That’s illegal in Sudan? recently reported on one of the more bizarre police blotter cases on the planet. And it comes out of a Muslim fundamentalist part of Sudan.

A Sudanese court convicted seven men and one woman for indecency and fined them each the local currency equivalent of US$80. The men’s “indecency” was wearing makeup during a fashion show in the town of Khartoum; the woman’s “indecency” was being the makeup artist.

Unfortunately this is par for the course for countries ruled by law based in religious fundamentalism. It’s not entirely unexpected that a fundamentalist regime takes such a dim view of free expression rights, acknowledged in Article 19 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Regardless, this is such a pathetic use of law enforcement resources that it deserves condemnation on those grounds alone.

Shame on you, Sudan. If you wonder why the world looks down on you, this is why.

Google prefers serving its own dog food at the users’ expense

Even though this is over a month old, this is a story I really wanted to discuss.

Techcrunch covered a story in 2010 December about Google and its increasing tendency to serve up links to its own properties in search results, which is particularly noticeable in regards to searches for local businesses (such as the example search for “ny chiropractor”).

And then Google responds with a post entitled “Local Search: It’s all about the best answers for users.” What nerve! The title of the TechCrunch article sums it up rather nicely: “Google, These Aren’t Really The Best Answers For Users. They Are The Best Answers For You.”

Honestly, if this is the future of web search, then it’s time for someone to set up a company with the same role as Google, but structured as a non-profit. It’s obvious to me that with self-favoritism such as this, the desire to make a profit off of its own properties is getting in the way of Google’s nominal mission of access to information. Remember “Don’t be evil?” Profit at the expense of delivering the best user experience qualifies as evil in my book.

The companies behind sites like Citysearch, Yelp, TripAdvisor, etc are outraged at this. And rightfully so. Google is dangerously close to acting like a monopoly–and we know what the law says about monopolies. In fact, I would not be surprised, were this to continue, if it resulted in a Department of Justice investigation.

If one happened, it wouldn’t come a moment too soon.

A thin line between vandalism and art: the graffiti controversy

CultureMap Houston recently reported on Houston’s new Graffiti Mobile and a photo opportunity featuring the truck and Houston Mayor Annise Parker. The story describes the event and contains a few key quotes from Mayor Parker which I would like to address:

“I have mixed emotions about being here,” Mayor Annise Parker told the crowd. “This is a great new graffiti truck and we are going to do wonderful things with it. The bad news is that we have to do it at all… As we get more aggressive, they [graffiti artists] seem to get wilier and find new places to put graffiti.”


“This is a feel-good event,” Parker said, “but since the media is here, I think we need to make a really strong point: Graffiti is a crime. We spend tens of thousands — in fact, I think it’s about a million dollars a year cleaning up graffiti. Those are your tax dollars we’re spending.”

A previous story on Culturemap Houston takes a different tack and features an interview with well-known urban artist GONZO247 of Aerosol Warfare. These quotes in particular stand out (from Carolyn Casey, the education program director for Aerosol Warfare):

“Awhile back, they [City Council] had a meeting open to the public, and they specifically invited all the art people and us because they said they wanted to discuss the graffiti problem,” Casey says. “We thought they were being open to an idea of ours, but they really just called us all there to tell us to tell our friends to stop doing it. They weren’t open to new ideas, and said that as long as they’re spending money on abatement, they’re not going to spend any money on programs.

“But the city’s going to continue spending money on abatement if they don’t have a real solution for it. We see vandalism as different from art, and they consider them to be one.”

I think it’s rather cowardly and pathetic on the part of our city’s government to blur the lines between vandalism and art. There is a huge difference; the most obvious component of the difference between the two is the consent of the owner of the property being “decorated.” If the owner approves, it’s art; if the owner has not consented, it’s more than likely vandalism. I would usually define most lower forms of graffiti such as “tagging” as vandalism. In fact “tagging” is usually what comes to mind when most people think of graffiti. I believe this is a shame as there is a huge difference between legitimate street art and marking one’s “turf” with spray paint. The latter is more directly compared to the behavior of animals who urinate to mark their territory. Unfortunately, spray paint is more visibly noxious and permanent, as well as more difficult to clean up.

I do not support vandalism. I support art, and more importantly I support public awareness of the differences between vandalism and art. If the government of the City of Houston cannot understand the difference between the two, I believe they have failed us all.

What’s all the fuss about “Skins” on MTV?

The Hollywood Reporter’s Live Feed blog recently reported on the Parents Television Council’s vicious condemnation of the MTV series “Skins” and followed it up with a report that the PTC called for a Federal investigation into the show. The show is about high-school-age characters, and features casual sex and drug use. The PTC has made their condemnation of the series as “the most dangerous show for teens” in spite of a TV-MA rating.

I really don’t see what all the fuss is about. Teenagers have used drugs and partaken of casual sex before “Skins” and will continue to do so afterwards. Seriously, folks, don’t blame the show for the actions of the kids, even if they are your kids. I would like to think by the age of 13 or 14 that most young adults have learned the difference between fantasy and reality. And again, just because the PTC doesn’t like a show, doesn’t mean MTV should bow down and kiss their feet and pull the show.

The latter report also states the PTC is calling for a boycott of Taco Bell, who sponsors the program. This smacks of censorship, which as any regular reader of this blog knows, is one of my biggest pet peeves. So I’m calling on my readers out there, sometime within the next couple of weeks, to eat out at Taco Bell at least once. In fact, let the staff know you’re doing it because Taco Bell sponsors “Skins” and in spite of the PTC.

As I have learned from my time at the poker table, the best way to respond to a bluff is to call it. Maybe once word gets out this has actually been a PR boost for Taco Bell and MTV, the PTC will back down. But I’m not holding my breath.

Maybe the PTC should spend more time explaining to parents how to use the parental control features on TV sets and cable boxes. Or better yet, how to explain the dangers of drug use and casual sex to their sons and daughters.

To be fair, I honestly think MTV can do a better job. Did it ever occur to the PTC that maybe that’s what “Skins” is about?

Two cents short

As reported on KMGH Denver, Ronald Flanagan, a Vietnam veteran, got the most unwelcome of surprises from his insurance company, when it dropped him for a simple two-cent ($0.02) mistake on his premium payment. Instead of paying the proper amount, $328.69, Ronald’s wife Frances keyed the amount as $328.67. That was in November.

Fast forward to Ronald’s doctor appointment on January 13. From the story:

The couple found out about losing their coverage at a doctor’s appointment on Jan. 13 while they were at the Exempla Rock Creek Medical Center in Broomfield.As Ron was getting prepped to have a bone biopsy, Frances was on the phone with Ceridian.

“The nurses were just getting ready to do the biopsy when my wife popped into the office and told them, ‘Stop. We don’t have any insurance,'” said Ron.

“And that’s when they let me know that we no longer had insurance on account of the 2 cents, and they canceled us,” said Frances. “Since then, I’ve been depressed. I haven’t been able to hardly do anything. As you can see, we still have our Christmas decorations up. So it’s been hard on me.”

I would have been a bit more understanding of Ceridian’s position were the amount significant (at the very least, over $1). It almost seems like Ceridian looks for a chance to drop unsuspecting customers when they are about to need their benefits the most–and thus, when they are about to cost Ceridian the most money. To make matters worse, Ceridian does not help their case when they say the payment fits the regulatory definition of an “insufficient payment” and use this to justify their action. According to the Flanagans, Ceridian never even gave them notice that they were about to cancel Ronald’s policy because of the two-cent mistake.

From a public relations standpoint, this is a huge mistake on the part of Ceridian. Especially since this is a Vietnam veteran we’re referring to. The right thing to do, in case it’s not obvious, is for Ceridian to reinstate Ronald’s policy and benefits without further delay. It’s not worth the PR fallout to do what is technically allowed by insurance regulations, just because. The trust and goodwill retained by doing the right thing are worth a lot more than two cents.

But I this kind of thing is a symptom of a larger problem. The people doing the accounting for insurance companies only care about maximizing profits. In fact I don’t think a human employee at Ceridian ever actually made the decision to cancel Ronald’s policy; it was almost certainly a decision made by a computer. Now, don’t get me wrong, computers are great, and are responsible for a lot of conveniences in 2011 that simply were not possible decades ago. But decisions like this should not be entrusted to a hunk of metal and silicon with all the intelligence of a very stupid worm. Computers do what they are told; in fact they do exactly what they are told and nothing more. However, there does come a time when a human should review certain items and say “wait a minute, this guy was only short two cents, this may have just been a simple mistake and it’s not reason to cancel his policy.”

Do the right thing in cases like this, and profit will follow, and everyone will be happy.