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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Non-Profit Scams

I couldn't even read the whole thing; just too painful.  The Washington Post today has the result of a investigation into "diversion" of funds by non-profits.  As I understand it, non-profits are supposed to report if more than $250,000 of funds (or 5% of assets/receipts) meant for their causes has been "diverted" -- i.e. stolen, usually by a trusted employee.  About 1000 non-profits have made such reports since the reporting requirement began in 2008, for a total of hundreds of millions of dollars.

It's really sad that there are so many people out there -- specifically, people who have been entrusted with paid jobs in these non-profits -- who are routinely engaging in this kind of theft.   

Monday, October 21, 2013

The usual "suspects"

I'm sure this is a pet peeve for a lot of other people but I'm too lazy to google it right now.  Just chalk me up as one more.  I can't stand it when I read a newspaper article that refers to the lead character in a crime story as "the suspect," especially when it's clear that the "suspect's" name is not known.

This was triggered by an NYT story that quoted the Sparks, Nevada Police as follows:

"After the shooting, the Sparks Police Department posted a message on its Web site that read: 'Stay away from Sparks Middle School 2275 18th St. We believe the suspect has been neutralized.'"

Why can't they simply say "the shooter" has been neutralized?  In this case it is particularly egregious, because you really shouldn't go around "neutralizing" people on mere suspicion.

I heard/read the same mistake during the Navy Yard shootings.  There, the person killing all the people was "the suspect" and for a while there were even two or three "suspects," but nobody knew who they were.

Yes, people are innocent until proven guilty, but if you don't have a name, there is NOTHING to suspect.  You might as well call the person who is doing the shooting the shooter, the killer, the murderer.  That's what he is.

It gets more confusing if there actually is an identified suspect -- i.e. someone who the police think might have committed the crime.  In that case, it's even worse to talk about the "suspect" doing this or that crime, since then you're essentially assuming what you're supposed to be proving.

UPDATE June 13, 2015

Here we go again, from CNN today:

CNN)[Breaking news update, posted at 5:05 a.m. ET]
Authorities found explosives in one of four suspicious bags found near Dallas' police headquarters, Police Chief David Brown said. Police believe there were multiple shooters who may have fired from different locations. "There might be up to four suspects," Brown said.
[Previous story, posted at 4:53 a.m. ET]
(CNN) -- Shots were fired at Dallas police headquarters early Saturday, the Dallas Police Department said.
A witness told police that the suspects, who opened fire about 12:30 a.m., were in an armored vehicle. Police responded to the incident, the Dallas Police Department tweeted.
"There is currently a standoff with what appears to be an armored vehicle in the Dallas suburb of Hutchins, Texas, around I-20 and I-45," Major Max Geron said. No one has been injured so far.
    Security has been beefed up at Dallas police stations and at Dallas City Hall, he said.

    Monday, October 14, 2013

    Creativity and the Billionaire

    I don't usually discuss article that I like, but here's one: by Thomas Frank, previously published in Harpers.  It picks up on a theme that I had just hit upon myself while listening to William Poundstone's "Are You Smart Enough To Work at Google?"

    I think it's the same basic theme, anyway.

    Frank's point is that all of the books we see on creativity nowadays are not the least bit creative.  They simply repeat the same old stories about post-its, jazz, Bob Dylan, Picasso, Einstein, and the Swiffer.  They don't really teach us anything, but they insist -- and have done so for a long time -- that the creative class will eventually rule the world.  Another book I happen to be listening to -- Daniel Pink's 2005 "A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future" is in the same vein.

    The thought I had recently (in reaction to Poundstone) was that a lot of the people who are deemed "creative" nowadays don't really seem to have been all that creative.  He points to gmail as a great success of Google's "spend twenty percent of your time working on your own projects" policy.  Successful, yes, but creative??   It's just email, which had been around for a long time.  I think he also points to Facebook as some kind of triumph of creativity.  Really?  Just another example of a person being at the right place at the right time, and doing something that a lot of other people were already doing.

    And Frank's final point is just that these books help reaffirm the sense of "creativity" among the people who have made it big in this economy.   Which I think is where I was going, but I hadn't gotten around to articulating that yet.  Here's how Frank says it in the end: "Creativity is what they bring to the national economic effort, these books reassure them — and it’s also the benevolent doctrine under which they rightly rule the world."

    Frank's latest book is "Pity the Poor Billionaire:  The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right" which sounds like a painful read.  But he's a pretty good writer, so I might give it a try.

    Saturday, October 12, 2013

    Malala tells Obama that drone attacks fuel terrorism

    That was reported in the Washington Post this morning, and there's a lively debate in the comments on whether she's right or not.  Some say that the only way to stop terrorism is by killing its leaders, and it's easier to do that by drone than by a full scale invasion, and if there's some collateral damage, well, that's the price we (and the victims, and the victims' loved ones) pay for the result.  And of course, Obama knows there's a tradeoff, and he's used his judgment to continue -- well, exponentiate [if that's a word] -- the drone attacks.

    Others support Malala, and wonder why Obama has to learn this from a 16-year-old.

    True, I don't have the all the information that Obama does.  But I do have some experience with organizations generally.  And in my experience, for every person that is currently a "leader" in an organization, there are at least five or more equally-qualified people who would love to be the "leader" too.  And also, in my experience, the people who get the "leadership" positions are not always the greatest leaders; often the ones just below would be much better.   I'd be surprised if the Taliban or Al Qaeda or any of the other other terrorist organizations that we are targeting were any different.

    So the whole idea of "cutting off the head" by killing the leaders of these movements seems cockeyed to me.  That might work if you've got a single charismatic leader on whom the whole organization depends.  But that's clearly not the case here -- we're going after dozens if not hundreds of "leaders" that nobody's ever heard of.  You kill a leader, and then there's a brief power vacuum, but then the next guy steps up and takes that leader's place.  The organization doesn't just go home -- it continues to exist based on its principles and ideas, and the very drone attack that killed the leader is just one more affirmation of the "correctness" of those principles and ideas.  The people in the organization continue to believe in them, and will simply follow the next leader, and many of them are doubtless hoping to advance to leadership positions within the organization themselves.  The very possibility of drone-created vacancies might seem like not such a bad thing for their ambitions.

    In the case of terrorist organizations, we've got the additional fact that they are often very well funded, e.g. with Saudi oil money.  The death of one leader isn't going to affect the benefits that they can offer to new recruits, and the killing of innocents by drones will simply increase recruiting.  If I'm a young man and my little sister or brother is killed by a drone, and I don't have much else going on in my life, I'm signing up.  What am I missing?

    Maybe this is what I'm missing:  Maybe, just maybe, there is only a limited supply of educated Muslim clerics with access to Saudi (or other) money who are willing to step up and into these "leadership" positions.  I suppose if there really is only a finite supply of those people, if we can kill them off by drone, that might have a real effect.  That doesn't answer the moral question of whether these executions -- and the inevitable collateral damage -- is something a supposedly-civilized country should be doing, but perhaps if it's all a "cost-benefit" game, and the goal is to stop terrorism at all costs, perhaps the drone killing is "justifiable" on some level, if not morally so.  I still think the whole campaign most likely does more harm than good -- it really hurts our standing in the world, and undermines any effort to try to lead by example, which for me, has always been the only way out of this downward spiral.  But as always, I try to present both sides of an issue.

    Saturday, October 5, 2013

    The No Pain Government

    For a while I was feeling a little bit sorry for Federal workers who were unexpectedly furloughed last week.  But now I see that the House has passed a bill guaranteeing that they will be paid.

    So let me see if I can get this straight.  We ran out of money, so we need to shut down the government.  But the one savings we might realize from that -- the cost of paying a bunch of Federal employees -- well, to actually impose that savings would just cause too much pain, and make too many voters mad at us.  So as soon as the government is back up and running, we'll just print some more money and pay them.  That sounds like soft-hearted liberal nonsense.  Lousy Democrats.  Oh wait -- it's the Republicans, trying to salvage something out of this disaster, by using taxpayer money to buy back the votes that they would have lost from the rightfully enraged Federal workers.

    Onlyl in America -- and the American government -- does "furlough" essentially equate to "paid vacation."

    It's ironic, but this is almost exactly like what the Democrats did by ramming through Obamacare without any concern for cost savings, and what the Republicans are in some (but not all) ways calling irresponsible.  Yes, it feels wonderful that people with pre-exising conditions can now get insurance, and formerly-uninsured people will no longer be bankrupted by unexpected medical bills.  But to get the votes we need, we need to make that the businesses that are responsible for soaring health costs will continue to make healthy profits.

    So who bears the costs in these two parallel situations?  

    In Obamacare, it's basically the people who pay more for insurance than they get out of it who end up paying for it.  I.e. most of us.

    With the Federal worker paid vacation program, it's all of us. 

    Woot is Owned By Amazon

    Yes, everyone should know this by now -- it happened in 2010 -- but not everybody does. Obviously, the Woot site isn't going to broadcast it, because that site needs to appear edgy and cool.

    I've bought stuff from Woot both before and after the Amazon purchase, and to be honest, I didn't notice any difference.  The monkey jokes seemed to be about the same.  Not really funny, but oddly addictive.

    But now it's all a marketing game; one more profit center for Amazon (and one less competitor also).  Pre-Amazon, when you saw something on Woot, you could go to Amazon and look at the reviews and the price there and decide if you are getting a good deal.  Sometimes, it seemed, Amazon would even lower its price to bring it into Woot's range.

    But that's all over now.  Amazon owns Woot, and so they know you are going to go to Amazon to try to figure out what a "fair" price for the item is.  And knowing THAT, they make sure that the price on Amazon is a good deal higher than the one on Woot, which makes the Woot price look like all the better a deal.

    I'm writing this today because both Woot and Yugster are offering a one-day sale on a handheld 3M M220 projector.  Woot is at $129 and Yugster is at $169.  It seems like a pretty good product, but apparently it's not easy to figure out how to actually make it work with your files (internal software limitations), and moreover, the VGA cables that you might use to connect it to your computer are apparently not available anywhere (at least according to the one star reviews). Also, apparently it's important to have a remote with it, but that's sold separately and might also not be available.

    And what is Amazon selling this discontinued product for?  $200.  So looks like a pretty good deal on Woot, right?

    I think I'm going to pass this up today, based on the cable and software issues.  Would be nice to have a little battery operated projector of course, and that price seems pretty good, but I don't want to spend a lot of time tracking down cables and dealing with other limitations.  The nice thing about Amazon's review system is that although many if not most five-star reviews for any given product are fake, the one-star through three-star reviews are generally heart-felt.