July 2011

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I’m really tired of hearing about the debt ceiling, and I’ve avoided contributing to the cacophony so far, but I just have to get this off my chest. It’s not so much that I think one side is right and the other side is wrong. Rather, I think everyone who created this mess deserves a kick in the ass from every America. Unfortunately, parts our current problem are the result of some really bone-headed thinking long ago, and the culprits aren’t around any more. Let me explain…

First of all, consider how the national debt arises. It happens because government spending is greater than government revenue, and the amount of the debt is equal to the difference between spending and revenue. In mathematical terms,

debt = spending – revenue

Now let’s consider where each of those terms comes from.

The spending term is essentially the entire federal budget. Sometimes it’s a specific amount to be spend on a particular budget item, such as the budget for the FBI, or the cost of running an infantry division, and other times the spending is authorized in the form of an entitlement, such as social security or medicare. The budget is incredibly complex and detailed, and it is essentially authorized by Congress.

The revenue term is essentially federal taxes, including payroll taxes, income tax, gas tax, phone tax, tariffs, fees, and any other way the government can think of to squeeze money out of us. Parts of it vary with the activity of our economy, but all of it is essentially authorized by Congress

The debt term is the amount of money the government is allowed to borrow. Ever since the Public Debt Acts passed around 1940, it has been subject to an upper limit (the infamous ceiling) set by Congress.

At this point, anyone with a background in math (or science or engineering or economics or business…) should see a very obvious problem: The system is overdetermined.

We’ve got a system of three variables related by an equation that uses all three variables. In a situation like that, once you know any two variables, you can always solve for the third one. If you know spending and debt, you can solve for revenue:

revenue = spending – debt

And if you know revenue and debt, you can solve for spending:

spending = revenue + debt

And as we said at the outset, if you know spending and revenue, you can solve for the debt:

debt = spending – revenue

In other words, once you determine any two of these numbers — perhaps by passing a budget and a tax plan, thus determining spending and revenue — you have mathematically determined the value of the third one as well.

In this case, Congress has spelled out the spending plan and the revenue plan, which of course implicitly determines the debt. Our Congress, however, also spells out the debt (or at least an upper limit to the debt), which means they have determined more of the variables than they should. The system is overdetermined. And as is often the case with overdetermined systems, there is no exact solution. Thus the current crisis.

The only way to fix this is that something in the system has to change to make the equation work with the numbers. The equation itself is an accounting identity, so it can’t be changed, which means that one of the variables has to change. Normally, it’s the debt that would be changed, by raising the debt ceiling, but this time there’s an argument. Republicans want to hold the debt fixed and change spending instead, and in return, Democrats are now arguing that a revenue increase is in order.

This is no way to run a country.

None of this would be necessary if Congress hadn’t tried to control all three variables in the budget equation at the same time. Unfortunately for those of us yearning to kick the bums out of office, the current members of Congress aren’t entirely to blame. Much of the problem goes back to the Public Debt Acts passed between the Great Depression and World War II, which established the debt ceiling. And the problem may extend all the way back to 1787, when the United States passed its Constitution, which gave Congress the power to spend money, raise revenue, and “borrow Money on the credit of the United States.”

Still, it’s a stupid mistake that could be easily fixed by removing the debt ceiling entirely and, if necessary (and I suspect it is) passing a law that specifically authorizes the Treasury to borrow money to meet the debts that arise as a result of the spending and revenue plans passed by Congress. This takes nothing away from Congress, since they are still in complete control of the other two variables of the equation.

Well, it takes one thing away from Congress: It takes away the ability to do a lot of stupid grandstanding by taking the federal budget hostage. If the Tea Partiers want to reign in the federal deficit — something which, broadly speaking, I agree needs to be done — the proper way to do it is by controlling federal spending. (Or, if you lean that way, you could do it by raising the taxes.) But that would require specifying exactly which spending you propose to reduce, which will surely anger the voters who benefit from it.

The federal debt ceiling, however, is a single number with no internal parts assigned to constituencies. That makes it much safer politically. So we have this massive Republican opposition to raising the debt ceiling, but when it comes to actually cutting spending, there’s little agreement within the party how to do it. Finding an agreement with the Democrats will be even harder.

My prediction, by the way, is that the Republicans and Democrats will cut a deal to raise the debt ceiling before anything drastic happens. Of course, in order to reach that agreement, each side will have to receive something good in return, and there’s a pretty good chance that (a) the final bill will be larded full of many pages of special provisions designed to win support from various members of Congress, (b) no one will really know what it says, and (c) it will somehow end up costing us more than if we’d simply raised the debt ceiling.

This is no way to run a country.

Wayne LaPierre
National Rifle Association of America
11250 Waples Mill Road
Fairfax, VA 22030

Dear Wayne,

I just received your letter of July 18, 2011 inviting me to your upcoming American Values Leadership Forum at the end of September. I must say, the guest list looks like a conservative all-star lineup — Michele Bachmann, Haley Barbour, John Boehner, John Bolton, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Oliver North, Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney — although, as a libertarian, I was disappointed to see you did not include Ron Paul. I guess he would have freaked the traditionals, huh?

By the way, I can’t help notice you call them all “invited speakers,” as if some of them haven’t actually agreed to appear. I sure hope that’s not the case, otherwise people might think you’re padding the list to make yourselves look important. Ha, ha.

My reason for writing is to let you know about a matter of incompetence among your staff that reflects badly on the NRA and on you personally. You see, I was pretty excited that you, the Executive Vice President and CEO of the NRA, wrote to me personally to say, “I’m extending to you this invitation to be my personal guest at NRA’s 2012 American Values Leadership Forum.” So you can imagine my surprise that your letter was accompanied by an “Official R.S.V.P.” that in included a list of ticket prices ranging from $125 all the way up to $1000!

I know! Right? You’re a sophisticated Washington insider, a power broker representing millions of NRA members. There’s no way you’d commit the serious etiquette breach of inviting someone to attend a gathering as a personal guest and then expect them to pay to be there. You need to look into this, because someone in your mail room is making you look like a total ass.

I just thought you should know.

In any case, as I am starting a new job and it would be imprudent to take the time off, I regret I must decline your kind invitation.

Sincerely,

Mark Draughn

After reading about Jennifer’s ambition to “touch every U.S. citizen,” I was randomly poking around the Department of Homeland Security website when I stumbled on this horrifying headline:

Secretary Napolitano Announces Stop.Think.Connect. Campaign Partnership with D.A.R.E. America

Oh God. The DHS and D.A.R.E. That’s a partnership forged in the pit of hell. I can smell the fail from here.

Actually, the Stop.Think.Connect program doesn’t seem like an awful idea. It’s supposedly an educational effort to help children and adults learn about the importance of staying secure online. I say “supposedly” because as far as I know, no peer-reviewed study has ever shown that the D.A.R.E. program accomplishes any of its goals.

(And if someone from D.A.R.E. wants to respond, let me head off the usual distraction: You’re going to tell me that those studies are out-of-date because they were of the old D.A.R.E. program. The new one really works. At least until the next study comes out, and you change the program again.)

Of course, the program is more about “awareness” than about actually teaching people specific and helpful skills. If you’re a government agency like the DHS or public interest group like D.A.R.E., awareness is always a cool thing to promote, because you can easily survey people’s awareness, launch an educational program, and do another survey to show that people are more “aware.” They won’t actually be any better off, because you haven’t taught them anything useful, but you’ll have numbers to prove that people are more “aware,” which will make it easier to get more money next time.

Then there’s the key issues page. In addition to warning people about identity theft and fraud, it also has a section on this decade’s version of the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic: Cyber Bullying and Cyber Predators. The warning about predators is especially amusing coming from the people who brought you TSA patdowns for children.

So last night around 2am I sat down at my computer and…no internet. Called Comcast and accepted the automated system’s offer to reset my modem. When that didn’t work, I asked for a human being. The technician told me there was an outage in the area, but they couldn’t give me anymore information, and they couldn’t take a trouble ticket because their system was down for maintenance.

Woke up this morning, and it was still down, so I called Comcast and went through the automated diagnostic procedure, which gave up and transferred me to a human tech. He poked around from his end and said everything seemed to be up. He could access my modem, but he said my router hadn’t requested an IP address from the modem.

Something didn’t sound right about that…oh yeah, I have a static IP address. My router doesn’t have to ask for an IP address because it already knows one. Once before, some piece of Comcast equipment had forgotten my address and stopped routing my internet traffic. It looked like it was happening again.

I mentioned this to the tech, and he checked my order and proceeded to set up the static IP service again. For some reason, however, he issued me a new IP address instead of giving me the one I had before. He doesn’t know what happened. I don’t know what happened. It’s just one of those mysteries, I guess.

Anyway, I’m back up. For now.

Anders Behring Breivik’s terrorist attacks in Norway are bringing out the idiots. For example, from the (more-or-less) right, there’s Cheradenine Zakalwe at Islam Versus Europe in a post titled “Why the Left Shouldn’t Gloat about Anders Breivik”:

Reading through Anders Behring Breivik’s comments on the document.no website, it’s clear that he was on the verge of giving up on democracy. … That’s what drove him to despair and to an act of apocalyptic violence. He felt there was a conspiracy among the media and political elite to suppress any derogatory information about Muslims or mass immigration. And, of course, he was right. …

He was particularly struck by the Andrew Neather revelations about the Labour government’s conspiracy to flood Britain with immigrants in order to “rub the right’s nose in diversity.” The left rubbed Breivik’s nose in diversity and he rubbed theirs back in blood. Well done Neather. Well done Blair. Well done Rusbridger.

It is the left-wing that is responsible for this outrage, not the right-wing. This act of violence is the consequence of a deranged political elite attempting to demographic re-engineer an entire continent against the wishes of its people; exploiting imperfections in the democratic system so that the people are never allowed a real choice; passing laws to criminalise free speech so that honest discussion is scarcely possible any more; and a media conspiracy (embodied in laws or informal agreements like the NUJ Guidelines on Race Reporting) to systematically suppress information about the negative consequences mass third-world immigration, and particularly the Muslim component of it, is having on Europe.

Personally, I think responsibility for Anders Behring Breivik’s actions begin and end with Anders Behring Breivik. I’m willing to change my mind if the ongoing investigation manages to link his actions to any other organizations. Right now, however, he’s just a lone wacko.

To the idiots on the (more-or-less) left, that makes me part of the conspiracy, as illustrated by Roger Cohen in a New York Times op-ed title “Breivik and His Enablers”:

LONDON — On one level Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian responsible for the biggest massacre by a single gunman in modern times, is just a particularly murderous psychotic loner: the 32-year-old mama’s boy with no contact with his father, obsessed by video games (Dragon Age II) as he preens himself (“There was a relatively hot girl on [sic] the restaurant today checking me out”) and dedicates his time in asexual isolation to the cultivation of hatred and the assembly of a bomb from crushed aspirin and fertilizer.

No doubt, that is how Islamophobic right-wingers in Europe and the United States who share his views but not his methods will seek to portray Breivik.

We’ve seen the movie. When Jared Loughner shot Representative Gabrielle Giffords this year in Tuscon, Arizona — after Sarah Palin placed rifle sights over Giffords’ constituency and Giffords herself predicted that “there are consequences to that” — the right went into overdrive to portray Loughner as a schizophrenic loner whose crazed universe owed nothing to those fanning hatred under the slogan of “Take America Back.” (That non-specific taking-back would of course be from Muslims and the likes of the liberal and Jewish Giffords.)

Look, some people think Islam is a religion with a substantial history of violence and oppression. Others think this is yet another case of panic about immigration. Whatever the case, unless you can find an actual conspiracy — people, organizations, plans, money, that sort of thing — it’s ludicrous to say that either side is responsible in any meaningful way for Breivik’s crimes.

[Update: We renamed this cat “Beezle” (includes video of him playing).]

I was going to blog about the President’s speech, but look! Kitty pictures.

Taking all these pictures of Hotch is proving to be more difficult than I expected. For one thing, the color balance is all over the place. The room is actually lit with incandescent light, which gives everything a warm glow, but of course the flash on the camera is daylight white. So while the colors in the camera images are probably accurate, it’s not matching what I saw when I was there, so I’ve been making some adjustments, and the results havn’t been very consistent.

The problem is that the camera is guessing one color balance and then I’m making rough adjustments to that guess, so the variance is accumulating. I should probably get out the grey card and switch to raw mode.

Hotch chewing on the iPhone...
Larger ImageHotch chewing on the iPhone...

As you can see, Hotch thinks my iPhone case makes a great chew toy. Too bad the iPhone’s still in it.

...and trying to look like he's sorry.
Larger Image...and trying to look like he's sorry.

The other problem with taking pictures of Hotch is that my focus technique doesn’t work very well. With the kinds of photograpy I usually do, I’ve found it works better when I disable the automatic auto-focus on the shutter button, so when I want to take a picture, I pick the object I want in focus, press the manual focus button, and then recompose the picture and press the shutter button. Now I can take as many pictures as I want at that distance, without the auto-focus deciding to do something different.

The problem is that Hotch moves so fast sometimes that between the time I press the focus button and the time I press the shutter, he’s moved away from the focus distance. I’ve taken thousands of photos this way — weddings, children, flowers, buildings, even marathon runners — and it works just fine, so I wasn’t expecting a problem, and it took me a while to recognize what was happening, because the camera’s LCD screen is too small to show the problem unless I know to look for it.

Still, I got a few nice ones.

More to come in a few days.

Remember Lori Drew? She’s the woman who used MySpace to play a very unkind trick on a teenage girl named Megan Meier, who killed herself. Prosecutors in Missouri, where Drew and Meier both lived, didn’t prosecute her for this, probably because saying mean things to little girls isn’t a criminal act.

That didn’t stop grandstanding U.S. Attorney Thomas P. O’Brien from stepping in. Even though he was located 1500 miles away in the Central District of California, he used the fact that MySpace’s computers were located in California to charge Drew with computer fraud because she violated MySpace’s Terms of Service (TOS) when she used fake information to setup her account.

Fortunately, the judge assigned to the case wasn’t having any of that and dismissed the case. If this had gone forward, it had the potential to set a horrifying precedent. Instead of being merely a contract between us and the websites, the TOS would essentially be elevated to federal law. All that stuff you click past would be something that could send you to jail.

Well, according to a terrific post by Gideon at a public defender, something similar is happening to Reddit‘s Aaron Swartz. It sounds like an ordinary hacking complaint at first, but it’s not, because Swartz did not apparently hack past security. He just downloaded more stuff than the TOS allowed. The full story is up at Wired, but read Gideon’s post first.

Update: Scott Greenfield agrees the government’s position is absurd, but finds the intellectual property issues more troubling.

Defenders of Caylee’s Law have been arguing in my comments and elsewhere that even though the rush to legislate will result in a poorly-written law, my fear that it will punish innocent parents and babysitters far more than it helps any child is unfounded, because prosecutors will use their discretion wisely and mercifully.

In most cases, I’m sure they’re right, but why rely on it? Why not just take the time to write a good law? It’s not like there aren’t grandstanding prosecutors out there who will punish people just to make themselves look tough, and it doesn’t take more than a few handfuls of them to ruin a lot of lives.

Radley Balko has an example:

Last April, Nelson was crossing a street with her three children when her 4-year-old was struck and killed by a car. She was crossing at an intersection, but was apparently not in a designated crosswalk. The driver who killed her had been drinking, taking painkillers, and was blind in one eye. He also has two prior hit-and-run convictions. Nelson and her daughter were also struck and injured. Residents of Nelson’s apartment building have complained to the city about the intersection. The nearest crosswalk is a half mile away.

In other words, she jaywalked, and she had very, very bad luck. Here’s what the wise and merciful prosecutor did:

Nelson was charged with second-degree vehicular homicide. Which is insane. She was convicted last week. When she’s sentenced later this month, she could spend more time in jail than the man who struck and killed her son. The prosecutor will say he was just enforcing the law. The jury will say they were just applying it. Both are excuses to duck responsibility (prosecutors can decline to bring charges, juries can nullify). But if both are true, then the time to prevent the unjust application of well-intentioned laws is to anticipate those applications while the laws are being written and proposed.

Which is the whole point I’ve been trying to make all along.

I just drove through Maryland a few weeks ago, and now I’m back, this time on business. One of my on-again, off-again clients has a bit of work that I’m suited for, so I flew out here for a meeting.

Yeah, that’s right. I flew. For the first time in about 11 years.

My lack of flying had nothing to do with 9/11. I’ve always disliked flying — getting through the airport traffic, all the walking around, all the standing in lines, the tedium of security — it grates at me. I can remember back in the late ’90’s or maybe 2000, I had flown out to D.C. for some meeting, and I was standing around waiting for something at Dulles, and I realized that I probably had another 30 years of waiting around in airports ahead of me. As it turned out, that was one of the last flights I ever took. I stopped working full time in 2001 and never had a reason to fly again.

Until now.

Air travel was pretty much how I remembered it, except that I arranged the whole trip myself online instead of having the company’s travel agent do it. And, of course, security was even slower. I didn’t have to go through the nudie-pic X-ray machine, but maybe that will change on the return trip. The truth is that it doesn’t bother me as much as you might think from reading this blog. (Besides, the punishment for taking nudie pictures of me is that you have to look at nudie pictures of me.)

Don’t get me wrong, I still hate the TSA. It’s kind of like when a clerk at a store swears in front of me. The swearing itself doesn’t bother me at all. However, he doesn’t know that. For all he knows, I might be easily offended by swearing, yet he goes ahead and swears anyway. He doesn’t respect me enough to care that I might be offended. And that offends me.

It’s the same with the TSA. I don’t mind so much that they intrude on my privacy, but I hate them for not giving a damn about my privacy. Someday, when the worm turns, I want them all to lose their jobs. Every smiling, friendly, blue-costumed asshole TSA agent in the country.

The weirdest part of security, though, was having to take off my shoes. I’d read about the TSA making people take off their shoes, of course, and knew intellectually that it was coming, but until I actually did it, I couldn’t quite believe something that stupid was for real.

When I got to Baltimore, I had a little trouble finding the offices where we were meeting. The rental car GPS had never heard of those streets. I used my phone’s Maps app to find a nearby intersection, and the GPS knew about it, but it tried to take me there via Fort Meade, home of the NSA. I managed to turn around before running into checkpoints full of armed guards.

Anyway, the meeting went well, and then a few of us went out to dinner. One of the guys had heard about a resturant called Maiwand Kabob in Columbia, and we decided to try it. The GPS got us there safely, and it turned out to be a tiny little store-front middle eastern restaurant in a mall. I decided to order the beef-and-chicken kabob, and when one of the other guys ordered that, I said, “I’ll have the same thing.”

I’d misheard, however. He’d actually ordered the lamb-and-chicken kabob. I don’t generally like lamb, but I went ahead with it anyway, which turned out to be a good idea. Apparently, I don’t like lamb because I’ve never had it prepared properly. If you ever find yourself in the area with a taste for middle eastern food, you could do a lot worse than Maiwand Kabob.

Anyway, I’m just about to pack up and head for the airport. My flight isn’t for 4 hours, but I’d rather get there early. The only thing worse than waiting around in an airports is rushing through airports.

About 10 years ago, my wife had just adopted Ripley, and we were thinking of getting a kitten next, and we thought it might be fun to get a purebread kitten. We weren’t sure what breed we wanted, so we did some research on the web and at cat shows. Eventually we settled on the Ragdoll breed, and began to contact a few local breeders to learn to learn how the adoption process works and to get an idea of the difference between breeders.

What we learned — and this will shock you — is that some cat breeders are a bit nuts. They all had lots of special rules we were supposed to follow once we got the cat, not all of which seemed, uh, entirely grounded in reality. I remember one even wanted the right to take back the cat if they thought it was being abused. (Taking back an abused cat makes sense, but they wanted to make the determination themselves, rather than, say, a neutral veterinarian.)

That turned us off the idea a bit, and somewhere along the way we got a kitten from a shelter, Buffy. (I didn’t have the camera back when she was a kitten, sorry) Then, a year or so later, we were visiting the Orphans of the Storm shelter (where we had adopted Ripley and Buffy), and we stumbled a cat with more hair than I’d ever seen before. We picked him up and played with him and brushed his hair — which really needed it, there was an awful lot of loose hair stuck to him — and put him back in his cage. But he just sat there, looking at us with those big blue eyes… So we took him home, and he became my favorite cat, Dozer.

Sadly, Dozer passed away a few months ago. He looked like a purebread blue bicolor Ragdoll, and he probably was. You can’t really tell if a cat is purebread without the breeding history, but Ragdoll breeders are a fairly protective bunch, so there aren’t too many fakes out there. (Unlike, say, Persians.) Based on our experiences with Dozer, my wife and I decided that we must always have a Ragdoll cat.

After a period of grieving, we began looking at web sites for Ragdoll kitten breeders, trying to decide what kind of Ragdoll we wanted. My wife fell in love with the blue lynx pattern, and we found a couple of blue lynx kittens at Dr. J’s Perfect Dolls. Last Friday, we met with Jennifer Woll, DVM, and took home a kitten. Check out the expression on his face in this shot:

Dr. Jennifer Woll With Our New Kitten
Larger ImageDr. Jennifer Woll With Our New Kitten

As usual, we had some trouble coming up with the name. Because he’s so cute, it’s tempting to name him “Nermal,” but he’ll eventually grow up, and “Nermal” is a silly name for a grown-up cat. We could also name him “Joel,” after the kitten in The Closer, but that too seems like a silly name for a full-size cat.

My wife likes “Roark,” after Eve Dallas’s love interest in the In Death series by J.D. Robb, which would also tie in nicely with my libertarian leanings because of the link to Howard Roark in The Fountainhead. On the other hand, “Roark” sounds a bit pretentious to me, and I’m not really a Rand fan. Alternatively, we could name him “Dallas” after Eve Dallas and also after the captain of the Nostromo in Alien.

For now, he’s Hotch, named after Aaron Hotchner, the character Thomas Gibson plays on Criminal Minds. Among other things, it has the advantage of being a single syllable, which means it might be possible to train him to respond to it.

It could happen.

[Update: We renamed him “Beezle” (includes video of him playing).]

Anyway, we have the kitten locked in the master bathroom for a few days as part of the process of introducing him to the rest of the household. He’s a bundle of energy, so I thought it would be amusing to setup the video camera to record his activity until it ran out of space, then I could edit it into a fun highlights video. As it turns out, however, all that energy is just for show. With no one watching, he just slept for an hour and a half.

I managed to salvage something, however, by compressing the video timeline. Here’s Hotch asleep for an hour and a half, shown at 50 times normal speed:

If you haven’t had enough, here’s the whole set of photos of Hotch.

I’ve been getting slammed in the comments to my earlier post about why Caylee’s Law is a bad idea, as has Radley Balko on his piece in the Huffington Post. Perhaps people will ease up a bit if I point out that Serena Straus, a former prosecutor in the Bronx Sex Crimes and Domestic Violence Unit, also thinks that Caylee’s Law is a bad idea.

Some of her reasons are pretty familiar, such as the lack of deterrence:

Certainly, Caylee’s law would be no deterrent. Let’s play this out. I murder my kid and have an hour to report it:

“Hmm…I can report this murder that I just committed thereby avoiding 1 – 5 under Caylee’s Law, but then I will be giving law enforcement access to all kind of wonderful forensic information that will lead to my conviction of 25 to life for murder. So….do I turn the body in or do I hide it somewhere hoping that by the time someone finds it, the condition will be so bad that forensics are useless….hmmmm….”

Or the troublesome definitions:

Even the requirement to report a child missing or risk criminal penalty is fraught with complications: What’s the age cut off? Is it 18 and under?  12 and under?  5 and under?  When does the clock starts ticking?  Is it when your 15 year old tells you they are leaving to sleep at a friend’s house or 15 hours later when you find out they lied?

But Straus also points out a few unintended consequences that could do more harm than good:

The potential for the police to be flooded with unwarranted complaints from guardians who think the kids are fine but are afraid of going to jail is real. Also, again, guardians who are going to do the right thing (or have half a brain) are going to report a child missing regardless.  And we don’t want to punish or deter later reporting for fear of jail.  Take the case of a parent whose kid has a tendency to not be totally honest about where they are going.  They say they are sleeping at a friend’s house.  They lied.  The parents find out 25 hours later – do you want to punish them for reporting within a reasonable time under their circumstance? Do you want to deter them from reporting with threat of prison?

This is similar to the ways the drug laws have discouraged people from seeking medical attention for drug users: You’re at party where there are drugs, and your friend becomes agitated, has difficult breathing, and then passes out. Knowing what the police will do if they find evidence of drugs, do you call 911 for an ambulance? Or do you wait to see if he’ll recover by himself?

If something like Caylee’s Law is enacted, parents of children who have been missing more than 24 hours will have the same kind of wonderful decision to make.

I think it’s fair to say that Scott Greenfield is not a fan of Apple’s iPad. From reading his banter with Brian Tannebaum, I gather there’s been a lot of hype about how the iPad is a “game changer” for lawyers — I guess because it can serve as a thin client front-end to some sort of “virtual office in the cloud” web application. Whatever. As criminal defense lawyers, Scott and Brian have no need for such things.

That seems reasonable, but sometimes Scott’s hatred for the iPad goes a bit overboard. I always assumed it was an act — hyperbole for the purpose of emphasis — but his latest post seems pretty serious:

When President John F. Kennedy announced in 1961 that America would put a man on the moon within ten years, it began a commitment to the future that drove us to create innovation which carried us to great heights and banal depths.  And with the last flight of the space shuttle, it’s over.  And we have given up.

Actually, I’m with Scott here. We stopped going to the moon almost 40 years ago, and the shuttle has been hideously expensive to operate because it has to be human-rated, and we never developed any sort of unmanned heavy spacelift vehicles, which is why the space station is small and pitiful compared to some of the earlier plans for a permanent station. More recently, I believe they just postponed plans to develop a sort of space-tug for moving stuff around the inner system.

(We don’t post about it here, but my co-blogger Ken and I have been complaining about the state of our space program since the 70s. And I’m sure he can correct anything I just got wrong.)

But the most significant thing represented by the last shuttle mission is America’s abdication of concern with our future.  To the extent something as self-serving as American Exceptionalism exists, it does so because of our drive to find the future, to dream big and achieve our dreams.  We have no dreams anymore.

We have no goals.  As a society, we think we’ve accomplished something by putting out a fire, never considering that at best we’re stagnant.  At worst, we fool ourselves, as the first isn’t really out but just left smoldering, waiting for someone else to shoulder the burden of putting it out later.

We’re a nation of big shots, every one of us too important to get our hands dirty doing hard work, or suffering personal sacrifice to achieve a future goal.

That sounds a lot like “national greatness,” which is how Republicans used to waste our money (and sometimes lives) when they weren’t busy complaining that Democrats were wasting our money on social programs. Of course, in our modern times, both parties seem quite flexible as to how they waste our money.

Anyway, guess what Scott sees as a symbol of all that is wrong with us today?

The lovers of technology hold dear to shiny gadgets like the iPad in the belief that they are the future. They are toys, which suck money out of the pockets of those least able to afford toys and give back nothing. Do you really think a great future exists because we can check our emails anywhere, or watch television shows we missed while we were twitting to each other?

I don’t have an iPad, but if it’s anything like my iPhone, it can also keep a list of everyone I know, and it can show me where they live, and give me turn-by-turn directions to get there. It lets me view a map of all the visible stars, showing exactly what they look like from where I am on Earth, or it can show me the Earth from space and zoom in to show me a single building, and pictures people have taken of the area, and all the nearest restaurants, ATMs, police stations, and hospitals. Or I can take my own pictures and movies, edit them, and share them with my friends.

My iPhone can keep a list of groceries, which my wife can update as I drive to the store, and if I’m not sure what she wants, I can send her pictures of what’s available. Then I can find the nearest theater that’s playing a movie I want to see and reserve two tickets. And if we’re too far from home, I can find the nearest hotel and book a room.

I can read all the world’s newspapers, watch all the world’s news feeds, find the current prices of all the world’s commodities, and read all the world’s public domain books. I can lookup the population of Connecticut in 1950 or the address of a good sushi bar in Avalon. If a friend has a book I like, I can scan the bar code and have a copy delivered to my house, or maybe I can just download it directly to the phone. Of course that’s only after I’ve read a few online reviews.

And I haven’t even mentioned that it holds every song I own, lets me buy more from a catalog of millions, and recommends other I might like. It also lets me manage my bank account and cash checks just by scanning them. I can track my wife’s flight as it approaches Chicago so I can pick her up within minutes of landing. I also have access to the world’s largest encyclopedia, photographs of every landmark in the world, weather reports from anywhere in the world, a notebook, a calendar, a voice memo recorder, and several types of calculators.

In the 1980’s, I participated in a government funded educational program that made supercomputers available to students at universities too small to afford their own. The absolute top-of-the-line supercomputer was the Cray 2, which cost $17 million in 1985 dollars. An iPad 2 is just as powerful as a Cray 2, except that it’s smaller, produces less waste heat, runs on batteries, and you can carry it in your pocket. For about 1/70000 the price.

And I know this sounds like an ad for an iPad, but remember that there are at least two other vendors making products that directly compete, and most laptop makers have a small footprint model aimed at the same group of consumers.

We are easily played by emotional appeals that distract us from hard realities, the ones the require some small amount of thought.  We’re a nation of marketers, liars who string together meaningless words and pretend that by making stuff up we can somehow slip past the mess all around us without contributing anything of substance, without actually doing anything that will achieve a needed goal.

Oh my God. Scott, dude, you’re a friggin’ lawyer! Talk about people who don’t contribute anything of substance…most people would put lawyers very near the top of that list. Those aren’t lawyers on that Space Shuttle.

And yet, lawyers are completely necessary in our society. They may not fly spaceships or cure diseases or invent cleaner sources of energy, but they’re a part of the vast cooperative enterprise we like to call civilization. As are we all. (I don’t talk about my job much on this blog, but trust me, as fascinating as it is to me, it’s nothing that will ever be in the history books.)

The space program was only partially about space, though the vast unknown around us offered the potential to survive the damage we do to our own planet because we’re too lazy to pick up our own garbage, and too enamored of our shiny toys to worry about where to put the nuclear waste.  As long as it’s not in our backyard, we just don’t care.

This is nit-picking, I know, but the Space Shuttle only goes up into low earth orbit. It never really got out into the vast unknown. I mean, if you knew where and when to look (something an iPad could tell you) you could see it from your backyard.

The space program gave us a wealth of opportunity along the way, as scientists and engineers created things that could be used to create more things to solve previously unsolvable problems.

That’s pretty much the process behind the iPad as well. In addition to the pocket supercomputer aspect I mentioned earlier, iPads also have state-of-the-art LCD displays, state of the art digital cameras, state-of-the-art batteries, state-of-the-art 3G transceivers, and even state-of-the-art glass panels. It’s not like Apple spent billions of dollars to invent these things from scratch, they are just one of many products that can be built from high-tech parts that are becoming ever more common.

There was a time when Mr. Fusion might have been a reality someday, instead of oil from the mideast.

Uh, no. I loved Back to the Future, but Mr. Fusion was fiction inspired by cold fusion research, which also turned out to be fiction.

There are still people who have the knowledge and interest to create a future out of the mess that swirls around us today, but the death of the space program reflects our nation’s decision to look backward rather than forward.  We have been seduced by the shiny toys, and they are good enough to make us forget that we are doing nothing as a society to invest in our future.

Enjoy your iPad 5. There may not be many new toys on the horizon because the drive that brought us this far is gone. We’re too cheap to pay the price of innovation, and we’re too lazy and preoccupied with our transitory self-interest to put in the effort necessary to change.  There will be a few tweaks to our shiny toys, which will be touted as wonders and snapped up at exorbitant prices by young people spending their daddy’s money, so that they can sit on their couches and eat Cheetos while surfing youtube.

Is this enough of a future for you?

The iPad is nothing less than a personal pocket supercomputer that gives you instant wireless access to a multi-million-node world-wide computer network. That’s about as science fiction as it gets. I know we don’t have the flying cars, but we are living in the future.

Do you not realize that you’ve bet the farm that some kid in Cambridge or Palo Alto, with no help from you, is going to come up with some truly incredible brainstorm that will create an industry, revitalize America, drive our economy in a direction that we can’t conceive of today?

If I did something like that, I’d be an idiot.

Consider Scott’s example of fusion power. Scientists have been experimenting with nuclear fusion for 50-60 years. Getting hydrogen to fuse came early, but the process required more energy than it produced. I believe scientists reached technological breakeven in the 80’s, but only on a small scale, and at great expense. Creating industrial-scale economical fusion power systems will be a long, slow process. It’s unlikely there will be any giant breakthroughs, just hundreds or thousands of small engineering breakthroughs that eventually advance the technology far enough for us to benefit.

So, what I’m betting on is that millions of people in thousands of cities will come up with millions of ideas, each of which improves our life a tiny, tiny bit, and that this process of continuous improvement will slowly grind away to make our lives better. After all, that’s how we got this far.

When you’ve got that many people working together, an awful lot of effort goes into dealing with the complexities of communications and organizing, and while each of those people is a specialist, an awful lot of their productive time is spent doing routine activities outside their area of specialization. Anything that makes those routine activities less time consuming is going to leave more time for people to do what they’re best at. This is why we need lawyers and accountants and garbage collectors and teachers and dog walkers. It’s also why we need overnight mail and photocopiers and email and iPads. Every little bit helps. It’s the story of civilization.

Besides, unless the medical folks figure out how to solve that death problem, it’s not like we’re going to live much longer than our great grandparents did. And if we can’t live longer, than at least we should use our vast technological wealth to live better. And if living better means streaming kitten videos while you’re sipping a Frappuchino at Starbucks, what the hell is wrong with that?

Irony Addendum: The last shuttle flight is not the last manned space flight. We’ll be using foreign spacecraft to get into orbit for a little while, and there are about five private companies developing various forms of spacelift, several of which will be man-rated.

Meanwhile, the astronauts on this last shuttle flight took a pair of iPhones:

Why the iPhone and not the iPad? “There’s no reason in principle why we couldn’t have done the iPad,” Rishikof says. Yet, the compact size of the iPhone gives the device less mass and volume, and therefore a smaller footprint when calculating measurements. “In the future, the iPad is definitely on our list,” he says.

It’s a supercomputer that talks to a world-wide cloud of supercomputers. Of course a bunch of rocket scientists can put it to good use.

I haven’t posted anything about Casey Anthony trial. I’d pretty much like to keep it that way because, really, I don’t know anything about the case. On the other hand, I know there’s a long and painful history of laws like this:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
July 6, 2011

Contacts: Michelle Crowder, “Caylee’s Law” petition-starter, 918-289-8479 (CDT)
Brian Purchia, Director of Communications, [email protected], 202-253-4330 (PDT)
Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza, Campaign Director, [email protected], 919-423-4783 (EDT)

***PRESS RELEASE***
CAMPAIGN TO CREATE “CAYLEE’S LAW” GOES VIRAL
Oklahoma woman calls for parents who fail to notify police of missing child to be charged with felony; more than 37,000 supporters join in less than 24 hours

WASHINGTON, DC – More than 37,000 people in all 50 states have joined a Change.org campaign calling for a federal law — called “Caylee’s Law” — that would make the failure of a parent to notify law enforcement of a child’s disappearance a felony.

Casey Anthony was found “not guilty” of first-degree murder or manslaughter on Tuesday in the case of her two-year-old daughter Caylee’s death. One of the central controversies of the case has been the fact that Anthony never notified law enforcement that her daughter was missing. Caylee was last seen on June 16, 2008; grandmother Cindy Anthony notified the police on July 15, a month later.

After hearing the verdict and seeing a Facebook page response, Oklahoman Michelle Crowder started a Change.org petition asking Congress to create “Caylee’s Law,” making it a federal offense and a felony for a parent or guardian to fail to report a child’s disappearance to law enforcement.

Nearly 2,000 people have signed the “Caylee’s Law” petition each hour since its creation, making it the fastest-growing campaign on Change.org.

“When I saw that Casey Anthony had been found not guilty in the murder of little Caylee, and that she was only being convicted of lying to the police about her disappearance, I was sickened; I could not believe she was not being charged with child neglect or endangerment, or even obstruction of justice,” said petition-starter Michelle Crowder.

“I saw a page on Facebook proposing that a law be made, but I saw nothing about a petition being started for it. So, I decided to start one on Change.org because I have signed several petitions on the site and I knew it would be a way to reach people and hopefully get something done.”

Michelle continued, “I am hoping that this will be made into a federal law so that no other child’s life, disappearance, and/or death is treated in the manner that poor Caylee’s was treated. No child deserves that.”

“There is extensive debate about this issue, and this campaign has been remarkable,” said Change.org founder Ben Rattray. “In less than 24 hours, a woman in Oklahoma has recruited tens of thousands of supporters for her cause. Change.org is about empowering anyone, anywhere, to take action on the issues that are important to them, and it is the perfect platform for this record-breaking campaign.”

Change.org, the world’s fastest-growing platform for social change, was profiled this week in the New York Times, Sacramento Bee, and Washington Times.

Live signature totals from the “Caylee’s Law” petition on Change.org:
http://www.change.org/petitions/create-caylees-law

Facebook page that prompted Michelle to start the Change.org campaign:
http://www.facebook.com/CreateCayleesLaw

Facebook page tied to Michelle’s Change.org petition:
http://www.facebook.com/pages/Create-Caylees-Law/239305669422074

(I’ve left all the links in the press release so you can see the startling amount of self-promotion involved. Most of those links that appear to lead to a news story — e.g. “thousands of supporters” or “record-breaking campaign” lead right back to the Change.org petition page.)

You don’t have to follow news about our criminal justice system for very long to know that laws named after (alleged) crime victims are often just legislative theater (“Behold! I have done something about this problem!”), in which case they are usually a poorly-written overreaction to a single incident, and they usually do more harm than good.

Here’s the text of the petition:

Create Caylee’s Law, Not Reporting Child’s Death Should Be a Felony

Greetings,

On July 5, 2011, at 1:15 pm CST, Casey Anthony was found not guilty of first degree murder in the death of her daughter Caylee Anthony. The only charges she now faces are four counts of falsifying police reports, each of which only carries a 1 year prison term. Since she has been in jail since August 2008, she will be out of jail ENTIRELY too soon.

I’m writing to propose that a new law be put into effect making it a felony for a parent, legal guardian, or caretaker to not notify law enforcement of the death of their child, accidental or otherwise, within 1 hour of said death being discovered. This way there will be no more cases like Casey Anthony’s in the courts, and no more innocent children will have to go without justice.

Also, make it a felony for a parent, legal guardian, or caretaker to not notify law enforcement of the disappearance of a child within 24 hours, so proper steps can be taken to find that child before it’s too late.

The case of Caylee Anthony was tragic, and there is no reason for another case like this one to hit the courts. Let’s do what is necessary to prevent another case like this from happening.

[Your name]

Offhand, I see at least four problems.

First of all, why should this be a federal crime? The related crimes — murder, manslaughter, endangering a child — are not generally federal crimes.

Second, does it really make sense to require parents to notify law enforcement within one hour? My God. I don’t have children, but my guess is that if you discover your child dead, it could take you an hour before you even have the strength to get up off the floor.

Third, most children who die in the home, or otherwise in their parents’ care, are not murder victims. They die of accidents or medical conditions. Thus, nearly all parents who suffer the death of a child — and are therefore subject to this law — are not actually criminals. They did nothing wrong. And they know they did nothing wrong. So, in the midst of mind-numbing tragedy, they might not realize they’re supposed to call the cops. After all, it’s not like the cops can help.

Fourth, the petition says parents are supposed to notify law enforcement of the disappearance within 24 hours. I don’t know if it’s true, but haven’t we all heard that the police won’t even begin a missing person investigation until at least 24 hours have passed? So why try to report it before then? And if we’re talking about a troublesome teenager, involved with drugs, I’d imagine that disappearances of several days are not unusual. And if you suspect your child is involved with drugs, calling the police is probably a terrible idea.

Most of the problems I’ve mentioned might sound like they could be handled with a carefully drafted law. For example, the requirement to report a disapperance could be limited only to young children like Caylee. That’s the logical and sensible thing to do. Then again, it would be logical and sensible if laws against child molestation did not apply to 18-year-old boys who have consensual sex with their 16-year-old girlfriends, and yet they do. Logic and sense often go out the window when children are involved.

The problem is that laws like this — laws named after people — are usually passed for show, and so thoughtful, careful drafting is not a priority. If someone actually does propose a Caylee’s Law (and I’m guessing someone will) it may not have any of the flaws I’ve suggested here, but it’s a good bet that it will have something wrong with it.

There’s also a good chance it will be loaded up with unrelated provisions. After all, why should it apply only to children? Don’t we care about the elderly too? Or the mentally impaired? And isn’t there something else on the law enforcement wishlist we could add to the bill?

And then there’s the issue of how the law will actually be applied. I predict that many years will go by before the law is used in a case similar to the Casey Anthony trial. On the other hand, if history is any guide, a law like this will probably turn into a de-facto sentencing enhancement/plea-bargaining chip.

For example, when a parent kills his own child in a drunk-driving accident, in addition to the DUI, reckless endangerment, manslaughter, or whatever else would be typical, he might find himself charged with a Caylee’s Law violation because he was too drunk to report the death in a timely fashion. It’s just another charge on the pile to get a little more jail time.

Or maybe the missing-child reporting requirement will be used to harass the families of suspected criminals: “You say you don’t know where your son is? And you haven’t seen him since Friday? That’s more than 24 hours. Tell us where he is, or we’ll arrest you right now.”

None of this will address the problem that has everybody so upset: The impression that Casey Anthony got away with doing evil because there just wasn’t enough evidence. Caylee’s Law would do nothing to fix that. Instead, Caylee’s law would criminalize certain actions or inactions, not because they are especially evil, but because they are easy to prove. And that’s no way to write criminal law.

Update: Radley Balko says it better:

This is a bad way to make public policy. In an interview with CNN, Crowder concedes that she didn’t consult with a single law enforcement official before coming up with her 24-hour and 1-hour limits. This raises some questions. How did she come up with those cutoffs? Did she consult with any grief counselors to see if there may be innocuous reasons why an innocent person who just witnessed a child’s death might not immediately report it, such as shock, passing out, or some other sort of mental breakdown? Did she consult with a forensic pathologist to see if it’s even possible to pin down the time of death with the sort of precision you’d need to make Caylee’s Law enforceable? Have any of the lawmakers who have proposed or are planning to propose this law actually consulted with anyone with some knowledge of these issues?

This is exactly what I mean about the trouble with hastily-passed laws. People could go to jail for breaking this law, and Crowder didn’t even spend a day doing research. That’s irresponsible and dangerous.

So, after I drove to Avalon, I had to drive back to Chicago. My wife had gone to Avalon ahead of me with her friends, and I was going to meet her there and bring her home. We were planning to swing south into Kentucky to visit family on the way.

Step one was getting out of New Jersey, which proved a little tricky. There are several bridges across the Delaware from south Jersey, and our GPS system wanted to take the southern-most bridge, the Delaware Memorial, presumably because it was closest to our starting point in Avalon. But we were reliably informed that traffic on the small roads between Avalon and the bridge would be very congested, and that we should take one of the northern bridges, possibly even the Ben Franklin into Philadelphia. Even though we’d have to travel in the wrong direction, it was supposed to be much quicker.

So I decided to ignore Jill (the GPS) for a little while and cruise north along the Garden State Parkway until Jill stopped advising me to turn around, at which point I could assume that it had chosen a more northern route. This took us close to Atlantic City, at which point we switched to the Atlantic City Expressway heading west toward the Ben Franklin bridge.

It all went wrong when I followed Jill’s instructions to take an exit onto some small roads. I should have balked, but I needed gas anyway, so I decide to see where Jill would take us. After maybe 15 minutes of driving on silly little streets — definitely not a major route for driving to D.C., although I did get gas — we got on the southbound New Jersey Turnpike — and promptly proceeded down to the Delaware Memorial bridge anyway. By the time I figured out what Jill had done, it was a little too late to change directions. Except for the silly little streets, it may have been faster than the more direct route — there was very little traffic — but it was not what I had been planning.

As for Delaware, all I know is that we were in a traffic jam. Then we left Delaware and everything got better. I realize this is probably not a representative sample of life in Delaware.

We crossed Maryland without incident — not even in Baltimore — entered Virginia, and headed for the western burbs of D.C., where we met up Mirriam Seddiq. I’ve known her for years through her blog, where I followed her job-hunting and the birth of her children and the re-launch of her legal career, so I wasn’t about to pass this close without taking the opportunity to meet her in person.

My wife and I didn’t want to intrude, so our plan had been to call her when we got close and meet her for late lunch or early dinner somewhere in her neighborhood. Mirriam, however, insisted on inviting us over, so we got to meet her whole lovely family.

Mirriam, Yakob, Drue, and Yonas a.k.a. Stick Kid
Larger ImageMirriam, Yakob, Drue, and Yonas a.k.a. Stick Kid

Afterwards, we got out of D.C. and dashed southwest a few hours to get a headstart on the next day’s travels. I had been hoping to take Skyline Drive for the view, but we were running a bit late and the sun was almost down, so we just drove down Interstate 81 to Lexington. It went pretty fast, and I had ripped about 80 more of my CDs before leaving home, so we had some music. At one point we were listening to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and I couldn’t help reinacting the headbanging scene from Wayne’s World, which probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do while driving 70 miles per hour down a unfamiliar two-lane undulating mountain road at night, surrounded by trucks, in the rain, and fog.

The next morning, I decided to add some scenic driving to our trip — unaware that Jill would later add some scenery of her own — by taking Virginia-39 northwest to Warm Springs. I had noticed that there weren’t a lot of photos along the route on Google Earth, so I thought I might be able to contribute a few, but the road was narrow and had no shoulders for stopping. I would have had to either stop right on the road or find a place to park and walk back. I didn’t want to risk the first, and we didn’t have time for the latter. I did get pictures from a lookout, but since everyone does that, Google Earth doesn’t need another one.

As we were leaving, another guy was also leaving, and he was driving what looked like some kind of Mazda coupe (Miata maybe?). I figured that having my comparatively ungainly RAV4 in front of him would ruin his fun drive through the hills, so I let him go ahead of me. This turned out to be a mistake. He proceeded to amble along comfortably below the speed limit for the next 3 or 4 miles. Then he slowed down even more to look for the right turnoff.

People, please: If you want a slow, relaxed drive, buy a big sedan. If you’re going to buy a nimble little coup, learn to drive it like the sports car that it is. If I can keep up on a mountain road in my SUV, you’re not doing it right.

Anyway, once we reached Warm Springs I decided to get off the scenic route. I wanted Jill to find a route back to the main road, but the GPS system didn’t really have a routing mode for that, so I improvised by asking it to find all the nearest fast food places, and I picked a McDonald’s in cluster of them to the southwest of us, which pretty much had to be on the highway.

That worked, but Jill found some hilariously tiny and windy roads for the trip. I guess that even though they are built like a roller coaster ride, with steep banking and sharp blind turns, they’re rural roads, and therefore the default speed limit is 55mph. I guess that looks pretty attractive to the GPS system’s routing algorithms.

When we reached Beckley, West Virginia, the GPS system took us northwest along the West Virgina Turnpike, and then southeast toward our destination in Prestonsburg. It should have been simple — there were state roads all over the place — but when the GPS system took us off the Turnpike, it once again took us on a tour of twisty little roads that had ridulously high speed limits.

The lesson, I think, is that GPS routing doesn’t replace good old map reading. In the future, I’ll use a good road map to plan the basic route, then I’ll plug a series of waypoints into the GPS system to let it handle the finer details and deal with problems like finding my way back to the highway after a stop for gas.

We eventually got to our hotel, checked in, and drove the 25 miles or so to Pikeville. We had been hoping to stay in Pikeville itself, but Pikeville is no longer the tiny little town I remember visiting as a child. It’s turned into a sort-of Eastern Kentucky Enterprise Zone, with chain restaurants, a Walmart, and outposts for large corporations. We found out that all their hotels were filled up for weeks in advance.

We were in Pikeville to take my Uncle Hagan out to dinner. He was my father’s younger brother, and out of a total of ten brothers and sisters, he’s the only one still alive. That pretty much makes him the Draughn family patriarch. Which is probably why he ended up taking us out to dinner.

Hagan’s kind of an amazing and inspirational guy. His wonderful wife, Mary Lou, passed away about ten years ago, and despite having gone blind, he still lives by himself in a beautiful home on a hillside just a few miles outside Pikeville proper. He worked hard to learn the skills that allow him to take care of himself, and he keeps himself fit with a daily exercise regimen. He had no trouble giving me driving directions to the restaurant.

(Hagan’s son Jim and his wife Peggy were away at the time, but they have a home on another part of the hill, so Hagan’s not without family support. Hagan visits them all the time, finding his own way along the path through the woods.)

The next day, we loaded up the RAV and set out for Louisville.

I should mention that my wife and I had a ridiculous amount of luggage for two people on a short driving trip. We had initially traveled separately, so we each brought along a suitcase full of clothing, a computer, and a utility bag. In addition, I had my camera gear, and we brought along a small cooler filled with Diet Coke. We needed to use a luggage cart at every hotel.

The trip to Louisville was uneventful, until we checked into the hotel and found out the wi-fi service sucked. This was a problem because my wife had to give a training webinar of some kind. She ended up having to use her phone’s tethering capability, which was a little slow for screen sharing, and she had to use my phone to call in.

On the other hand, when we were on the road, my wife was able to get an amazing amount of work done while I was driving. It got a bit spotty in the hills — email would come in bursts as we passed through islands of 3G service — but we were pretty much always in touch with the world.

That evening, we took my cousin Betty out to dinner. She had a lot of great stories. She’d known my father long ago, and she’d spent a lot of time with my Aunt Mary Elizabeth, who passed away last year. Mary had always gone to great lengths to appear prim and proper — because she was prim and proper — whereas Betty was a bit more willing to speak her mind and tell people off.

Mary Elizabeth enjoyed playing Bridge, and she apparently played a lot with a fairly elite group. Toward the end, her mind was letting go a bit, and she’d get confused. One day, someone from the group called Betty to complain that Mary’s mental difficulties were making the game less fun for the rest of them or something. I don’t know what she wanted Betty to do about it, and neither does Betty, because she hung up before they finished their whining. I’m proud to have Betty as family.

The next day, we GTFO of Louisville. Really, our hotel was almost on the Ohio river, about three miles from the nearest bridge. We were gone in minutes. And thus we started the last and most boring leg of our journey: Driving across Indiana.

Indiana’s not a bad place, but compared to the states I had been driving across, it was really, really flat. And I’ve been up and down I-65 a bunch of times, so there wasn’t a lot to see. We got home on Wednesday, and I’ve been recovering ever since.

Normally, I would have more photos for a trip like this, but (1) it was hard to find a good place to stop for some of the photos, (2) we were in a bit of a hurry, and (3) I seemed to have lost the ability to get a properly exposed photograph. First the photo would be too dark, then I’d adjust something and the highlights would be all blown out. After a while, I got discouraged and stopped taking pictures.

Embarassingly, the problem turned out to be that I had done a few high-dynamic-range photos earlier and had left the camera in bracket mode, so it was alternately under- and overexposing my shots. It wasn’t until several days later that I noticed the bracket indicator on the LCD display, and suddenly I was able to take decent photos again.