In memoriam: Ian Murdock, founder of the Debian project

I was saddened to learn of the recent death of Debian project founder Ian Murdock at the age of 42, per the blog post on Bits from Debian (

Without Ian’s work, neither Debian nor its many offshoots, including Ubuntu and Linux Router Project (discontinued), would have existed, and the landscape of the free software community would be radically different. I have used all three of the aforementioned projects and a few others based on Debian as well. I speak from experience when I say Ian’s contributions are some of the most far-reaching and helped set the pace and the tone for the free software community as a whole.

I appreciate Ian’s contributions to the free software community, in not only the technical sense, but the ethical and moral senses as well. The Bits from Debian post refers to the project’s stances on release engineering and software freedom as “the gold standards” in the community, and I couldn’t have said it better myself. Ian leaves a substantial legacy to the free software community, and this despite the fact he has left us way too soon.

Rest in peace, Ian. You will be sorely missed.

A budget snafu in Las Animas County

This story out of Las Animas County, Colorado, is really disheartening. This recent news story from KRDO details the decision by County Administrator Leeann Fabec to refuse to pay any additional costs incurred by the sheriff’s department for the remainder of the year after December 15, stating that the department was over its budget by some $12,227. What this does is put sheriff Jim Casias on the hook personally for the department’s payroll, and raises the real possibility that his deputies will not get paid for the final two weeks of the year.

I haven’t found anything either way to indicate how this was resolved, this being a good week and a half after the December 15 cutoff. Some of the larger cities and towns may have their own law enforcement agencies, but what about the rest of the county? Either way, it could be a really bad deal for somebody: the residents who are without law enforcement officers for two weeks, the deputies who work with no guarantee of getting paid and who still have obligations to meet despite that, or sheriff Jim Casias being out personally for the deputies’ payroll.

I have nothing specifically against law enforcement officers working in a volunteer capacity; I do have a problem with those who have not specifically chosen to volunteer, being stuck working for free for whatever reason. The screw-up by the county’s bookkeepers who did not notice the sheriff’s department ran out of money, should not be a reason to stiff the deputies doing their jobs and expecting to be paid for them. Deputies on the payroll should be paid, the same as any other business that depends on paid employees to get the job done.

Yes, I’m taking the side of the deputies here. But I really approach this as more of a labor issue than a law enforcement issue. With a population barely into five digits (14,052 estimated in 2014), I doubt there are any major crime problems in Las Animas County. After a news report that the sheriff’s deputies may not get paid for working the last two weeks of the year, though, that’s always subject to change.

Now, I don’t fault KRDO for breaking the story, as this is in the public interest, and it was in fact their duty to break this story as soon as the facts were confirmed. This snafu is Ms. Fabec’s fault, either directly or indirectly. I’m not sure of the exact responsibilities of the county administrator, but it stands to reason that if Ms. Fabec can tell the sheriff he’s out of money, then she also had the ultimate responsibility to stay on top of it before the department actually went into the red.

I’ll be keeping an eye on this, and hope to post a follow-up with the resolution soon.

“Happy Holidays” redux

Some long-time readers of this blog might remember this post from 2013 December entitled, appropriately enough, “Why I say ‘Happy Holidays'”. Precious little has changed since then, except the assertion that there’s an ever-continuing “war on Christmas” by Christian zealots and similar right-wing types.

If anything, antics of the sort perpetrated by the owners of Berryhill restaurants (as reported by KTRK-TV) seem to indicate there’s a war to shove religious symbolism in the face of those who have already chosen to be atheist, agnostic, or otherwise adopt a non-Christian set of beliefs. Even if the signs come back down, I’m likely never eating at Berryhill again. The food was overpriced and not all that great last time I ate at one; even if it was great, though, to atheists like myself a phrase like “in God we trust” looks as sensical as “in the Flying Spaghetti Monster we trust” or “in Zeus we trust” would to a hardcore Christian.

From the story:

The signs were posted at the direction of Berryhill CEO Jeff Anon. The tipping point for him was the generic red cups used for the holiday season by [Starbucks]. At the time it was described as more inclusive for people of all beliefs.

(If you missed my post about this year’s “plain” Starbucks cups, feel free to catch up now.)

This post at sums things up rather nicely (though it is from a parenting perspective):

Religion is like a penis. It’s fine to have one and it’s fine to be proud of it, but please don’t whip it out in public and start waving it around… and PLEASE don’t try to shove it down my child’s throat.

I would add to that, that a decision made for religious reasons sometimes makes amazingly poor business sense. Chick-Fil-A could easily be in operation seven days per week, letting those with different beliefs to those of the founder have a different day off (I’m sure there are plenty of atheists in any large city willing to work Sundays while the Christians are in church). By closing on Sundays, they are leaving at least 14.2% (one-seventh) of their possible revenue on the table. They still advertise heavily on Sundays during NFL games, though, for reasons I cannot fathom (“hey, let’s go get some Chick-Fil-A after the game!” … “damn they’re closed… so why did we just see a commercial for them?”). I’m sure competing restaurants (KFC, Raising Cane’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, etc) don’t mind the extra business from disgruntled would-be Chick-Fil-A customers wanting a chicken fix.

(Sidenote: nowhere in the Bible does it specifically say which day of the week is the day of rest. Some major denominations, such as Seventh-day Adventists, observe Sabbath on Saturday (or more accurately, Friday sunset to Saturday sunset); most stick to Sunday, and still others say the spirit of the rule (that one day out of the week be taken for rest regardless of which day it might be) is more important than the letter.)

Anyway, such is the case here. It’s the right of a CEO to believe however he/she wants, and to run their business based on their beliefs. However, my experience has shown that business decisions are best made for business reasons, not religious reasons. Or, put another way, mixing religion with business tends toward a negative expected value (EV). Mr. Anon would do well to consult with a PR agency on how to fix the damage, if it’s still fixable (it may not be, at least under the current Berryhill name).

I stand by what I said in 2013 about saying “happy holidays” to include everyone. It’s how I felt then, it’s how I feel now, and it’s likely that I’ll feel the same way for the rest of my life. I’m at the point where I feel any sane human being shouldn’t find it offensive that I say “happy holidays” and certainly should not feel it’s a “war on Christmas” to say “happy holidays” or revert to a simple, all-inclusive gradient cup design for serving coffee and other similar drinks. If being inclusive is that offensive, then there is something very, very wrong with our society, and we need to fix it now.

In research for the 2013 post, I came across Kwanzaa. I mentioned it in the 2013 post linked above. I at first believed the premise behind Kwanzaa was nonsensical, that it seemed silly to make a holiday for the sole purpose of competing with the other winter holidays out of thin air (Kwanzaa didn’t exist until 1965 and was not actually observed until 1966). But then I really, really thought about it on my drive back home from work tonight, and I’ve come to this conclusion: I’d rather have five, ten, or even twenty more holidays like Kwanzaa, than even one more Christian holiday scheduled deliberately to usurp some pagan festival that most unenlightened people have long since forgotten, or at least that Christians would prefer we forget (and which I along with my fellow atheists, humanists, skeptics, etc do our best to help make sure are remembered).

I have a few posts to close out the year with next week, but for now, happy holidays from Rant Roulette. I’ll be back on Monday.

Marketing follies in the WordPress theme arena

Ordinarily something like a CodeinWP Transparency Report #8 wouldn’t be noteworthy. But the report goes on to describe how the company in question, ThemeIsle, “lost $30,000 due to a single line of CSS.”

Reading on further, what the report is alluding to is that this company which sells WordPress themes at one time offered three different options: one theme with one year of support for $67, access to all themes with two years of support for $99 (marked down from $123, which is possibly a “fake” regular price), and access to all themes with lifetime support for $199. By getting rid of the least expensive option, thus forcing customers who just want one theme to pay another $32, they aren’t “losing” this $30,000 any more.

If this seems outrageous, that’s because it is. It’s not unlike, say, Taco Bell taking a la carte drinks off the menu and then offering a combo with only nachos and a drink for about what both would cost a la carte (say $2.59 or so), for the customers that want “just a drink.” How long would Taco Bell last with this policy? Customers would leave in droves for McDonald’s or Wendy’s or just about anywhere else.

Sure, for the developers who will eventually use two or three of the themes, the middle option is a better deal. But for the rest of the people? Honestly, I’d be more inclined to just use a free theme or a less expensive commercial theme.

Also, there is the issue of the “fake markdown” from $123 to $99. That really needs to go, unless at some point that option will become $123 again. This is the kind of thing that gives marketing a bad name. That, to me, reeks of the odious odor of obnoxious and unscrupulous furniture and car salespeople. If they are going to be sold commercially (which apparently they will be for at least the immediate future), WordPress themes shouldn’t be sold with lame tricks like this.

The post I’m commenting on is from late November and references sales figures from September and October. So apparently, this “fake markdown” has been in place since at least September, and is still there today (in December). Will the price ever go back up to $123? (Was it ever $123 to begin with?) If so, when? If not, get rid of “$123.00” with the line striking through it again. (And next time, don’t try to make it look expensive by putting the “.00” in there, when every other price on the board is a round dollar amount with no cents. That’s also unethical.)

Rather than “lost $30,000 due to a single line of CSS”, I would characterize this as “didn’t realize there was $30,000 to be made by questionable if not outright unethical means.” I’m not suggesting not to buy from ThemeIsle specifically, but this should be kept in mind before buying commerical WordPress themes from anyone.

Nightmare in a Pennsylvania prison

A recent story in the International Business Times, which also later appeared in Newsweek, tells a rather chilling tale of an inmate’s medical problems in a Pennsylvania prison. It is entitled “Poison Prison” and offers a look at exactly this: a prison close to a coal ash dump site, where inmates are developing troubling and previously mysterious health problems. The story centers around a now-former inmate named Marcos Santos (he made parole in 2015 March). Quoting the story:

The 41-year-old Santos entered Fayette on Feb. 12, 2012, as a healthy man, both physically and mentally. He was serving a five-to-10-year sentence for selling cocaine in his hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He stood 5 feet 8 inches and weighed 164 pounds. The only medication he ever took was a daily dose of Lisinopril, meant to curb his high blood pressure. He prided himself on his body, his muscles.

But six months into his sentence at Fayette, Santos had become a different man. He was frail and in near-constant pain. […] Santos’ cellmate, nicknamed D-block, kindly offered Santos the bottom bunk so that he could get up more easily in the middle of the night.

Santos soon became a fixture in the prison’s infirmary, where he presented his rashes, skin welts and swollen eyeballs to the medical staff.


At 5:36 p.m. on Aug. 26, 2012, the evening he thought he might die, Santos sat alone in the prison hospital and was given two tablets of Tums. Santos recalls the nurse telling him, “If you make it, you make it.” (The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections declined to comment for this story, but medical records confirm Santos was administered only Tums that evening.)

Regular readers know my stance on drug prohibition; I’m not going to go into that here. Let’s assume for the moment that Marcus’s sentence of 5 to 10 years is justified, that it fits the crime in question. So that’s Marcus’s sentence, 5 to 10 years; he was not sentenced to the death penalty. He didn’t do anything either within or outside of the prison walls to justify the thoughts that he might die.

I am not suggesting in the least that we turn prisons into taxpayer-funded resorts for criminals. However, wantonly exposing prisoners to a known unhealthy environment is almost certainly a violation of the Eighth Amendment, and a rather flagrant one at that. Indeed, quoting from further in the article:

If he can prove that there is, in fact, a problem with the air quality in LaBelle, [Abolitionist Law Center attorney Dustin] McDaniel believes that keeping prisoners there is cruel and unusual punishment. “Health is a human right,” McDaniel wrote in his initial report, “and if the patterns that have emerged during our investigation are indicative of the harms and risks that accompany confinement at SCI Fayette, then it is imperative that the prison is shut down.”

Part of the purpose of prison is to rehabilitate (otherwise we may as well be sentencing everyone to life without or death, or at best, figuratively speaking, outfitting prisons with revolving doors, i.e. assuming prisoners are going to just come right back in after release). Rehabilitation is worthless if one is of markedly poorer health on release than on initial confinement (except for for natural decline of health due to aging), and part of the purpose of prison is to rehabilitate. Thus it just doesn’t make any sense to wantonly expose prisoners to unhealthy conditions.

I’m horrified that this Nurse Ratched wannabe who told him “If you make it, you make it” probably kept his or her job. Now I am a realist here; I’m not expecting prisoners to get first-rate care within a correctional setting, but I do expect those who work in correctional institutions to be decent people with at least a nominal level of compassion. This falls so far short of that it’s not funny; it’s an absolutely horrible way to treat someone, and crosses far below the line of what is acceptable. This nurse, in all likelihood, knew far more about the problem than Marcus did. He or she has probably seen the same thing month in and month out for quite some time, and knew that something unusual was going on.

(Sidenote: the story does not mention the nurse’s gender. In this case, it is noteworthy that male nurses are quite common for correctional settings. My comparison to Nurse Ratched is intended strictly on a personality basis without regard to gender.)

If I was in charge of PR for the Pennsylvania DOC, I probably would not want to comment on the story either. Even knowing what I know about PR, it is difficult to blame them for the classic “no comment” that some PR professionals love to hate. (It’s also quite possible there is still the potential for litigation, which is another good reason for “no comment.” Sometimes the advice of legal counsel takes precedence over that of PR counsel, and for good reason.)

Speaking of PR… another quote from the story:

McDaniel, the 35-year-old lawyer with the Abolitionist Law Center, gets visibly agitated when I bring up the DOC medical report, a report he calls “their bulls— investigation.”

“Their initial reaction was to manage it as a press relation issue,” he says. “It’s part of their attempt to defend themselves. They say, ‘Well, we investigated it and there was nothing there.'”

McDaniel grimaces when talking about the DOC. “People act as if there aren’t 2,000 people living next to this thing,” he says. “And when it’s raised, it’s like, “Oh, well they’re just prisoners. They shouldn’t have broken the law.’ But regardless of whether they’ve broken the law or not, this isn’t right.”

That has to be one of the lamest excuses for endangering lives: “…they’re just prisoners.” The Constitution, particularly the Eighth Amendment, still applies to the accused and the convicted. “Cruel and unusual” applies whether done on purpose, or through negligence.

There is also the possibility that some of these prisoners will eventually win their appeals. I acknowledge there is a difference between pure pre-trial detainees and those who have been convicted at the trial court level, but we don’t know which prisoners will eventually be able to overturn their convictions for whatever reason.

For now, SCI Fayette is still operational. I’ll be revisiting this story in the future, hopefully after SCI Fayette is shut down.