Friday, August 25, 2017

Better than just filling the tub if a hurricane threatens your water supply

[From a post I left on Facebook at 1:54 p.m. on Friday, August 25, 2017:]

If you live somewhere hurricane-prone and don't already have one of these, they're a modest and prudent investment for next time, I highly recommend the WaterBOB


It works exactly as you'd think from the photo, and stores 100 gallons without worries about contamination or leakage. It beats the heck out of trying to seal your bathtub drain with Saran Wrap or its regular stopper. At $22.70 from, it's well worthwhile just for your peace of mind. I've given several to relatives and friends, and one is filling one of my bathtubs at this very moment.



UPDATE (Thursday August 31 @ 1:35 a.m.): I reviewed this product in slightly more detail and considerably more drama at Writing from Houston during Hurricane Harvey: I'd give this product SIX STARS if I could! Brilliant!.

Posted by Beldar at 01:54 PM in Current Affairs, Technology/products, Texas | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Early observations on an experimental family e-library and e-bookclub using Kindles

Instapundit Glenn Reynolds writes today that his Kindle Paperwhite has "replaced [his] iPad as [his] favorite device for reading Kindle books":

The backlighting is the key. It’s light, battery lasts a long time (longer than the iPad), it charges quickly (faster than the iPad), and it’s very clear and easy to read in all kinds of light, from bright sunshine to a dark room. And of course, it’s much, much cheaper [than an iPad].

To all of which, I say: Ditto. I bought one of the first Paperwhites last fall, and I like mine so much that I made this product the basis for a family e-book club.

PaperwhiteSpecifically, I've given four Kindle Paperwhites, plus two older Kindle models I'd purchased in 2010 and 2011, to my four college-age kids and two of their best friends. All these devices are associated with my Amazon Prime account, and as the group's sponsor I encourage the members to make responsible e-book purchases through Amazon using their devices. Those purchases are of course billed to my Amazon account — like many parents, I've never regretted buying books for my kids! — and each purchase generates an emailed invoice to me, which helps me keep track of new additions to our collective e-library and its ongoing costs.

Here's how the Kindle system multiplies the already formidable convenience and economics of e-books for a family e-library, though:

Most of Amazon's Kindle books include licensing rights for multiple copies of e-books to be downloaded simultaneously to six different devices. (The precise number is set by the publisher of each book, I gather — I wonder if that was another one of Apple's ideas or something the publishers insisted upon on their own?) Not everyone in our group can simultaneously be reading the same book, then. But then again, six copies at any one time is quite a few: What home library has as many as six copies of on-dead-trees books available for simultaneous checkout? When you remove a copy from one Kindle or other e-reader device, it automatically frees up the license rights for another free and nearly-instant download on any of my account's devices, so even the six-copy limitation turns out to have a trivial and rare effect on us.

And although we have a total of seven Kindle devices among us, there are actually more e-readers than that associated with my account. With the Kindles' autosync via WiFi capability, I also use my smartphone and a free Amazon Kindle app as an additional e-reader — which lets me pick up with the same book I'm reading on my Paperwhite on my smartphone, in exactly the same spot, whenever I happen to find myself standing in line or eating out alone.

(I opted to forgo the more expensive Paperwhite models with the built-in 3G wireless capability to augment the built-in WiFi. However, my smartphone can sync using either 4G or WiFi, and my Paperwhite back home will sync to where I leave off reading on my phone too. We don't think our group members need, or would much use, wireless on our Paperwhites, but YMMV and for some of you the additional cost may be justified.)

As I'd hoped, many of the books that one of us buys are ending up being read by more than one of us — and sometimes (e.g., the Game of Thrones series) by all or almost all of us. And as I'd also hoped, we're trading book recommendations and discussing books more frequently. Our "family book club" doesn't have meetings or circulate memos; instead these shared books become evolving, continual topics of occasional conversation whenever any two or more of us happen to feel like chatting (in person, on Facebook, or wherever) about something we've just read.

For those who worry that this might be "cheating" or that they'll get sued under the DMCA: I haven't studied the fine print in Amazon's sales and licensing agreements, but I emailed Amazon's customer support folks about my family book club plan before buying the additional Paperwhites last December. They replied that Amazon is perfectly happy to sell on those terms, which include the understanding that I'm maintaining financial responsibility for the purchases made by the responsible young adults to whom I've entrusted what are, legally, still "my Kindles" and "my [licensing rights to Amazon-purchased] e-books."

Finally: my older daughter just returned from a month's volunteer work in Nepal, where her internet access was limited and infrequent. She reports that she got more use and more satisfaction out of her Kindle than from any other gadget she had with her.

So far, then, I've been very happy with this ongoing plan and the return I'm getting on my investment. These Kindles don't suck at all. If you decide to buy one, I recommend doing it through either Instapundit's site or your other favorite blogger who's an Amazon Associates participant. (I'm not any longer; Beldarblog is nonprofit for the additional freedom that buys me with respect to "fair use" copyright issues.)

Posted by Beldar at 05:31 PM in Books, Family, Technology/products, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Reactions upon reading today's court ruling against Apple in the ebook price-fixing conspiracy case

I ought to have simply done this as a blog post to begin with, but:

When I started reading U.S. District Judge Denise Cote's written opinion in United States v. Apple Inc. this evening, I originally only intended to post a link to the opinion, with a very short comment, on Facebook, mostly for a few of my legally-inclined friends. But then I started leaving comments on my FB post, and it turned into a sort of "live-blogging" as I worked through the opinion.

Eventually I decided I ought to re-post it all here for a broader audience, with apologies for the disjointed format:



Apple lost in court in New York today on the ebook antitrust case brought jointly by the Justice Department and several states (including Texas). U.S. District Judge Denise Cote's opinion is 160 pages (double-spaced), so it will take me a while to read it. But from the summary of findings (beginning on page 9 of the .pdf file), it looks like a major defeat for Apple. This paragraph (from page 11) seems key in my initial skim:

Apple and the Publisher Defendants shared one overarching interest — that there be no price competition at the retail level. Apple did not want to compete with Amazon (or any other e-book retailer) on price; and the Publisher Defendants wanted to end Amazon’s $9.99 pricing and increase significantly the prevailing price point for e-books. With a full appreciation of each other’s interests, Apple and the Publisher Defendants agreed to work together to eliminate retail price competition in the e-book market and raise the price of e-books above $9.99."

Here's a link if you're interested:


I hadn't realized that 38 different states had joined in this litigation, but I'm pleased to see that the Texas and Connecticut attorneys general were "liason counsel for the plaintiff states" (i.e., carried the ball and probably did most of the work for all the other state plaintiffs).


The financial impact on Apple is uncertain, but treble damages loom: "The Plaintiffs have shown that Apple conspired to raise the retail price of e-books and that they are entitled to injunctive relief. A trial on damages will follow." And at that trial the question won't be whether Apple has to pay — today's ruling effectively decides that against Apple — but just how much, and to whom.


No jury was involved in this, by the way. By consent of all parties, there was a bench trial in which Judge Cote served as factfinder in lieu of a jury.


CEO Les Moonves of CBS (which owns Simon & Schuster, one of the defendants who settled before trial) is pegged as a major conspirator. I remember him from Rathergate.


In footnote 38 on page 71, Judge Cote labels Apple Sr VP Eddy Cue's trial testimony as not being "credible" — which is the polite way to say she thinks Cue was lying under oath on at least some points. The factual recital is just brutal. Apple comes across as the proverbial 800 pound gorilla who bullied not only the consuming public and Amazon (which was fighting to keep ebook prices low), but Apple's fellow conspirators, five of the six big publishing companies. Appellate courts are particularly reluctant to overturn credibility determinations by the factfinder, whether that's been a judge or a jury. Apple's going to have a hard time digging its way out of the hole it's dug for itself.


From pp. 85-86 of the .pdf file:

On January 27, Jobs launched the iPad. As part of a beautifully orchestrated presentation, he also introduced the iPad’s e-reader capability and the iBookstore. He proudly displayed the names and logos of each Publisher Defendant whose books would populate the iBookstore. To show the ease with which an iTunes customer could buy a book, standing in front of a giant screen displaying his own iPad’s screen, Jobs browsed through his iBooks “bookshelf,” clicked on the “store” button in the upper corner of his e-book shelf display, watched the shelf seamlessly flip to the iBookstore, and purchased one of Hachette’s NYT Bestsellers, Edward M. Kennedy’s memoir, True Compass, for $14.99. With one tap, the e-book was downloaded, and its cover appeared on Jobs’s bookshelf, ready to be opened and read.

When asked by a reporter later that day why people would pay $14.99 in the iBookstore to purchase an e-book that was selling at Amazon for $9.99, Jobs told a reporter, “Well, that won’t be the case.” When the reporter sought to clarify, “You mean you won’t be 14.99 or they won’t be 9.99?” Jobs paused, and with a knowing nod responded, “The price will be the same,” and explained that “Publishers are actually withholding their books from Amazon because they are not happy.” With that statement, Jobs acknowledged his understanding that the Publisher Defendants would now wrest control of pricing from Amazon and raise e-book prices, and that Apple would not have to face any competition from Amazon on price.

The import of Jobs’s statement was obvious. On January 29, the General Counsel of [Simon & Schuster] wrote to [the CEO of S&S, Carolyn] Reidy that she “cannot believe that Jobs made the statement” and considered it “[i]ncredibly stupid.”

Yeah, I agree that it was incredibly stupid. And arrogant. Jobs was bragging in public about the price-fixing conspiracy that his company had organized and executed to fix ebook prices. The reason the publishers were threatening to withhold their books from Amazon altogether was because that was the key term in the conspiracy that Apple was proposing. Unless Amazon agreed to knuckle under to the "agency pricing" model that Apple wanted (because it would eliminate retail price competition in ebooks, to Apple's benefit, and let Apple compete with Amazon on the basis of hardware, never price) — Amazon wouldn't be able to sell ebooks at any price.


This whole fact pattern would never make a good exam question in an antitrust course in law school. It's way too easy. There's an arsenal of smoking guns. It's like no one at Apple ever heard of the Sherman Act.


Maybe you aren't an ebook buyer, and because you only buy paper books, you think this conspiracy didn't affect you. Nope (p. 95): "The Publisher Defendants raised more than the prices of just New Release e-books. The prices of some of their New Release hardcover books were also raised in order to move the e-book version into a correspondingly higher price tier."


From p. 103, Jobs is quoted as making the following brag — actually, a stunning admission to which he was blinded by his egotism — to his biographer:

Amazon screwed it up. It paid the wholesale price for some books, but started selling them below cost at $9.99. The publishers hated that — they thought it would trash their ability to sell hardcover books at $28. So before Apple even got on the scene, some booksellers were starting to withhold books from Amazon. So we told the publishers, “We’ll go to the agency model, where you set the price, and we get our 30%, and yes, the customer pays a little more, but that’s what you want anyway.” But we also asked for a guarantee that if anybody else is selling the books cheaper than we are, then we can sell them at the lower price too. So they went to Amazon and said, “You’re going to sign an agency contract or we’re not going to give you the books.”

Yes, the customer pays a little more, but that's what you want anyway — if you're running a conspiracy to eliminate market competition via illegal price-fixing agreements, that is indeed exactly what you want.


Key finding (from page 120, citation omitted):

In sum, the Plaintiffs have shown not just by a preponderance of the evidence, but through compelling direct and circumstantial evidence that Apple participated in and facilitated a horizontal price-fixing conspiracy. As a result, they have proven a per se violation of the Sherman Act. If it were necessary to analyze this evidence under the rule of reason, however, the Plaintiffs would also prevail.

That's a "belt and suspenders" finding: Judge Cote thinks (and I agree) that this is a "per se" case because of the type of conspiracies and restraints involved and where the players all were in the various supply chains. But she's also saying that even if she's wrong about that point, and even if Apple gets the benefit of the more flexible "rule of reason" standard instead of the "per se" standard, Apple would still lose.

That makes it much harder for Apple to win on appeal.


This is just a methodical thrashing. In every appeal, the first thing the appellate judges (and their law clerks) read is the district judge's opinion. After reading this one, I think almost any appellate judge is going to be favorably impressed with its comprehensiveness and clarity. It's the kind of opinion after which you exhale and say, "Whew! That's going to be hard to fault in any significant way."

Apple is going to have a very tough row to hoe on appeal. I think they're well and truly hosed in this case, although it's not likely to threaten their existence as a company or even delay the next iPhone-whatever.


Footnote 63 (at p. 135) is quite droll, as antitrust humor goes:

Apple uses the term 'competitive' to convey that it wanted its prices to be the lowest in the marketplace, not to convey that it wanted prices arrived at through the process of competition.

That means: "We want all the business, but at a higher, fixed price."


In footnote 66 on p. 143, Judge Cote labels individual Apple and Publisher Defendant executives as "noteworthy for their lack of credibility" — which I would paraphrase as meaning they're "liars lying under oath and they can't be believed."


Okay, finished. The last 30+ pages are devoted to anticipating every argument Apple can be expected to make on appeal and methodically rebutting or undercutting each of them. Judge Cote is a Clinton appointee who's senior status, so she has a lot of experience; and she's clearly learned how to write opinions in a way that make them particularly hard to reverse. The smartest and best federal district judges are usually the best advocates for why their own written decisions ought be upheld — they try to anticipate how the appeal is likely to proceed, and to make their decisions as nearly "bulletproof on appeal" as possible (which is to say, clear, well-reasoned, and correct). And this may be a candidate for the Second Circuit to "affirm on the basis of the district court's opinion" — basically the appellate court, instead of writing its own opinion, just saying, "Yeah, what she said." It's a very high compliment to a district judge when that happens in an important case.

Posted by Beldar at 08:47 PM in Books, Budget/economics, Law (2013), Mainstream Media, SCOTUS & federal courts, Technology/products, Texas | Permalink | Comments (49) | TrackBack

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Requiescat in pace: Neil Alden Armstrong (1930-2012), American astronaut, hero to the human race

My friend Patterico has a post up honoring a true American hero who passed away today — Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon. Lightly edited and without blockquoting, here's the comment I left on his blog:


I was born in 1957, the year of Sputnik — indeed, during its few weeks of orbit — so I was old enough not just to watch, but to relish, the 1969 Apollo 11 landing. Indeed, although I don’t quite remember Alan Shepard’s flight, I do definitely remember John Glenn’s, and all the rest of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo flights which preceded or followed Apollo 11.

Neil Armstrong, on the surface of the moon in July 1969By July 1969, I had several models of each major component spacecraft of the Apollo system, constructed variously of plastic, paper, or balsa wood and with varying levels of detail. Some of them were working model rockets that I’d sent hundreds of feet into the air before they returned to earth on their plastic parachutes. I was almost certainly an insufferable fan. I remember accompanying my father to the barbershop some weeks before the landing; while he got his haircuit, I was explaining to all the grownups present how the Lunar Excursion Module was practically made of aluminum foil, and that the real one was less rugged than some of my models. On the fateful day, while Walter Cronkite narrated, Armstrong was piloting the real LEM over and around the boulders strewn across the Sea of Tranquility, and I was piloting my favorite and most detailed plastic version over and around the sofas, chairs, and other obstacles of the Dyer living room. Neil and I had simultaneous, and equally successful, touchdowns. The whole world celebrated.

Folks are apparently still arguing over whether Armstrong said “One small step for man,” which made no sense, or “One small step for a man,” which made perfect sense. I wish historians could get their acts together and report it the way it makes sense, even if they feel compelled to drop a footnote to suggest that Armstrong might have inadvertently swallowed the “a.” Let’s recognize that Armstrong didn’t have the luxury that Doug MacArthur had to re-film his return to the Philippines and re-shoot his famous “I have returned” line until he was entirely satisfied with it.

Armstrong wasn’t just a lucky guy who was in the right place at the right time to snag a history-making role — although there was some luck involved in his beating out the other Apollo astronaut candidates and astronaut wannabes. Rather, he and his fellows were extraordinary pilots and professionals, patriots who’d seen friends blown apart or burned up while pushing the boundaries of manned flight. They all knew the same could happen to them at almost any moment, but they were all righteously committed to helping make that giant leap for mankind. Can we at least give them all the benefit of a generous standard for quoting what might in fact have been said, and what clearly was meant to be said, instead of a truncated and nonsensical version of that quote?

Posted by Beldar at 04:30 PM in Film/TV/Stage, History, Science, Technology/products, Travel | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Obama's magic death ray

Covert operations involving drones, including targeted counter-terrorism assassinations, are something on which I'm inclined to give the POTUS, as Commander in Chief — whoever is in that office, even Obama — a lot of deference and discretion. But as suggested by this Wall Street Journal story entitled "Tensions Rising Over Drone Secrecy," this is turning into a situation from Marvel Comics: The only difference is that in the funny papers, it was always an orbiting death ray instead of an unmanned drone made out of composites, cameras, computer chips, and Hellfire missiles. As we use this power, it's increasingly going to motivate other countries and, yes, non-state actors like al-Qaeda, to want their own equivalent toys. But even before they can match our capabilities to use (and defend against?) such drones, there is going to be international attention and concern.

I hope and (must, for now) trust that the White House and the Pentagon and Langley have a cohesive, comprehensive, and wise plan for what America's going to do to moderate, channel, and otherwise affect the resulting change in international security affairs. This is already a bigger deal than most folks realize, and it's going to become a very, very big deal indeed.

But that hope and trust require me to assume, however, a degree of wisdom and simple competency that the Obama Administration has never displayed in anything else. Certainly its handling of the just-lost drone in Iran suggests that they're making up American diplomatic and military/operational policy as they go along, and that they're making it up not just on a day-by-day basis, but an hour-by-hour basis. And as the WSJ story points out:

John Bellinger, a top legal adviser for the State Department during the Bush administration, said the White House needs to start thinking about a legal framework that would define acceptable practices. He pointed to the risk that other countries will start using drones in ways that the U.S. may find objectionable.

"If Russia starts using drones to go after terrorists, will the U.S. look like we have a double standard if we criticize them?" Mr. Bellinger asked.

In short, the whole world, including his own legislators and constituents, is going to be listening more carefully to what Obama says (and doesn't say) about drones during the coming year, and comparing those words to what's actually being done (and not done) with the drones in actual practice, much of which will be covert.

The growing Congressional challenges to Obama's authority here — implemented so far only by demanding broader reporting to Congress, but likely to be subjected to more intrusive involvement, with associated security risks — suggest that I'm not the only one to have noticed this, or to have become concerned by it. Certainly the mainstream media is doing very little to put it on the voting public's respective radar screens. But even carefully targeted Hellfire missile strikes eventually demand attention; and any one of these strikes might trigger something quite unexpected, and potentially much bigger, as a counter-response by someone.

I'm perplexed at the silence of my liberal friends who, in theory, at least the last time we discussed such things in other contexts, don't share my views on the breadth of the Executive's authority to prosecute the war on terror and to defend the country from both foreign and domestic threats. How many layers of duct tape have they had to wrap around their heads to prevent them from exploding at the notion that, by executive order, the POTUS can now selectively vaporize almost any given roomful or carload of people, including U.S. citizens (at least while abroad)? The enormity of their double-standard has never been more obvious: If any Republican, and certainly if George W. Bush, had taken the same positions and engaged in the same volume of drone activities that Obama has, we'd be in the midst of full-blown impeachment proceedings by now.

Posted by Beldar at 03:18 PM in Congress, Foreign Policy, Global War on Terror, Mainstream Media, Obama, Technology/products | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 21, 2011

More proof that you ought not trust cover art


I remember seeing Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte when it came out in the theaters. I was about seven or eight. It scared the bejabbers out of me — particularly a beginning scene in which someone hacks off (a painfully young) Bruce Dern's hand and head with a meat cleaver, and then a later scene in which the body parts tumble down a staircase. The maudlin theme-song and lyrics are simple and haunting, hard to put out of mind — and so of course they too became part of my recurring nightmares.

Bette Davis was much more terrifying than any spider, real or fictional, if you ask me.

Posted by Beldar at 11:45 PM in Film/TV/Stage, Humor, Technology/products | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Thank you, Charlie from Bellaire Air Conditioning (a reliable and efficient Houston company)

This post isn't likely to be useful to anyone but my neighbors in southwest Houston, particularly in the Bellaire-Meyerland-Sharpstown area. But for their benefit, in this and future summers, I have this first-hand report to share:

Sometime between 6:00-8:00 p.m. last night, my air conditioner stopped working.

I instantly broke out in a full-body sweat. Even before it had gotten hot inside the house, I was panicked — imagining that I might well have to wait until after the July 4th holiday weekend before I could get it repaired.

Shortly after 8:00 a.m. this morning, I phoned Bellaire Air Conditioning and Heating, "a family owned and operated business serving Houston since 1968." It's an authorized Trane dealer (which corresponds to my AC system), and it had excellent customer reviews on the web — plus it's only a few blocks from my house. I was favorably impressed with the company from my web research, including the contents of their very professional website, and from my initial phone contact to report my problem.

By 10:15 a.m., I'd received a call back from their technician, "Charlie" (whose surname I neglected to get), advising he was en route. When Charlie arrived a few minutes later, he was polite and to-the-point. Even my dog liked Charlie.

By 11:30 a.m., my AC was fixed and, indeed, performing much better than it had before it broke down.

I doubt that Bellaire Air Conditioning and Heating — or any business of their sort — can guarantee that kind of turn-around for every customer all the time. But I was very, very impressed. And if my blog has earned any credibility with search engines since I started it in 2003, I'll be quite pleased if this endorsement scores high in any search results for reliable and efficient Houston air conditioning repair companies. Bellaire Air Conditioning will certainly get my future business, and I'll have no trouble remembering the company URL —

Thanks, Charlie. I hope you have a great Fourth of July.

Posted by Beldar at 01:32 PM in Technology/products | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A whole 'nuther reason I'll never buy a Chrysler product ever again

My first-ever car, in the mid-1970s, was a used Oldsmobile Cutlass, and I put a solid 100k miles on it over a seven-year period before I sold it. And in the 1990s, my family owned, and enjoyed, a Chrysler minivan that met our needs very nicely indeed.

I was disgusted, however, with the Obama Administration's thuggish suppression of the rule of law in both the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies, and as a matter of principle I'll never again buy a product manufactured by the post-Chapter 11 successors of either.

Sam ElliottIf I needed any help sticking to that resolution, though, I just heard it in a commercial for a Dodge Ram truck.

I'm generally a fan of actor Sam Elliott, who did the voiceover for this particular commercial. I like him in no small part because his deep, rumbly, and twangy voice sounds authentically western to me. He's not a Texan, and perhaps his accent is affected rather than natural, but he could probably pass for a Texan in most towns here.

So I was just jarred — and very, very disappointed — to hear him just now say, "Talkin' a big game about your enjin' is one thang. Havin' thuh proven history that kin back it up is uh whole other story."

Oh, that's just so wrong. That last phrase has to be written, and said, as "uh whole 'nuther story."

I mean, there he was, with a dramatic sound-track and tough-looking trucks on the screen, sounding all rough and rugged and ready to take on something muddy and difficult, maybe even patriotic — and suddenly, by the shift in his voice, a whole corn cob must have been teleported about eight inches up his lower bowel.

I'm going to choose, with absolutely no evidence either way, to assume that Mr. Elliott almost got into a fist-fight over his deep-set objections to delivering the line that way, but he finally backed down because he was donating the proceeds to European orphans made destitute by the organic beansprout food-poisoning epidemic. I choose to so believe so that I won't dislike him forever, because if I dislike Sam Elliott forever, I will no longer be able to maintain my belief that the Dude abides, which would disappoint me.

But as for whoever insisted that the line be read as "whole other," I have just one word:


Posted by Beldar at 09:16 PM in Humor, Obama, Technology/products | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Most interesting questions I've considered today

Paraphrased from an observation by Maetenloch in the "overnight" thread at Ace's:

Am I using text messaging as a way to modulate the intimacy of my relationships? Are the people who are texting me?

Posted by Beldar at 01:51 AM in Current Affairs, Technology/products | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, March 21, 2009

So you think we're better off spending money on pork than on keeping the F-22 Raptor production lines going?

Without air superiority, America isn't a superpower. It is exactly that simple.

"No one would dare challenge America in the air," say those who want to slash defense spending. "We don't need more cutting-edge aircraft because the ones we already have are sufficient to intimidate all of our possible opponents."

I'm sure the crewmen on the deck of the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Stennis were close enough to check for signs of "intimidation" on the faces of the "two Russian Ilyushin IL-38 'May' maritime patrol aircraft [that] overflew the USS Stennis by an altitude of 500 feet" as it led a carrier strike group off the coast of South Korea just last week. But our sailors might have needed binoculars to eyeball the "two Russian 'Bear' long range bombers [that] overflew the USS Stennis and the flagship USS Blue Ridge multiple times at an altitude of 2,000 feet" on the following day.

So how is the Obama Administration going to respond to this Russian provocation?

F-22 at base in AlaskaProbably by cutting the "funding of the last 40 F-22 Raptors (numbers 204-243) presently scheduled for construction," according to Aviation Week.

The F-22 is the world's only operational "fifth-generation" air superiority fighter, featuring stealth, super-cruise (non-afterburner powered) supersonic speed, range, maneuverability (aided by advanced thrust vectoring), efficiency (requiring less maintenance downtime than older stealth aircraft), total situational awareness and airspace data integration, and unmatched lethality — the total package, the fighter jock's wet dream. It's the kind of machine we make better than anyone else, and it's quite possibly the best current example of American technical know-how of any sort. The successor to the venerable F-15 Eagle, the Raptor stands poised to achieve the same kind of phenomenal air-to-air combat record over the next three decades that the Eagle has earned in the last three — so long as our Raptors are not overwhelmed by vast numbers of less capable, but still dangerous, fourth or fourth-and-a-half generation fighters of the sort currently being researched and produced in Russia and China.

Without absolute air superiority, America cannot conduct even humanitarian operations in dangerous parts of the world. Without absolute air superiority, our ability to project conventional power against rogue state actors — and yes, I'm thinking of one whose president's name sounds like "After Dinner Jacket," and who very much wants some nuclear toys in the worst possible way — dries up. And as America's options diminish, so do those of the entire free world. As pointed out in a recent op-ed by Dr. Rebecca Grant, an airpower specialist at the Lexington Institute,

What's of concern is whether the United States is shaping the force to meet the demands of conventional deterrence in the next 20 years. Decisions made now affect the health of the conventional deterrent because competitors are moving ahead with sophisticated systems at a pace not seen since the Cold War.

If the U.S. Air Force's F-22 fleet remains stuck at 183 aircraft, it will put future conventional deterrence abilities at risk. Commanders may not have enough of these specially designed aircraft to defeat threats with confidence, and the overall fleet life will be used up years before it should be, due to heavy tasking.

Right now, the United States has the ability to stay ahead in the conventional deterrence game by upgrading its air power with the unique capabilities of the F-22. When production ceases, the door will close. It would take many years and billions of dollars to begin a new program to surpass the F-22. Long before then, the United States could see its policy options cramped by the limits of its own military power.

Yes, I know the F-22 isn't a carrier-based fighter, and yes, the Stennis' F/A-18s intercepted the Russian planes on their way in-bound and could have splashed them at any time. Yes, I know overflights like these have been going on, in varying degrees, for decades. But that doesn't make them routine. That doesn't mean the Russians aren't sending us, and the world, an important signal.

F-22 Raptor in flightYes, the last enemy air attack on surface targets that resulted in an American soldier's or sailor's death was in the Korean War, more than 55 years ago. But if the Russians wanted to be sufficiently provocative — if they wanted to prove Joe Biden right, big-time, in his predictions about young and inexperienced Pres. Obama being "tested" early in his administration — one twitch of a Russian pilot's thumb on a pickle switch last week could have ended that particular streak pretty dramatically.

Anyone who thinks we'll be able to maintain air superiority anywhere and everywhere we like with no more than a few dozen super-advanced fighters like the F-22s that have already been delivered is an idiot. Yes, the F-22s we do have — and the incredible pilots we have to fly them — are amazing. But they're not invincible, and they can and will be overwhelmed, someday, if they're fielded in insufficient numbers. And you don't replace these machines in a month, or in six months, or in two years. We can't just switch over some Chrysler factories from making mini-vans and tool 'em up to make F-22s after the ones we have now are shot down.

You don't think Hugo Chavez would send a steady stream of oil tankers to China in exchange for a collection of fourth-generation aircraft that would let him plausibly claim an ability to deny America air superiority — even temporarily, even if only during a crisis elsewhere — in our own hemisphere?

F-22 at base in AlaskaHundreds of billions in the just-passed "stimulus act" are dedicated to projects whose economic stimulating effects are dubious at best, and that are not only not "shovel-ready," but years from even beginning. But the F-22 production lines aren't just "ready," but on-going. With the lead times involved, we need to commit now to avoid them grinding to a halt in a matter of months. And if we shut down the current F-22 production lines, we'll not only lose high-paying defense jobs (plus the secondary jobs they fund) — Lockheed Martin estimates that "95,000 jobs are at stake" — we'll lose the opportunity to enjoy the lower average per-unit cost that comes with larger and continuing production runs, a factor that was important to the initial planning for these aircraft.

We daren't put F-22s into the hands of, say, our "friends" the Saudis, but we've got absolutely reliable allies like Australia who need, and who'd very much like to buy, F-22s from us now, before the F-35 multi-purpose fighter (planned for broader distribution among American allies) comes online. Two U.S. studies have reportedly assessed the risks of F-22 technology being compromised through sales to Australia, the U.K., or Canada as being minimal. So let's sell a squadron to Oz, and see if the Brits and Canadians are also interested!

And Obama will indeed be able to find true bipartisan support if he extends F-22 production. Michael Fumento wrote in the Washington Times on March 1, 2009, that "[l]ast month, 44 U.S. senators, including Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, sent the president a letter requesting an additional order of unspecified size to prevent the planned 2011 shutdown." Those two names are almost enough to make me re-think my position, but this may be one of those occasions when constituents' job concerns have actually motivated the two Massachusetts senators to do the right thing.

F-22 at sunsetThere are at least four Russian aircrews who are probably still working off a week-long celebratory drunk before returning to their training. They almost certainly have new medals, and they're sharing with their buddies some snapshots of American naval aircraft and vessels for which they needed no telephoto lenses. Have no doubt: The training they will return to is expressly designed to prepare them to sink American ships and shoot down American aircraft. And the militarists in their government — and those in the Chinese government, and those in every other country in the world who'd like to see the end of American air superiority — are celebrating with them.

Ronald Reagan damn sure knew how to address that problem, and indeed military spending helped pull us out of the recession of the early 1980s. And Obama desperately needs to find a dose of The Right Stuff somewhere; this could be it. The Obama Administration and Congress ought to respond to this Russian provocation by redirecting some of the most obviously wasteful spending from the "stimulus" package to guarantee continued production of the Raptor, in quantities that won't leave us gambling on American air superiority against any challengers or circumstances.

(All photos in this post are © Lockheed Martin, but I hope they won't mind my "fair use" of them for this public commentary. At least two of them were shot in Alaska — you know, at those air bases where we keep our best fighters to regularly intercept military aircraft from Russia — a real and genuine potential threat from a real and serious potential enemy, no matter how many people make ill-informed and bigoted jokes about whether Sarah Palin can see them from her porch or not.)

Posted by Beldar at 05:59 AM in Congress, Current Affairs, Global War on Terror, Obama, Politics (2009), Technology/products | Permalink | Comments (14)

Friday, December 19, 2008

Review: Blackberry Storm cellphone

I. Background: Curmudgeonly lawyer as early adapter

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was an early adapter for cell phone technology. That's when I was a big-firm lawyer who traveled a lot and who did not at all like being out of telephone contact or riding in ordinary taxis. I had the Motorola DynaTAC 8000x, a/k/a "The Brick." I progressed through a series of upgrades to, in due course, the Motorola StarTAC, a/k/a "the Star Trek communicator."

But at some point — coinciding roughly with my flight from "BigLaw" to a more independent law practice either solo or in very small firms — I decided that I didn't like traveling so much, I didn't actually mind taxis, I was sick and tired of being so "in touch" all of the time, and I didn't want to be accessible 24/7/365 to anyone but my family. So for several years in the early part of this decade, I resolutely refused to carry a cell phone — any kind of cell phone, ever.

Colleagues found that perplexing and frustrating, and eventually, so too did clients — whose views I could less afford (literally) to ignore. So I bought a pay-in-advance ultra-simple El Cheapo™ cellphone whose most advanced feature was voicemail, and I used it for two or three years only to the minimum extent necessary.

I replaced it a couple of years ago with a Motorola KRZR K1m, which also did good duty as a personal MP3 player while I was traveling or exercising; it allowed me to keep up, barely, with my four kids and their increasingly phone-and-text-message existence as they moved into their teen years. And now I'm somewhat chagrined to report that I've fallen completely off the lo-tech wagon: It appears that I'm in the process of becoming a Crackberry Addict. So with my purchase of a Blackberry Storm, I'm back to being an early adapter.

II. Why not an IPhone?

The Blackberry Storm is a market reaction to Apple's IPhone, and the most obvious and significant feature of either is its touch-screen.

Blackberry Storm I'm content to be a somewhat distant fan of Apple. It's an innovative company that influences technology in indisputably important and mostly positive ways. But as a matter of principle, I utterly refuse to support it with my purchasing dollars because of its aggressive, toxicly-anticompetitive linking practices. I can't count the number of times I've rejected (and/or deleted) ITunes applications from various of my computers and other electronic devices because I refuse to subsidize a company who insists, for example, on maintaining a right to grant its permission before I can listen to a recorded song I've purchased. Thus, for philosophical reasons unrelated to Apple's comparative technological advantages, buying an IPhone was never something I considered.

Blackberry's manufacturer, however, "Research in Motion," has a fine reputation as an innovator and a nimble responder to its addicted customer base's wants and needs. I was willing to consider abandoning my stodgy old Motorola preference (rarely cutting-edge anymore, but rugged and adequately supported) in RIM's favor based on the dazzling features promised by the Storm.

I'd also had an extremely negative experience with the sole service provider for the IPhone, AT&T (as corporate successor to Cingular). Before the KRZR, I briefly used a Nokia product that proved in its first 30 days to have either a manufacturing or design defect — it was never entirely clear which — that Cingular refused to accept responsibility for. This led me to become, for the very first time in my life, a plaintiff in my own capacity in small claims court; I'm now prevented by contract from revealing the terms upon which that litigation was settled, but suffice it to say that I was once extremely unhappy with that company and I remain unlikely to deal with its cellular division by choice in the future.

It may only be the luck of the draw, but by contrast I've been comparatively pleased with Verizon Wireless' products and services, and Verizon is the exclusive U.S. service provider for the Storm. I ordered my Storm from a Verizon storefront operation on December 9, and despite their warning that it might not be delivered until after Christmas, it arrived at my house by FedEx on December 15.

III. The Storm's touch-screen and keyboard

The Storm is about the same length and thickness as my KRZR, and has the same glossy (but finger-print and smudge-prone) finish. The Storm is slightly wider. The workmanship seems to be very, very good.

I will not pretend that holding it to one's ear — like a classic old Ma Bell telephone handset, or even the more conventional clamshell cellphone handset — is natural and aesthetically satisfying. Instead it's like talking into a deck of playing cards. But that mostly misses the point. During my KRZR (or should I say KRZR-ier?) days, I became one of those people on the top of the Borg's lists of likely assimilation candidates — yes, one of those people often seen driving or sitting at a restaurant wearing a Bluetooth headset, with a flashing LED, in one ear. In particular, I love to type or pace back and forth while I talk on business calls. With my Storm, as with my KRZR, essentially all of my longer calls will be on a hands-free Bluetooth headset with the phone either on my desk or in a belt holster. So the Storm's shape — which, again, is all about the touch-screen — makes plenty of sense, and is no significant disadvantage.

Unlike the IPhone, the Storm's touch-screen is tactile, and you actually have to press on (not just touch) it to register your inputs. I have moderately large hands and fingers, and whether it's with a touch-screen or some sort of mechanical keyboard squeezed down into phone size, there's no chance that I'll ever match my computer keyboard typing speed and accuracy on any phone. (I'm an excellent touch-typist who can exceed 100wpm with superb accuracy on my desktop keyboard; indeed, my high school typing teacher once insisted that I had a promising career before me in law — as a court reporter.) That being acknowledged — and it's a nontrivial point, but an unavoidable one — I'm pretty happy with the Storm's touch-screen, and in particular with its keyboard, after a few days' use.

Look, I managed to burn neural pathways sufficient to let me poke the "7" chiclet-style button on my KRZR four times in quick succession for every occasion on which I wanted to include the letter "S" in a text message to my 17-year-old daughter. When it's oriented in landscape mode, the Storm's QWERTY touch-pad keyboard lights up before you actually press it; if you pay a reasonable amount of attention to that, and are willing to learn/burn your new neural pathways with both thumbs (which is vastly faster than using one index finger), you'll adapt to the Storm's keyboard pretty quickly. Blackberry's predictive typing software (suggesting what you really meant to say) is unobtrusive and useful, too.

Will I use my Storm to write 3000-word screeds — or, for that matter, to compose posts on BeldarBlog? Not likely. Will I write the Great American Novel on my Storm? Umm, no. But it's already clear that for text-messaging the kids (or letting a client know I'm running five minutes late to a meeting), using the Storm will be vastly better and faster than trying to text-message on a traditional cellphone.

And for uses other than typing, the Storm's screen is simply gorgeous. It's crisp and bright and clear in full daylight. Reading incoming emails is a pleasure. I have no expectation that my new cellphone will wholly replace either my laptop or my desktop computers. But in a pinch, it can do a lot of what they can do. And that's pretty cool.

IV. Other applications

I have a pretty beefy Contacts list that I normally maintain using Microsoft Outlook, and that represents a large time investment in data acquisition and capture. Motorola's proprietary "Phone Tools" software, while extremely frustrating in its Verizon-friendly versions (because of its ruthlessly planned inability to manage non-Verizon-purchased music files or other media files), did a decent job of synching that Contacts list to my KRZR. And I had grown utterly dependent upon — and extremely fond of — using my KRZR's voice activated dialing software with a Bluetooth headset. Being able to push a button on my Bluetooth headset and say, "Call Dyer, Sarah, mobile" to immediately reach my daughter's cellphone while I'm driving (without ever touching the phone itself) was a very important feature to me.

Fortunately, the Storm has the exact same voice activated dialing software. Its initial refusal to perform was remedied by nothing more complicated than turning the Storm off and removing, then reseating, the battery (causing the phone to do a hard re-boot). The voice activating dialing is now working flawlessly, and paired with a Bluetooth headset, it's worth more than the phone's weight in gold as far as I'm concerned.

Another outstanding app is the "Visual Voice Mail." With it, instead of simply getting an icon indicating that I had one or more missed calls and that I now have one or more voicemails waiting, I get a list of line items for each missed call with the number — and name, if it's someone from my Contacts list — along with a button on the touch-screen to push that permits me to immediately play (and replay and delete) just that particular voicemail message.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, that is a useful application. Being able to view and navigate this via the Storm's touch-screen — as opposed to through a voicemail menu — is a huge improvement in my ability to manage my missed phone calls. Being able to pick my clients' (and a few judges' chambers') voicemail messages to me out of a long list, and to listen to and respond to them immediately during a busy, busy day, is simply huge, and well worth the extra $3/month.

I did have one frustrating problem: Because I also use Microsoft's Office Live service to host my business website and business email, my Outlook 2003 Contacts are actually maintained remotely on one of Microsoft's servers, rather than as part of a local Outlook .pst file. Blackberry's included Desktop Manager CD has a straight-forward application to sync the phone's Contacts list to most personal information managers, including Outlook and Outlook Express, but it couldn't find the online version that I'm now using. I ended up doing a temporary work-around — exporting my Contacts data from Microsoft's server to a cvs file on my hard drive, then importing that into my (never-before-used) Microsoft Express, then syncing my Storm up to that instead of to Microsoft Outlook. That's the kind of kink that is to be expected, though, in a brand-new product. If you're not game for finding a work-around for that kind of problem, you probably ought to put off buying any touch-screen cellphone for a few more months.

Per Blackberry's reputation, I also had no trouble at all in configuring my Storm to download and display both my POP-account based personal email and my MS Office Live online-based business email accounts in separate (virtual) buttons on my Storm's touch-screen. The Storm always offers me the option to delete only the handset copy of the emails I read on it or both versions. And when I read through and winnow my personal and business emails on my laptop or desktop computers, the Storm syncs up to those changes in my email lists automatically too. So keeping my personal and business emails synced is going to be a snap.

(This, though, is where the "Crackberry" name comes from. You can of course configure the Storm to give you an audible tone whenever you receive a new email, and the temptation to review each one as it comes in is almost irresistible. I suspect I'll end up keeping the audible tone for my business email address, and suppressing it for emails that go to my personal and blog email addresses. It's either that, or ask one of Pavlov's dog's to make room for a new pallet in the cages.)

For my non-copy-protected music files, RIM's Blackberry Desktop Manager did a straightforward job of copying them into my Storm. I haven't messed much yet with the camera or video functions. And I haven't yet made any attempt to use the GPS/directions functions, and remain skeptical of those. As much a creature of habit (who rarely gets lost) as I am, and as reliant as I am on my regular video and still cameras, all those functions are frankly likely to remain in the "glad to know I have it if needed" capabilities. I also haven't yet worked on getting my Storm to act as a cellular phone modem for my laptop, but that's definitely on my "To-Do" list for those places where I can't get WiFi for the laptop.

V. Conclusion

I expect that Blackberry will be at least as successful as Apple has been with the IPhone in attracting people to write "third-party apps" for the Storm. And I don't want to rule out the possibility that some new, unforeseen use for the Storm will suddenly capture my affections.

And I'm also relying on Blackberry and RIM, frankly, to continuing investing in firmware upgrades. Some of the reviews of the Storm that I'd read reported that it was extremely sluggish and frequently buggy. Personally, I've only seen hints of that so far: Mostly my Storm has been responsive and quick, performing as it's intended to perform.

Nor would I want to oversell the Storm as being "simple" or "intuitive." The various menu trees are sound and well thought out, to the point where I've had many "Aha! That's how you do that!" moments already within my first week of ownership. But if you still have a VCR video recorder and its clock is flashing "0:00" right now, you probably ought not buy this cellphone.

Overall, however, I'm a happy camper. I'm convinced that my Storm is going to add to my personal productivity, and its frustrations so far have already been counterbalanced by its utility and coolness points.


UPDATE (Tues Dec 23 @ 6:40pm): After a few more days, I'm yet more pleased with my Storm, and sufficiently inspired to add a few more remarks to an already over-long review. The whole design is simply far more elegant, flexible, and powerful than I had originally realized — to an incredible degree for a product that's new in so many fundamental respects.

The main point worth supplementing has to do with the touchscreen: I'm becoming a genuine fan of this device, to the point that I'm now skeptical of other brands' conventional ones (meaning, mostly, the IPhone's). Two things I understand now that I really didn't before, and that were obviously not understood either by many of the early reviewers whose opinions I'd read:

  1. Once a particular area on the screen is highlighted — which the lightest touch will do — then the "strike zone" for the subsequent press-down (to achieve the tactile "click") is considerably larger than what's outlined. Trivial example: While touch-typing, my pinkie lights up the Q key but the actual press-down is about half on top of the Q, about half on top of the W. The Storm will reliably register that the Q "key" was pressed. Non-trivial example: I want to put a check-mark or dot into a tiny, tiny box or radio-button circle on a webpage I'm viewing in the browser, such as a "remember my data" box. The figure itself is too small by to press down upon by itself. But once I can see that it's been high-lighted by a touch, then my subsequent press-down in that general area — even if it looks like it would smush other "keys" or "figures" in the vicinity — will only actually activate that box or radio button. The overall point here is that being able to highlight without the equivalent of a mouse-click makes the touchscreen vastly more responsive to (and accurate for) relatively fat fingers in the real world than you'd think just from looking at the size of the keys or boxes or circles themselves.

  2. Related point: Because you actually do have to press down and get the tactile click, you don't have to be careful about random and erroneous touch-highlighting. In particular, during touch-typing, you don't have to worry about keeping your fingertips lifted up completely off the screen. If you've dragged a fingertip across the keyboard — accidentally highlighting the F and V key en route to the B key — it just doesn't matter: So long as the B key is highlighted before you complete the stroke with the tactile click, there won't be any mistakes registered. I had frankly underestimated how much more like an actual keyboard this feature makes the Storm's virtual QWERTY keyboard. If I'd bought an IPhone instead, would I have learned eventually to be bouncy-and-tappy straight-up-and-downy instead of a bit more sloppy? Oh, yeah, probably so. But then again, the number one complaint of my long-suffering piano teacher was that I never learned to do that well for her notwithstanding years of lessons and much scolding.

It's also become clear to me how much general Blackberry lore and protocol is designed into the Storm. I've spent some time browsing around the various online forums where the "power users" (i.e., most desperately Crackberry addicted) trade tips and hints. Even as a new and revolutionary product, the Storm is packed with non-obvious shortcuts. A trivial fer-instance: When you're typing an email address, if you just use two space instead of switching to the "symbols" screen twice to enter an "at"-sign and a period as part of the address, the Storm will presume that you intended that first spacebar press to be the @ and the second to be the dot before the address' .com or .net or whatever. A non-trivial fer-instance: When you're in an app what's likely to include text entry, you can open the virtual keyboard with a non-clicked touch-swipe from the bottom of the screen to the top, or close it with a touch-swipe from the middle of the screen to the bottom. That avoids having to press the "Blackberry" key and select "open keyboard" or "close keyboard" from a scrolling menu in those apps. Or — as I've chosen to do — you can re-program one of the "convenience buttons" on either side of the phone to toggle the virtual keyboard open and closed. (The defaults for those buttons are starting the voice-activated dialing and camera apps.)

Posted by Beldar at 10:01 PM in Technology/products | Permalink | Comments (11)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

At John Kerry's Florida rally, Andrew Meyer wasn't "shot" by a Taser, but merely shocked by one used in "drive-stun" mode

Michelle Malkin, James Joyner, and lots of other bloggers are posting about University of Florida student Andrew Meyer being "Tasered" (to take a fairly elegant product name and make an inelegant verb out of it) at a John Kerry political rally. Michelle has at least two different videos linked [warning: frequent profanity makes the audios NSFW], and Neocon News has an excellent and very detailed text description (with associated screencaps) of what looks to me to be the longer of the three videos I've seen, hosted from an NBC affiliate in south Florida. Each of the three videos I've seen are from different angles, and one of the shorter, from YouTube (another's also on YouTube, but apparently from CNN; h/t Bill Quick) has clearer sound and a slightly better angle at the key moment — when Meyer was "Tased." Indeed, you can hear Meyer screaming "Don't Tase me, bro! Don't Tase me! I didn't do anything!" And then, with the sizzling sound of the Taser, you can hear him rhythmically screaming "Owwww! Owwww!" while various female bystanders begin to scream too.

Do not fail, however, to pay attention to what was going on just before and during Meyer's "Don't tase me!" screams. Several police officers were doing their utmost to roll Meyer onto his stomach so they could get his hands behind his back to finish handcuffing him. (The version of the video marked "CNN" clearly shows that he resumed struggling as soon as they had the cuff on his right wrist, and didn't get the cuff on his left wrist until after the Tasering; see screencaps in Update below.) He had previously been on his stomach (when taken to the ground by the large black officer who'd propelled him up the aisle away from the microphone area), but he'd squirmed around onto his side and his back. At least some of the time, he can be seen flailing wildly with at least one, and perhaps both arms; other times, he's clearly trying to wrestle his arms out of the grips of the police officers. The officers had not only ordered him to stop resisting and to roll back onto his stomach, they had clearly warned him that if he did not, they would Tase him. He didn't, so they did — and I'll come back to that in a moment.

The important point to take away is that just before he was Tased, Meyer was continuing to disobey the officers and continuing to struggle against them with what appears to have been all of his strength. There was no real danger that he might escape. But there was a danger that he would hurt himself. There was a danger that he would hurt one of the officers. And there was a danger that in trying to physically restrain him, one or more of the officers would hurt him. With him struggling so violently, it's not completely improbable that someone could have been dealt a life-threatening injury — for example, a crushed wind-pipe. Far more likely is that someone — Meyer or the officers — would have suffered a serious, potentially lifetime-disabling injury. If they were lucky, it would have been only a broken rib or broken arm or dislocated shoulder. But it might have been a torn ligament or ripped cartilage somewhere that would have meant no more running for a 21-year-old college brat or a twenty-something police officer. Deliberately or not, Meyer was still out of control, even though he had no chance of escape, no right to resist, and no more time to continue putting himself and others at risk of serious injury.


Tasers are controversial, and they've been much in the news lately. Originally described, at least in the press, as "non-lethal," they're now typically described as "less lethal," and many state and local police forces have reviewed, or are in the process of reviewing, their training and policies regarding Taser use.

Before any of us can even begin to form opinions as to whether these particular campus police officers used a reasonably proportionate amount of force (including the Taser) under the circumstances, though, we need to know what the professional-model Tasers do, at least when they're working the way they're claimed to and they're supposed to. And the quickest place for a primer on that is, reasonably enough, the Taser operator's manual.

In it, we find (at pages 5-6 of the .pdf file) a description of what most of us in the public think of as "Tasering" someone: Shooting them from a distance of several feet with two barbed probes that remain connected to the Taser pistol housing by insulated wires, through which an electrical current is passed. Those probes are intended to cause what the Taser manufacturer refers to as "Neuromuscular Incapacitation" ("NMI"):

The human nervous system communicates with simple electrical impulses. The command center (brain and spinal cord) processes information and makes decisions. The peripheral nervous system includes the sensory and motor nerves. The sensory nerves carry information from the body to the brain (temperature, touch, etc.). The motor nerves carry commands from the brain to the muscles to control movement and can be involuntary in response to the sensory information. An example would be the involuntary muscle reaction to pull a hand away from a hot object.

TASER technology uses similar electrical impulses to cause stimulation that affects the sensory and motor nerves. Neuromuscular Incapacitation (NMI) occurs when a device is able to cause involuntary stimulation of both the sensory nerves and the motor nerves. It is not dependent on pain and is effective on subjects with a high level of pain tolerance. Previous generations of stun guns could primarily affect the sensory nerves only, resulting in pain compliance. A person with a very high tolerance to pain (e.g., a drug user or a trained, focused fighter) might be able to fight through the pain of a traditional stun gun.

The use of TASER technology is designed to cause incapacitation and involuntary muscle contractions, making secondary injuries a possibility. These potential injuries include but are not limited to: cuts, bruises, impact injuries, and abrasions caused by falling, and strain-related injuries from muscle contractions such as muscle or tendon tears, or stress fractures. These injuries are secondary in nature and not directly attributable to the electric stimulation of the TASER device, but are possible consequences of the involuntary muscle contractions the TASER device induces to produce incapacitation. Some of the effects may include:

  • Subject may fall immediately to the ground and be unable to catch him/herself.
  • Subjects located in the water may drown if their ability to move is restricted.
  • Subject may yell or scream.
  • Involuntary muscle contractions of varying degrees.
  • Subject may freeze in place with legs locked.
  • Subject may feel dazed for several seconds/minutes.
  • Potential vertigo.
  • Temporary tingling sensation.
  • May experience critical stress amnesia (may not remember any pain).

There is no doubt that these "secondary effects" can be dangerous. I've read reports of one police officer who had pre-existing bone degeneration in his back and who cracked a vertebrae as a result of the muscle contractions when he agreed, in training, to be shot with a Taser. And although the manufacturer claims that there are other explanations and other causes, there indisputably have been some suspects who've died after being shot with a Taser.

But being shot with a Taser is almost certainly not what happened to Meyer. The longer video clearly shows him in command of his arms and legs, balanced and coordinated, within seconds after the officers finished cuffing him and hauled him back to his feet. He never shuts up, of course, but his "Owww!" screams are replaced again with his "I didn't do anything!" etc. screams within moments, too.


Instead, Meyer was almost certainly  simply shocked by a Taser using something the manufacturer calls (at page 19 of the .pdf file) the "drive-stun mode":

The drive-stun mode will not cause NMI and generally becomes primarily a pain compliance option. Probe deployment is usually considered more desirable, even at close range. Some of the advantages include:

  • Drive-stun is only effective while the device is in contact with the subject or the subject’s clothing. As soon as the device is moved away, the energy effect stops.
  • Deploying the probes allows the user to create distance between the user and the subject while maintaining control.
  • Due to automatic reflex actions, most subjects will struggle to separate from the TASER device. When the TASER device is used in the drive-stun mode and the subject struggles to get away it may be difficult to maintain contact between the device and the subject.

Why do they call it "drive-stun"? When I first saw the term, I first thought "cattle drive!" because I was flashing back to a high-school hazing ritual I underwent in about 1973, in a part of rural Texas where there are still cattle ranches and, accordingly, kids had access to electric cattle prods that operate much like modern Tasers in "drive-stun" mode. Neither my mind nor body was permanently scarred, and neither did I suffer from "NMI," but I can attest that one of those devices applied to a male nipple hurts like the very devil. But the term doesn't come from "cattle drives" at all:

When using the drive-stun, push (drive) the front of the TASER X26C firmly against the body of the subject. Simply “touching” the X26C against the subject is not sufficient. The subject is likely to recoil and try to get away from the stun electrodes. It is necessary to aggressively drive the front of the X26C into the subject for maximum effect.

The drive-stun works more effectively when aggressively applied to pressure points on nerve bundles. This includes the brachial area, common peronial, mastoid, and pelvic triangle. The TASER X26C must be actively depressed or aggressively driven into the nerve bundles in a “drive-stun” manner to be effective in the drive-stun mode.

I can't tell from either video where on his body Meyer was Tasered, nor which officer applied it, nor how hard he or she "drove" the front of the Taser to keep it in contact. But the point of "drive-stun mode" is not incapacitation of a suspect, but rather the infliction of a very intense, localized pain intended to coerce him into dropping his continuing physical resistance and instead cooperating, in order to protect not only the police officers trying to subdue and manipulate him, but the suspect himself. And that's what exactly happened here. The Taseing marked the abrupt end of Meyer's thrashing around and fighting (but not, unfortunately, his yelping, obscenities, self-pity, self-aggrandizement, and slurs upon the police officers).

I don't know enough about any of this to be able to independently evaluate the manufacturer's claims regarding the Taser's general safety, and the operator's manual warns, unsurprisingly, that when vigorously applied to some parts of the body (e.g., the neck or groin), even the "drive-stun" technique may cause crushing injuries that could be permanent or even life-threatening. But it seems fairly obvious to me that the sudden, localized, intense pain Meyer was subjected to might well be justifiable when compared to the risks to him and the police officers from several more minutes of his resisting arrest. At least such a case could be made; and whether it should prevail or not, as a matter of wise long-term police department policy would depend, I suppose, on the marginal risks and benefits from injuries with and without their use. My understanding is that several police departments have policies that permit carefully limited use of "drive-stun" Tasering in precisely the sort of situation in which these University of Florida campus policemen found themselves.


I'm hoping I'll draw some comments from law enforcement types who have training and/or experience with Tasers. I've already read enough just Googling around to confirm that there's an on-going battle of expert witnesses about the manufacturers' safety claims, with at least one prominent critic whom the manufacturer accuses of being a "junk scientist" who does indeed seem to lack certain basic credentials like a bachelor's degree from any college.

In any event, I think it's important that people recognize that, to embrace the Star Trek metaphor, these police officers' phasers weren't even "set to stun." I'm sure it still hurt like hell. But we can all be glad that, apparently, neither Meyer nor any of the police officers were permanently injured. In many other countries today, and in a day and time not too far removed from today in our own, Meyer would have gotten a nightstick to the ribs or the back of his noggin and been carried out on a stretcher; I'm not advocating a return to that, but I hope those who now claim that he was a "victim" in any sense will at least acknowledge that his violent struggle could certainly have resulted in one of today's officer's leaving the scene on a stretcher too.

I'm not inclined to second-guess whoever it was who gave the instructions that Meyer was to be removed from the rally — from what I've read, and from just what I've seen on the longer video, he was clearly abusing the privilege of questioning even a great gasbag like Sen. Kerry, even if Sen. Kerry was encouraging him (and now condemns his arrest). If you don't think this guy went over the line into impermissible public behavior, you are blind to the possibility of there being lines.

And I hope Meyer spends at least several weeks in jail —€” not for anything he said, but for the indisputable crime he committed in vigorously, insistently, and dangerously resisting arrest. He'll probably still sue the officers and the University of Florida. And maybe something will come out that changes my mind. But right now, I think that if he sues, he ought to lose. And personally, I'd sure rather be representing those officers than him.


UPDATE (Tue Sep 18 @ 3:25pm): Okay, I've now seen several blogs and MSM resources falsely (but I presume innocently and in good faith) report that Meyer had already been cuffed when he was Tasered. That's only half-true: His right cuff was on, but the officers' attempt to attach the left cuff is what prompted him to begin squirming and resisting again, directly leading to the Tasering. Here are my sequential screencaps from this video, which has the best angle to show the handcuffing attempts, and also very good audio in which you can hear the right cuff click, the left cuff never click, and hear the Tasering. Look at these, note the times, and then watch the sequence on the video again if you have any doubt, because these screencaps are useful mostly as the markers of the key events:

Below (at 2:45) you can clearly see the officer's right hand holding his handcuffs. Neither is attached. Meyer is half-way squirmed around onto his back after having been taken down from his feet onto his stomach originally:


Below (at 2:53) the officers have Meyer rolled back onto his stomach, and although you can't see the officer attaching his right handcuff, you can distinctly hear the metallic click on the audio track, and then see the right cuff in place very briefly in some of the following frames:


Below (at 3:11) you can see that Meyer has half-rolled back onto his right side, having succeeded for the last quarter-minute in keeping his left wrist too far from his right wrist for the two wrists to be cuffed together behind his back. Before this shot, his left arm has been flailing around, flexing and extending. And indeed, in this screencap, you can see the fingers of his left hand fluttering and extended behind another officer's arm, just above the officer's wristwatch — and then those fingers suddenly jerk back in on the video about a half second later just before you hear the Taser begin to fire. Within seconds after that (by 3:29), the officers have finished with the left cuff too, and Meyer's back up and on his feet, headed out of the room with his elbows behind him, no longer a resistance threat.



UPDATE (Tue Sep 18 @ 8:45pm): From a blog called "Cop The Truth," a post entitled Been Tased and Confused has the law enforcement perspective I've been looking for — with delicious wit (emphasis and link in original):

Anybody who watches the video with an open mind can clearly see that he violently resisted arrest and the cops there had every right to use the taser on him. I would have handled the entire event differently, especially in front of any mostly anti-police crowd on a university campus, but they covered all the bases: they asked him verbally, then warned him, then went hands on, but, because of poor tactics, were unable to control or handcuff him. When he continued to resist, despite numerous verbal commands, he got zapped. Boofreakinghoo.

He'll probably be kicked off of a Southwest Airlines plane tomorrow for wearing a short skirt....

Sadly, it doesn't look like the university is going to back the cops on this one.

That would be sad, and fiscally very short-sighted. Convicting Meyer of resisting arrest is the key to all future civil claims and proceedings.

Here's another cop's take, from Curt at Flopping Aces:

Now take it from one who has used tasers to subdue combative suspects, this guy could very well have had some long term damage done to him if the police HAD NOT used the taser.  That's what the tool is for.  They receive some zaps and ta da!  They comply.  If they didn't have that tool then they have their fists, their batons, their flashlights.  It's called pain compliance.

If they guy didn't think he should of been arrested the time to fight it is NOT during the arrest.  It's after the arrest in a court of law.  Once we have come to the conclusion that a person needs to be arrested you must comply.  No if's, and's or but's about it.   There is plenty of legal recourse to fight it later but physically fighting the police is not the way to go about it.


Posted by Beldar at 01:58 PM in Law (2007), Technology/products | Permalink | Comments (57)

Friday, September 14, 2007

Equity time

Long before I started law school in 1977, American law had mostly blurred the distinction between law and equity. Bits and pieces of the distinction persist, mostly in connection with injunctions — civil court orders requiring that someone do or, more often, stop doing something, as opposed to judgments requiring them to pay someone. I still end all my petitions and complaints with a request for "such other and further relief, at law or in equity, to which [my client] may show itself to be justly entitled." But that's actually an affectation, a deliberate use, as a quasi-religious invocation, of archaic language of the sort that I otherwise generally try hard to avoid. The days of going to separate courthouses to obtain distinct remedies "at law" and "in equity" are long since past. (Except, I think, in Delaware — which is why Pennzoil, having established a "probability of success" but not the "inadequacy of its remedies at law" in a Delaware Chancery Court preliminary injunction proceeding, dropped its original lawsuit there against Texaco and refiled in Houston precisely to get a courtroom that included a jury box. Skadden Arps may still be smarting over the black eye it took for permitting that to happen, but that's another war story entirely.)

This week, though, I decided that I needed to buy a new alarm clock/radio — a cheap one that is minimally functional will suffice for the need I had in mind. And I found one at the drug store pharmacy CVS store around the corner. On a corner of its box I find: "Equity Time USA" with a California address. But "Made in China." Well, yeah, for $19.99 I pretty much expected that.

"To locate the product without AC outlet nearly, install 3xAA fresh alkaline batteries in the rear compartment following the polar direction. Note the power of these batteries cannot be lost with connecting the AC power." Duly noted. But there is only room for 2xAA fresh alkaline batteries in the rear compartment, whether I'm facing north or south. I suppose two will work okay. The manual clearly warns me: "Specifications are subjected to change and improve without notice." That's something to hope for, I guess. The radio dial has the highest frequencies at the left side, and the lower ones at the right; maybe they'll switch themselves, without notice. But as soon as I plug it in, it sets the time for itself. That's nice, but not essential: I'm just on the current side of that age/technology divide that separates people whose appliances flash 12:00 from those whose appliances don't.

I'm bemused, though, by the notion of "Equity Time." Will it sound my alarm a half hour later than I've set it for, after I've had a hard day and really needed a good night's sleep? "You deserved an extra half hour, Beldar!" If I tell it, when I go to bed, to wake me at 6:00 a.m. sharp, will it tell me the next morning that I'm estopped from hitting the snooze button? If it notices just how lazy I really am, will it stop working, too, because I'm guilty of laches? And will it care if I have clean hands? God's bodkins, man, if I have a clock radio that uses me after my desert, shall I 'scape whipping?

Posted by Beldar at 11:58 PM in Humor, Law (2007), Technology/products | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, September 02, 2007

I see the image, and I immediately hear again its soft hum and imagine it vibrating under my eager flashing fingertips

So AMC was replaying all of the first seven episodes of Mad Men today, and having read good things about it, I TiVo'd them. Ten minutes into the first episode, the knowing and experienced Madison Avenue secretary, while showing the new one to her desk, says (after a drag on her cigarette):

Now try not to be overwhelmed by all this technology. It looks complicated, but the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use.

As she says these lines, she's uncovering this:

IBM Selectric typewriter

As continuity errors go — the show is supposedly set in 1960, and the original Selectric wasn't out until a year later (although a Madison Avenue advertising agency would indeed have been one of the places you'd have expected to see them first) — this one's forgivable.

For oh! How emblematic, how evocative! For purposes of grabbing those of us who fancy ourselves wordsmiths and came of age in the 1960s or 1970s, this was a genuinely inspired scene.

I still miss the Correcting Selectric II — recognizably a grandson of the machine pictured above — that I bought from IBM on a time-payment plan during law school in 1978. I loved it for many reasons, not least its pilcrow key. It was splendidly designed and engineered. Its gleaming silver typeball leapt and spun like a tiny, magical martial artist — chock! chock! chock! against the page — in an eager rhythm that could be quite intense, altogether passionate, but onto which the machine nevertheless imposed its own invariable discipline of methodical spacing and even strikes (with ne'er a double-strike).

And I'm sorry I sold it some time back in the mid-1980s. I didn't later find myself often genuinely needing it, and had I kept it, I would not likely have used it very often or much; the computer plus printer alternatives are just too practical for most of what I do. Typewriters lived in the moment, and I fancy that my prose needs a memory. (Although the title of this post suggests that it probably ought instead just be euthanized.)

But my Correcting Selectric II was elegant. And there are some elegant things you just ought to keep, even after you no longer need or use them regularly, rather than selling off at garage sale prices.


UPDATE (Sun Sep 2 @ 11:20pm): But then the first episode proceeds to disappoint: Forty-three minutes in, the young whippersnapper ad guy is being kicked out of his boss' office because during their important client meeting that afternoon, the whippersnapper had tried to pitch something from a written research report that the boss had, literally, trash-canned earlier that morning. The whippersnapper had secretly fished out of the trash can, but the boss noticed the report on the conference table at the meeting. So:

BOSS: If Greta's research was any good, I would have used it.

WHIPPERSNAPPER: What are you talking about?

BOSS: I'm saying I had a report just like that. And it's not like there's some magic machine that makes identical copies of things.

Gong! "Mad Men" scriptwriters, meet the Xerox 914, introduced in 1959:

Xerox Model 914 plain paper copier

It wasn't elegant, nor ubiquitous for many more years, but it was something that would have been in a top-flight Manhattan office as soon as it was introduced, and it was revolutionary enough to eventually turn the word "xeroxing" into a verb (and almost, despite its maker's best efforts at tradename protection, into a generic product description).

Most of the period details, and attitudes, ring true (although the latter are exaggerated for dramatic purposes). But when so much of the show depends on getting the look, sound, and feel (including the technology) of the era just right, this was something they ought not have missed.

Posted by Beldar at 10:17 PM in Film/TV/Stage, Technology/products | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A shot to the heart of digital restrictions management

I adore competition.

I ought to have known that the roughly $200 I invested at $0.99/song in downloading pop tunes earlier this summer from Yahoo — supposedly "purchasing" them, ha! — was going to leave me with a "digital rights restrictions management"-crippled library that I couldn't easily play even on my other networked computers at home. (Yahoo's same-network streaming feature won't work for me at all; when I sought technical assistance, they offered me a "return refund," meaning they would have zapped my ability to listen to what I'd "purchased" anywhere, but zero actual technical help.) But I still felt like a victimized chump when I realized it.

If there's a retail competitor who ought to be able to get Apple's and Yahoo's and others' attention, however, surely it's Wal-Mart:

Wal-Mart, the largest compact disc retailer in the United States, has begun selling some of its digital songs online for 94 cents each, significantly undercutting the iTunes price, the company said yesterday. More importantly, the music will not be fettered by copy restrictions, which means consumers will be free to burn the songs on CDs, play them on almost any device and send them to friends on the Internet.

The other news in that same story, though, still leaves me gritting my teeth:

Also yesterday, Real Networks said it would combine its Rhapsody Internet music player with the pop-culture power of MTV and sell songs over the Verizon Wireless network to mobile phones and other handheld devices.

My cell service is through Verizon, and for the last year I've routinely used my Motorola KRZR K1m cell phone to listen to music while exercising outdoors or waiting in lines. The software package that Verizon obliges Motorola to install on the phone, though, and the version of Motorola's own "Phone Tools" software that's supposed to sync up my cell phone and my PCs' calendars, contacts, and music libraries, are both crippled — part of Verizon's attempt to push its own music sales program down my throat. Cellular providers collectively are still, comparatively, less subject to competitive pressures, but that shouldn't last too much longer.

Posted by Beldar at 02:36 AM in Technology/products | Permalink | Comments (3)