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Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Innocence Wins Another One

Congratulations to Barry Scheck, Vanessa Potkin, and the staff of The Innocence Project for getting Lonnie Erby out of prison after serving 17 years for rapes he didn't commit. They used DNA evidence to prove his innocence, despite ongoing opposition to that science by St. Louis District Attorney Jennifer Joyce. Her office stubbornly resisted and dragged their feet in this matter, as they did with Larry Johnson, who the Project got released last summer. Shame on her.

Vanessa told me today that she got a call this morning from the UAW, which is going to try to get Lonnie his old job back at the Chrysler plant. This is the toughest part of his new freedom -- at 49 years old, he has no job, no money, no clothing. And the state gives him nothing except an apology.

Don't we as a society owe something to men and women we've imprisoned wrongly? This guy had a third of his life taken away. Think of losing your freedom for that long. Add to it the trauma of prison life and everything that goes along with it. How much would you be owed?

You can't give him back that time, you can't give him another chance to see his son grow up, but certainly we should make an effort to get him on his feet again. Train him to understand the technologies that have cropped up while he was locked up, so that he can re-enter the workforce if he must.

Vanessa said that some states, like California, give freed innocents like Erby a check that amounts to $50,000 for each year they were wrongly imprisoned. That's a start, but I don't know if it's enough.

We provide a societal safety net for businesses, we do it for families with sick kids, we do it for all sorts of people in need. The sad thing is that more people cared about Quentin, The Dog That Cheated Death, than will about Lonnie Erby.

And let's not forget the rape victims, all of whom thought they had closure because the thug who'd attacked them had been sent away. But since the thug wasn't Lonnie, that means the real rapist was never punished for those crimes and may still be walking around somewhere.

In the meantime, Lonnie is back with his family, trying to reconnect to a life and a world he hasn't known since his son was 10 years old. We should all wish him luck -- and hope the Innocence Project (which, as of today, has exonerated 136 wrongfully convicted people) runs out of clients very soon.

Monday, August 25, 2003

Face-It, Fox, and Failure

It's a toss-up for Loser Of The Week: Fox News Channel or the makers of Face-It.

Rupert Murdoch's network had a bad day in court on Friday. They were suing Al Franken over using the phrase "Fair & Balanced" in the title of his new book. They claim it's their trademark and he's violating it. On Friday, a judge looked at the lawsuit and said, "There are hard cases and there are easy cases. This is an easy case. This case is wholly without merit both factually and legally." To make matters worse, the ploy really backfired because all the publicity helped Franken's book leap to the top of the bestsellers list. On the other hand...wait, there is no other hand. Game over, you lose.

Joining Fox in the land of the futile is Visionics, the company that makes the Face-It facial-recognition software that was hooked up to 36 cameras installed in the Ybor City entertainment district of Tampa, Florida. The idea was that the technology would pick out faces from the crowd and run them through a criminal database to search for matches. The program was ill-advised from the get-go, what with its Orwellian overtones, checking people at random to see if they were crooks. What a nice assumption to make about your fellow Americans!

To say that the system didn't work would be an understatement. Take the example of Rob Milliron, who had lunch one day not knowing that the police had snapped his photo with one of the Face-It cameras to demonstrate it for the media. A woman in Tulsa, Oklahoma, saw his picture and called the cops to report that he was her ex-husband and was wanted on felony child neglect charges. The software confirmed it. But when three cops showed up at Rob's construction job site to interrogate him, it turned out the woman and the computer were wrong. He'd never been married, had no kids, and had never set foot in Oklahoma. Whoops!

Still, Tampa kept the Face-It cameras rolling for two years, until last week, when they announced they were ending the program. Why? Because in those 24 months, it led to exactly zero arrests. That's zero as in zip, zilch, zippo, nada, squat, the big goose egg. Not a single criminal was ensnared by this high-tech boondoggle.

Now Face-It must face the ugly fact that their big deal crime-fighting concept caught the same number of bad guys as my nine-year-old daughter did! And her efforts were hampered by an earlier bed time.

That didn't bother Tampa police spinmeister Joe Durkin, who said, "I wouldn't consider it a failure." You're right, Joe. It's really only a failure if you consider its complete lack of success as measured by any objective standard. Or are you just trying to be fair and balanced?

Sunday, August 24, 2003

Amendments vs. Commandments

Here's the question I haven't heard anyone else ask in the controversy of the Ten Commandments monument in the Alabama state courthouse: what harm is done by removing it?

Is there nowhere else you can find the Ten Commandments? It's not like we're talking about filling in the Grand Canyon, chipping away at Mount Rushmore, or chopping down The Arch. Between the houses of worship, libraries, and the internet, you only have about a million options.

My favorite part of the story was the people who traveled from all over the country to take part in the rallies supporting Justice Roy Moore's stubborn stand. One of them said, without a hint of irony, "The federal government has no right to tell Alabama what to do. This is a matter for the people of Alabama, and only the people of Alabama, to decide. That's why I came here from Michigan!"

What would the reaction of these self-declared warriors for religious rights have been if, instead of trying to express his beliefs with the Ten Commandments, Justice Moore has instead posted a granite monument with quotes from the Koran and the phrase, "Allah is God"? They'd have been inside with picks and sticks, taking it down in about two seconds. So much for their First Amendment argument.

On the other hand, those who say there is no place in a courthouse for religion have never spent anytime inside one. True, it's usually in a less formal presentation, something along the lines of "oh, please, God, give me one more chance and tell this jury that it's perfectly normal to drive my taxi the wrong way down the highway while wearing no clothes but covered in maple syrup, ping pong balls, and paper clips." More people find religion in court and jail than anywhere else in America -- with the possible exception of a high school classroom when a student realizes she forgot to study for the big history exam that's just been plopped on her desk. Or an NBA star being awakened in a hotel room by a call from the Eagle County sheriff's office.

Moore knew he was doing something wrong from the start. That's why he snuck the monument into the courthouse in the middle of the night. If he thought it was completely legit, he would've conducted the operation during the light of day for all to see. No, he was more like a kid who stayed out way past curfew and tried to squeeze back into the house without Mom and Dad knowing that he smelled like a carton of Marlboros and a case of Budweiser.

Now that Moore has been suspended, you can expect him to leave his post and immediately announce that he's running for higher elective office -- possibly Senator, probably Governor. And he'll win, too, because this is Alabama, the same state that was proud to serve as a launching pad for George Wallace 40 years ago when he stood in the university doorway to block two black kids from enrolling -- just long enough to achieve national prominence and eventually run for President. Unfortunately for Wallace, the electoral college wasn't located in Birmingham. Somewhere, right now, Lynyrd Skynyrd is working Moore's name into a new version of "Sweet Home Alabama."

One last thought. The Fifth Commandment, as listed on Roy's Rock, is "Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy." Keep that in mind this fall as you see all those NFL players praising God and declaring their deeply-held religious beliefs. While they work on Sundays.

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Plugged In, Turned Off

Al-Qaida has allegedly taken responsibility for The Blackout. They claim, "The Americans lived a black day they will never forget. They lived a day of terror and fear...a state of chaos and confusion where looting and pillaging rampaged the cities.... The strikes were aimed at hitting the major pillar of the US economy, the Stock Exchange."

Very nice language. Also very wrong. The Stock Exchange wasn't affected because trading had finished for the day when the power went off at 4:11pm ET on Thursday. When it re-opened on Friday morning, the electricity was flowing again and everything operated normally.

As for the "looting and pillaging," that didn't happen, either. Even in Detroit, where they'll riot to celebrate the fact that it's Tuesday, there were no reports of anything out of the ordinary. Frankly, the only Americans who "lived a day of terror and fear" are kids who had to start school and, on the first day, had a teacher hit them with a pop quiz to start the new year!

While we're still not 100% sure what caused the lights to go out, I'm fairly sure that whoever wrote this al-Qaida communiqué got that wrong impression from our television networks. They all went into immediate media coverage overkill, playing up The Blackout as a huge disaster that was bringing America to its knees.

If you didn't know better -- and 80% of the nation did know better, because we still had power! -- you would have thought we were under attack and half of us were stuck in a subway or elevator. Far from it. In fact, here in the Middle Of America, the attitude was, "Okay, it's not terrorism. Now, what's for dinner?"

Even after announcing that it wasn't a 9/11 repeat, the news networks kept pounding the story to death, entirely because they're headquartered in New York. So, if it was happening to them, it must be important to all of us. Not so!!

If the blackout had affected all those other cities (Cleveland, Akron, Pittsburgh, Detroit, etc.) but not Manhattan, would there have been wall-to-wall coverage? Doubtful. Instead of the northeast, what if the lights had gone out in St. Louis, Kansas City, Des Moines, Omaha, Tulsa, New Orleans, and Memphis? We'd be lucky to have Dan Rather give it a quick mention, with some amusing aphorism attached.

As a matter of fact, Memphis did go without power for several days earlier this month. Bet you never even heard about that, because it didn't get any play outside the region. On the other hand, there's no reason you should have, because it didn't affect you any more than Times Square going dark affected us.

We were able to maintain this perspective not just because we don't care that Diane Sawyer had to walk a few blocks to work and dry her hair with a towel instead of a ConAir 3000, but also because we know what it's like to go without power for awhile. It's not unusual for thunderstorms to knock out electrical service to tens of thousands of homes here every spring and summer, with occasional ice and snow storms in the winter wreaking havoc with the power lines. Somehow, the world goes on -- without 72 hours of continuous coverage.

As for al-Qaida's claims, they're obviously bogus. Later on in the communiqué, they claim responsibility for several other recent events: the California recall circus, the Phoenix gas shortage, and Albert Pujols going on the DL in the middle of a consecutive-games hitting streak. Notice they don't take credit for "Gigli" -- there is a limit to their horror, after all.

Thursday, August 14, 2003

Fans and Fanatics

There's a version of "American Idol" in Lebanon called "Superstar." Same concept, with one singer eliminated in each show, until the final superstar is chosen. The difference is the intense reaction of the viewers, particularly the fans of one Melhem Zein.

In the US version, when a singer doesn't get enough votes, the fans get a little upset. Clay Aiken's fans were so sure that their guy had been robbed when Ruben Studdard won, that they wrote letters to the FCC demanding a recount and an investigation. This made no sense, since the FCC couldn't care less who is or isn't named "American Idol." It made even less sense that thousands of North Carolinians went to an arena to watch the final episode on a big screen -- when the same show was being broadcast into their nice comfortable homes for free. These people had no connection to Clay Aiken other than coincidental geography, yet they were going nuts for a guy they knew only from a TV show.

We're used to a fanatical "American Idol" audience carrying signs with slogans like, "We love you, Ruben!" or "You rock, Clay!" or "I don't care who wins, I just want to be on TV!!" It's a little different in the Arab world, where "fanatical" takes on a whole new meaning.

When Zein lost in the "Superstar" semi-final, 150 of his fans were so enraged that they gathered outside the television studio and chanted, "With our blood and souls, we sacrifice for you Melhem!!"

Ahem. Right there are three words you do not want to hear chanted in Beirut: blood, souls, and sacrifice. Individually, they don't fill the air with a joyous feeling. Together, they send a shiver down your spine that makes you feel seconds away from death. That happened to be the reaction of the two women who were left as the finalists -- they fainted and had to be taken to the hospital.

If that's me, if I'm a finalist, and the supporters of the guy who just lost are shouting epithets involving blood, souls, and sacrifice, well, I'm outta there. That's it, thank you very much, I'll be fine without the prize, can you give me a lift to the airport, I won't have a forwarding address, forget you knew me, so long!

All for a TV show and a pop singer. A singer who none of these people were related to. A singer whose career, if he's very lucky, will last about as long as Justin Guarini's did. Then it'll be back to his old job as head busboy at the Hummus Hut.

Disclaimer: if you're an overzealous fan of Melhem Zein and happen to find this column online, please refer all correspondence (e.g. hate mail and death threats) to Ms. Paula Abdul, c/o "American Idol." My family thanks you.

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

A Bad Case of Ted Head

Bring me the head of Ted Williams. No, it's not connected to his body anymore.

Sports Illustrated says that the Splendid Splinter was decapitated by surgeons at Alcor Life Extension Foundation, the cryonics lab where Williams was frozen by his wacky family. Then the head was placed in a steel can while his body is suspended in a separate upright cylindrical tube.

I've always been a prove-it kind of guy, so I won't believe cryonics works until at least one popsicle person is defrosted and returned to life. Until then, this is just nonsense and a waste of money. The procedure costs about $136,000, not to mention the ongoing maintenance expenses, which are not insubstantial. Personally, I'd rather my family find something better to do with that money than to keep me on ice for a couple of centuries.

But if -- and that's a big if -- it can be done, what's the use of coming back to the land of the living if your head isn't attached to your body anymore? I don't know about you, but I use my head several times a day. It's a particularly good place to keep my brain. What assurance is there that, after I reach room temperature, they'd put my own head back on my body? How do I know it won't be Marty Feldman jamming Abby Normal's skull on my torso? Come to think of it, how do I know they wouldn't connect Marty Feldman's formerly frosty noggin to my collarbone?

SI says that Ted's heirs still owe Alcor about $110,000, which is a big enough bill to make me wonder how diligent the lab would be about things like the liquid nitrogen level, or letting the thermostat dip down a few degrees every once in awhile to put some pressure on the next of kin. The magazine reports that something has gone wrong a few times, causing the Ted Head to develop about 10 cracks (making it a Crack Head?).

Then there's the question of the missing DNA. Eight samples of Ted's genetic goo are missing. No doubt somewhere there's an evil genius trying to grow those samples into the all-time clone baseball team -- where the DH stands for Defrosted Hitter. Put them on the field behind Danny Almonte and sign 'em up for the Birdseye Little League World Series.

One more point to ponder. If the Williams kids were so keen on this technology that they had their father turned into Mr. Freeze, how come none of them has signed up to be frozen when they die?

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Terminator 4: Election Day

I was wrong. I was sure that Arnold Schwarzenegger would not run for governor of California. Tonight, to the delight of comedians and the political press, he announced that he is running.

By morning, there will be an instant poll showing support for Arnold, based entirely on name recognition, to be fairly high. No one yet knows what he stands for, other than his promise to go to Sacramento and "clean house." What's he going to do, pull a "Terminator" and show up naked in the capitol building while "Bad To The Bone" plays and he takes a leather outfit off of Gray Davis?

Until now, the number one issue that Schwarzenegger has stood for has been "my movie opens this Friday." He's always been a very effective self-promoter. On a few occasions, that promotional road has crossed my path.

Our last run-in was nearly a decade ago when he appeared on my show to promote "Junior," a movie in which he co-starred with Danny DeVito, with whom he had worked well in "Twins." The high concept behind "Junior" was that Arnold played a scientist who agreed to be the first man to carry a fetus in his belly. Ha ha. See Arnold become a softie as the baby grows inside him. Ha ha. It was lame.

Whenever Arnold is in movie hype mode, he has a one-track mind. You can't budge him off message, no matter how hard you try (sounds like a prerequisite for going into politics!). But I was always determined to see if I could squeeze an answer out of him that he hadn't given in a hundred other interviews. In this case, as we were discussing the movie, and he was feeding me the standard "dis is a funny movie" kind of lines, I asked Arnold a hypothetical question: "If biology was reversed and you could actually have a baby in real life, which woman would you want to impregnate you?"

Suffice it to say that Arnold isn't the greatest ad-libber in the world. Thinking on his feet is not his specialty. You could hear the steam coming out of his ears as his muscle-head attempted to analyze the question and form a coherent answer.

He sputtered, "I would....um...it is....puh...da man would....hmmmfffft...." for about 15 seconds before he couldn't contain his frustration any longer and shouted angrily, "That's not what the movie is about!!!"

That was the last time I was asked to be part of an Arnold Schwarzenegger press tour. I had made the heinous error of going outside the lines -- a violation of movie star interview etiquette. But if Arnold thought my simple hypothetical was a tough one, wait till he sees the questions he'll get from the political press covering his run for governor. It won't all be "ET" and "Access Hollywood" lobbing him softballs.

This could be fun. Keep an eye out for the steam.