Question Authority

Interesting short article in WiredQuestion Authorities: Why it’s smart to disobey officials in emergencies. It turns out that people in the World Trade Center on September 11 who ignored official instructions fared much better than those who followed the rules:

The report confirms a chilling fact that was widely covered in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. After both buildings were burning, many calls to 911 resulted in advice to stay put and wait for rescue. Also, occupants of the towers had been trained to use the stairs, not the elevators, in case of evacuation.

Fortunately, this advice was mostly ignored. According to the engineers, use of elevators in the early phase of the evacuation, along with the decision to not stay put, saved roughly 2,500 lives.

People too often believe there must be someone higher up who really knows what’s going on. One thing I heard often before the Iraq war was that, even if the public hasn’t seen convincing evidence of a real threat from Iraq, they (the administration) “must know something we don’t.” After all, why else would they be pursuing this policy?

I suppose it’s reasonable, or at least comforting, to think that someone wouldn’t get into a position of power like President or Secretary of Defense without being pretty damn smart and on top of things, but unfortunately I don’t think history supports that assumption.

I’m actually usually the last one to make arguments that begin with “history shows that…”, but I think in this case we can at least say that history shows that we shouldn’t make unfounded assumptions about the competency of powerful decisionmakers.


I get more comments and visits to my Webloyalty AKA Reservation Rewards is a Scam blog entry than almost anything else I’ve written. Since the entry was posted in December, it’s received over 300 comments, and nearly 20,000 hits from nearly 5,000 unique visitors. The short version is that this affinity program signs people up for a “rewards” program where they pay $9 per month in return for discounts on other purchases. The problem is that most people (including myself) never realized they signed up for anything until they notice the charge on their credit card bill, and I’m sure many more never notice the monthly charge at all. The company probably figured $9 was just below what would catch the attention of most people when they glance at their bill.

This comment from Marshall posted yesterday is probably the most useful one so far, so I wanted to highlight it here:

Same experience here, for the most part. One difference, however, I would recommend that if we really want to stop these guys we take a different approach to getting our money back. When they give you a refund of $9.00, it costs them $9.00, which they originally stole from you. There is no further damage to them. When you dispute the charge with your bank or cc issuer, they lose the $9.00 immediately, and are charged approximately $25.00 by their merchant processor for a chargeback fee. If their chargeback volume exceeds 1%, they will most likely have their merchant account shut down or suspended. This means they may not charge other people in the future and will likely go out of business. It should take about the same amount of time and effort for you, but could “put the hurt” on these scam artists. Just because they work with large companies, does not mean they are reputable, and you just mis-understood. I own a credit card processing company, and I know for a fact that I never agreed to the charges. Also, I went back to and went through the steps of purchasing from them. The discount offer does not tell you anything about the charges or the membership at all. They are violating Visa/MC regulations, as well as perpetrating fraudulent transactions. Please dispute the transaction at your bank or cc company, instead of getting the refund. If your bank or cc company takes too long, or won’t reverse the charges, then you can always call back for your refund later.

It seems to me the other vital part of reining in this company is putting pressure on their affiliates, e.g., Columbia House,, Fandago, and others. I can’t understand how these relatively reputable Internet businesses would agree to this arrangement.

Legal Lies

Excellent blog entry at Stay of Execution (“tales of law and life”) entitled Legal Lies. It’s a fairly damning indictment of the advice given to prospective law school applicants.

I feel proud that my alma mater, Northeastern University School of Law, has avoided some of the problems described in the article, and is at least struggling to avoid others. If anyone is ever interested in going to law school and considering Northeastern, drop me a line and I’ll talk you into it.