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Eleven Day Empire

Published: 2006-01-09T10:18:51-05:00


I Used to Like George Takei


I mean, how can you not like Mr. Sulu, or the actor who portrays him.

But them I read this:

Howard Stern began his new satellite radio show on Monday by putting to rest rumors that he got married to his longtime girlfriend, model Beth Ostrosky… …Stern also introduced George Takei as his new on-air personality. Takei, who played Captain Sulu on the popular television show “Star Trek” and who last year publicly said he is gay, will serve as announcer. After the first week, he will record segments for the show but will not be in the studio.

I guess the man’s got bills to pay, but going on Howard Stern’s disgusting, hateful show seems a lot like selling one’s soul.

For my part, I simply don’t understand how otherwise intelligent and decent people can enjoy the filth that Stern spews out on a daily basis. And now I can’t ever look at Mr. Sulu the same way again. That’s very sad.

Horrendousness From Congress


Congress has passed, and the President signed, a law outlawing “annoying” behavior over the internet:

Annoying someone via the Internet is now a federal crime. It’s no joke. Last Thursday, President Bush signed into law a prohibition on posting annoying Web messages or sending annoying e-mail messages without disclosing your true identity. In other words, it’s OK to flame someone on a mailing list or in a blog as long as you do it under your real name. Thank Congress for small favors, I guess.
The actual text in question:
“Whoever…utilizes any device or software that can be used to originate telecommunications or other types of communications that are transmitted, in whole or in part, by the Internet… without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person…who receives the communications…shall be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.”

This didn’t just pass on its own, of course:

This ridiculous prohibition, which would likely imperil much of Usenet, is buried in the so-called Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act. Criminal penalties include stiff fines and two years in prison.

Obviously it’s disgraceful that the President signed off on this. It’s equally disgraceful that the Senate passed it unanimously, and the House passed it 415-4, and that the offending language was sponsored by not just useless busybody Arlen Spector, but by the awful Pat Leahy, Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden. So it’s a totally bipartisan disgrace.


A Great Man Has Passed


Wellington Mara, owner of the New York Giants, passed away yesterday at the age of 89.

He was a great man, but, much more importantly - and more rarely, I think - he was a good man.

You can read tributes to him from people who knew him here, and a loving article about him from sportswriter Mike Lupica here.

Mr. Mara will be sorely missed. There are few enough people in this world who are great, and far fewer who are both great and good.

And We Wonder Why People Hate Lawyers


Check this out: a lawyer who makes a profit by suing companies who don’t charge him sales tax on internet purchases:

Like many shoppers, attorney Stephen Diamond buys lots of stuff online. But unlike other consumers, he sues retailers that don’t charge him state and local sales taxes — and is making a profit doing it. Using a state whistle-blower law, Mr. Diamond since 2002 has filed about 95 suits in Cook County court here against retailers that failed to charge him taxes on Internet sales, alleging that they broke the law. In cases where the state of Illinois joins the suits and prevails, he is entitled to up to 25% of the financial damages, with the rest going to state coffers. Mr. Diamond’s first eight suits were filed against such retailers as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Office Depot Inc. and KB Toys Inc. He has netted about a half-million dollars already, from some retailers. Because of settlement agreements between the retailers and the attorney general’s office, the state’s judges have agreed to keep the names of most of the retailers and the settlement amounts confidential. More than 80 suits are pending in Illinois, and Mr. Diamond has made forays into other states as well. “This is a no-brainer,” says Mr. Diamond, a veteran class-action attorney who has a scenic view of Lake Michigan from his downtown office. “I started going on the Internet and discovered to my astonishment that companies like Target Corp. and Wal-Mart were not collecting taxes on their Internet sales. I was like, “Wow!”

Wow indeed; half a million dollars made by harassing companies and costing consumers money. Isn’t that grand?

About the only bright spot in this article is this:

In 2003, in Tennessee’s Davidson County Chancery Court, Mr. Diamond filed about 30 suits alleging noncollection of sales taxes on online purchases by Wal-Mart, Target, Inc., PetsMart Inc., and Bass Pro Shops, among other companies. But he didn’t reckon on the reaction of Loren Chumley, Tennessee’s commissioner of revenue, who wasn’t happy that a private citizen was using the whistle-blower law to enrich himself. Viewing Mr. Diamond as an opportunist exploiting a legal loophole, Ms. Chumley immediately set out to change state law. She succeeded, and the cases were dismissed. Ms. Chumley says that Mr. Diamond was misusing the law. Mr. Diamond counters that Tennessee wasn’t being aggressive enough in collecting taxes.

Good for Ms. Chumley. It isn’t for this bottom-feeding vermin from Chicago to judge whether other states’ governments aren’t being “aggressive enough” in collecting taxes.

Oh, there is one other bright spot: the state of Illinois doesn’t want to pay the aforementioned bottom-feeding vermin what he believe he’s entitled to:

In Illinois, meanwhile, Mr. Diamond is fighting with the state over his share of the proceeds in cases involving some big retailers he sued. Last year, the attorney general’s office negotiated a $2.4 million settlement with Wal-Mart, Target and Office Depot about uncollected sales taxes dating back to 1999. Mr. Diamond says that since he did all the legwork, he is entitled to the full 25% share plus any costs he incurred, which is allowable under the law. But the attorney general’s office wants to pay him less than 25%, and nothing for his costs.


Are They Actively Trying to Wreck the Economy?


It’s hard to explain this any other way:

Owning a home may become less tax-friendly than it has been, if suggestions from the president’s tax-reform panel are considered seriously by Congress in the next year or so.

What do they want to do?

The panel hasn’t made any firm decisions about what it will propose in its final report, due Nov. 1. But it is considering a number of options. Among them: Reducing from $1 million the size of a mortgage on which interest may be deducted. If such a proposal were made, it’s possible that the mortgage size would vary by region depending on local home prices. Replacing the mortgage-interest deduction with a tax credit, allowing all homeowners with a mortgage to get a tax break — not just those who itemize. Reducing the tax rate at which mortgage interest may be deducted. Likely a proposed rate would be a middle-income tax rate, such as 15 percent or 25 percent. That would preserve the benefits of homeownership for middle-income taxpayers, Poterba said.

Screwing with the mortgate-interest deduction seems like a really good way to damage, if not outright ruin, the housing marke, especially in combination with rising interest rates and the growing popularity of interest-only mortgages (which, according to statistics I’ve read, about 1/3 of all new mortgages are).

Why is this troubling?

Since you’ll be qualified based on the interest-only payment and will likely refinance before the interest-only term expires anyway, it could be a way to effectively lease your dream home now and invest the principal portion of your payment elsewhere while realizing the tax advantages and appreciation that accompany homeownership. The concept is not a new one; back in the Roaring Twenties, interest-only mortgages were commonplace. At the end of the term, homeowners typically refinanced. The system worked great unless your home lost value or you lost your job. Which is exactly what happened when the Great Depression hit. Foreclosures skyrocketed and lenders abruptly stopped writing interest-only loans. (The practice has continued elsewhere, however, notably in Great Britain.)

(emphasis mine)

Hmm…homes losing value. I wonder if rising interest rates, potentially major and costly-to-homeowner tax changes, gasoline prices double (or more) what they were a year ago, home heating prices that are likely to skyrocket this winter, a series of unprecedentedly-costly natural disasters, consumer uneasiness, and the possible disappearance of employee pensions throughout entire industries (like, say, the airlines, or auto manufacturers)…might lead to some reluctance on the part of consumers to purchase new homes, leading to the end of seemingly-ever-increasing home values?

So what will happen to all the people who bought homes using mortgages that can only be maintained if the value of their home keeps rising indefinitely?

What will happen to the banks that loaned them the money?

I believe the answer was mentioned above, in bold type. It’s not like it hasn’t happened in this country before, after all. It would just be nice if our leaders weren’t making policies that seem designed to encourage a new Great Depression.

Wisdom for the Day


So while talking with a co-worker, I thought of an old saying I remembered, which illustrated the point I was trying to make. As I sometimes do, I mangled the original saying a bit, but, honestly, I think my version works better:

“Don’t try to teach a pig to dance. You’ll only get dirty, and you’ll annoy the pig.”

Which leads, of course, to the shorthand phrase, which I think is probably applicable in many, if not most, areas of life:

“Pigs don’t dance.”

For purposes of historical accuracy, the actual saying is:

“You can’t teach a pig to sing. It’s a waste of time and it annoys the pig.”

As I said, I like my version better. Whenever you’re thinking of doing something that’s pointless and impossible to succeed at, just remember, pigs don’t dance…

Most Pointless and Uninformative Headline of All Time


From today’s Washington Post. The big banner headline:

“Bush Defends Supreme Court Pick.”

Well, duh.

Is that in any way news, that a President would defend the person he selected for the Supreme Court? Is it in the slightest way unexpected or surprising?

Was there really nothing else even remotely newsworthy yesterday?

Yes, We're Still Here


Just a quick note; the management here hasn’t died, or gone missing.

We’ve just been busy, and the news is, generally, so disheartening that we haven’t had the stomach to comment on it recently.

But we are here, and normal service will be resumed…

The Lowest of the Low


I’m not sure there are words in the English language to describe people as scummy as this:

Even as millions of Americans rally to make donations to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, the Internet is brimming with swindles, come-ons and opportunistic pandering related to the relief effort in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. And the frauds are more varied and more numerous than in past disasters, according to law enforcement officials and online watchdog groups. Florida’s attorney general has already filed a fraud lawsuit against a man who started one of the earliest networks of Web sites -, and others - that stated they were collecting donations for storm victims. In Missouri, a much wider constellation of Internet sites - with names like and - displayed pictures of the flood-ravaged South and drove traffic to a single site,, a nonprofit entity with apparent links to white separatist groups. The registrant of those Web sites was sued by the state of Missouri yesterday for violating state fund-raising law and for “omitting the material fact that the ultimate company behind the defendants’ Web sites supports white supremacy.” Late yesterday afternoon, the Federal Bureau of Investigation put the number of Web sites claiming to deal in Katrina information and relief - some legitimate, others not - at “2,300 and rising.” Dozens of suspicious sites claiming links to legitimate charities are being investigated by state and federal authorities. Also under investigation are e-mail spam campaigns using the hurricane as a hook to lure victims to reveal credit card numbers to thieves, as well as fake hurricane news sites and e-mail “updates” that carry malicious code aimed at hijacking a victim’s computer.

Forget lawsuits, and forget fraud charges; these scammers ought to be shot. And, frankly, that’s far, far too good for them.

Another Perspective


I came across the following while looking at news about the horrific situation in New Orleans. I was all ready to write about how poor the planning for this disaster was; to ask why city buses and school buses and Amtrak trains etc. weren’t being packed with evacuees all day Saturday and Sunday; to ask why relief sites weren’t already pre-planned to accept and house evacuees; to ask, “how, knowing that their city was below sea level and in the very midst of hurricane territory, could the leaders of New Orleans not be more ready for this?” Then I came across the article below: To those who would blame the mayor of New Orleans, I would ask you to prepare, in the course of three days, to completely evacuate and rebuild a city of approximately one million people. I would further constrain you by telling you to expect that the energy to be released on your city in the coming days will be equal to the detonation of one United States W81 0.5 megaton thermonuclear warhead on your city and the surrounding areas, each and every single minute that the storm is overhead. Not only do you have to plan and build a new city in three days, that will house one million people, you must also facilitate the traffic flow of 800,000 of those people to an area that will not be affected by the rain of 450 kiloton nuclear weapons the storm will drop after it leaves your city. You have to find, and physically force some portion of the 100,000 remaining persons to leave, and you have to find and transport the remainder of that 100,000 people who cannot do so on their own. Whatever routes you choose to get to your brand new one million person city will be shared with mandatory evacuees from the entire two or three state region. Beginning on the second day of your one million person new city construction project, every asset you and your staff possesses, cars, houses, offices, telephones, computers, and basic necessities, will be unavailable, under water. At this point you will have to make some very hard decisions. No city government is capable of building a one million person city, not in three years and certainly not in three days, but this is only the beginning. When the levees begin to fail, you will have to start choosing who gets to live and who gets to die. Not one at a time, you will be forced to decide whether large groups of human beings, your constituents, 20,000 in the Dome, 60,000 in each of three flooded parishes, another 50,000 in the downtown area, get to live or are abandoned. Will you save the people trapped on flooded roofs, or fix the levee and let them die? How many will die if you do not fix the levee? When your best engineers tell you that they cannot close the breach before it floods the city, will you even try? When they tell you that even if by a miracle they succeed and seal the breach, that 50 others are ready to pop at any time, what then? If you seal that breach, or even try, the people on the roofs will die. If you do not seal the breach, who knows how many in the city’s center will die. But your task is not yet complete, far from it. The largest seaport in the US has been destroyed. How will ships get in to help you? The largest river in the US is now blocked to ocean going ships, and river going ships. Will you just let it sit there, blocked, while the rest of the country starves for gasoline, not to mention hundreds of other necessities? All but one of the bridges into and out of your city are destroyed, but you don’t even know this, not at first. You can’t get even one block from your office without a chainsaw and a crane. Your helicopters are either 200 miles away or destroyed. Your phones don’t work and your power is out. Will you divert resources from saving people in attics to look over the highway[...]

I'm Not Sure I See the Problem


Convicted murderer John Allan Muhammad, already sentenced to death for his role in the Washington-area sniper killings back in 2002, is on a hunger strike:

A judge granted Montgomery County jail officials yesterday the authority to force-feed convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad, who has refused to eat or drink since he was transferred Monday from a Virginia prison. Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge James L. Ryan issued the order after the county’s Department of Correction and Rehabilitation filed court papers yesterday saying Muhammad was “in imminent danger of very serious bodily harm, including death, if he does not begin to receive nourishment within the next several days.”

The state is going to force-feed him, as noted above, but it seems to me that, seeing as how Muhammad is already sentenced to death, if he wants to starve himself to death, he ought to be allowed to do so.

Oh, and by the way, am I the only one who wonders why the state of Maryland is going to spend $3 million to try someone already convicted of murder and sentenced to death?

The explanation given in this article:

State’s Attorney Douglas F. Gansler has said that prosecution of the two men in Montgomery is necessary as an “insurance policy,” in case they are freed on appeal elsewhere. A hearing scheduled for Sept. 2 will determine the time for future hearings and dates for Muhammad’s trial.

…seems pretty weak. Can’t they just put all the evidence in storage somewhere, and bring it out in the unlikely event that Muhammad is ever actually freed?

Just wondering…

Klingon Fairy Tales


Well, I’d like to read them

“Goldilocks Dies With Honor at the Hands of the Three Bears” “Snow White and the Six Dwarves She Killed With Her Bare Hands and the Seventh Dwarf She Let Get Away as a Warning to Others” “There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe With a Big Spike on It” “The Three Little Pigs Build an Improvised Explosive Device and Deal With That Damned Wolf Once and for All”

Go check out the rest of them…

(found via James Bow)

Four Legged Friends


Most people think of hamsters as harmless (and useless) little fluffballs.

But, as this story shows, they’re much, much more than that:

A 16-year-old boy invented a hamster-powered mobile phone charger as part of his GCSE science project. Peter Ash, of Lawford, Somerset, attached a generator to his hamster’s exercise wheel and connected it to his phone charger. Elvis does the legwork while Peter charges his phone in an economically and environmentally friendly way. He came up with the idea after his sister Sarah complained that Elvis was keeping her awake at night by playing for hours on his exercise wheel. “I thought the wheel could be made to do something useful so I connected a system of gears and a turbine,” he said. “Every two minutes Elvis spends on his wheel gives me about thirty minutes talk time on my phone.”

Cool, huh?

Dialogue, Fruitful and Otherwise


James Lileks has some thoughts on dialogue, arguments, and getting one’s message across:

That really long email you send that called me a name in the first sentence? Didn’t read it. That shorter email that called me a name in the second sentence? Read it. Rocked my world. Completely changed everything I believe. Had to curl up in bed with my George Bush handpuppet and have a dialogue for half an hour before I stopped whimpering. And I do a bad Texas accent. Don’t make me go through that again.

Check out the rest of the piece…

Scam Alert


I figure that the folks who are regular readers here probably don’t need this warning, but more information is always good. So check this out; it’s the latest credit card scam:

The scam works like this: Person calling says, “This is (name), and I’m calling from the Security and Fraud Department at VISA. My Badge number is 12460 Your card has been flagged for an unusual purchase pattern, and I’m calling to verify. This would be on your VISA card which was issued by (name of bank). Did you purchase an Anti-Telemarketing Device for $497.99 from a Marketing company based in Arizona?” When you say “No”, the caller continues with, “Then we will be issuing a credit to your account. This is a company we have been watching and the charges range from $297 to $497, just under the $500 purchase pattern that flags most cards. Before your next statement, the credit will be sent to (gives you your address), is that correct?” You say “yes”. The caller continues - “I will be starting a Fraud investigation. If you have any questions, you should call the 1-800 number listed on the back of your card (1-800-VISA) and ask for Security. You will need to refer to this Control Number. The caller then gives you a 6 digit number. “Do you need me to read it again?” Here’s the IMPORTANT part on how the scam works. The caller then says, “I need to verify you are in possession of your card”. He’ll ask you to “turn your card over and look for some numbers”. There are 7 numbers; the first 4 are part of your card number, the next 3 are the security Numbers’ that verify you are the possessor of the card. These are the numbers you sometimes use to make Internet purchases to Prove you have the card. The caller will ask you to read the 3 numbers to him. After you tell the caller the 3 numbers, he’ll say, “That is correct, I just needed to verify that the card has not been lost or stolen, and that you still have your card. Do you have any other questions?” After you say No, the caller then thanks you and states, “Don’t hesitate to call back if you do”, and hangs up. You actually say very little, and they never ask for or tell you the Card number. But after we were called on Wednesday, we called back within 20 minutes to ask a question. Are we glad we did! The REAL VISA Security Department told us it was a scam and in the last 15 minutes a new purchase of $497.99 was charged to our card. Long story made short—we made a real fraud report and closed the VISA account. VISA is reissuing us a new number. What the scammers want is the 3-digit PIN number on the back of the card. Don’t give it to them. Instead, tell them you’ll call VISA or Master card directly for verification of their conversation. The real VISA told us that they will never ask for anything on the card as they already know the information since they issued the card! If you give the scammers your 3 Digit PIN Number, you think you’re receiving a credit. However, by the time you get your statement you’ll see charges for purchases you didn’t make, and by then it’s almost too late and/or more difficult to actually file a fraud report.

The point here, as always, is: don’t give personal or financial information to people who call (or email) you and ask for it.