I have read and agree to the terms of service

NSA Seal

As revelations continue about the US Government capturing and monitoring online activities and communications, I'm glad (and, ok, only a little bit smug) to see that more conversations are happening about just what privacy expectations we should give up by using modern Internet tools and services.

Most of the mainstream conversation has been focused on what information "big data" companies like Google, Twitter, Facebook and Apple do or don't hand over to the government and under what circumstances, and debating where those lines should be.

The built-in assumption here is that it's inevitable that these are the companies that will continue to have access to our private information and communications. I grant that it's a pretty safe assumption - I don't foresee a mass exodus from Facebook or a global boycott on iPhones - but I do think it's important to note that this is a choice we are making as users and consumers of these services.  We are the ones who click through the "terms of service" and "privacy policy" documents without reading them so we can get our hands on cool free stuff, we are the ones who are glad to entrust our intimate exchanges to technology we don't understand.

A certain amount of naiveté about the security and privacy implications of the tools we use is understandable here.  When I've given presentations on email privacy and security issues, some attendees are legitimately gasping at the new understanding that their e-mail messages are traversing the open internet as plain text messages that can potentially be read by any number of parties involved in the management of those servers and networks.  The average user probably assumes that the Internet was designed from the ground up to be a robust and secure way of conducting financial transactions and sending suggestive photos of themselves to amorous contacts.

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Blogging about economic development in Wayne County

I'm excited to see that Valerie Shaffer, the new President of the Economic Development Corporation of Wayne County, has started a blog about her activities in that role.  The blog is complemented by a "frequently asked questions" section on the EDC website, which tries to address some of the common questions (and misperceptions) about the organization.

Whatever your take on the EDIT Tax, the EDC and their role in economic development efforts, this is a new and welcome level of transparency.

Shaffer's posts so far are authentic and to the point, bypassing some of the marketing spin that it might be tempting for an organization of the EDC's prominence to engage in when they know site selectors are looking.  She links to related resources, encourages questions and feedback, and makes repeated commitments to opening the lines of communication between her office and other voices in the community.

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The Palladium-Item Paywall

At the beginning of September, the Palladium-Item newspaper in Richmond implemented what many other newspapers have in recent years, a "paywall" that requires users to have a paid subscription when viewing more than a certain number of articles per month on the paper's website.  The paper launched some new features with their digital subscription, including a tablet version and new mobile versions.

I think this approach is a great thing, and is probably something they should have done a long time ago.  Here's why.

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U.S. out of Iraq? Not yet.

I'm really glad that most all U.S. military forces are leaving Iraq this month; this is long past due.

Most of the media coverage this week seems to be glossing over the significant detail that the U.S. investment in Iraq, in terms of personnel and dollars, will continue.  Instead of uniformed troops from the military, we'll have 15,000-16,000 people there in the form of other government employees and private contractors.  We'll be spending almost $4 billion there in 2012.  These numbers are lower than what we've been investing, but they are not small numbers, and they still represent a significant commitment on the part of U.S. taxpayers, let alone on the part of the soldiers still on the ground.  We can't afford to start thinking or talking as though our involvement in Iraq is through.

It also seems appropriate that when we talk about the human life lost in the course of the U.S. presence in Iraq, we avoid artificial exclusions based on nationality.  The story and cost of war is incomplete if you only recognize the count of killed and wounded on one "side" of any conflict.  As we consider this particular milestone, let us reflect on the totality of what has been sacrificed, taken or destroyed along the way.

Changes in Indiana pro bono legal service funding

Whitewater Valley Pro Bono Legal OfficeWhen you walk into Shane Eddington's office at the Whitewater Valley Pro Bono offices in downtown Richmond, the scene is a little like something out of a John Grisham novel: the heroic lawyer working away at all hours amid piles of legal documents in a windowless office with just one assistant on staff, trying to help the most vulnerable members of our community who couldn't otherwise afford legal services.  Divorces, custody battles, landlord-tenant disputes, managing the assets of the departed and other various issues come across his desk all day long; most of the people he sees can't afford to pay much of anything, but really need his help.

Even if Eddington's role as Executive Director of the organization isn't as dramatic as you'd find in a legal thriller, the need for reduced rate or free legal services in our area has never been greater, and the prospects for funding sources to meet those needs are changing rapidly.

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Tales of two newspapers: NYT and P-I

Tales of my recent encounters with two newspapers of note, The New York Times and The Palladium-Item:

The New York Times

NYC: New York Times BuildingAccording to The New York Times website, home delivery of their Sunday edition is available where I live in Richmond, Indiana.  Earlier this year I tried to take them up on that, buying a subscription online and eagerly awaiting that first Sunday morning when I would get to indulge in a paper-reading experience long enough to get me through at least one cup of coffee.

But that first Sunday, the paper didn't show up.  "Oh, yeah, that's probably just some issue getting you in the circulation system," the phone rep said when I called.  "We'll get it to you next week."

Week two, no paper.  "Sorry about that, don't know what happened there.  Hold on while I call the distribution center."  They concluded it was just another circulation issue, and assured me it had been straightened out for sure this time.

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The closing of Really Cool Foods

Groundbreaking for Really Cool FoodsIn 2007, organic prepared food producer Really Cool Foods announced that it would be building a multi-plant production complex in Cambridge City, Indiana and investing over $100 million in the area.  The announcement was met with great joy and significant incentives from state and local governments:

The Indiana Economic Development Corp. offered Really Cool Foods up to $3.05 million in performance-based tax credits, up to $165,000 in training grants and will provide Cambridge City officials with a $200,000 grant to assist in off-site infrastructure improvements needed for the project. Wayne County officials offered the company 50 acres of land, $165,000 in grants and a 10-year property tax abatement.

The facility opened in October of 2008 with 250 of the projected 1,000 jobs to start, and over the last few years the company has had numerous challenges reaching initially estimated milestones of investment and jobs created.

Today, the company told workers who showed up for their morning shift that the facility was closing, and in a press release sent after 9 AM, announced the company is shutting down.

A couple of initial thoughts and questions about this unfortunate announcement:

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Blight in Richmond

Burned Out BuildingThe Palladium-Item has an extensive look in today's paper at the issue of blight in Richmond, Indiana, including a companion article about how local residents can help address blight.

The article does a good job of summarizing the challenges of blight as amplified by rough economic times: property owners who might already struggle with maintenance and upkeep are even more at risk of letting a given structure or piece of land fall into disrepair when finances get tight and layoffs and foreclosures are looming.  With such a high percentage of Richmond's residences being rentals, there's possibility for further disconnect between the state of the property and the owner's involvement in it.

My impression from the article and from the conversations I've had with city leaders is that Richmond is generally doing what it can to respond to the impact of decaying properties.  But it can be discouraging to know that the process of getting a blighted property owner's attention is often drawn out over a long time and a lot of paperwork, not to mention expenditure of taxpayer dollars: wait for the property to be reported as blighted, flag it, mow it or repair it and bill the property owner, wait for the bill to go unpaid, place a lein on the property, and THEN there MIGHT be a financial incentive for some action.  This routine may bear the customary government trademarks of caution and glacial due process, but it doesn't recognize very well the shorter-term impacts (financial and social) of a property falling into disrepair, and the ripple effect it can have on other areas nearby.

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47374.info: scanning for local news so you don't have to

As a fun project a few weekends ago, I created the website 47374.info.  It automatically pulls together news and headlines from a variety of different news sources in the Richmond/Wayne County Indiana area.

The site has a simple display of those headlines that's automatically updated as they're made available throughout the day, and you can click on them to go read the original content on the source site - that's about it. There's a mobile-friendly version at http://m.47374.info/ and you can also easily see some recent local tweets from Twitter.  The site's still officially in beta but I've gotten some great feedback from test users so far.

I created 47374.info because I was tired of looking in a lot of different places to see what's making news in my community, or wondering if I'd missed something that was only announced on the very transient Twitter.  Some news sources have lots of content but make getting to it hard or leave certain key things out.  Other sources have a few juicy nuggets of relevant content once in a while but don't make updates available via RSS feeds, so you never quite know how often to check back.

So with the magic of WordPress plus some custom Perl scripts, I've restored some sanity to my news-reading time.  For the first time in a long time, I've set a website (instead of a blank page) as the default "Home" page that opens when I launch my browser.  Over the last few weeks, it's meant I'm more aware of community news, and I spend less time per day getting there.

Thanks to all of the local news/headline/event publishers that work to keep our community informed!

If you try out 47374.info and have feedback, drop me a line.

Would you like to own Tom's New York Deli?

Tom Amyx is giving away the business he spent the last 20 years of his life building.

This morning when I spoke with Tom, the owner of Tom's New York Deli here in Richmond, he talked of troubling health issues and financial factors in his decision, but he seemed as energetic and excited as ever.  He opened the restaurant in December of 1991 and it's been a fixture on Main Street in the downtown business district ever since.  Professionals, passers-through, families and sports teams alike frequent the establishment, which is known for its great sandwiches, corny jokes and extensive collection of local and national memorabilia.

But as he looks toward the next phase of his own life, instead of trying to sell the small restaurant to the highest bidder, or close it down altogether, he's ready to give it away to the person who would bring the best vision for its future.

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