Goodbye spammers

A blog is like a house in some ways. If you go away for a while and leave it uninhabited, when you come back you’ll find it full of dust, cobwebs, and nasty cockroaches under the furniture. The cockroaches, in this case, are spammers. For the past year, they’ve been using the comments section of my old posts to advertise designer clothing, drugs of questionable origin, and other such junk.

Well, I’ve had enough. I’ve just swept out all the spam comments, and installed a reCAPTCHA plugin on my comments page. From now on, anyone who leaves a comment on my blog will have to solve a reCAPTCHA challenge first. Which will not only stop automated spambots, but it will also help convert old books to digital form!

Huh? How does that work, you ask? Here’s how reCAPTCHA works. Clever, isn’t it?

So please leave comments — because you’ll be helping archive old newpapers, books, and radio programs in the process!

UPDATE: Trusting in reCAPTCHA alone is not going to work: the spammers are still getting through. I’m going to close comments entirely, because only spammers are commenting on a blog this old anyway. If you are the rare exception and want to comment on something I’ve written, send me an email. What’s my email address? Well, you can find my name on the “About Me” page. Take my first name and last name, put a period between them, and you have my Gmail address.

So goodbye spammers, this time for good.

Unbelievable

Three days after the Deepwater Horizon spill, the Dutch government offered to send oil skimmers to help scoop the oil off the surface of the ocean, well before it reached the coast. But the Obama administration turned them down. And now we find out why: because of a nitpicky detail in EPA regulations.

The skimmers work by pumping in water mixed with oil, separating the oil out from the water in large tanks, then pumping the clean water back into the ocean. However, because the water pumped back into the ocean would still contain trace amounts of oil, this fell afoul of an EPA regulation that forbids oil-contaminated water from being pumped into the ocean. Under normal circumstances, this is a good thing — but in this circumstance, following this rule to the letter would be asinine. But that’s exactly what an EPA bureaucrat did. And neither President Obama nor anyone else in his administration saw fit to overturn this idiotic decision.

There’s more. In Louisiana, someone had the bright idea of loading a bunch of vacuums onto barges and floating them out onto the oil-laden water to start sucking the oil off the surface. Essentially, they built the world’s largest wet vac. But the Coast Guard stopped them because “[t]he Coast Guard needed to confirm that there were fire extinguishers and life vests on board, and then it had trouble contacting the people who built the barges.” Again, an idiotic decision made by a low-level bureaucrat not looking at the big picture, that wasn’t overturned by his superiors.

Now, it’s not the federal government’s job to hold your hand and wipe your nose for you, and the most effective response to a disaster is usually the local response. But the least the feds can do is avoid getting in the way!

If Obama wants to persuade the American people to hand over our healthcare to the tender mercies of government bureaucrats, he’s got to get them to do a better job than this.

UPDATE: Same song, third verse.

It takes an “intellectual” to be this stupid

Apparently, a history degree from Harvard doesn’t protect you from making absolutely boneheaded mistakes. Frank Rich’s latest column in the New York Times contains the following gem (link in the original):

It’s also mistaken, it seems, for anyone to posit that race might be animating anti-Obama hotheads like those who packed assault weapons at presidential town hall meetings on health care last summer.

Why do I make a point of the fact that the link was in the original? Because Frank Rich obviously never read the link. If he had, he would have seen this photo:

From CNN: Black man carrying assault rifle outside Obama town hall meeting

From CNN: Black man carrying assault rifle outside Obama town hall meeting


I ask you: is this man animated by racial prejudice when he criticizes Obama?

Now, I’m not saying that black people can’t be racist; that would be a ridiculous claim. There are black people who are anti-Semitic racists, or anti-white racists, or anti-Asian racists, just as there are white people who are anti-black or anti-Semitic or anti-Asian. But how many white people are anti-white racists? How many black people are anti-black racists?

I hate to have to explain this to you, Mr. Rich, but the entire point of your “anti-Obama protestors are racist” column is that President Obama is black, and that the racism allegedly directed against him is supposedly reminiscent of racism during the Civil Rights era. And the very article your column links to disproves this point with a single photo.

Perhaps Frank Rich didn’t insert that link himself, but it was inserted after his column was written by the Web editor(s) at the New York Times. In which case Mr. Rich’s failure is not one of reading comprehension, but one of failure to do the research. Even so, it doesn’t give me much faith in Harvard’s American History program: research into sources is a fundamental part of doing history right. As C.S. Lewis so memorably put it in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, “What do they teach them at these schools?”

At my alma mater, Wheaton College, there was a standard joke that we were the “Harvard of the Midwest,” or sometimes, that Harvard was trying to be the “Wheaton of the East Coast”. I’m now thinking that we should have been joking about a better university, because Harvard’s education clearly isn’t up to snuff.

Photos from the Lone Star Tea Party

This year’s April 15th tea party in Grand Prairie, TX was very well attended. I’m terrible at guessing crowd sizes so I won’t even try, but I took pictures of every clever sign I saw and ended up with over a hundred photos — and the only reason I didn’t take at least twenty more is because my camera battery ran out.

The award for “best sign of the day” has to go to this one:

Sign: Air this MSNBC, I dare you

I’ll have more photos up later once I’ve finished sorting through them all to pick out the best ones.

UPDATE: A few minutes later, as I was discussing this sign with a member of the press, a woman behind me said in a tone of sarcastic surprise, “You mean there are black people at a Tea Party?” I turned around to see who had spoken, and saw this woman:

Black people at a Tea Party? Surely not!

These weren’t the only black people I saw there, but I didn’t take a picture of most of them because really, when you think about it, it shouldn’t matter what skin color someone has — it’s the content of their ideas that matters. (Dr. King would have been thrilled with the attitudes of the Tea Party attendees that I met yesterday). But since these two women had both made a point of their skin color, I snapped their photo.

Pardon me, your bias is showing…

Wow. I knew the media, including CNN, doesn’t like the Tea Party movement and doesn’t want to report favorably on it, but this is just mindboggling. Here’s an overhead view of the crowd at the March 27th speech by Sarah Palin at in Arizona:

searchlight-tp1

How many people does that look like to you?

Now head over to http://www.eyeblast.tv/public/checker.aspx?v=XdkUnzkU2G and listen to the CNN reporter, standing in the middle of that crowd, describe the size of the crowd:

“Hundreds of people, at least dozens of people – we haven’t gotten a count of how many people turned out there…”

Don’t take my word for it; check out the video yourself. Read more at http://gatewaypundit.firstthings.com/2010/03/cnn-on-size-of-todays-searchlight-tea-party-rally-hundreds-of-people-at-least-dozens/.

Innumeracy

Via Hot Air and Patterico comes these two articles from the Associated Press and the Columbus Dispatch, respectively.

The Obama administration has been claiming that the stimulus “created or saved” jobs. But there have been some significant factual problems in the numbers reported.

From the Columbus Dispatch article:

Of the 212.5 full-time equivalent jobs the district said were funded with part of the $64 million in stimulus it expects to receive, about 65 percent were “saved,” including 36 principals and assistant principals.

So was the district on the verge of laying off 36 school administrators?

“No,” Dannemiller said, explaining that the reporting choices were “created” and “saved.”

“They weren’t ‘created,’ obviously, so our only other choice was ‘saved.’ “

… So if these jobs weren’t in danger, what was the money used for? Apparently, raises and bonuses. From the AP article:

About two-thirds of the 14,506 jobs claimed to be saved under one federal office, the Administration for Children and Families at Health and Human Services, actually weren’t saved at all, according to a review of the latest data by The Associated Press. Instead, that figure includes more than 9,300 existing employees in hundreds of local agencies who received pay raises and benefits and whose jobs weren’t saved.

And further down in the AP article, there’s this spectacular demonstration of innumeracy:

At Southwest Georgia Community Action Council in Moultrie, Ga., director Myrtis Mulkey-Ndawula said she followed the guidelines the Obama administration provided. She said she multiplied the 508 employees by 1.84 — the percentage pay raise they received — and came up with 935 jobs saved.

The innumeracy on display by Ms. Mulkey-Ndawula is staggering. She multiplied by 1.84 when she should have multipled by 0.0184 — throwing her results off by a factor of a hundred. Leaving aside how ridiculous it is to claim that a raise is a “fraction of a job saved” (if the job was truly in danger, why would there be any raises?), that means that instead of reporting 9.35 jobs “saved” as a result of those raises, she reported 935 jobs “saved”.

Innumeracy. It’s a real problem, folks.

And while Ms. Mulkey-Ndawula’s innumeracy may not be widespread, the false reporting of raises and other uses of stimulus money as “saved jobs” is indeed widespread. Near the close of the AP article closes, we find:

More than 250 other community agencies in the U.S. similarly reported saving jobs when using the money to give pay raises, to pay for training and continuing education, to extend employee work hours or to buy equipment, according to their spending reports.

The next sentence tells us that “[o]ther agencies didn’t count the raises as jobs saved, reporting zero jobs,” but this fails to reassure, since we aren’t told how many. Since counting raises as partial “saved jobs” was done on direct instructions from the administration, I’m guessing most of the other agencies counted things this way as well. Which means there are some massive problems underlying the claim of X number of jobs saved by the stimulus.

Why I will no longer do business with Wachovia Bank

So yesterday I received a letter from Wachovia Bank. The envelope stated “It feels good to be PREFERRED…”, which warned me that this was another one of those pre-screened credit offers. When I opened it, the first thing I saw was:

$1,200.00 check from Wachovia bank - what's the catch?

$1,200.00 check from Wachovia bank - what's the catch?

Now, I wasn’t born yesterday. If banks handed out $1,200 to random people all the time, they’d soon go out of business. There must be a catch. So I looked at the accompanying letter, and saw this:

Header of the Wachovia letter

Header of the Wachovia letter

Sure enough, this wasn’t a gift, but a loan. And what were the finance terms? I turned the letter over and looked at the other side:

$600 interest on a $1,200 loan? Do they think I'm stupid?

$600 interest on a $1,200 loan? Do they think I'm stupid?

An APR of more than 50%? Almost $600 in interest… on a $1,200 loan? Do they think I’m stupid? Those are finance terms more commonly associated with loan sharks than with respectable financial institutions. I can only conclude that Wachovia Bank has decided they no longer want to be a respectable financial institution.

Furthermore, who do they think is going to fall for this? The answer, clearly, “people with more greed than sense.” And do they really believe such people are going to repay their loans? I mean, come on, this is the subprime mortgage fiasco all over again! It would seem that the Wachovia Bank lending people have not learned from history.

Finally, it’s my opinion that a bank that has so little respect for people as to offer loan-shark interest rates wouldn’t hesitate to take advantage of them in other ways as well. Therefore, I will avoid doing any business with Wachovia Bank, and would urge you to follow my example.

If the ball hits the turtle, it’s still in play.

Life in Africa can be quite interesting sometimes.

Just down the street from where I work, there’s an American Recreation Center that, among other things, has a softball field, and hosts a weekly game of softball on Saturday afternoons. So on my first weekend here, I went down to the “Rec” to join in the game. Midway through the game, a large turtle stumped onto the field, heading for the grassy infield. When I called attention to it, someone said, “Oh, that’s just George. He shows up often enough that he’s been written into the field rules — if the ball hits the turtle, it’s still considered in play.”

Where else would you find a baseball field with a turtle (actually it’s a tortoise, but everyone here seems to call it a turtle) that pays a visit regularly enough to have a local rule devoted to him?

Picking up the keyboard again

This blog has been languishing on the vine lately. I’ve hardly updated it at all for months, and when I have updated it, it’s usually been with a “Hey, here’s some extremely geeky stuff that I may want to remember later but nobody else would be interested in.”

That’s not what I want this blog to be about. I want it to be a place where I can record my thoughts, write interesting tidbits about my life, and talk about what it’s like living one’s life for God.

So I’m picking up the keyboard again. I’ll be posting a lot more frequently now, and on a wider variety of subjects. I have a lot of good stories waiting to be written, so stay tuned.

Comment policy

I just deleted my first blogspam comment, so I think it’s time to write up a comment policy, before I actually start needing it. So, without further ado, here are The Rules:

1. This is my blog. Nothing obliges me to let you comment here. I do so because I’m interested in discussion, but commenting is a privilege, not a right. If you abuse that privilege, I may take it away, either with or without warning.

2. Civilized behavior only. That means no ad hominem attacks, no insults, no name-calling, no profanity, etc.

3. Any comments that break rule #2 will be removed and replaced with the text “This comment has been removed by the site administrator for (insert reason here).” I may, at my option, place such comments under this post instead of deleting them entirely, so that anyone can see why the post was removed. If I do so, I may also censor the post involved by editing out profanity or any other offensive content, replacing it with a marker such as ““.

4. I will summarily delete, without notice, any comment that is nothing but blogspam (e.g., lots of links to unrelated sites like online casinos and the like).

5. Having said all that, if you can keep your comments civil and your tone polite, I welcome disagreement with my ideas, or with other commenters’ ideas. I’m not interested in this blog becoming nothing but an “echo chamber” — go ahead and disagree with me. All I ask is that you behave like a reasonable adult.

Gas prices slowly coming back down

I just paid less than $2.50 at the gas pump today, for the first time since Katrina hit.

Gas prices are coming down again

Gas prices have been inching down recently, but today felt like a milestone of sorts.

Politics test – my results

You are a

Social Moderate
(43% permissive)

and an…

Economic Conservative
(70% permissive)

You are best described as a:

Capitalist

Link: The Politics Test on Ok Cupid

The best movie I never want to see again

I just saw Serenity, the movie based on Joss Whedon’s TV show Firefly. Nearly everyone who’s seen it so far has loved it. My reaction was more complex. If I had to sum it up in one sentence, I’d have to say something like “that was the best movie that I never want to see again.”

I think it was the excellent writing and the familiar characters that did it. This was the first movie where I didn’t have that subtle disconnect, the sense that I was watching a movie. Instead, I was caught up in the reality of it — it really felt like I was watching real people deal with a real situation.

And normally, that would be a really good thing in a movie. A REALLY good thing. But… that meant my sense of reality was also engaged at other moments during the movie. Like the scene that’s still haunting me, two hours after the movie’s over. No spoilers here, but if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know which scene I’m talking about. It’s the one where they’re on a planet, and they find a holographic recording of a woman describing something that happened on that planet. I really, really needed my normal “I’m watching a movie, this isn’t real” detachment for that scene. Especially the end of it. And because the writing was so good, the scene just slipped underneath my normal emotional “armor”.

It’s three in the morning right now. Two and a half hours after I walked out of the movie theater. And I’m still desperately looking for distractions, trying to forget what I heard in that one scene. I don’t intend to go to bed anytime soon.

It’s been a very long time since a movie did that to me. On the one hand, that’s some really good writing. On the other hand, I never ever want to see this movie again, and I almost wish I hadn’t seen it in the first place. Not that it was bad — as I said, it was one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. If it hadn’t been such a good movie, it wouldn’t have left me this profoundly disturbed.

Make of that what you will.

How to stay poor

My previous post on the subject of poverty referenced John Scalzi’s article “Being Poor“. Scalzi gives a very moving account of what poverty feels like, from the inside.

Now, here’s an article that pretty much shows why some people stay poor.

One thing I noticed about Scalzi’s article, and especially the comments, is that it was written by someone who used to be poor. But because he, and many of his commenters, didn’t fall into any of the self-destructive traps Ms. Phelps mentions in her article, he didn’t stay poor.

There are those who are poor because of circumstances beyond their control (for example, one of the commenters to Scalzi’s article had to have cancer surgery while unemployed and insurance-less. That will pretty much wipe out anyone’s resources.) But there are also those who are poor because they’ve never been taught how not to be poor, and they’re trapped by the consequences of their bad decisions. The former just need a bit of extra help: a raise, a job schedule centered around the public transportation timetable, discounts on necessities like food and clothing. The latter, as Ms. Phelps’ article demonstrates, would actually be harmed rather than helped by that kind of assistance. What they need, essentially, is an authority figure who will — lovingly but firmly — tell them, “If you don’t change X, Y and Z in your life, you’ll never escape poverty.” And then — this is important — sticks with them. Otherwise it becomes the kind of condescension that the Bible condemns in James 2:16, mere words without action, utterly useless.

Anyone who reads Scalzi’s article and doesn’t feel compassion for the poor, and a desire to help them, has no heart. But it’s important to understand the individual you’re helping, and know exactly what kind of help they need. If the brain does not work alongside the heart, your well-intentioned assistance may end up actually harming the person you’re trying to help. Brain and heart working together, though, are a powerful combination.

The logistics of Katrina relief

I haven’t posted anything about Hurricane Katrina yet because I haven’t had anything to say that hasn’t been said elsewhere, and usually better. But I wanted to point out this rant on Hurricane Katrina by a guy who’s been in the military and knows logistics. Relief efforts take equipment — lots of equipment. And to move heavy equipment you need vehicles and people, and fuel for both the vehicles (gasoline) and the people (food, water).

Read his article, and the multiple links at the top of his article (particularly this one). You’ll come away with a better understanding of what the disaster-relief efforts are facing, and why it’s taking so much time (summary: the affected area is HUGE, a lot larger than just New Orleans, and trucks and helicopters don’t just magically move themselves).

Four L.A. men charged with conspiracy to commit terrorism

Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath is getting all the coverage right now, and rightly so. But if it were a slower news day, this story would be all over the media. Four men in Los Angeles have been arrested on charges of plotting terrorism. They are accused of plotting to attack synagogues, and possibly other targets, in Los Angeles. They allegedly plotted to carry out the attack during Jewish holidays, when the synagogues would be packed, so that the number of victims would be as large as possible.

Once Hurricane Katrina coverage settles down and the media start covering other stories, this will be a trial to follow closely.

Lawyer “war stories” – very well-told

What’s one of the first things that comes to mind when you think of lawyers? A sense of humor? Probably not. But all that means is that you don’t know too many good lawyers. The really good ones are folks like Bill Dyer and his friend Walter Workman. Bill Dyer has a collection of stories that happened either to him or to Mr. Workman, and they’re really incredibly funny. I especially enjoyed the second story, about what Workman allegedly said after badly losing a case. I won’t repeat it here to avoid spoiling the punchline — just go read it. (Hat tip: Hugh Hewitt).

I’m happy about these results…

The “Which ____ are you?” tests that are all over the Internet are usually just amusing, with the questions not really reflecting the results. But this one seems to have actually had a bit of thought put into it; the questions are good, and the answers make sense, at least for me:

Gandalf

A wandering spirit caring for a multitude of just concerns, you are an instrumental power in many of the causes around you.

And so am I, very dangerous: more dangerous than anything you will ever meet, unless you are brought alive before the seat of the Dark Lord.

Which Fantasy/SciFi Character Are You?

It makes sense, too, in more ways than one. The test is based on personality and motivations and asks you “What would you do in this situation?” types of questions. But if you think about it, it makes sense in another way, since I’m such a computer geek.

Wizards in fiction are sometimes portrayed as good (like Gandalf), sometimes evil (like Saruman). But one thing they always have in common is their command of magic, which is (in fiction) always based on pieces of obscure, arcane knowledge. So they’re constantly reading, absorbing knowledge for its own sake, as well as for the understanding of magic that it gives them. And magic, in fiction, is usually tricky to get right: there are certain magical runes that must be drawn in exactly the right way, certain magical incantations (which seem like nonsense syllables to anyone who hasn’t studied magic) which must be pronounced exactly right if the spell is to work right, and so on.

Well, my nose is almost always in a book. There aren’t many people who would see the book “802.11 Wireless Networks: the Definitive Guide, 2nd Edition” in a bookstore and say “Ooh, I’ve been meaning to study those!” But that’s exactly what I did about six weeks ago: I pulled that book off the shelf and spent the next hour absorbed in the arcane realm of TCP/IP, 802.11 WLANs, and WPA/PSK. See? Looks like nonsense syllables to anyone who hasn’t studied magic computers, right? And let me tell you, if you get your WPA configuration wrong, your wireless network will just plain not work. It will sit there and do absolutely nothing useful. Until you contact your local “computer wizard” (see? even the terminology carries over) and get him to fix it. Then suddenly everything works, and your wireless NOTwork has been turned into a wireless NETwork.

I think there’s a reason why fantasy worlds like Tolkien’s appeal to so many computer geeks. It’s because, in a way, they’re a reflection of the work that geeks do.

Pardon my dust…

My new blog is up, and will be getting some content soon. I’m still getting the look worked out, so you might see some changes as I re-arrange categories, tweak the look of the title, etc. No worries!