Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Danger in Selling Digital Goods on Ebay & Accepting Paypal as Payment

Many of you casual gamers on Facebook may know how popular digital goods are in the online marketplace, where people pay lots of real money to buy items used in video games and online transactions. Digital goods can range from cell phone ringtones, music, movies and shows, electronic books (ebooks), rights to domain names, online accessories and characters (avatars) in video games, electronic gift certificates and coupon codes, online electronic currencies like Linden dollars and bitcoins (btc), financial & cash services like ukash, moneypak, pecunix and more, secure, encrypted web browsing and software packages, sometimes written to a flash drive that you can use to boot from, and I'm sure there is much that I missed and am not aware of. I'm not going to identify what I sold, because it's embarrassing that I not only got scammed, but that I spend so much time online acquiring digital goods. Maybe it's because my fear is I am socially inept in crowds and I would rather be indoors playing video games than out mingling and meeting people. Suffice it to say that, yesterday, around this time, I felt richer. 24 hours later, I feel poorer. Here's the story:

I poured quite a bit of time and effort into acquiring an online digital good. At the same time, I decided to take advantage of a temporary promotion on ebay where you can list items for free for the next 3 days. Among the many items that I listed, I decided to take a chance and list that particular digital good, my asking price for it about 25% higher than what I paid for it, after ebay and paypal fees. I had done my due diligence, looked at competitors, saw many people buying and selling the same item on ebay, and thought, with my account in good standing and lots of positive feedback, why not see if it might sell? Well, imagine my pleasant surprise when I got out of bed in the morning, checked my email, and saw that my item had sold through Buy It Now for a couple of thousand dollars, hand to God. The buyer also seemed good, with 76 feedback and a rating of 95.4%, and he paid me with paypal, in the amount of $2736 after ebay and paypal fees. The buyer used ebay messages to specify the online address where I could deliver the item, and after confirming the money was in my paypal account, I promptly sent the item to him.

I was feeling high for about most of the day, happy that all the money, time and effort I had spent in my online community was beginning to pay off. The ebay buyer had told me the item had been received, and had even given me positive feedback. Imagine my surprise and horror when, around 10 pm yesternight, about 11 hours after I delivered the digital good, I received 2 messages, one from ebay, one from paypal, with the Subjects: "MC143 eBay Listing Removed", and "Notification of Cancelled Withdrawal", respectively. The first message said:
We recently learned that someone was using an account to bid on items without the account owner's permission. For this reason, we have canceled all bids on the following listing...All associated fees have been credited to your account. Please note that we're working with the account owner to prevent any additional unauthorized activity.

If you have any concerns or questions, click "Customer Support" at the top of most eBay pages.

We're sorry for any inconvenience, and we thank you for your patience and cooperation.


eBay Customer Support
The second message, from Paypal, came about because I was trying to transfer the money sent by the buyer for my digital good into my bank account, and it read:
Recently, your account balance became negative. To cover your negative balance, we have reversed "Pending" electronic funds transactions that you had initiated from your PayPal account. This is to confirm that the following transaction(s) have been cancelled...Thanks,

PayPal Finance Department
Long story short, I called ebay, told them the buyer was making a false claim, because I had been in touch with the buyer by the hotmail email address associated with the buyer's Paypal account, and also by ebay messages, and I had an email from the buyer saying the digital good had been received, and the buyer had even given me positive feedback. My protests had no effect. In the eyes of the ebay customer service agent, Dustin, the account that bid on and won my item was accessed by a third party, without the account holder's permission, and for security reasons, Dustin could not tell me what the criteria or proof was that ebay possessed showing them the account had been accessed by a third party. When I told Dustin that the problem was I had lost the item I sent to the buyer, Dustin put me on hold, then said he was going to advise me to contact law enforcement about this. When I told Dustin that the buyer was in a different country, Dustin said "that's the only way we can resolve it." When I asked for the payment back, Dustin said they could not do that, because the items were purchased by a third party. At this point Dustin must have heard me typing, because he asked me if I was recording this call, and when I said yes, Dustin said at this point he is forced to disconnect this call. Click. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the embarrassing story of how I got scammed out of the digital good I had, and the money I paid for it.

November 7, 2013: Latest update on this case is here.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Actual Telephone Numbers Made Famous by Artists in Popular Music

As someone who has lived in rental units as a tenant since leaving home at age 19, numerous times I've had to move to a new area and relinquish an old phone number. In picking a new one, I've always put some time, thought and care into it, wanting my new phone number to be easy for me to remember when giving out to people, and difficult for people to misdial. One thing that has always amazed me is how contemporary artists will include what I believe to be their actual telephone number in their music. Google Answers has a subject, "famous telephone numbers in songs", that shows people have been singing about phone numbers since the 1960s, back when the format was, to place a call, you had to dial a live operator, say a place name first, then say a five-digit number, before being connected by the operator. Now that we are in the age of seven digits (or age of ten digits if you include area code), one of the more famous phone numbers may be 867-5309, and hearkens back to the early 1980s, for which there is an entire Wikipedia page devoted to it.

If you ever are in the position to pick a new phone number, you might wish to steer clear of these, or contrarily, you may try to seek out these phone numbers, as they are easier to remember when set to a catchy tune (but be sure to expect multiple people trying to call you asking for somebody other than you):

Tony! Toni! Toné! - Whatever (1991): "Whatever you want, girl you know I can provide. Whatever you need, call 632 2135"

Alicia Keys - Diary (2004): "Oooh baby if there's anything that you fear, call 489 4608 and I'll be here"

Mike Jones - Back Then (2005): "281 330 8004, hit Mike Jones up on the low, cause Mike Jones about to blow"

Scientists have conjectured that the reason why every human culture that has been studied has music, why music appreciation is innate in almost all of us, is because the early man that was musical was more in tune with other early humans and more willing to cooperate with those that could appreciate music; musical human societies were more cohesive and likely to stick together than societies made of non-musical humans. Even if you don't accept that premise, music can be seen as a kind of social glue that binds us all together. The person who devotes him or her self to making new forms of music, if s/he is lucky, can step into the role of entertainer, and as an added benefit, when performing, that performance and song can serve as a sort of mating call, if you will, demonstrating to the audience his or her social and sexual value. The next time you feel lonely, pining for a mate, you could do a lot worse than create something, be it music, art, technology or science, that includes, or is based on, your actual telephone number.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

New Study Shows No Link Between Road Traffic Collisions & Daylight Saving Time

People who follow the news know that every year, around this time, there seem to be an increase in trusted information sources warning us about bicycles and pedestrians colliding with cars, and the correlation with Daylight Savings Time. Some of these vehicle collisions are fatal, and we remember when someone dies. Invariably the reports quote police officers and traffic safety officials attributing said automobile collisions to the twice-a-year annual changing of the clocks, the explanation being that either the onset of darkness is sooner and people are in a rush to get home, or there's not enough light early in the morning when people are in a rush to get to work, or people have to wake up earlier than they are used to, and this disruption in the body's Circadian rhythm means people are less aware at the wheel. In many cases, you add on the idea that some motorists have problems adjusting their eyes to the new light level, or the sun may be in their eyes, or it's too dark, and one can readily see why accidents might abound around the changing of the clock. The idea then that there is a correlation between Daylight Saving Time and an increased rate of accidents sounds plausible, even somewhat convincing. But what if there is no increase in traffic accidents around Daylight Savings Time? In order to avoid confirmation bias (the notion that "people see what they want to see", in that it is a particular human weakness that we all remember the purported evidence that supports an idea we want to believe, and we discard any suspect evidence that threatens that belief), one should approach an answer to this question using the power of science.

In the past, there've been studies to support this claim. However, the latest study, culled from Wikipedia, seems to show, at the very least, the jury is still out, and that there may even be no connection:
According to earlier studies, this change in time-schedule leads to sleep disruption and fragmentation of the circadian rhythm. Since sleep deprivation decreases motivation, attention, and alertness, transitions into and out of daylight saving time may increase the amount of accidents during the following days after the transition. We studied the amount of road traffic accidents one week before and one week after transitions into and out of daylight saving time during years from 1981 to 2006. Our results demonstrated that transitions into and out of daylight saving time did not increase the number of traffic road accidents.
2010 Jun 27.
Daylight saving time transitions and road traffic accidents.
Lahti T, Nysten E, Haukka J, Sulander P, Partonen T.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

How to Sue a Corporation in Small Claims Court

Several years back, I sued AT&T in small claims court, and the judge ruled in my favor for $1000. My complaint was that AT&T (back then they were doing business as Pacific Bell) had never notified me, as a DSL subscriber, that I could have availed myself of a number of features of their DSL package, including a nationwide network of local dialup phone numbers, and free web hosting and 3 email addresses. I was never given notice of these parts of their package, and felt that I very much could have used those services if only I had known. I had subscribed to DSL for 2 years by the time I found out, and believed I was due some sort of credit for the services the company had failed to notify me of, and I had never used. I called the company, detailing my complaint, and asked for free DSL for a year (back then AT&T was the only game in town in terms of providing DSL service in my area). The representative I spoke to declined to give me free DSL, but offered me a discounted rate per month. Hard-head that I was back then, I decided to reject their counter-offer, and began to prepare my case. It was a lot of work, and after I had served the corporation with the suit, I even got a call from another representative, offering me 3 free months of DSL service; I decided to reject that offer and proceed with my lawsuit. In court, no one showed up to contest the charges (a corporation usually must pay a lawyer much more than a potential liability of $10,000 to represent the company in a small claims case), but that doesn't mean you automatically win. In my case, the judge wanted to hear the basis for my lawsuit, and I argued that, at the time I discovered I was due the extras that I was never notified of, given Pacific Bell's monopoly on DSL service, I couldn't have simply moved my business elsewhere if I was dissatisfied with their customer service. The phone companies that owned the infrastructure were only just beginning to lease their lines to competitors at the time I argued my case, but the judge agreed with my logic and ruled in my favor.

Flash forward to the present: last year, I was operating my motor vehicle, a Honda Accord, and discovered that the seatbelt alarm for my car was starting to flash and emit a continuous beep, even though I made sure I had my seatbelt properly secured. Now, it's important to clarify that, by seatbelt alarm, what I'm talking about is actually a warning system that has a flashing light and audible alarm, indicating my seatbelt is not secure during operation of the vehicle (hence seatbelt alarm). I told my local mechanic about the problem, and he suggested I take the car into the dealership, as what I was describing seemed to indicate a problem with the seatbelt system, and since Honda has a lifetime warranty on seatbelts, I could get the problem repaired for free. I did as my mechanic suggested, but then I got a call from the dealership repair shop that the problem I had would not be covered under warranty, as their mechanic had deemed the problem to be an electrical issue, and not a seatbelt issue, so Honda would not pay for the cost of repair. As explained to me by the dealership mechanic Chuck, for my particular model of vehicle, the seat belt system is one of the most complicated ever made. To fix the problem, which is probably a wire that is shaved or touching the body of the car somewhere, the mechanics would have to take the panels off, including the dash panels and door panels, and trace the wiring from the sensors to everything that's involved with the system to find out where a wire is touching the body of the car somewhere. So even though Honda says in their warranty booklet that "a seat belt that fails to function properly is covered for the life of the vehicle," I am apparently out of luck.

I believe Honda is being disingenuous. If the problem is electrical, it's still manifest by the seat belt alarm beeping and flashing for no apparent reason, and it was a mechanic who first suggested that the problem might fall under Honda's limited lifetime warranty for seat belts. That's why I plan to sue them. Stay tuned.
  1. Make sure your claim is not invalid under the statute of limitations:
  2. Ascertain the proper jurisdiction. If you don't file your lawsuit papers in the proper county, your lawsuit will be dismissed by the judge. To figure out the correct jurisdiction, ask yourself, where was the agreement between you and the corporation entered into? Where was the agreement broken? When I purchased DSL from AT&T, I did so for my home in Berkeley, and I filed in the Berkeley small claims court (which has since been moved to Oakland). When I purchased my used car, I did so in Oakland, so I plan to file in Oakland at the Wiley Manuel Court.
  3. Ask the corporation for the amount of damages you are seeking, either in writing, or in person (if in person, note the date and time you do this)
  4. Find the agent of process for the corporation, at, click on Business Entities, under 'Online Services' click on Business Search, type in the name of the corporation
  5. File the lawsuit papers in court, then notify the corporation you are suing them by serving the lawsuit papers on the agent of process
  6. Prepare to argue your case in court, making sure to organize your ideas as legal arguments, and have documentation in hand showing damages, and evidence to support your claim of damages
  7. If you win, i.e., if the judge rules in your favor and awards you damages, serve the judgment on the agent of process, so that your paperwork will be forwarded to the corporation's Accounts Payable department, where a check should be cut out to you

Sunday, October 30, 2011

How to Appeal a Red Light Camera Ticket When You've Been Found Guilty: Filing an Opening Brief

Update: After a year and a half battle, I won my case on appeal in Superior Court, as detailed in this latest blog entry: Fight your red light ticket, and win!

Recent news about red light cameras, like the cities of Loma Linda in California, then Houston, Texas, and now the city of Los Angeles doing away with them, have been disturbing for those concerned with road safety, and encouraging for those who believe red light camera tickets have become an aggressive tactic by municipal government to squeeze money out of motorists. The cities did away with the automated ticketing systems, despite evidence that the cameras prevent the most horrific and fatal type of accidents, the ones where a driver barrels through an intersection on a red light and gets into a side-impact collision. I appreciate the technology of an automated system to record by video and photograph the people who violate traffic laws, and I even believe the technology can be used to bring safety to people on the road. The implementation so far, however, leaves a lot to be desired.

On Monday, December 13, 2010, during the 2pm hour, Gil Gross, news-talk host on KGO radio, interviewed Los Angeles City Controller Wendy Greuel on her 77 page critique of the red light camera program. She made the point that 2/3 of red light camera tickets are for rolling right-on-reds, i.e., turning right on a red without coming to a complete stop. Wendy came to the conclusion that red light cameras cost Los Angeles more than the city collects in fines; the state of California taking a portion of these fines is one reason, but another reason is people are not paying the fines, and getting away with this because they can still renew their licenses with the DMV. In a damning rebuke of municipal greed, Wendy found that where the city puts these cameras are not where the most dangerous intersections are, but where they are easiest to install, i.e., where the city didn't have to work through a state process for an intersection near a state highway, or where there was the same kind of physical infrastructure at an intersection that the equipment installers had worked with before, and could easily work with again.

I was convicted of a red light camera traffic ticket on Tuesday, July 12, 2011, even though at trial I felt I presented a strong case with convincing arguments. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, how to file a stay of judgment, my read of the judge was he just didn't want to hear what I had to say. Fair enough, judges can do whatever they want in their courtroom, and he certainly wouldn't be the first person to reject whatever may be contradictory to what he wants to believe! The great thing about the criminal justice system (yes, a traffic ticket means you are being charged with a crime) is you can appeal your conviction when you've been found guilty of an infraction, which most traffic tickets are. If you don't want to pay the ticket, you either have to hire a lawyer, or invest a lot of time learning how to do this on your own. The first step to an appeal is filing a proposed notice of appeal, but before you can do so, you must do a lot of research, reading, writing, and preparation, using resources like and Fight Your Ticket & Win in California. In California, you need to download from the internet or ask the court clerk for the CR-141-INFO packet, which gives you information on appeal procedures for infractions.

One of the main pillars of my defense at trial was the rule of "best evidence", which means in court the government has to submit their sharpest photos and video as evidence, and not some fuzzy copies. Under California Evidence Code 1520, otherwise known as the Secondary Evidence Rule, if submitting a document, the government has to provide an uncondensed version, not a summary or memo. On the website, at, where you can view your alleged violation, there is a disclaimer (which as of 5pm today, I've confirmed is still there) which states: "Due to formatting constraints this video is a representation of the original evidence and is not intended for court purposes...The video you are viewing on this website is provided as a courtesy and convenience to you. The video is in no way purported to be a true and correct copy of evidence that will be presented in court."

Because I asked the government numerous times to give me their best evidence, which are the high-resolution photos and video captured by the Redflex cameras, and said evidence was never provided to me, then for the purposes of trial, the rule of best evidence was never satisfied. At trial, the police service technician may have, on her laptop, access to the evidence you requested, and she may offer to show it to you, but since you asked for the evidence before trial, so you could prepare for your defense, and that evidence was never given to you, you can ask the judge to throw out the high-resolution copy that the police have and plan to use against you. If the judge throws out the high-resolution copy (which, in my case, did not happen), the police have no evidence against you, unless they decide to submit a lower resolution copy, or the officer might refer to the low res copy given to you in discovery. However, you can object to the admission of the low res copy under the rule of "best evidence".

The second step in an appeal is to file an opening brief, which the district attorney can respond to by filing a respondent's brief (this is unlikely in an infraction case). Filing an opening brief is mandatory, and after all the briefs have been filed, or the time to to serve and file them has passed, the court will schedule a date for oral argument. Below is what I submitted as my opening brief:
Red light cameras depend heavily on legal faith in a certificate that claims to confirm the total reliability of a machine's calibration and accuracy in detection, tracking, and overall synchronicity with the system of lights and cameras. Despite the possible hassle involved in confirming each fact at trial, it is essential to the integrity of the court system that questioning of the evidence be allowed. On the basis of my right to challenge the human elements of the evidentiary chain, I submit this appeal.

Commissioner Culver's trial court ruling was not supported by substantial evidence because there was no live testimony by any person actually involved in the preparation or production of the crucial evidence. I have a right to confront witnesses under the 6th Amendment, as affirmed by the Supreme Court in Melendez-Diaz versus Massachusetts. In addition, the website where representations of the evidence can be reviewed,, states the following (copied verbatim, and current as of October 12, 2011): "Due to formatting constraints this video is a representation of the original evidence and is not intended for court purposes." I made multiple requests to the police and the city for the best evidence, i.e., the high resolution photos and video recorded by the Redflex cameras, by serving Dominique Burton, the agent of process for the city of Emeryville, by asking Rebecca Sylvester, Emeryville police technician, in person at the police station for said evidence, and by asking Sergeant Mike Allen, Ms. Sylvester's superior, in emails. When my requests were not fulfilled, I twice asked Judge Culver during arraignment to schedule a motion hearing to hear my motion to compel discovery, and during the second time I requested a motion hearing, I submitted a printed copy of said motion to the court that asked the city of Emeryville to either provide me with the best evidence, or else preclude the evidence that would be used against me during trial. None of my requests were fulfilled. The evidence used against me in trial should have been precluded, because the city of Emeryville did not comply with my discovery request.

Commissioner Culver made the following errors:
  • refused or ignored my numerous requests for a motion hearing to compel the city of Emeryville to provide me with the best evidence.
  • did not preclude the evidence when I asked him to, under California Evidence Code 1520
  • called up a witness, Sarah Rutherford, co-custodian of records for Redflex, when I as the defense was never notified in advance (according to rules of discovery) that she was going to testify.
  • did not want to see or consider the 2 rulings of the higher court in Alameda County, copies of which I brought with me and which I attempted to show Commissioner Culver. Both of these appeals cases, People v Singh (January 2010) and People v Blankenship (May 2010), overturned similar trial court rulings resulting in convictions for said defendants in red light camera photo trials. In both of these cases, the appellate court reversed the lower court ruling due to violation of the defendant's right to confront witnesses under the 6th Amendment.
  • denied my motion to dismiss based on violation of my right to due process under the 5th Amendment, i.e., no motion hearing was scheduled for me when I requested it.
Update: After a year and a half battle, I won my case on appeal in Superior Court, as detailed in this latest blog entry: Fight your red light ticket, and win!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

How to Use Google Prediction API to Estimate a Sale Price for Your Home

This blog post is based on Martin Omander's workshop at Silicon Valley Code Camp, which I attended on Saturday, October 8:
Store your data, predict the future

Speaker: Martin Omander
Level: Intermediate | Room: 3525 | 9:45 AM Saturday
  • Make your smart applications smarter with Google's Prediction API. Take advantage of Google's machine learning algorithms to make recommendations, analyze Twitter, detect spam, classify documents, identify languages and more.
  • Store your applications' data securely and efficiently in Google's data centers with the Storage API.
The real estate home price data file mentioned below was compiled by Martin from Redfin data for the Rex Manor neighborhood of Mountain View, California.

If you've ever wanted to buy a house or sell your home, and would like a reasonable estimate for what the ultimate sale price will be in this market, you can get a real estate agent's take, or you can use Google Prediction API (henceforth Prediction) to give you another estimated price, given available market data. The idea is, you grab a number of sale price records for the ZIP code you want to buy or sell in, feed the data into Prediction, and Prediction will spit out a number based on the data you fed it. Besides spitting out scalar values, Prediction also does classification. To get your feet wet, here is a beginner tutorial that figures out, in an automated way, whether some text you pass in is English, French or Spanish:

Assuming you were able to successfully use Google's Prediction API, in conjunction with Google Storage and Google's APIs Explorer Tool, to classify samples of text that you pass in, the next step is to predict a sale price for your home.
  1. Download Martin's houses.csv data here
  2. Using the same steps in the tutorial above, upload the houses.csv data into Google Storage, and then use the data to train Prediction
  3. After training is complete, we want to get a predicted price. To do this, we want to pass in the values for a house that we want to buy or sell. Let's say we're trying to sell a 3 bedroom, 3 bathroom, 1800 square foot, built in 1960, single family residence. I found that when I tried to pass in the following as a value for the csvInstance key, I got an error:
    3 3 1800 1960 house
    I then tried the same thing with commas, but that didn't work either. What I found finally worked is, in the APIs Explorer tool, when specifying the value of the csvInstance, you need to count how many field values you are putting in, let's call it n (in this case, n equals 5), then provision that same number by clicking on "Add" n times, and manually insert the values in order, like so:
    "input": {
    "csvInstance": [
Caveat for those who want to read in or import additional data sets: if you want Prediction to spit out a number, i.e., a scalar value, one thing to remember is that the column associated with the scalar value that you want a prediction on (in this case, home sale price) should be the first column inside the data file you feed into Prediction. Martin said that when he was putting together the home sale price data, he had to manually copy and paste from Redfin into his spreadsheet program, then move the column for the home sale price to be the first column, and then exported the spreadsheet as a csv, i.e., comma separated values, file.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Heather, Rachel, Michelle, Casey, Ann or Tiffany from Account Services or Cardholder Services

Update: David Lazarus at the Los Angeles Times has written two recent articles about this issue, with some news and interesting ideas:--


Hello. This is Heather at account services. And we're calling in reference to your current credit card account. There's no problems currently with your account. It is urgent however that you contact us concerning your eligibility for lowering your interest rate. Your eligibility expires shortly. So please consider this your final notice. Please press one now on your phone to speak with a live operator and lower your interest rate. Or press two to discontinue further notices. Thank you and have a great day.
I've been roused from sleep by these unsolicited, automated phone calls, all having to do with card member services, or account services, relating to your credit card debt, lowering your interest rates across all lines of credit, repairing your credit, financial services counseling, or debt negotiation. Fraudsters, con men, whatever you want to call them, ultimately, they're looking to get your money. These robocalls piss me off, and if you want to do something more than just hang up, you can get even. I've pressed '1' to get connected to a live agent. The people who get paid by the telephone marketing scammers have learned to be wary of giving out too much information, especially to an angry caller, because they know if too many people complain, the money will stop coming in. However, if you have a little time, you can employ the following strategy to make yourself some money fighting crime, and help bring down these organizations who try to scam people. The next time you get one of these calls, here's what you should do:
  1. Pretend that you are interested. The first two things the representative may ask you are your name and how much credit card debt you have. You can use a variant of your name, or create a new name for yourself (in order to not arouse suspicion, try to make your new name similar to your real name, so that it's easier to remember, such as starting with the same sound or letter. If your name is Mike, then Mark or Malcolm. If John, Jerry or Jesus). Tell the representative you have credit card debt of $16,000 (which is about the national average), so that he or she will get excited about possibly doing a balance transfer with you over the phone, or getting your credit card number so he or she can bill your credit card for "services".
  2. Do not give out any of your personal information, such as your credit card number. Inform the representative that you have some discomfort doing business over the phone, and you would like to do some research before you go forward. Tell the telemarketer, "I have a fear of scams, and would like to make sure this is a legitimate business", and "I would like to take advantage of that 4 to 8% rate, but before I do, can you tell me what is your company's name and physical location?" To lull the scammer into thinking you are sincere, I might go so far as to give out my ZIP code and the toll-free number of my credit card company (Craig in the comments below prudently advises retaining your expired credit card for just this occasion, or perhaps switching around the last four digits of an old credit card), but when you are prompted for your credit card number, stall them until they give you some kind of traceable information, such as an official company name, their callback phone number, and of course their physical location.
  3. Ask for, and record, the company's name, the name of the person you are talking to, get a call-back number and an address, and note the time and the date of the call.
  4. Report the call and any of the information you have to the authorities.
Enough people who complained were finally able to identify and bring down three telephone scammer companies, including Mutual Consolidated Services in Tacoma, Washington, and multiple companies in Florida:

These are three URLs I've used to lodge complaints about the calls:

Depending on your state, you can possibly make yourself some extra cash by suing the telemarketing company in small claims court if you are on the "do not call" registry:According to the California Attorney General:
In order to file a complaint, you must know either the name or the phone number of the company that called you. Our office cannot trace the phone call you received and obtain this information on your behalf. You also must provide the date that the company called you and your registered phone number. You may provide your name and address, but it's not required for you to submit a complaint.
According to the FCC:
Some states permit you to file law suits in state court against persons or entities violating the do-not-call rules. You may be awarded $500 in damages or actual monetary loss, whichever is greater. The amount may be tripled if you are able to show that the caller violated the rules willfully and knowingly. Filing a complaint with the FCC does not prevent you from also bringing a suit in state court.
States also can bring a civil law suit against any person or entity that engages in a pattern or practice of violating the TCPA or FCC rules. You can contact your state Attorney General’s office or consumer protection agency with particular complaints, or to encourage such suits.
Happy hunting!

Update: Some new variants of this automated robocall telephone scam start out with:

  1. This is Visa Mastercard member services. Congratulations, you now qualify for a lower interest rate on all your credit card accounts. Press the number 2 to speak to a customer service agent, or press 3 to decline this offer.
  2. "Hi, this is Tiffany with Account Services, calling in reference..."
  3. "We have closed the file on your annual credit card review, and you should have received mail..."
  4. "This is an important message from cardmember services..."
  5. "Hi, this is Anne with Account Services with some good news!"

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

how to file a stay of judgment when you've been found guilty of a traffic violation

Update: After a year and a half battle, I won my case on appeal in Superior Court, as detailed in this latest blog entry: Fight your red light ticket, and win!

Let's say you got a traffic ticket, a red light camera photo ticket, and you decide to fight it. You do your due diligence, poring over the resources available at Fight Your Ticket & Win in California and, and the first two times you appear for arraignment, in front of the same judge, you request that a motion hearing be scheduled so you can compel the city of Emeryville to provide discovery, in the form of the high resolution photos and video captured by the Redflex cameras. Both times, the judge either ignores or refuses your request, and continues the matter, i.e., gives you an additional 30 to 60 days before you have to reappear during arraignment in order to enter a plea. The third time, the judge is exasperated that you persist in your request for a motion hearing, and he demands that you enter a plea. You plead Not Guilty, and the judge, perhaps cognizant that you won't skip town, since you showed up all 3 times like you were supposed to, does not order you to put up bail (i.e., the fine of $446 in order to clear the citation), but instead, does you the favor of releasing you on 'O' 'R', i.e., on your own recognizance (most people try to ask the judge for no bail, and are usually denied, although the judge may grant you extra time to put up the bail). You have a trial, where you are found guilty, and the judge orders you to pay the fine, and gives you one month to do so. You may now want to appeal the trial court ruling, because you believe the trial court judge made one or more errors when deciding to rule against you. If you plan to appeal the ruling, you may want to avoid paying the fine until the appeals process is over, hopefully with the appeals court judge ruling in your favor.

The government alleges that, last year, on June 1, 2010, I didn't stop before turning right at the intersection of 40th Street and Horton Street in Emeryville. 17 days later, on June 18, I received a citation in the mail, a notice of traffic violation of California Vehicle Code 21453a, "Failure to Stop at Red Light". Since this case is still on appeal, I have to be wary of what I say, for fear of hurting my case (the government can read, just as well as you or I can). I pled Not Guilty, and appeared in court a total of 8 times, 6 out of 8 in front of the same judge, Commissioner Taylor Culver, to argue my case and lose, then ask for a stay of judgment, and then for a hearing on settlement of the statement on appeal. I spent quite a bit of time reading and writing to get a sense of what my legal foundation is and what obstacles I might face, as I carefully prepared my case. Often, you'll find that when you're arguing a case in traffic court, the system is set up against you, and you will need all the help you can to navigate a process that seems prejudiced in favor of the police, the municipality where the alleged violation took place, and the corporations, such as Redflex, that the cities and the municipalities are in contract with. Eventually, despite all your preparation and strong arguments, the judge may be unresponsive to what you have to say, and very well rule against you (the logic may be, perhaps, that if the trial court were to actually listen to your arguments, then that may only encourage people to fight their tickets, instead of swallowing your pride and forcing yourself to submit to what I believe is an aggressive government tactic to squeeze money out of motorists). Well, during trial, despite my preparation and what I thought to be strong arguments for why my case should be dismissed, or at the very least why I should be found not guilty, the judge ruled against me, and I was ordered to pay $466 in one month.

You can now do one of two things: pay the fine, and when you win, petition to get your money back, or avoid paying the fine by filing a stay of judgment, asking the court to postpone the sentence while you appeal the trial court's ruling. I opted for the latter, as paying such a large amount for me would be a hardship. At first I asked the trial court to stay the judgment, and not surprisingly, the same trial court judge denied my motion. I then submitted a motion to the appeals court to stay the judgment, the template of which was provided to me by the editor of, but the court sent me a letter saying the motion was denied, without prejudice ('without prejudice' means you are allowed to resubmit the motion to the court). The appeals court's given reason for why my motion was denied had to do with my not following the procedure spelled out by the California Rules of Court, which lays out the rules you must abide by, i.e., the technicalities you must follow, when you want the higher court to consider your motion. In this case, this is the denial letter that I got, copied verbatim:
Petitioner Chen's "Application for Stay of Sentence Pending Resolution Of Appeal To the Appellate Department" is denied, without prejudice. CRC 8.930 et seq. governs proceedings in the appellate division for writs of mandate, certiorari, or prohibition.
I was left scratching my head, wondering what I did wrong. I went to my local law library, where I was able to obtain a copy of the specific passage pointed at by the reference California Rules of Court 8.930. Reading further into the rule, in 8.931, I found the following:
A person who is not represented by an attorney and who petitions the appellate division for a writ under this chapter must file the petition on Petition for Writ (Misdemeanor, Infraction, or Limited Civil Case) (form APP-151). For good cause the court may permit an unrepresented party to file a petition that is not on form APP-151.
Reading it over, I finally figured out I had to file what is known as a writ of mandate. After some googling, particularly for california appeals, writ of mandate, I was led to the proper form, APP-151:

I went ahead and filled out the form, resubmitted my motion, crossed my fingers, and hoped for the best. Four weeks later, I got the following letter in the mail, copied verbatim:
Petitioner Chen's Petition for Writ is granted.
IT IS ORDERED that the judgment and payment of the $466.00 fine be stayed pending resolution of Petitioner Chen's appeal to the appellate division.
The best thing about filing for a stay of judgment, and appealing a traffic court ruling, is that a traffic infraction technically falls under the aegis of the criminal justice system, where you are entitled to a free defense. Therefore, all the paperwork described herein, such as the appeal or the writ of mandate, is free to file. Unlike the paperwork you file in civil court, where you do have to pay, sometimes hundreds of dollars per filing, filing the aforementioned paperwork with the appeals court regarding a traffic violation incurs no fees.

Update: After a year and a half battle, I won my case on appeal in Superior Court, as detailed in this latest blog entry: Fight your red light ticket, and win!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Flower Thieves

Lycoris squamigera
Lycoris squamigera
On a Thursday afternoon of last year, August 19, 2010, I walked outside and noticed that the pretty light-pink flowers in the pictures above had been removed without my permission and were now conspicuously absent. I have these plants growing in my front yard, and somebody had taken the blooms while they were still flower buds, before they had a chance to open up and blossom. Where the flower buds had been, I saw only the headless portion of remaining stalk, the flower bud and long stem missing. I suspected then that someone may have come onto the property, possibly in the dark of night or early morning, and stolen the budding flowers from the bulbous plants growing on the property, and that's why my flower buds were no longer there. Upon further examination, I saw that the top ends of some of the headless stalks had uneven edges, whereas some had clean cut edges, indicating that whoever stole the flower buds from the property used two different methods to remove the desired items, perhaps knife, scissors, or other sharp-bladed object on some, and snapping off a few of the others. The person(s) who did this left one stalk already in bloom, possibly because the buds are of greatest value when they have not bloomed yet. Flower thief? Flower poacher? Blossom bandit? Bloom burglar? I'm not sure, but in researching why someone would take my flowers, I ascertained that the scientific name for the plant in question is Lycoris squamigera, otherwise known as surprise lily, resurrection lily, or naked lady, and the ones pictured are the short-stamen variety. I tried to take a photo of what happened to my plants, but at the time my digital camera was not working correctly. Even though the perpetrator would unlikely ever be caught (I mean, how do you trace stolen flowers when I didn't do anything to mark them in any way) and it would probably be a waste of time, I went online and filed an Oakland police report. Then I stewed in my own righteous anger, mad at whoever would do such a dastardly thing as steal someone else's flowers from their front yard. I counted 11 of my flower buds taken from me.

Upon further investigation, I discovered I am not the only one this has happened to. Many parties, besides me, from people in homes with flowers in their gardens to destinations like the San Francisco Golden Gate Park, have reported flower theft, or flower poaching, or bloom snipping, or blossom burglary. Apparently, flowers can bring you $1 to $5 each, and the unscrupulous florists who buy the ill-gotten goods may not want to ask a lot of questions. Whoever thought your friendly neighborhood floral arrangement specialist and bouquet shopkeeper might be some shady criminal dealing in stolen goods? The police are onto the thefts, though. Thieves and the florists who buy from them have gotten caught with covertly-marked stems, and some plants worth as much as $1000 per have microchips embedded inside to indicate that they belong to someone else.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Canon is awesome

I want to let you all know about some pleasantly surprising, then, rather amazing, customer service I received, from the consumer and business technology company Canon. Back in October 10, 2003, I purchased a Canon Powershot S400 digital camera with $300 my parents had given me for my birthday. I really liked the camera, and got to use it a lot, but then last year, I started noticing some problems. The problem I was having was, whenever I tried to take a picture, I saw something like this (thanks, Deepak Prakash, for the photo):

The image on the LCD monitor on the camera, and in subsequent photographs I took, was smeared, blurred, washed-out, and tinted pinkish-red. Other times, I noted a warped, noisy, false-color image, then the LCD monitor would go dark on me.

I was ready to toss the camera and buy a new one, but in a last bid attempt to save money and salvage what I had, on Friday, August 20, 2010, I called Canon, and from a conversation I had with Canon representative Mike, in Chesapeake, Virginia, he told me the following (and I paraphrase):
This particular camera has a service notice, for an issue with an image sensor, a CCD, charge-coupled device. That sensor can fail. What I need to do is send the camera to Canon, and they will repair it for free. I need to give Mike my information, and get a case created for me. Before I send the camera in, remove the battery, memory card, and strap from the device. Wrap camera in bubble wrap, and put in a cardboard box. Mike will send 2 emails to you, the first has instructions on what to do and where to send it to, along with an evaluation form that I print out and put inside the box, and the 2nd email will come from UPS, with a free shipping label, prepaid and insured. Once the camera is received, it will take 2 to 3 days for the Canon technicians to check in the camera and evaluate it; they will send me an email with a repair order and status, and then 5 to 7 days to repair and return to you. Return shipping is via Fedex, and I will need to sign for it. The advisory for this service notice went out in 2007, but you weren't registered, so you didn't receive the notice
Lo and behold, on Thursday, September 9, 2010, I received a repaired Canon S400 camera, which has been working for me just fine since then. I thought it was worth mentioning that, other than the inconvenience of my not having the camera during the time it was in transit, being repaired, and shipped back to me, the whole repair process cost me nothing, and even the shipping was completely paid for by Canon. I've come to find that the problem I encountered was common to many digital cameras from many brands that contained a particular Sony-made part:

I've also come to find out that Canon is slowly phasing out the cameras they will repair, according to a timeline. So if you have a Canon Powershot S400, it looks like you may be out of luck:

Monday, July 25, 2011

How to Add Google +1 to Your Blogger/Blogspot Presence

The Google Plus social network has been fun to play with so far, and I understand that even though Google+ has been growing really fast, it still has a ways to go before it catches up with Facebook and Twitter. Unlike the latter two, one thing that takes getting used to in Google+ is the lack of a system to send a direct or private message to who you're connected with. There is a work-around, where you can publish to your intended recipient's stream: you click on "Share what's new...", type something, but then when it comes time to 'Share', instead of specifying a circle, you type out the name of the person who you're connected to. Your message then gets published to that person's stream. The problem with this method of approximating direct messaging is, as Google+ warns:
Your content may be shared beyond the bounds which you originally intended if your post is reshared or if someone is mentioned on your post. For instance, if someone is mentioned in a comment, they'll be able to see the entire post even if the post wasn't originally shared with them.
So if you mention someone else in the content of the post, and happen to prepend that third person's name with a '+' or '@', then that person can now read your message, which defeats the purpose of a private, direct message.

That said, Google+ is still pretty cool, and one can argue that because there is this limitation of no direct messaging, Google+ is cleaner and leaner, akin to Twitter's self-imposed 140 character limit (which I, and Farhad Manjoo, think has outlived its usefulness, especially for Twitter conversations).

Before Google Plus came out, Google introduced +1, which is their version of the Facebook 'Like' button. In addition to Google's how to add +1 to your blog, for those on blogger/blogspot, here's what I did:

As stated in the Google document above, you need to copy and paste one of the following 3 possible pairs of XML elements into your blog template:
  • <script> and <g:plusone> elements
  • <script> and <div> elements
  • Two <script> elements, the latter of which makes a call to the render function, as explained in the section Javascript API
They all accomplish the same thing, but if you don't know which one to use, I'd go with the first, or the second, one, either of which are easy to copy, as Google provides the boilerplate for you, without the need for any additional changes from you. Our next steps are for where to paste what we copied:
  1. In Blogger's tabs console, click on 'Design'
  2. Click on 'Edit HTML', and in the section 'Edit Template', click on 'Expand Widget Templates'
  3. Paste anywhere inside. I recommend that you provision a section inside the template so you can keep track of all the changes you've made to the default.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Leccion de Español Tres o Spanish Lesson 3

The Yards (1999, directed by James Gray) with Joaquin Phoenix (as Willie Gutierrez) and Robert Montano (as Hector), where they are speaking in Spanish. Mark Wahlberg is silent onlooker.
Notice how Robert's character code-switches, i.e., changes the language he is using, from English to Spanish. In this context, Joaquin's character, who was conversing in the more familiar Spanish, reverts to English, to distance himself emotionally from the person who he was addressing. We later find out why, as Willie Gutierrez and his crew are, and have been, intentionally sabotaging the trains operated by Hector's company, in order to secure lucrative city contracts.

Hey, Gutierrez, quiero hablar contigo.
Yo tengo nada que decir, Hector.
Oye, yo soy tu amigo, chico. Yo se, uh, lo que tu estas haciendo.
<Willie reverts from Spanish to English>
Hey, nunca vas a ser tan blanco como ellos.

Back in February of last year, I was listening to talk radio, and had a chance to hear an interview with Audrey Nelson, author of Code Switching. I took some notes:
Code switching came out of linguistics, and it refers to someone who is good at and has knowledge of two cultures. Good communicators know how to switch gears. When speaking to audiences predominantly of one typical gender role, Audrey will use different styles; with men: statistics, research, be much more direct. With women: stories, relationship talk, very high level of disclosure within a couple of minutes, i.e., talking about your insecurities, fears and doubts. Women are in the business of social maintenance, to take care of people and relationships. Chit chat initiated by women before a meeting serves a purpose: to relax, make people feel freer, less on-edge, feel connected and bonded, be more civil to each other. When men chit chat, they talk about safe topics like work, sports. You spend more time at work than any other organization. If the verbal and nonverbal contradict, human nature is to base decisions on the observation of non-verbal behavior. Women are much better readers of nonverbal cues than men; excellence in social maintenance means excellence in observing people's feelings, relationships, emotions.
Although her book is mainly about how to communicate effectively in the workplace to a mostly male (or female) audience, the take-away message is to know the needs of your audience (which is what I was referring to in Why You Should Learn Black English). Ms. Nelson went on to state that we make 6 to 8 stereotype conclusions in the first 6 to 8 seconds that we meet each other. Assuming you are fluent enough to pull it off convincingly (one of the biggest hurdles of code-switching), once you demonstrate that you can speak their language, your audience will feel connected and bonded, and be more civil to each other, and more comfortable with you.

Friday, June 17, 2011

one of the best computer deals out there right now

This past Memorial day, I got a brand new computer. It took Dell about a week to assemble and ship to me, and about a week for me and machine to get friendly. Coming up for air, here's one thing I really love about mi computador nuevo: the place where you rest your hands on your wrists, as you are about to type, feels really good. It's never too cool, which is what you might expect from a smooth metal surface, and it's also never too hot, which is what you'd expect from metal sitting just millimeters above powerful circuitry. The wrist rests on my new machine have a high-quality brushed metal finish, that feels almost silky, and the fact that you can rest your palms before typing, and not have the coolness transfer from the metal to your body, is a nice touch, and feels just right. It's kind of like you were shipped a computer with the luxury upgrade of hand-and-wrist-rest warmers, and evokes in me a great deal of confidence in my recent purchase. Those Dell engineers, artists and designers thought of everything, and presumably come from the same school of thought as the geniuses who gave you the ability to keep your cooked rice hot, your favorite massage chair heated, your toilet seat warm, your movie theater seats toasty, your car's front seats comfy in that morning chill, heck, yes, even your steering wheel warm:

Sure, it's a minor detail, as can be said about any luxury, and I'm not quite sure how they did it, but it speaks to the finesse of a homegrown company that has been at it for years, and has finally come into its own. My new laptop is also energy star 5.0 compliant, unlike your tv set-top box or DVR, meaning when it comes to your utility bill, this laptop uses less electricity when idle, and very little power when you've got it asleep, or hibernating.

My previous computer, an Acer Aspire 9410-2028, was purchased back in August of 2007, and did not have any hand/wrist warmers. It was a good computer for its time, at a good price, but fast forward to the present, about 3.5 years later, and now getting anything done on the same computer is a real slog. First, the hinges broke about a year and a half ago, which meant I had to find a way to prop up my screen or else it wouldn't stay up by itself. Then, for the past year, if I ran my operating system for a while without rebooting, I noticed extreme latency, lots of disk spinning, very slow response time, and often my screen would suddenly go dark for a minute or more because of my graphics driver crashing (this occurred sometimes multiple times an hour). If I tried to switch between web browser tabs or web browser windows, I dreaded having to endure 6 second to several minute waits while the computer finished what it was doing and caught up to me. Trying to switch between a browser window to my desktop, or playing a movie, were bitterly negative experiences, evoking in me a range of responses from impatience, to taking the Lord's name in vain, to prolonged bouts of swearing and exasperation, sometimes leading to existential cries that made me doubt my commitment to sparkle motion:
If you're in the market, looking to buy, or have been shopping for a new computer, you could do a lot worse than what I got for $1239.61 ($1,123.99 + $6 environmental disposal fee + $109.62 tax):
Dell XPS 17 (L702X), Windows® 7 Home Premium, 64-Bit
PROCESSOR 2nd generation Intel® Core i7-2720QM processor 2.20 GHz with Turbo Boost 2.0 up to 3.30 GHz
OPERATING SYSTEM Genuine Windows® Home Premium, 64-Bit, English
SERVICE PLAN 1 Year Limited Hardware Warranty (Mail-in repair in 10-14 business days - Shipping not included)
HD DISPLAY 17.3" FHD (1080p) with 2.0MP HD Webcam
MEMORY 8GB Shared Dual Channel DDR3 Memory
VIDEO CARD NVIDIA® GeForce® GT 550M 1GB graphics with Optimus
BATTERY OPTIONS 90 WHr 9-cell Lithium Ion Primary Battery
HARD DRIVE 1.0TB 500GB 7.2k HDD x 2
OFFICE SOFTWARE Microsoft® Office Starter: reduced-functionality Word & Excel w/ ads. No PowerPoint or Outlook
SECURITY SOFTWARE McAfee Security Center with VirusScan, Firewall, Spyware Removal, 30-Day Trial
INTERNAL OPTICAL DRIVE Tray Load Blu-ray Disc BD-Combo (Reads BD and Writes to DVD/CD)
WIRELESS + BLUETOOTH Intel® Centrino® Wireless-N 1000
SOUND OPTIONS JBL 2.1 Speakers with Waves Maxx Audio 3

Dell XPS 17 for:
Order Subtotal: $1,123.99
Shipping and Handling: $9.00
Shipping Discount: -$9.00
Environmental Disposal Fee: $6.00
Tax Total: $109.62
Total Amount: $1,239.61
What was important for me was the 64-bit quad-core CoreTM i7 2720qm CPU, only 1 or 2 steps below the state-of-the-art, most advanced chip currently out on the market. Also, I needed my next computer to have 8 gigabytes of RAM, 1 terabyte of hard drive space, a 17-inch high-resolution 1920 x 1080 screen (yes, high definition), and the ability to play Blu-ray DVDs. To get this computer at such a great price, I had to make two sacrifices and apply two coupon codes:
  1. opt for the limited hardware warranty (essentially, I am betting Dell won't send me a lemon) of "Mail-in repair in 10-14 business days - Shipping not included" instead of the standard 1 Year Home Express Service of "Mail-in repair in 1-2 business days - Shipping included"

  2. decide against the 3D capable screen and the 3D glasses

  3. These codes subtract an additional $500 off. Both codes expire June 30, 2011, but you can always search for dell coupon codes to find the combination that gives you the most money off:
    • 8GHR80Q1PLLCF7
    • 7WR1C2?HTTQQ11
Perhaps the economy has people spooked about spending $1200 on a computer, but I was surprised I wasn't able to find this deal advertised anywhere else. I found this deal on my own, meaning I took the time to pick out which computer I wanted, and, through trial and error research, which applicable coupon codes were stackable, as many of the codes have restrictions. At first I looked on, then on Costco's website and in their stores, and I was contemplating buying an HP Pavilion dv7t Quad Edition customizable Notebook PC for $1484.14 ($1,344.99 + $8 recycling fee + $131.14 tax), but that tax rate of almost 10% seemed exorbitant to me. In a defiant act of tax avoidance (remember, Jesus votes Republican), I decided to do some research on computers being offered for sale on ebay, where sometimes you can buy items tax-free. At one point I was willing to pay $1600 for the right configuration of parts, but not being able to find what I wanted from ebay, I decided to go on Dell's site directly. There, I found I still had to pay tax, but Dell's grand total price was almost $300 less than the HP I was first expecting to buy, for an upgrade on the CPU, hard drive spin from 5400 rpm to 7200 rpm, 17.3 inch screen with resolution increase from 1600 x 900 to 1920 x 1080, and I was able to throw in a 50% upgrade in battery life, from 6 to 9 battery cells.

Until the end of the year, Dell is taking an additional $20 off, and throwing in free shipping. You can actually get this computer for $20 less than what I paid! Here's the link to what it looks like:

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bruce Ivins, maybe a creep, but the anthrax killer?

So the world hasn't ended yet, despite the bold and confident prediction of my former employer Harold Camping. On May 23rd, Harold declared that Judgment Day did occur, but only spiritually, and revised his doomsday prediction, moving it up to October 21. Harold's rationale was that sometimes God doesn't open our eyes and reveal everything to us, and it was good that the prediction was made, even if it didn't happen, because now the whole world knows about Judgment Day, and the Word of God. As I observed Harold on his Open Forum television program in the days leading up to May 21, and on May 23 and days after, I couldn't help but notice the resemblance between Harold Camping and the kind of person being spoken of in Man and superman; a comedy and a philosophy (1903) by George Bernard Shaw:
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world : the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
Sometimes, a person can be so fixated on the conclusion that s/he wants, that the possibility of a mistake, an error, or even reasonable doubt, cannot be tolerated. If the person represents not just himself, but is the face of an institution, sometimes the expense, wholesale investment, and senselessness of a wasted effort is magnified. I am reminded of an interview on Slate's The Wrong Stuff on what it's like trying to free people who have been wrongly convicted of crimes:
You become more certain over time; that's just the way the mind works. With the passage of time, your story becomes your reality... They're so convinced that they are right that they feel exempt from behaving right... There's still a whole category of prosecutors and detectives who say, "No, I'm sure [the guy I convicted] is guilty. I can't tell you how, I can't give you a logical explanation, but he's guilty." What's scary is that these people are part of a system that's predicated on logic and reasoning to see that justice is done. Yet they will ignore all logic and reason to protect their egos and their psyches. And it requires a complete disconnect, too, because these guys rely on DNA to convict bad guys all the time. But when the DNA works against them, they say something must have gone wrong.
...based on my own experience, about half the time police and prosecutors bury their heads in the sand and insist that they were right no matter what the evidence says.
If a prosecutor or a detective is totally unable to admit they're wrong in one case, what that tells you is that they will be making dozens and dozens more erroneous decisions, because they're not allowing new information to affect their views... -- Peter Neufeld
I think the best way to gauge whether the person you're dealing with is being unreasonable is to ask him if there's anything you or anyone can say or do that will make him change his mind. If he deflects, doesn't answer, or says 'no', then you have someone who probably cannot be swayed (least of all by reality).

A couple of days ago, an excerpt was published in the Los Angeles Times, written by LA Times reporter David Willman. From the soon-to-be-published The Mirage Man, the excerpt reads like a hatchet job on Bruce Ivins, the supposed anthrax killer who struck shortly after 9/11 (when it really did seem like the world was going to end), painting a picture of the man as a major creep who was obsessed with the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. With no citations or references to sources, the excerpt describes in vivid detail how the man broke into KKG sorority houses in North Carolina and West Virginia and stole a cipher used to decode secret rituals, and a book of rituals used by the young women, respectively. But a McClatchy News article, published 20 days before the LA Times excerpt, painted an entirely different picture of the whole story:
In ending the inquiry last year, the Justice Department said that a genetic fingerprint had pointed investigators to Ivins' lab, and gumshoe investigative techniques enabled them to compile considerable circumstantial evidence that demonstrated his guilt.

Among these proofs, prosecutors cited Ivins' alleged attempt to steer investigators away from a flask of anthrax in his lab that genetically matched the mailed powder — anthrax that had been shared with other researchers. They also noted his anger over a looming congressional cut in funds for his research on a new anthrax vaccine.

However, the FBI never found hard evidence that Ivins produced the anthrax or that he scrawled threatening letters seemingly meant to resemble those of Islamic terrorists. Or that he secretly took late-night drives to Princeton, N.J., to mail them.

The FBI declared Ivins the killer soon after paying $5.8 million to settle a suit filed by another former USAMRIID researcher, Steven Hatfill, whom the agency mistakenly had targeted earlier in its investigation.
While there is certainly circumstantial evidence that the FBI was correct in trying to pin the crime on Bruce Ivins, my fear is that there was too much at stake, especially after the FBI mistakenly focused on Hatfill; once Ivins committed suicide, there was a need for everyone at the Bureau to unify and say with one voice that Ivins was the guilty party, rather than deal with the possibility that they were responsible for a second tragedy.

Thanks to Art Diamond for pointing me to the source for the Shaw quote.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Gays and The End of the World

My former employer Harold Camping, a UC Berkeley graduate in civil engineering who sold his construction business and retired early so he could devote his life to studying the Bible and sharing the gospel, is predicting the world will end on May 21, 2011. Unlike many religious leaders who preach a prosperity gospel or claim that Jesus would have wanted us to invade Iraq, two messages that I believe are contrary to what Jesus taught, Harold, a lay preacher who lacks any formal training in theology and is proud of that fact, lives humbly, does not take a salary, drives the same brown pickup truck he's driven for many years, and usually tries to distance his religious non-profit, Family Radio, from political questions like what candidates and issues you should support and vote for. One thing he's done recently, though, that worries me a bit, is Harold has started to claim that the gay rights movement, and social acknowledgement of homosexuality in human society, is a sign that the world is becoming the embodiment of wickedness, and since God cannot stand the sight of uncleanliness, He will soon destroy us all, much like wiping dirt off the floor. Now, I no longer work for Harold, so I no longer have a vested interest in obeying the political instinct we all have of trying to please the man who signs our paychecks, but you have to give the guy credit for being bold enough to stake his reputation on something he insists, very authoritatively, "absolutely will happen"; this new behavior of his, where Harold says that the increasing political and social acceptance of homosexuals openly serving in the military and as religious leaders somehow is a sign that the world will end soon, is troubling to me, and reeks of desperation:

It's almost as if Harold is grabbing at straws, trying to pander to an ugly theme in popular religion of bigotry, in an effort to rally the troops, who would otherwise question why none of the other foretold signs of judgment day and world destruction are literally happening, such as the sun and the moon turning dark, and the stars falling from the sky.

Harold Camping's moment of truth will come in a few days, no matter what. Either the end of the world will ruin your Saturday, May 21st, at 6pm standard time, or there will be no great earthquakes, nor bodies of true believers flying out of their graves to meet up with Jesus Christ in Heaven. If it's all business as usual, then Harold will have some explaining to do.

The matter of Armageddon Day aside, when I was last there, Family Stations Incorporated was taking in approximately $15 million in donations every year. If you ever wanted to start your own religion, here's what the Economist has to say:
FANCY founding a religion? Keen to reform a flagging faith? Here a few tips on how to attract and retain followers, thus ensuring that your gospel spreads far and wide, affording spiritual solace to as many souls as possible.

At the outset, you must realise that success is unlikely if you go wholly against the grain of human nature. Granted, religion is all about forging the perfect man, or at least ensuring that, as far as possible, he lives up to divine expectations. But preternatural power has forged man in such a way that he will swallow some of your ideas about how to achieve this more easily than others.
As in the case of states, your principal concern is to encourage co-operation among your flock. In the long run, groups that co-operate more have an advantage over those whose members are less willing to do so. This also means limiting the number of actual and potential shirkers. People, it seems, are naturally inclined to do this anyway, but you can egg them on with a few simple tricks.

First, you are better off plumping for a personal god, rather than some sort of indeterminate life force. Research shows that people who profess a belief in such a deity judge moral transgressions more harshly, which in turn tends to make them more willing to abide by the rules, and expend resources on enforcing them. This may be down to a conviction that they are being incessantly watched over by an attentive minder, who tallies their contributions (or lack thereof) and rewards (or punishments) in a cosmic ledger. Speaking of which, incorporating the idea of just deserts is a fine plan, too. Apparently, people are born with an intuition to that effect. Just remember to keep the misfortunes visited on wrongdoers commensurate with their misdeeds. Otherwise people will think it unfair and won't buy it. No fire and brimstone for littering, and suchlike.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Green Travel: Bring a Folding Bicycle on an Airplane

I was in Los Angeles last week to attend an event; a friend from high school had gotten married, and his wife was having a baby shower. Shortly after I received the invitation, the best deal I could find was 3 weeks away, and so I booked the first flight leaving Oakland on a Tuesday morning, and the last flight coming back to Oakland the following week on a Wednesday night. My sister, who lives in LA, being a mother of an almost 4-year-old girl, hadn't been getting much sleep, and she balked at picking me up when my plane arrived at Burbank airport at 7:15 am. I decided that, when I arrived at my destination airport, I was not going to jump into a rented car, but get on my bike and, depending on the grace and mercy of the public transit system, ride to where I needed to go. The last time I was in Los Angeles was 4 years ago, for my sister's own baby shower, and I had a rental car for a week; by the time I came back to the Bay Area, I had gained 10 pounds, due to increased caloric intake and lack of physical activity. This time I was going to save money and get some more exercise. Here's what I did to become a green traveler (or, a green traveller, as they say in the United Kingdom):

What you will need:
  • tape measure
  • folding bike
  • bicycle lock
  • clear plastic garbage bag
  • bungee cord, also known as a shock cord
  1. Confirm your airline's baggage policy. I was allowed to check-in two bags for free, in accordance with the Southwest Airlines checked bags policy:
    Weight and Size Allowance:
    Maximum weight is 50 pounds and maximum size is 62 inches (length + width + height) per checked piece of luggage. ...[O]verweight items from 51 to 100 pounds and oversized items in excess of 62 inches but not more than 80 inches (e.g.; surfboards, bicycles, vaulting poles) will be accepted for a charge of $75 per item.
    If you don't want to be forced to pay $75 at the ticket counter, use measuring tape and a scale to make sure your bicycle conforms to the size and weight limitations. Besides your folding bike, I recommend you bring a backpack as your other bag, because your folding bike's wheels are smaller than your standard bicycle, and you don't want to make your ride even more unstable by having a heavy bag slung around your neck, hanging off one side, making your bicycle ride unpleasant and unsafe.

    If your bicycle lock is a U-lock, it's likely the TSA agent may consider that it can be used as a weapon, so don't try to bring it onto the airplane cabin in your carry-on; rather, lock your U-lock to your bicycle during the check-in.

  2. Pack light. Erykah Badu, in her famous "Bag Lady", exhorts, "Bag Lady, you're going to miss your bus. You can't hurry up, cause you got too much stuff."

    Do not be the bag lady, who would surely hurt her back, dragging all her bags like that! Besides my folding bike, I had one backpack, into which I put my laptop computer, a change of underwear and an extra pair of shorts, an extra 16-inch inner-tube, and hard plastic steel-core tire levers, in case I got a flat tire. I got a lot of my tips for how to pack light from this article.

  3. I decided to enclose my bike in a plastic bag in an effort to conform to Southwest's Special Luggage Sports Equipment Policy:
    Bicycles (defined as nonmotorized and having a single seat), including Bike Friday and Co-Pilot, properly packed in a hard-sided bicycle box that fall within the dimensions and weight limits established for normal Checked Baggage, (i.e., 62 inches or less in overall dimensions and less than 50 pounds in weight). Pedals and handlebars must be removed and packaged in protective materials so as not to be damaged by or cause damage to other Baggage. Bicycles packaged in cardboard or soft-sided cases will be transported as conditionally accepted items.
    "Conditionally accepted" means Southwest assumes no liability for damage sustained during transport. I decided on a see-through transparent bag because I imagine the airport baggage handlers will be a bit more careful if they are able to see that it's a bicycle they are handling, than if the bicycle was in a canvas bag or hard-sided case. Once your bike is unfolded at your destination airport, you can easily store the plastic bag in your backpack.

  4. You will also want to bring a spare inner tube that is in your folding bike's tire size, and tire levers, in case you get a flat tire. Los Angeles has a lot of gas stations, bike shops, and people with bicycles and tire pumps in their garages, where you can use a pump if need be, but if you will not be in a densely populated area, you may also want to bring along a bike pump. By the way, for those of you concerned with how the change in air pressure during a flight may or may not affect the compressed air in your bicycle tires: before I began my voyage, I had my tires inflated beyond the recommended upper limit, and at both of my destination airports, when I received my bike, there was never any problem with my tires or inner tubes.

My 2005 Dahon Presto Lite. This model is no longer available for retail sale. I bought mine second-hand. It came without mud guards.

Folded size, with right pedal, is 30 x 20 x 17, for a total of 67 linear inches. On this model, the right pedal is easily removable. Folded size, without right pedal, is 30 x 20 x 11, for a total of 61 linear inches. Weight is about 18 pounds.

Folded bike with U-lock, locked to frame.

Folded bike with U-lock, locked to frame, covered by clear plastic garbage bag, and secured with bungee cord.

Did you ever have any problems, or unexpected events or hiccups, with checking-in your bike at the airport?
On my recent flight, during both check-ins, with my removable right pedal affixed, neither Southwest ticket counter agent made an issue of the extra few linear inches or, for that matter, ever took out a measuring tape. There was one incident where, during my first check-in, a Southwest ticket counter agent said she would have to charge me $50 to transport a bicycle. However, I pointed out that, on their website, the Southwest policy is that bikes under the size and weight limit count as checked-in baggage and are not subject to a fee. The agent looked up the policy, gave my folding bike a once-over, looked at the bike's weight, and said it was ok.

If you're looking to buy a folding bike, I recommend:

though one drawback is the guide doesn't have folded-size dimensions. If you have the time to look for a second-hand, well-maintained bike for a good price, I recommend Craigslist, which is how I found mine.

Conceivably, you could also bring a folding bike with you on a boat cruise, or sight-seeing in an RV or tour bus. So now you have another option as a green tourist. Next time you travel, don't rent a car; bring a bicycle.

Friday, April 29, 2011

How to Pack Light, for Men and Women

In preparation for a recent trip to Los Angeles, I read up on some tips on how to travel smart and avoid baggage fees. Debra Saunders advises people to pack heavy, but this part of her column I definitely agree with:
European travel guru Rick Steves has recommended that, regardless of the length of a trip, that the savvy male tourist pack only three pairs of socks and underwear, a pair of shorts, two short-sleeved shirts, a long-sleeved shirt, a sweater, a windbreaker and one pair of shoes. On his Web site he tells vacationers they should fit everything they are taking into one "carry-on size bag."

A tip for couples traveling with a small child or children, from John Flinn:
"But you can't pack light if you're traveling with small children," protested several readers. Apparently no one told Andy Sedik of South San Francisco: "My wife and I just returned from a two-week trip to Eastern Europe with our 14-month-old daughter using only two carry-ons, an umbrella stroller and a diaper bag. Not only is it possible, it makes life on the road so much easier. Once you travel light, you never go back."

Tips for men from John Flinn (Note the sidebar, "The Art of Packing", which covers 'Packing for Cruises' and 'What Women Want'):
This is everything I pack for a typical three-week trip to Europe or South America, riding trains and buses and splitting my time between town and country. It all fits easily into a carry-on bag, with room left over for a bottle of Côtes du Rhône, a baguette and a few souvenirs.

Tips for women from Eliza Hussman:
I had carried around heavy suitcases for years, mostly because I always seemed to get a bad case of the "what ifs" while packing: "What if someone spills something on my dress and I need a backup?" or "What if it stops raining while I'm there and I need a swimsuit - or three?" or the dreaded "What if those sandals don't look as cute with that dress as I'd thought and my friend asks me if I brought a different pair?"

Tips for women from Christine Delsol
  • Two pairs of shoes is the maximum: Good walking shoes that will hold up for eight or 10 hours at a stretch, and a lighter pair -- comfortable sandals that can go with skirts for more formal outings in hot climates, or perhaps stylish flats in cooler weather.
  • A light, longish skirt is the best staple for hot climates. Unlike shorts, skirts can dress up or down, they are as welcome in restaurants and cathedrals as at the beach, they ward off sunburn and require little space. Take several.

Friday, March 25, 2011

How to use Perl, PHP, Python, R, and Ruby to find Euclidean distance between two points

According to Wikipedia:
In the Euclidean plane, if p = (p1, p2) and q = (q1, q2) then the distance is given by:

Assuming you are using the Cartesian coordinate system, your two coordinates must both be of length n, where n can be any non-zero positive integer. So if the two points in question, p and q, each had 3 values:

p = (p1, p2, p3), q = (q1, q2, q3)

Then n would equal 3, and the distance formula would be:

The hardest part for me, when putting this all together, was figuring out, for each scripting language, how to iterate over, i.e., step through, the respective elements of both coordinates, simultaneously:

Perl 5 (5.12.2):
use List::Util qw(sum);
use List::MoreUtils qw{ any pairwise };

sub get_distance_between
if (scalar(@_) != 2)
die "You must supply 2, and only 2, coordinates, no more, no less. Stopped";

my $a_ref = shift;
my $b_ref = shift;

if (@$a_ref != @$b_ref)
die "Coordinates do not have the same number of elements, stopped";
@x = pairwise { ($a - $b)**2 } @a, @b;
return sqrt(sum(@x));

# Usage:
@a = (1008, 2243, 976), @b = (1005, 2249, 974);
$ad = get_distance_between(\@a, \@b);
print "\$ad == $ad";

PHP 5.3.6:
function subtract_and_square($n, $m)
return(pow($n - $m, 2));

function find_distance_between($p, $q)
$numargs = func_num_args();
if ($numargs != 2)
die("You must supply 2, and only 2, coordinates, no more, no less.\n");
else if (sizeof($p) != sizeof($q))
die("Coordinates do not have the same number of elements.\n");
$c = array_map("subtract_and_square", $p, $q);
return pow(array_sum($c), .5);

Python 2 (2.5.4):
def get_distance_between(p, q):
if len(p) != len(q):
raise Exception
sum = 0
for pval, qval in zip(p, q):
sum += (pval - qval)**2
return sum**(.5)

R (2.12.1):
get_distance_between = function(p, q)
if (length(p) != length(q))
stop("\nCoordinates do not have the same number of elements.")
element_products = mapply(function(a,b) (a - b)**2, p, q)

Ruby 1.9.2:
require 'generator'

def get_distance_between(p, q)
if p.length != q.length
raise Exception
sum = 0
syen =, q)
for pval, qval in syen
sum += (pval - qval)**2
return Math.sqrt(sum)

In the Perl example, thanks to Miller Hall and Jon Bjornstad for their review and suggestions on how to improve my Perl code to make it more readable.
In the R example, thanks to Spencer Graves and Nicholas Lewin-Koh for pointing me to mapply and plyr (which I did not have time to research and use).

Update: On October 31, 2011, my friend Nikita Borisov, assistant professor in Computer Science, offered the following suggestion on facebook re the R and Python code:
This person clearly hasn't used these languages very much. In R, you can say sqrt(sum((p-q)**2)). Similarly, in Python you can write sqrt(sum([(x-y)**2 for (x,y) in zip(p,q)]))
Thanks, Nikita!

Monday, March 21, 2011

The 3 Most Important Things a Programmer Must Know

Write code, run code, fix code is essentially what a programmer does, said the speaker at an intriguing talk I recently attended, hosted by the Perl Mongers group. Zed Shaw is the author of Learning Python the Hard Way and in review, I have to agree with this user-generated comment:
Very knowledgeable not just with Python, but he has a deep understanding of programming. He inspired me to be a better thinker and programmer.
I was interested in this talk because Zed Shaw made a name for himself by coding the Mongrel web server, as well as Mongrel2, both of which were and are integral parts of Ruby on Rails. I looked forward to the rather unique confluence of a core Ruby on Rails programmer giving a talk about Python at a Perl meetup. I had a prior discussion with a female attendee at a Ruby on Rails Workshop for Women on why religious wars in technology were so prevalent; some people get worked-up over a particular choice of scripting language (Perl vs Python vs Ruby) or text editor, and soon flame wars ensue on the internet about which technology is best. Rodney King asked us after the Los Angeles riots, and Zed is living proof that we can all get along, at least when it comes to scripting languages.

Zed took a year off to learn jazz guitar. He realized, when learning music, you have the concept of a trainer, who tells you to play individual chords multiple times until you get better at it. Then the trainer tells you to play another chord, and then play a song in both chords, in a progression, until you have some experience under your belt. Whenever you want to learn something difficult, it's hard to explain the ideas unless you have some experience under your belt. Using this same principle, Zed decided to introduce the beginner to simple coding exercises, until you get better at writing computer programs, and then he slowly introduces the concepts to you.

The fact that Zed was able to use an analogy from music learning in explaining hard-to-grasp concepts in computer programming makes his experience valuable and his book a must-read for me. Zed strikes me as hard-working, dedicated to his craft, and he knows something about how to get beginner programmers engaged in a new, complex, but rewarding venture. One last thing he said that really hit home for me: Zed recommends learning parsing and lexing, the two most important things, other than algorithms, that a programmer must know. Right now, Zed is doing C and Lua, and he mentioned software called Corona that enables the Lua programmer to write iPhone games.