Saturday, April 27, 2013

It's a lot more than seven words you can't say on the Internet, at least not if you don't want Big Brother watching you

I saw a link to this Daily Mail article on Facebook, Revealed: Hundreds of words to avoid using online if you don't want the government spying on you (and they include 'pork', 'cloud' and 'Mexico')."

It would all be so silly if this were something from the movies. Indeed, there were all sorts of movies about overbearing, ridiculously suspicious governments during the Cold War Era -- it's just that the government in question was always on the other side of the Iron Curtain. When we pretended not to be scared of the Soviet Union, we made fun of the Reds (Silk Stockings, for example. And, as much as we fretted about them we worried about how the long-term conflict was changing us. Sometimes we tried to laugh about it (Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb); sometimes, we tried to face our fear head-on (Fail-Safe).

But this is real life, not reel life. And no one is trying for laughs. Yet, look at this list of words.

(You can find these lists here, starting at p. 20 of the 2011 Analyst's Desktop Binder, apparently published by the Department of Homeland Security, National Operations Center.)

Your tax dollars at work: With this list, all lawyers are necessarily under suspicion: "mitigation" is a suspicious word, and so is "breach." Don't write about contract disputes on line! Doctors, too, are under suspicion (as are sick people): "Influenza" is suspicious, and so too "virus" and "symptoms." With this list, how can Tom Skilling still be at large? -- look at all the suspicious words about weather.

In My Fair Lady, when Rex Harrison took Audrey Hepburn to Ascot, he tried to limit her to talking only of the weather and her health -- but things didn't work out so well. Still, at the time, Eliza won attention from only Freddy Eynsford-Hill. Today, with these keywords, she might also have attracted attention from DHS.

It's all well and good to make fun of lists like this. It's just... it's just someone in the government thought this list was a good idea. And it wasn't just one someone in government. And it wasn't just one rogue bureaucrat who thought it would be a good idea to compile dossiers on mostly legal 'Occupy' protests, as this Partnership for Civil Justice Fund website documents.

And c|net reports just this week, "U.S. gives big, secret push to Internet surveillance."

History records that Ben Franklin was leaving the closing session of the Constitutional Convention when he was stopped by a lady in the street. "Well, Doctor," said the lady, "what have we got? A Republic or a Monarchy?" Franklin responded, "A Republic, if you can keep it."

This isn't how we do that.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Judge fines himself when cellphone goes off in court

Photo credit WZZM 13, Grand Rapids
Judge Raymond P. Voet, the Chief Judge of the Ionia County, Michigan District 64-A Court, has a no cellphone policy posted in his courtroom. Phones interrupting his court are subject to confiscation. The phone owner will be cited for contempt. Typically, Judge Voet has imposed a $25 fine on cellphone violators before the phone can be reclaimed.

On April 12, as a prosecutor made a closing argument during a jury trial, the cellphone in Judge Voet's shirt pocket "began to emit a voice, [loudly requesting] that Voet give the phone voice commands for voice dialing." Embarrassed, Voet shushed his phone -- and then cited himself for contempt and, at the next recess, paid a $25 fine. Voet said if he can't live by the rules he enforces he has no business enforcing the rules.

The not-quite-a-legal-maxim involved in this case is what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

The story has made headlines around the world (see, for example, Lowering the Bar, Overlawyered, the Pakistan Daily Times, Ireland's Daily Edge, the Sydney Morning Herald, or Argentina's El Diario 24).

Now this is good... and bad.

It's a great stuff-happens, aw-shucks story, and the judge was obviously a good sport in following his own rules. It should have given readers of the Ionia Sentinel-Standard a warm chuckle.

But it's a little unsettling that a nice little story like this goes round-the-world viral. Remember: Dog-bites-man is not news, what makes the news is man-bites-dog. In other words, what makes the news is the rare, the unexpected, the surprising.

Is it really so surprising that a judge would follow the rules that he himself set? Gosh, I certainly hope that wouldn't be the case -- but a lot of editors seem to disagree.

And... if the common perception is that what Judge Voet did was rare, unexpected, surprising... newsworthy... how can we overcome it?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

"You never call, you never come over -- I'm gonna sue you"

The classic parental lament... updated?

Could be -- at least in China, starting July 1, according to an April 6 article in the Toronto Star, "Chinese parents can sue adult kids — for not visiting enough."

The measure may be a contemporary expression of a traditional Chinese value, but it's also a cost-cutting measure. According to the Star article, "China’s working-age citizens, ages 15 to 59, fell as a share of the population last year, and the National Committee on Aging estimates people 60 years and older will rise to 487 million by 2053 from 185 million in 2011." Children who care for their parents relieve the state of that burden.

China isn't the only country with a graying population. Might we see similar legislation here at some point?

A similar American law would raise a host of questions.

How often would a child have to visit to avoid legal trouble?

Would an only child have to visit more often than one of six siblings?

How many phone calls would be deemed equivalent to one in-person visit? Should a call from a child who lives 1,000 miles away count less than a call from one who lives 10 miles away?

Would holiday visits count more -- or less -- than visits on non-holiday weekends?

Does a visit count if the child brings his or her laundry? (Not if Mom has to do it, surely.) What if Mom cooks?