BDUs. They are comfortable, tough and allow good freedom of movement. I especially like the back pockets which are actually slash pockets on the side. You can put things in them and sit down without misaligning your spine.

I've only seen, not worn, SigTac's pants. They look a lot like the 5-11 product.

Scottevest's pants and shorts look like regular slacks and shorts. But they have about a dozen pockets including pockets inside pockets, specialized pockets and a design that doesn't show bulges. I was able to carry almost all of my usual stuff in them. They aren't as sturdy as the jeans or the 5-11/Sig pants.

The Toters are the only ones designed to carry a pistol. The others work well with pocket holsters like the ones made by the John Noble company in Vancouver WA.


Photographer's vests have become more popular lately. At least people besides photographers wear them. They have plenty of pockets and are great organizers once you have a place for everything.

People speak highly of Concealed Carry Clothiers ,but I haven't actually seen their products. The website advertises a number of garments which look like traditional vests. They have modular velcroed pouches which fit inside the pockets.

5-11's vests look like other photographer's vests but have a small built-in backpack and large pockets between the shell and lining designed for cross draw. They sell their own velcroed pouch system aimed at law enforcement. SigTac's design is, once again, very similar down to the arrangement of the outside pockets and fasteners.

Scottevest has not gone with the modular velcro patch-and-pouch system. Instead they've opted for pockets. Lots and lots of pockets. Their current line, the version 3.0, builds 32 pockets into a lightweight jacket. There are pockets for water bottles, a built in backpack designed to hold a camelback hydration system, pockets built into sleeves, pockets inside pockets that don't let things fall out. Most of the jackets have removable sleeves and can be worn as vests. All of them have conduits to wire your gadgets together or run headphones from phone or MP3 player to the ears.

I only have a few complaints with the line. They tend to use small zippers that require both hands where a larger zipper would be easier. Adding modular pouches would be welcome.


SigTac has its Tobacco jacket. 5-11 has a line of coats and jackets. Both are set up for concealed carry. Both have large pockets between the shell and lining and use a velcro pouch system. The 5-11 has slightly more storage space on the inside.

5-11 and Scottevest both have blazers. The former is optimized for a pistol. The latter is designed to carry a wider variety of things in its 14 pockets including one which will hold three normal sized magazines - the paper sort, not the kind which holds bullets.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Business as Usual or the Decline and Fall of American Civilization?

Some things just disturb you the more you think about them. Two days ago I heard about the creation of a lawyer cum business student a "Healthy Human Flesh Alternative". It's tofu textured and flavored to simulate long pig. The creator claims, truthfully one hopes, to be working from historical sources rather than direct experience.

I'm hoping it's just a really good joke. If he does start selling he'll make a lot of money right up until Congress passes a law banning it.

The more I think about it the more disturbing the whole thing becomes. It's not illegal. No humans or animals are harmed in the production. But who would want to eat this? I'm sure there's a strong market in the Goth crowd, the morbidly curious and people looking for a real gag gift. In some sense it's the same as the sugar skulls Mexicans eat on All Souls' Day.

But is this a curiousity we want to support or even allow? There are some taboos that it's just plain wrong to break, and cannibalism is near the top of the list.

The arguments and ethical concerns are a lot like the ones around computer generated faux child pornography. No real children are exploited, but it caters to desires so far beyond the pale of decency that even simulations need to be forbidden. I suppose the difference is that baby rapers are likely to be inspired by the images to abuse children. Flavored tofu isn't going to push anyone over the edge into cannibalism.