Archive for October, 2007

The high cost of death

October 31, 2007

It’s difficult to argue that the death penalty is a deterrent (except for the person being executed), since capital punishment is such a crap shoot. The chance of a murderer actually facing the ultimate penalty is somewhat greater than my chance of winning the lottery, but only somewhat. A lengthy appeals process so far removes the punishment from the crime to which it is attached that no rational person would wory about it. Then there is the cost of such cases:

The cost of trying to put Daniel Ray Wilkes to death in a triple murder case is approaching $300,000.

If convicted, Wilkes, 39, faces the death penalty in the April 2006 deaths of an Evansville mother and her two young daughters.

[. . .]

Sites said the average defense cost for a death penalty case in Indiana is about $375,000. She said that accounts for expenses through trial.

“So $291,000 at this point, no, I would not say that is unusual,” she said. “There will still be expenditures at trial, but it doesn’t sound out of line.”

Such amounts strain the budgets of many jurisdictions. Even if a prosecutor might want to bring 10 cases a year, the county might be able to afford only one or two a year.

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Too late

October 31, 2007

Gerald Ford: Reagan was a lightweight; Clinton is a sex addict; Carter was the weakest president ever; Bush invaded Iraq for the wrong reasons. And, by the way, I’m dead and you can’t touch me, nyah, nyah, nyah:

Yet it feels a little weird, perhaps even a bit unfair, to hear now what Ford knew would not be printed until his death. He never spoke this harshly in public as a major political leader of our time, and so it could be rationally concluded that he did not want to take the heat for these words and wanted to have it both ways. And how can those attacked in the book answer a dead man?

What good are opinions if you don’t express them when they matter?

Splitting hairs

October 31, 2007

A federal appeals panel has overturned, by a 2-1 vote, a lower court ruling in Indiana’s legislative prayer case. As a practical matter, I guess that means Indiana House sessions can be opened with any kind of prayer they want to open them with, to Jesus or Confucias or even the flying spaghetti monster. But the court actually ducked the constitutional question of whether sectarian prayers impermissbly intertwine government and religion. Instead, it ruled that the pesky taxpayers who brought the suit have no standing:

The plaintiffs have not tied their status as taxpayers to the House’s allegedly unconstitutional practice of regularly offering a sectarian prayer. They have not shown that the legislature has extracted from them tax dollars for the establishment and implementation of a program that violates the Establishment Clause.

So if I can’t show they spent a lot of money doing something, I can’t question the action’s constitutionality. The dissenting judge said this:

Were this a simple Establishment Clause case in which they complained about hearing the prayers as they walked past the door of the House Chamber on their usual way to work, they may very well have been entitled to proceed.

I’m just a simple country editorialist, but this seems to me to be some mighty fine hair-splitting.

I don’t have all that much sympathy for the plaintiffs. They’re raising a lot of fuss over something that doesn’t have a whit of effect in the real world.  But I’m not clear on why they don’t have standing.  Taxpayers aren’t able to claim standing just because they don’t like what their money is spent on. But the court has recognized an exception in First Amendment cases. The Supreme Court case cited by the appeals court, this year’s Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation, involved the Bush administration’s faith-based initiative and basically said (if I understand it correctly) that the First Amendment exception doesn’t apply to executive branch spending. Our prayer case is strictly a legislative decision.

Cool

October 31, 2007

Something else I could have used in high school:

FRANKLIN, Tenn. – Even before the bell rings each morning, students at Centennial High School are lined up to get into the library. But they aren’t necessarily looking for books.

They are waiting for a morning cup of joe at the Cougar Cafe, a coffee shop run by students.

Coffeehouses are springing up in high school libraries around the country, marking a big departure from the days when librarians sternly prohibited food, drinks and talking.

Some health advocates wonder whether high school students really need any more caffeine, or the calories in that caramel mochaccino.

Naturally, the health-advocate busybodies don’t like the idea. But consider what a service is being done for these kids. When I was in high school, I had a cup of coffee before heading out of the house, then had to wait till lunch to get my next fix. (We had an open lunch that lasted an hour. Sometimes I went to the bus or train station; and there was this dinky little restaurant just off of Calhoun Street near Lincoln Life.)

I developed a taste for coffee when I was about 10, with my parents’ blessing. I guess they figured it was better for me to indulge at home under adult supervision rather than go out on my own, lurking at caffeine dives and getting in with the wrong crowd.

Sick of it

October 31, 2007

Where were these people when I was in school and really could have used them?

Feeling like playing hooky, but nervous about getting caught? The Excused Absence Network has got your back.

For about $25, students and employees can buy excuse notes that appear to come from doctors or hospitals. Other options include a fake jury summons or an authentic-looking funeral service program complete with comforting poems and a list of pallbearers.

Some question whether the products are legal or ethical — or even work — but the company’s owners say they’re just helping people do something they would have done anyway.

Calling in sick when you’re not is an art form. People who can’t even be bothered to do the work themselves are really, really lazy. Like I would know — not only have I never called in with a phony sick excuse, I’ve come to work many times when I could have have legitimately stayed home sick. I’m not trying to be a good two-shoes; I just know myself well enough to know I’d feel too guilty to enjoy the experience.

Obviously a lot of people don’t feel the same way. According to a survey cited in the story, only about one-third of those calling in sick are actually ill.

Lost wages

October 31, 2007

What am I missing here?

If the high school dropouts from Indiana’s class of 2007 had instead earned diplomas along with their classmates, the state’s economy could have benefited from an additional $6.4 billion in wages over these students’ lifetimes, according to conservative calculations by the Alliance for Excellent Education, in its brief The High Cost of High School Dropouts: What the Nation Pays for Inadequate High Schools. The brief updates calculations made by the Alliance that looked at lost wages for the class of 2006.

The average annual income for a high school dropout in 2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, was almost $10,000 less than for a high school graduate. Graduating all students, therefore, increases overall earnings potential, which, in turn, benefits each state and the nation with increased purchasing power and higher tax receipts.

If you persuade one potential dropout to stay in school, OK, I get it. That person is likely to earn $10,000 more a year than he or she would have otherwise. But if they all stay in school? The income disparity is based on the fact there are a certain number of jobs paying various amounts in salaries, and the people with the most education get the better jobs. But if all our students become high school graduates, will all the lower-paying jobs suddenly disappear, or will higher-paying jobs suddenly be there for everybody? Explain to me how this works.

Responsibility and liability

October 31, 2007

The Indiana Court of Appeals has said that the city of Gary can go ahead with its attempts to make gun manufacturers liable for guns that end up in the hands of criminals. As the case heads for the Indiana Supreme Court, the two sides will argue whether the federal shield law protecting the manufacturers should prevail or whether the state’s nuisance law should govern. But the isssue ultimately is about where the line should be drawn between moral responsibility and legal culpability:

The ruling stems from a suit by Gary that resulted from a sting operation in 1998 that revealed that six northern Indiana gun dealers provided more than 60 percent of the crime guns recovered in Gary, Siebel said.

Some dealers were in the top 20 dealers in the United States selling crime guns.

The usual argument against suits such as Gary’s is that they try to put the responsibility in the wrong place — i.e., somewhere other than on the person directly causing harm. It’s like holding a liquor manufacturer liable because some people commit crimes while drunk or a car manufacturer liable because some people drive recklessly.

But surely it’s a little more interesting than that. With its sting operation, Gary can make at least a plausible argument that some gun dealers were acting irresponsibly and perhaps even criminally. They weren’t just selling the guns to law-abiding citizens and then falling down in shock when a few of the guns ended up in the wrong hands.  They seemed to be working pretty hard to be reckless.

That being the case, how high up should the liability go? What if it can be shown that a specific gun manufacturer knew that a certain dealer was actively funneling guns to criminals and did nothing to get that dealer off its distribution list? If I make, say,  quality knives, and one of my products one day ends up in the hands of someone who stabs his father with it, that’s not on me. But what if I sell them to a wholesaler who I learn goes out of his way to sell them to those convicted of violent felonies? If I continue to provide them to him anyway, how much of the mayhem is on me?

As you may know from reading this blog, I’m a strong supporter of the Second Amendment — I’m not going to be cheering for the Brady Center anytime soon. But we should be careful not to automatically dismiss everything the other side says. Any time it is possible to say someone or some entity has a moral responsibility for something, it is at least a debatable point whether there is some legal liability.

Hot air

October 30, 2007

Damn that global warming!

Unless a dramatic and historical flurry of activity occurs in the next 9 weeks, 2007 will rank as a historically inactive TC year for the Northern Hemisphere as a whole. During the past 30 years, only 1977, 1981, and 1983 have had less activity to date (January-TODAY, Accumulated Cyclone Energy). For the period of June 1 – TODAY, only 1977 has experienced LESS tropical cyclone activity than 2007.

Modern life

October 30, 2007

Irony obvious, no sarcastic comment necessary:

AUSTIN — The Texas State Library and Archives Commission is declaring there are too many state reports.

It says so in a 668-page report.

The project took 18 months and included the commission’s small team canvassing more than 170 agencies, and public colleges and universities, checking on all the reports they are assigned to do.

Time bandits

October 30, 2007

There were actually stories last week about the late start of daylight saving time this year: Don’t set your clocks back yet! Wait, wait, don’t panic!! Now there is this, trying to help us cope with what is apparently a national trauma:

The government says the time shift could save energy.

Area psychologists say it will also make us stressed, leave some depressed and possibly weaken our immune systems. And we might never recover.

A recent study by German scientists suggests that the internal body clock never adjusts for many people and might impact sleep patterns throughout the summer and fall.

In short, it’s a “nightmare” for John Olson of Lower Southampton.

“The changing all of the clocks in my house, including the three wall clocks, stove, microwave, TV, TiVo, DVD player, VCR, clock radio, two wristwatches, two cars, two computers, two cell phones, the indoor and outdoor thermometer and clock, outdoor light timers and security system takes about two hours twice a year,” Olson said.

“Manipulating time causes mental trauma for all the animals, from the squirrels we almost run over every day on our way to work, our pets, the cows on the dairy farms who expect to be milked at about the same time every day, and roosters who are very time sensitive,” he added.

“Let’s say some poor citizen gets it wrong and always sets his clock ahead. After about 12 years the government will have stolen a whole day from this unfortunate soul,” he continued.

We are descended from people who crossed the oceans to get here. Who braved the dangers of the plains in covered wagons. Who fought wars to keep us free. Who suffered through the great flu pandemic and the depression. We have come to this. No wonder the terrorists thought we would fold.

Daylight saving time begins Sunday. Get ready to set your clocks back an hour. If YOU THINK YOU CAN HANDLE IT.

Ignorance of the law . . .

October 30, 2007

Teens don’t know the law on anything. Why should it be a shock that they are unaware of the laws governing sex?

ATLANTA – The tough Georgia law that sent Genarlow Wilson to prison for having oral sex with a fellow teenager has been watered down. But in Georgia — and in many other states — it’s still a crime for teenagers to have sex, even if they’re close in age.

Legal experts say it’s rare for prosecutors to seek charges. But, as the Wilson case illustrates, they can and sometimes do.

And the rising popularity of sex offender registries can often mean that a teen nabbed for nonviolent contact with someone a year or two younger might face the same public stigma as a dangerous sexual predator.

[. . .]

Lawyers and health educators say most teens — and even many parents — are unaware that even consensual teenage sex is often a crime. The patchwork of laws and ages from state to state leaves many confused and critics say more education is badly needed.

Education about what? The law, or sensible behavior? Certainly we can go too far in criminalizing teen sexual activity. But we have already gone too far in condoning and accommodating it, and we are paying the price.

On the path again

October 30, 2007

I have such a busy life these days. But I couldn’t refuse this interview of me by a distinguished visitor to our fair state, which I repeat in part here:

Dalai Lama: In my spiritual journeys, I keep hearing your name brought up. What do you have to share with us?

Leo: Always just be who you are. That way, you won’t have to remember which face you revealed.

D.L.: That’s quite an insight. How did you come by it?

L.: Oh, painfully. All wisdom is purchased by owning up to our past shortcomings.

D.L.: Who is most in need of such wisdom today?

L.: Anyone in government, for a start.

D.L.: Such as . . . ?

L.: Well, these clowns from FEMA:

The U.S. government’s main disaster-response agency apologized on Friday for having its employees pose as reporters in a hastily called news conference on California’s wildfires that no news organizations attended.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, still struggling to restore its image after the bungled handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, issued the apology after The Washington Post published details of the Tuesday briefing.

D.L.: What can we learn from this? 

L: Those who have the responsibility to keep the public informed must be especially careful to be honest and above-board. Only then can there be a true republic fueled by the informed consent of the governed.

D.L.: Such as journalists?

L.: Oh, no. They stopped trying to be honest a long time ago. For true enlightenment today, for honesty and sincerity and plain-speaking without hidden agendas, you must go to the blogs.

The green mile

October 30, 2007

We’re supposed to care about the world we leave behind, whether we have made it better or worse. But this is ridiculous:

Klara Tammany’s mother didn’t want a typical American funeral. No embalming, no metal casket, not even a funeral home.

When she died after a long illness a couple of years ago, family members and friends washed and dressed her body and put it in a homemade wooden casket, which was laid across two sawhorses in the dining room of her condo in Brunswick.

Then, for two days, friends and family visited, brought cut flowers, wrote messages on the casket’s lid and said goodbye.

“We had this wake, and it was wonderful,” Tammany said.

The home funeral is part of an emerging trend that some believe will change the way Americans deal with death. Send-offs like the one Tammany planned with her mother are called “green” funerals because they avoid preservative chemicals and steel and concrete tombs, all designed to keep a body from decomposing naturally.

After the wake, Tammany’s mother was cremated and her ashes buried near the family’s camp in Monmouth.

Another alternative that is just emerging in Maine is natural burial in a green cemetery: wooded graveyards that ban chemicals and caskets that won’t easily decompose.

Body in the house for a few days? Natural, yes. Connects us to the eternal we try not to think about? Check. The way it was done for a long time? You bet.

But creepy. There’s a reason we distanced ourselves from death by creating funeral homes and preservatives and postmortem cosmetics. “He looks so natural” may be superficial and insincere, but it’s still better than, “Eeuuw!”

When I go, fill my body with mercury and dump it in Lake Michigan. Deal with it, Chicago.

The trigger

October 30, 2007

I’m sorry, but it wasn’t my fault. He made me do it:

A convicted sex offender says she was manipulated into horrific acts against children in her own family.

Wednesday afternoon the southern Indiana woman told her side of the story only to WHAS-TV, from jail.

“Who knew that your life would go to forgive my phrase “hell in a hand basket?” says Jennifer Jacobi.  “But it can because I had a really typical normal life before that. I had everything and I threw it all away.”

In the small southern Indiana community of Greenville Indiana, Jennifer Jacobi was living out her days as a wife, mother and substitute teacher.

She may be sorry now, but Jacobi, who spoke to me today from the Harrison County jail, says her world came crashing down when she met Richard Prado from Maine.

“He made me feel like none of the stuff we were doing was wrong,” says Jacobi. “I knew it was but he made me feel like it wasn’t.”

The two connected over the internet – Jacobi says she thought she was in love with him.

When “Fatal Attraction” came out, some people said it was unrealistic because a woman that psychotic wouldn’t be able to function normally and undetected in everyday life. But that psychosis was dormant until she met the catalyst who triggered it. Most of us are capable of doing bad things we never quite do. But something really bad — murder, child molesting — will be brought out by one catalyst or another. This woman was a monster waiting to happen.

Or am I being too judgmental?

Luv-A-Bully

October 30, 2007

So, there were hundreds of pit bulls in downtown Indianapolis, and there was widespread panic, and police and rescue units had to race to prevent a tragedy of epic proportions. Just kidding. It actually went quite well:

Pit bulls were on parade Saturday as proud owners showed off their pooches dressed in Halloween costumes while they marched up and down Downtown streets with hardly a bark.

That was just the point of the Luv-A-Bully March: Pit bulls are wonderful dogs, not the monsters they sometimes are depicted as being.

About 200 people and their pets gathered on Monument Circle, including LBD, or Little Black Dog, as Lynda Gerhart, 41, calls her Staffordshire bull terrier.

“It fosters good relationships in the community,” Gerhart said of the second annual march. Gerhart said the event allows other people to see “these kinds of dogs aren’t bad dogs.”

If pit bulls are outlawed, only outlaws will have pit bulls. Which is to say that the dogs, though powerful, can become loving companions if they are treated that way. And they can become dangerous beasts if they are abused. Pit bulls represent, in microcosm, the best and worst we are capable of.

The other race

October 30, 2007

Thank goodness there is something going to take our minds off politics. It’s even something important:

Did you ever think you’d see the day when a defending Super Bowl champion could be undefeated through eight weeks of the season, playing at home, with all their key players expected to play, and an underdog?

That’s what we have this week, as the unstoppable juggernaut that is the New England Patriots is a four-point favorite over the defending champion, 7-0 Indianapolis Colts for Sunday’s monster game at the RCA Dome in Indy.

Of course, considering that the game is in Indianapolis against the defending champion, being only a four-point favorite . . . not exactly a blowout. It will all depend on which team really shows up, who is complacent and who has the zeal.

I miss my vacation already.

Polls a part

October 30, 2007

The News-Sentinel and NewsChannel 15 have released the results of their poll in the mayor’s race, and Democrat Tom Henry has a 14-point lead over Republican Matt Kelty:

Fifty-one percent said they would vote for Democratic mayoral candidate Tom Henry, while Republican mayoral candidate Matt Kelty received 37 percent of the vote, according to a poll for The News-Sentinel/News Channel 15. But, of course, the election was not held between Oct. 17 and 19, when the poll by Maryland-based Research 2000 was conducted — and both parties say the race is still wide open.

Maybe not wide open, but considering the nine-count indictment against Kelty and all the controversy attending his campaign, it’s not exactly a blowout for Henry, either. It’s become a banal cliche to say that a race will depend on “which voters show up,” but that’s true enough this time to fall back on. Kelty’s supporters are committed and passionate — a large percentage of them will get to the polls. If the turnout is low, that will mean Republican moderates are staying home and/or Democrats are complacent, and Kelty probably wins.

I’m not crazy about poll-driven journalism, which helps create poll-driven public policy, but there’s no getting away from polls being a part of the process during the election season. In a normal election year, they can be one factor affecting the election, contributing to the complacency of one side and the zeal of the other. But this isn’t exactly a normal election.

Easy money

October 29, 2007

Today’s “statement of the obvious“:

Roughly one-third of lottery winners find themselves in serious financial trouble or bankrupt within five years of turning in their lucky numbers, according to Chelmsford wealth counselor Szifra Birke.

“For many people who come into wealth suddenly — whether they win the lottery, receive an insurance settlement or an unexpected inheritance — if they have not acquired good money skills prior to this windfall, often they struggle and make poor choices,” Birke said.

For every lottery winner, there are thousands of recipients of government transfer payments with those same lack of money skills. That’s why the government just keeps spending billions and billions on problems that won’t be solved.

Head ’em up, rawhide

October 29, 2007

Good lord:

It is an agonising procedure now considered too cruel to inflict on animals.

But human branding has become the latest twisted fashion trend for young professionals who regard straightforward tattoos and piercings as passe.

They happily pay up to £70 to have red-hot metal brands or cauterising pens, which burn at more than 1,000C, permanently scar their skin with a design.

The technique, which was once a brutal punishment for violent criminals and army deserters, carries the risk of nerve damage and infection.

They should be branded with an “A” on their foreheads, standing for, well, you know. Every company in the world, including the one I work for, is into “branding” these days. Why not people, too?

Heck of an air filter

October 29, 2007

If you read enough, eventually you’ll stumble across everything:

BEIJING–To all the other superlatives used to describe China we may now add the fact that it has the tastiest cigarettes. I don’t pretend to be a connoisseur, having only begun smoking a couple weeks ago, but then again I’ve been inhaling the smoke of Chinese cigarettes for years.

The country consumes about one-third of the world’s cigarettes. As a student, I often carried a pack just to offer to others. Want to start a conversation on a train in China? Shake the pack. Asking directions? Hold out a stick and say, “chou yi ger.” If the guy is already smoking, he’ll tuck it behind his ear for later.

After years of resisting, a friend in Shanghai gave me the perfect excuse to start smoking. China has become so polluted, he told me, that it’s better to breathe through a cigarette filter than just take in the air on its own. And if your lungs are going to get shot to hell anyway, you might as well enjoy it. So, well into middle age, I figured that it was probably a good time to take up the smoking habit. The result? I enjoy it so much that I don’t know why I didn’t take it up earlier.

That sounds like a much more sensible way to live than the way most of us do. Start all your bad habits in middle age. That way, by the time they start to kill you, you’ll be dead anyway.

Hair of the dog

October 29, 2007

Rats. I missed this while on vacation, so I wasn’t able to get my bid in:

A hair lock snipped from Ernesto “Che” Guevara before his burial in 1967 sold for $100,000 at auction Thursday to a Houston-area bookstore owner who called the Marxist “one of the greatest revolutionaries of the 20th century.”

Bill Butler, 61, won the 3-inch tress clipped from Guevara’s mane after placing the only bid. His bid matched the reserve price.

Butler, who bid over the phone, said he was a collector of 1960s items and that the hair lock would fit in well.

“A lot of his writings are still worth reading today,” said Butler, whose comments were relayed by a Heritage employee who spoke to him on the phone immediately after the auction.

Worth reading today. Yeah.

This isn’t normal

October 29, 2007

This stuff is all over TV, so it would have been too much to expect that it wouldn’t seep into the local news:

If you hear bumps in the night, don’t be afraid of no ghost. Call for help.

Just don’t call the Ghostbusters. Instead, call the Indiana Ghost Trackers.

The group’s name explains who and what they are, veteran ghost hunter Michael Weides says. The non-profit organization – established in 2000 – has 300 members in 17 chapters throughout the state and Chicago.

[. . .]

“I don’t think anyone has laughed at me or called me crazy,” Weides says. “There are unexplained stories out there. This isn’t black and white; there is a lot of gray.”

Well, let me be the first. I laugh at you. You are crazy.

Hey, big spender

October 29, 2007

This is no big shock:

George W. Bush, despite all his recent bravado about being an apostle of small government and budget-slashing, is the biggest spending president since Lyndon B. Johnson. In fact, he’s arguably an even bigger spender than LBJ.

“He’s a big government guy,” said Stephen Slivinski, director of budget studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian research group.

The numbers are clear, credible and conclusive, added David Keating, executive director of the Club for Growth, a budget-watchdog group.

“He’s a big spender,” Keating said. “No question about it.”

Take almost any yardstick and Bush generally exceeds the spending of his predecessors.

His spending isn’t just about the war. Domestic spending on such things as education, Medicare and agriculture have had massive increases. This will make voters looking for that “true conservative” among Republican candidates more than a little skeptical of such a claim.

No candy for strangers

October 29, 2007

Is there no end to our racial obsession?

Two-thirds of parents say their children will trick-or-treat this Halloween, but fewer minorities will let their kids go door to door, with some citing safety worries, a poll shows.

The survey found that 73 percent of whites versus 56 percent of minorities said their children will trick-or-treat on Wednesday.

Trick-or-trick night remains one of the oddest remnants of the past remaining in our culture. For the record, I will continue my long history of not participating in this ritual. Kids shouldn’t take candy from strangers, so I don’t think I should give any to strange kids. I will be at a friend’s house. We will make a tent by draping a blanket over the dining room table, and we will play cards there by flashlight.

Imitation of life

October 29, 2007

On many of my vacations, I can’t ignore the news. I’ve even driven miles out of my way in strange towns to look for the local newspaper. Last week, though, I made every effort to avoid staying informed by mostly reading and watching old movies. With any luck, most of the items that would have consumed me last week won’t even come to my attention until they have slipped into the current-events category or, even better, history.

One of the things that did slip through was this little piece about the noisy parrot in Muncie:

A noisy parrot that likes to imitate sounds helped save a man and his son from a house fire by mocking a smoke alarm, the bird’s owner says.

[. . .]

The smoke alarm had activated, but it was the bird’s call that caught Conwell’s attention.

That’s the kind of story I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention to during the course of a regular week of blogging. But it seems more interesting in hindsight than any of the political stuff that might have captivated me. A parrot would die of boredom around here listening for sounds to imitate.