Garbage in, garbage out: unintended consequences of regulating homeless aid

A recent story on is probably the most absurd event I have read about in the last eight years and change that I have been posting to this blog.

Flash back to 2012, when Houston’s city council approved an ordinance to regulate the distribution of food and other necessities to the city’s homeless population. It was a law that doesn’t sit well with many in this city, myself included. I understand what the city is trying to do, but I have doubts this law is working the way it should. And the story linked above is one of the most fitting examples as to how these types of laws should not be used.

In an apparent response to someone calling in a complaint, several HPD officers arrived on the scene of a handout to some homeless people in the area along with a garbage truck. In complete disregard for not only Texan and Houstonian values, but also basic compassion and concern for human beings who are stuck in this city without a roof over their heads, they forced the homeless people who had received gifts from well-meaning people to throw them away.

Unfortunately, this story doesn’t name the officers involved. I have to wonder though, what kind of person, cop or not, could take away food and survival items from people who have already lost their homes, and still look themselves in the mirror and sleep at night. How could a cop do something this disgraceful and still feel proud to put on the uniform and badge afterwards?

I would actually understand a bit more if they were to ticket or arrest the people handing out food, clothing, blankets, and other survival items. The reason being, is that gets this law in front of a jury, and the sooner we actually get a jury to nullify this bunch of legislative excrement, the better. Either way we get rid of it is fine by me–either an outright repeal by the city council, or by juries refusing to convict (or even judges refusing to convict, but I’m not exactly holding my breath for that).

I voted for Annise Parker, who was mayor when this excuse for a law was passed. Annise had a mostly great tenure as mayor of our fine city, and accomplished many good things. However, to say the least, this law was not one of them. I hope that our current city government can recognize the errors the previous administration made passing this law, and that doubling down on it is a huge blunder. Honestly, if this episode and similar anti-homeless actions are about “cleaning up” the city prior to hosting the Super Bowl in a few weeks, then I would rather Houston never host a Super Bowl again than have any more of them. And remember, it is cheaper to provide housing to the homeless than to maintain the status quo. (The linked story is not the only example.)

The Evernote two-step: a tale of caution regarding privacy and data ownership

This recent story from PCWorld about Evernote changing its privacy policy followed by this story covering a very abrupt about-face from Evernote say pretty much all there is to say about why it’s a bad idea to blindly trust companies like Evernote with the privacy of your data.

Basically, Evernote changed their privacy policy on a whim to allow employees to snoop on user notes ostensibly to assist efforts to train its algorithms. Originally, individual users could opt out of the algorithm training, but not out of the part of the privacy policy still allowing Evernote employees to snoop on their data; businesses could opt out but would not get the benefits of the new features if they did.

Evernote was quick to backpedal and change to an opt-in model following the fully justified outrage of its users. It’s quite possible some users no longer trust Evernote with their data after this two-step, and it would be hard to blame them. It is possible to store data locally with Evernote (by creating a local notebook instead of a “synchronized” notebook) and they intentionally make it easy to get all your data out of Evernote if you want to leave for what you believe are greener pastures. This gaffe might be the impetus for quite a few users to do just that.

The lesson here is a very powerful one: there’s very little stopping other companies from doing this tomorrow, and there’s no guarantee the CEO of that company will even give the appearance of giving a tinker’s damn about its users. This is a rather direct reminder to take a look at the companies you trust with your data, and how easy it would be to get your data out of those services/products should you decide you want to leave. Of course, it would be wise to remember the best time to find out how easy it is to get your data back out of a product/service is before you put your data in it.

I’ll add a personal angle to this. At various times over the past year and change, I have considered moving this blog to a static site updated with Pelican, among other possibilities. The hard part is not getting the data out of WordPress–that’s actually about as easy as they get. Even the free-of-charge platform makes this relatively easy, even if one is not moving to self-hosted WordPress (a.k.a. “” to differentiate it from shared-hosting

No, the problem comes if I find out Pelican (in this case) doesn’t work out and I have to move entries back into the last backup of the site as a WordPress site. That might be easy if I make no more than about five posts before finding out it’s not going to work out. But what if that’s ten? Twenty? Fifty? One hundred? Two hundred? It’s a potentially painful process because I don’t see an easy way to automatically make even a WXR file with the new posts in it. Sure, I could ease any future transition by keeping a local install of WordPress and add the new posts manually as I make them, but that is an implied admission I have no confidence in the new platform–and that would be the case even if it was something besides Pelican.

Of course, ideally I want to change platforms only once. There’s always the chance the first change doesn’t work out. There’s also the chance I would want to later switch back to WordPress after making this change, or switch to a future WordPress fork or even to something like b2evolution (which forked from the same blogging software that WordPress was forked from).

Another great example of what not to do, unfortunately, is what the WordPress Foundation (at the time) did when they struck a deal with regarding the online presence of local WordPress groups. The thing to remember about is that they intentionally make it difficult to impossible to change platforms. Vendor lock-in, combined with the (justified) fear that organizers might lose some members (in fact, almost certainly will lose some members) when transitioning to another platform, is the business model of Meetup. It’s a huge departure from the Meetup that I used as an early adopter and that’s sad.

Anyway, it was and still is really disappointing to me that the WordPress Foundation (at the time) deciding to just pay a bunch of money to Meetup. The first reason is it’s been sort of an informal goal of the WordPress community to do everything with WordPress that can be done with WordPress. As an example of this, WordCamps aren’t ticketed with Eventbrite or other such sites; they use a WordPress plugin called CampTix written for the purpose. Thankfully the deal with is about the only time WordPress was intentionally eschewed for a function central to the local WordPress communities around the world.

Adding to it, of course, was the unfortunate experience we had with the Houston WordPress Meetup in most of 2012 going into the early months of 2013 and the response from Meetup (at the top of the post). Basically, Meetup’s standpoint was that the people (community) in the group didn’t matter as much compared to the organizer paying their dues on time. The only silver lining to this cloud is that the WordPress Foundation (the entity paying Meetup which is the nominal organizer of the actual group; maybe this, too, has changed to WordPress Community Support, the new PBC) has a bit more skin in the game and can replace inactive or unresponsive organizers. Then again, they would still be able to do that using a home-brewed WordPress-based solution, without paying Meetup one bloody cent.

Regarding the use of Meetup, it’s hard to see which is the chicken and which is the egg. A lot of groups were using prior to the WordPress Foundation deal. Still, the better move for the community would have been to start a WordPress multiuser site similar to with a plugin to replicate the Meetup-like functionality in much the same way CampTix fills in for Eventbrite. Better yet would be a fully free software alternative (GPL, if need be Affero GPL) to; even if it is not built on top of WordPress, that would be a step in the right direction.

Examples are plentiful, but the lesson remains the same:

  1. Know how to get your data out of a platform before you need to. If unsure, ask questions. If you don’t like the answers, use a different product or service instead, after getting satisfactory answers to the same questions.
  2. Trust your gut. If a privacy policy change rubs you the wrong way, raise hell about it, and minimize the damage by taking your business and your data elsewhere (see #1).

Phone usage billing over the years: revisiting “A truly embarrassing truth”

Around eight years ago, back in this blog’s infancy, I wrote a post about wireless phone billing practices entitled “A truly embarrassing truth for wireless phone companies”. A lot has changed since then, so I thought I would go back and revisit the original article.

Text messaging hasn’t really gone anywhere in eight years. Despite the rise of smartphones and that feature phones (sometimes called “flip phones” or “dumb phones”) are now the exception instead of the rule as they were about a decade ago, a lot of people still use text messages to communicate. The billing has changed too: most if not all plans in the current era are keyed around smartphone data usage, with the voice minutes and messaging thrown in for free.

(And a quick aside here: unfortunately, the quality of voice calls over the public switched telephone network (PSTN) has changed to match that “thrown in for free” bit. Early in the wired phone network’s history, dropped and misrouted calls, particularly long distance calls, happened on occasion. By the 1990s, though, such occurrences were unacceptable and had been engineered out of existence. I still consider it unacceptable in 2016 for calls over the PSTN to be dropped or fade out. It’s one thing for calls over an unregulated, strictly VoIP network to have this happen (Facebook Messenger, Skype,, etc), but the PSTN is simply supposed to be more reliable than that.)

The only phones where voice minutes and message aren’t “thrown in for free” as said above, are prepaid pay-as-you-go plans. Even on these, text messages have dropped back down to the slightly more reasonable level of 10 cents per message, even though a one minute phone call costs the same (at least on T-Mobile, the last provider I checked).

Thankfully, rates have more or less held steady and wireless phone companies have begun actually giving more for less as technology allows. This could be largely in part due to T-Mobile, which jolted the industry a while back by getting the handset subsidy *out* of the monthly rate, and as a separate line item where it belonged to begin with. This is fairer to everyone, and has opened up the realistic possibility of buying unlocked phones from third parties (at least on GSM networks). Now, one can upgrade phones when one desires (and one’s finances allow), rather than being stuck in a never-ending series of two-year contracts. It also means if one really likes a phone, one can keep it until it literally wears out or falls apart.

Who knows what the next eight years will bring us?

The “Happy holidays” post for 2016: thoughts on the past and wishes for the future

First things first: it’s a bit late, but I wish all my readers out there a happy holiday season, whatever the holiday(s) may be that you’re observing. For those new to the blog, this post from 2013 and this followup post from 2015 will explain why I say “Happy holidays” as opposed to other more specific greetings.

The ending of 2016 has set up what is certainly going to be an interesting 2017. I say “interesting” in the sense of the curse attributed to the Chinese “May you live in interesting times.” On one hand, there’s going to be a lot for me to write about, but on the other, I really wish things had been a bit more normal. During the last week of the year I’ll have a bit more to say about our president-elect in the US and some of his rather questionable actions before even being sworn in. I still have quite a few other posts I want to get out of the draft queue as well.

I haven’t made as many posts this year as I had wanted to. I’m not going to try to catch up all the ground in the final week of the year, but I’m pretty sure in 2017 I’ll have plenty of opportunity to make up for it. I can tell by the readership count that the regular readers I had in the past have yet to come back.

And I will admit that there are times this blog has been less-than-compelling reading, and there were stretches where I wasn’t able to post any new entries at all. I’m going to try to minimize those going forward. I remember in the beginning when this was simply a space for what I had to say that was too long to fit on Twitter. It’s evolved beyond that, into a part of me I didn’t realize was even missing.

There are people still reading now and then, which is good. If you like what you’re reading here, share it: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Reddit, email (including mailing lists), or however you usually share things with friends. If everyone who came by shared a post, no matter how old (I have a lot of posts I suspect never even got read from about 2013 to 2015), my readership count issues would disappear fairly quickly.

Speaking of old posts… if there are any formerly topics someone wants me to revisit, or if there is something you were expecting me to post about that I had missed, feel free to drop me a line. Please be sure you include a valid return email address.

Happy holidays, and best wishes for a great 2017.

The Satanic Temple versus a Texas abortion rule

Sometimes our last hope (or one of our last hopes) for getting rid of unjust laws and regulations comes from the most unlikely of places. Such as it does in this case, where the Satanic Temple stands ready to sue to oppose a blatantly stupid regulation.

As recently reported, the aforementioned Satanic Temple has claimed the new anti-abortion regulations (not laws) that Texas has passed violate their religious freedom. The rule says that post-abortion fetal remains must be buried or cremated. This applies to abortions at hospitals and abortion clinics (and other healthcare facilities). The rule stops short of requiring death certificates for fetal tissue thankfully, but should still be considered offensive to anyone who values the availability of safe and legal abortion.

Before I get flamed to a crisp, I’d like to clear the air. The Satanic Temple, despite what its name may appear to imply, is probably not what you think it is. It would be better to think of them as “extreme atheists” per this description from Wikipedia (trimmed down to the relevant portion):

The Satanic Temple is an American political activist organization […]. The group utilizes satanic imagery to promote egalitarianism, social justice and the separation of church and state. Their stated mission is “to encourage benevolence and empathy among all people”.

Even as a rather hardcore atheist, I find my comfort zone really tested by groups such as the Satanic Temple. The shock value of using Satanic imagery is part of how they get the point across regarding separation of church and state, probably because it’s the only way they can get the point across to the most devout Bible-thumping Christians. I get that.

I do believe in egalitarianism, the separation of church and state, and social justice. The fact that the Satanic Temple and similar groups happen to believe in the same causes won’t change that. The reasons why I had to explain that the Satanic Temple is not what it first appears, however, is one of the reasons why I remain hesitant to openly support them.

I picked atheism, or more accurately, secular humanism, for a reason. I won’t go into the details here, but I will basically say that I’m best at doing me, and going to church and blindly believing in a god felt like I’m being an actor in a play more than just being myself. When I had religion, I just didn’t feel like I was doing me.

My pro-choice stance on abortion doesn’t come about because I don’t believe life is sacred–it is. It is a logical continuation of my stance on legalizing or at least decriminalizing most recreational drugs. Remember that here in the US, we once had a period where abortion was outright illegal in at least some jurisdictions. Like the laws prohibiting use and possession of recreational drugs, however, these laws which criminalized abortion didn’t stop abortion–they just moved it to the back alleys to be done by guys with coat hangers and other similarly crude instruments, and no medical training.

No, my stance on keeping abortion legal and accessible is that I would rather have legal abortions in a proper medical setting, done by properly trained doctors, where if something goes wrong, it can be cared for properly instead of a back-alley abortionist having to call for an ambulance which may or may not get there in time–and remember that back-alley abortionist won’t be there when it arrives unless he/she wants to risk criminal prosecution.

So yeah, it’s a shame that we need the Satanic Temple to get some people to see just how screwed up these anti-abortion laws and regulations are. We really shouldn’t. That silly rule is un-Texan and needs to be stricken down. If the Satanic Temple happens to be the ones to get it done, more power to them.