Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Real Estate Hate Crimes

Listening to talk radio (Dave Ross, I think, on KIRO) this morning, they were discussing a real estate discrimination case in Pierce County, Washington (where Tacoma is, although the case was not in Tacoma), where a seller decided to take one offer over another because the rejected offer was from a single woman.  The woman had made the higher offer, and she was pre-approved for the loan needed to buy the house.  (She is also engaged to be married.)  And the real estate agent was dumb enough to state that her being a single female was the cause of the rejection… which thus gives the evidence necessary for a lawsuit.

The talk show host broached the matter of whether there would be a lawsuit if the rejection had been stated to be because the seller thought the woman was a lesbian (whether she was or not).  Because neither Pierce County nor Washington state have laws prohibiting that sort of discrimination — although Seattle and Tacoma do — there wouldn’t be the direct basis for such a lawsuit, although of course it could result in the sort which gets such protections explicitly put on the books.

The host posited that the effect of such laws isn’t to stop such discrimination but rather to drive it underground.  I both agree with him and disagree at the same time.  By disallowing such discrimination in public transactions, it can have several effects.  (1) For some, indeed, it will make them learn to simply be quiet about their attitudes, teaching them that they can do it so long as they don’t say what they are doing.  (2) For others, it encourages them to make up some other reason for the discrimination, which leads to silliness like “We can’t allow gay marriages because of the strain it will add to Social Security.”  Of course, done often and long enough, that can lead to people dropping their old attitudes in favor of the new ones, ones which may be easier to puncture and train out of people.  (3) Some people who are discouraged from being public with their attitudes may finally find that this “breaks the camel’s back”, leading to real change for them.  (4) And there are people who were being discriminatory without realizing it — I had a relative who called blacks “Nigras” for years, proud that she wasn’t using the full-on N-word, for example — for whom the institution of penalties for outright discrimination may serve as a wake up call, making them simply change their language to match their underlying attitudes.

Some people will, of course, ask why they can’t sell their home (or conduct whatever business they want to) with whomever they want, however they want.  Part of it comes down to whether the business is public or private.  If it’s a private transaction, you can sell whatever you want (if it’s legal) to whomever you want for whatever price.  But once you move into the public transaction space — listing the home for general sales, for example — you then move into a realm where you have to deal with all comers.

Second, of course, is that you are transacting with an individual, and thus the basis of the transaction must be on the qualities of that individual, not the group they belong to.  You sell based on who they are (a person with money), not on what they are (an unmarried woman).

This is the same basis for Hate Crime laws.  Yes, murder is always a horrible crime.  (Or rape, or assault, or vandalism, or whatever.)  But just like we take intent into account when determining how to charge someone — First Degree Murder, Involuntary Manslaughter, etc. — intent is also what is behind Hate Crime (and Discrimination) Laws.  When the perpetrator hit or killed someone, or painted graffiti on the wall, was it random?  Was it directed at the individual, probably because the victim was known to the attacker, or perhaps because a wad of cash had been seen, or because he was walking in a bad part or town?  Or was the person attacked, maybe killed, not for who she was but for what she was (or was perceived to be): black, lesbian, Jewish?  If it’s the latter case — if the crime would have occurred no matter who the individual was, if they were attacked because of their (perceived) race or religion or sexual orientation or whatever — then the crime isn’t being done just against an individual, it is being done against an entire group.  And that warrants a different examination of the crime, and perhaps a different penalty: part for the affected individual, and part for the targeted larger group.

When someone asks why we need Hate Crime or Anti-Discrimination Laws, I’m reminded of the answer to the question of why a “Gays in Comics” panel was needed at a big comic book convention: “We need it because people keep asking ‘Why do we need it?’”  If people don’t understand, then they need to be educated.  When they stop asking about it, that’s when you can question whether it’s needed anymore.

Updated on February 1, 2011

Just Die(t) Already

Two weeks ago, I went to New Orleans and spent some time with some friends, one of whom is a bodybuilder (or maybe he just works out a lot to stay hunky) on a no-fat diet.  I have another friend who is doing the Atkins no-carb thing.  (Actually, I know several people allegedly on Atkins diets, some of whom have always been thin and well built.  Why do they need a special diet?  Societal guilt, probably.)

I’m beginning to think that the main benefit of these extreme diets is to give the people on them something to bitch and moan about.  They complain that there’s nothing on the menu they can eat.  They complain about how tasteless it is.  They have to ask about how everything is prepared.  They claim they’ll blow up like a balloon if they eat the smallest bit of bread (as though it were one of those compressed sponge animals or something made of FRERP from the old Super Friends cartoon).

Okay, you’re on a fucking diet (whether you need to be or not).  We get it.  We also get that you’re (a) trying to spread your pain around and (b) trying to guilt us all into not enjoying our food the same way you don’t get to (or won’t let yourself).  Misery shared is misery decreased, or something like that.

Sure, I could stand to pare out some of the excess fat and carbs from my diet and lose a few pounds — and I have been doing so — but there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.  Mom always said to eat a “balanced” diet, and that can mean just reducing the things that are bad (make that: “less than good”) for you, not cutting them out entirely.  Everything in moderation.

So next time you are out on the town, live a little.  Ease up on the diet and enjoy life for a couple hours.  If nothing else, you’ll let everyone else you’re with enjoy theirs.

Comment by Daniel (from Kentucky) / received May 27, 2004
I had been on the Atkins to get rid of the excessive weight I gained after my partner died in 2000.  I only mentioned it as a prelude to let you know that, while the Atkins Diet works, there are some severe drawbacks that are never mentioned.

First off I should have eased off after 8 weeks but didn’t I went a full 16 weeks and ended up loosing muscle mass.  Not “Mr Happy and the twins” but general muscle mass.  At my ripe old age of 54, that is scary!  I wonder if I will be able to get any of it back.
Updated on January 31, 2011

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Gay Marriage: The Day After

Well, it’s May 18 — one day after legal same-sex marriage started up in Massachusetts — and civilization as we know it hasn’t ended.  (At least I don’t think it has.  It’s a slow day at work today, so you never know.  Could be a Sign of the End Times.  And I think the NASDAQ is up again, too, which can’t be good.)

So how long do we have to wait for the world to grind to a halt?  The validity of Newsom’s bid to open up marriage in California comes up in court later this spring.  Whether Oregon can resume its marriages has a 90-day limit expiring in July.  There are requests to fast-track the Washington lawsuits.

Or maybe we have to wait until the end of 2006, when Massachusetts voters get to say yay or nay about a Constitutional amendment, after they’ve had the chance to the see 18 months of societal chaos cause by same-sex civil marriages rip their state apart.  (Uh-huh.  Whatever.)  That assumes, of course, that the 2005 legislature reconfirms the amendment, rather than sending it back to start in a giant game of Sorry!

Today (May 18) is also the 24th anniversary of Mt. St. Helens blowing its stack.  Nary a rumble there.

Updated on January 28, 2011

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Who’s the Leader of the Club?

Rusty’s teenage daughter, Sarah, lives with us, and along with her, we’ve got her albino corn snake, Dragon.  Every three weeks or so, we get Dragon three white mice for food.  Every couple months, Dragon sheds his skin, and during the days leading up to that, he is lethargic and moody and doesn’t want to eat, and his eyes cloud up.

Needless to say, sometimes “food” and “won’t eat” overlap.  Like this past week.

At first, we feared he was sick, because he didn’t eat the mice and wouldn’t even really pay attention to them.  But we finally realized that he was getting ready to shed his skin.  This left us with the question of what to do with the mice.

We could just let them starve to death, but I said this was even crueler than waiting for Dragon to eat them.  We could smother them and put them out of their misery, but that would be wasteful, as we would just have to get more mice in a few days.  The pet store wouldn’t take them back.  Rusty was worried that if they didn’t get eaten soon, they would make babies, and then we would have dozens of the things.  So we decided to leave them in Dragon’s tank, feed them, and wait.  They got to dine on lettuce, cheese, and Basic 4 breakfast cereal (which they really liked).

In the meantime, my cat, Dumaka, sat on the edge of the dresser — or even on top of the cage — and watched the mice.  You could just hear the gears turning in her little head: “Hey, if he won’t eat them, give them to me!  I know what to do with them!”

Two days ago, Dragon buried himself under the wood chips, presumably to start to shed.  And last night, he was out on top, with some shed remnants and clear eyes.

But he still wouldn’t eat the mice.  In fact, Rusty and I watched as he slithered along the back edge of the tank and one of the mice climbed up on his back — even onto his head — and was carried along for the ride, like one of those people-mover conveyor belts at the airport.  (It was kind of funny to see, actually.)

I decided that something had to be done.  The best way to get a pot to boil, a train to arrive, or something else to happen is to do something else, something which will get interrupted by what you wanted to happen in the first place.  So what we had to do was get attached to the mice, turn them into pets.  Then they would surely die!  And the first step in the process of making them pets — well, other than feeding them — was to give them names.  So we did…

George, Dick, and Donald.

(You figure it out.  No sense wasting good names on them if we wanted to get rid of them.)

This morning, Dragon was curled up at the top of the tree in his tank, no mice to be seen.

[Weblog title reference: From the theme song to The Mickey Mouse Club.]

Updated on January 27, 2011

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Buggy Rubber Baby Bumpers

Professionally, I do software testing for Adobe Systems.  (No, I can’t tell you on what product or get you a free copy of Photoshop.)  I’ve been doing this for almost 14 years, for three different companies.  On a mailing list I’m on (dedicated to FrameMaker), we had a thread on how companies address errors in their documentation, and how they get that information to start with.  My response below goes for giving feedback about all sorts of software problems, large and small.

User #1:
We put a tech pubs email address in all the books, but people hardly ever use it.
User #2:
Nobody is going to give feedback unless you contact them directly and ask for their feedback.
Is that because people aren’t willing to give feedback, or because we’ve trained them not to?

We (not just software developers, tech writers, etc., but the software company) don’t fix the problems they complain about.  We often don’t even acknowledge that we’ve received their feedback.  We sometimes charge them $40 a pop to have us look and see if we already know about a problem they encounter, whether we have a solution or not.  We sometimes don’t provide a contact method at all.

I’ve been reasonably happy that Apple has a Report Bugs to Apple menu item in Safari.  (They originally had a bug report button in the UI.)  And Provide iCal Feedback in their calendar program.  I’ve never received anything back to indicate that they have received what I sent (much less will act on it), but it’s at least a start.

I use Eudora in “sponsored mode,” which gives me no support mechanism.  Twice now, I’ve dug through their website and sent a message to their Sales e-mail, for lack of any other way to contact them… and both times I got a response!  Woo!  (I really should reward them and go to “paid mode,” huh?)

On the down side, I’m now seeing a new trend in software development: bugs found and not fixed (deferred) during the development cycle will never get addressed.  This was the case in FrameMaker 7.0: due to tight schedules and limited resources, they cherry-picked a couple dozen high-profile bugs already known (and frequently complained about by high-profile user sites) and that was all the bugs fixed from previous releases.  There was just not the ability (time and resources) both to fix more and to address the new ones which would come in.  The party line was basically “People are already working with or around those issues, so they don’t need to be addressed.”  (The ideal answer to this is “Add more time or resources.  Making the product better is more important than making it hit the street in Q2 of next year.” But sometimes the date — and the money associated with it — are more important than the product being “better”.  More important to the bottom line, not more important to anyone who actually uses the product, of course.)

I’ve now worked tangentially (not directly) on another project where a similar tack is being taken: the only bugs from the last version which will be addressed in the next one are those which customers complain about (as opposed to which the test team identified).  The logic behind this — “If it’s important, they will tell us about it” — only makes sense in a world where customers are willing, able, and encouraged to tell.  I imagine that this mechanism for prioritizing work (and cutting development costs; it’s always all about money) will only accelerate.

(It also leaves the test team wondering what we are there for.  If you’re only going to address the issues users complain about, why have a test team?  Just push out a release and react to the feedback, right?)

So… do not sit on your butt as a user and hope that some issue will be addressed!  Even if it’s just a typo, or a preference that doesn’t get saved (my pet FrameMaker peeve: two spelling checker prefs on Mac don’t save between sessions!), or of course a repeatable crash, you have to tell the company, or you should expect it to never get fixed.  Find a user forum.  Find an e-mail address.  And maybe tell them over and over and over again, to make sure they listen.

Save both yourself and us test engineers some grief.

Updated on January 16, 2011
Several generations later, Safari does still have a “Report bugs” option.

Eudora is dead now; I use Mail on Mac and we now use GMail at work. No idea at the moment if there are feedback mechanisms in Mail, but GMail has an online Help Center, including listings of Known Issues and such.  You have to root around in there, but you can find out info about many issues and notify them through some channels if you find something new.

I encountered a phrase a couple years ago which covers this entire matter pretty well:
“Broken gets fixed.  Shoddy lasts forever.”

Monday, May 10, 2004

Conflicted about the Conflict: Say Cheese!

I heard an interesting call on talk radio this morning, pertaining to the events and photos from Abu Ghraib prison.

The gist of it was this: at least back in the Viet Nam era, soldiers were put through some training (called “SEAR”, I think he said) regarding what might happen if they were captured by the enemy.  The first thing that happened in this training was that they were stripped naked.  Then they were physically beaten. Then they suffered other humiliating experiences intended to “break” them (or since this was training, to help them prevent being broken).

Not that it excuses the atrocities here, but if this sort of training is taken to heart, then it also does the reverse and trains people in what to do when being put in charge of prisoners of war.

Understanding the causes of events like this is the best way to prevent them from recurring.

Updated on January 25, 2011
SERE Training: Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape