Know someone who thinks everything is Obama’s fault? Send them this

Fair is fair, you guys. I take a few pot shots at Mr. Obama myself, mostly from a progressive’s vantage. The whole lot of us are unhappy and most of our complaints are more similar than you realize.

But seriously, give the president just a little credit (har-har, no that’s not a pun) for the kinda still functioning day-to-day economy you and I live in. Wall Street and the Banks nearly slit our throats during the age of Bush and I think it’s only fair that everyone, left and right, understand what was handed to our current president when it comes to unemployment.

This video depicts an animation created by grad students in Washington University’s journalism program and its publication, The American Observer. It shows the grim tide of an month-by-month upward march for every county and parish in the country. As  unemployment crosses the tenth percentile in each area, colors lashed across the map grow ever darker. The crimson tide is simply incredible to watch in the months before President Obama was sworn in. What happened over his first six is almost unprecedented, and completely jarring to see it illustrated like this.

A more detailed outlay is available here.

Something, you know, to maybe keep in mind when Republicans preach their corporate economic Dogma. I’m no partisan, but it’s pretty clear that one of these two wolves we call “parties” has gone a bit easier on us.

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Barry Cooper: Drug War Insurgent

Update: Several days after this story’s publication, Barry Cooper’s home near Austin, Texas was raided by the Williamson County Sheriff’s Department and Cooper was taken into custody for making a false police report, a misdemeanor offense. More details are available here.

Update 2: I’ve posted Barry Cooper’s arrest warrant from Williamson County. The reason for his arrest is even stranger than you’d think. Check it out here.

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To call Barry Cooper “over the top” is an understatement.

You may have seen him on the pages of Maxim, or during one of his many appearances on CNN, Fox News and Spike TV. He’s the cop who turned against the drug war, whose been trying to sell a self-explanatory reality show he calls “KopBusters.” Yeah, that guy.

In American pop culture right now, there’s nobody quite like him. As one of the former top drug cops working the Texas highways, he was ferocious, bringing down hundreds of people for possessing even tiny amounts of an illegal substance.

In his new life as an anti-prohibition crusader and activist filmmaker, he’s just as ferocious, but now it’s his former colleagues in law enforcement who are sweating his intimidating gaze.

He set up a fake pot grow house in Odessa and tricked cops to crash through the door without proper legal authorization. In the process, he helped bust former drug prisoner Yolanda Madden out of a Texas jail. He once engaged in a Mexican standoff with police in front of his home in Austin, while wielding the biggest damn flashlight you’ve ever seen. He even flipped and became an informant for police in Combine, Texas, helping put the kibosh on a former police chief-turned accused child porn fiend’s freedom.

All of them, ass-wild tales to tell. Each true.

Cooper is on a self-described mission to free America’s pot prisoners and take down the abusive cops he once sought to emulate. In the terminology of war, Barry is an insurgent, lobbing bombs into the fourth estate as his form of penance for all the people he put behind bars on drug offenses.

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The face of an American insurgent. (Photo by Stephen C. Webster)

Believe it or not, he’s even turned a few cops into admirers.

That’s a hell of a thing to say about a guy whose livelihood is kept afloat by selling DVDs that teach viewers how to buy, sell, transport and grow marijuana without getting caught. A hell of a thing, yes, but also true.

On Wednesday, he again proved his moxie with handling law enforcement, this time in something he called “Operation Finders Keepers,” and I just happened to be invited along to watch the madness unfold.
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Standing in the entrance to Barry’s house in Pflugerville, just north of Austin, on that early February afternoon, about 12 people waited for the film crew to get Barry’s wireless microphone situated.

Pinning a fluffy, black piece to his jacket’s lapel, one of Barry’s cameramen joked, “This doesn’t look ostentatious at all.”

Cooper tilted his head. Even while wearing sunglasses inside, I could almost see his eyes craning upwards, his mouth slightly ajar.

“Austintagious?” he awkwardly pronounced. “I don’t even know what that is! Is that like, something to do with Austin?”

Everyone laughed, but he was being at least partially serious. It hardly mattered, though: the time to drive had come.

Captain George Nassour, of the Liberty Hill Police Department, was about to have a very bad day.
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Welcome to Liberty Hill, Texas. (Photo by Stephen C. Webster)

Several months ago, Officer Nassour had stumbled upon a little black bag at a self-serve car wash in LIberty Hill. Inside, he discovered a drug ledger written in Spanish, a glass stem seemingly burned on one end, $45, some beers, a half-eaten peanut butter sandwich, a pair of red and blue 3D glasses and various other personal effects. Wedged in the top of the vinyl lunchbox, a cleverly disguised GPS tracking device.

In the words of Admiral Ackbar, it was a trap, laid by Cooper who’d called in an anonymous tip about a suspicious package.

Cooper said that Nassour was specifically targeted that evening because he’d seen video, sent to his Web site by a reader, which showed the officer forcing his drug dog to false alert on a vehicle, thereby giving probable cause for a search.

Crouched behind bushes near the car wash, Barry had his camera leveled at the officer. The goal was to catch Nassour on video stealing the money, then pick a time later on to confront the officer with a camera crew, ambush-news style.

On the video, Officer Nassour can be seen flipping the top of the box open and peering inside, then returning to his car and driving away.

A second anonymous call noting what looked like drug paraphernalia in the bag was enough to get Nassour back out to the scene. This time, he carefully scanned the area with his spotlight before approaching the box. Seeing nobody in the distance, he seized the package and rummaged through the items within, eventually walking toward a nearby dumpster, then returning to his vehicle and driving off.

Inside the dumpster, Cooper and crew found the bag and almost everything that was in it. Their GPS tracking device had been removed and tossed into a separate trash can. The money, the phony crack pipe and their fake drug ledger were all gone.

Several days later, he filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Liberty Hill Police Department, in search of a report about the bag. There was none.

For contrast, Cooper set up a similar operation in Lockhart, Texas, just south of Austin. Same bag, same contents, another faux crack pipe, another drug ledger and another $45, this time hidden in a public park grill. One anonymous call later, Officer C. Jakel of the Lockhart PD showed up at the park to investigate the suspicuous package. After a brief examination, he took the box directly to his department’s evidence room, according to Cooper’s GPS location tracking.

A FOIA request filed days later returned a full report detailing the contents of the box, Cooper’s $45 included.

As a law enforcement official, Nassour likely knows that theft under $50 in the State of Texas is a Class C misdemeanor, but when it involves a public servant the state steps it up to a Class B. Tampering with evidence is a felony. The Class B misdemeanor is enough to get Nassour terminated from the force. If he’s found to have committed the felony, his fate would then rest with a prosecutor.
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Cooper’s plan was seemingly simple: take a camera crew and local media out to Liberty Hill while Nassour was on shift, then call in an anonymous tip claiming to have video evidence of someone committing a felony.

“But I just want you to send Captain Nassour,” he told the Williamson County police dispatcher. “He’ll recognize the suspect.”

barry_copCooper squares off with the LHPD, bearing video of an alleged felony. (Courtesy photo)

After a series of phone calls, it became clear Cooper’s man wouldn’t be coming. Though Barry had been working with an informant — a former Texas police officer who asked not to be identified in this story — the information he’d provided about Nassour’s schedule was incorrect.

After a brief strategy session, Cooper decided to call out the officer on duty, who was more than a little leery of a camera crew standing in the parking lot of the local “Donut Palace.”

donut_palace

“Donut Palace?!” Cooper exclaimed when we drove past. “Yeah, we’re gonna do this at the Donut Palace. That’s too funny. How can you pass an opportunity like that?” (Photo by Stephen C. Webster)

About 100 yards away, a white Dodge Charger sporting police colors slowed and stopped as soon as the driver was within eyeshot of the strange scene. About five minutes later, he rolled forward roughly 50 yards, then stopped again.

“He knows something’s up,” Cooper said. “Shit.”

The officer eventually pulled into the parking lot and hopped out of his car. As the Cooper and crew approached, the officer became visibly nervous, holding out his rigt palm to impede their progress as his left hand affixed to a Taser on his belt.

“We’re unarmed! We’re friendly! We’re non-violent people!” Cooper declared as he and his entourage took careful steps toward the officer, allegedly the only cop on duty in Liberty Hill that afternoon.

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Officer Rodriguez nervously grasps his Taser. (Photo by Stephen C. Webster)

Cooper was still holding fast to the idea that he’d confront Nassour, show him the video and catch him stumbling over his words, or denying that he’d taken anything. That wasn’t to be, but after some negotiating Officer Rodriguez agreed to contact headquarters and try to get the chief to meet with Barry.

It worked. As he was breaking the news to Barry — even after telling him that the chief was not on duty — Rodriguez suddenly seemed spooked, reeling back and holding one of his palms up to Cooper.

“Relax a little bit, Mr. Rodriguez,” Barry scolded. “… That looks a little bit weird. We’re all nonviolent citizens and you doin’ all that is a little distracting, okay?”

Rodriguez murmured something about “personal space” and folded his hands over his torso.

Moments later, Cooper was on the LHPD’s doorstep, bartering to get a camera inside for the interview with Chief Randall Williams.

Williams initially refused to allow a camera into the station, even as he stood next to a sign that noted the building is constantly under audio and video surveillance.

“Well then, I’m not gonna show you this video evidence of someone committing a felony,” Barry said. “It’s actually one of your officers.”

That did it. Williams agreed to allow one camera, but refused to let everyone in. “We’re not turnin’ this into a circus,” he said.

It was too late for that, I thought. Then again, perhaps the chief’s concern was valid: a police department that’s made its hovel in the carcass of a small bank’s former offices probably isn’t capable of handling any elephants in the room.

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Chief Williams, decidedly unhappy to see Barry Cooper. (Photo by Stephen C. Webster)

Once inside, Cooper sat him down and played the video. On the footage published to the Web, Chief Williams seems hesitant to jump to conclusions, but did confirm the subject was Captain Nassour and his black Dodge Charger.

He added that if Nassour did indeed keep the money, he would be fired.

“I appreciate you bringing these concerns to my attention,” Williams said. “It is a bit unusual, but, uh … You’re doing a service. I mean, I’m not … I don’t approve of everything you do because I don’t know everything you do. But, it’s … Watch groups are necessary.”

Nassour was unavailable for comment.

Contacted by this reporter, Chief Williams was also media shy. However, in offering a “no comment,” he explained that police do not talk about ongoing investigations — confirming that Cooper indeed triggered in a probe into Nassour’s actions. Cooper said he was turning the video over to the Texas Rangers, who investigate police in departments with no internal affairs division. A Texas Rangers spokesperson did not reply to an interview request.

leaving_LHPD_sm

Barry, his wife Candi and a cameraman leaving the LHPD, stunned at their success. (Photo by Stephen C. Webster)

Meanwhile, Barry said he plans to find himself in Lockhart sometime soon, bearing a framed certificate of excellence with Officer Jakel’s name on it, as a token of appreciation for turning in the money and passing Cooper’s “Finders Keepers” test.

Leaving the Liberty Hill, Barry turned to his crew in their black SUV and shook his head. “Nobody got hurt, so that’s good,” he said. “But it didn’t exactly go according to plan. That’s alright, we still got our man.”

Then he looked down momentarily, seemingly at a loss for words.

“I … You know, back when I was a cop, I would have taken the money too,” Cooper said. “Ya’ll forgive me for that, okay?”

The passengers, almost all in Barry’s employ, nodded quietly. “We forgive you, Barry,” someone said.

Chances are, Nassour doesn’t feel the same way.

This video was published to YouTube by user nevergetbusted on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010.

Domestic terrorism strikes, deep in the heart of Texas

At 10 a.m. on this beautiful Thursday morning in Austin, Texas, I was walking to my mailbox when the sound of distant thunder perked my right eyebrow.

I had no idea that not ten minutes away by vehicle, one man’s rage against the machine had birthed a glowing fireball of vengeance which darted from the sky and slammed directly into a nondescript office building that I pass nearly every day.

Joe  Stack, a 53-year-old software engineer and accordion player for the Billy Eli Band, had made his mark.

austin-plane-crash-echelon

Photo by Stephen C. Webster

Earlier that morning, Stack allegedly burned down his home in North Austin, apparently resigned to the cold, rational atrocity he’d selected to end his life. The IRS had it coming, in his mind, and the noble will fight for their freedom. Or so he explained in a letter posted to the Internet (originally here).

“So, some crazy guy who was about to lose his shit to the IRS flipped out, burned his home and crashed a plane into a building basically down the street from me,” I texted a friend before making my way to the scene. “I heard the explosion.”

“Holy shit, can’t wait to see the headlines,” he said. “‘Crazy right wing extremist crashes plane in protest of IRS, full body rape centers to be deployed nation wide.'”

I laughed and joked that it sounded like an Onion headline, one of those little bits of satire you can only laugh at because it’s so painfully true.

It was there, sitting on a grassy knoll across the highway from the towering inferno, that I read Joe’s letter.

I know I’m hardly the first one to decide I have had all I can stand. It has always been a myth that people have stopped dying for their freedom in this country, and it isn’t limited to the blacks, and poor immigrants. I know there have been countless before me and there are sure to be as many after. But I also know that by not adding my body to the count, I insure nothing will change. I choose to not keep looking over my shoulder at “big brother” while he strips my carcass, I choose not to ignore what is going on all around me, I choose not to pretend that business as usual won’t continue; I have just had enough.

I can only hope that the numbers quickly get too big to be white washed and ignored that the American zombies wake up and revolt; it will take nothing less. I would only hope that by striking a nerve that stimulates the inevitable double standard, knee-jerk government reaction that results in more stupid draconian restrictions people wake up and begin to see the pompous political thugs and their mindless minions for what they are. Sadly, though I spent my entire life trying to believe it wasn’t so, but violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer. The cruel joke is that the really big chunks of shit at the top have known this all along and have been laughing, at and using this awareness against, fools like me all along.

He clearly saw his actions as patriotic, and his logic is frighteningly consistent. His tirade is littered with stabs at big government and taxation, though he does not appear to be a partisan or even necessarily right-wing.

planecrash7-2

Photo by Stephen C. Webster

Startling to me perhaps most of all, as I sat looking up at the burning obelisk left in Stack’s wake, was that he had called out exactly the same thing my friend did: “more stupid draconian restrictions.”

Within an hour of the letter’s discovery and hyper-promotion across mainstream media, fan pages sprung up on Facebook.

The pervasive smell of burnt office and rubber hung in the air like hatred, billowing heavy on the breeze, carried right into my face. I walked back to my car.

On the radio, a DJ was taking calls from Austinites, asking their thoughts on the whole flaming wad of insanity. One girl said she agrees with what Stack wrote, though all the successive callers took time to insult her with a variation of the word “douche”.

During the commercial break, an annoying voice asked me if I was having problems with Uncle Sam, who  seems to tax everything these days. “Tax, tax, tax!” he belted. But now, for a limited time only, you can take advantage of a special offer to get some of your money back in your pocket, where it belongs! Isn’t that great? Uncle Sam’s got your back! — a rough approximation, but it went something like that.

It struck me that an advertisement like that, to a man like Joe Stack, must have lit a pyre in his frontal lobe.

“I saw it written once that the definition of insanity is repeating the same process over and over and expecting the outcome to suddenly be different,” his letter reads. “I am finally ready to stop this insanity. Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let’s try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well.”

This is going to dominate the political discussion in America for at least a couple weeks. Mr. Stack has set the agenda, his act of deplorable violence like a flashing, burning, 3D billboard — an advertisement for his death column.

The mainstream press was quite happy to quote his words like they were quoting scripture. Their justification: constantly refer to him as crazy, a maniac, completely insane, detached from reality. All of which is true, to a degree.

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Old media, at the scene of the crime. Photo by Stephen C. Webster

But here’s something I think few will be saying in the coming months: he’s right on many levels. Go, read the letter. It’s a bit long, and something I feel a bit dubious for promoting, but it deserves to be digested from beginning to end, not in sound-bytes framed by a talking head. Read it.

Were it not for his shocking conclusion this morning, Stack’s diatribe would have gone largely unnoticed; just another one of those tragic American tales that a few hundred people read online and nod in agreement, only to return to their comforting apathy and pictures of lolcats.

Two people were injured. One person was unaccounted for at time of this writing. Update: Stack killed one person other than himself and wounded 15.

We can all thank our favorite deities there were not hundreds of casualties. That’s a big office building.

Make no mistake, Joe Stack is a terrorist. He has struck terror into the heart of our government, and it will react with a swift ferocity. Expect his prediction to come true: “more stupid draconian restrictions.”

But here’s what the media won’t be able to tackle without disrupting their preconceived narrative: Joe Stack was also a populist, self-fashioned in the vein of America’s first terrorist John Smith, who murdered and terrorized slavery supporters and helped lead a violent uprising in 1823. Today, Smith is known as a martyr.

Stack will not be so fortunate …

Although, there are likely some on Wall Street singing his praises right now, thanks to the nice little bounce they saw after news of Stack’s flaming shit took over all major channels. The same thing happened after the Christmas Day bomb plot was foiled — all the big players in the security industrial complex got a windfall that continues to this day.

In the weeks to follow, as the political discussion runs thick with the blood of IRS agents and the looming threat of lone wolf domestic terrorists, we’ll be told to mistrust our countrymen, report suspicious activity and say our prayers at night. Greater emphasis will be placed on monitoring social media for signs of an impending threat. Many in the public sphere will pinch their tongues on the issue for fear of being portrayed as sympathetic to a terrorist’s rants.

Stack will get exactly what he wanted and the rest of us will be pushed and prodded to go along with it. It’s for your own safety, they’ll say, and keep an eye out for anti-social behavior.

In reality, now is a time for greater engagement with our fellow Americans, not greater suspicion.

The more we can reach across deeply carved political lines and show our friends and neighbors that hope is not lost; that things are bad but we’re all in the same sinking boat; that the underpinnings of our freedom is not where we can shop or how far we can drive in an SUV, but it is our ability to come together and put aside minor prejudices to solve a greater civic problem that makes us truly free indeed.

If only Stack knew such countrymen, perhaps his violent demise could have been averted.

Updated from an original version.

Why tea partier Medina's plan for Texas taxes will not work

Woah, slow down on this one Webster. Hell of an interesting topic, wouldn’t you say? Tax rates and Texas politics. Fucking, yea.

debramedina

Pic lifted from the Austin American Statesman

Still, the time has come. I must dip a toe into my state’s politics. I’ve got beef with Debra Medina, the gun totin’ tea partier running for Texas governor, whose fame has risen to spoiler status.

You see, Medina wants to abolish property taxes.

“We’ve surrendered private property ownership to the ever-growing state – we lease our property in the form of ever increasing rents known as property taxes,” she claims on her campaign Web site. “We’ve forgotten that ownership is an essential element of freedom; that property taxed is not owned at all. We must cherish and protect all property ownership. Jefferson was correct in his writing to James Madison ‘small landholders are the most precious part of a state.'”

Her solution: convert property taxes into sales taxes, even if that means jacking the rate to 16 percent or higher.

“Eliminating property tax and deriving that revenue from a sales tax will mean a $3 billion increase in net personal income in Texas and will add 125,000-175,000 new jobs,” she says.

And just how exactly would it create those jobs? See more from our affiliate, the Ministry of Fuzzy Math.

Yet suddenly, every Texas homeowner is paying close attention. That’s because Texas has one of the most ass-backwards systems for taxation of property in the country. Any middle class home owner in the state can testify to this.

I hope the Medina folks are listening, because I have a little insight into the issue of property taxes in Texas. From 2005-2006, I penned an investigative series for The News Connection, a community weekly paper in Denton County, looking into a long line of seriously wonky appraisals coming out of their central appraisal district. I wish their archive were still online, but it is not.

During that time, the Denton Central Appraisal District was run like a day spa for aspiring Republican politicos, to borrow a line from D Magazine‘s coverage of my series. Some of their appraisers didn’t even visit properties before stamping them with huge valuation increases — they just expected the process, full of pitfalls for the average Joe, to weed out anyone who wasn’t willing to file a lawsuit over their level of taxation. And even in the courtroom, it usually wasn’t worth the price of a lawyer so many would charge in pro se, only to be thumped by government-hired attorneys.

One thing I noticed during the series was the disparity between the homestead, commercial and agricultural classes. Ag classification means the owner pays a tiny percentage of the property tax that a homestead classification would. I found elected officials (including the former district attorney, who was in office at the time) who owned large tracts of land and simply grew grass and cut it down for hay once a year. They were paying next to nothing.

Meanwhile, one of my sources for the series was a guy named Jeff Low whose home was zoned commercial because of his large metal tool shed, even though there was no commercial activity going on. A commercial class building, they said. He was forced into paying taxes three times higher than he should have. Trying to provide additional justification, a county appraiser tried to tell him that his grass was too high, so that’s another reason it would be zoned for commercial activity.

I was sitting next to him when she said that and could hardly believe my ears. Because he didn’t mow his lawn often enough (the guy lived way out in the unincorporated area of Denton County), his taxes would triple.

During the course of my series, I also found a city councilman in Lewisville whose home value had mysteriously dropped by 50 percent. The name on the appraisal sheet was none other than the county’s deputy chief appraiser himself, who also served on — can you guess? — the Lewisville City Council. As it turned out, councilman A had protested his appraisal as too high, triggering a policy of cutting the valuation by half until the dispute was resolved. While normal citizens would have to take a day off work, do a bunch of research, wait for hours to visit an appraiser and present their documentation, all this guy had to do was make a phone call to councilman B and Volia!

We found homes that had seen their value skyrocket from one year to the next — the largest increase, if I recall correctly, was something like 98 percent, even though no improvements were made to the property.

The only real recourse taxpayers have in this system is a protest, which is ultimately heard during a special session of the appraisal district review board. Those board members are selected by the district’s directors, who are all elected by other elected officials in the county. Each city council and school district gets a pool of votes, along with the county commissioners. The number of votes each received is determined by the number of citizens each entity serves.

Sadly, most city councils in my area were disinterested in the process, or the individual council members were not aware of the influence they could wield, so the same board just kept getting reelected over and over again.

After penning something like 16 or 17 articles, a former appraisal board member turned whistleblower and began claiming that the district was falsifying some information sent to state auditors, to cover up their non-uniform assessments. Even with these claims circulating, nothing was done about it.

In short, the system is skewed to pinch the middle class and keep the poor away from home ownership, while giving the affluent huge tax breaks and little favors here and there, as needed.

This is why Texans hate property taxes, even though that pool of funds is what makes our public education system possible.

So when Medina says she wants to do away with that, I cringe. Property taxes are the greatest, most reliable source of revenue for the state of Texas. Granted, it’s possibly unconstitutional in its application, but that’s how it works. Without that tax, public schools across Texas would shut their doors for good.

So instead of reforming the property tax system — the hard route, where not everything is so black and white as emotional rhetoric about the founding fathers — she wants to scrap it and place that burden on sales of goods and services, a much less predictable revenue stream. And she’s actually getting support because of her anti-establishment image, vaguely patriotic founding father rhetoric and rough association with the tea parties.

*DEEP BREATH*

Lady, are you INSANE?

On a list of stupid ideas, that ranks close to President Bush wanting to bet social security on Wall Street. In retrospect, I’m so very grateful that did not happen, considering the wailing and gnashing of teeth our investment class has caused the rest of us.

Of course, I don’t think Medina’s proposal would go anywhere, even if she were elected. She does not seem to be a coalition builder and would certainly need the support of the legislature before any such thing were to happen. While I’m not one with much faith in Texas politicos, especially here in Austin, I do not think that our state reps and senators would go for it.

It has the potential to create a massive wave of Stupid, soaring dropout and illiteracy rates, a new underclass of Texans if you will, in … Oh, let’s say 15 years or less. Sooner, if the economy tanks.

Medina, if you want to get real for a minute, here’s how to fix property taxes in Texas.

Number one: Close or shrink the taxation disparity between homestead, commercial and agricultural classifications. Make tax rates fair and uniform, which is the legal standard under which they are levied.

Number two: Set up a non-governmental entity to conduct full audits of every appraisal district, year-to-year, and publish their findings on each appraisal district in the local papers of record. Ensure the NGO pays special attention to local elected officials to ensure there is no room for corruption in the system.

Number three: Change how appraisal boards are elected. Right now, most large school districts have ultimate say over who runs their county’s appraisals, mostly because they hold the most votes. Do away with that. School districts should not be involved in who says how much property is worth. Give those votes to the cities, who would then pick the appraisal board. The chief appraiser should be elected by the public at large.

Until those things happen, the little guy will continue getting stuck while rich pricks who own huge tracts of land and have friends on the local city councils will keep just keep on cruising.

Meanwhile, I’m completely at a loss as to who I will support for Texas governor. I hate Perry with a fire and passion typically reserved for rednecks watching wrasslin’, but I may not be physically capable of pulling the lever for a zombie from the Senate GOP (Kay Bailey Hutchison) who so eagerly went along with eight years of Bush.

Meanwhile, the Democrats have a typically weak ticket with Farouk Shami (whose whole ad campaign is based on how nice he is to move his business here from Korea) and former Houston Mayor Bill White. To give you an idea of how radioactive the brand “Democrat” is in Texas, White’s ads don’t even declare his party affiliation, even though he’s yet to win the primary. Though clearly the stronger of the two, he’s got about a snowball’s chance in hell.

Now that Medina is actually edging past ole’ Kay Bailey in recent polls, it’s looking more and more like the Republican establishment is quietly happy about Medina’s appearance, as she seems likely to carry the Kinky (Friedman) effect: reelecting Rick Perry.

Yay Texas.

The Far Side's 'canine decoder' becomes a reality

In a future not so far off, dogs will no longer bark. They will tweet.

Yes, that’s right: Soon, puppies all over North America will get their own Twitter pages in what can only be described as the most meaningless and awesome development in human history.

mattel_dogtranslatorToymaker Mattel, Inc. will soon be unleashing its very own doggie translation device, lovingly named “Puppy Tweets” (pictured left).

When triggered by sound or movement, it sends a signal to a specialized USB reader plugged into your computer. The included software then posts a translation of your dog’s witticisms to its very own Twitter page.

The Los Angeles Times noted:

Attached to a dog’s collar, the plastic tag randomly generates one of 500 canned tweets when it detects barking or movement and automatically posts an update to Fido’s own Twitter page.

A round of woofing could lead to a tweet of “I bark because I miss you. There, I said it. Now hurry home.” A frenzied run through the backyard might garner “I finally caught that tail I’ve been chasing, and . . . OOUUUCHH!”

If you use Twitter on your mobile device, that means your pooch will soon be sending you text messages when it’s hungry. Now you have no excuse.

bowlingualA similar program developed by Japanese toy maker Takara is also coming to America by way of a new iPhone app. Called Bow-Lingual, it may prove to be a more high end version of what Mattel plans to offer, considering its inventors won a 2002 Ig Nobel Prize for the software.

According to the BBC:

The console claims to be able to interpret about 200 phrases or words – grouped in six different emotional categories: fun, frustration, menace, sorrow, demand and self-expression.

… [The] device then randomly selects a human phrase to go along with the identified emotion.

Bow-Lingual’s creators say their invention is compatible with some 50 different varieties of dog.

The Bow-Lingual iPhone app will also have Twitter support, but as far as I could tell it requires users to post their canine’s monkeyshines on their own.

Even if though it’s not exactly an accurate translation and only delivers a rough idea of a dog’s emotional state, I want one. That’s Neat.

My only other thought: Gary Larsen, creator of The Far Side, was more than just a little bit ahead of his times.

farside_dogtranslation

Woof.

Woah: Nintendo Power predicted Super Mario Galaxy in 1991

nintendopower_dec1991To many American males my age, childhood was a time of video bliss, lived at least partially in the worlds created by Atari, Nintendo and Sega, where everyone had numerous ‘lives’ and the day was only done when the last boss was felled.

Video game magazines from that time are an enormous source of nostalgia and comedy, especially viewed through adult eyes. In particular, the letters pages of Nintendo Power are a gold mine of absurd, youthful nerdry.

While exploring the Dec. 1991 issue of Nintendo’s official rag, pictured above, a friend of mine came across a letter that was shockingly prophetic, at least in one aspect. Take a look …

nintendo_prophecy

Though much of the above is merely a young geek’s fever dream and never came to be, it turns out this writer — one Jimmy Peterford from Glenn Cove, New York — accurately predicted Super Mario Galaxy, a game Nintendo wouldn’t release until 2007.

And it just happens to be one of the best games Nintendo has ever produced: a masterpiece by any standard.

Cue Keanu Reeves: “Woah.”

Shame about that ‘Raw Power System’ not coming true, though … I’m sure my 10-year-old self would have been really jazzed for 27.8 million colors and 512 bits, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 is expected to drop for the Wii sometime in 2010 — or, in Nintendo-speak, whenever it’s done. Here’s a trailer:

[youtubevid id=”iO10_IbDUBU”]

Cash4Gold: A King Among Predators

I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country: corporations have been enthroned, an era of corruption in high places will follow and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people, until the wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.

–Abraham Lincoln

I struggled for hours trying to create an intro paragraph for all the awful thoughts predatory wealth usurper “Cash4Gold” stirs up in me, but ole’ Honest Abe said it best. And while I’ve been familiar with the above quote for years, I always doubted that we had truly reached that point.

After seeing the new Cash4Gold ad during last night’s Colbert Report, I finally accepted that Lincoln was right and we have indeed arrived. This ad, which promises the “end” to your “personal recession,” was the straw that broke my doubtful camel’s back. It just about made me puke.

Watch (and turn up your volume):

Yes, that’s right: send in your gold, the one thing you own that is actually worth something, and we’ll give you a few pieces of paper. And not just that, our service is so wonderful and convenient, you’ll be happy for a full 12 days– GAR-UN-TEE’D!

Note how the commercial is set up vaguely similar to a news program, with a professional-looking man bearing catchy graphics over his left shoulder. That’s what first struck me, apart from their recession rhetoric.

I guess what perturbs me the most is how obviously exploitative this tripe is. Perhaps they were counting on reaching those with no access to the Internet, because a few simple-yet-targeted Google queries is enough to turn up an unreasonable amount of dirt on this company … As if the Better Business Bureau’s warning to “use caution” when dealing with them isn’t enough.

Moreso, I am completely aghast at their timing, hitting below the belt now, amid the so-called “Great” recession. More than 17 percent of our workers are unemployed, and these assholes are vying for the last bit of wealth those families have.

If you want to get an idea of how they operate, all it takes is a quick glance at ComplaintsBoard.com, where 234 unique commentaries have been dedicated to Cash4Gold.

Most of the complaints center around shockingly low offers. Many potential clients sent in gold worth hundreds of dollars, only to be offered pennies on the dollar. One poor guy even claimed he sent in seemingly valuable jewelry, only to get a check for six cents!

Interestingly, the first Complaints Board comment — “Cash 4 Gold is a SCAM CONFIRMED” — was removed by the Web site’s administrators “for several reasons.” But “several” hardly tells the tale. It’s more like 10: all of them, the confessions of a former employee who saw first hand how their scam “operation” is run. The company sued over that entry, then sued The Consumerist when they investigated the claims.

First, a client requests a pouch for their jewelry, which is then stamped with their name and mailed forthwith. An insurance policy of up to $100 is issued for the jewelry-in-transit, based upon a verbal description of the product. Finally, the company mails back a check bearing their offer amount. If the check is cashed, the gold is smelted and sold, presumably at market value.

In a disturbingly friendly interview with Bloomberg television, the company’s CEO called Cash4Gold a “disruptive technology” and compared it to Netflix.

Shuddering yet? Your desperate countrymen are being goaded to give up their only objects of true value in exchange for a pittance of paper worth practically nothing. Yeah, “disruptive” is just the half of it.

Cash4Gold is also in the midst of defending against a class action lawsuit that is open to any customer who can prove they were harmed by the company between Oct. 6, 2003 and Oct. 6, 2009.

Brand Week explains

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs claim that Cash4Gold’s “unlawful behavior can be distilled down to three specific frauds.”

First, according to court papers, Cash4Gold promises to provide the highest care for any goods sent to its facility, a promise asserted in two sections on the company’s Web site.

“However, this high degree of care is a lie, as items sent to Cash4Gold are commonly ‘lost,'” the suit alleges. “At best, this means that Cash4Gold is not exercising the high degree of care it has promised and is liable for negligence. At worst, this means that Cash4Gold is intentionally stealing the goods sent to it and is liable for conversion.”

The second alleged example of fraud outlined in the suit involves Cash4Gold’s 12-day return policy, which asserts that customers who are unsatisfied with the price offered to them for their gold jewelry may contact Cash4Gold and have their jewelry returned to them.

“However, this ‘return policy’ is a lie,” the lawsuit alleges. “Importantly, it is measured from the date on the check sent to consumers. Then Cash4Gold, as a matter of company policy or practice, routinely issues the checks, sets them aside, and mails them out days later so that customers do not receive their checks until after the 12-day return window has already passed . . . customers are simply unable to reject Cash4Gold’s offer or to have their jewelry returned to them. In fact, in many cases, Cash4Gold actually melts down jewelry before the ‘return period’ has even passed, since it knows that due to its mailing schedule, customers literally have no way to successfully exercise the ‘return policy.'”

Third, the suit states that “to support and disguise the two major frauds of stealing customers’ jewelry and completely fabricating the existence of a return policy, Cash4Gold utilizes a ‘customer service’ staff which is deliberately frustrating and openly lies to the company’s customers.”

The suit claims that Cash4Gold’s customer service representatives are specially trained in techniques designed to mislead consumers.

The company naturally kicks dirt on the claims, but it cannot reasonably argue that a pattern of bad press has not emerged.

Even Good Morning America shit on Cash4Gold, and you know you fucked up when Diane Sawyer dumps on your doorstep.

Considering the warnings we’ve heard recently that planet Earth’s gold supplies are at a tipping point, I’m afraid the market for predatory companies like this will only grow.

Honest Abe’s age-old warning rings hauntingly true today. A company like Cash4Gold just strikes me as a symptom of that greater sickness.

People, please don’t give up your gold for mere paper. The U.S. dollar is backed by faith and the worth of our military hardware — and that’s IT. Gold is a true global currency and much more valuable than the decorated cotton strips Cash4Gold offers. Think about it: if you were thirsty and I took your dry canteen in exchange for a lap of water from my garden hose, I would ultimately be harming you.

If you absolutely must trade your gold for Federal Reserve notes, at least go to the local pawn shop — it’s still a rip off, but you’re almost guaranteed to get a better deal.
——

Update: A commenter on Reddit alerted me to an even more insidious plot lurking on the Interwebs: Cats4Gold, currently offering “25% more cats than leading refineries.” Hm … On second thought, that may be something I could wholeheartedly endorse.