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28.Feb.2015 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Inside the Black Box Permalink to this item

The nice thing about a book borrowed from the library is that you've got a deadline to motivate progress. New books have shorter schedules, and I just finished an excellent "14 day" checkout (with a partial renewal), a day ahead of its due date. Jeanette asked me to write a review for March Secular Idaho newsletter; that expanded my comments to more than a blog post, and reason for an increasingly infrequent update of this site's home page, with a short review of Frank Pasquale's new book, The Black Box Society.

What's inside?

His subject is "the secret algorithms that control money and information," as his subtitle puts it, the inner workings of the opaque systems that increasingly manage, monetize and occasionaly mangle our reputations, our search for everything we search for, and our personal and collective finances.

It's a book well worthy of recommendation, and dense enough to defy easy excerpting or characterization. I was struck by one phrase in his concluding chapter, setting the scene for his recommendations for how we might move toward more intelligible, open, fair and controllable systems, in the last bit I quoted from the book.

"A peurile fixation on the obsolete polarity between 'state' and 'market' solutions" captures so much about where we are right now, and I couldn't help but think of local Koch camp follower (or wherever he gets his tax-advantaged "charity" salary and overhead from; he's steadfastly keeping that secret) Wayne Hoffman and his "Idaho Freedom Foundation," which seems to have never met a government regulation it could abide, from speed limits to child welfare.

Talking heads and op-eds have limited utility, however, and as difficult as the wading may be, Pasquale's depth of analysis and attention to detail is what's needed to change the risk-laden trajectory we're on. Do read at least my review and some of the related links, even if you don't tackle the book.

27.Feb.2015 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Über und unter Permalink to this item

The lastest episode in Uber's inroad to Boise is that it is suspending its service, having failed to reach an agreement with the city council about how it should be allowed to ignore some or all of the existing licensing and regulatory requirements because it's so shiny and new and people love it and did we mention it created tens of $billions out of thin air and a clever web interface?

We're not big users of taxis, but when we planned to fly out of town for six days, departing and returning in various wee hours, I asked a friend who was an enthusiastic early adopter of Uber in Boise whether she would use it for that sort of ride. She replied, "Uber is not always available—that's the downside. I usually have best luck from 11am on."

Tulum pueblo truck for sale, $100 mil

Not ready to try our luck at 5:40 am to get to the airport for a scheduled flight it would be inconceivable to miss, I went with the old-fashioned, call a taxi company the night before.

We were ready a little ahead of the planned time, so when our phone rang 15 minutes early (!), and our driver said he was out front waiting for us, it was not too annoying, but not at all what I wanted to hear. (Our lights were on, so he could reasonably infer we were up and about; if the house had been dark, a phone call at 5:25 would have been superb.) As we drove south, he seemed ready to ignore his talking GPS unit's instruction for how to get back to an arterial, but did listen to my instruction to follow the instruction. We got to the airport directly enough, with the GPS gal and me giving him turn-by-turn, and a few fingernail marks in the armrest from his funky driving, and of course we were nice and early, for $22.

Coming out of the airport a day and 20 minutes later than originally planned, just after midnight Tuesday, there is of course no "Uber stand" with cars lined up, but there were plenty of taxis waiting. If I did have a smartphone and Uber account, and rung them up ASAP after landing, I imagine someone would've been available, able to jump the queue and pick us up curbside that time of evening?

And I imagine the Uber driver would've been more accommodating about following my directions, and for sure cheaper, because that's the nut of the deal. Our taxi driver refused—REFUSED—to take the exit I told him to take, repeating my instruction TWICE, and went a possibly quicker, but definitely longer route, insisting that he knew what he was doing.

Yeah, I knew what he was doing too.

And after he got down to the surface streets, driving like a maniac to prove that see, this was faster did not make me a happier customer.

Still, I was thinking about how few cycles a driver could make in a day suffering through that long queue at the airport, and what a crappy job being a taxi driver must be, and I paid for the extra damn distance and still gave him the same tip I would have if he was a good driver and followed instructions. My bad.

Survey says... go to jail Permalink to this item

Yet another example of a market-based "solution" for our criminal-industrial complex: Sean Hossman's, using "insurance industry methods to help predict future crimes and steer defendants toward treatment." Story says the Salt Lake City-based company has obtained 100 contracts with state and county governments across the country, and "has spoken at justice forums in Texas, Idaho and Washington state," leveraging his considerable personal experience with the justice system into a going business.

The attractive selling point was the ever-popular "cost reduction." If costs are hard to measure (as they might be here in Idaho, still sorting through the debacle of failed privatization of our state prison system), there will be plenty of private profit to be had before anyone is able to verify the up-front claims. The "assessments" involve

"questionnaires with more than 100 items, probing the defendants' work history and family background, circle of friends, how often they moved and whether their neighborhood is crime-infested. The idea is to build a richer portrait to predict whether the defendant will commit future crimes and find the right treatment."

If you're thinking you've already seen this movie, you'd be correct.

But hey, insurance industry methods, what could go wrong? (Or as past president and current California probation official Brian Richart calls it, a "medical model," even better. I wonder if they provide white coats for the survey proctors.)

The reporting from Eileen Sullivan and Ronnie Greene ran in today's print version of the Idaho Statesman, with a sidebar that I tracked down on their website with a 3-day old URL, and the same byline: 5 things to know about state efforts to predict future crime. It's essential to the story.

If you end up in the justice system, you can expect to encounter something like this, for one or all of sentencing, probation and parole decisions.

The survey results, and in some cases the questions, and most definitely the design, underlying data and validity of the surveys are "clouded in secrecy." There are lots of questions, because the more the merrier, and greater precision looks like greater accuracy to the credulous. If the surveys are valid, accuracy would depend on survey-takers giving honest answers, which is kind of an interesting concept. And pretty much the punch line:

"PUNISHED FOR BEING POOR: Some of these surveys have the potential to punish people for being poor or uneducated by attaching a lower risk to those who have steady work and high levels of education."

26.Feb.2015 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Not ready for prime time Permalink to this item

Or maybe he is ready, but it's more of a comedy channel? Asked what he had to back up his brave bully talk and critique of Obama's foreign policy before the friendly crowd at CPAC, Scott Walker said "If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the globe," when maybe he should have said I'm going to have to punt on this one. And with the sort of panache that gets Obama labeled a tyrant, his response to the pushback from his parallel between protestors in Madison and terrorists....

"You all will misconstrue things the way you see fit," he said, "but I think it's pretty clear, that's the closest thing I have in terms of handling a difficult situation, not that there's any parallel between the two."

Ok fine, so he doesn't actually have any sort of close experience that could support any of the campaign blather he's promoting. Not actually much of a surprise, there. You might say the void in leadership starts with him.

And while we're talking about the 2016 race for the Republican nomination for president, you know who else isn't ready for prime time? Carly Fiorina, that's who. Chutzpah, check. Lots of cash on hand, check. (Thanks, Frank! And HP!). Delusions of grandeur, check. What's missing? Oh, I don't know, like ever being elected to an office? Or having something other than dictatorial experience?

25.Feb.2015 Permanent URL to this day's entry

On the way to the tropics Permalink to this item

We've got a ton of vacation pictures and travel stories to fill in that gap between 2/17 and 2/24, when we went offline for most of a week, to enjoy tropical sunshine, swimming in the Caribbean, and a big, fat wedding on the Yucatán.

A week ago Tuesday morning, we were out of the house dark-thirty, in time for takeoff around sunrise and an interesting view of the desolate basin and range with low-angled light making long shadows. As is my usual wont, I was glued to the window, and taking pictures with the knowledge that a little work in the editor would dispel the haze of window layers and distance. It started with sunrise-tinted snow-capped ridges in southern Idaho:

Sunrise in the mountains south of Boise

And then to shades of bare brown, and the vast desolation of the basin and range province of western Utah/eastern Nevada:

Basin and range, edited

But soon some red rock came into view and I realized we were routed over the top of the canyonlands of southern Utah...

S. Utah red rock canyons, on the way to Phoenix

and none other than the Grand Canyon! For the sunrise!

Over the Grand Canyon, on the way to Phoenix

Beware of MS Word attachments Permalink to this item

Not sure what's up, or whether this is routine phishing or something more serious, but I've had two emails today with variant financial alarms and an attached .doc file they want me to open. Second one's subject was "Blocked ACH Transaction. Case Number 989754." Sender was info at, utterly improbable for any email about a financial transaction that I might be interested in. "Please see the doc file enclosed to view more information about this issue."

Would not be prudent to open that, even if it's no more than a carrier for a phishing URL they want you to click to. There's a lot of mischief that could be carried in a base64-encoded binary .doc (or whatever it might really be).

George Leroy Tirebiter Permalink to this item

A little bit of Bill O'Reilly is way too much for me, but it was amusing to hear that gee, maybe he "embellished" his war reporting too, many years ago. He's not having any of it, as this capsule summary of our story so far explains. He was never "in the Falklands," that was just shorthand for "near some conflict down under," maybe riotous protesters in Buenos Aires. Whatever. It's not like he's a reporter or a news anchor these days, or that Fox News would fire somebody for sketchy relations with the truth.

The part I liked was when he calls out one of his antagonists as "a liar," and then says "Here's the truth: everything I've said about my reportorial career—everything—is true."

The echo of George Leroy Tirebiter's campaign ad for dog-catcher came to mind, when we hear that "You can believe me, because I'm always right, and I never lie." As for George Leroy O'Reilly, we'll see what The Daily Show team can dig up for the truth of the matter, I expect. They may find the funnier material is in his indignance.

24.Feb.2015 Permanent URL to this day's entry

the latest insult Permalink to this item

Spent a lot of the day cleaning up and responding to email after a week away from it. My guess was, there'd be 300 new messages in my inbox and 1,000 spams, which was pretty close. Slightly fewer of both, but spam tipped into 4 digits before I got to it later on. The subject above caught my eye after the initial filter search, and then scanning. From Senator Rand Paul, courtesy of the zombie enterprise of Romney for President Inc. selling its email list, this time to "Protect Internet Freedom" if I can believe what they say. So what's up, Senator?

"Big government can’t seem to keep its hands off of anything. The latest insult: President Obama and the Federal Communications Commission are going to take over the Internet on February 26th if we don’t do everything we can do to stop them right now.

Taking over the Internet? Wow, sounds bad.

"A plan deceivingly referred to as “Net Neutrality,” involves declaring the Internet a “public utility” and gives the FCC the power to decide what Internet service providers can charge and how they operate."

Oh, the humanity.

"This is not only a direct attack on the free market, but it will also result in an increase in Internet access fees for millions of consumers in America. It’s a massive tax on the middle class, plain and simple."

Maybe it will, and maybe it won't, but having the internet be a "utility," and yes, "under the rule of an antiquated regulation designed for land line telephones" does not strike me as a bad thing. Land line telephones worked—and still work—great for what they do.

There are plenty of arguments to be made pro and con, and to wave your hands and say "the details are complicated" but Obama bad, well, that's just stupid, Rand. You might say, it's the latest insult.

Update from the NYT: "Senior Republicans conceded on Tuesday that the grueling fight with President Obama over the regulation of Internet service appears over, with the president and an army of Internet activists victorious." And if you're reading this, the world wide web has not come to an end.

17.Feb.2015 Permanent URL to this day's entry

The Affordable Care Act death panel Permalink to this item

Apparently a good lawyer can sustain a case with any old client. One of the plaintiffs in the case that could realize the Republican dream of a fatal blow to the Affordable Care Act, King v. Burwell, is on the verge of qualifying for Medicare, doesn't know quite how she became a plaintiff, and doesn't "like the idea of throwing people off their health insurance." Stephanie Mencimer's report for Mother Jones will leave your jaw dragging on the ground. The lead plaintiff (also a hop, skip and a jump from being old enough for Medicare) has nothing to gain financially. Mencimer

asked King what he got out of the case. He replied that the only benefit he would receive from the case was the satisfaction of smashing Obamacare, which he believes bilks hardworking taxpayers to support welfare recipients. He said he doesn't care if millions of Americans lose their health coverage, because "they're probably not paying for it anyway."

Maybe seven or eight million Americans, by the way.

Sarah Cliff highlighted Mencimer's reporting for Vox, by way of introducing their card stack of Everything you need to know about King v. Burwell, "arguably the Affordable Care Act's greatest existential threat since the Supreme Court upheld the individual mandate in 2012." Card 8 of 15 has Jon Stewart's explainer, you might want to just jump ahead.

16.Feb.2015 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Dead letter Permalink to this item

When the Idaho House State Affairs Committee takes up "all the things [someone other group is] totally, obviously not correct on," we need someone to stand up and say "Physician, heal theyself!" That someone is not likely to be one of the Republicans on the panel, and the Republicans don't pay much attention to the outnumbered Democrats. So here we go: a resolution to make a statement (and nothing else), calling upon the U.S. Congress to tell federal judges to do their jobs according to the U.S. Constitution.

15.Feb.15 Permanent URL to this day's entry

The Wand of Narcissism Permalink to this item

Photo from Washington D.C., 2004

Dang it, they're being outlawed even before I got mine. My very first digital camera, way back in the day, had a clever (probably patented) split/swivel body that allowed you to point the lens at yourself and frame the shot in the electronic display. Kind of crazy to split the whole body of a camera in two, but there are plenty that still have a swiveling display, which enables not just the selfie, but also the overhead and worm's eye view without guessing or ladders or contortion. And the more common brute force solution, with more (cheap) electronics and less (expensive) machinery: just add a second camera to your camera (or phone or tablet). It's a dedicated selfie-cam, in fact.

Arms are only so long, and thus the magic wand. From the curators' POV, it's not so much a wand as a potential weapon, however, as visitors "swing their sticks with abandon."

“It’s one thing to take a picture at arm’s length, but when it is three times arm’s length, you are invading someone else’s personal space.” chuffed the chief digital officer at the Met, who will be quietly asking you to put that thing away from now on.

So much for "bonding to art" and creating free museum advertising such as Katy Perry's thumbs-up for Grant Wood's "original goths" (and, um, really missing the point of René Magritte's not-pipe?). No, no, you can still selfie-away and even use your stick in some places (such as the Louvre, surprisingly). Just be prepared for the possibility of some hoity-toity stink-eye.

♥.2015 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Learn (and pay) as you go Permalink to this item

The Senate State Affairs committee is giving 8 to 1 odds that Idaho's two-year run of "instant racing" is about to become historical. It was 2-to-1 in favor in 2013, but there's been a turnaround after everyone's had a chance to see just how well the please-don't-call-them-slot-machines simulate slot machines.

My datagraphic, from the numbers in the Statesman sidebar

The sidebar for Thursday's piece in the Idaho Statesman comparing the state's own lottery with instant racing pulled me up short. In just one week, patrons pumped $2.25 million into "instant" "racing" "terminals," in just three locations around the state. Those venues make an odd trifecta. The one just a hop, skip and a jump from where we live is right next to a bona fide horse racing track, with paddocks and stalls and sawdust and fertilizer. The one up in Coeur d'Alene is at the Greyhound Park where the dogs don't run because we outlawed that. Out east in Idaho Falls, they're at the Double Down Betting Bar and Grill, related by ownership but not right next to the Sandy Downs racetrack.

The DDBB&G owner has only had a short run in the last couple of months, says he's made "practically nothing" so far, but doggone it, a big investment, 68 jobs, and they've already provided almost $30,000 for public schools and over $3,000 to horseman. There are indeed a lot of folks lined up to get a piece of the instant racing action, but the pieces are mighty small. One penny on the dollar is divvied up between public schools, small racetracks, horse breeders, and the Idaho Horse Council youth programs.

By comparison, the state's lottery took in $4 million in the week of January 20, probably pumped up by the big Powerball jackpot on the line. Unlike instant racing, where you're only likely to lose 11 cents on your dollar, the lottery is a loser's game, or just the ticket for those who prefer voluntary taxation. Plan on losing 37 cents on your dollar in the long run, with 23 cents going to some useful purpose, mostly schools.

Plus "the industry"; in both forms of gambling, there are people employed to keep the lights on and the wheels spinning, and if part of your job is marketing, administration, operations, it's good for you. Still, our Constitution, and its patched-together prohibition on some sorts of gambling. These things that look too much like slot machines look like a bridge too far.

11.Feb.2015 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Trading in ideas Permalink to this item

Just for fun, and maybe to do a spot check to see if their former colonists have gone quite as whackadoodle as they read about on the internet, the British think tank guy had one more question: "Are you... comfortable with the idea of evolution, do you believe in it, do you accept it?"

Apparently Wisconsin's governor Scott Walker is not comfortable with it. "For me, I'm going to punt on that one as well," he said.

They edited out the rest of Walker's fourth-and-long playbook, but apparently something about foreign policy, too. Come on, he was just there for a cheesy trade mission, ok? It's not like he's running for president or anything, aina?

But if he were running for president, wouldn't he make a great divisive figure for that? Just listen to some of the friends he's made in his home state, such as the (real) 2010-2011 Wisconsin High School Teacher of the Year, Claudia Klein Felske, UW alumna and Ph.D. Jacquelyn Gill, or the University Committee, the executive committee of the Faculty Senate, and 332 members of the University of Wisconsin faculty.

Three memoirs Permalink to this item

Somewhat over the hump and with more memories already made than left to make (most likely), the genre becomes more interesting. It's as varied as individual lives, and skills at storytelling, and the three books I've read recently are by great—and very disparate—storytellers.

Tibetan Peach Pie cover image

Tom Robbins' Tibetan Peach Pie, with its sly subtitle of "A True Account of an Imaginative Life" was first. I'd read his first two or three novels when they were the new, new thing and his star was rising, then wandered off to other things. Nice to know there are half a dozen more of his novels waiting for me when I'm ready.

About the time I had it up on the "current" spot, top of the right rail, a friend sent an email, wondering if I'd read the book, or was just recommending it because Robbins wrote it? (The general answer is, I only put a book up there if I'm reading and enjoying it, or am pretty confident I will... which I guess leaves that specific question unanswered.) Anyway, the friend offered an unsolicited review that he thought "it sucks. It's largely an old man's glorified recollections of his youth," and not "worthy of him" (as "one of the greatest fiction writers of all time").

I'd started the book and was finding it interesting enough, and now the most interesting question for me was whether that opinion would change my own. It didn't; I liked it just fine. I don't have a problem with an old man's glorified recollections of his youth, I guess, and Robbins' literary life made a good read for me. YMMV.

Even This I Get to Experience cover image

Second, Norman Lear's Even This I Get to Experience. He's over 90, conveniently having outlived many of the people in stories that he might not publish otherwise. (Some of them are still around to "enjoy" seeing themselves as another did, though.) With three separate families along the way, his life has imitated the art he brought to TV stories that so many millions found compelling, and he deconstructs it with the benefit of hindsight and attention to entertaining detail.

And third, from the younger set, Mike Brown's astronomical thriller, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming. I remember the exciting time when a tenth planet had been spotted, and then when it was decided, contentiously, that you know what, there are really only eight planets, but I didn't remember (or know) the sordid detail. Brown's life has been intertwined with the science, and outcome, and he does a fine job of weaving the three stories together, and motivating readers to get out and see some night sky. (I noticed Venus hanging low in the sky when I left the house yesterday evening, and oh, Mars, Venus and a crescent moon will be getting together in a week and a half.)

As for planets, ex-planets, and dwarf planets, the Wikipedia page on the latter gives a capsule update (spoiler alert?) of our story so far:

The IAU currently recognizes five dwarf planets: Ceres, Pluto, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris. Brown criticizes this official recognition: "A reasonable person might think that this means that there are five known objects in the solar system which fit the IAU definition of dwarf planet, but this reasonable person would be nowhere close to correct." It is suspected that another hundred or so known objects in the Solar System are dwarf planets.

That adjective "known" is easy to skip over lightly, but Brown's narrative gives the word the weight it deserves, as he fleshes out what it takes to find a needle in a haystack. (As NASA's overview helpfully describes in the first of its 10 Need-to-Know Things About Dwarf Planets, "If the sun were as tall as a typical front door, Earth would be the size of a nickel and dwarf planets Pluto and Eris, for example, would each be about the size of the head of a pin.")

And plenty of unknown still to go around: out beyond Neptune and that doughnut shaped-ring of the Kuiper Belt from about 30 to 55 AU, there's the Oort Cloud you may have heard of, "a spherical shell, occupying space at a distance between five and 100 thousand AU." That's one and a half light years, in round numbers.

10.Feb.2015 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Has fill in the blank lost credibility? Permalink to this item

link to Comedy Central video

Sort of the same point I made two days ago down there, but more directly on point, and waaaaay more entertainingly reported—yes, this is journalism 2.0, people—on last night's not-so-fake news program, The Daily Show: Guardians of the Veracity. Because the news is not "the first draft of history," it's an increasingly narcissistic and recursive cycle of infotainment (which, incidentally, is distracting us while we're being robbed blind and blown up and stuff).

"The media is ON IT! This may seem like overkill, but to me, no. it's not overkill, because I am happy.

"Finally. Someone is being held accountable for misleading America about the Iraq War."

Criminal institutions Permalink to this item

Says here, the U.S. is pushing some big banks—Barclays, JPMorgan Chase, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Citigroup—to plead guilty to criminal charges for manipulating currency prices. I understand that a person with a felony conviction has a ton of trouble just getting on with life. What would a felony blot on the record of a formerly fine institution do?

"The pleas would be likely to carry a symbolic stigma, if limited actual fallout."

And a trophy parting gift to A.G. Eric Holder.

The business solution is to come up with a subsidiary (and of course some "midlevel employees" who must've been responsible for all the misdeeds) to take the fall. Can you retroactively subsidiarize an offending part of your organization?

Anyway, droll stories of cartoonish players calling themselves things like "the Players" and "the Three Musketeers," swindling their customers with electronic trading platforms tailored to suit the task.

"For example, once a client agreed to buy euros at a certain price from a bank, the platform would detect whether the market had suddenly moved in a way that made the trade less profitable for the bank. The platform would then allow the bank to cancel the trade, possibly setting up a chance for the bank to eventually process the trade at a higher price.

"In the online chat rooms, bank employees mocked their clients for not detecting the setup. And in some cases, when clients inquired about the cancellation, the banks falsely blamed a technical glitch."

You might find better odds down at the Instant Racing machines. (Although—I wouldn't bet on that, either.)

9.Feb.2015 Permanent URL to this day's entry

A literal dog and pony show Permalink to this item

Catching up on today's news from the statehouse via my favorite correspondent, I first noticed that the so-called "instant" racing hearings ran out of time and will continue Wednesday, which is kind of funny. (They did find time to honor an Idaho jockey, actor and sports analyst and Caldwell native I've never heard of, for what I can't imagine.) And then how the guy from Arkansas says "instant" and "historical" are the same thing.

Then the dogs. Since I'm not much into animal racing in any form, the years-ago kerfuffle when live dog racing was banned in Idaho didn't stick in my mind, but see here, we still have the Greyhound Park Event Center up in Post Falls, which has... grandfatherly "simulcasts" of races conducted elsewhere, and don't call them slot "instant racing" machines that are pretty much all that's keeping them in business.

Betsy's no slouch with her camera, and what's not to like about a Capitol full of "horse racing enthusiasts"? But wait, there's more! An actual pony clopping on the marble floor this morning, with a cute kid in a cowboy hat. It's a "service animal," don't you know, non-profit ponies for disabled kids, awww. They get a share of the vig. Maybe you're ok with the Greyhound Park going belly up, but think of the children!

Ok, what about the children whose parents are spending their time down at the "track" losing money playing slot machines "instant racing terminals"? That's sorta kinda the argument the legislative liaison for the Coeur d'Alene Tribe made, except not quite: they're in the casino business, thankyouverymuch, and would rather not have the competition.

The question may end up hinging on whether or not these slot machines "instant racing terminals" actually facilitate parimutuel betting or just turn pocket change into light, heat and noise. The guy selling them to the Senators assured them it's tied to skill and horsemanship, somehow, and lookie here:

“Every race in the system is a 10-horse field. … If it were pure chance, odds of picking the winner would be one in 10.” But, he said, people are picking the winner 1 in 7 times.

All our horse-pickers are above average, you say? He should have brought Fred Newman to add atmosphere to his presentation. But maybe it's just Idaho's horse-pickers who know their nags, and we're fleecing the Arkies? That doesn't seem as likely if you go through the history of "instant racing" and discover that Arkansas was ground zero for the genre.

The Wyoming Supreme Court ruled on the question of parimutuelity in the negative 9 years ago... and then the state's legislature said "is too" and brought it back in 2013. (And I'm sure this is Only A Coincidence, but that was the year that head of the Idaho Racing Commission testified in support of legalizing instant horse racing before Idaho lawmakers while he was also a registered lobbyist in Wyoming. Not that there's anything wrong with that? but he did decide to retire a tetch earlier than originally planned.)

The courts in Kentucky (where you would expect some people know some things about horses) are still trying to sort out the "theory" and practice of parimutuel betting with things that look for all the world like slot machines.

The "expert" testifying today was Louis Cella, of Race Tech LLC, and also vice president of Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, and his use of the word "tote" as a term of art caught my eye.

The instant racing machine, he said, is a “dumb terminal” vs. a “smart terminal.” “If you plug it in in your basement, nothing works,” he said. “If it’s not hooked to the central tote, it will not work.”

Wikipedia's history connects the dots from that word to AmTote International, whose home page illuminates the workings, ever so slightly (and says they developed the technology in a joint venture with RaceTech LLC). After bettors look over the "Daily Racing Form 'Skill Graph' charts of generalized data on the field," and press their buttons, payoffs are determined by good guesses, and "also ... by timing - bettors may be playing different races, but the wagers are lumped into the same pool and the player who hits first receives the highest payoff."

AmTote's company history has a heart-warming tale of an engineer who felt cheated at a Maryland track and responded by "usher[ing] in the era of honest, reliable racing by installing the first electromechanical totalisator system in the United States" and now, "through a steady evolution of products and services, AmTote has kept pace with the world and now sustains every segment of the industry."

8.Feb.2015 Permanent URL to this day's entry

The irony of death Permalink to this item

When someone dies, one of the things that needs to be done is to collect "vital statistics." No help for the dearly departed, but those of us left behind are interested, whether out of curiosity, for the memory of those closest to us, or for our general health and welfare. There are Registrars and rules they must follow, certificates, and, ahem, a deadline for getting them filed ("within 5 days after the death or discovery of the death in this state"). The instructions specify, and underline the black to be used for your typewriter ribbon, computer printer, or permanent ink. (We want the certificate to be as permanent as the death.) An Idaho Death Certificate fits on one (legal) sheet (not counting the sort-of copy in blue for authorization for final disposition, and the pink 24-hour report of death to send in, if you're not using the electronic version); the instructions for it run more than 40 pages.

1923 RR bridge over the Boise R

There are no equivalent government instructions for obituaries; you're mostly on your own for that. Nominally "news," but recognizing that not everyone's death is newsworthy, newspapers have long sold space and ink for memorial advertisements that everyone calls obits, because who wants to be remembered in an ad?

I found one "How to" article that proposed to go sentence by sentence. Start with the full name, city, date of death, where they died and "sometimes cause of death," but hmm, sometimes not. Then where the deceased was born, and the names of parents. And so on. (If you've read memorial ads-as-obits, you've seen the pattern.)

Along with the pitfalls of bad writing and inescapable clichés, another you might not have considered: avoiding leaving too many clues for identity thieves! ("The best way to avoid identity theft from your loved [one's] obituary is to take care of financial and credit issues before the obituary is published. Close accounts, and notify all creditors, banks and credit reporting agencies of the deceased's passing.")'s guide to writing an obituary doesn't mention identity theft, but they do have a book you could buy and a blog you could follow. (Put some "wow" in that obit, why don't you?)

I've long lamented the space-is-expensive ad style of too-small print, non-illustration and no paragraph breaks in the familiar newspaper format, and the apparently leading on-line purveyor seemed to do little to escape bad habits for many years. Now that claims 20 million obituaries hosted, they're getting around to some updates, which you might or might not notice in their newspaper-affiliated renderings. (Still just a portrait or two, and no indent or vertical space for paragraphs, but a sprinkling of hyperlinks, and a teaser for the Guest Book, which you could sign, and help pay to keep alive.)

The trade is changing, and funeral homes (and website providers for funeral homes) want a piece of the action. The word "obituary" is morphing into "My Life Story," complete with a navigation menu, comprising "service information," the "guest book," "photo gallery," and "video tribute" in the full package. Social media share icons, for Facebook, Google+ (death multiplied!), Twitter, LinkedIn and email.

A Legacy competitor (or frenemy?), promises the future of the past: "the largest and most comprehensive collection of newspaper obituaries and death notices in the United States." For a price, duh. $2.95 per article at the end of that helpful search interface, or $19.95 for 100 articles every 30 days. Their pricing note for the subscription option ("To enjoy uninterrupted service, your credit card will be billed every 30 days...") has a nice twist on "service," but automatically-billed periodic payments are the mother lode for business models of all sorts.

The canonical domain name, has been glommed by Legacy, and may or may not help you find something of interest. The search form ("Powered by ObitFinder®") led me to a still-working newspaper-affiliated page for a friend who died in 2008, but the "obituary" had been boiled down to name, age, DOD and the funeral home at which services are still said to be pending. The impressive catalog of "by newspaper" links are all links to the obits they host, such as they are and will be. At least until Facebook figures out how to tap this certain market and render Legacy irrelevant.

On having one's helicopter shot down Permalink to this item

Bryan Williams' trouble with misrecollection is big in the news news right now, and as someone who doesn't watch that (or other commercial) channel(s) for news (let alone news news), it's been interesting more as "a thing" than for the supposed scandal itself.

Seeing the latest headline about him stepping aside, I had two thoughts: it'll be a nice opportunity for someone else, and, what if we held politicians to the same standard of truth and integrity?

The occasional C-SPAN pan shows that Congress can keep ticking, and even when there's hardly anyone home and not even the pretense of them doing anything. We would need one honest man (or woman) to swing a gavel however, so perhaps this is just crazy talk.

6.Feb.2015 Permanent URL to this day's entry

In Mass.
NOAA graph just now

Global weirding Permalink to this item

A Facebook (and UUMN) friend warned her peeps to warm up the car "even if you're only going from one garage to another, bring extra clothes." Because ten below zero over there in Weston, Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, back at Fort Boise, it was in the mid-50s overnight, and is currently sliding up to 60°F, riding the 20 mph SE wind.

Shoot-out at State Affairs Permalink to this item

It's just like the measles, one commenter put it. Having more people with guns will create "herd immunity," and we'll all be safer. (And with citations from pjmedia and, no less.) The House State Affairs committee thought it was worth printing a bill to make it so. As long as, uh, we don't let our toddlers play with our guns or shoot ourselves while cleaning them. Not that that has anything to do with concealed weapons, but I do wonder about Iraq and Afganistan and Nigeria and so on, which seem to have no shortage of per capita weaponry, but not so much herd immunity.

It's working AFAWK for Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Wyoming and Vermont (which has never required a permit for concealed weapons). "RedCedar" comments:

"[I]n Idaho a concealed carry permit is only required within the city limits ... Anyone can legally carry concealed outside the city limits. There's some vague language about 'during any lawful outdoor activity,' but that essentially means any time. And yes, all elected officials automatically get to carry concealed without a permit, whether they're the governor or somebody on the local sewer commission or school board."

So not much will change, anyhow. (There goes the herd immunity theory.) IdahoMan sounds over the moon: "Idahoans have been waiting for this."

"Who gets fingerprinted like a criminal, pays a fee and has to seek a permission-slip in order have what is theirs to begin with? CCW permits a servitude tool, a violation of rights. They are as insulting as old Jim Crow laws and just as archaic. ...

"PS: Keep an eye out for any politician or cop that speaks up against this. It's a good litmus test to see if they view you as a citizen or an inmate."

Greg Pruett of the Idaho Second Amendment Alliance applied the argument from personal incredulity and fact-check innuendo, no reason to expect more violent crime if the bill were to pass.

"I would challenge all of you to go the states that have Constitutional Carry already and find instances where those things are happening," Pruett said.

At least one Idahoan was not so sanguine yesterday, but looking for his Facebook post this morning and not finding it, perhaps he reconsidered? After naming some of the specific guns in his collection that he loves, he opined on what a horrible idea it would be to have just anyone, with no training, be packing, wherever. That would be my not-too-informed point of view. Knowing more of the people around me have weaponry under their jackets does not cause me to feel so much safer, or any more constitutional. Americanbybirth1 up in KootCo is OK with permits too:

"16,000 adults have managed to fulfill the requirements of the current CCW laws, which includes completing training to acquire a permit to legally carry in Idaho."

4.Feb.2015 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Same old, same old Permalink to this item

Fresh from the yard this morning

Nothing says old and in the way like House G.O.P. votes to repeal Obamacare, again. The fifty-sixth time if you're counting. The most exciting part about the story is that three! Republicans bucked the party-line vote to make it only 239-186. Why are we still doing this, you ask?

"Despite an explicit veto threat from President Obama, Republicans said the vote on Tuesday was necessary to give new House members a chance to take a stand on the health law, which most Republicans had campaigned against."

It also gave Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi a chance to use the phrase "baying at the moon," and come to think of it, Speaker Boehner does look a bit Bassett-y in that accompanying photo.

In other unsurprising news, Senate Democratss are blocking legislation to reverse the President's action on immigration. "Most of the Senate’s 55 Republicans backed the motion to proceed to the House bill in a 51-48 vote, but GOP Sen. Dean Heller (Nev.) voted against even considering the legislation." And a slim majority is nowhere near the 60 votes needed for cloture. Hence a "filibuster" against the linkage to funding for the Department of Homeland Security, yet another game of Congressional Chicken, with collision slated for Feb. 27, when DHS would have to decide how much of the TSA, Secret Service and Coast Guard (for example) to shut down.

Following a lunch with his members Tuesday, McConnell was asked whether he would rule out a “clean” DHS funding bill without policy provisions.

“The way to change a bill is to get on a bill and offer amendments,” McConnell said. “So I think it’s a rather honestly absurd position to say ‘we object to a bill, but don’t want to debate the bill or change the bill.’ I’m perplexed.”

Perplexed, I tell ya.

3.Feb.2015 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Why would you buy this kind of publicity? Permalink to this item

Nationwide Insurance's tone deaf dead kid ad run during the Super Bowl on Sunday is trending. But let's call that a questionable artistic choice. The question I'm wondering about concerns the one about taking an employee sex discrimination case all the way to the Supreme Court. Can David Ferguson's account for RawStory really be what happened?

The office had a lactation room, but wouldn't let Angela Ames use when she got back to work from maternity leave because her paperwork wasn't in order? Telling her to "go home and be with your babies" is not sex discrimination, because they tell their male employees that, too? (Well, they could have.) And the whole breastfeeding angle, forget that, because "some men can lactate too." (Who knew?) Apparently the supervisor doesn't quite understand the whole "maternity leave" idea, either.

"As Ames waited for the room to be clear, her breasts painfully swollen and beginning to leak, her supervisor came to her desk and informed her that she would be responsible for all of the work that she had missed during her leave time. All of it must be completed, said the supervisor, within the next two weeks — meaning a considerable amount of overtime — if Ames did not want to face disciplinary action."

Reading through the facts laid out in the appeal to the 8th Circuit, it seems the raw story (so to speak) is about right. The case hinged on whether Nationwide actually fired Ames, or whether circumstances persuaded her to resign, as it were. Whether her lawyers argued the right thing to begin with, or on appeal. (At least I didn't see anything about men can lactate too.)

Wouldn't it have been a hell of a lot cheaper to settle this amicably, and out of court? Wouldn't it make you feel better about Nationwide Insurance to know they were willing to do that, instead of fighting the mother with two young children all the way to the Supreme Court? So many questions...

Something about sex, and gender Permalink to this item

Idaho patriarch, Romney-backer and MLM king Frank VanderSloot expressed his guest opinon in Sunday's Idaho Statesman with curious timing and TBD effect. I guess he couldn't make it to Boise in time for the #AddTheWords hearing that wrapped up with the House State Affairs committee keeping HB2 in their committee on Thursday. But anyway, he wants us to know he's OK with adding "sexual orientation" to Idaho's Human Rights Act. (Some of his best customers are gay, I suppose.)

He doesn't understand "gender identity," on the other hand, so has nothing to say about those other two words. He said he "believe[s] that gay individuals, like all humans, can and should choose whether to act on their sexuality or not according to their own conscience," which provides cover for those who believe acting on gayness is wrong, whether or not having gayness is.

There's plenty to learn when it comes to gender identity, starting with accepting that "Adam and Eve" doesn't quite cover all the bases. Here's a new gender identity, for example: neutral, officially recognized by the University of Vermont, at least. Last October, the NYT Magazine had a long feature about When Women Become Men at Wellesley. It's confusing, at least, still being sorted out. We'll need some sort of gender-neutral glossary, which will probably also remain fluid for a while.

In the meantime, can't we just discriminate against people who seem strange and slightly inexplicable, because of the sanctity of our bathrooms? The House State Affairs Committee, said yes, you can.

The comments under VanderSloot's opinion on the Statesman site are lively. Thomas Meissner provides a handful of links to "a few of the hundreds of sources that cover this virulently anti-gay national finance chair" (for the 2012 Romney campaign), and calls this effort "blatent pinkwashing after fighting tooth and nail against LGBT people." VanderSloot himself responds:

"The criticism that I should have spoken up sooner is well deserved. I should have. On the other hand, the issue is not dead. It can be and should be revisited. I believe it will be."

Good for him. Eric Paige provides a not-quite explanatory suggestion for the part that VanderSloot says he doesn't get, and so has no opinion about.

"What's not to understand about gender identity? Some people are born female but feel they are truly male, some are born male but feel they are truly female, and some people feel they are both genders or no gender. Pretty simple."

Even with no basis for empathy, we should be able to grasp the non-discrimination part of the puzzle, eh?

1.Feb.2015 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Why we can't have nice things Permalink to this item

Bill Dentzler, the Idaho Statesman's new political writer, reports that this session might bring the "fullest legislative discussion to date on expanding Medicaid," a low hurdle given how steadfastly the legislature has avoided any discussion of the topic. The Governor was able to at least convene a "work group" last year, and their favored proposal would pick up 78,000 Idahoans with income below the federal poverty level and another 25,000 below 138% of the FPL. The plan could save the state $173 million over 10 years.

Some of those 103,000 people would be less likely to die thanks to having insurance. Estimates vary; the story's sidebar includes the "76 to 179" one, which is to say along with saving a couple hundred million dollars, expanding Medicaid might save hundreds or a couple thousand lives too. Oh, and the federal funding to keep more people insured would mean more jobs, too, an estimated 13,000 in 2016.

What's not too like? One of the (four) legislators who was part of the work group "question[s] the wisdom of growing an economy based on more medical spending." We'd rather not have more medical spending? We'd rather not have those low income people survive? We'd rather have our tax dollars go to other states?

It doesn't make a lot of sense.

The work group members, who you'd assume are the most conversant with the many issues and related facts was nearly unanimous in their support for the proposal. In August, the vote was 10-3, with the three "no" votes from the legislators who were there, who "recommended the workgroup develop an option that the Idaho Legislature could give serious consideration to." Then, with more information about "the evolving state and national landscapes in healthcare reform," the group met again in November, refined its option "3" to "3.5" and voted 12-1 in favor.

But that one "no" vote. The nay-sayer was House Majority Leader Mike Moyle from Star, who said the House committee would "review what that one-sided task force had to say" but predicted no further action.

I guess "nearly unanimous" is "one-sided" when you're the person who disagrees the overwhelming majority. Moyle's not the chair of the Health and Welfare Committee, with the unilateral prerogative of burying action; he's not even on the committee. But...

"I personally don't think it happens this year," Moyle said. "You have a speaker and (committee) chairman who said unless there's a consensus, nothing's going to happen. I don't see a consensus coming together this year. Too many people have staked a line in the sand."

What the hell does that even mean, a line in the sand? Hundreds of millions of dollars, thousands of jobs, hundreds of lives, and a line in the sand "staked" by Republicans in our legislature. It's a no-brainer.


Tom von Alten
ISSN 1534-0007