Friday, January 30, 2009

Guilty Until Proven Guilty

I like the idea of innocent until proven guilty. But it doesn't always seem to work that way.

The first time I sat on a jury, I was shocked when we were told that we would be passing judgment on a man accused of assault with a deadly weapon, a sledge hammer. The defendant was a big burly guy in his thirties. The alleged victim was a petite, middle-aged mom type.

My brain switched into feverish overdrive, as I considered what kind of man would go after a woman with a sledge hammer. Intellectually I was aware that he was innocent until proven guilty. However, my gut feel was that we needed to move quickly through the trial and hang, draw and quarter the wretch. The prosecutor made it clear that the defendant was a dangerous man. I felt a little nervous being in the same room with him. What if he grabbed a chair and attacked the jury?
After many hours of testimony, the real story seemed to emerge. The defendant and his little
girl had to scurry to safety to avoid being run over by a speeding car driven by a local hoodlum . I shall refer to him as "the dude". The dude lived with friends in a shabby vacation cabin nearby. The defendant knew the dude well enough to believe that talking to him would be counterproductive. However, he noted that the dude's parents were visiting.

"Maybe they will be reasonable", he thought.

Big mistake.

The defendant drove to the cabin and got out of his pickup to make his complaint. The dude's mom (I shall refer to her as "the witch".) grabbed a shovel and ran toward the defendant. The defendant picked a sledge hammer from the bed of his truck and held it up saying, "Look, I have a weapon too, but let's be reasonable". The witch lowered the shovel and the defendant put the sledge hammer back in his truck

As the defendant turned back from tidying up his tools, he met the dude charging him with a hatchet. The dude and the defendant wrestled. The dude chopped at the defendant's head and hands. Defense evidence included vivid photos of the resultant carnage.

Meanwhile, the dude's dad ("Clueless", not his name but rather a derisive term) began searching beneath the seat of his automobile. It was conjectured that fire arms are often kept under auto seats, but that was grist for another trial.

Clueless refused to testify on the grounds it might be self-incriminating. We were instructed to ignore him. I felt I was trying to overlook a man who refused to decry a pit bull who had savaged a neighbor.

Jury deliberations created new problems.

One juror proclaimed she had prayed about the case with her husband, and God had shown her that the defendant was innocent. She offered to sit quietly and read her bible while she ignored our discussion.

The first secret ballot, (and the second, and the third, etc) was 11 to 1 in favor of the defendant. We were instructed to stay in the jury room until we arrived at a unanimous decision. The alternative was to call a mistrial. The judge was willing to let us stay in the jury room for days, if necessary, to avoid a mistrial.

As foreman, I reasoned with, exhorted, and begged my fellow jurors. One by one, they said "I didn't vote him guilty". Just one sad little man remained quiet about his vote. Nonetheless, he insisted that the act of picking up a sledge hammer and holding it in front of the witch constituted assault with a deadly weapon. We paused to ask the judge for clarification. He refused and sent us back to our deliberations.

I became frustrated . I picked up the sledge hammer that lay as evidence on the table in our midst. I shook it in the sad little man's face.

"There! Call the cops. I assaulted you with a deadly weapon."

"Maybe we should conduct another secret ballot" said the sad little man.

We did. It was 12-0.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

American Meth: A film review

Emaciated, glassy eyed, walking dead. Rotted teeth. Paranoia. Abused children. Vats of toxic chemicals.

"American Meth" is a horror movie. Sadly, it is not fictional.

The film documents the spread of methamphetamine use in the U.S. It explores the impact on communities, families, and individuals. Statistics, graphic images, interviews, and a gut churning video of the daily life of two meth users and their four children illuminate the epidemic.

Apparently Justin Hunt (writer, producer, director) hoped to frighten his audience. Interviews with law enforcement and medical professionals provide startling statistics and grim anecdotes. The visual power of film is used to engender dismay and disgust. Photos from an Oregon anti-meth campaign, Faces of Meth , shock the viewer with the rapid degradation of many meth user's countenances. Posters and videos from the Montana Meth Project evoke horror by depicting the depravity that often proceeds from frequent meth usage.

Interviews with meth addicts currently in recovery are edited to emphasize the effects of addiction their lives, and humanize addicts in a way that statistics and anecdotes cannot.

Justin Hunt's film works as a wake up call regarding the extent and depth of the meth problem. However, young people who have not tried meth may be harmed by Hunt's tactics. The film lacks a satisfactory investigation into what motivates people people to use meth the first few times.

The film fails to explore the seductive powers common to many drugs . Meth is depicted as a unique drug with a power to ensnare that other drugs cannot match. However, similar power has often been attributed to cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and even alcohol.

In a British campaign to abate cocaine use Dr. Ken Checinski says, "Cocaine is psychologically more addictive than many other substances, such as alcohol and cannabis, and can easily become a habit that controls your life. "

This poster from the temperance movement in the 19th century showed the progression from a single drink with friends all the way to death by suicide. Eventually alcohol consumption was made illegal throughout the U.S.

Many drugs, including alcohol, are physically addictive when used in excess. Addiction has been a problem world wide for centuries, from opium dens in China to coca leaf chewing in Peru. Humans often seek comfort in drugs to escape pain, fear, or even boredom.

"American Meth" could be retitled American Myth. It imputes the sort of mystique to methamphetamine that could easily encourage a young person to try it. The drug is actually nothing extraordinary. Methamphetamine has been available since it was first synthesized by a Japanese chemist in 1919. Over the past century it has been used to energize troops, enable weight loss, treat depression and calm hyperactive children. Its popularity has waxed and waned.

I grew up in an era of rampant experimentation with drugs. I used alcohol, marijuana, hashish, opiates, LSD, hallucinogenic mushrooms, barbiturates, and benzodiazapines (Valium and it's kin). And yes, I used methamphetamine for a season. Each time I tried something new, I felt that I had been misled by anti-drug campaigns. I did not experience immediate strong cravings for more. Friends used various drugs regularly, generally with no apparent ill effects. As a young person, my thinking was mostly very short term. I seldom pondered the possibility that drugs would prove to be dangerous in the long run. In the short run my experience seemed to refute the hype often used in those campaigns.

"American Meth" is worth watching as a means of learning about the drug's current popularity and the problems attendant to frequent illicit usage, however I recommend against showing it to young people in hopes of deterring them from experimenting with meth.

Photo Credit: One Woman... by d70foucs:
Photo Credit: Drunkard's Progress Lithograph by Nathaniel Currier ca. 1846 Public Domain

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Lost and Found In Cyberspace

As a part of my journalism feature writing class, I included a post about the new law regarding lead in children's clothes. Originally I was going to title the post "The Unintended Consequences of Law". However, my professor pointed out that although the title had a nice ring to it, it would not show up very often in web searches done by people trying to get information about the new law. I changed the title to H.R. 4040: the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008
Almost immediately I began to get new hits to my blog regarding this post. Many of the hits are the result of Google searches. The number of people searching for an article regarding "The Unintended Consequences of Law" was destined to be near zero. Although I am not specifically trolling the Internet for more readers (well, maybe a little), I am glad to share a post with someone interested in its subject matter.

Why did I pick the "catchy" title first? I was thinking like a print media person. Headlines, chapter headings, short story titles and magazine article titles are often written to catch a readers eye and spark a readers interest as they scan printed pages. However, web readers cannot possible scan all the web pages on the world wide web. There are billions of such pages. So we use search engines . Search engines look for web pages that seem most likely to contain information relative to the search term. Blogspot (the blogging software I use) creates a unique URL for each post. The URL generally incorporates some or all of the words in the title. Although the exact algorithms used are a closely guarded secret, I am betting that a web page with a URL containing words that might commonly be used in a search term is much more likely to be prominently displayed in a list of search results.

It's been a great lesson for me. I have already seen a substantial increase in the number of hits to my blog. Imagine if I had employed this idea in my last 270 or so posts!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Why is it called a credit crunch?

Although there is certainly no shortage of reporting on our current worldwide economic woes, I still have felt that I couldn't quite grasp the big picture. This audio slide show by the business editor for BBC World News is the best summary, by far, that I have seen.

"Living Beyond Our Means" might be a good phrase summarize the root of the problem.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Please Don't Leave Me

I know there are a few folks who check this blog from time to time. I imagine you are thinking, "Wow, I just thought his other posts were boring. Now that I read letters from congressmen and articles about lead in children's clothes, I have a whole new appreciation for how boring Kent can be."

Well, boring for you, but great fun for me. The odd posts are related to my Feature Writing Journalism 217 class. I love it. I attended school for 18 straight years during my first try at it. I would never have believed that I would think of school as fun after that. But, I love this.

I used the lead in clothing topic because I volunteer at a children's clothing outlet that provides free clothing and supplies for families that could use a little help. Now it appears that we may be subject to a fine of up to $15 million dollars for distributing clothing that has not been properly tested for the presence of lead. I don't think it will actually come to that, but it has been a great learning experience researching the law and trying to understand what will really happen.

It is also the first time I have received calls and e-mails from congressmen. It seems this topic has a lot of people riled up. When I said I was writing a news feature about the impact on businesses, I actually got taken seriously. I've even had a few hits from Google search as people look for explanations of the law.

However, I realize that posts like "A letter from Congressmen Peter DeFazio" are not likely to hold many people's attention. So while I am busy with this stuff, perhaps you'd like to look back to some of my older posts such as 50 Things That Should Have Killed Me or Do I Look Like A Racist . Wonder what it was like being a college freshman in 1968? Try Mustache Story . Ever wonder if you are losing it? Try What Is It Like to be Mentally Ill?

Of course, stooping to reminding you of my old posts may seem desperately needy. That's probably true. However, it also serves as a way of meeting my two posts per week quota for my class (with live links inserted).

Rep. Peter DeFazio regarding HR4040: The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008

The following letter (quoted in its entirety) is Rep. Peter DeFazio's response to inquiries about the new law regulating lead content in children's clothing:

Dear Mr. Schnake: Thank you for your recent message regarding the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. I appreciate hearing from you. As you know, on February 10th the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act becomes effective. The bill was a response to importers bringing in dangerously unsafe products from China. The bill passed the House by a vote of 407 to 1 as it was considered a common sense piece of legislation that was designed to keep our children safe. Unfortunately the Bush Administration's Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is in charge of drafting regulations in order to enforce the new law, did a poor job of explaining what was expected of retailers and consumers and have written what I believe are overly strict interpretations of the law. As a result, countless retailers, thrift stores, charities and even small toy manufacturers have contacted my office in confusion not knowing what they are or are not allowed to do when the law becomes effective. One if the main points of contentions is the new provision that bans lead in excess of 600 parts per million in children's products. While we can all agree it is important to protect our children from this dangerous substance, the CPSC provided little to no guidance to consumers, retailers or manufacturers on exactly what is expected of them when the law becomes effective. As a result rumors spread across the internet and amongst retailers about the new law, many of them untrue. The CPSC recently released a press release (located at ) intended to provide guidance to consumers that did speak to some of these concerns. The release stated:The new law requires that domestic manufacturers and importers certify that children's products made after February 10 meet all the new safety standards and the lead ban. Sellers of used children's products, such as thrift stores and consignment stores, are not required to certify that those products meet the new lead limits, phthalates standard or new toy standards.The new safety law does not require resellers to test children's products in inventory for compliance with the lead limit before they are sold. However, resellers cannot sell children's products that exceed the lead limit and therefore should avoid products that are likely to have lead content, unless they have testing or other information to indicate the products being sold have less than the new limit. Those resellers that do sell products in violation of the new limits could face civil and/or criminal penalties. Furthermore, in response to complaints from small manufacturers, the CPSC is now considering some exemptions to the new regulations. Specifically, they are considering an exemption from testing certain materials that are not scientifically known to contain lead (like wood, cotton, gemstones, leather, etc), as well as looking into easing restrictions on batch testing for small manufacturers. The current regulation mandates all products be tested for lead, as well as all of its components. This is a burden for small manufacturers. Some groups have responded to this confusion by trying to delay or even eliminate the implementation of the new lead standards. Others have asked to exempt these new standards from unsold or used inventory. I am opposed to this. If a product is unsafe, it is unsafe. It doesn't matter when it was made. That being said, I feel the recent efforts by the CPSC have provided some clarification for retailers and manufacturers, but more can be done. I recently sent a letter to the CPSC asking them to respond to a series o f detailed questions so people will get accurate information about this new law. Once I receive a response I will forward it to you. Thanks again for contacting me. Please keep in touch.
Sincerely, Rep. Peter DeFazio Fourth District, OREGON

Sunday, January 11, 2009

H.R. 4040: the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008

In August 2008, the U.S. Congress passed a law prohibiting the manufacture, sale or distribution of any children's products containing lead. It will be in force effective Feb. 10. The votes in the Senate and House were almost unanimous in favor of the bill.

Can Americans relax, knowing that their children will be protected from lead in clothing and toys? Perhaps not.

Many retail outlets for children's products are unaware that the law exists. Others are aware of the new bill but do not know how they can comply. Most of the existing inventory at retail outlets, distributors, and factories was fabricated before manufacturing companies could have known about the requirements of the new law.

Children's clothing, toys, and other supplies are often composed of fabrics, dyes, plastics, and metal parts from sources all over the globe. Testing to ensure compliance with the law requires a chemistry laboratory, skilled technicians and a capability to perform x-ray fluorescence or inductively coupled plasma spectrometry.

Consequently, it is expensive to test a completed children's item.

Lead is not a rare ingredient. It is used in a wide variety of production processes. When the expense of testing for the presence of lead is spread over large quantities of paint, fabric, and plastic, the cost impact on any one item manufactured from those raw materials might be small.

However, current understanding of the law is that all products must be proven free of lead, including existing stock. All items for sale after Feb. 10 are considered guilty until proven innocent.

Retail outlets and small manufactures would find the cost of testing their goods to be prohibitive. The alternative is to scrap their current inventories.

Errol Noel, owner of a retail shop named The Toy Factory, replied “I don't know what the impact will be, and that's what so scary. I don't know how to insure that my suppliers are in compliance." Carey Oien, the manager of The Kids Kloset said, “I haven't seen the actual law. I don't know if it applies to nonprofit organizations like ours."

Enforcement of the law is at the discretion of each state's attorney general. Surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2006 enabled estimates that the annual clothing expenditure in the U.S. is roughly $400 per child. Total spending is in excess of $50 billion dollars annually.

Rigorous enforcement of the law at every retail establishment would be difficult. However, when a business is found guilty of a violation, fines of up to $1 million or more can be levied.

The situation is difficult for shops that sell used clothing. A single shop may have clothing from thousands of different manufacturers, and the clothing may have been created long before the bill was first considered.

Imagine that Congress passed a law that all cars sold must meet extremely tight tail-pipe emissions standards, effective immediately. Used car lots would have a real problem. Even car dealers holding an inventory of new cars manufactured before the law was passed would be in trouble. However, emissions laws have been written to impact only future car models. A grace period allows for the manufacture and sale of current models. Existing cars are exempt. Meanwhile we have to live with the emissions from older auto designs.

Children's clothing and supplies are more sensitive politically. No legislator wants to go on record as saying that it is acceptable to continue to sell lead containing items for children, even if only for a season while stricter manufacturing standards can be implemented and existing stocks can be sold. The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 contains no grace period. It passed 421 -1 in the U.S.House and 89-3 in the Senate.

Did legislators anticipate the impact of their bill? It appears that they didn't.

As the bill was being processed through Congress, a section required to assess the bill's economic impact was left blank. Congressman Peter DeFazio of Oregon sent a detailed letter in response to inquiries about the impact of HR4040. He attributes the confusion surrounding the bill's implementation to poor management by Bush administration officials, "The bill passed the House by a vote of 407 to 1 as it was considered a common sense piece of legislation that was designed to keep our children safe. Unfortunately the Bush Administration's Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is in charge of drafting regulations in order to enforce the new law, did a poor job of explaining what was expected of retailers and consumers and have written what I believe are overly strict interpretations of the law."

The number of news stories about the law has increased dramatically as the February implementation date draws near. Members of the public, not just business owners, are becoming concerned.

Bethany Fegles, a mother of two small children commented, “I just heard about this earlier this week and have wondered myself what would happen to so many smaller second-hand retailers. Or all the moms selling their kid's clothing on Craigslist. Or all the parents that use garage sales to earn back a little bit of what they spent on all the kid toys/clothes.”

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission web site has the latest news updates and answers to frequently asked questions.

Friday, January 09, 2009

The Unintended Consequences of Law (story idea)

The U.S. congress passed a bill requiring all clothing outlets to test their wares for lead content. It was passed hurriedly during the scares regarding lead in Chinese toys etc. It takes effect as of February 10, I volunteer at "The Kid's Kloset" where we collect and distribute clothing for families in need. I have to investigate more, but it appears that this law would effectively shut down used clothing outlets and small business that cannot afford to test their inventory.

I can interview the manager of the Kid's Kloset, call DeFazio's office (and Wyden/Merkel). I can also interview other used clothing outlets in Corvallis as well as some mom and pop shops. I will research what major manufacturers are doing as well.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

How Do You Eat An Elephant?

One bite at a time, of course. Here is an example of a technique for taking a big topic (in this case, language) and dividing it into smaller and smaller pieces.

A Note to My Readers

First of all, welcome to a hyper-elite minority: those who choose to read my blog more than once! I only have hints that you exist: occasional comments, multiple hits from one city. (I can't track by computer or person, just location).

You will notice postings that may seem unusual. I am taking a journalism class (feature writing), and some of my work for the class will be posted on my blog.

Of course, as always, one really beautiful thing about blogs in general, and my posts in particular, is that you can ignore or relish them in almost total anonymity. So if you have enjoyed a number of my past posts, please seek professional help. Oh, and don't be surprised by increasingly odd posts for a season.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Who Am I?

I wonder that myself. I have so many titles that it's easy to get confused about what role I play in this world. Despite my 58 years, I am still a Child of God. My marriage is a great one, so I am a happy Husband. We have raised four children, and although the youngest is almost 18, I will always be Dad to each of them. Two years ago I added Grandpa. Fortunately, I had added the title Father-in-Law years before that.

At work I was often referred to as the Boss, since I was an engineering manager for most of my 33 years with HP. Nonetheless, I am enough of a nerd that many friends and family still think of me as an Engineer. After all, I can still get pretty excited about the latest developments in light emitting diodes (LED's), computer chips, and fiber optics.

These days I can refer to myself as Retired, although I prefer the title Freelance. That shift has allowed me more time to be a Volunteer for several outfits. It has also allowed me to become a Student, which is a title I hadn't used for more than 34 years. Perhaps upon completing my journalism class I will qualify as a Writer. That sounds like fun.

Well, that's enough about me. I would prefer to ask, “Who are you?”

Friday, January 02, 2009

Seeing Ourselves as Others See Us

O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.
(O would some power the gift to give us to see ourselves as others see us.)

Robert Burns, Poem "To a Louse" - verse 8 (from

Picture a nice breakfast in your mind. Something you could enjoy on a regular basis.

Now imagine that a new acquaintance tells you that the photo below is a pretty good example of a breakfast they would enjoy. (thank you to Jenn Kelley for the photo)

Most of us would find it hard to believe that our new acquaintance was serious. If we were to see them consume this as we would eat a bowl of cheerios, what would we think? Gluttony. Insanity. Illness.

I have wondered why Burns describes it as a "gift" to be able to see ourselves as others see us. I have feared the gift would be a curse. I see myself as living in the "reasonable center". People who exercise a whole lot more than me are fanatics or freaks of nature. People who exercise a lot less are couch potatoes or just pitifully weak. I am in the middle with the other "reasonable" people. In the same way I tend to think that I am just about as patient, kind, or generous as most "reasonable" people. In the past we referred to those folks as "normal", but language morphs. Now normal implies boring and unimaginative. Ah, but reasonable is greatly to be desired. After all, if everyone were reasonable, imagine what a wonderful world this could be. Were I to see myself through other's eyes, how quickly the illusion would be dispelled. I suppose that is why Burns calls it a gift. He was wise enough to know that we would benefit from having our illusions shattered.

If we scratch through the surface of what we mean by reasonable, we quickly see it for the sham it is. Reason alone cannot lead us to a vision of a life worth living, because our ability to reason is warped by our pride and our greed. Only a revelation of all that is good can allow us to see all that is not good in us. Yet even revelation plus reason is not sufficient. We must make choices that are good, and we soon find that we fail to do so far too often. We make resolutions for the New Year and then are shocked by how quickly our resolve is exhausted.

Reason and revelation must be sought in conjunction with relationship with God. God is the base on which we stand. Without a base, we float rather than stand. We are a helium balloon, moved by the prevailing winds of our era. Untethered and unteachable, making progress toward nowhere in particular.