Sneaking Suspicions

Archives--January 27 - February 2, 2002 (Week 4)

Commentary from a practical perspective

rwbstripe.gif (1115 bytes)

This page includes posts from the site's fourth week, January 27- February 2, 2002 in the usual reverse order. Each day's posts are perma-linked here.

February 2, 2002

The relentless pursuit of nihilists

Several years ago, the City of New York and other municipalities decided to deny graffiti writers any lasting monuments to their vandalism. The transit authorities made the effort to remove any trace of graffiti and other unwanted stuff at the end of each day’s run. "Taggers" would then have nothing to show for their crimes, and would eventually stop or at least reduce their bogus attempts at artistry.

For newer systems, such as Washington, DC’s Metro, the management made this approach part of their original maintenance standards.

Combined with other efforts, this relentless pursuit of nihilists paid off. Metro has been a stunning success since it opened, and the New York system is far safer and popular now than 20 years ago.

The point is that a sustained commitment to preventing these daily insults to the common good is a key ingredient to restoring the public’s support for their community.

The recent hacking against the folks at reminded me of these success stories.

Michal Wallace posted a note describing the steps he took to deal with the damage caused by hackers who broke through and screwed up several sites. He’s going well beyond mere technical fixes:

I will be reading linux security news sites on a daily basis from now on. (In fact, you can expect to see a new "favorites" feature on linkwatcher for just this reason)

I'm going to contact the bank that issued the possibly-stolen visa.

I will be talking to my lawyers in the real near future.

I will never again sell a shell account to someone who lacks an existing website, unless I can otherwise verify that they're legit.

Good for him. Use every possible tool to ferret out these Internet nihilists, and push the local or federal law enforcement folks to join in the hunt.

Glenn Reynolds calls these hackers "bastards." I prefer "little sphincter geeks," but that’s just a difference in style. No matter what they're called, they’re no better than the graffiti sprayers who selfishly create visual blight. The same no-tolerance approach taken against subway vandals should be applied to their computer counterparts.

As another American said earlier this week in a related context, "Let’s roll."

February 1, 2002

No easy answers on domestic abuse

Collin Levey’s Opinion Journal piece today discusses the novel approach taken by Kentucky Judge Megan Lake Thornton in trying to deal with domestic violence cases:

When women return to their abusive husbands after persuading a court to issue restraining orders against them, Judge Thornton has been charging them with contempt. That means fining the women or even letting them think it over for a few nights in the clink. The message is clear: "Somebody with a fourth grade education ought to be able to read the restraining order and understand what it says," the judge has said.

Ms. Levey says that some domestic violence and women’s groups are in an uproar about the judge’s decision to try to force abused women to understand their own obligation to take seriously the restraining orders that they asked for in the first place.

What is transpiring in Kentucky is a classic feminist role reversal. Judge Thornton, pilloried by women's groups, is pitching the idea that women ensnared in the famous "cycle of violence" need to grow up and get out of it. Those who return time after time to the courts are only weakening the safeguards that are there to protect them.

This issue doesn’t offer any simple solutions.

Judging from the range of punishments she’s meted out, Judge Thornton is obviously looking at each situation individually. The problem is bigger than that: How do you convince adults to accept their responsibility?

In the early to mid-1980’s, I served as an assistant city solicitor. Our municipal court handled traffic charges and more serious misdemeanors, such as assaults. There were two full-time prosecutors, and a few of the rest of us handled the caseload when either of them were off sick or on vacation. Each courtroom’s typical morning calendar would be 40 defendants with 90 charges, with about 5 cases actually going to trial.

Periodically, I’d prosecute a case where the boyfriend beat up the girlfriend. (Family Court heard the case if they were married.)

Compared to other cases, I always wanted to go after these guys, and make sure there was some jail time.

Call me old-fashioned, but you just don’t hit women.

Even so, the women would come to the office before trial, begging to have the charges dropped.

We would hear explanations like these:

"He’s learned his lesson."

"I really love him, and he’s my kids' daddy. He can’t go to jail."

"We worked it out, and it’s okay now."

And on and on. Sometimes the pleading would take on a desperate tone, which would really set off the alarm bells.

I learned that the office practice was to go a bit on your gut instinct, and a bit on a "one-drop" basis. If you felt there was a continuing threat, then tell the woman you weren’t dropping the case, no matter what she said. Otherwise, you’d tell her you would drop the charges one time, and the very next time there was a problem, there would be no dropping anything.

It was by no means a perfect solution. I was rarely convinced that dropping the case carried absolutely no further risks to the women. On the other hand, her testimony was crucial to gaining a conviction, and a reluctant witness whose story became ever more unbelievable wouldn’t help.

I’m really sympathetic to the judge’s dilemma. These cases are never easy, especially when the victim can’t seem to understand there’s no excuse for what was done to them.

If you'd like to read something far less serious, here's this week's golf column.

January 31, 2002

Some mandates are hard to swallow; or
Why don’t you just stick it back in the trunk?

The Washington Post today reported yet another defeat of the open container law proposal in the Virginia House of Delegates, continuing a long tradition in that liberty-loving commonwealth.

Open container laws prohibit any open cans or bottles of alcohol in the passenger compartments of cars and trucks. They are intended to reduce the risk of drunken driving incidents and injuries.

Michael Shear and Lisa Rein wrote that the lead sponsor, Del. Harry R. "Bob" Purkey, has thus far tried unsuccessfully for over a decade to pass some version of the legislation:

"I'm hugely disappointed," said Purkey, who pleaded with colleagues by citing the state's 357 alcohol-related deaths last year. "I think this is tragic."

Other delegates argued that the prohibition had too tenuous a relationship to DUI concerns:

Opponents countered that banning open containers will do nothing to stop the consumption of alcohol. They said Virginians should have the right to come home from a football tailgate party with open cans of beer or liquor in their car -- as long as they don't drink and drive.

"What is the nexus between mere presence of alcohol in a car and drunk driving?" asked Del. Robert F. McDonnell (R-Virginia Beach). "The missing element is consumption."

Perhaps the reporters didn’t have enough space, but they left out an interesting and ironic aspect of the story.

By failing to pass the open container legislation, the Virginia legislature essentially accepts a Federal mandate that reduces the state's flexibility in spending Federal transportation funds. That runs counter to the way most state legislators feel about Federal funding requirements.

Under Federal law (23 U.S.C. Section 154) states are "encourage[d]" to enact open container laws. If they don’t, a set percentage of otherwise relatively unencumbered Federal-aid highway money must be transferred to a separate grant program related to highway safety.

Funds . . . must be used for alcohol-impaired driving countermeasures or enforcement of driving while intoxicated (DWI) or driving under the influence (DUI) and other related laws. A State may elect to use all or part of its transferred funds for activities eligible under the . . . Hazard Elimination Program.

This edict is simply another little reminder of the federal/state government version of The Golden Rule: whoever has the gold, makes the rules.

Section 154's penalty for non-compliance is certainly not as draconian as an outright cut in funds, but it nonetheless reduces the states' options, especially during an economic downturn.

When money is tight, earmarking money for certain uses makes other budget choices more difficult.

Thus far the prospect of being forced to use some Federal-aid money in a particular way has not led to universal acceptance by the states. A chart on the National Highway Safety Administration website shows that sixteen states and Puerto Rico have yet to adopt the open container law, leading to a forced re-allocation of $53,698,276 during FY02. That figure will double next year, assuming no states amend their DUI statutes.

Given the precarious fiscal condition that many states find themselves in right now, it will be interesting to see how long they continue to stand on principle about this particular mandate and its "incentive."

Luckily for me, it's only a short drive to The Dogfish Head for a six-pack of Shelter Pale Ale. I can always wait until I return home before I pop the first top.

January 30, 2002

Haven’t I read you somewhere before?

The great plagiarism debate continues. A Glenn Reynolds reader sent in a quote from Leonard Pitts’ great piece from September 12, and compared it to Rep. Gephardt’s post-State of the Union address, as quoted in Kausfiles.

Two extremely unrelated points:

First, the increasingly popular search for textual parallels, which the Internet makes so easy, reminds me a bit of concordances, most often used for Bible study. These are handy tools for critical analysis. For instance, passages from the four Gospels are set up in side-by-side columns. Readers can quickly see how each author depicted similar events, or where only one or two Gospels include the particular story. The discovery of the empty tomb after Christ’s resurrection is a good example, at Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20.

Until I took a college course on The English Bible As Literature, I had no idea concordances even existed--neither did Rachel Sinai, a fellow classmate. Our professor, a Quaker, told us that we were the perfect students for her class, because we had absolutely no preconceived notions about the Bible, King James version or otherwise.

Rachel’s prior exposure was limited to the Torah, and for me, Bible study just wasn’t part of the Catholic pedagogical tradition for parochial schools in the early 60’s. It was all news to us.

The exegetical debates, especially from students raised in a different religious tradition than Ms. Sinai or me, were frequently fierce.

Second, I frankly confess to having mixed feelings about plagiarism, based on personal experience.

Several years ago I won a hotly contested lawsuit, complete with extensive briefing and argument.

Significant passages from the court’s decision looked just a little too familiar. A quick check showed that the opinion directly copied a sizeable portion of one of my briefs.

I can’t say I was outraged. Quietly pleased, yes. Outraged, no.

January 29, 2002

Taking the Plunge

My 15-year-old nephew Ben really likes bowling, and he’s pretty good at it.

He’s won a gold medal, in fact, in the Delaware Special Olympics.

The Delaware Special Olympics organization is the beneficiary of The Lewes Polar Bear Plunge, a fundraiser that takes place this coming Sunday just off the Rehoboth Beach Boardwalk.

Last year over 1,500 swimmers plunged into the frigid Atlantic Ocean far enough to dive in completely, and then rushed back to their towels, bathrobes, and laughing friends with far more sense.

The Plunge took about 35 seconds, and raised over $250,000.

Last year my younger daughter joined her buddies in her middle school honor society for the Plunge. For the two prior years, however, she and I ran into the water together.

I‘m leaning toward going back in the ocean this Sunday.

For one thing, the weather prediction for February 3 is not as harsh as it was in 2000.

On that frigid Sunday, just before the start, my daughter and I and about 1000 others stood shivering in the wind. An 18-degree chill factor searched for every opening in the bathrobes covering us.

The water temperature was 34 degrees Fahrenheit, or as I like to say, about 6 degrees from solid.

To add to the fun, the tide was out, so we had to stand in wet sand, hopping from one foot to the other so that the bottoms of our feet wouldn’t go entirely numb before the Plunge.

The horn blared, and we all rushed forward. As the water hit my legs past my knees, I felt the air whoosh out of my lungs. It was a major effort simply to breathe.

I pressed on for what seemed like 50 yards, and dove in. The icy water stung the top of my head, and didn’t feel too good on the rest of me, either.

I think my legs didn’t actually touch the water as I ran back to the beach. I thought I was in a Warner Brothers cartoon.

The bottoms of my feet were wooden planks, about 1/8 inch thick. It took about 20 minutes before I started feeling a tingling sensation, and about an hour to return to normal.

Ever since our first Plunge, my daughter and I can’t stop laughing when we watch Leonardo DiCaprio hanging onto that plank in the North Atlantic, after the Titanic sinks. For us, that little bit of artistic license about the effects of freezing water on humans is just too much.

If you’d like to contribute to this year’s Special Olympics, just click here for more information. If you can take the Plunge yourself, that would be even better.

I’ll let you know Sunday how it went.

LPBPflagsm.jpg (13001 bytes)

January 28, 2002

Our Friends at the EPA

The EPA announced today that President Bush is seeking $21 million in his FY03 budget request to expand on the agency’s watershed initiatives.

Watersheds are essentially vast drainage areas, defined by hydrology. The maps developed for this effort take into account the obvious topographical elements that show where water flows. Not so obviously, the hydrologists also trace the groundwater sources for large bodies of water, such as bays and estuaries. Groundwater flows are not nearly as intuitive as the surface water elements that together make up a watershed.

Here’s how it plans to use the money:

EPA will target up to 20 of this country’s most highly-valued watersheds for grants. EPA will be working cooperatively with state governors, tribes and other interested parties on this initiative. This program will also support local communities in their efforts to expand and improve existing protection measures with tools, training and technical assistance.

On a separate page at its website, the agency goes into a bit more detail:

This strategy has as its premise that many water quality and ecosystem problems are best solved at the watershed level rather than at the individual waterbody or discharger level. Major features of a Watershed Protection Approach are: targeting priority problems, promoting a high level of stakeholder involvement, integrated solutions that make use of the expertise and authority of multiple agencies, and measuring success through monitoring and other data gathering.

It may be a bit early for optimism, but it looks like the EPA learned a lesson or two from its checkered history. That history included far too much of a one-size-fits-all, centralized command approach, with expensive litigation as the rule rather than the exception.

The problem with that regulatory enforcement concept, which this initiative recognizes by omission, is that most water pollution comes from so many diffused sources. When bays and estuaries are fed predominantly by groundwater, it’s especially hard to figure out where all the gunk is coming from that leads to algae blooms and other fun stuff.

Once you step away from point sources, it's hard to figure out who to sue.

It’s also true, though not often admitted by some in the environmental movement, that the dollars spent on cooperative watershed protection efforts in the first place are a far better use of taxpayer money than years of litigation against what are euphemistically called "potentially responsible parties." The potential is the real, in my experience, and fault plays little or no role in that designation.

The fun part of this news story was the discovery of another delightful acronym. I learned that the EPA has an Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds, or OWOW for short.

Too cool.

January 27, 2002


eagles_logo_sm.gif (2126 bytes)

'nuff said.

Thanks for the great year, though.

Today's Top Two Headlines
(with added snarky commentary)

Injunction Issued Vs. Psychic Group

The business staff at Miss Cleo’s Psychic Readers Network agreed to an injunction against some of their more questionable debt collection practices.

They probably saw it coming.

The folks at the Psychic Network were trying to collect on disputed charges from some of their customers. Is it possible they mistakenly relied on Miss Cleo for the initial credit report?

Poll Finds Enron's Taint Clings More to G.O.P. Than Democrats

Said the liberal New York Times, hopefully. (homage to the authors of the Tom Swift novels.)

This "news" story runs above the fold, at the favored top left location in the paper version.

I don't like it when a newspaper commissions a poll, interprets its results, and then publishes their interpretation of their own poll as if it were news.

I don't care whether the paper is liberal or conservative. It's not news. These polls are a created entertainment product, masquerading as a real story, and designed to push an agenda.

This one has some interesting elements:

  • Apparently the poll was half-completed when President Bush issued his denunciation of Enron. Perhaps if they had waited a day or two, or started over again in light of that story, the results would have been different. But waiting would have affected the next factor.
  • The poll's results were intended to be published just before the State of the Union address. The comments are obviously intended to influence the content of the speech.

These two stories are related:

  • Miss Cleo's operation is formally designated as entertainment, but it is obviously intended to bring in cash from some of the more gullible members of our society, who may actually believe what she says.
  • The New York Times/CBS polls, and others like them, are formally designated as news, but the polls are obviously intended to sway opinion among some of the more gullible members of our society, who may actually believe what they say.

If the Times and other newspapers want to publish these creative articles, they should at least run them in a "Polls" section, and not in the news portion of the paper. Maybe there's some space near the horoscopes.

Contact Information:

Fritz Schranck
P.O. Box 88
Nassau, DE  19969

Home Page
Table of Essays
Links to the Weekly Archives

Official small print disclaimer: This is, after all, a personal web site. Any opinions or comments I express here are my own, and don't necessarily reflect the official position of my work as a government attorney or any of my clients.

That fact may become obvious later on, but it needs to be said here anyway.

Frederick H. Schranck 2002