Parental Eavesdropping

Like many states, New York has a law that bars recording communications unless at least one of the parties to the communication gives consent.  Earlier this week, the highest court in New York considered whether parents can legally eavesdrop when one of the parties to the communication is their child — and held that parents can do so under certain circumstances.

The ruling came in a case where the divorced father of a five-year-old boy, over an open phone line, heard his son having a “violent conversation” with his ex-wife’s bodybuilder boyfriend.  The father recorded the conversation.  (Disturbingly, though, the father apparently didn’t contact authorities to give them the recording until months later, when the ex-wife and boyfriend were arrested after neighbors heard screaming and crying coming from the house.)  The boyfriend argued that the recorded conversation shouldn’t be allowed into evidence at his trial because neither party to the conversation consented.

eavesdropping-1stepmother-helpThe New York Court of Appeals disagreed, and concluded that the father had “a good faith, objectively reasonable belief that it was necessary for the welfare of his son to record the violent conversation he found himself listening to.”  Three of the judges on that court dissented, concluding that the ruling raised policy concerns that should be left up to the legislature and could raise issues in divorce situations, with the parties to the break-up planting bugs to record conversations between their children and the other party to the divorce.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone would argue that a parent who heard their little boy being threatened with violence couldn’t making a recording to try to help their child — but then again, it’s hard to imagine that a father who made such a recording wouldn’t immediately take the recording to the police to try to get his son out of a dangerous situation.  The father’s inaction in the case makes the ugly divorce scenarios that apparently motivated the dissenting judges seem more plausible.

But one person’s bad judgment shouldn’t mask a key reality:  parents should be permitted to eavesdrop and intervene when they honestly believe their child is at risk.  Whether it’s bullying on a school bus, or a situation where a child is falling under the sway of a sexual predator, there are many instances where parents could legitimately decide that making a recording of a conversation involving their child was the right thing to do.  It’s not snooping, it’s trying to protect your kid — and we shouldn’t let speculative worries about what might happen in other worst-case scenarios prevent parents from following their basic parenting instincts when it comes to trying to do right by their children.

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Time For A New Debate Format

Kish suggested we watch last night’s Republican debate.  Against my better judgment, I agreed.  I should have heeded my judgment, I think.

I’m not a fan of these sprawling debates for a lot of reasons, but the first one hit me as soon as the debate began:  I just don’t like the idea of the moderators picking one person to answer a question about a given topic, and I don’t like the candidates’ ability to not answer the question.  So when the moderator began the debate by asking Ted Cruz about the economy (why Cruz?) and Cruz launched instead into an obviously prepared speech about the ten American sailors captured by Iran, it set my teeth to grinding immediately.

GOP Presidential Candidates Debate In Myrtle BeachThis is a format destined for disaster on a stage with seven candidates hoping to get air time.  At first the candidates act politely and hold their fire as one of their competitors gets to address a juicy topic, but eventually they can’t help themselves and start talking very loudly so that they get to weigh in and get their faces on TV again.  There’s no meaningful way to discipline candidates who go off topic, either.  What are you going to do, tell one of them that they don’t get to respond for the rest of the debate because they didn’t answer a question?  If that rule had been applied last night, basically every candidate would have been silenced long before the debate’s official end.

If I had my choice, you’d start one of these pre-primary debates with opening statements by each of the candidates, so they could vent their canned speeches and you’d at learn about whatever topics were of most importance to them.  I’d establish the order by picking names out of a hat.  Then, once those preliminaries are out of the way, ask a question about a topic and have each candidate respond to the same question.  So long as the question dealt with an important topic, and was not of the “if you were a tree, what kind of tree would you want to be” variety, the candidates themselves would discipline each other to stick to the subject, the way Chris Christie did last night when neither Cruz nor Rubio answered a question about entitlements.  You couldn’t blow off an important topic without the next person in line immediately criticizing you for dodging it.

And I suppose time-limit buzzers are inevitable, especially when seven politicians are on one stage, but they give the debates an unfortunate game show quality.  And, as a candidate’s answer proceeds, I find myself anticipating the buzzer rather than paying much attention to the latter part of the candidate’s response.  The candidates blow right through the buzzers, anyway.  I’d rather have the moderator politely tell the candidate that their time has expired.

Who won last night’s debate?  Beats me.  I thought Trump really zinged Cruz on Cruz’s ill-advised dismissal of “New York values,” recalling how New Yorkers pulled together and moved forward after 9/11 and leaving Cruz to do nothing but keep a frozen smile on his face and no doubt think, inwardly, that he had just taken a self-inflicted wound.   I don’t think those kinds of point-scoring exchanges ultimately mean much in a multi-candidate field, but I do think that, with all the problems we are facing, we don’t need politicians who make cheap appeals to regionalism and pit one part of the country against another.  I was glad to see Cruz take a haymaker.

As for the rest of the debate, Trump obviously has no real substance behind the catch phrases and bloviating, but the other candidates can’t quite figure out how to deal with him.  It’s like they’re trying to climb over each other while hoping that some day, somebody will vote Trump off the island, while Trump stands at the center stage lectern, scowling.  They can’t figure out why people are going for Trump and I can’t, either.

Tat Trouble

In case you’re looking for another reason to not get a tattoo, let me be of assistance — medical researchers are finding that a measurable portion of people who get inked report skin reactions which can last for months, or longer.

A recent study published in the thrillingly named journal Contact Dermatitis interviewed 300 New Yorkers with tats in the area around Central Park in June 2013.  (Wouldn’t you love to know, by the way, whether it took more than 15 minutes to find 300 inked people around Central Park, and how many of the people approached told the researchers to stick it?)  Ten percent of respondents reported having problems with their body art, ranging from rashes to itching, swelling, infections, delaying healing, and skin bumps, with six percent saying the problems continued for more than four months.  Some of the reactions appear to be responses caused by the body’s immune system.

The study also indicates that conditions seem to be related to the color of the ink used, with skin problems reported for red ink at levels disproportionate to the commonness of red ink tattoos. Researchers don’t yet know whether the reactions are due to the ink itself, or to brighteners or preservatives used with the ink — but then, tattoo-related conditions haven’t exactly been a hot topic in the medical research field.  That’s unfortunate because, as Dr. Marie Leger, spokesperson for the study, said, “The skin is a highly immune-sensitive organ, and the long-term consequences of repeatedly testing the body’s immune system with injected dyes and colored inks are poorly understood.”  No kidding!

If you’ve ever had poison ivy or a bad rash, you know that there are few things more maddening than persistently itchy skin.  I can’t imagine dealing with it for months, or even years.  With tattoos becoming increasingly common — Dr. Leger estimates one in five adult Americans has at least one tattoo — maybe it’s time to take a careful and systematic look at just what risks are involved in getting permanently inked up.

Helping Birds Make It Home

Who doesn’t like birds — at least, birds other than pigeons?  They are pretty and colorful, they add happy chirping and warbling to our world, and they are a pleasure to watch as they soar, dip, and dive and make us wish we could fly, too.

But birds have a big problem.  Every year, millions of them are killed in urban settings for reasons collectively known as fatal light attraction.  They become disoriented by the mirrored surface of an office building, believe the reflection of a tree is the real thing, and are killed by the resulting collision.  Or they think they have a clear flight path to the tree and pond in the glass-walled atrium and fatally crash into the unseen window. If you’ve ever seen a bird strike a window — from inside or outside — and heard the terrible hollow thud the unfortunate bird makes you probably won’t forget it.

Scientists also worry that the bright lights of cities may be altering migration patterns because the lights interfere with the bird’s ability to navigate by starlight.  In addition, bird deaths from fatal light attraction interfere with normal evolutionary processes.  Whereas survival of the fittest is supposed to mean the genes of the strongest, healthiest birds are passed to the next generation, death from a window collision can strike down even the healthiest of our flying friends.

People are trying to do something about the problem of fatal light attraction.  The National Audubon Society sponsors a “lights out” program designed to reduce light confusion, with local chapters across the country.   In Canada, an organization called FLAP — for Fatal Light Awareness Program — is encouraging the construction and lighting of buildings in ways that will help to minimize unnecessary bird deaths.  And authorities are starting to take notice, too.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo just announced that non-essential outdoor lights will be turned off in state-run buildings between 11 p.m. and dawn during the peak migratory seasons in the spring and fall.

Right now, there’s a bird outside my window, chirping with pleasure as dawn approaches.  Fewer soulless mirrored buildings, an end to generic office building atriums, and turning off bright lights during the early morning hours — which presumably would be a financial and energy savings, too — so that birds can migrate safely seems like a small price to pay to ensure that we can continue to enjoy their sweet morning song.

The Lesson Of Scary Lucy

Lucille Ball originally came from Celoron, New York, a small town in the western part of the state.  Celoron decided to celebrate its most famous citizen by commissioning a life-size statue of the legendary TV sitcom star of the ’50s and ’60s, who was one of the most gifted physical comedians of all time.  No doubt Celoron also hoped to spur visits to the town by diehard fans of the star.

Unfortunately, what Celoron got was “Scary Lucy,” a large bronze piece that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the familiar redhead.  And it’s not because it is an abstract modern art piece, where achieving an actual likeness of the subject is not the principal goal.  No, the statue is, in fact, an attempt at a faithful representation of Lucille Ball — it’s just one that fails miserably and is pretty frightening-looking to boot.

The friendly, funny woman from I Love Lucy is depicted with a spoon and what appears to be a bottle of Vitameatavegamin, in a nod to one of the show’s most famous episodes.  So far, so good, I guess — although people who don’t know the show might think the statue is supposed to represent a scary governess chasing a young child and insisting he consume a hated spoonful of Castor Oil.  But the face and head doesn’t look like Lucille Ball in any way.  Instead, they depict a ’50s motorcycle punk apparently turned zombie, with a greased swept-back hairdo, googly eyes, poor dental work and a bad complexion.  If you didn’t know it was supposed to be Lucille Ball, you wouldn’t guess it was her in a million years.

The good people of Celoron don’t like the statue, presumably because it gives them nightmares, so they’ve decided to hire another sculptor to “fix” it, even though the original sculptor offered to provide a new statue for free.  I have no quibble with the decision not to go back to the well with the original artist — given the quality of this statue, who knows what kind of horror he might produce.  But how does an artist “fix” Scary Lucy?  Cut off her head and attach a new one?  That’s just about as scary as the current effort.

What’s the lesson?  Do your due diligence.  Before you hire an artist to create a statue or paint a portrait, look at their past work and the people they are trying to represent, and make sure that they are truly up to the job.  And if they ultimately produce something that looks terrifying, for God’s sake don’t display it publicly — unless it’s Halloween.

Barack Obama And George W. Bush

New York magazine has an interesting article with a headline no one thought they would see after President Obama’s triumph in the 2008 presidential election.  The headline is:  Barack Obama Is Not George W. Bush.

The comparison is being made by some because President Obama’s approval ratings have dropped to levels at or below the levels for President Bush at the same point in the second term his presidency.  The article argues that although the approval ratings are similar, the reality of the two presidents is much different:  President Bush had bipartisan support and lost it, and President Obama never had bipartisan support to begin with.  The article contends that President Obama’s dropping ratings are due to diehard, unending opposition that has been adopted as a tactical matter by Republican leaders.

I’m not convinced by that contention, which strikes me as a bit of a dodge.  The implication is that President Obama’s policies have nothing to do with his falling popularity, or with the opposition to his initiatives — the Republican tactics are wholly responsible because they have made the President look “partisan.”  In reality, I think, the opposition to many of the President’s proposals, such as the Affordable Care Act, is due to disagreement with the merits of those proposals:  Republicans and many independents thought they were bad ideas, and nothing that has happened since the recent rollout of healthcare.gov and the insurance exchanges has caused them to change their minds.  The mismanagement of the “Obamacare” rollout, and the President’s claimed unawareness of governmental actions like the NSA’s surveillance programs, also have caused people to question the President’s competence.  Those are self-inflicted wounds, not the product of stalwart opposition.

One other aspect of the New York piece is troubling.  It forecasts that the remainder of the President’s term will focus on executive action, where the President simply announces decisions without having to win approval from Congress.  We are already seeing that with some of the recent decisions to waive enforcement of various provisions of the Affordable Care Act.  That process is troubling in and of itself, but even more troubling is that the political focus has shifted from Congress to the federal judiciary — specifically, the federal court of appeals for the District of Columbia, which hears appeals of many administrative decisions.  The New York article states that Republicans have had a “functional majority” on the D.C. Circuit, and argues that the recent changes to the filibuster rules will allow President Obama and Senate Democrats to approve nominees to that court who will approve the President’s expanded use of “executive powers.”

This kind of frank assessment of the politics of a federal court should be disturbing to everyone.  Our government has been increasingly politicized in recent decades, and it hasn’t exactly worked well for our country.  If the judicial branch — which, with its lifetime tenure, is supposed to be immune from base political considerations — becomes explicitly politicized, it will not be a good development for the United States of America.

My Only (Somewhat) Ghostly Encounter

It was the summer of 1976.  I had just finished my freshman year of college and was working at the Alpine Village resort in Lake George, New York with a bunch of other high school and college kids — along with one 30-something guy named Jerry, a Vietnam War vet who captained the Alpine Village boat and who was focused with laser-like intensity on achieving meaningful dalliances with every unescorted mother bringing her two kids up for a week-long stay at the resort.

Jerry’s family owned a house that was located nearby.  It was the old family homestead, a sprawling, century-old house back in the woods that was still fully furnished, although no one lived there.  It was a convenient place for Jerry to take those lonely young mothers.

IMG_0859One night Jerry invited the lot of us to the house for a clambake and sleepover.  The house was like a scene from Arsenic and Old Lace or a Vincent Price movie, complete with creaky floorboards, odd family memorabilia, portraits of long-dead relatives whose eyes seemed to follow you when you moved, dusty drapery, and unexpected alcoves where you might be startled by your reflection in a mirror as you passed by or the sight of a stuffed raccoon.  It was a creepy place, and Jerry told us without much elaboration that family lore had it that the place was haunted by at least two ghosts — a weeping woman who had died during childbirth in one of the upstairs bedrooms, and a boy who had been killed by a fall into a well out back.

We chuckled at the story, gobbled our clams and burgers, and drank more beer than a responsible person should.

That night, I awoke after I thought I heard an odd noise.  It was black as pitch, and the wind was blowing.  I stuck my out of the bedroom door and out of the corner of my eye noticed some movement down at the end of the upstairs hallway.  I didn’t have my glasses on, but something seemed to be moving down there.  The floorboards creaked, I suddenly felt cold, and the hairs on my arms stood on end — then I retreated to the room, shut the door, and got back into bed, soon to fall into alcohol-assisted slumber without further incident.

The next morning I explored the other end of the hallway.  There was a mirror and window, and a table with some old framed photographs.  Perhaps I saw myself in the mirror, or curtains blowing in the early morning breeze?  I’m not sure.