White collar crime going unpunished is disgusting

My sister Minnie, like so many other moms of young children, was looking for a social group for new moms. She left her Silicon Valley web developer job of 8 years to stay at home with her baby, and could not afford to pay for any extra child care. She found out about Blue Sky Family Club from an advertising flyer at the Emeryville Market in the San Francisco East Bay, announcing a new family club.

When she went to check it out with her free visit coupon from the flyer, her baby had a great time. Blue Sky was an upscale cafe, with coffee, beer, and wine, and a big play area with a kids’ and babies gym and great toys. “It was a large open space with natural light. They had a living room area with couches, an art area, a play house area, rock climbing wall, and gym, alongside the cafe.” Sounds great, doesn’t it? Minnie made the decision to pay the $170 fee for a 14 month unlimited membership.

One month later, Minnie got an email. The club would be shutting down. Membership fees would not be returned.

When Minnie first told me this story I assumed it was a sad tale of some half-assed Oakland hippies trying to create a co-operative. However, a little research uncovered a completely different story.

Blue Sky is the brainchild of Sheryl O’Loughlin, a marketing executive and former CEO. She is a high powered executive type who has now defrauded an unknown number of East Bay moms of their money. This is a person who has made a profit and a successful career from marketing to women and specifically to mothers. Apparently she and her husband Patrick are very concerned with “saving the planet” and making mindful decisions about buying organic produce. At the same time as they screw the “little people” out of their hard earned cash. What a great business plan!

Everyday I make my daily decisions mindfully – with an awareness of their potential impact on the environment. Whether it’s supporting my local farmers market and buying local, organic food for my family or working with my colleagues to source a new organic ingredient; I know that every decision matters. Each choice I make is a moment of reflection and an opportunity to lessen my impact on the environment. Through consistent, thoughtful and sustainable decisions, we are collectively changing the world.

Nice.

The O’Loughlins announced the closure of their business, but apparently have not filed for bankruptcy.

In June 2007, bizjournals.com reported on the O’Loughlins’ plan for Blue Sky to become a local, then a national chain:

It will cost $3 million to open the first club. In addition to investing $100,000 of their own funds, the couple has managed to raise about $300,000 from private individuals in the last three months and they are continuing to look to angel investors and potential restaurant partners for backing. They expect roughly $1 million in leasing and tenant improvement funds from their future landlord. Their goal is to open four additional locations in five years.

Sounds like their venture capital money ran out. I can sympathize with an idealistic business plan and the financial turmoil that comes when an ambitious business plan fails. However, of all the creditors resulting from business failure, the *club’s individual members*, and their target market, should be paid back.

How many members were part of Blue Sky Family Club? I can’t imagine that membership was more than a few hundred. Say it was 300 members paying around 170 each – that’s about $50,000, probably less if you prorate the months of membership that passed for members who joined at different times. Let’s call it 35K. Do we seriously believe that Blue Sky’s founders don’t have that 35K? Why don’t they put their money where their business plan was?

Sheryl O’Loughlin should make the ethical business decision, sell some of her stock or put a second mortage on her house and pay back her investors. She has committed fraud and theft plain and simple. It is the kind of scam that upper class people get away with all the time. And they shouldn’t. Instead they go from board of directors to board of directors, scamming and keeping right on with their ski vacations. While someone who shoplifts a block of cheese goes right to jail and gets their life fucked up even more than poverty already has done. It’s disgusting.

“Doing a startup like this takes a tremendous amount of patience,” she says. “As a business person used to having things happen very fast, it’s like, take a breath, you’re going to get a million nos. You just have to keep plugging and believe in your ideas.”

This is a professional who wants to continue working in parenting-related products and marketing. She is now on the Board of Directors of a eco-food business called Nest Naturals. O’Loughlin’s bad business ethics should be exposed. Why would parents, her target market, trust her business sense after this spectacular failure of capital and basic decency? Who folds a business that has hundreds of members — members who in effect are micro-investors — and doesn’t even bother to declare bankruptcy? There are laws to protect creditors; in this case, a class-action lawsuit seems quite possible.

Blue Sky and other businesses who serve moms of young children should sit up and pay attention – and should not alienate their client base. Studies show that women pay more attention to the advice and information they get from their friends, whether online or off, than they do to corporate marketing or even other media channels. Moms talk, and moms listen to other moms. I would advise the (former) Blue Sky operators Sheryl O’Loughlin and Patrick O’Loughlin that paying back their customers’ membership fees is more than just ethical. It’s good business sense.

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When disaster relief becomes a police state dragnet

I don’t have time to be a serious investigative journalist, so here’s a little rant.

I noticed in Katrina relief work that Homeland Security was swooping down on even small shelters and on people aggregating peoplefinding data. They took the data and warned people to silence. They started doing criminal checks, looking for people on their watchlists, but right down to the level of people who might have violated parole or be wanted for various crimes. Is this legal? Is it constitutional? As far as I know, they just seized that data. The people signing into an emergency shelter in some tiny church, or community center, or high school, didn’t sign up to be picked over by the Feds.

They tried with Gustav to “wristband” and register people for evacuation. They did it for some of Hurricane Ike. Is anyone realizing what this means? Disaster hits, citizens who are particularly powerless become the target of random criminal investigation. And if you have a criminal record? What then? They going to “evacuate” you to a “special shelter”?

Not that Galveston even bothered to evacuate the people in its city lockup, people awaiting a hearing and not even convicted of a crime.

I expect the registering, wristbanding, and electronic tracking process will become more efficient over the next few years.

I wonder what people were told? You have to register and show your ID, or we won’t let you on the bus out of town?

Oh, here we go, a little bit of the plan, that I’m sure didn’t get implemented all that well, because of course FEMA and emergency management officials were thinking about how to save and feed and shelter people, not how to treat poor people like automatic criminals?

http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/5380868.html>http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/5380868.html

What the state is doing, is perfectly legal, according to at least one expert.

“Since it’s a government record they’re checking you against, there is not the same invasion of privacy concerns that may come up in other contexts,” said professor Charles Rhodes, who teaches constitutional law at South Texas College of Law. “I think the need for it would outweigh any privacy concerns. This is a public safety issue”

Rhodes’ only reservation would be the system itself, whether it’s set up to handle, perhaps, a false match indicating someone had a criminal record when they did not. He also wants to know how smoothly such checks could be processed.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how this is implemented in the time of an emergency,” Rhodes said.

They take the exact tactic I would expect. They claim they have to “wristband” and register and track everyone, centrally, and check everyone on a government criminal-record database, in order… get this… to protect special needs citizens from sex offenders. Is that really the motivation here? If the government gave a flying fuck about protecting people with special needs from sex offenders, there are far more effective things they could be doing than violating the civil rights of people evacuating from a hurricane.

Earlier this month, it was announced AT&T Inc. has contracted with the Texas Governor’s Division of Emergency Management to provide electronic wristbands for those residents wanting them, before they board an evacuation bus.

The wristbands would be scanned by emergency management officials and the person’s name would be added to a bus boarding log. That person’s name and their bus information would be sent wirelessly to the University of Texas Center for Space Research data center.

….
….

The decision to wear a wristband is purely voluntary. But anyone who boards an evacuation bus will have to provide a name. There will be no requirement to show an identification card, such as a driver’s license, but officials may ask those boarding for an ID.

Oh sure. It’s totally voluntary to wear an electronic wristband, but who is going to tell you that? And who is going to ask, in the face of disaster?

No requirement to show ID. But the cop who decides if you get on the bus or not can ASK YOU FOR ID. They don’t have to tell you it’s not required.

How about if you’re an immigrant and your immigration status is in question? Are you going to evacuate under these conditions? Or take your chances? What other databases are the authorities running the names against? Where will they stop? Who will stop them?

Don’t make any mistake about this, disaster might strike a whole city, but it is primarily the rich and middle class people who have the resources and social resources to get out of town and go stay with friends or in a motel. What the government is doing here is part of the immense disrespect and violation of human rights of working class people, people living in poverty, and immigrants. They might as well just go through whole neighborhoods of people who have less money and stop people at random to do criminal checks on them. OH WAIT … that already happens.

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Halfwitted journalist thinks only rich people should blog

This Washington Post writer suggests that blogs are not only unimportant, they are actively harmful to democracy and society. Therefore, the government should make them more expensive, so that regular people can’t afford to have them.

And if that wasn’t already lunatic enough, he proposes to do it by a massive energy tax.

This is so awesome I thought for a minute it was satire. Dusty Horwitt, pissant little environmentalist, lawyer, and journalist (and Bill Clinton impersonator, on the side) thinks blogging is the death of democracy.

Apparently democracy means a few rich people talk, while everyone listens. You… yes you… have the right to shut the hell up and be a good audience. Stop blogging! You’re polluting the infosphere! You’re killing newspapers, communities, democracy, and the environment, and if you’re in the U.S., you’re forcing jobs overseas! All by creating an “information avalanche”. God knows we should all beg to go back to the days when we apparently sat around getting a political “education” from notorious anti-Semite and Hitler fan Charles Coughlin… as Horwitt suggests.

Here’s Horwitt’s argument:

1) The proliferation of blogs make it impossible to find relevant information
2) The only important information is “politics and news”
3) The Internet hurts newspapers
4) And Democracy!
5) Fragmented media outlets fragment society!
6) Personal computers, and data centers, are bad for the environment
7) Therefore, create an energy tax so regular people can’t afford to have computers, and can’t blog! That way, they’ll shut up and listen to proper sources of information and become “educated”.

So, regular people shouldn’t have access to computers. This is a new one on me. Let’s increase the digital divide, to…. empower people! and to Make America Great!

Rather than call for government regulation of technology itself, perhaps the best way to limit the avalanche is to make the technologies that overproduce information more expensive and less widespread.

Horwitt doesn’t consider for a second that the rest of the world will still be posting, even if the U.S. makes it hard for people to have access to computers.

This is the best part,

It’s possible that over time, an energy tax, by making some computers, Web sites, blogs and perhaps cable TV channels too costly to maintain, could reduce the supply of information. If Americans are finally giving up SUVs because of high oil prices, might we not eventually do the same with some information technologies that only seem to fragment our society, not unite it? A reduced supply of information technology might at least gradually cause us to gravitate toward community-centered media such as local newspapers instead of the hyper-individualistic outlets we have now.

Horwitt seems to be an amateur comedian and songwriter. You’d think his attempts at comedy would help him write a better satire if that’s what this is supposed to be. Or is it all an elaborate hoax, an enormous troll? He’s also an “analyst” for the Environmental Working Group. Wonder how well his analysis is informing the EWG? I like this bit of their site – “How EWG Does It: Our research brings to light unsettling facts that you have a right to know.” Hmmm. You have a right to know… What the likes of Dusty Horwitt want you to know. Apparently you don’t have a right to speak.

The Washington Post just argues against Horwitt’s big point that newspapers deserve to survive at all — by having published this massive piece of bullshit. This is the legitimacy of mainstream, traditional media?

It’ll serve this dude right to be mocked on as many blogs as possible. He thinks viral information doesn’t work? Maybe a million pissed off bloggers will let him know otherwise. God, if only I could find his personal Myspace… I’m sure it’s comedy gold.

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SXSWi notes: High Class, Low Class Web Design

Notes on High Class and Low Class Web Design.

Respecting your audience. Do you treat them as equals? Culturally, educationally? What if they’re not your peer group? People who call their audience “marks”. Fans officially, but the treatment in the industry is “marks”.

This is the 2nd panel that has used this carny terminology. Evan Prodromou was also critiquing the mindset that treats an audience as marks or suckers.

The room is very large and crowded, so I can’t tell who is speaking. Someone’s talking again about being too class conscious and how that leads to a lack of respect.

Methods of making design decisions. Measuring sales with varying design in publishing and in web design and with usability studies. Liz Danzico is talking about usability, class, and layout.

Web sites and products targeted at “lower classes” use statistical methods of determining good and bad design, while stuff for “upper classes” rely on personal expertise for design. That maps to other high end products like fashion and luxury goods. For high end they’re designed and they see what happens, while for “lower” they are the product of testing. Steve Jobs mentioned…

(I think that it’s pretty funny that this panel purports to be respectful, but they’re using terminology like “high” and “low” which I find inherently disrespectful. And I would talk about “working class” not low class or “unwashed masses”. Jeez!!!)

Khoi Vinh talks about the NY Times and their testing process. He disagrees, I think, that the NYT is high class, but also says that if you think it is “high class”, he would like people to know that they do do testing and usability studies.

Appropriate design and aspiration. If you are designing for an audience that is different than you, do you aim for uplifting their sensibilities? Or do you design based on what you know they already like? A question for designers in the audience to consider.

Liz Danzico talks about how to tell how much is too much. When you’ve gone over someone’s comfort level. The toothpaste ad with toothpaste smeared on the guy’s chest. (Audience laughter)

Brant talks about his experience at WWE. Expanding the design for a wider audience who would not be embarrassed to pick the magazine up. Men in their 20s.

Starsky and Hutch, Dukes of Hazzard, int he past. Now we have Sorpranos, Lost. Complicated shows. People stopped looking down on their audience. TV is better than it was 20 years ago. Quote from Paul Rand. The Language of design. The public is more familiar with bad design than good design. It is, in effect, conditioned to perefer bad design… The new becomes threatening, the old reassuring.” You’re exposed to a certain design style your whole life. Is this design taste related to class, what you learn ? Or is there an inherent goodness or badness that transcends?

This question relates well to a book I’ve been thinking about all year, A Framework for Understanding Poverty. It explains a lot of class conversations and expectations in relation to class. Working class geographies of understanding the world are based on people and trust of people. Middle class geographies of importance are rooted in stuff, in brands and quality of stuff. Upper class geographies prioritize aesthetics and discernment. Aesthetics is a tool often used to establish and maintain class boundaries.

***
Wow, Peter from Adaptive Path just made that very point about aesthetics and class mobility. Aesthetics is used to prevent that class mobility! I was just thinking about Widmerpool’s overcoat from Dance to the Music of Time; he gets it subtly wrong and the upper class characters know it and shun him; he can’t ever really pass. IMHO, in the U.S. this is also used to maintain race and gender boundaries that connect to class status.

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