Archive | May 2015

Hodding Carter on Snowden

I vaguely remember Hodding Carter III from President Carter’s administration – mostly because of his first name and Nawlins accent. In, Glenn Greenwald, I’m sorry: Why I changed my mind on Edward Snowden, he briefly describes in Salon how he came to see the Snowden revelations as valuable, despite the mainstream media’s disapproval.

And then I changed my mind, though God knows the generally uninspiring media reaction was not responsible. It is hard even now to fully appreciate how many press commentaries either saluted the official line or fell back on patronizing, snide dismissals of Snowden’s character and intelligence. Those who supported him were few and far between, though vigorous in their support. Among them were The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, McClatchy newspapers, and Knight Ridder. To others overlooked in that summary listing, my apologies. Those who decided to go forward with their coverage deserve sustained public applause. They took significant chances when they pressed the print button and revealed the NSA’s dirty linen. Of no less importance, they sounded the alarm, warning the American people anew of how much further down the road to an all-intrusive garrison state Washington had ventured.

I stopped reading quite a few blogs after they immediately attacked Snowden. I am less than thrilled that he is currently favoring Rand Paul, but I still think he did the right thing in blowing the whistle on the NSA.

Baltimore Heating Up

This morning, One two of my coworkers is are upset after spending two hours in a traffic jam getting to work from Columbia.

After a Memorial Day weekend in Baltimore with some twenty-seven shootings and eight deaths, activists including Rev Jamal Bryant, using hashtags ‘One Baltimore’ and ‘Baltimore Uprising’ are blocking interstate 95/395 into Baltimore to protest that $30 million is going to a new youth prison instead of education. More at WBAL.

I remember a youth jail being protested during Occupy Baltimore. In 2013 that youth jail project was abandoned, but another project was just approved by the Board of Public Works – without discussion.

Police morale is reportedly low, and the Freddie Gray riots are still fresh in peoples’ minds. More demonstrations are not what the city wants to see right now.

Exterior Electrical Insurance

As Penelec/First Energy customers, last year we received a mailer, “Important Information Regarding Your Exterior Electrical System,” informing us that HomeServe USA Repair Management Corp, of Norwalk CT, offers an Exterior Electrical Line Protection Plan. We threw it away, but recently got a second one:

Without this plan, repairs to your exterior electrical system components, including the weatherhead, insulator, riser, meter base and service entrance conductor, can be expensive, costing you hundreds of dollars in unexpected expenses.

To get an idea of what these components look like, here’s a five minute This Old House youtube clip where they install new service.

Weatherhead: $5 to $10 at Home Depot, also called the periscope, it is the rounded cap just above where the overhead service drop lines attach that stops rain or snow melt from dribbling into the conduits.
Riser: the 120V and neutral electrical cables that run from the weatherhead to the meter.
Meter Base, or Meter Socket: $40 to $200, the grey or beige metal meter enclosure. The electrical utility owns the meter itself.
Service Entrance Conductor: the 120V and neutral cables that run between the meter and your main interior electrical panel.

The protection amount is $3,000 Annual Benefit, and the rate is $5.49 per month.

Have you ever had these components serviced? We never have, even when installing a larger panel inside..

Are they worth $3,000? Probably a few hundred dollars in materials.

What could damage them? Perhaps a tree or branch falling on the service drop, or a powerful storm. But HomeServe’s fine print makes it clear that they do not cover damage due to accidents or negligence, only normal wear-and-tear.

The Ripoff Report carries this report about the UK and US arms of HomeServe.

The home emergencies and repairs group HomeServe has been handed a record £30.6m fine for mis-selling insurance policies and mishandling customer complaints.

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) said staff at the firm had focused on the “quantity not quality” of sales to the detriment of customers, many of whom were vulnerable older people.

HomeServe, which insures more than 2 million people in Britain against burst pipes, broken gas boilers and electrical problems, has been punished for “serious, systemic and long-running failings, extending across many key aspects of its business”. The fine is the largest ever for mis-selling to retail customers in Britain, beating a £28m penalty imposed on Lloyds Banking Group last December.

Can Our Scientists Believe Each Other?

In Nautilus, Philip Ball writes, The Trouble With Scientists:

… In 2005, medical science was shaken by a paper with the provocative title “Why most published research findings are false.” Written by John Ioannidis, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, it didn’t actually show that any particular result was wrong. Instead, it showed that the statistics of reported positive findings was not consistent with how often one should expect to find them. As Ioannidis concluded more recently, “many published research findings are false or exaggerated, and an estimated 85 percent of research resources are wasted.

… the problems of false findings often begin with researchers unwittingly fooling themselves: they fall prey to cognitive biases, common modes of thinking that lure us toward wrong but convenient or attractive conclusions. …

Psychologist Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia says that the most common and problematic bias in science is “motivated reasoning”: We interpret observations to fit a particular idea. Psychologists have shown that “most of our reasoning is in fact rationalization,” he says. In other words, we have already made the decision about what to do or to think, and our “explanation” of our reasoning is really a justification for doing what we wanted to do—or to believe—anyway. Science is of course meant to be more objective and skeptical than everyday thought—but how much is it, really?

Science is supposed to be grounded in reality by following the scientific method, and its safety valve is the peer review process. If the author of a paper is wrong, the ideal is that another scientist will point out the error, and the author will revise or withdraw his theory. Ball notes that the peer review process has flaws, and discusses Nosek’s proposals to fix it, but doesn’t address corporate control of the scientists. When a great deal of money hinges on the results, we find scientists attacking each other’s credibility, with some quietly taking a great deal of money to endorse an industry-friendly position.

Witness ongoing political and media debates around competing studies on climate change, whether certain injections caused autism, the long term effects of nuclear fission powerplants, whether glyphosate is a carcinogen, and what constitutes a proper diet. Even evolution is still up for debate in our public school system.

Doing the Zipcar thing

Many years ago, I didn’t have a car in Baltimore, but the four Zipcar locations in the city were around Johns Hopkins, not terribly close to where I lived and worked. After I moved to a garden apartment, where I parked a car every night and most days, Zipcar spots seemed to spring up all around my office. I wrote about them in 2010, and my coblogger Mike offered his experiences zipping in New York City.

Five years later I am again without an infernal combustion vehicle, so I can take advantage of all these cars for the sharing. I joined Zipcar a few weeks ago, and took my first voyage today. I had to verify some measurements for a client in Rockville MD – too far for a bike ride – so I reserved a Honda Civic that “lives” in a parking garage a few blocks away. I reserved from 8 AM to 1 PM, which worked out to three dollars more than walking over to Enterprise to rent a car all day for $40.

Keeping a car overnight could be handy for shopping and other chores, but I’m a bit annoyed with Enterprise. Two weeks ago I showed up for a weekend rental and they had no record of the reservation I had made online, and no extra cars. I had to walk back to my office, print out the confirming email and walk back to Enterprise. Then they had a car for me. And of course they always try to sell me extra insurance.

So I tried Zipcar. Getting the car was easy. I walked into the parking garage, and it was parked right next to the attendant’s booth. Unlocking it with the card was simple, but the Civic was a tight squeeze and I couldn’t make the seat go any farther back. As soon as I started the engine, I could see the parking attendant disappearing into a doorway. I found the parking pass in the visor and waited patiently by the gate only to have her come back and tell me that I could have swiped the card myself on a small box.

The fuel level was a bit low, but I made it through heavy traffic on I-95 (Amtrak crash) without incident. On the Route 200 toll road I put the office EZ Pass on the dash, not noticing that the Zipcar has its own EZ Pass next to the rear view mirror. I wonder if they both got charged the toll?

After my appointment, I swapped out the Zipcar EZPass with ours, then drove until I got a low fuel alert. I took an exit and found an Exxon station on Randolph Road. As usual I hadn’t noticed which side of the car had the filler cap. As usual I guessed wrong and had to pull around. Zipcar also includes a gas purchase card in the visor. Instructions were to swipe the card then enter the odometer reading – which did not display because I had stopped the car. So I restarted and got the number, then swiped the card, entered that number and my Gas ID number – which didn’t take. So I gave it the other number on my card, and got the dreaded three words, Please See Cashier.

The cashier asked me how much gas I needed. I wanted to fill it, but he needed a number, and suggested $40. I guessed $30. He had me swipe the card again, enter the Gas ID number again, and, inside, it worked. He said, “Computers only think they are smarter than us.” He said they would refund any difference to the card. It was $29.12.

Dropping off the car was easy, too. I was an hour and twenty minutes early, and therein lies the problem with Zipcar. You get no credit for returning early, but a $50/hr penalty for being late. So you have to be fairly certain just how long you need the vehicle. If you guess long, you pay for an hour or more you don’t need. If you guess short, you get hosed. If you have no idea about time needed, you will be better off to rent a full day from Enterprise, Hertz, National or Avis, which now owns Zipcar.

Baltimore After Freddie Gray

In the flurry of articles about the widely televised violence after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, most television outlets and several pundits focused on the violence. Like WBALTV’s reporting staff and my former coblogger Ramona, most decried any sort of violence, but a few invoked the Boston Tea Party as an example of resorting to violence when other measures were exhausted. One pundit excoriated any outsider that would call for violence, but in the manner of Chris Rock, “understood” why frustrated black residents might go there.

David Simon, the Wire creator who still lives in Charm City, heard the devil call his name and told Bill Keller of The Marshall Project that the violence has been simmering for decades:

Probable cause was destroyed by the drug war. It happened in stages, but even in the time that I was a police reporter, which would have been the early 80s to the early 90s, the need for police officers to address the basic rights of the people they were policing in Baltimore was minimized. It was done almost as a plan by the local government, by police commissioners and mayors, and it not only made everybody in these poor communities vulnerable to the most arbitrary behavior on the part of the police officers, it taught police officers how not to distinguish in ways that they once did. …

And the city willingly and legally gave itself over to that, beginning with the drug-free zones and with the misuse of what are known on the street in the previous generation as ‘humbles.’ A humble is a cheap, inconsequential arrest that nonetheless gives the guy a night or two in jail before he sees a court commissioner. You can arrest people on “failure to obey,” it’s a humble. Loitering is a humble. These things were used by police officers going back to the ‘60s in Baltimore. It’s the ultimate recourse for a cop who doesn’t like somebody who’s looking at him the wrong way.

Simon talks about the class aspect of black officers from the counties humbling city blacks. A Gawker article looks at the clueless elite class, quoting some unwary Maryland Hunt Club denizens:

“You want to know what I think,” said the one in the Black Dog Martha’s Vineyard sweatshirt. “The cops have the hardest job in the world besides our troops in Afghanistan. You know, and I tell my kids this, if a cop tells you to stop, you stop. It’s sad what happened to this guy, but let the police do their job. I feel these people protesting, I really do. But if the police really did something wrong, it’s going to come out.”

“Baltimore is a shithole,” said the man with the cigar. He wore a navy blazer with a pocket square. His eyes were ice blue and close together.

“This guy,” said the man in the gray sweatshirt. “His spine was broken before the cops picked him up. I talked to doctors at Johns Hopkins. But his spine was already broken.”

I had already heard the ‘Freddie Gray was already injured’ meme, but it has been debunked. I had already heard the shithole meme, too. I was telling a more conservative friend about David Simon’s opinion piece, and he came back with, “Baltimore’s done, it’s finished. They show the Inner Harbor on TV, but the rest of it is a shithole.” He had asked his wife if she would have come to Baltimore knowing what she knows now. Nope.

Now that the curfew has been lifted, and the national guard has left, WBAL is featuring reports of people cleaning up and businesses trying to make money again. The Horseshoe Casino is open again. Presumably the Orioles will host the Blue Jays on Monday, and Pimlico racetrack is running ads for Black-Eyed Susan Day, in which ladies with hats will watch a race on the Friday before Sunday’s Preakness Stakes – a leg of the Triple Crown and a claim to national attention. I bike through mostly black neighborhoods and around Pimlico every day. I tell worried friends that no one bothers me and that poorer people seem less territorial about sharing the road with bikes than more affluent drivers on the East side of I-83.

Over the last week I looked to see if things had changed along my route home. Since early Spring there has been a traffic beggar at Russell and Hamburg Streets, and one at Martin Luther King Boulevard and Pratt Street. He likes my bike. On Friday I saw other beggars resting on blankets in the shade of a building. One guy was walking up take a pee between a pair of piers. Two piers and pee-er. And the beggars – equipped with small brown, cardboard signs – seemed to be stationed every two blocks along MLK Blvd. Some had partners on blankets. And they were all scraggly white people.

Further along is a four or five tent encampment under Route 40 where it passes over MLK. The folk in the tents are black, but there are white street beggars on the corners. On Friday loose brick pavers were laying in the sidepath I use. A coworker mentioned that he sees tents at various spots along the I-495 rights of way, and is sure there are others that are better hidden. As I turn onto Eutaw Street and ride up to Druid Hill Park, I stop seeing beggars of any color. I’m not sure what the demographics are, but apparently the people driving these roads aren’t giving it away.

Personally I don’t think my friends would have found things much better anywhere else. Baltimore has more black people than most cities, but despite the positive spin of employment numbers, there seem to be plenty of poor people everywhere. Skin color just brings the conflicts that result from a declining economy into sharper relief.