Sunday, June 29, 2008

Is the Gas Hose Hosing Us?

As promised yesterday, Part Two of Gas Wars. As I mentioned, my personal interest in gas prices is negligible, I barely use the witches' brew of variously compounded formulations, my 32 year old pickup runs on propane. I was really surprised to find "hot fuel" was an issue at all, but a quick Google shows over 4 million entries.

The issue has to do with basic physics, ie, gasoline expands as it heats up, diesel less so, about 60% that of gasoline. The national standard volumetric gallon is 231 cubic inches, that being the volume of a 60 degree gallon. Hawaii is excepted, they recalibrated to 80 degrees during the old OPEC embargo days. The result in plain terms is, if you buy gas that is 90 degrees, you will get fewer BTUs and fewer miles out of that expanded gallon. Other hand, if you buy gas at 10 degrees, you get a bargain.

As I said, the issue surprised me, propane in Texas has been sold retail by temperature compensated meters for over twenty years, required by law. Gasoline and diesel are traded at the wholesale level all the way to the retailer in temperature compensated gallons. The retail marketer is required by EPA to "take the temperature" of its storage tanks daily to better detect leaks, so they cannot plead ignorance. Just for fun, next time you fill up, ask the clerk what the tank temp is today. If they claim they don't know, whisper "EPA", you will get someone's attention.

An aside here; there is an urban myth going around that one should buy in the AM when the gas is cool. Bunk! A double walled underground tank is a fairly efficient thermos bottle. Given the turnover in a 35,000 gallon tank, you will buy gas at about the temperature the truck delivering it registered.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology testified before Congress that this was not a pressing issue, as the national average temperature of retail gasoline was about 64 degrees. True enough, but that is national. I don't give a rat's what the annual mean temp is in Green Bay, me and thee care about Texas. Some states are about a wash year round, some consumers benefit (Minnesota makes it illegal for retailers to sell "honest", or temp compensated gallons) but southwest states' consumers are getting hosed. LA Times, May 23rd estimated a real cost of 8 cents per gallon. Arizona customers get the biggest hit per capita, but Texas is second only to Cal. in overall consumer cost, about $350 million per year at $3.50 a gallon.

To save the reader a lot of the debate, I cut to the chase on the lobbying. In America, we have the oil jobbers lobby, PUMP. They not only don't want temp compensators mandated, they want them made illegal! They don't want some enterprising retailer selling honest gallons and advertising that advantage. Now, move to Canada. The same people who make up PUMP in America pushed Canada to require temperature compensated meters, our Molson sipping cousins to the north were doing to the gas companies there what they do to us here. The term "raped with our pants on" comes to mind.

The industry will shed large and salty crocodile tears over the cost of retro-fitting pumps and tell you the annual savings would be cancelled out by a $5,000 per unit cost that would be passed to the consumer. Now Gilbarco/ Veeder Root (the company which did the propane units I'm familiar with) claims they can install at about $2,000 per, but let's not quibble. Even PUMP estimates it would cost so much to refit pumps in costs passed to consumers it would be an even wash over the course of a year. Assuming so, what about year two, year three, etc.?

PUMP will tell you further that temperature compensation would require a virtual army of inspectors to check the devices. Bunkum, bogus and horse-apples! Anyone selling any fuel has their pumps "proved" at least annually. I can tell you from experience, if our propane meter prover forgot to call us, we called them since wear goes both ways. Often as not, we would find our meter giving away as much as a half gallon per hundred, it was in our interest to have annual inspections.

This is not exactly a local issue in that the city doesn't have the authority to mandate one way or the other. I make this exception in that it is a local pocketbook issue. Last Texas Legislature had two bills on this introduced, both died in committee. Our local Representative Drew Darby has been out of state, I could not ask him, but in fairness, it is unlikely he ever got the chance to vote yea or nay last session, as the bills never hit the floor. I can say his aide was as surprised as I was, this might be an issue we want to encourage Rep. Darby to get behind.

Going back to yesterday's drive-off theft article, I might be more sympathetic to local retailer losses by theft if they did not benefit from institutionalized volumetric theft from their customers. One local option that does come to mind involves that old-fashioned free market. Long before wholesalers had temp compensated pumps available, they sold "net", or compensated gallons by adjusting gross gallons to that day's temp, up or down. If local fleet and gov't buyers insisted on net gallons per the daily EPA temp report, retailers might see an advantage to the cost of tempertature compensators for the rest of us.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Gas Wars

A rational individual would be at the ball park rooting for our San Angelo Colts in a clutch game, but when exactly did I claim to be rational? That I leave to the readers' evaluation.

Item 14 on City Council Agenda this Tuesday is ..."consideration of an Ordinance requiring customers to pre-pay for gasoline/diesel fuel purchases". Before we get specific, let me make plain my position lest I be seen as biased: no, No, and if that is unclear, Hell No!

Drive-off theft has become an issue as gas prices rise. Asst. Chief Hollway on KLST's "Top of the Morning" show left me with the sense an actual Ordinance was about to be proposed, but this item Tuesday is "discussion", not an action item. My opinion, this is a business decision, to be made by the business owning the gasoline.

Let's say such an Ordinance has been passed. The driver wanting to fill up would have to go inside, wait on line, leave a deposit; then go out, pump an unspecified amount, go back in, wait on line and get change from the deposit. Not exactly "in and out in two minutes", as a predominant local chain advertizes.

Hypothetical: the store clerk looks out and sees his wife at the pump, turns it on without she comes in with cash. Does he get the ticket, the store, his wife, or all three? There being no actual Ordinance on the table, let me guess; none of the above. The Ordinance would primarily allow a retailer to require "pre-pay", post a notice on the pump, and blame it on the City Council instead of their own decision.

Now this is a real problem. With gas at $4 a gallon, we are seeing an increase in drive-offs. Frankly, if I owned a business selling gas, I would be tempted to go pre-pay. Otra vez, if my businesss were mainly local and familiar, I might want to advertize my convenience against a more general retailer requiring the pre-pay two-step. A more suspicious mind than mine might suspect that a major retailer wanted to go "pre-pay" without appearing unfriendly by forcing all outlets to abide by that level of distrust.

Asst. Chief Holloway mentioned 300 drive-offs without specifying the time frame. If indeed some retailers are using the SAPD as a "collection agent" for drive-offs, perhaps that problem could be addressed by the same means as alarm calls. Set a reasonable number, if the outlet exceeds that number, it gets charged a fee for running down the thief. The Dept. has not been aggressive on false alarms, last I heard they were collecting about 20%, but I know my local watering hole redid it's system after being cited.

To my mind, this bit of policy is similar to the smoking Ordinance idea. Unlike most cities, San Angelo does not have a private business smoking rule, we leave it to the judgement of the business owner (What a Concept). Over 90% of businesses prohibit smoking, as do all gov't offices by Ordinance. Beer-joints and tobacco shops still get to cater to their largely smoking clientele, but the non-smoking majority is able to avoid the evil nicotine by choice.

I've had people accuse me of abandoning the Republican Party, others think I am a "loose cannon on deck", where I really am is until a convincing case can be made otherwise, gov't should LEAVE US ALONE!

Stay tuned for Gas Wars: Part ll.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Disparate Discussions

Hey, I told you I had a weakness for alliteration. The "discussions" is hopeful, toss out a few subjects maybe somebody will bite.

This Sunday's "official records" in the Standard-Times brought to mind a topic I have mentioned a few times. The people involved in the Randy Watkins murder were sentenced a few weeks back, just published this Sunday. Terms ran from two to ten years and none of those sentenced were experiencing their "first brush with the law". One was out on an aggregate quarter-million in felony bonds. Young Mr. Watkins' Mother was understandably upset, I believe her comment to the paper was "Nobody's going to wake Randy up in two years". I thought at the time this was on the low end of sentences for a homicide, especially as compared to non-violent drug convictions.

Didn't have to wait long for a case in point. June 18 one Mr. Garcia, with a few misdemeanor priors, was sentenced to 25 years for less than an ounce of meth. I don't intend to argue that meth is anything less than a serious problem, or that drug offenses in general are "victimless crimes". Any family with a member in prison or rehab for drugs, anyone whose house has been trashed by a desperate junkie seeking to finance the next buy (I qualify on both counts) can tell you there are "victims".

I will question whether these two cases represent a logical application of legal sanction. One crime had six people brutally kill a young man whose only "crime" seems to have been ill-advisedly responding to a macho challenge. The drug crime involved possession of and sale of less than $1,000 of proscribed drugs. Six murderers will do less aggregate time than the doper.

America has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, over half for non-violent drug offenses. The gulag days of the USSR, today's China, not the vilest dictatorship on the planet comes close to us in locking up the percentage of its population we do. Perhaps, after a Trillion dollars of "Drug War", compared to which the war in Iraq is a stunning success by any measure of results, perhaps we should consider focusing on treatment and diversion rather than incarceration.

Not taking a position on the Presidential race, BUT...Going by his own self-confession of youthful mistakes, would we be better off if Sen. Obama were still serving a 25 year term (had he been caught back in the day) or offering the voters the distinct alternative he is now?

Last week's Ramble, I closed by wondering when SAISD might get serious about selling its new bond. JWT did discover the bond, slightly amended. Click on the Long Range Facilities Plan, scroll down to page 252 (of 319), there it is. A wonder I hadn't tripped over it. If you missed today's KLST "Top of the Morning", I put the question on air, to my Trustee, Art Hernandez, when SAISD was going to get serious and put this bond front and center, try to sell it. He responded they were going to discuss just that next meeting. Since next meeting is another "pre-agenda" meeting, discuss it is all they will actually do until July at best. SAISD, "tick, tick, tick..".

A matter of modern manners: I know working folk are in rush-rush mode and many of us have to get up early. I further commend those who save fuel by car-pooling. Nonetheless, when you pull up at 5:00 AM to pick up your fellow, is it absolutely necessary to lean on the car horn? Perhaps your ride could waste two minutes standing on the porch, or you might call him just before you get there. Please don't tell me you don't have a cell phone, EVERYBODY has one now. Heck, the guy at the intersection with the "Will Drink Wine If You're Silly Enough to Give Me Money" sign has a trakfone now. He needs it to call his cab at the end of a long shift separating fools from their money. In the extremity, you could take half a minute, walk to his door and wake up his household instead of the whole neighborhood.

Modern manners, corporate section: A certain spectacle maker has taken to putting an ad on the Sunday comics in the S-T, a half-page perforated tear-away. Sunday is a very special day to me. I am not doing three things at once, I have the leisure, I like to open my morning in reverse, funnies first, real news next, then I'm in a good mood for shouting at and flinging nerf balls at the Sunday news shows on TV. More often than not, before I can read "Pearls Before Swine" (not the S-T poster of that by-line) I have to carefully remove your excresence. A minor nuisance in the scheme of things, and to be fair, I would have a miniscule economic impact on your trade, but, if I were to step on my eyeglasses while enjoying ice cream next door to you, I would travel and spend more money if necessary, with your competition who does not irritate me on Sunday mornings.

Stay tuned, I'll be back next time on Gas Wars.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Storm over Stormwater

As I mentioned last weekend, the city held three public meetings this week on the new stormwater requirements. This poster child for the term "unfunded mandate" has been on the horizon since 1987, really the original enabling legislation was the 1972 Clean Water Act, but it is only now filtering down through EPA to Texas Commission on Envionmental Quality and finally to cities our size. We must comply by 2009 or face killer $25,000 a day fines.

City staff has been thorough on this issue. The full meal deal is there for anyone interested on the city's website. Right now, it is the biggest item on the homepage opener, just click on the "more information" under the stormwater meeting dates. If one gets through all that without being bored to tears, a simple search of TCEQ or EPA will bring up enough stuff to eat up a couple ink cartridges and a few nights' sleep. Fortunately, I sleep like a day-walking vampire at best and read govermentese for amusement. I am still not completely in command of all the details, but I believe I have wrapped my warped mind around the basic concepts.

The plan presented by staff (Shawn Lewis, Development Services; Clinton Bailey, City Engineer; and Elizabeth Grindstaff, Asst. City Manager were the presenters) is really two parts. The mandated portion has to do with limiting undesireable discharges into rivers and resevoirs, including, but not limited to, pathogens, nutrients, surfactants and toxic pollutants. This portion centers on what EPA terms IDDE, Illicit Discharge Detection and Elimination. Not a lot of wiggle room here. This mandate will require setting up a separate city dept. which will be charged with identifying and limiting potential point-source and non-point source pollutants that might otherwise end up in Lake Ivie, which gets a surprising 75% of its water from the Concho River. Well, I was surprised, I would have thought more came from the Colorado, but that was staff's figure.

Mind you, a crucial distinction here: EPA and TCEQ requirements on stormwater management do not care a whit if the stormwater lifts your house off its foundation and floats it downstream. Their only concern would be if your house contained hazardous materials that might be released into the untreated runoff discharge.

On that, we can only quibble on details. Part of the mandate addresses household hazardous materials. Staff is advising curb-side pick-up. I found that San Antonio gets by with a single collection point open two days a week and one Sat. a month. We might shave a bit by incorporating the existing San Angelo Friends of the Environment center off Jackson St.

By the way, an aside here to brag on this excellent group. SAFE has been encouraging and making convenient recycling and appropriate disposal of everything from used crankcase oil to plastics to paper and cardboard. Dedicated people doing a great job on a shoestring.

This mandated portion will cost the city about $2.6 million a year, and represents roughly 60% of the proposal.

Part two of the staff proposal is not mandated, and to be fair, staff clearly makes that distinction on pages 8 and 9 of their presentation. This second part is infrastructure improvements totalling $46 million in low water crossings, bridges and culverts, drainage channels and at least one detention pond for San Angelo Draw in East Angelo. They propose this program be implemented over 23 years at $2 million/yr. (today's dollars) and both mandated and non-mandated infrastructure improvements be paid for by a utility fee based the square footage of impervious surface on a given residential or commercial property owner. Impervious in this context is anything that does not let water soak in, parking lot, rooftop, driveway, if the water runs downhill off it, it is "impervious".

Now as this fee increase comes into effect, they are not playing wordgames by renaming one's bill "utility". Granted, 95% of the recipients are still going to call it a "water bill", but it already includes trash, $8.95 for residential. The case staff made was the abandoned K-Mart site, which is not now billed for water or trash, but the current owners will be billed for this at a proposed 15 cents/month/100Sq.ft of impervious area. The residential rate will be based on a four level billing from $1.40/mo. for under 1,000 sqft to $7.01 for over 3,000 sqft. If you have a two story house, yes you can get that reduced to the rooftop footage, but you have to bring it up or they will go by appraisal district footage.

For those without a calculator handy, the commercial rate comes to about $700 per month per acre. Not surprisingly, in the two meetings I attended, we saw a car dealer and the Mall manager in attendance.

Now city staff has done a good job in the un-mandated portion as far as identifying the 40-some intersections which regularly become dicey-to-flat-impassable in any heavy rain. They have some credible numbers as to cost of remediation. What they have not done is separate our options and cost out should we decide to go only with the mandated portion, beyond the working assumption "roughly 60%" number.

My objection here is two-fold. Even the SAISD Board as it failed miserably to convince voters of the last bond, presented us with different figures for tax rates depending on: a) both Props pass; b)only one or the other passed; c)both fail; and just in case, the rates for a, b, and c with or without the state Existing Debt Allotment subsidy. City staff has not done this for the possibility that Council decides to approve only the mandated portion of staff's proposal. Unlike the school bond, this will not be a voter measure, but clearly, as this moves forward, Council will be getting public input, and if the meetings were a sample, some of that input will be a bit heated.

The #1 un-mandated project is labelled San Angelo Draw at Bell St. This is really five separate proposals, grouped in the master plan as 1-50-1 covering all the intersections the Draw crosses as it flows to the river. It includes a detention dam behind Producers Livestock and totals up at about $10 million, the detention dam being over half of that figure. As I put it to them Wed. night, this is my "stomping grounds", one might expect I'm all for improvements in my back yard, as it were, but... In this time of unavoidable improvements to water and sewer, with gas at $4 and likely to go up, we might look at these nuisance intersections, remember that it's only a nuisance a few days a year, and decide, heck, we've lived with this all our lives, we can live with it a while longer if it keeps the tax bite down. To get specific, as to my house, I might decide I'd rather detour a few days a year and have my utility increase be $1.43/mo than $2.72.

My second objection I noted at the Thurs. meeting. Page 9 of the presentation, staff listed Funding Options. The third is "Transfer Capital Improvement Funds to Stormwater". It just happens that the two lead authors on this Blog were also on the City Charter Review Committee. One of the items we were most proud of was making Capital Improvement Planning a mandatory, forward-looking-at-least-five-years feature of the city's budget process. We didn't invent it, in fact Council to its credit had implemented CIP by ordinance. We do firmly believe that had City Councils for the last thirty years had to put a CIP process in writing, San Angelo would not be in crisis mode today.

The un-mandated portion of this staff recommendation is by any definition a "capital improvement". Instead of adding it to the utility bill (again, those pesky voters will keep calling it a "water" bill), those projects, however desireable in a perfect world, should be put in the hopper every year along with all the other CIP projects. Then we can reasonably prioritize them along with every other need, and figure out where the money comes from. Once we hit that wall, a further "funding option" might arise: It ain't that urgent, don't fund it today.

Lynn Transki at the Wed. meeting hit the nail on the head here. This second, un-mandated portion of the staff proposal brings back the spectre of the days when the water revenue was treated as a "cash cow" by staffs and Councils of days gone by and for three decades regularly raided to pay for whichever "chance of a lifetime" happened to be the flavor of the day, the result being a water/sewer system that went past the verge of and well into collapse only two Decembers ago. Though it will be a separate dept. the relationship between the mandated stormwater activity and the water utility is rational, a utility fee makes sense.

I compared this to a family budget thusly: there are bills we gotta pay; bills we really ought to try to find a way to pay for because they're a good idea; and bills we think about if Uncle Ernie dies and remembers us in his will. Right now, San Angelo is in the position of paying off Uncle Ernie's funeral since we discovered the spendthrift rascal's estate had a negative value.

Council, please remember us taxpayers when this comes to you. Not all of us are a highly paid as Councilmembers. Uh, that's a joke ya'll. Sorry about Prop 5, you really did deserve better.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Farming Perspective

From Allie Devereaux

My perspective of conventional farming practices shifted entirely some years ago when I took a drive through the Midwest with the intention of seeing some remnant of the Great Plains, the intensely productive and resilient ocean of grassland stretching from Texas to Canada that once supported 60 million bison and 100’s of millions of other ruminants. Instead what I saw in one state after another, for mile after mile after mile, was nothing but corn. It was then that I learned that most of this corn was grown not to feed people, but to feed cows in massive feedlots, or to make a cheap sweetener for processed foods, or nowadays for fuel. The truth concerning what is required to produce such a vast monoculture began to reveal itself: millions of tons of chemical inputs applied every year, which are often toxic blends of industrial waste products permitted for disposal on crop lands in amounts deemed “safe” by the EPA, federal subsidies that cost tax payers up to $35 billion annually and tie farmers in a knot of unproductive regulations, losses of top soils, biodiversity, water and water quality...

The deeper I dug into the realities of conventional farming, the more I was convinced that the benefits of “organic” farming, which is professed to be "an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity,” go much deeper than simply keeping carcinogenic chemicals out of the food supply. But now, with multinational food corporations cashing in on the organic food trend, the focus of production is turning back towards quantity and bottom lines, and in many cases the “organic” farm can be difficult to distinguish from the factory farm. Certainly the notion of “sustainability” is being reassessed as goods are flooding into the US from as far away as China and New Zealand to meet the consumer demand for “organic” food.

In response, the world is seeing a massive movement into small scale, regional food production and re-localization, a strategy to build societies based on local production of food, energy and goods. But, long before there was any notion of carbon footprints or ‘organic’ farming, there were visionaries who could see that industrialized farming was corrosive to human society.

One of the first to pioneer conversationalist thought in America was Aldo Leopold, an internationally known ecologist who recognized the great need for wise use of land and water resources in the early part of the 20th century. Leopold devoted his life to planting seeds of thought about how farming should be productive but not interfere with natural systems. He called us to determine what is ethically and aesthetically right in regard to land use, in addition to what is economically expedient. The ethic he envisioned simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals; collectively, the land.

Leopold’s land ethic has inspired several generations of farmers and ranchers, like Fred Kirschenmann, third generation farmer, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and a leader of the organic/sustainable agriculture movement. His father passed on a love for the land and a sense of wonder for the miracle of the soil's productivity, as well as a profound sense of responsibility to care for it. Of Kirschenmann’s 3,500 acres, 1/3 is native prairie used for grazing livestock, and the rest is managed in a diversified operation where eight to nine crops are organically raised each year including durum and hard red spring wheat, rye, buckwheat, millet, flax, canola, also alfalfa and sweet clover for forage and green manure crops.

Kirschenmann has said, “local community economies are healthiest when they are as self-reliant as possible, especially where food and agriculture are concerned. Self-reliant communities are healthiest because they are free to pursue their own course, shaped by cultural norms which evolved in those communities to maintain the local public good… More important is our failure to recognize that farms are not factories and that the effort to impose these principles on farms has created an agriculture that is headed for collapse.”

When Karl Kupers took over his fathers 5,400 acres he followed the conventional wheat/fallow rotation that was common in the dryland wheat region of Washington. He eventually learned that he was not content as a highly subsidized wheat producer. He set a goal to create a farm in 10 years that would not depend on the subsidies that he felt promoted irresponsible and wasteful farming practices. When he quit tilling and began to direct seed he found the resulting improvement of soil tilth over the years provides a healthier environment for more diverse crops. Soil loses most of it carbon content during plowing, which releases carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere. No-till farming helps soil retain carbon. Healthy topsoil contains carbon-enriched humus – decaying organic matter that provides nutrients to plants. Soils low in humus are more susceptible to erosion and cannot maintain the carbon-dependent nutrients essential to healthy crop production, resulting in the need to use more fertilizers.

Kupers says weeds arise when nature tries to add diversity to a weakened and fragile landscape. “We tell people, don't try to eliminate the diversity by killing the weed. Put a crop in to fill that need for diversity. The majority of the people in the world are going to demand a cleaner environment. You use crop rotations, not chemicals, which also reduces cost. That is a key component to making a sustainable agricultural system work.” He says subsidized wheat is very difficult to compete with. “Today, when you take that subsidy away, and make wheat stand on its own--these other crops start working. Recognize that soil is what you're shooting for, it's not the crop, it's not the 1997 to 1998 income."

Wes Jackson survived the Dustbowl as a child in Kansas and went on to found The Land Institute, an organization devoted to research and development of agricultural systems with the ecological stability of the prairie and a grain yield comparable to that from annual crops. He has coined the term Natural Systems Agriculture which involves perennial cropping systems that mimic the permanent ground covers and root systems of the perennial plants of the prairie. They are having success developing strains of wheat, sorghum, sunflower and flax at the University of Minnesota that return annually from an established rootstock of up to 10 feet deep, helping to protect, conserve and even “re-grow” living soil.

In the mid 1970s, two Australians, Dr. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, started to develop ideas that they hoped could be used to create stable permanent agricultural systems in response to a rapidly growing use of destructive industrial-agricultural methods which were poisoning the land and water, turning rivers into stagnant holes of brine, reducing biodiversity, removing billions of tons of soil from previously fertile landscapes, and causing desertification. The principles they espouse have been applied to a wide range of environments - from dense urban settlements to individual homes and large farms.

Ultimately, their vision has spread, transforming lands that were once totally depleted and barren into edible, self perpetuating ecosystems. It is inspiring to see aerial photos of the green webs of interconnected life established in barren or desertified landscapes yielding diverse arrays of fruits, vegetables, grains, herbs, fodder, and seed, for villages, homesteads and communities around the globe. By utilizing this bio-intensive method of food production we would not only use 90% less mechanical and manual labor and consume 60-80% less water than is used in conventional methods, but by producing 2 to 6 times more food per square foot, it would be possible to feed the US population in the space that is currently established as high maintenance lawns.

Masanobu Fukuoka, a farmer trained in microbiology and soil science, sees in a conventional farmland landscape a vast desert lurking under a thin fa├žade. He discovered his own route to a diverse small-scale farming operation that requires no plowing or tillage, no chemicals or fertilizer and no weeding - and the condition of the soil in his orchards and fields improves each year. Fukuoka observed that nature is quite efficient at reseeding. Similarly, he simply spreads the seed of one grain in a stand of another, and after the standing crop is harvested, the straw from that crop is laid down on top the seed from the next crop. In this manner his yields of rye, barley and rice compare favorably with the most productive conventional Japanese farms. By intercropping various kinds of vegetables and herbs among the natural vegetation in his orchards, there is no need to mitigate pest population in any way.

Fukuoka considers the healing of the land and the purification of the human spirit to be one process, and he proposes a way of life and a way of farming in which this process can take place. "…farming is not just for growing crops, it is for the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”

In his writings on agriculture, Thomas Jefferson has not only expressed a shared belief with this 95 year old Japanese farmer in diversification and cover cropping as techniques to conserve water and protect the crop, the soil, and the organisms living in the soil, but he also recognized the deep connection between farming and man, saw farming as humanity’s wisest pursuit, and believed that small landholders working their land into production without coercion from the state were the most precious part of our society. It is unfortunate that federal farm and trade policies imposed by governments acting in the interests of multinational food and chemical corporations have nearly eradicated small and middle sized farms and depleted the environment upon which we all depend; but, thankfully, wisdom does manage to find a way to surface through all the red tape.

The way we live on and with the land, that is, the way we produce food, build homes, exist in our space and interrelate as a community of human beings, will ultimately determine the quality and duration of our society. There is no doubt that with the coming of $200-a-barrel oil we will have to reassess the viability of farming schemes that are heavily dependent on this diminishing resource for production and distribution. And while we may be approaching the day that the “organic” label outgrows its usefulness, the principle of growing food without dangerous chemicals, in a balance with nature, in or near the community in which it is to be consumed, is, and will always be, the soundest approach to procuring the sustenance upon which civilizations depend.

Links

http://www.leopold.iastate.edu/

http://www.managingwholes.com/--ranching-farming.htm

http://wincustomersusa.com/stockman/index.php

http://www.alcoholcanbeagas.com/drupal/node/140

http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/perma.html

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sohI6vnWZmk

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W15RRvKyJSk

http://www.coopamerica.org/pubs/realmoney/articles/organiccotton.cfm

http://www.fao.org/docrep/W2598E/w2598e07.htm

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/interactives/farmaid

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dWyduWsoy8o&eurl=http://video.google.com/videosearch?q=permaculture&ie=UTF-8&oe=utf-8&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&clie

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=8960194180325234816&ei=SnBaSIXQO4vQ4AKEneiuDw&hl=en

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Test Bed Status (updated)

The test bed is currently down for some reconfiguration. Will have it back up some time tomorrow (I hope.).

Updated: Testbed is back up at 5:30 PM on 6-18-08. Lost a very little bit of info.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Father's Day Freestyle

OK, I am overly fond of alliteration, but I wanted something distinct from the Sunday Ramble. I hope by now we have all talked to Dad. Of trivia interest, Father's Day was not invented by Hallmark Cards. In fact, there is lively debate amongst grammarians whether the correct term is "Fathers' Day" (plural possessive) or the common Father's Day. I am old enough, old-fashioned enough, to have had my knuckles smacked by obsessive grammar teachers, but I obviously hold with the singular possessive. To my mind, this is my Father's day, as it is also that of yours.

Best I can find, Father's Day was originally put forth by Mrs. John Dodd, a widowed single parent before single parents were cool, in 1909 in Washington state. A tribute to little people having big ideas, Spokane, Wa. is the first officially declared Father's Day I find, June 19, 1910. Calvin Cooolidge was the first President to propose it in 1924. By my time, Hallmark et al was already selling cards, but it was not until a Presidential Executive Order in 1966 by LBJ that Father's Day was federally official.

Last week I mentioned stormwater regulation hearings. My mistake, I thought they were last week, but that was capital improvements presentations. This week there will be three public meetings. June 17 at TxDot HQ on Knickerbocker, just south of the Loop 306 bridge, Wed at Station 618, 618 S. Chadbourne, and Thurs. at North Side Rec. Center on N. Magdalen; all at 7:00 PM. Again, this is a poster child for unfunded mandates. City has no realistic choice but to comply, question is how to do so and how to pay for it. Last week had a lot of paving days for me, I'm hoping I can make at least one of these. This will be a good chance to see our city people at work one on one. It might surprise one how competent they really are nowadays.

The same edition of S-T with the "anonymity" letter I responded to had a submission by Susan Cole advocating San Angelo becoming a "smoke-free" city. I was there the last time this came up. Essentially, San Angelo Council came down on the side of property owners' rights. As it stands, smoking is banned in ALL gov't sites, jail included. Nearly all shopping venues, even convenience stores, ban smoking. I am a smoker, trying to cut down, but I no longer request smoking section in a restaurant, one of the few retail establishments to allow smoking at all, I can last that long.

This has become a "holy war" without recognition of reality. I quote Peter Viereck, " Reality is that which, when you don't believe in it, doesn't go away". The general pop demographic has smokers as roughly 25%. My "barkeep" handle is not by accident, I've tended bar for many years, and I tell you, that demographic reverses in beer-joints. If Ms. Cole really thinks going smoke-free in a bar will increase trade, jump right in. Buy one, pay for the license, payroll, taxes (and you ain't seen taxes 'till you've run a bar), light up the sign, hire the band and wait for the flood of appreciative customers. And wait, and wait, and wonder "what have I done wrong?" I have yet to see a smoke-free bar make the "nut" absent a local ordinance forcing its competition to go "smoke-free" by law.

Yes, I know quitting would be good for my health, but when did this become the job of the "Nanny-state"? Are we next going to require customers to step on a scale before ordering a double cheeseburger? Risk assessment is something America is doing a poor job of. I am healthier than I have any right to be at 55, I eat too much salt (BP 117/73), I smoke but ask Joey G. if I can put my head in a bucket of water for 3 minutes, cost him $50 to discover that. Point is, risks which are individual ought be left to individuals. I promise you, there are enough greedy entrepreneurs out there, if a smoke-free bar were a profitable venture, some greed-head would open one. I add, if said greed-head booked a really good band, I'd pay the cover and go, taking breaks outside as my addiction demanded. Fair's fair.

I am home this weekend for the first time since 1994. Every other two years, I have been at the State Republican Convention. Last two, I was Sd 28 Rules Committee representative. I mention this in connection with one of those state issues with local implications, namely the Trans-Texas Corridor. The state GOP let Gov. (39%) Perry open with a "Let's come together in November" speech, but the Platform Committee spanked him thoroughly over the TTC issue at the Houston Convention.

For those unfamiliar, TTC would be a toll replacement of I-35 and Southeast Texas highways. Without going into details available on a Google search, it would have sold taxpayers a "details are secret" contract with a Spanish company to replace I-35, would have led to unprecedented use of eminent domain takings, and among other things, would have cost travelers about $60 to go from Austin to Dallas, truckers more, and guess who would have eaten the truckers' costs?

Now I have made the point that without a similar commitment to a West Texas N/S highway, this TTC benefits no one west of Austin. San Antonio Express-News June 5, Texas Atty Gen GregAbbott ruled that the TX-DOT/TTC people actually had to reveal to Texas voters the contract.

Lots more to that shabby story, but it can be found by Googling "TTC", I leave that to the reader. Point is, the Express-News is opining that TX DOT has lost "trust" with the voters by spending $9 million of tax money to promote the secret contract. Now in TX DOT terms, $9 mil ain't much, about what Sherwood Way will cost. For comparison, the latest MetroPlex Mixmaster interchange was $256 million. The point is, Sherwood Way or the Mixmaster was spent on concrete and asphalt the public might benefit from. The $9 million was tax funded lobbying for a private firm that will net 10, not nine, but 10 figures left of the decimal point over a 50 year contract. If Cintas wanted to spend $9 million promoting it, OK, but not my tax money.

It is very possible that this TTC is dead. It will not be because "money buys politics", if that were the case East Texas farmers would be moving already and paving contracts let for bid. Little people, lots and lots of little people, killed this monster.

Point is, "trust" is essential to good gov't. Translated locally, City Council is doing a B+, A- job of explaining things to voters. Capital improvements meetings, the upcoming stormwater meetings, if you go to the trouble of showing up, they will try to explain the details. Capital improvements came in a little later than planned, but this is the first time since the Charter election, I give credit for being thorough and making good effort.

School Board, not so much. A new bond is truly needed. The new bond, at least Prop One, has a new direction from the one we blew off 2 to 1 a year back, but SAISD is doing a poor job in hard times of selling the bond. Once more with the "vision" thing. The existing Cental campus, honest to God, influenced high school architecture nationwide for thirty years. It was sold to a skeptical, drought-ridden, penny-pinching electorate. Where is the effort on this one? Folks, you need to get out front. You chose an "interesting" Presidential race to compete with. If you wait for a last minute surge, you find out how George McGovern felt on the first Wednesday after the first Monday in November, 1972.

All sorts of things have interfered in the normal selling of a school bond. We had a six-way race for police chief, then an FLDS custody case that set records for international press coverage, the longest running Presidential Party Primary season since primaries took the place of "smoke-filled rooms", gas prices over the moon. Voters will parse out the property tax bill and find the SAISD component of that bill to be the biggest part. You are not going to sell this on a basis of "trust us, we will spend it well".

That's a shame, because SAISD has listenened to voters. Maintenance has been much improved, less than where we want to go, but still being improved. I believe that message has been heard, and I believe staff is working hard on it. Problem is, you don't have to convince me, you have to convince about 6,500 voters. Git'er done. Lose this bond and we have real problems right here in River City.

Anonymity Redux

The following, for those who may no longer read the Standard-Times, was printed there June 13. With the kind permission of the S-T, we reprint it here. The points have really been made in other articles here, hope I am not being repetitive, but for the record. I am going with the full submission, some few phrases were deleted by S-T in interest of space, but nothing which changes the substance of the letter, in my opinion.


Keep anonymity on Web postings


6/08/08 (published June 13)
Saturday, June 7 edition of the Standard-Times, since the usual exerpts of online comments were non-existant by decree, printed an opinion by Mr, Griffin, congratulating the S-T for banning anonymous comment, if and when the online comments are reinstated.

Mr. Griffin, I dissent, and not for personal reasons. Anonymity in public comment has a long and noble history. For my part, though I used the handle “barkeep” out of habit, I have self-identified for nearly as long as I have posted.

America exists in part due to anonymous writing. Prior to the Declaration of Independence, many of the “Founders” published screeds under psuedonyms, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Franklin, etc. Most of what are now the Federalist Papers, (I call them the user's handbook to the Constitution) were originally written under false names to insure the ideas, not the personalities were foremost in the readers' minds.

To this day, our society recognizes the utility of anonymity. “Whistelblowers”, be they governmental or corporate, are protected from disclosure and potential retribution. Most states have press “shield laws”, giving reporters protection from being forced to disclose sources. Rape victims are protected from public disclosure of their identities when they testify. Do these grants of anonymity sometimes result in exaggeration, even false accusations by the protected parties? Sure do, and I'd hate to be on the wrong end of such an accusation, but we have decided as a society that there is more value to encouraging those “in the know” to speak out than demanding all public comment be for attribution.

I agree, there was a problem with the gosanangelo comments. Especially as to the FLDS matter and the Police Chief race, many comments went “over the top”, were either slanderous, unsubstantiated, or just plain “Yeah, well your Mother dresses you funny” silly.

I have looked at the Scripps-Howard policy as to anonymity and breach of privacy. As best I can discover, of the 19 newpapers in the chain, only the Standard-Times found it necessary to put its readers in a “time-out” corner by suspending comments. Only the Standard-Times suffered a wholesale release of user profiles in the closing days of a hot political race. Any open online forum will attract loons, limiting them is the job of the online moderator. Enforcing the rules already written would be a good start. We might try limiting to one or two posts per day, I prefer two. That's less than a chatroom, but allows a post, look at the response, then reply specifically.
My point here is that this suspension is more the fault of the sponsor than of the participants. Any sports referee will tell you, don't “let them play” for three quarters and then try to regain control of the game in the fourth.

Honestly, my opinion, we have a pretty good local paper with some outstanding reporters. This episode has been poorly handled, and as some of the comments on our www.conchoinfo.org Blog show, it will take some time to regain trust. It would help if the newspaper took full responsibility for its part in this mess, and treated its readers like adults.
Jim Ryan

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Anonymity Leads to Unruly Comments?

When Standard-Times Editor Tim Archuleta put the online comments on hold for a month, he quoted in that editorial Publisher Robert Aguilar, "Frankly, it's gotten ugly", and frankly, it had. Archuleta announced the S-T would no longer allow anonymous comments and hoped that would cure the sometimes slanderous verbiage posted by less responsible posters.

Now, I grant, given the sheer volume of the FLDS comments, it must have been a chore to police the comments and remove or even ban egregious violators. Still...

An example Mr. Archuleta cited was from the police chief race where a poster "inaccurately called someone a criminal", and the post was removed. While Archuleta did not say whether the target was a candidate or another poster, absent documentation to support the term, removal of the "criminal" comment was appropriate, would have happened on our site I'm sure. As I have mentioned in other posts, S-T had the tools under its agreement with posters to do more of this, they failed to excersize the authority.

Now, Thursday AM, I look at the "for attribution" letters on the editorial page and find one from one Dr. Smith on health care reform. Dr. Smith devotes the first three paragraphs of his missive to proclaiming that the Bush/Cheney administration , "have committed some of the greatest war crimes since Adolf Hitler".

I will generously assume Dr. Smith is young and lacking in personal memory of the WWII era. Just for fun, since he said "since" Hitler, let's leave off Hitler and Joe Stalin, and start from that moment of history. Just to avoid historical quibbles, let's assume that every Moveon.org accusation is actually true, Bush is a Cheney puppet and both are willfully evil. I don't, but just for sake of arguement.

From Mao's cultural revolution, to Pol Pot's killing fields, to today's China v Tibet, to Darfur, to the Balkans, etc. ad infinitum; Bush couldn't make the cut to be in the top 100 of war criminals in my lifetime if he was trying.

Understand, I have real problems with a lot of "Homeland Security" laws. I am missing the first Republican State Convention since '94. A clean bill of health I will not give Bush on these items. Otra vez, Lincoln was the first President to suspend habeaus corpus , and that for US citizens, yet he has an impressive memorial on the north bank of the Potomac.

If Dr. Smith's comment is an exemplar of the improvement in tone we are to expect from doing away with anonymous comments, the S-T might as well re-instate Steppenwolfe and other banned posters. If you follow our Blog, JWT gently chided one poster for using uncomplimentary nick-names for persons of interest. That stands as an example of how we intend to moderate comments on our more ethereal "ink". Mr. Turner is the "publisher", if you will, and has final call, but we discuss the problem regularly.

To put it simply, neither JWT nor I intend to let this Blog go runamuck. We look to, and appreciate discussion of issues, even philosophy, not so much personalities, unless a direct relevance to the point at hand can be shown. To that end, JWT as "Benevolent Monarch" of the site, privately owned and published, has final authority. Recent history suggests we will moderate comments more freely but more responsibly than has the local paper.

It really hasn't been a problem. Our readers and posters deserve credit for the civility of comments to date. I thank you all for the interest shown. Digger, ex_pat, others I think I recognise, but leave to them to identify beyond "anonymous", good to be talking again.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Capital Ideas

They had the first public hearing on the Capital Budget and Capital Improvement Plan yesterday evening. They had an updated copy of all the projects and estimated costs. Lots of information available. This meeting was for the staff and citizens to interact, and they did for around 2 hours. They don't have the latest information up on the city website yet, but last years info is there and most of the projects are on going. There is another meeting Thursday at the Carl Ray Johnson rec center at 6:30pm.

p.s.: This is also on the testbed

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A glimpse at our future.

We now have a small scale test of what I hope ConchoInfo will look like up. It may be a little slow and up and down a bit as I'm running it on a test server under my desk. Anonymous browsing and some commenting is allowed, but full features won't be available unless you register. News feeds, forums, stories and comments along with a calendar are all in the works. We are also working on an appropriate theme. Special purpose and private forums are also possible.

Take a look at the testbed and tell me what you think.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Sunday Ramble

What with the closing of the S-T comments and some new interest here, I thought I'd throw out some topics of local interest, something to get conversations started.

Of course everyone is concerned with gas prices. I share your pain, it hurts me every time I mow the lawn. Otherwise, my 32 year old pickup runs on propane, an engine-friendly, domestic fuel which has sky-rocketed to $2.53/ gallon. If that sounds like a gloat, well yeah, it is. Rate I'm going, I will send perhaps $8 to our buddy Hugo in Venezuela this year.

Last time I was able to attend a school board meeting, I advised some polling and lots of public push. We seemed in agreement that not much attention would go that way until after the May election, some notice of the FLDS headline-eater. OK, SAISD, the election is gone, FLDS is winding down for better or worse, where are you? Looked at the website today, I could find the 300+ page facilities plan from 2007, if the current bond is there, it is artfully hidden. I thought to call my more computer-savvy co-author, but what the heck; if one needs tech support to find it, SAISD has not presented it properly.

I advised them they were swimming upstream by going for a Nov. ballot when all eyes are going to be Presidential. We really do need a bond, probably a larger bond than they dared. If they don't clean up the proposal and drum up support, we could see a second bond go the way of the last. Dr. May, Superintendent Bonds, Board members; the ball is in your court, make your case.

The news on the windmill factory is encouraging. Texas, for all it is supposed to be the oil patch, is way ahead of the rest of America on wind power. At this time, wind is the closest to self-sustaining of the alternative energy sources, though there are some promising developments on solar. God knows, if we have a solar breakthrough, West Texas will be at the top of that list. Going west from here, we have as our biggest stock in trade, miles and miles of miles and miles. Congress left the two cent per KWH subsidy for windmills out of our last energy bill, but either winner in Nov. is almost certain to restore it. Kudos here to Ralph Hoelscher, our Commissioner has been working to make wind power a local reality for a while now. If this comes about, it would be a huge boost for northeast Angelo, a long neglected part of town.

Just to try for a dig for comments, one of my last jobs in NC was working the Shearon Harris nuclear (note: nook-kli-ar, not nucular as every President since Eisenhower has pronounced it, our peanut-farming nookiar engineer from Plains included) power plant, I believe the last commercial plant built in America. I hold that anyone wanting to reduce "greenhouse emissions" and simultaneously refusing to consider nuclear power is at best blind, at worst conciously wants us to freeze in the dark in penance for past sins of consumption

Next week will see three public meetings, evening hours, to talk about the new federal rules on stormwater abatement. This is the poster-child for unfunded mandates. The Feds have had this in the hopper since at least 1980, now they and state TEQC drop the hammer on us at a time we as a city are dealing with a plateful of costly issues. No way around it, we do not have the option of ignoring it and hoping it will go away. If you want to be heard on this, show up and rise on your hind legs.

Baseball, the American sport we are told (tell that to the NFL, but that's another column). Congratulations to the Grape Creek Eagles. Hard loss to a great team, but you did one fine job getting there. As to the SA Colts, good start. Hope your hitters continue to produce, some big scores out there. This brings back fond memories. If you remember the movie "Bull Durham", I was living in NC and attending games in the ballpark the movie used, normally the home field of the Durham Bulls. Literally, the only changes the producers made was to repaint the outfield ads to make them contemporaneous with the movie. The extras in the stands were proud Bulls fans happy to do it. On a good night, might hold 4,000 fans. Get there early, one could sit right above the dugout, players at this stage are almost all friendly, autograph requests are taken as a compliment, not a per/pay item. A body could get a luke-warm 16 oz. draft beer for a buck and usually see a pretty good game.

One final item I have to throw in: personal thanks to Dr. Brad Baker at La Esperanza. I presented to him with what I thought might be a melanoma this week. He told me he could do it, but strongly encouraged me to see a dermatologist. I plead finances, I will have to pay for what I get. Talk about put one's money where one's mouth is, Dr. Baker offered to no-bill me for his visit if I would spend that money for a specialist. I go in Monday to have this carved off my face, it is small, early, great prospects, but Dr. Baker, my heartfelt thanks. If I ever win the lottery, you and La Esperanza will get a generous donation.

San Angelo is a great town to live in. Anytime one is tempted to doubt it, move away for a while. If I sometimes sound as if I am always kvetching about something, well, that's kind of my job, but I wouldn't bother if I didn't care and didn't think things were fixable.

Enjoy the "cold front", pray for rain today, otherwise I will be forced to water the pecan trees.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Standard-Times Time-out

As it happens I had just last week written the Standard-Times my quarterly subscription check, so I shall continue to find my daily supply of fishwrap on the lawn most of the summer. After Sunday's column I can't think of a reason I should continue to fund the enterprise. No, that's unfair, the local paper is always worth reading. My very first published editorial was in the Raleigh NC News and Observer, an unabashedly liberal paper whose ownership included some of the archtects of FDR's New Deal. That goes back a ways, JFK was still President when my first editorial got ink.

I would have been pleasently surprised to find a Sunday lead editorial giving us the sincerely apologetic straight story on how the "outing" of anonymous posters happened. The explanation so far provided lacks in timeliness, details or sheer believability. What I was not prepared for was to find myself and my fellow readers lectured to, admonshished like naughty children and essentially put on "time out" and probation!

I quite agree with editor Archuleta, the quality on online posts is on the decline, but whose fault is that? Look, anonymity was never an issue for me. I "outed" myself when I took Archuleta's seat on the City Charter Review Committee just to put aside any ethical concerns about advocating for that Committee's recommendations.

Those posters who trusted the Standard-Times to abide by its privacy policy, those people who expessed opinions they would otherwise have been reluctant to state for attribution, people who have legitimate concern over possible retribution on the job or in the marketplace, those are the people with a complaint. At its best, the online comment site did attract loons and irresponsible comments. In a typical "thread" from a given story with enough interest to go "hot", let's say 50 comments, I would usually see maybe half that were worth the time to read, but so what?

One soon learned to skip lightly past the sillier tin-foil hat wearing authors, perhaps take them in for amusement. Sadly, a lot of the folks whose commentary I became accustomed to looking forward to have vanished, and who can blame them? I don't know how the Standard-Times can ever regain the trust of its readers. I suspect the San Angelo Police Dept. is experiencing a bit of difficulty developing new "confidential informants" in drug cases. Similarly there, only the desperate or the deranged would put their lives on the line and trust that organization not to put their identity on the front page. Trust once betrayed is exceedingly difficult to regain, be it a marriage, a church, or a newspaper.

What I do know is that everything the S-T has done so far has been just about precisely wrong. The "leak" of user profiles had been out there for 10 days, was being actively discussed by posters whose feelings of betrayal were evident in their comments before the S-T ink-on-dead-trees edition acknowledged it. Then the article revealing it used the "outed" user profiles to out one of the high profile Police Chief candidates, compounding the betrayal of anonymity. Assuming that article should have been written and published (two separate actions, BTW), It should have gone beyond identifying Davis and mentioned that all the candidates were using online anonymity to post, if not directly, certainly through surrogate spokespersons. I caught this incident fairly early, an SAPD source gave me a heads up that lists of user profiles were circulating in the Dept. by Thursday noon, but by the time I knew about, the barn door had been shut.

Amazingly, the S-T seems still to maintain its IT people don't talk to its reporters, who have to go to out-of-paper sources for information. While S-T passes blame to "new employees" in a Tennessee division of Scripps-Howard, a check this weekend shows the other papers in the chain are managing to keep their online comments services up and reasonably well moderated. Tells me we do have a problem, and that problem is somewhere in the Harris St. building.

Newspapers across the country are realizing the old fishwrap on the lawn model is trending toward buggy-whipdom. A recent NPR interview revealed the San Francisco Chronicle, heart of the Hearst chain, is losing a $million a WEEK. I believe the ink version of the Standard- Times is down to about 25% of households. When I was a young man, no one with pretensions of caring about "things" would have admitted to not reading the paper, and a hefty chunk of them paid for morning and afternoon editions.

I don't know how significant online revenues are to the S-T overall, but I know that online edition is a revenue source. As treasurer of two local issues SPACS, I have made out checks to pay for those annoying ads. Commercial advertizers want to see numbers of "hits" and "pageviews" to justify the ad rates. One can safely predict a sharp drop there during this "cooling off" month.

My co-author makes the case well that anonymous comments have a justifiable place in public discussion. Often exactly the people with real knowledge are in a position vulnerable to pressure from employers or commercial partners, and unlikely to risk comments for attribution. This reality justifies whistle-blower statutes granting anonymity and/or legal blocks to workplace retribution.

I hope during this period the S-T will re-examine the no anonymous posts policy announced by Mr. Archulteta. Allowing anonymity does not necessarily result in a slanderous free-for-all, that's where moderation comes into play. Set rules, keep them simple, and ENFORCE them.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Speech, Freedom, and the Internet

If you haven't noticed, the Standard Times has put their web comments on hold. I understand their reasoning and concerns, and I hope they thoroughly analyze the situation and bring the comments section back in a much improved manner. Reading the column today, though, doesn't leave me with a feeling of confidence.

First off I have to admit I have been dealing with electronic forums since before the internet was public. I was on the dial up computer bulletin boards back when a 300 baud modem was state of the art. I was on Compuserve (anyone else remember them) when they were about a year old. I have watched (and sometimes participated) in flame wars. The comments on the Standard times comments have gotten extreme sometimes, but if you really want to see how it's done you need to look at usenet (easily accessible through Groups.Google.com) and pay close attention to alt.flame and the various subgroups. I won't get in to the gritty details, but one of the groups has a subtitle "looking for the ultimate flame in return", so you can use your imagination. The interesting thing is that most usenet groups and other online forums are basically civil and manage to spread information and opinion and keep the flames, spam and other annoyances and hazards to an acceptable level. And they have done it while allowing anonymous free speech.

The key to a successful forum is a process called moderation. In its simplest definition moderation is just enforcing the rules. Moderation of forums is an ongoing process. It requires diligence and the ability to enforce rules. If you want a nice, civil, forum you have to be willing to strictly enforce the rules. You have to be willing to kill comments that break the rules, and you have to ban posters who break the rules. I normally use a 2 strikes rule. First time you break the rule, you get a warning. Next time you're banned. There are a number of tools that can be used to keep the unwanted away. Blocking emails, IP addresses, and lots of other tools can be used to keep a forum under control. You'll never get it perfect but you can make it great.

If we look at the Standard Times, and its forums, they really didn't do moderation well for quite a while. Since the comments feature came on line, there have been comments that were left on that should have been pulled. There were personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off topic posts that had nothing to do with the story that were let slide up until about half way through the last chiefs campaign. They finally started pulling some comments, and they still banned very few posters. By the time the FLDS news hit the paper, the comments were completely out of control. The genie was out of the bottle. Then, in the middle of all this, there was a poorly explained problem with their website that for about a day that disclosed the given name as well as the screen name of all of those posting comments. I still don't understand how a so called system wide change to the 19 Scripps websites only seems to have caused this problem to the Standard Times, especially when all the different websites seem to have different settings on how comments are handled. The reality is that it is time for the paper to close comments until new procedures and strategies can be put into place. They need some serious introspection.

Reading todays column over, I have a number of concerns with their approach. There have been many complaints similar to that made by aj432 long before May 22nd. Why did it take so long to react? Why have responses up until now so been ineffective? Why is it that the rest of the Scripps family of websites aren't having this many problems?

I am also very concerned that "anonymous" posting might disappear. As was shown not too long ago, the Standard times doesn't have truly anonymous posting. They still maintain a given name and an email address along with a posting history. Their current policy of keeping the given name private does give a certain amount of discreet privacy, while allowing the Standard Times to contact the poster in case of problems. If they keep the current registration procedure, they really have no way to ensure that the name the poster gave while registering is his true name. I wonder how many posters named GW Bush, M Mouse, J Davis, T Vasquez, etc. are currently signed up. There are also some much more fundamental reasons that at least some degree of anonymity should be available to the posters.

We must remember that this country has a long and proud history of anonymous commentary, especially political. Before and during the Revolution, there were numerous pamphleteers publishing articles on the injustices they saw at the time. Anonymity was important. If their identity had become known, they would have been lucky to just be hanged. Many writers in the abolitionist movement wrote anonymously for the same reasons. They were putting their life on the line to state their beliefs. Speaking out can still be dangerous today. Jobs, property, and lives can still be at stake no matter if the comments are true or not.

Then we have the history of the adoption of the constitution, with the federalist and anti-federalist papers. One of the reasons they were written under pseudonyms was so the ideas would be able to stand on their own merits, not on the reputation of the writers. Granted, many insiders knew who Publius was, but most of the audience read the papers before they knew who the author was, which gave the articles a chance at a somewhat unbiased read. This is still a meaningful goal today. There are times when an activist, official, or just well known person needs to present an idea that stands on its own merits, not on the public perception of its presenter. Anonymous speech is necessary for truly free speech and a healthy community dialog.

That doesn't mean there is little the standard times can or should do. There are some basic procedures they can implement to get their comments section back on track and still have a dynamic, healthy website.

First, limit the number of posts a day a person can do. You are already doing that in the print edition by limiting letters to the editor to one every 30 days. Between using email addresses, IP addresses, and cookies for tracking, there are ways to keep people from going overboard on the number of posts. Limit each poster to 1 post per day per topic, and 5 posts per day total, and a lot of the problems will disappear. Far too many of the current posters are using the comments section as little more than a public chat room. Some don't have a life, so are posting or responding twenty or more times a day. Limit them to one good post a day, with a response being unavailable until the next day, and the quality of the postings will improve, and the amount of vitriol will diminish significantly.

Next, enlist the web community in policing of the comments. Set the software up so that you can have posters that can moderate certain sections, and then get volunteers you can trust to help moderate the comments. Set it up so that all of their decisions can be reviewed and undone by staff if need be, but there should be plenty of people willing to help.

If you can't get help in moderating a section, set a limit on the numbers of posts per day that will be allowed. 25 to 50 might be a good starting point but flexibility will be needed to get it right.

Additionally, have staff respond to posts that are getting close to the edge within the comments section from time to time. Public explanations of how a post failed to meet the rules helps motivate all posters to play by the rules better. Remind them that free speech is not unfettered, unrestricted speech. It's your soap box and you get to decide the rules.

As I stated earlier, I have been participating in online forums for over 30 years. I know that you can run a successful forum and still have anonymous, intense, active discussions. I realize that the comments are the Standard Times soap box, and that they are a business, and they have the right to take their soap box away if they so choose, but I also know that they do want a open, healthy dialog on the issues. It contributes greatly to a healthy environment and community. I hope they consider this post and my suggestions carefully. In the mean time, we at conchoinfo will be maintaining our policy of allowing anonymous posts. It takes work, but is worth the effort. We may change how we do moderation, but anonymous speech is too important a part of free speech to be eliminated without exhausting other options.