Monthly Archives: November 2012

Windypundit On WordPress

This is it, the new WordPress version of Windypundit. There are lots of tweaks and changes still to come, but I think I can go ahead and make the switch now and worry about the details later.

Some of you may have noticed that Windypundit was off the air for a while. Yeah, well, it turns out the switchover didn’t go quite the way I planned.

About a week and a half ago, the hosting company I’ve been using for Windypundit sent out a message saying they would be moving some of my other domains to a new server in December. The message included this warning:

On the new servers PHP 5.3.x is going to be running, so please take the measures to ensure that you have your software up to date to avoid any conflict with the new PHP version, take in mind that we can’t keep PHP 5.2.x running in our servers since is already EOL.

Then last weekend they sent out another message about the server that I was using for Windypundit:

Emergency Server Migration – Server 34 – Do not ignore this email.

Server 34 is using a OS version that’s not longer supported by Cpanel, for that reason some package are not being updated and is causing troubles on the DNS and making the server fail. We are going to make an emergency migration tonight to a new server.

A little later, the Windypundit site failed, displaying a variety of PHP errors. My guess is that the emergency server migration put Windypundit on one of the new servers with the new version of PHP. As I’ve mentioned, I lost the ability to upgrade Movable Type long ago, and I guess the version I’ve been using isn’t compatible with the new version of PHP.

Despite all the nice things I’ve said about my hosting provider, I’d been having some problems in the last couple of weeks, and I had been exploring the possibility of switching to a new provider. Having the blog go down like this was the last straw. I’ve moved Windypundit and all my other sites to a hosting company called A Small Orange, about which I’ve heard good things. (Low-cost shared hosting is something of a crapshoot, so we’ll see.)

I’ve spend most of my spare time in the last week on a crash program to finish the port to WordPress. I had to make a few more changes to the conversion tool I wrote to handle some problems with implied paragraphs, and I had to make a bunch more changes to the CSS. I spent a lot of time just paging through Windypundit posts for the first four years and the last two years, one after another, looking for problems.

I discovered a few pages that are messed up. Many of them can be fixed with more CSS changes or by editing individual posts. I haven’t found any new systematic problems caused by the port process in the last few hundred posts I checked, and the site passes all of the automated tests I ran, so I decide it was time to put Windypundit back online.

I still have a lot of changes to make — enabling comments, configuring statistics, tweaking the theme — but I think I’m ready to go live. Here’s hoping it all works.

Update: I want to make sure comments are working, so it will help if a few of you will leave a comment.

Hiding from Satan’s Radio

I’ve read several articles about the Texas school district being sued for their policy of forcing students to use an ID card embedded with “tracking” technology. The religious freedom angle seems dubious at best (though in Texas you never can tell), but I was surprised by the number of people worried about technology to “track” school children and the supposed dangers of the technology. I’d like to demonstrate how such concerns are overstated with this particular system.

Most of the people discussing this issue seem to have little to no understanding of this technology, so I’m going to try to clear things up a little from the technical perspective and explain how this is a very poor tracking system at best.

The ID cards in question contain an RFID chip, which is an acronym for Radio Frequency ID. There are several different flavors of RFID, and most people have interacted with it in one of several forms for many years now. The most common use over recent decades has been for product theft detection using a simple passive one-bit RFID circuit.

OK, I’ll try to explain what a “passive one-bit RFID circuit” actually is. First let’s cover the “RFID” part.

It’s a simple (yet ingenious) electronic circuit which has a couple of capabilities. At a minimum an RFID chip must have circuitry to store some information in binary format (zeros and ones or possibly just a single “on/off” state), and contain a two-way radio of some kind, including an antenna.

There are active and passive RFID systems. An active RFID uses some sort of power source directly attached to the circuit (such as a battery) to power the circuitry. A passive RFID contains no local power source. Instead it uses the energy in the radio waves coming from the radio transceiver in the reader. That’s the ingenious part in my opinion. As you can imagine, that’s a very tiny amount of power to work with, so passive systems have extremely limited range.  The range of such passive systems can be from a few inches to several yards depending upon the size of the receiving antenna in the reader and the sensitivity of the receiving radio and its ability to discern signal from noise. But it’s mainly all about the size of the receiving antenna.

That’s why there is a large pair of antennae not too far apart near the exit doors of stores which use passive RFID systems for theft control. If the circuit is in an on state, the RFID circuit responds telling the alarm to sound. The circuit can be switched to an off state using the pad on the checkout counter.

By adding to the complexity (and cost) of the circuit, you can store and transmit more than just an on/off state. The more you store and transmit, the more complexity, so most systems just store enough binary information for a short unique ID number.

Most people use an active RFID system when traveling on tollways. The transceiver stuck to your windshield is an active RFID system. Because it uses a battery, it has a much longer range (dozens of yards when combined with large antennae around the toll plazas). That RFID contains a unique ID number which the tollway authority uses to associate with your car and payment information in a database.

Anyone who has been issued a company ID card with and RFID chip used as a key is familiar with the type of chip used in the school district. It’s a passive system (no battery in the card) and the range primarily depends upon the size of the antenna in the reader. If it’s a small antenna (like the one in the block next to the door you need to unlock), you need to get the card very close for the system to work. That’s why you need to do the Backwards Door Jump to get your card to work while it’s still in your back pocket. It stores an ID number which the database associates with your credentials (such as which doors you should be able to unlock).

If you increase the size of the antenna, you can get the system to work at longer ranges (in the several feet to several yard range before the size of the antenna becomes ridiculous).

So, what does this mean to our school children?

First of all, it’s not like a GPS tracker on your phone. The RFID chip has no clue where it is. The only way it can be used for tracking purposes is by setting up a series of readers and sorting through the data collected to find time stamps for when the chip passed near enough to a reader to communicate. In school I could see where you could place readers at every door to actually track students as they passed through them. If a student were, however, kidnapped, there would be no way to find them unless you managed to get within a few yards of them, and they still carried their ID card.

You wouldn’t even be able to ask the tollway system to look for them since they are only designed to work with the active RFID chips. You just couldn’t reasonably get a big enough antenna to be able to activate the passive chip and actually read the ID in a car passing at a high speed.

I haven’t found anywhere just how the system is being deployed at the schools in question, but I did see they implemented it so they could know when a student was in the building, but wasn’t recorded as being in attendance in a particular class for the purposes of getting federal money. (I guess they get money for the student being in the building no matter where the student is.) They don’t even need to track students within the building, so I suspect they didn’t go to the expense of setting up readers at every door to do so. Placing one at each entrance to the building would do the trick.

Secondly, the RFID chips contain no personal information themselves. If someone were to query that chip by using a portable reader, which they would need to do from a very close range (a few feet unless they carried around a huge antenna), they would simply get a number. To parlay that into a home address, for example, they would need to hack into the school database. Of course if someone did that, they would have every student’s home address and ID numbers. I’m not sure why anyone would first want to read the RFID or how that could be used by an Evil Person out to do evil to the student.

I suppose there could be some student hijinks by creating duplicate ID cards (you can order programmable RFID cards and the radios to read/program them for only a few hundred dollars), but I don’t see how a sexual predator, for example, could use RFIDs for tracking or identifying victims.

Do I like the idea of being tracked? No. I have often discussed the pros/cons of systems which can be combined to create tracking information (such as the tollway RFIDs) with my students. But that’s another topic for another time. I see no reasonable way such a system could be used to track students outside of the school.

For homework, I’d like you to think about the number of RFID chips you have. ID card from your employer? Library card? Tollway box in your car? Public transit card? Are you eager to have a Near Field Communication system in your next phone? (That’s just another RFID standard.)

Did you remember to add your car keys to that list? Most automotive keys have an RFID chip in them which your car talks to when you put it in the ignition. If you want to test that, wrap the top part of your key tightly in aluminum foil, sealing it as best you can around the base, then try to start your car.

I wonder if that student in Texas ever plans on owning a modern car…

Thanks For All That Food

Just had a gigantic Thanksgiving dinner at some friends’ house. Filled with turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and ice cream. Feeling sleepy…trying to stay awake by doing stuff on the computer…not going…to…make…it…

Moving to WordPress – Part 3: Blogroll

I’ve been blogging about the experience of moving Windypundit from Movable Type to WordPress. In Part 1, I described the process I developed for moving over all the posts. In Part 2, I talked about the development of the new Windypundit site.

The one thing I still had to do was to re-create the blogroll in WordPress.

I suppose I could figure out a way to port it over like I did the posts, but I think creating it by hand is probably faster. Besides, I need to do some blogroll maintenance. I think I’m going to simplify the categories. I also need to update it to reflect a few changes in the neighborhood.

I’ll start with the new additions, which will appear in the blogroll after the switchover.


A hilarious blog about appellate law. No, really.

Cafe Hayek

An occasional stop of mine for random economics quotes and other bits in the Hayekian tradition.


Links to fantastic stories with economic angles. Worth a read even if you don’t think you’re interested in economics.

Accursed Farms

Ross Scott’s amazing Half-Life themed machinima.

The Ancient Gaming Noob

“Wilhelm Arturus” writing about multi-player online gaming.

Booker Rising

Shay Riley, black libertarian. No, really.

Charlie’s Diary

Science fiction author Charles Stross. Lots of thought-provoking stuff here.

That’s all the new people for now, but I’ve got some tidying up to do, and a few removals. Among other things, I’m going to make some of the descriptions a little more, er, descriptive.

Virgina Postrel

Virginia used to be the editor-in-chief of Reason magazine and her editorials were a huge influence on my thinking. She’s one of the reasons I started blogging. She’s not terribly prolific these days, but always worth reading. She actually calls her blog “Dynamist Blog” so maybe I should use that name too.


An interesting source of information about warfare and national defense, but not a read-every-article blog. It moves to the Resources section.

The blog on that site is actually called “The Speakeasy Blog” so I should probably change it.

The D’Alliance

Seems to be down. I’m striking it from the list.

Vigil for Lost Promise

This is Pete Guither’s site listing victims of the War on Drugs. It’s his response to a DEA advertising campaign. It used to be a separate site, but it’s now part of his main blog, and it looks like no one has been added to the list lately. I’m going to remove it from the list.

Not Guilty

That’s Mirriam Seddiq’s blog. She writes well about legal and social issues but not nearly enough. I didn’t tag her blog “A lawyer in search of a clue” because she’s stupid but because for a while she was always blogging about how she couldn’t figure out what to do with her life and career. Now that she seems to have settled in as both a solo lawyer and a mother, I should probably change it.

Marc Randazza

Randazza also gets a new tag. I believe his official title is now “First Amendment Badass.” And I should use the real name of his blog, which is Legal Satyricon.

Blonde Justice

Sigh. The Blonde One has been missing in action since March. But if Gothem can wait 7 years for Batman to return, I can wait a little longer for Blonde Justice.

South Carolina Criminal Defense Blog

This one’s apparently named “Trial Theory” now.

Google Blogoscoped

Philipp Lenssen has been off the air for over a year now, but he’s a friend of the blog and he helped me with some ideas in the early years, so he stays a little longer.

Steve Landsburg

Landesburg’s blog is actually called The Big Questions, and I should link to the blog not the main page.

Megan McArdle

Megan has moved to Asymmetrical Information at the Daily Beast, so I’ll link to her there.

That’s it. The blogroll is done.

And that’s the last major hurdle for porting the blog. Just a few more tweaks, and I’ll run the port process one more time and switch it over. Maybe over Thanksgiving.

Moving to WordPress – Part 2: New Website

If you’ve been following along, you know I’ve given up on Movable Type as a blogging platform, and I’m moving this blog to WordPress. In Part 1 I explained why moving 10 years of blog posts with minimal link breakage was a lot of work.

Of course, I’ll have to have some place to move to. Which means I’ll have to design and set up another Wordpress blog. I managed to teach myself a bit about WordPress when I set up the Nobody’s Business group blog, and I liked what I saw of the technology. WordPress is easy to use and has a very active developer community, so I think it’s safe to assume it will be supported for a long time.

If you want to set up a WordPress blog, you have a choice of two broad solutions: You can let WordPress host your blog for you at, or you can download a free copy of the WordPress software from and install it on your own web host. I prefer the latter route because it gives me more flexibility. It does mean, however, that I need a place to host a blog.

Obviously, I already have hosting, but I decided to get a new hosting account so I could more easily set up the new website without interfering with the old one. And it’s just cleaner to start from scratch, so I can move over only the files I’m using and leave the junk behind. Windypundit had accumulated a lot of junk in its directory tree over the years.

The kind of hosting I need is a basic LAMP stack. That means Linux operating system, Apache web server, MySql database, and PHP programming language engine. This is far and away the most common hosting environment, and it will run WordPress and tons of other software I might want to install. I also want cPanel management tools so I can administer my account over the web without having to get a command line.

For now, I’ve decided to use a new shared hosting account from the provider I currently use, Downtown Host. I’ve had a few problems with stability over the years, but I see that as the natural flipside of their flexible configuration policies. (I.e. I’m paying the price in stability for flexible configurations of other websites on the same server.) The folks at Downtown Host have usually responded to service tickets fairly quickly, day or night, and they’ve been helpful when I had some minor special requests. I’ve tried using larger (and presumably more stable) hosting companies in the past, but they’ve been rigid and uncooperative.

I could probably get more flexibility with a virtual private server (VPS), but that’s more expensive. And more work. I’d have to install software updates regularly and clean up messes. There are tools to make that easier, but I’d have to learn what they are and how to use them. (And the tools change depending on which Linux distribution you install — CentOS, Debian, Ubuntu, Gentoo, Fedora — and I haven’t got a clue how to choose a distro wisely.) Ultimately, that’s just not a learning curve I want to follow. I guess I could avoid all that with a fully managed VPS plan, but that’s even more expensive. Windypundit just isn’t big enough to need all that.

Since my account allows me to host as many sites as I want for one monthly fee, subject only to storage and bandwidth limits, I’ve been consolidating some of my other sites onto the new server, in what I’m calling the Windypundit Media Empire. As I write this, Windypundit is still on the old server, and it will stay there until I finish the port to WordPress. The old server also has a test WordPress installation that I’ve been using to develop the migration process I described earlier.

After choosing WordPress itself, probably the most important decision I had to make was which WordPress theme I was going to use. I don’t want to just use a pre-built theme because I want Windypundit to have a unique appearance. On the other hand, I really didn’t want to build a theme completely from scratch. It’s a lot of work, and I’m not familiar with how to do it for WordPress. So what I really needed was a highly customizable theme. Or even better, a theme framework.

All WordPress themes are built from an HTML page layout with snippets of embedded PHP code that call into WordPress to fill in content such as posts, comments, and widgets. There’s also some CSS to style the HTML and a bunch of assets such as header images and custom artwork.

As far as WordPress is concerned, a theme framework is just another theme, but to a blog owner it’s a kind of construction kit for building themes out of template page layouts, template CSS, and a library of PHP code that can be used to implement certain common features. Often these frameworks come with substantial user interface tools that makes it easier to design themes without a lot of code.

Many theme frameworks are commercial products developed by professional WordPress design companies. Probably the most well-known of these is Thesis by DIYthemes, which is used by a lot of professional web designers to quickly create blogs and websites without a lot of coding and with results that are, frankly, pretty damned good. Jamison Koehler’s law firm web site is one of the most attractive blogging sites I know, and it’s built on Thesis.

Another big-name framework is Genesis by StudioPress. Genesis is oriented more toward using WordPress as a Content Management System for commercial web sites than for blogging. Unlike Thesis, Genesis isn’t an out-of-the-box theme; it’s intended as a base from which designers will build usable child themes. For example, Rick Horowitz used a Genesis child theme when he built his lawfirm website.

There are lots of other commercial theme frameworks out there such as PageLines, Carrington, Woo, Elegant Themes, and such drag-and-drop wonders as Ultimatum and Headway. They differ in the amount of HTML and CSS you have to write, whether they have built-in SEO or use a plug-in, security, support for designer and developer workflow, and dozens of other criteria. It’s a fascinating software niche, and if I were a professional web designer I’d probably license a few of them for building websites for clients.

But I’m not a professional web designer, I’m an amateur blogger who is also a professional web programmer. The difference being that I work with HTML and CSS and program code all the time. I’m used to it, and I like tinkering with code. So I prefer a framework that makes theme programming easier rather than one that eliminates theme programming entirely.

When I built Nobody’s Business, I used the Thematic framework because it was a popular free framework. It worked fine and I have no regrets. However, when I started thinking about porting Windypundit, I investigated a whole bunch of frameworks, and this time I settled on Hybrid because it seemed to have better documentation, a more active user community, and more recent releases (although I see that the folks at Thematic have been busy lately).

Hybrid actually comes in three layers. First, there’s Hybrid Core, which is essentially a PHP library for implementing WordPress themes. It can’t be used as a theme, but if you want to build a theme from scratch, Hybrid Core should make it easier.

The second layer is the Hybrid theme, which is full WordPress parent theme built using Hybrid Core. It’s a relatively simple basic theme, but you can use WordPress’s support for child themes to create a more interesting theme that provides more interesting versions of parts of the Hybrid theme. Hybrid’s creator, Justin Tadlock, has also released a bunch of other themes built on the Hybrid framework, several of which also come with child themes.

Finally, there’s Skeleton, which is a child theme of the parent Hybrid theme. It has all the CSS selectors laid out for you to fill in. You can just grab a copy of it, rename it, and start customizing it for your site. Which is exactly what I did. Unimaginative as I am, I call the result WindySkeleton.

Of course, I couldn’t resist the urge to make a few small modifications. I’m not overly fond of maintaining raw CSS, so I added a PHP version of the SCSS preprocessor to the site, copied all the Hybrid CSS theme files and renamed them to end in “.scss”, and wrote a small PHP front end page to compile and render CSS from the SCSS files. This makes modifying Skeleton even easier.

As for the actual site design, I’m not very good at that part, so I like to keep it simple, sticking to a very traditional blog layout. And my approach to choosing colors is as simple minded as picking out a nice banner photo and reusing some of its colors in the site design. Thus, the current design uses a lot of blue because the banner photo of the Chicago skyline has a lot of blue sky.

Originally, I wanted the new design to have even more of an old-school journalism feel to it than my current design, but I managed to derail that plan when I got it into my head that I wanted to use a night photo in the banner. That ended up taking the design in a very different direction. When I make the switch, you won’t recognize the place.

I’m also in the process of teaching myself Javascript and jQuery, so I decided to add a little animated flourish when the page loads. At the moment it looks kind of cool, but I expect it will get tiring. It’s basically the modern web version of the <blink> tag that made Geocities into such a hellscape.

I’ve still got a bunch of details to attend to before I cut over to the new site. For example, I almost forgot that Movable Type keeps its feeds in different locations than everybody is used to with WordPress. This meant I had to add redirection rules to send feed readers seeking the old feeds to the new locations. I’ll probably still put up a final post on the old site that warns people that they’re subscribed to an old feed. The site will be down so they won’t be able to read it, but it will be the last thing in the dead feed.

In addition, I’ve still got to add a bunch of other sidebar items to the blog (recent posts, archives, search, etc), create a robots.txt file (maybe), and tweak the design a bit more. Then, once I switch over, I’ll have to re-run the verification programs one more time, turn on comments, and enable all the statistics tools. I plan to use the same ones I have here — Sitemeter (which I consider to have the official authoritative visitor count), Google Analytics (the most useful), and Woopra (the cool new thing) — along with WordPress jetpack, but I don’t want to turn them on until the site is actually live.

And somewhere along the way, I’ll have to re-create my blogroll. That will be the subject of my next post about the move to WordPress.

Chicago To Pay For Not Watching the Watchers

Five and a half years ago, when the beating of 24-year old bartender Karolina Obrycka by Chicago Police Officer Anthony Abbate first made the news, I argued that the beating itself wasn’t the real news story:

…It is rumored that some cops offered Obrycka a bribe if she would back off, and then threatened to plant drugs in the bar and in Obrycka’s car if she didn’t back off…

When Abbate attacked Obrycka, he wasn’t on duty, he wasn’t doing police work, and he wasn’t using police powers. He was just a drunk jerk that beat up a woman, and he happened to also be cop. With 13,000 cops in this city, there are always going to be a few troublemakers. To borrow a phrase from the Rodney King trials in California, it appears Abbate didn’t commit any of his crimes under color of authority. In a sane world, his barroom brawling has nothing to do with Chicago police in general.

But if Abbate’s buddies really are trying to bribe and intimidate witnesses, we’re no longer talking about one guy with a bad attitude. We’re talking about a criminal conspiracy within the police department[.]

Yesterday, that conspiracy cost the City of Chicago $850,000 when the federal jury hearing Karolina Obrycka’s lawsuit against the city of Chicago more-or-less agreed with me:

Chicago police adhere to a code of silence protecting fellow officers, a federal jury ruled Tuesday in a lawsuit filed by a female bartender whose videotaped beating by a drunken off-duty officer went viral online.

Officer Abbate was convicted long ago, and under normal circumstances, it would have ended there. But as Scott Greenfield explains, it’s the code of silence that cost the city so much:

Absent the machinations of police to conceal and silence the witnesses against him, the City of Chicago would have no liability for his conduct, it then being merely another vicious drunken cop beating a woman.

I realize that no cop wants to arrest a fellow officer for a crime, but I’m also sure that no one (outside of a few psychopathic cops) believes that police should be able to commit crimes with impunity.

The City of Chicago, and other police forces around the country, need to do something about this. It’s not a new or unexepected problem. “Who watches the watchers?” is one of the oldest questions about professional policing, and solving it is one of the fundamental duties of government.

in Police