Thursday, December 27, 2007


Went to NYC the weekend of December 15th. The weather was shite, basically 34 and sleeting with 40 mph gusts. But it made for some very cool scenery. Below is the Empire State Building on the Sunday morning the 16th.

Click the image to enlarge.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Crosswalk Madness

Once again, the increasingly whiny DC public has freaked out about something that's really the same as it's always been, and the government has reacted by throwing together an insanely disproportionate response which will surely have no effect, or perhaps even make things worse. In this case, it's about the pedestrian fatalities.

As you know, there have been a bunch of pedestrian of accidents in which an automobile-free individual was struck and killed by one of the automobile-enabled citizens of this city. As of Dec. 3, there had been 24 fatalities, which is in fact the highest it's been since 1997. So in response to this crisis it seems that the ever-image-conscious government has decided to mobilize an army of crossing guards. Because obviously, people in this city are incapable of crossing the street by themselves. Well, at least 24 of them were.

While it's a quaint idea, and I could see some value to them at particularly nasty intersections where people don't like to yield to pedestrians when turning. But they're bloody everywhere now. Therein lies the problem. Like most DC initiatives, flooding a situation with people who have no fucking idea what they are doing does not help matters.

On my way to work a couple days ago, I was driving up Georgia Avenue approaching a red light. There were cars in the right two lanes, but the left lane was open. As I was approaching the intersection, the light changed to green. So, I started speeding up again since my lane was clear ahead. As I am entering the intersection, I suddenly become aware of a madly gesticulating crossing guard in the middle of the road ahead of me. Of course, I couldn't see her at all until I was about 10 feet from the intersection, as she was in front of the other cars to my right. It was way too late to stop by the time I saw her - luckily she did not decide to step right in front of me, but it was damn close.

What on earth is a crossing guard is doing in the middle of an intersection with a green light? Was she waving pedestrians across when it said "don't walk?" Was she just not paying attention to the signals? Whatever the reason, she very nearly got herself killed. There is a point to WALK/DON'T WALK signals. I can't see around other cars. At controlled intersections, it seems incredibly dangerous for a crossing guard to be managing traffic and pedestrians in any fashion that contradicts what the lights are saying. With a lot of traffic around, it's impossible for drivers approaching the intersection to see what's going on in front of other cars. That's the whole reason we have these signals.

If this were an uncontrolled crosswalk, then a crossing guard might actually do some good by getting traffic to stop for pedestrians as they are legally obliged to do. But at controlled intersections, the lights determine the right of way. As long as the traffic signal is functioning properly, there is no reason for a cop to tell people to go against the signal in any way. It can only lead to disaster when someone else approaching the intersection, and can't see what's going on, finds themselves head to head with a pedestrian or a car that should not be there.

So, luckily, nothing happened, and a crossing guard did not become DC's 25the pedestrian fatality this year. But back to the numbers here. In and of itself, this "upswing" is meaningless. Just look at the lame chart of pedestrian deaths provided by DDOT, which only covers 2000-2004, but as you can see, the number varies wildly from year to year - anywhere from 8 to 18 in that period, and obviously, it was 24 in 1997. What's important to understand is that any analysis of statistics involving very small numbers (such as 8 and 24) is essentially meaningless. There really is no crisis.

Beyond that, DC's population is increasing. METRO ridership breaks new records every year. The streets are teeming with people like never before. We would expect that as the number of pedestrians increase, so would the number of fatalities.

I'm all for measures to make the city safer for pedestrians. DDOT has a nifty web site with their pedestrian master plan which actually looks pretty well thought out and involves updating the infrastructure in problem areas with fancy crosswalks, special signals, and so forth. This is all good. Let's have at it. But the crossing guard thing is out of control. They don't know what they are doing, they aren't helping things, and they might just get themselves or someone else killed as a result.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Internet Scam Backlash

I got a class action lawsuit settlement notice in the mail yesterday. You know, one of those multi-page, trifolded, rather bland looking things that generally require you to read a lot of fine print. After which, you usually toss it, because the fine print basically says that as a member of the class, you are eligible to receive a coupon for $10 off Verizon accessories, and a bunch of lawyers will probably be receiving $120 million.

Well, this one turned out to be interesting enough to bother submitting: with almost no effort at all, they'll send me a check for $25.00, or if you can prove actual losses, you can file for that amount. The upshot of this class action is that credit card companies inflated the exchange rate for foreign credit card transactions over a period of years, costing consumers from 1 to 3 percent in extra fees on such transactions. That's pretty serious. It make the Office Space scam of rounding off the pennies, look like shoplifting. Anyone who spent any significant amount of time overseas in the last ten years probably is eligible for a good chunk of change. Of course that would require having kept your credit card statements for that time period. Who doesn't do that?

Anyway, I have traveled very little in that time and $25 is probably more than I deserve, so I just went for that one. This is where it gets interesting.

I did a quick google search on this thing because I was curious about the specifics of this class action suit. One of the articles i found had quite a bit of user discussion, much of which discussed this question: IS THIS A SCAM?

Now, I'm as paranoid as the next guy. I pretty much automatically assume every single unsolicited email I receive is a scam. For U.S. Mail, anything that looks like a bill or a "congratulations!!" sort of letter, I assume is a mild scam or simply a lame advertisement.

But I have not once in my entire life received a legalese-filled letter that turned out to be a scam. Except to the extent that class action lawsuits in general, are simply ways for lawyers to extract large sums of money from corporations with marginal benefit to the actual victim. Now that's not to say I wasn't slightly skeptical of this one when I first read it: after all, in clear language it basically says you can get $25 by simply going to this web site and clicking OK. But it was pretty easy to get to a comfort level on this one: Googling revealed the details of this settlement in legitimate news sources, and the letter itself contains the names and physical addresses of the law firms involved, also easily verifiable. And finally, and most importantly, in order to request the $25, you need provide no additional information. All you do is click "OK" to verify your name and address. What possible motive would a scammer have? The only information that he would get out of this, is a confirmation that you received the letter.

But in this discussion, the paranoid are not to be convinced! Check out these comments:

Kad2112: I just got the same letter with 3 options as well. I am going to trash it. I think it is a scam. It offers me $25. To me it is not worth the risk.

Rudy: This IS an elaborate scam. There is absolutely no reason to think otherwise other than to believe what you read on the internet?!?!?! My lord, people! You are just ASKING for trouble!

Jennifer: I received the same packet and letter and I’ve never even traveled outside of the US.... If its not a scam, I have no idea why they would think I’ve spent money outside the US. Its obviously trash, so I’m throwing it away. Oh yeah, and they printed my address wrong. Sketch

David: All I know is they must get your name and address from public records. I bought a house and they put the wrong address on the deed, then fixed it and that’s the only time my name and that wrong address was together. Now today I receive the same letter everyone else got and to top it off, I have never been overseas in my life. I’ve never been out of the U.S. So I find it hard to believe that there’s any merit to this “so called claim”.

sonny: this completely reeks scam. everybody that is planning on using the last form ( ithink the red one), consider yourself warned ..

John P: I am filing a mail fraud compalaint with the local USPS. Phishing on the internet is one thing. Mail fraud occurred when they used USPS to send out fraudulent documents. This is clearly a scam.... HOW MANY OF THE SCAMMERS ARE MONITORING THIS BOARD & CONVINCING YOU THAT THIS IS LEGIT?????????????????

Anyway. Over the course of this "discussion" numerous other folks provided links to credible news sources, indicated that they had actually contacted the court, and even references to the actual case on the government web site. But the paranoids could not be convinced!!

So it seems that we've come full circle. People have gotten so used to scams - phishing, pyramid, Nigerian investments, whatever - that far from there being any chance of being suckered into one, the trick now is convincing people that something ISN'T a scam. No matter what you say, there's always an answer -- the press release is a fake! The law firms are fronts! The case number in the system, but it's not the same case!

Well. Indeed, I suppose it is conceivably possible to perpetuate a scam of such epic proportions. In fact, one could argue that the credit card companies who now owe $336 million, got away with exactly that, for a while. But if this is such a scam, then the entire world must be in on it. In which case the entire fabric of my existence is a scam, and so it really doesn't matter anyway. I'm in. Twenty five bucks in the Matrix is still buys me five beers that taste as good as real ones.

Official web site for Currency Conversion Fee Antitrust Litigation Settlement

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Worst Radio Commercials

I've been driving to work a fair amount lately, as a result of my wonderful girlfriend living in Baltimore and me working in Silver Spring. The drive, surprisingly, isn't that bad - it typically takes about 45-50 minutes on the way in and a half-hour on the way out. Since my metro ride is about a half hour door to door, the added time on a given day is only about 20 minutes. But that's not what I'm here to write about.

Since a car commute that lasts longer than 15 minutes is a bit of a novelty to me, I've started listing to talk radio in the morning. I used to listen to NPR when I had a short drive to work, because I liked getting a little bit of news in the morning. But NPR news radio, with it's smooth monotones, non-confrontational musical choices and cute-accented reporters with funny names, just doesn't cut it for 25 minutes of 85 miles per hour followed by 25 minutes of stop-and-start traffic. For the first part, I need something a little more agro for getting around all the dolts on the road, and for the second part, I simply need to stay awake.

Therefore, it is with some shame that I must admit to listening to the Elliott in the Morning show on DC 101. Now, this guy is not as obnoxious as Howard Stern or Don Imus or the like - which is obvious by the fact that he still has a job. But still, he's basically cut from the same cloth. The show is pretty much bathroom and redneck humor, lots of sexism, some slightly right-wing politics, and a dash racial and religious stereotyping thrown in for good measure. And on top of that, his voice is grating. But listening to all the idiots who call in is pretty entertaining, and generally it serves it's purpose well: keeps me awake, and pisses me off.

Anyway, one of the consequences of actually listening to the radio is having to listen to radio commercials. And there are a lot of them. And I have to say I have grown to hate some of the advertisements so immensely that I will actually change the station simply to avoid listening to it. Others are more subversive and just annoy me subconsciously. But on to the list.

Worst Radio Ads during Morning Rush Hour

#1. Charleston Alexander Diamonds. Annoying primarily because of the unbelievable saturation - at least once every 20 minutes. Second, every sentence uttered by the silky-voiced narrator ends on a downward inflection. You know, he lowers his the last syllable. I am sure that they must have done some study that determined that this speech pattern was most likely to induce people to buy diamonds, but to me, it just makes me feel like I'm being mocked. Can't take that one.

#2. Empire Today. 1970's jingle-ized version of their phone number that is repeated at least 12 times. It's permanently stuck in my head. Though I may find myself dialing it when I'm 86 years old in some kind of amnesiatic haze, I swear I will never buy anything from them as long as I am a functioning member of society.

#3. Stub Hub. I am not sure if these guys are some kind of scalping agency or bricks-and-mortar ebay operation, but the sing-songy way they say "Stuuuub Hub" drives me nuts.

#4. Anyone who uses traffic sounds in a radio ad. Are you fucking nuts? Who the hell thinks it's funny to put honking car noises in an ad that airs during rush hour? Or screeching tires? Or the sound of an 18 wheeler whizzing by you? Even though I've heard all these ads a thousand times I still can't avoid being startled when I hear those sounds. People have enough to worry about with the real traffic, and I could easily see someone reacting and getting in an accident.

I honestly can't remember who the conspirators are for #4, probably because I'm so shocked about the impending accident I believe to be underway, that I completely lose focus on the radio. I think Stub Hub has honking cars on top of their primary offense, but ALL of these sounds come up during the advertisement rotation that airs every morning.

I urge everyone to boycott the companies mentioned above. Anyone have anything to add?