Thursday, March 27, 2008

Insidious, but think of the children...

The other day (it was Tuesday, March 25, 2008, at lunchtime) I listened on WMPG, the USM radio station, to a show called Home Dad, where the host was interviewing Elinor Goldberg from The Maine Children's Alliance, talking about their accomplishments in making life better for Maine's children. It turns out that organization's lobbyists have a referendum before the state legislature to ban smoking in an automobile with children under 16 in it, anywhere in the state. A similar law (though local) was passed last year in the city of Bangor, and Ellie was incredibly proud of the success of that law, and so explained they were going statewide with it.

Now, during the course of the discussion, Ms. Goldberg admitted it was a controversial law in several ways, and wandered off into vague explications of the (obviously confused and wrong-headed) points of the bill's opposition. Who could oppose a law which promoted the health of those cherubic kids? And her coupe de gras for anyone still unconvinced was her assertion no one has been arrested since the law was passed! So in other words, the law is not enforced. Point made, case closed.

Ellie, let me put it to you simply why I so vehemently oppose this law. The automobile, like the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, doctor's office, and a (very) few other places, is a personal, private space which is not subject to searches, oversight, invasion, or imposition of regulations from any outside power without a warrant issued by a judge who has been presented with probable cause. The state can't occupy that space, nor dictate how it shall be used, nor what is said in it. This proposed new anti-smoking ban in automobiles with young children inside, wrests control away from one of the last few private spaces left in the control of citizens, and gives it to state regulators to oversee.

The fact no one has been charged with breaking the law does not change the fact that another of our last personal spaces has been appropriated by the state. No matter how compelling the reason for misappropriating that space to state control, it's wrong. Creating an unenforced (and probably unenforceable) law just adds to the injury of it. From here it's just a few, small, feel-good little helpful legislative initiatives to allowing regulatory oversight into our kitchens, bedrooms, bathrooms, and doctor's offices. Think about it. What are we trading away for the benefit of childrens health? This harmless and unenforced law on the books could form a key stepping-stone to some future fascist legal code. Our children will not be amused.

This is a bad law, setting a bad precedent, and anyone with a conscience should oppose it with all their might. Call and write your state legislators today. Do it for the children!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

When the news isn't new

Osama Bin Laden (blessings upon his seed spilled on the backsides of a hundred camels) lives in a hole in the dirt with his family and mustachioed wives and filthy children and his camels (bless their loyalty and affection and forbearance) in what can only be described as a homemade middle ages of his own design (bless its lack of electricity and indoor plumbing in its glory). Well, apparently, on top of everything else, he's got a problem with his newspaper delivery (all blessings upon the cute paperboy, and jihad on his rickety bicycle that takes two years to deliver the news), because it looks like today he's finally heard about the Danish newspaper cartoons lampooning the Islamic world's lack of a sense of humor, and apparently he's all riled up about it. Even the august New York Times has decided to cover his grumpy ramblings on the subject.

Hello? Old Gray Lady? We don't need to hear about OBL, except the article that finally announces his death at the hands of a drone delivered hellfire missile (or a jealous camel, or sand fleas). I believe it is time we allow him to fade from the news and consign his madman ramblings to their proper place-- history's garbage can.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

A tragic waste? Or a disaster?

I hate to do this, but please, please go over to the New York Times and read the short column there by Bob Herbert, called The $2 Trillion Nightmare. That column documents a hearing in the Joint Economic Committee in Congress last week, where it was exposed that the expected cost of the "war" in Iraq is not in the hundreds of billions that most informed people think, but is actually estimated to be more than 2 trillion dollars (speakers at the hearing actually estimated three trillion).

It's likely that not everyone has already come to the conclusion, as I have, that this war is completely and utterly useless and a waste just because it was wrong from the beginning-- there were no weapons of mass destruction, there was no identifiable connection between Iraq and terrorists, and the administration knowingly lied to congress, our allies, and the American people, in order to railroad support for the idea. By crushing the government there, Mr. Bush put an end to functionally the last secular state in the region. There are more terrorists now than there were 5 years ago, we've lost thousands of our best and brightest youth to war-related deaths, and probably a hundred thousand more (the administration is not reporting exact figures) to serious and crippling injuries-- and that's not even taking into consideration the casualties of the Iraqis, who have lost hundreds of thousands and are less secure than they've ever been. And in that time the price of oil has doubled, George!

Listening to the last of the war hawks (are you listening Mr. McCain?) talk about pursuing "victory" there is almost nauseating. To achieve victory means to win, but what exactly do they propose we are going to win? A democracy like the one in Chad? Or Kenya? Or Colombia? Our national honor? There is nothing to win, and despite Mr. Bush's best intentions, there's no way we can spend our way to an acceptable government infrastructure in Iraq. There's already too much graft and corruption, and it's getting worse. Would you invest there? Will GWB invest (his own money) there?

I don't need to be convinced on this issue, and neither do the majority of Americans who can see through the lies and disinformation (or non-information) that passes for news from Iraq these days. What I found in the Times editorial, however, were a couple of points (above and beyond the "2 trillion dollar plus" price tag-- talk about sticker shock!). First, there's this quote:
"the money spent on the war each day is enough to enroll an additional 58,000 children in Head Start for a year, or make a year of college affordable for 160,000 low-income students through Pell Grants, or pay the annual salaries of nearly 11,000 additional border patrol agents or 14,000 more police officers."
The money we're spending could actually effect improvements to the economy and our overall security, but that's not the route we're taking.

The other important point concerns how the long-term costs of the war are not being considered in the regular accounting.
[Nobel Prize-winning economist] Mr. Stiglitz noted that nearly 40 percent of the 700,000 troops from the first gulf war, which lasted just a month, have become eligible for disability benefits. The current war is approaching five years in duration.

“Imagine then,” said Mr. Stiglitz, “what a war — that will almost surely involve more than 2 million troops and will almost surely last more than six or seven years — will cost. Already we are seeing large numbers of returning veterans showing up at V.A. hospitals for treatment, large numbers applying for disability and large numbers with severe psychological problems.”

If recent history is any indicator, we could have 800,000 new veterans on the permanently disabled (and hence taxpayer supported) rolls within the next 10 years. Mr Bush and his administration have managed to embroil the country in a ludicrously costly, wrong-headed, and useless war, while simultaneously tossing a multi-trillion tax cut to the the incredibly wealthy, and continue to argue for more tax incentives for oil companies who are experiencing unprecedented (and revolting) profits. They have also finagled a plan to send every taxpayer a check for $300 bucks-- the way the bank lets you keep the pen you use to sign your mortgage.

And I keep hearing conservatives lament the lack (among the Democrats) of leadership.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Disturbing statistic

The other day I heard a report on Maine Things Considered (that's the local news that folds into All Things Considered, the afternoon public radio news show), that said only one in 350 Maine adults is behind bars (yikes!), which is much better than the national average, which is 1 in 100! That can't be true, I thought. But, on Googling around, I found the published study in the New York Times, which states that fully one percent of American adults is incarcerated!

Hey folks! That's atrocious! That means that legislators, and courts, and prosecutors, and the legal profession, the police, and probably families and society in general have FAILED! A representative legal system which finds one percent of its constituency so far out of the norm they must be jailed is, simply, wrong. We (the people... a quaint concept, I know) have lost control of the legal system in this country.

I have a few observations, and then I'll shut up:
  1. Too many people are jailed for victimless crimes (drug possession is the best example).
  2. Adequate legal representation has become a money and class issue. OJ can walk because he paid a fortune for lawyers. Most petty criminals can't do that, so many settle for a guilty plea on a reduced charge because they just can't afford a vigorous defense.
  3. Legislatures have become too quick to "express their outrage" with new laws, or "pile on" penalties, or prescribe minimum mandatory punishment for crimes which already have heavy penalties. One outcome of this is a whole set of jailable offenses which only apply to people who've committed other crimes in the past.
  4. Too many property crimes, especially those perpetrated against corporations, are being criminalized. Even having a bad credit rating can have dire ramifications for employment, education, and future financial success. And remember, once you've been convicted of one crime (kiting a check, or lying on an application, for example), there's a new set of laws with harsher penalties to which you'll be subject.
  5. The lifestyles of more and more people fall outside of a prescribed "norm," making them targets for over-zealous law enforcement.
  6. Once a person enters the legal system, it is harder and harder to get out-- see the recent press about sanctions (jobs and voting, for example) against convicted felons. Even worse, consider the plight of persons convicted of sexual crimes. I don't condone them, but you have to admit the post-penal penalties are draconian.
  7. Incarceration is starting to become a societal "norm." Witness the recent celebrity jailings of Martha Stewart, Paris Hilton, Kiefer Sutherland. Publicly tossing someone in jail who has a fortune (and excellent job prospects on release) just serves to blind society to the very real life disaster that incarceration holds for an average person. For many (perhaps the majority) who are jailed once, they will never get out of the system permanently.
  8. Guns, guns, guns. I won't even start on that.

We live in a society of laws, and they are what define us as a society. Our legal system is a living process, which allows us to adapt to new and emerging realities. When the legal system has disenfranchised one in one hundred of its constituents, I believe it's time to re-evaluate the mechanism. Our legal system must acknowledge this statistic as a failure, and take steps to fix it.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

The problem with "featuritis" or WTF are Usonians?

I spend quite a bit of time at the New York Times website, mostly because they have what I consider to be the best news site (in English) on the internet. A first rate paper is well on their way to being a first rate web news outlet.

Some time ago (more than a year ago) they introduced a feature on their website I found interesting, but slightly annoying. They set up their site with a javascript gadget of some kind that allowed double-clicking on any word in any article and it would pop up a box with the definition of the word. Brilliant! But not very useful, unfortunately.

What I found annoying about this feature was if I happened to be mousing around a page and accidentally double-clicked (something that happens more often than you might think), there would be a pause while the site did a search for the word, and then popped up a separate window with the definition. And of course, like anything "web" there was also a separate lookup for advertising copy to include in the handy new window, and having to override the pop-up blocker in Firefox when the site attempted to open a separate window. This is, as I now think about it, a good motivator to tell the browser's AdBlock plugin to unblock the New York Times-- I know I did that. Overall, for someone with a good vocabulary, this was an interesting but ultimately not very useful feature.

This morning I found the big, ugly Achilles heel of that feature. In an article about a Frank Lloyd Wright home that's available for vacation rental, I came across this sentence,
"The rentable Wrights are all Usonians, smaller, simpler and designed toward the end of Wright’s career for the middle class."
Now I'm a careful reader, and I figured I was missing a key point of the paragraph because I don't know what "Usonians" means. No problem, thinks I, because the Old Gray Lady has that nifty double-click definition feature, I can find out. Double-click, watch the separate window open with ads and what-all, and Nooooo! Say it ain't sooooo! The feature returns 0 results! That word is not in the dictionary. I don't know what the heck the journalist means by "Usonians," and that nifty feature of the NYT is unmasked as a web hack of dropping a standard dictionary behind a bit of javascript that encourages people to turn off pop up blocking. But here at my computer, where the rubber meets the road, I find this feature has no tread. And now I have to go and Google to find out WTF are Usonians!