The case of the surprise graduation rejection

I know this is from June, but it’s still quite relevant given past posts regarding event planning and capacity management.

This story on (KPRC-TV) ( is about a graduation gone wrong. Some families traveled from out-of-state only to be denied entry due to a lack of capacity, leaving between 200 and 300 standing outside not able to see anything.

It’s an unfortunate situation for everyone. It’s hard for me to fault HISD’s security personnel here, as their job is simply to keep the event safe and to make sure the school district is not legally liable for a fire code violation. I would think based on this rather bare-bones story that the likely cause was a lack of an RSVP system so the district would know what size venue was required to accommodate the crowd.

Priority should have been given to those who came from longer distances. If nothing else, an overflow room with a live video feed could have been made available at another of the Reliant Park venues. (I went to a church some years ago–this was during an earlier part of my life when I was still a Christian–where they piped in video of the service to an overflow room. Technically, this should be possible in 2013 especially if it was possible in the mid- to late 1990s.)

In a larger sense, this underscores the importance of sizing the venue to the expected crowd. I know of at least one university graduation that required tickets for admission to the venue. Was that workable in this case? Would it have still left some people out? Maybe. But I personally would rather family members coming from hundreds of miles away know not to bother making the trip weeks in advance than being turned away at the door.

[Edit 2023-07-03: change broken link to]

Completely out of control: arresting college students for buying water

To those who still truly believe that the USA is the land of the free, this post on NPR’s blog The Two-Way is nothing short of a harsh reality check. In Charlottesville, Virginia, 20-year old college sophomore Elizabeth Daly and two of her friends were approached by plainclothes Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control agents after purchasing a box of LaCroix bottled water, cookie dough, and ice cream. (The ABC agents thought the women had made a purchase of booze illegally.)

Elizabeth was already inside her car when the plainclothes agents showed what she described as unidentifiable badges. According to the ABC, she struck two of the agents as she drove away; later, she did stop for a marked police vehicle with lights and sirens. At which point, of course, she was arrested along with her passengers, and charged with felony eluding of police and felony assault of a police officer.

After all this, in what is to me a surprising show of good judgment, the prosecutor’s office declined to pursue the charges, leaving Elizabeth free to speak about the incident. One of the things that came to light was that this incident occurred right after a sexual assault awareness event called Take Back the Night. In that context it’s much easier to see how young women would be scared out of their wits by what happened. What are the odds the average citizen would even know specifically the difference between a valid badge and something hacked together by a would-be rapist or robber? How about someone from out of state who barely knows it’s illegal to bring their radar detector into Virginia, much less the name of the state agency responsible for regulating booze sales? How much differently would this have played out had this been someone driving from, say, Atlanta to New York City who just wanted to satisfy their passengers’ ice cream fix on the way and get some bottled water while at the grocery store?

I think the Virginia ABC looks absolutely ridiculous in light of all the facts, and I doubt I’m the only one. As an aside, I personally think the 21 drinking age is ludicrous, and has caused more problems than it solves. But that’s another, much longer, rant for another day.

When “sorry, we changed our mind” just doesn’t cut it

So, picture this: You’re an independent filmmaker struggling to make a hit movie. After an extensive review of your film’s script, that film gets approved for a grant from a freshly-approved government program designed to encourage producers to make films in the state (in this case, it’s Texas) instead of going elsewhere (like California or New York, or even outside the US). You had contemplated making the film somewhere else, but with the grant money, you can make a far better film in Texas. So you do, and up the budget to reflect the grant money you have coming in.

Meanwhile, after your film has been released and the bills are starting to become due, someone else takes over the agency in charge of the grant. Only then are you informed your movie doesn’t qualify for the grant after all, because the final product was “inappropriate.” You are left “holding the bag” to the tune of $8 million.

As the Houston Chronicle recently reported, this is pretty much what happened to Austin-based filmmaker Robert Rodriguez of Troublemaker Studios. The film is Machete, and it didn’t sit well with some people, particularly anti-immigration groups. The program is the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program, administered by the Texas Film Commission.

(Working backwards from the info on that site, if Robert’s in the hole for $8 million for a grant that never came, that would imply either in the neighborhood of $53 million of eligible spending in Texas, or in the neighborhood of $32 million in wages paid to Texas residents. This is a huge benefit for the economy of the state of Texas either way.)

I have yet to see the movie myself. However, I believe strongly that keeping one’s word is a Texan value, and that reneging on a deal, especially when millions of dollars are at stake, is decidedly un-Texan. I’m not happy at all that my state’s government has decided to throw Robert Rodriguez under the bus. A deal is a deal, and there was plenty of opportunity to treat Robert fairly and tell him to go to, say, New Mexico or Arizona to make the film there instead.

I’m also really disturbed about the use of the word “inappropriate.” This word means a lot of different things to different people. If I deleted every blog post that someone, somewhere, found inappropriate, I’m certain I’d have an empty blog. The time to decide Robert’s movie was inappropriate in the context of a government grant was at the time the script was first reviewed, not after the movie was made and released. It’s completely unfair to an artist to promise money and then not deliver.

While I’ll be sad if Robert decides to make his movies elsewhere going forward, I can’t say I’ll blame him if he does. I just hope the next filmmaker who takes the state up on their offer doesn’t have the same problem.

Snooping from the USPS? Seriously?

Truth really is stranger than fiction.

This recent New York Times article tells the story of the either incredible good luck of Leslie James Pickering, or the incredibly bad day some postal worker had in Buffalo, New York. Leslie got a handwritten card mixed in with his mail that obviously was not intended for him to ever see. From the article:

“Show all mail to supv” — supervisor — “for copying prior to going out on the street,” read the card. It included Mr. Pickering’s name, address and the type of mail that needed to be monitored. The word “confidential” was highlighted in green.

(The article refers to this as “mail covers” which is a forerunner of the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program.)

To their credit, postal workers did confirm they were monitoring his mail but didn’t tell him anything else. Mail cannot (usually) be opened without a warrant so all the US Postal Service can do in this case is record the addressing and other information from envelopes (traffic analysis). The frightening thing about this type of surveillance is that there’s absolutely no judicial oversight on its use. The USPS allows any law enforcement agency to track mail by filling out a form, and rarely denies requests.

From what I have seen, law enforcement often jumps to conclusions without having all the facts (some of my posts after this one will discuss examples of this, in fact). Any cop with an axe to grind against me could easily misuse the information about who is sending mail to me–or the other people living at my address.

I am disgusted by the abuse of power being shown here against an activist bookstore owner (who is married with a kid, no less). Does Leslie have a rather lengthy arrest record? Yes, but only for misdemeanors, never for the arson attacks carried out by the Earth Liberation Front. Judging by the Wikipedia article about him, any such arrests as part of his involvement with the ELF probably took place more than a decade ago–hardly a reason to aggressively watch Leslie today in any form.

But it gets even worse. Even for the vast majority of us who have never been convicted of a crime, the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program (MICT) photographs the outside of every piece of paper mail processed in the US–at last count this was 160 billion pieces a year. And there is nothing saying how long the government saves the mail cover images. Even assuming each photograph of the outside of a mail piece takes a whole megabyte (1024^2 bytes), that’s in the neighborhood of 142 petabytes for a year’s worth of mail. That’s a worst case estimate, a pessimistic but more likely estimate would be around 50 to 75 petabytes for reference-quality images (grayscale JPEG at about 150 dpi or so), and quite possibly less than that. A lot of storage space? For us, maybe, but make no mistake about it, this is easily doable by any reasonably sized government agency, and the actual address information in text form (if it’s determined the images are no longer needed) would take orders of magnitude less.

I honesly think MICT is doing more harm than good. We had a right to know about MICT when it was started in 2001 and the fact we didn’t even know about it for years is completely unacceptable opacity on the part of our government. If for whatever reason it’s decided to keep MICT we need full transparency on exactly how long the data is kept, and assurance it is securely deleted when no longer needed.

How not to handle a student suicide

(Editorial note: I’m going to try not to rush these, but I’ve got a pretty big backlog to work through. Some of these posts may have lost some of their timeliness, as I have had things to deal with which have taken huge chunks out of the time I would normally use for blogging. Hopefully I’ll be back to “normal” in a few weeks.)

A recent post in a The Stir tells the story of Tyler Nichols, an eighth grader who took his own life in March of this year. According to another article at, the principal of the school (Davidson Middle School in Michigan) claimed the school didn’t include his picture because they did not have a picture of him. However, his mother says Tyler took a picture earlier in the year and had a picture taken for a new identification card as well.

In a particularly cruel twist, Tyler’s mother was told that a tribute page in the yearbook might have been forthcoming. Then they completely omitted all traces of Tyler’s life at school that year from the yearbook. You shouldn’t need me to tell you just how outrageous and how stupid this is.

At a time in which suicide, and particularly teen suicide, is a growing problem, it reduces awareness and is a huge bet on the side of “ignore the problem and it will go away.”

I believe it will not go away just because it’s ignored. And on that note, I believe the school has chosen to handle the situation in a completely wrong way on just about every level imaginable. I don’t care how much revisionist history goes into it, but there are people who will remember Tyler for the good kid that he was. Those that don’t know he killed himself need to know this, not have it swept under the rug or even given a Noodle Incident treatment.

I found a news story on about Tyler’s suicide in which it says Tyler was not bullied. I had originally written a version of this post in which I had mistakenly assumed that he was. This story says everyone thought he was a good kid and the real reason why he took his own life is a mystery to many of the kids and teachers at the school.

Shame on Davidson Middle School for trying to snuff out Tyler’s memory. This is disgraceful and reflects badly on not just the school, but upon our entire school system nationwide in the US.