Zombie signs & how public officials can act human

Run for your lives!  Zombies want to eat your brain!

…Gotta admit, I was tickled to hear on MSNBC and elsewhere about this bit of creative hackery:

TX DOT was not amused... But I was...

TX DOT was not amused... But I was... (Photo courtesy Lucas Cobb)

In Austin, KXAN reported:

“[Austin Public Works spokesperson] Sara Hartley said though it was a locked sign, the padlock for it was cut. Signs such as these have a computer inside that is password-protected. ‘And so they had to break in and hack into the computer to do it, so they were pretty determined.'”

OK, yeah, I know there’s a serious potential public safety issue here. Apparently the Austin police are trying to catch the sign hackers, who may face a class C misdemeanor charge.

But I think Queer Cincinnati nailed the opportunity here for public officials to turn this to their advantage by responding with a sense of humor:

“Does anyone else think, perhaps, the PD should have just taken it as the joke it was, and posted ‘Zombie Threat Eliminated, Road Construction Ahead’? I think that would have shown a great, human side to the government. And we wouldn’t have these silly threats to go after college pranksters.”

Amen! After all, as Queer Cincinnati also noted, instructions on how to hack road signs have been posted on Neatorama and elsewhere. This is definitely going to keep happening. Probably responding with humor — while improving security of road signs — would generate the most public goodwill.

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Snail mail blues: Temporary change of address = Almost no mail for a month

USPS temporary forwarding = total crapshoot

USPS temporary forwarding = total crapshoot

Although I live in Boulder, CO, I’m currently spending a few months with friends in Oakland, CA. So just before I left Boulder on Jan 6., I went to my local post office branch and submitted a form for a temporary change of address. That was the only option they mentioned at the post office, and it seemed like it made sense.

Nearly a month later, very very little of my mail has gotten forwarded so far. It’s starting to freak me out. Most of my clients pay me by check, and I haven’t been receiving most of the checks sent on outstanding invoices. I am running out of cash, and it’s really pissing me off. Plus, this is the month that 1099 tax forms get sent out.

I expected some delay in receiving my forwarded mail. The US Postal Service says to expect a delay of up to 10 days. A couple of days after I arrived in CA I did receive a confirmation of mail forwarding via snail mail from the USPS, so I didn’t worry. By Jan 15, I started receiving a few pieces of mail — some Netflix DVDs, some junk mail, and a couple of small checks. I figured the rest would be coming.

Today — Jan. 27, nearly two weeks later — I’m still receiving only a trickle of mail. Today I called my local post offices both here in Oakland and back in Boulder. The Boulder postal clerk confirmed the forwarding order, and explained the continued delay:

Get this: The USPS must generate and apply forwarding labels manually (!!!), which according to the clerk I spoke to can causes delays in delivery of up to a month!!! Nowhere — not at the post office, on the forwarding form, on their site, on their information line — was I informed of this. Yeah, I’m annoyed… Continue reading

One streaker gets plea bargain. Boulder cops defend their bullying

After I attended the Dec. 17 arraignment hearing for the 12 streakers cited by Boulder cops during the 10th annual Naked Pumpkin Run, I had a pretty busy week and didn’t have time to follow up further. Fortunately, The Colorado Daily did follow up on this case, reporting that one of the runners did accept the plea bargain offered by the Boulder District Attorney.

According to the Colorado Daily:

“[The runner] agreed Thursday to plead guilty to disorderly conduct, a petty offense. She agreed to undergo six months of unsupervised probation, eight hours of community service and pay $27 in court fees. She will not be required to register as a sex offender, and her record will be cleared if she doesn’t commit any crimes for at least six months.”

Also, Colorado Daily reported that according to prosecutor David Chavel:

“The agreement with [this defendant] would likely represent the same offer extended to all of the accused Halloween streakers. However, he said it would be ‘up to each individual’ to accept such an offer.”

“All of the cases are being handled separately, Chavel said, because some of the runners have attorneys and others do not. He said the remaining cases involving the naked runners are in negotiations with the Boulder District Attorney’s Office.”

What got me, though, was this statement from the Boulder Police Department quoted at the end of the Colorado Daily story. (Note: This statement does not appear to be on the Boulder Police Dept. web site, I’ll request a copy.)

“The decision was made by the District Attorney’s Office, which consulted with the department. Chief Mark Beckner believes this is an appropriate disposition. As for future violations, Boulder officers will continue to issue citations or make arrests based on the law as it is written. It is — and will remain — the province of the District Attorney’s Office to determine whether other charges are possible.”

…Correct me if I’m wrong, but this statement appears to mean that the Boulder cops intend to continue issuing indecent exposure citations to streakers — despite the fact that the DA’s office does not appear to consider that charge appropriate. Which means the cops can (and probably will) continue to bully and intimidate citizens through inappropriate charges — and leave it up to the DA and the courts to spend our resources to bring those charges back to reality.

There’s a much deeper issue at stake here beyond these cases, and it’s why I keep revisiting this story: Is this the kind of law enforcement we want to allow in Boulder?

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How the federal government could “go social”

I just has one of those meta-media moments. Today, Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media was the guest on NPR’s Talk of the Nation Science Friday radio show. The topic was 2008 In Social Media.

One listener who called in was Jeffrey Levy, web manager for the US Environmental Protection Agency. He asked O’Reilly how the federal government might be able to use social media to enhance governance and civic engagement.

…To be honest, I didn’t actually catch O’Reilly’s answer because my own mental gears immediately went into overdrive. I’ve been involved with covering environmental issues for nearly 20 years — and thus I’m a frequent user of the EPA Web site. And it’ll come as no surprise to anyone that the EPA site currently is one hellacious frustrating sprawling mess, offputting to professionals as well as citizens. (I assume Levy is working to improve that situation…)

But there is another side to how federal agencies interact with the public that goes beyond their own sites: the regulatory process. Every proposed federal regulation must be published in the Federal Register. (Trust me, it’s really ugly. You definitely don’t want to read this stuff unless you have to — yet another strategy to keep citizens at arms length from government.)

Every proposed regulation must allow for a public comment period. That’s where social media might fit in…

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Tipsheet Approach to News: The Launching Point IS the Point

Typically news is presented in narrative story format (text, audio, or video). Often, that works well enough. But what about when people want to dig into issues on their own? What if they want to learn more about how the news connects to their lives, communities, or interests? Generally, packaged news stories don’t support that leap. It generally requires a fair amount of reading between the lines, initiative, research skills, and time — significant obstacles for most folks.

The growing number of citizen journalists (of various flavors) obviously are willing to do at least some of this work — but they don’t always know how to find what they’re seeking, or have sufficient context to even know what might be worth pursuing beyond the narrative line chosen for a packaged news story. Also, lots of people who have no desire to be citizen journalists still occasionally get interested enough in some news stories to want to check them out further first-hand. They just need encouragement, and some help getting started.

Therefore, it helps to consider that news doesn’t always have to be a finished story. In some cases, or for some people, a launching point might be even more intriguing, useful, and engaging. Here’s one option for doing that…
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Windy Citizen Uses Cool Tools to Cover Blagojevich

As the ripples spread from Chicago’s latest corruption drama, the community news site Windy Citizen is trying some innovative, fun approaches to online coverage and commentary. They did this using free online tools that anyone can use.

Here’s what one of these tools can create:

More about what Windy Citizen is doing on this front…
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Baiing out the US auto industry for good?

As I read the headlines this morning about the proposed US auto industry bailout — the latest version of which is this, according to the Boston Herald:

“Democrats want to use part of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout for emergency loans to help prop up the Big Three carmakers. General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC are seeking an infusion of $25 billion, a figure that several Senate Democrats embraced Sunday.

“Senate Democrats plan to introduce legislation Monday attaching an auto bailout to a House-passed bill extending unemployment benefits. A vote was expected as early as Wednesday.

“There’s a high degree of urgency” for federal action if GM is going to stave off a financial crisis, Rick Wagoner, GM chairman and chief executive, said Sunday in a joint appearance with United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger on WDIV-TV in Detroit.

“‘It’s really time to move on this,’ Wagoner said.”

That gets me thinking: The US auto industry is dying. It’s shown it can’t compete effectively with Japan and elsewhere for the manufacture of the kinds of personal cars people will be buying as the economy tightens.

Meanwhile, the lack of strong public transportation options is a growing problem in many parts of the US — particularly, lack of high-speed passenger rail networks, robust bus networks, and innovative flexible alternatives to car ownership (like car sharing programs and Zip Car hourly rentals). Exurban dwellers are notoriously hard hit by the transportation crisis.

So what if we bailed out the auto industry only if they shifted more of their production to vehicles that would suit these uses?

Yes, this would have to go hand-in-hand with a major shift in transportation policy that would support the expansion of public transit, especially outside urban cores and between non-urban-core locations. And so far local and state governments have been responsible for paying for public transit, and they haven’t had the cash.

Those are big, thorny issues — but they could shift. And if we’re even going to consider an auto-industry bailout, why shouldn’t we use it as an opportunity to fund a more sustainable transit system?

I suspect America’s “love affair with the car” might go the way of our love affair with cigarettes. It’s hard to stay in love with something that’s killing you and cutting off your children’s future.

Being a Citizen Shouldn’t Be So Hard! Part 2: Beyond Government

NOTE: This is part 2 of a multipart series. See the series intro. More to come over the next few days.

This series is a work in process. I’m counting on Contentious.com readers and others to help me sharpen this discussion so I can present it more formally for the Knight Commission to consider.

So please comment below or e-mail me to share your thoughts and questions. Thanks!

To compensate for our government’s human-unfriendly info systems, some people have developed civic info-filtering backup systems: news organizations, activists, advocacy groups, think tanks, etc.

In my opinion, ordinary Americans have come to rely too heavily on these third parties to function as our “democracy radar.” We’ve largely shifted to their shoulders most responsibility to clue us in when something is brewing in government, tell us how we can exercise influence (if at all), and gauge the results of civic and government action.

Taken together, these backup systems generally have worked well enough — but they also have significant (and occasional dangerous) flaws. They’ve got too many blind spots, too many hidden agendas, insufficient transparency, and too little support for timely, effective citizen participation…

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Being a Citizen Shouldn’t Be So Hard! Part 1: Human Nature

NOTE: This is part 1 of a multipart series. More to come over the next few days. See Part 2.

This series is a work in process. I’m counting on Contentious.com readers and others to help me sharpen this discussion so I can present it more formally for the Knight Commission to consider.

So please comment below or e-mail me to share your thoughts and questions. Thanks!

If you want to strengthen communities, it helps to ask: What defines a community, really? Is it mostly a matter of “where” (geography)?

Last week I got into an interesting discussion with some folks at the Knight Foundation and elsewhere about whether “local” is the only (or most important) defining characteristic of a community. This was sparked by an event held last week by the new Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy — an effort to recommend both public and private measures that would help US communities better meet their information needs.

From the time I first heard of this project, I thought it was an excellent idea. It bothers me deeply that many (perhaps most) Americans routinely “tune out” to issues of law, regulation, and government that not only affect them, but also that they can influence — at least to some extent. (I say this fully aware that I often fall into the “democratically tuned out” category on several fronts.)

The problem then becomes, of course, that when citizens don’t participate, their interests are easy to ignore or trample.

Why do so many Americans abdicate their power as citizens in a democracy? It seems to me that many are too quick to “blame the victim,” pointing to widespread apathy, ignorance, or a prevailing sense of helplessness as common democracy cop-outs.

I think there’s a different answer: The way our democracy attempts to engage citizens actively opposes human nature. That is, it just doesn’t mesh well with how human beings function cognitively or emotionally.

Fighting human nature is almost always a losing battle — especially if you want people to participate and cooperate….

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