Below the tip of the iceberg

I want to address an issue one last time this year. I may not really need to, but I want to. Some may think I’m beating a dead horse. It may appear that way at first, but that’s not the case. For better or worse, this issue is alive and well based on some conversations I have had recently.

There are those out there who like seeing me eat crow and apologize. If that’s you, congratulations. Today’s your lucky day. Again.

There were flaws in my previous posts about WordCamp Houston 2010 and the Houston WordPress community, which I believe make the whole series fall a bit below the high standards I have set for myself. The specific flaws I am apologizing for are best summarized by that I could not see the forest for the tree standing in front of me. In short, I was so focused on the WordPress community in Houston, that I neglected to investigate the possibility other communities and sub-communities in Houston, many of whom involve the same people (but perhaps in most cases, different leadership), have these same problems. Problems best described as systemic.

The problems with WordCamp Houston 2010? The scholarship snafu? The missing videos? The website getting hacked due to neglect? I mistook them for the disease. No, these are just symptoms of much larger problems in Houston. I dug pretty deep. But I didn’t dig deep enough and I assumed it was just the WordPress crowd.

In my defense, I offer the following. First, I think some good did come of writing the posts, at least for the new people, and so this kind of thing won’t be so easily ignored going forward. I believe I know now why my posts were largely ignored, not because they were true, not because they appeared to be written in bad faith… but because to the people who have been active in the community much longer than I have, they simply weren’t news and what happened simply wasn’t surprising.

To borrow an example, my post was kind of like a blog post about cops disregarding traffic signals, stop signs, and speed limits, and yet happily writing a ticket to any “regular citizen” who does the same. Even if the blogger has video… it’s news to a few new people, it’s a bunch of crap to the rest. It really shouldn’t be, because silence is acceptance, and reading a blog post or a news story about something truly outrageous and choosing not to act on it is also essentially acceptance as well.

Second, based on what I knew, at the time, most of the community had just assumed the scholarship had been awarded (unfortunately, that “most of the community” did include myself for a time), and the videos were somewhere, perhaps online in a place they had just not found yet. On one hand I’m unhappy to have been the bearer of bad news. On the other, the community had a right to know, and other communities will hopefully learn from what happened here.

There are good people involved in good things in this community that actually take their positions seriously, even when working in a volunteer capacity. And I do appreciate them, especially when I work with them year in and year out. Most of them, when they do slip up, are approachable enough that I can tell them “look, I know you mean well, but (insert details of action here) wasn’t cool / does not put us in the best light / etc.” The groups I have spent the most volunteer hours with have not had many of these kind of issues.

The first step in resolving any dispute is for me to bring it to that person in private. That’s actually how I prefer to resolve things. But, there are people who decide that’s not an option. Emails get ignored, fake bounced, or whatever. (I usually do not do phone calls.) News flash: the issue doesn’t go away. Especially when the issue impacts the community, I feel a duty to let the community know what’s going on. In the case of the WordCamp Houston scholarship, there was a point where I considered actual press releases to local news media, possibly even to the national news media. A little part of me regrets not doing so.

Now that I realize there’s a good chance the problems are more systemic in nature, I’m not sure what to do. I don’t have enough information right now to really act on, and I’m not expecting much more given what I feel are unjustified attempts to ruin my standing (which is perhaps the most outrageous part of the whole situation). I’m not even sure just what I can do to fix the problems I have found, either by myself or with help from a few others.

Flagrant publicity sponging is something I find offensive. It becomes more offensive when the organizer status of an event like WordCamp Houston is wrongly awarded to someone who (at least in my opinion based on facts I have available post-event) had no business organizing such an event. It doesn’t help when I should have been the lead organizer to begin with, and things happened that I would never let happen on my watch.

Hiding behind a “we’re volunteers” shield when called out for doing a flagrantly piss-poor job is also something I find quite offensive. It doesn’t matter if the organizers themselves raise that shield, or an apologist for them such as Marc Nathan, raises that shield for them. Sitting on what’s supposed to be scholarship money for over two years is completely unacceptable, volunteers or not. If you feel compelled to defend such a flagrant deviation from minimally acceptable event organizer/treasurer standards, just because you’re friends with the organizers, then I hate to say it, maybe you have made a poor choice of who you call friends. Yes, this means Mr. Nathan deserves to look bad for defending Ms. Danna, Mr. Valdez, and others. Had Mr. Nathan started instead with “I’m not proud of what my friends did, and I’m not going to try to defend it” it might be another story.

That’s another mistake I made: most of my original apology post. That by itself was the single worst thing I’ve ever done as a blogger;  the more I think about it, the more I realize Marc Nathan was wrong. Accordingly I have updated that post to strike through the vast majority of it, and add a note at the top. I’m not really happy that I’ve had to, in effect, retract a retraction. It is something I do not want to make a habit of. The more often I go back and retract posts, the more credibility I lose.

The days of being able to virtually wave a community leader badge and make me nervous are now gone. I’m proud to be a Houstonian, and I want the best for Houston. (In fact I miss the hell out of the old “Houston Proud” ad campaign; anyone have a contact at the mayor’s office that could help get it relaunched?) I would like to help make 2014 about fixing the systemic problems. I can only do so much by myself, and I would like to think I’m not the only one that actually cares about what’s going on.

I’m willing to lead. The real question is: who’s willing to follow me?

Happy New Year. I’ll see all of you in 2014.

The “Duck Dynasty” flap: a view from a non-fan of the show

Originally I was going to just let this one fly by like a black brant headed to Mexico. But I think there have been enough people vocally claiming a First Amendment violation that it’s time to weigh in.

First, in case you’ve missed this or live outside the US (many of these links will contain offensive material):

Executive summary: Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty gives an interview to GQ Magazine (owned by Conde Nast Publications, not Hearst as originally stated by one source). A+E Networks (owners of the cable channel A&E, a joint venture of Hearst Corporation and Disney-ABC Television Group, and no I have no idea why the corporate name has a plus sign instead of an ampersand) gets wind of it, the executives go nuts and place Phil Robertson on “indefinite hiatus” from the show. Right-wing fans of the show claim infringements of First Amendment free speech rights, Cracker Barrel pulls Duck Dynasty merchandise only to put it right back on the shelves after the show’s fans threaten a boycott. Finally, A+E Networks reverses the original decision, and since the show wasn’t even producing new episodes anyway, the “indefinite hiatus” amounts to no hiatus at all.

Let’s start with the original GQ interview and A+E Networks’ reaction. First, I consider Mr. Robertson’s remarks to be in egregiously poor taste. I don’t know why anyone who is on television as part of a nationally cablecast program would think it was a good idea to say these kinds of things in a magazine interview. I am forced to conclude that Mr. Robertson simply doesn’t give a shit.

So it’s not surprising that the brass at A+E Networks did what they did. And they had the right to decide who and what they wanted to air on their television network. The same way I can decide exactly what to post on my blog, and what comments make it. I’ve been pretty liberal, but I have edited comments for publication in the past.

What does surprise me is that the same largely conservative fan base is willing to attack A+E Networks for infringing on freedom of speech, as if it’s Mr. Robertson’s right to be on television. It’s not his show nor his network. It was a given that some other network somewhere would pick up either Duck Dynasty itself or start a new show starring the Robertson family and the duck call business. (Probably one of the Fox-owned networks, given the slant of Fox Noise Ch– I mean Fox News Channel.)

The latest articles I’ve read imply that A+E Networks has painted themselves into a corner, and they can’t win no matter what. Not to mention, at least one former production assistant claims the show is fake ( Which is perhaps the biggest fraud of them all, if he’s right.

A show billed as a reality show should actually reflect reality. Deadliest Catch, for example, does its best to reflect the reality of crab fishing in the Bering Sea. Minimal editing is done except to remove profanity and for legal reasons (blurring/beeping out the identifying information of boats and people who have not signed agreements to be on the show). Nothing is scripted. Cops is perhaps the gold standard in reality television; if not the first, it’s certainly the longest running series in the genre and perhaps the show that helped define it. I’m not saying “gold standard” because I like the show, but because it’s the best example of how a reality show should be made.

Reality (unscripted) television is fine. I have no problem with reality television itself. Reality game shows are fine (Survivor, The Amazing Race, Big Brother, etc). Scripted television is fine and has its place. But it’s just not right to call something a reality show when it’s really scripted. If this is what A+E Networks is doing, this is a much bigger problem, to me, than any mishandling of Mr. Robertson and his interview with GQ. I would hate to see something happen to reality television along the lines of the quiz show scandals of the 1950s. But if it takes a Congressional investigation to clean things up, then let’s have one and start the cleanup now.

Why I say “Happy Holidays”

While some may find this post offensive, my goals in writing this post did not include a deliberate attempt to offend. I wrote this post to establish my point of view, and also to enlighten those who may never have heard the truth about the history of the modern “Christmas” holiday.

With the coming of the winter holiday season, there’s been what seems like more than the usual controversy and flaming over the use of “Happy Holidays,” “Seasons Greetings,” and for that matter any holiday greeting besides “Merry Christmas” even though there are other cultures which celebrate other holidays. Maybe it just seems that way because of the fact Hanukkah and US-observed Thanksgiving happened to be the same day this year, which last happened in 1888 and won’t happen again until 2070 and 2165.

I usually say “Happy Holidays” and I do so to include everyone, whether they observe Yule, Litha, Christmas, Kwanzaa, HanukkahZarathosht Diso, Grav-Mass, Saturnalia, or something else entirely. To many non-Christians, “Merry Christmas” has about as much meaning as “Happy Yule” or “Io Saturnalia” does to Christians. Seriously, try wishing someone “Happy Yule” or “Io Saturnalia” and see how they react.

Perhaps the biggest surprise to everyone is that most so-called Christmas traditions actually trace their roots to other pagan or secular celebrations such as Saturnalia. Exchanging gifts was originally done as part of Saturnalia on December 23. There was also the Feast of Fools, the medieval successor to Saturnalia, celebrated at about the same time of year. The tradition of singing carols actually stems from Yule (which more or less coincides with Christmas at least in the Northern Hemisphere), a still-observed pagan winter holiday of gift-giving.

And finally it seems particularly odd to me, speaking as a non-Christian, that Christians would celebrate Jesus Christ’s birthday on a day in the middle of winter when Jesus was more likely born in the spring. The most plausible reason is that the pagan and secular winter festivals occurring on or about December 25 were much more popular and thus more inviting targets to usurp. Of course, this didn’t stop the Christians from usurping Eostar in the spring and calling it Easter. But I’ll save that commentary for the appropriate season.

While the takeover of traditionally secular or pagan holidays by Christians is understandable, it makes the assertion that there is a “war on Christmas” that much more offensive to me. To me, it looks more like the real war has been fought by Christians for centuries on holidays observed by those of other faiths, changing the name and even being creative with history in the name of spreading the gospel. It’s an understandable tactic, but calling a horse’s tail a leg does not make it one, and so it is with the winter holidays.

Happy holidays, everyone. I have a few more recent events to weigh in on before the new year is upon us.

The infamous stop sign camera scam

Since 2007 July, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Agency (MRCA) in the Los Angeles, CA, area has been using photographic (camera) enforcement on many stop signs in the parks it manages. The fine was at first $100, then increased later to $175 (and possibly the fines can go higher for multiple violations within a year). A small sampling of posts about this scam:

There is no shortage of news coverage and blog posts about what is a very obvious scheme of arbitrary traffic rules enforced strictly for revenue.

It’s a scam because a lot of stop signs are placed in confusing locations, and worse, in some locations if a vehicle stops behind the sign, it is actually more dangerous than if the stop is made later or the stop sign is simply a yield sign (or an even a unsigned yield based on rules of the road). The third post above about the Topanga Overlook shows one such ill-placed stop sign (from a safety standpoint):

Exiting traffic from the parking lot has plenty of room to yield to thru traffic on the road or merge at a safe speed. Placing the stop sign there simply forces drivers to make the merge from a dead stop, and does absolutely nothing to improve safety.

This is just one example. At least one other MRCA photo enforced stop sign is at a “crosswalk to nowhere.” The crosswalk leads to a sidewalk on one side, but just dirt on the other and no obvious way for pedestrians to continue on any type of path. Again, with this in mind it’s easy to conclude this is a “gotcha” stop sign just for revenue. Putting up stop signs like this reduces the overall respect for traffic control devices everywhere and reduces safety across the board long term.

One comment on the blog posts notes that in travelling over 1000 miles across the UK, he saw maybe one or two stop signs on the whole trip, reserved for situations where it’s just impossible to clearly see the traffic until right at the corner. The rest are “give way” signs (which we label “yield” in the US). Honestly, the Brits are on to something here when it comes to traffic engineering. (However, their use of speed cameras over there completely misses the mark, but that’s another topic for another day.)

While I am overall no fan of unsafe driving, I oppose any type of automated photographic or videographic enforcement methods. The reason behind this is that I have found these methods are almost always, sooner or later, abused for revenue. This abuse leads to less respect for traffic control devices and traffic laws overall, leading to more dangerous, not safer, roads.

This abuse is part of the reason the red light cameras here in Houston, TX, and not too far away in Baytown, TX, are no longer standing. The people here figured it out. It doesn’t matter if the money is treated the same as other traffic ticket fines or if it goes to public hospital trauma centers; the abuse still happens. The MRCA’s silly stop signs just make it more obvious it’s about revenue, not safety. Shame on you, MRCA.

Police violence against family pets: when will it end?

And now, another topic I thought I was done writing about for a good, long while. The last time I wrote a couple of posts about senseless violence against pet dogs by police officers, I had thought they were just a couple of isolated incidents. Now, it appears that is not the case and I can’t ignore this trend any longer. Especially not after reading these three stories:

WARNING: The remainder of this post may be deeply disturbing to some readers.