The Fifth Amendment and a school’s drug use survey

This recent article on tells the story of John Dryden, an Illinois high school teacher who informed students of their Fifth Amendment rights before handing them a survey which contained questions about such things as drug and alcohol use. John saw the students’ names were on the surveys, and feared the worst. This follow-up story from the Kane County Chronicle indicates he was not the only teacher to do so; however, John was singled out by the school board for some reason, and his reward for this was a written warning of improper conduct, and he was docked one day’s pay.

To their credit, the school board’s side of this is that students are already protected from self-incrimination at school based on existing laws. Even if this is the case, this is knowledge that is sufficiently uncommon that at least one teacher didn’t know it. Given the number of students that are arrested at school these days, it’s really hard for me personally to fault John for looking out for his students, especially given that it was not immediately obvious to him that students could opt out.

What also stuck out is the pre-printing of students’ names on surveys with such personal questions. This presents two problems. First, the students that opt-out will have a blank form with their name on it hanging around. Second, it’s way too easy for either the filled-out forms or the blank forms with the students’ names on them to get in the wrong hands. The surveys should not be keyed on name at all, but on a student ID number which is only ever shared with the student, the parents, and the appropriate members of school staff, specifically for surveys such as this one. Student privacy should come first, not be an afterthought.

I hope word gets around to the other school districts, not just in Illinois, but across the US, about this survey as it was handled at this school. It is an example of something that needs to be highlighted as an example of what not to do.

Capacity limits and safety in San Francisco and elsewhere

Yes, this article is a bit old, but it’s still pretty timely.

This blog entry on describes the enforcement–or lack thereof–regarding posted capacity limits at bars in the Mission area of San Francisco, CA. Specifically, bars with a posted capacity limit of 49 are in effect unregulated, and often have double or even triple that many people inside at once. From the article:

No one monitors bars with a stated maximum capacity of 49 on a regular basis. The Fire Department is the only city agency that monitors maximum capacity, and it only sends an inspector or a battalion chief to these bars if someone calls to complain. So bars regularly pack in as many people as come to the door.

Let’s look at this. Why 49? Well, the answer may well lie within the International Code Commission’s International Building Code (commonly referred to as the IBC), specifically in section 303.1.2:

303.1.2 Small assembly spaces.

The following rooms and spaces shall not be classified as
Assembly occupancies:

1. A room or space used for assembly purposes with an
occupant load of less than 50 persons and accessory to
another occupancy shall be classified as a Group B occupancy
or as part of that occupancy.

2. A room or space used for assembly purposes that is less
than 750 square feet (70 m²) in area and accessory to
another occupancy shall be classified as a Group B occupancy
or as part of that occupancy.

Okay, so a space for less than 50 people (thus the limit of 49) automatically gets classified as a group B occupancy (which is the same class that is assigned to most businesses not otherwise excluded (post offices, dry cleaners, banks, barber/beauty shops just to name a few). The reality is that most bars should in fact be regulated as a group A-2 and should not be getting a free pass from inspection when they don’t apply for a higher capacity permit.

San Francisco is choosing, however, to not do any follow-up inspections of these venues after they open, thus making the “Maximum Occupancy 49” sign have little real meaning. Another part of the problem is that a lot of bars don’t qualify for a higher occupancy limit because they only have one exit. The city is assuming that the bar owners will never have that big of a crowd, because they lack a permit for a higher occupancy, when in fact exactly the opposite is happening: the bar owners are not getting the permits, either because the facilities are not up to standard or because of added expense, and packing the people in anyway.

Allowing bars to pack double the legal occupancy limit into their space is dangerous and short-sighted. Does it really take disasters such as the Kiss nightclub fire in Brazil and the fire at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island to make it clear just how dangerous it is to exceed the capacity limits? The limit in the IBC, and thus in the laws in cities that have adopted the IBC as a building code, is not like the highway speed limits set for a revenue-based “speed trap.” The limit is there for safety and to ignore it is asking for disaster, sooner or later.

(I will be revisiting this topic at a later date in 2013 or early 2014 in 2016 May.)

Another case of un-Houstonian dishonesty

I try not to use terminology like “un-Texan” and “un-Houstonian” without just cause. But I think in this case it definitely applies.

The Houston Chronicle’s Celebrity Buzz blog recently reported on the lawsuit filed by Junie Hoang against the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Ms. Hoang was claiming invasion of privacy and breach of contract after IMDb published her true birthday instead of the fake one she provided.

The crux of the story from the article:

Creating her profile page on IMDb, Hoang submitted an incorrect birthdate in violation of the website’s terms of service, IMDb attorney Harry Schneider Jr. told the court. IMDb staff reviewing Hoang’s submission found the inaccuracy and corrected it against her wishes.

Hoang used another person’s account in 2004 to adjust her IMDb profile and make herself appear seven years younger, said Schneider, an attorney with Perkins Coie. That fake age persisted on her profile for three years until Hoang asked that it be removed entirely.

“In September 2007, as the 36-year-old Hoang approached her phony ‘birthday’ when she no longer would be a woman in her ‘twenties,’ Hoang decided that she no longer wanted the false (birthdate) on her profile,” Schneider told the court.

The story goes on to say that Ms. Hoang went as far as to fake a passport and Texas identification card to hide her age, both of which are criminal acts in violation of (at least) Section 37.10 of the Texas Penal Code.

In essence, Ms. Hoang was fighting for the right to publish a lie and keep the truth hidden under the guise of privacy. IMDb was fighting for the right to publish the truth. It is rare that I champion the cause of large corporations (IMDb is now owned by Amazon), but as a free speech advocate and champion of ethics, it’s reassuring to see that IMDb won this lawsuit and that Ms. Hoang’s true age is now known to the world, and her attempts to lie have been thoroughly repudiated once and for all.

Ms. Hoang should really count her blessings she was not criminally prosecuted in her attempts to keep the lie about her age going. Besides being illegal, that kind of conduct crosses all sorts of ethical and moral lines, and is a prime example of the kind of conduct I call un-Texan and un-Houstonian.

What’s even more unfortunate is that Ms. Hoang has never made more than $9,000 annually from acting in a decade in the field. This severely limited the amount of damages she could have hoped to recover. That, and age isn’t even necessarily a barrier to finding work as an actor or actress. Just ask Betty White or Gene Hackman (among others).

Clothing sizes, body image, and the current state of affairs

This post is spurred in large part by the well-publicized comments by Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Michael S. Jeffries from 2006, which came to light after an industry analyst made a reference to them. See this article from The Globe and Mail and this article on among many others. This is my first time even trying to write about this topic, and I’ve tried my best not to offend anyone.

The exact statement:

In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong, and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.

The latter article above from also makes reference to the fact that rather than donate old clothes to those who can wear them, Abercrombie & Fitch does the unthinkable: they burn them, on the grounds that “[o]nly people of a certain stature are able to purchase and wear the company name.” Which, incidentally, flies in the face of the company’s philanthropic efforts. Having a PR campaign like “A&F Cares” at the same time the company is burning wearable clothes qualifies as an example of egregiously unethical PR.

I’d like to say with some degree of confidence that David T. Abercrombie and Ezra Fitch would roll over in their graves if they knew that clothes which could be donated were senselessly destroyed for flagrantly elitist and classist reasons. Unfortunately, Wikipedia (at least) has not a single reference to the philanthropic efforts of either man. So my assumption either man would be horrified were he still alive stems mostly from a desire not to unnecessarily blacken the memory of the dead, and to give as much benefit of the doubt as I can.

However, those that currently represent the brand, and thus the legacy of Messrs. Abercrombie and Fitch, can certainly turn things around. While I frown on making clothing “just for the cool kids” it may be unrealistic to expect that part of A&F’s strategy and brand positioning to change (figuratively) overnight. But the very least A&F can do to be a socially responsible company (which certainly matters today, even if it didn’t matter much in the 1920s) is give everyone a fair chance to be the cool kid: don’t discriminate on body size.

The refusal of Abercrombie & Fitch to make clothes larger than a certain size, is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes time for me to speak on matters of clothing size and body image. I have, for a long time, noticed what at first glance appears to be a huge female chauvanist bias in the numbering of clothing sizes in the US. Particularly, the most common sizes, men’s sizes for males, and misses sizes for females, are completely different such that most adult males wear pants sized 32 to 40 and most adult females wear pants (or skirts or other bottoms) sized from 6 to 14. Misses sizes go up to 20 or 22, and there do exist women’s sizes which more closely resemble those of men’s clothing. But every diet testimonial I’ve seen (and I’ve seen plenty) has always said “I went from a size 14 to a size 8” or similar. It just does not sound anywhere near the same for men to say “I went from a size 44 to a size 38” and this is my basis for asserting female chauvanism in clothing sizes.

The perception, chauvanism or not, that is shaped by the size numbering system we have in use today is a large part of the problems with body image, particularly for women. The Wikipedia article on clothing sizes linked previously hints at a plausible origin of the term “plus size” which has persisted even though the plus itself is a mere footnote on clothing size history:

In 1958, the National Bureau of Standards invented a new sizing system, based on the hourglass figure and using only the bust size to create an arbitrary standard of sizes ranging from 8 to 38, with an indication for height (short, regular, and tall) and lower-body girth (plus or minus). The standard was not widely popular, and was declared voluntary in 1970 and withdrawn entirely in 1983.

Let me make sure we’re clear on this: this standard, from where I would assume the term “plus size” came from, was withdrawn some three decades ago. Yet somehow, the term “plus size” itself, and its absurd negative connotations, has stuck around long after the standard itself has bit the dust, though another Wikipedia article claims the term has been “losing [favor] since the 1990s” but does not cite a source for this claim. (In fact, in the process of writing this article, I took a break to added a “citation needed” tag as a Wikipedia editor in hopes this will be addressed.)

Don’t get me wrong. I would like to see the term “plus-sized” do a disappearing act that would make Houdini proud. But I’ve seen no evidence that this has been happening, that it will happen any time soon, or that the same wave of political correctness that has made uttering terms like “disabled” shameful has let “plus-sized” pass by unchallenged. Especially when the meaning has changed over time to denote smaller and smaller clothing sizes–and arguably, never really had a cut-and-dried definitive meaning (certainly not after 1983, if then).

The lack of clothing size standardization has led to a host of problems. The first of which is “vanity sizing“, or the practice by which the same numerical size has become physically larger over the years. As noted in the linked article, this problem affects men’s clothing as well as women’s, though not to the same degree yet. (However, it’s widespread enough that this very male blogger has, at least once in the past, noticed he fit in size 38 pants just the same as a completely different pair of size 40 pants by a different manufacturer). This lack of standardization is the whole reason we even have abominations like size 0 and size 00 (at least here in the US, and in the UK). Any sane clothing sizing system should not need to have sizes at or below zero, as Ellen DeGeneres said much more eloquently and humorously on her show (1:40 to 2:15 or so). (BTW, that whole clip is worth watching, that 35-second clip is just the most relevant to my point.)

To be completely fair about it, Abercrombie & Fitch isn’t the only retailer or clothing manufacturer responsible for our current slate of young women and girls (and maybe even some young men and boys) with body image problems. But the concept that “you must fit into size 10 or smaller to be this cool” combined with the lack of standardization which allows A&F’s size 10 to be what a size 8 or 6 might be elsewhere is certainly not helping. While the backlash against A&F is justified, the madness won’t stop until at least two things happen: clothing sizes are standardized and clothing manufacturers who discriminate based on body size are held accountable by a customer base that deems this practice unacceptable as a group. There’s more to it than that, of course, but if I tried to be comprehensive in just one post I’d never finish it. So at some point I will probably revisit this topic; it is not something anyone can cover comprehensively in one blog post of reasonable length or even a week-long series of posts.

The AppGratis incident: Showing Apple’s opacity yet again

Venturebeat recently reported on AppGratis and its unsuccessful attempts to just get a dialog with Apple after abruptly and quickly having its app removed from the App Store. Which, for iOS apps, basically means it was dead in the water (it has since been restored, though for how long remains to be seen).

I’ve said many times just how bad it is to place oneself at the mercy of a large corporation. If you’re lucky and don’t run afoul of either the published rules and the whims of Apple, then it might work out okay. Then again, it might not, as Apple can change the rules to make your app non-compliant, like they did to AppGratis. They can also decide on a whim to just not approve your app. Apple rules the iOS platform with an iron fist. This isn’t news, it’s been like this more or less since the beginning.

Google’s Android platform, though not perfect, doesn’t have these issues, in addition to giving consumers a wider choice of manufacturers (though Samsung is far and away the front runner at the time of writing). Unlike iOS, Android will let you install apps from sources besides the Google Play store; you do have to acknowledge a rather scary-looking warning to do so, but you can do it.

I still wish picking a smartphone platform wasn’t about choosing between the lesser of two evils. Well, actually, the least of four evils if you’re counting (Windows Phone and BlackBerry are also technically possibilities, but I find them equally as repulsive as the iPhone and for similar reasons).