Monday, December 10, 2012

Jury Duty in US District Court – An Interesting Experience

(on right) Carl B. Stokes United States Courthouse, Cleveland Ohio

I recently had the privilege of being selected for jury duty for the United States District Court, Northern District of Ohio in Cleveland. It was a very interesting experience. Everyone should have the chance to be called for jury duty, if anything to see firsthand how the American system of justice works in reality – and not how it works on a television show.

A few months ago, it was with a slight sense of dread as I opened a piece of mail from the US District Court in Cleveland. It was just a simple survey to verify my qualifications as a potential juror but I knew exactly what it meant – I would soon be called for jury duty. The survey merely attempts to flush out those situations that would likely exclude people – disabilities, military duty, advanced age, etc. I didn’t fit in any of those categories so I knew it was just a matter of time before I was called.

Sure enough, less than a month later came the notice that I was selected to serve. Every night, beginning on a set date, I was to call the court and hear a recording stating whether my jury group was to report or not. As the term of service is one month or one trial, I had to clear my schedule for a 30 day period…a bit of a hassle as I’d already made plans for the time before the Thanksgiving holiday.

The first night I called, I was informed the trial to which I had been assigned had been moved – so I was able to change my schedule back. Within about a week, the trial date was moved again. But that date stuck, and I reported for duty on the date and time required,

The US District Court in Cleveland is located in downtown Cleveland next to the Tower City complex, and the enclosed walkway from Tower City makes it easy to get to the courthouse. The Carl B. Stokes United States Courthouse is only about 10 years old and the design is contemporary and serene, yet conveys serious business.

Jurors were directed to the very large jury assembly room and were asked to complete a questionnaire. (While some jurors seemed to think that sitting in the back of this large room would mean they would likely not be in the first group selected,  this makes no difference.) Having served on a jury for my hometown once before, I knew that the questions asked on the survey were not random but related to the case in some way. Of course, each question was answered honestly.

And then…the waiting. While jurors were asked to report by 7:30, we weren’t moved to the courtroom until about 3 hours later. The names of potential jurors were called and assigned a juror number, and the group moved to the hallway outside the courtroom, which was several stories up. (The view of the Cleveland skyline and the Terminal Tower can’t be beat!) We were lined up according to the number we were assigned (I had a very low number so I thought I would surely be seated as a juror) and we were led into the courtroom and seated according to the number assigned. Some jurors numbering in the 30s-40s were breathing a sigh of relief thinking they wouldn’t be seated as a juror (they were wrong).

The process of voir dire begins, which is the process where prospective jurors are questioned about their backgrounds, potential biases, and in some cases the answers on the questionnaire, before being selected to sit on the jury. The phrase voir dire is derived from Latin and French and means "that which is true"; but I say it means “very boring.” When I served on a city jury, voir dire was quick and took only about 15 minutes, but as this case was in a Federal court, the process is far more time consuming and the questioning far more detailed. In this particular case, potential jurors are first asked questions as a group, and then asked questions individually (yet still in a group setting), verifying some basic information, such as name, occupation, etc.  The process stretched for hours as some jurors (in this case, at least 30 jurors) were called to the bench to be asked specific questions based on how the potential juror answered the questionnaire. While the judge, the prosecutor and/or defense attorney asks the potential juror questions, a “white noise” –  like the static heard over an old analog TV with no signal – is heard, which masks what is said at the bench to others in the courtroom (and vice versa). At first it was not an unpleasant sound, but after this went off and on for hours, it became rather annoying. (By the way, the next day my ears were ringing loudly for hours…was it a rebound from all that white noise?)

I was called up to the bench and asked several questions and answered them honestly. Jurors are not told whether they are being selected or disqualified until the attorneys have screened each juror for which they had specific issues with the questionnaire.

Hours later – it was close to 5PM now – the jurors were selected. After going through aver 40 jurors, the court finally picked twelve jurors and a few alternates. I was not selected, and while they don’t explain why, I suspect that due to the nature of the case and some of my answers relating to the questionnaire (which was completed before we were told the charges against the defendant) likely disqualified me. Some of the potential jurors who thought they had high enough numbers that they would not get selected got quite the surprise when they were picked.

The judge in this case was Chief Judge Solomon Oliver, Jr., and he did a great job in conducting the entire process. He seemed very sensitive to the fact that the process took quite a bit of time and the potential jurors were an impatient lot.

I don’t know the outcome of the case – it may still be going on as the case was projected to run 4-6 days. I believe that the process, while time consuming, did its best to get a fair and impartial jury.

Even though it was a bit of an inconvenience, I would be happy to do it again, including being seated on the jury. It’s part of the American legal system that everyone should experience  - better as a juror than as a defendant!.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Social Security is NOT “Entitlement”

Nothing gets me more agitated than when someone in the media or in Congress refers to Social Security as an entitlement program, as if retiring Americans expect a pay out for doing nothing. As we near the “fiscal cliff” and our government representatives work to keep us from going over the edge, the focus is turning to raising taxes and cutting “entitlements” and Social Security always comes up on that list.

What the media and Congress fails to remember is that Social Security is a program to which Americans pay in while they work. I’ve paid in to social security for over 30 years – many of those years I paid up to the maximum – and I wasn’t given a choice whether I wanted the government to take my hard earned money. Make no mistake, I never expected that Social Security would be my only retirement investment; I’ve built up a 401k account for most of my years worked. But, I never looked at Social Security as something I was entitled to for doing nothing; I looked at it as a promise that the government made to me as it took thousands upon thousands of dollars out of my paycheck each and every year for decades. I don’t look at social security as a charity program: I looked at it as an investment into my future and to the stability of all Americans who worked hard all their lives and don’t want to be destitute in their retirement years.

Is it the fault of Americans who paid in to the program in good faith that the government either mismanaged the money or didn’t make the proper adjustments over the years to keep the program fully funded? No. I wonder to where all this money has gone to over the years and would love to see an full accounting of how all the money is spent or invested.

And why is it that when our government representatives talk about cutting Social Security benefits or changing the program, there is no discussion or focus on GOVERNMENT pensions for government employees? I guarantee that if government pensions were referred to as entitlements, the outrage would be even greater. I am of the opinion that any changes to Social Security must include similar changes to the government paid pensions of ALL current and former US government employees.

It’s also annoying when members of Congress use the excuse that we can’t allow the burden of funding Social Security to be passed along to our children and grandchildren. Considering that my decades of paying in to the program supported my parents and grandparents, I don’t see a problem in younger workers paying in – as I did – to support retirees. There were no government representatives who were worried about the burden that paying in to the program made on baby boomers when they entered the workforce many years ago.

I am not saying there should never be changes to the program. Clearly, workers – both for private sector and government jobs – need to take responsibility for saving for future retirement. I can also understand that the baby boomers moving into retirement age represents a strain on the program. But I find it insulting that our government representatives to refer to Social Security as “entitlement” as if retirees are getting something for doing nothing. This is far from the case. The government “borrowed” that money from workers and as far as I am concerned, they have an obligation to make good on repaying that debt. As the fiscal cliff looms, the worst economic thing that can happen is for the government to throw off the retirees who paid into the program for decades. There are real entitlement programs out there (such as lengthy unemployment benefits) that need to go first.

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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Seeing True Colors Through Politics

The 2012 presidential election helped to show me the true colors of many people. I’m not talking about the Democratic blue and Republican red colors.  This election exposed some of the worst traits – the true colors - of some people, and many of those people were even family and friends.

I was saddened to see how many of my so called “friends” - in their attempt to support Mitt Romney - posted photos and/or links to other sites that promoted intolerance and racism. I suppose they thought that by continuing to promote their candidate by repeated low blows to the current president that somehow I would come over to their way of thinking. (I didn’t.) Many of those same “friends” forwarded bigoted emails, thinking that because they forwarded content that someone else wrote that I would never expect those bigoted thoughts to come from them. (They were mistaken.) Some forwarded emails filled with accusations about the Obama administration that simply were not fact checked beforehand (I checked.) Of course, when I would reply back giving them links to the facts to counter their claims, I’d either be ignored or sent a reply that said something like “Oh, I was just forwarding it to you as I thought you’d get a laugh.”

Who is laughing now?

What some of these “friends” fail to understand is that their barrage of negativity only worked against their candidate. Granted, the Romney campaign likely never sanctioned any of these emails or political messages that were seemingly sent by supporters on his behalf. I’ve been voting since 1973 and I’ve gone between voting Republican and Democrat many times; I tend to vote for a person rather than a party, But the increasing vitriol from my Republican “friends” that began as far back as the 2008 election has confirmed that the Republican Party ideals aren't even remotely close to mine. Sadly for them, I don’t see them getting there any time soon, at least not without the party jettisoning any Tea Party affiliation or without showing some respect for minorities, for women, or for the “47%”.

Congratulations to President Barack Obama on his re-elections. I can’t help being happy – and energized - about it. The fact that he has been given a second term tells me that we have a good chance of moving…”Forward.”

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Monday, October 8, 2012

My Endorsement of Barack Obama Via “Why Obama Now”

This animated video short, created by Simpsons / Family Guy animator Lucas Gray and using a speech delivered by President Obama at the Associated Press Luncheon in April of 2012, best represents one of the many reasons why I am endorsing Barack Obama for another term as President of the United States. It’s also the best explanation of the failures of the "trickle-down economics" concept that I’ve ever seen.

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

There Are No Mulligans in Politics (A Cautionary Tale)

Mitt Romney’s bid for the White House took a turn for the worse this week, much like a golf shot that hooks into the woods out of sight. My guess is Romney wishes that politics would have the golf equivalent of a mulligan – a “do over” – but he has learned the hard way that once words come out of one’s mouth and are either heard by others, or worse yet RECORDED by others, they are impossible to take back. One would think he should have already learned this by now, but there we go thinking again.

A video of Romney secretly recorded at a fundraiser with wealthy donors recently went public. It didn’t take long for the information to blanket the Internet, TV, and print media. In this video, Romney took the stance that the bottom 47 percent of Americans are a bunch of useless, entitled people who see themselves as victims, and that he really can’t worry about them because people like that will vote for Obama no matter what. One can argue that Romney never expected someone to record his words at a private event. If he really expected his words would never be repeated, he was being either incredibly stupid or incredibly na├»ve (either trait is not good for a president). Americans should be thankful that Romney’s speech was exposed as now people can really see how he feels about 47 percent of the population.

Of course, this Romney flub is fodder for the Obama campaign and related backers, and I can’t say I blame them for jumping it quickly and getting TV ads out there that use the recordings. Yes, it’s rough here in Ohio being blasted with nasty ads from all sides, but I must admit that this time, I’m enjoying them. Two of the latest ads on this issue are below – sorry, no mulligans for Mitt.

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Friday, September 14, 2012

Be Sure to Vote – Be Sure You're Registered!

The political season is bringing out the usual vitriol and it’s becoming really tiring. In fact, I’ve stayed away from jumping into the fray with my usual commentary as the media is already flooded with polarizing commentary. It’s been really bad here in in the battleground state of Ohio, where the uncalled for pummeling of Senator Sherrod Brown by the PACs began over a year ago. Enough already!

The most important message that I can relay regarding the 2012 presidential election is to make sure that every person of voting age gets out and votes. One may think a single vote doesn’t count, but those single votes add up. Just as important as actually voting, voters should be sure that they are registered long before they get to the polls. The time to do that is NOW before the voter registration cut off (check your local voter registration bureau).

Get out and vote - it does make a difference!

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

SiriusXM: Worst Customer Service EVER

SiriusXM has a great product. I got a 6 months free trial with my new car purchased in late 2010 and grew to love all the great music channels. I especially loved being able to hear music without the annoying barrage of commercials on “free” radio. My husband got a new car several months ago and also got the trial package and he loves the product too. We also have access on our computer.

The problem with SiriusXM, though, is that their customer service is the worst I have ever experienced. I used to think that because I spent almost 30 years in the field of customer service – 20 of those years in middle and upper management – that I was overly sensitive to customer service failures. But SiriusXM has proved to me time and time again that the problem is clearly theirs.

Anytime I have renewed or modified/added on to my SiriusXM service, SiriusXM screwed it up. That’s problem #1. Problem #2 is that their customer service people can only be described as incompetent. I just spend over 30 minutes on the phone with one who seemed incapable of understanding my problem, and then was completely incapable of resolving it. In fact, when he was unable to find the transaction I initiated a week before with another SiriusXM agent, he told me he was worried that my credit card had been compromised and told me to immediately contact my bank and credit card company. Nothing like having a clueless customer service rep warn you that the previous rep you spoke to may have been dishonest!

I contacted my bank who could clearly see a tiny pending transaction from SiriusXM which they felt was likely put through to verify the card. Why SiriusXM could not see this transaction or my order is beyond me. When I called SiriusXM back – I got a new customer service rep, of course – they seemed to start the whole thing over by NOT listening to my problem and parroting back to me information already on my account. At my wits end, I interrupted the rep and explained my problem, and, when he clearly sensed my growing frustration, immediately said he’d get his supervisor. A few short minutes later, this new agent was able to determine that they did have my order but it would not be processed until the date the trial ended on my husband’s new car. Why the first customer service agent could not see this is beyond me.

One of SiriusXM’s big problem is that it is evident they are outsourcing their customer service to a country – or countries - outside the U.S. and the communication barrier is great. And likely because of this issue, their agents seem to have a scripted manner of handling calls; when the call deviates from the script, the agent becomes confused and stymied in resolving the problem. They clearly have a case of “the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing” problem, too.

SiriusXM seems unwilling to do anything except provide minimal customer service and they company doesn’t seem to care how much they inconvenience their customers. But they’d better change fast. More people are getting smart phones and other methods of wireless access that allows for more music choices and more ways to get music. When my subscriptions run out, I am going to give a serious look to SiriusXM alternatives. This is that last time I want spend time in the hellish world of SiriusXM customer service!

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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Living In A Presidential Election Battleground State

The motto for most people who live in a presidential election battleground state is “Stop the insanity!” The political ads are non-stop here in Ohio, and after a while, they all sound like noise. The worst ads are coming from the PACs, who seem to think that voters are stupid and won’t check out some of the outrageous claims they make. And while PACs each give themselves a moniker, it’s not like a candidate speaking out under his or her real name and holding themselves accountable. PACs, in my opinion, are the equivalent of an anonymous poster trolling on an internet forum or message board. I do understand the need for people who are not actually campaigning for election to have an outlet to voice their opinions, but many PACs seem very loose with the truth in many cases. Thankfully, there is which helps voters to sort out the lies from the truth.

Also, the internet and web sites such as YouTube provide an excellent vehicle to document past comments made by those currently seeking election. The current Republican and PAC ads attempt to place the blame on the current dismal economy and job market on President Obama. But in 2004, Mitt Romney had this to say about blaming a president for economic woes (excerpt from the video below):

"The people of America recognize that the slowdown in jobs that occurred during the early years of the Bush administration were the result of a perfect storm. And an effort by one candidate to somehow say, 'Oh, this recession and the slowdown in jobs was the result of somehow this president magically being elected' - people in America just dismiss that as being poppycock."

Using Romney’s logic from 2004, this voter sees Romney’s current placing of blame for the current economic woes on Obama as poppycock. Of course, since the term poppycock isn’t one used by most normal people, I’d rather call Romney’s claims ludicrous.

Living in a battleground state means a voter has to do more than just listen to the ads and respond emotionally. Here, one must take the initiative to check the facts and use tools like to get the real story. In fact, every resident of every state should consider their vote important enough – and their state critical enough – that they take the time to get the facts before casting a vote.

While those of us in battleground states get bombarded with attack ads multiple times a day, I for one consider myself lucky that many of these ads often expose the real candidate and what kind of elected official they would be.

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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Dear Mitt Romney – Release Those Tax Returns!

Dear Mitt, 

Enough is enough. If you really want to be President of the United States, you must be open and honest with the American people. Your reluctance to make public several years of tax returns screams that you have something to hide.

Your wife Ann isn’t helping matters much when, in an interview today on ABC, she told Robin Roberts that “…we've given all you people need to know and understand about our financial situation and about how we live our life.” (See video below.) First, the American people don’t believe they have enough information to understand your financial situation and secondly, “you people”???   Talk about condescending.

There are many reports that other Republicans and conservative pundits are also perplexed at your reluctance to release this information. And where there is smoke, there is fire. If your own party is starting to smell smoke, your official nomination and campaign may go up in proverbial flames before you know it.

If there is nothing for which to be ashamed, embarrassed, or fearful,  why not release the information, not only to ease the minds of the voters, but of the members of your own party?

By the way, in the spirit of transparency, I thought I should let you know that I'll be voting for Barack Obama this November.

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Monday, June 11, 2012

Graduates: Prepare for A Slap of Reality, Because You're Not Special

Teacher David McCullough Jr. gave an interesting commencement speech to the
Wellesley High School graduates that can be summed up pretty much in a few words. “You’re not special.” (The video of the speech is below.) It was a speech that should have been given to every high school and college student or graduates. Too many people are exiting school under the impression that a good job is a certainty and all the riches of the world will be thrown their way.

It doesn’t work that way, and it never did.

I finished my schooling in the early 1970s during a tough recession. I was lucky to get a temporary job, but I had to work 10 times harder than full time employees (and college grads) in order to get promoted to a full time job. That first job I landed was only one step up from the mail room, and I knew that if I ever wanted to move up, it would take hard work and patience. Since it was a recession, there were even many other people out there that wanted my lowly position, much less any job right above me. And forget negotiating salary or an increase – you took what they gave you and what the job grade allowed. It took me quite a few years, but I worked my way up the management ladder and eventually landed a position as a Vice President. During all my school days and despite the fact that I excelled in school, I was taught very early the harsh reality of life outside of school. I was told it was a “dog-eat-dog” world out there; there were tons of people out there just like me who wanted the same things I wanted, and it would not be easy to get noticed. It sounded bleak and depressing, but those words motivated me to constantly work hard and to never expect things to be handed to me.

Now it seems an entire generation has gone through school thinking that the world will bow at their feet once they graduate. They also think that a college degree means an automatic job paying big bucks. Sadly, the parents of these children seem to share the same delusion. David McCullough Jr.’s speech was something that many needed to hear. It was a slap of reality that hopefully will wake up subsequent students as they continue schooling, and also their parents who should be coaching their children for the harshness of the real world. Don’t wait for a commencement speech for a reality wake up call. It takes hard work to get a good job and hard work to keep it, and it’s a process that will repeat itself for decades. And unless you were born to wealthy family, everybody goes through the process – and there is nothing special about that.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Protect Your Hearing Or It Will Cost You (A Cautionary Tale)

My mother, who is in her 80s, has been progressively losing her hearing over the last 10 years. It’s gotten really bad over the last 3 years. Despite my constant prodding, she’s refused to admit she had a problem, instead blaming people for not talking loud enough, or the TV being too quiet, to name a few examples.

But, within the last two months, she’s developed a loud hum and buzz in her ears, which she attributed to the furnace, the refrigerator – well, anything but her own ears. I knew that it was tinnitus but my mother would not listen to reason. She even had her furnace fan replaced – despite the fact that her furnace was only two years old – as she was convinced that it was the fan that was making the buzzing noise. (Let’s not even go into the issue that the furnace repair guy just went ahead and replaced it even though he KNEW it wasn’t a problem). She insisted that her doctor never felt her hearing was a problem. Even though she sees him every 6 months and has done so for years, either she’s never complained to him in the past or he is incompetent (or both).   After her last doctor appointment where he did make sure her ears were clean – and when it didn’t make the humming noise go away – she finally admitted to me that  she had a problem.

The good news is I got her in for a hearing exam. The bad news is she has significant hearing loss. The really bad news is that the hearing aids will cost almost $5,000. Yes, you read that right - $5,000. These are digital hearing aids and she was able to test them in the office and the improvement was amazing. While I am sure it will take some time to get used to used to hearing things again, I am sure that it will improve her life immensely.

I learned something new in this process – hearing loss is a serious thing and should not be ignored. When the ear can’t transmit all the sounds it should be hearing to the brain, the brain actually can “forget” those sounds, and those sounds likely can never come back. (It’s called auditory deprivation.) By my mother waiting so long to do anything about her hearing problem, even with hearing aids she may never regain all hearing.

I also learned that correcting a hearing problem can be costly. While the technology has greatly improved over the years, there is a high cost associated with it. Even the low end hearing aids are expensive. They are also not covered by Medicare and most insurances don’t pay for them (or only pay a tiny part of the cost). Most people need them as they age, and that usually coincides with a time that most people are living on a retirement income.

Many people don’t think twice about their hearing – it’s just something that is there and as it usually diminishes gradually with age, the loss may not be noticeable at first. But it is something that requires serious thought NOW, while a person is young. Here’s my sage advice:

1. Think twice before you stick those headphones/ear buds on or in your ears. This is amplified sound that is going straight into your ear canal and it often louder than you would listen to music normally. Nothing can damage your hearing faster than loud music blaring in your ears. Learn to turn down the volume.

2. When using loud equipment (such as a lawnmower, leaf blower, chain saw, etc.) be sure to wear ear protection. (Eye protection is also a must but that’s another story.) You may not think the sound is too loud, but believe me your ears can and will be damaged. Even hair blow dryers can be too loud and earplugs can help minimize that noise as well.

3. Don’t wait to have your hearing checked. If a friend or family member remarks to you that they think you have a problem, don’t ignore them. Get your hearing tested immediately; many hearing aid companies will do it for free.

4. Plan for the expense as you age. All that money you’re spending on the latest iPods and iPhones pales in comparison to the cost of a pair of hearing aids that you’ll likely need a lot earlier in life because your using ear buds to blast loud music into your ears. Yes, it’s nice to have the newest shiniest technology of the day, but you’ll wish you had some of that money as you age.

Don’t take your hearing for granted. If you do, it will cost you more ways than one – your ability to hear AND in your wallet!

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Where’s The Outrage? Employer Drug Testing & Personal Privacy

Recently, much furor was stirred as word spread that companies were asking to see the Facebook pages of job applicants, going so far as to ask for their Facebook passwords. PC World, in an article titled “Privacy is a Sci-Fi Fantasy, ” states that “The assault on personal privacy has ramped up significantly in the past few years. From warrantless GPS tracking to ISP packet inspection, it seems that everyone wants to get in on the booming business of clandestine snooping -- even blatant prying, if you consider reports of employers demanding Facebook passwords prior to making hiring decisions...What happened? Did the rules change? What is it about digital information that's convinced some people this is OK? Maybe the right to privacy we were told so much about has simply become old-fashioned, a barrier to progress.”

This problem with employers asking for personal information goes farther back than Facebook or the proliferation of personal information being stored digitally. I put the blame squarely on the decades-long practice of companies drug testing employees, looking for illegal substance use.

Even when the job market was good, people would allow companies to drug test them for illegal substances. Whether or not the applicant had marijuana (or any other illegal drug)  in their system had no bearing on the job for which they were being hired. Many companies used the excuse that if a person used illegal drugs, they would be more likely to steal from the company, or have a higher absence rate, or have behavioral problems. Sadly, I’ve worked with many people who were secret (and not so secret)  alcoholics who were more damaging to the company than those that I knew who smoked an occasional joint. As alcohol isn’t illegal, the company couldn’t get away with testing for that.

Still, if a person is told that as a condition of employment is they have to be drug tested - either using the urine sample method or the hair follicle method - most submit to the test without objection. Now, isn’t taking a sample of your hair or your urine – you know, parts of your body or a byproduct of your body – a more horrific invasion of personal privacy? Yet, in 2012, drug testing as a condition for employment is still very legal and very much in practice…but many are more worried about someone looking at the Facebook page, where people willingly post the details of their personal lives.

I’m of the opinion that a prospective employer – or your current employer – has no right to drug test you, much less ask for access to your Facebook page, especially those areas that a Facebook user has designated as private. But companies get away with demanding the information because people have been willing to surrender to worse in order to get a job. It goes without saying that a person shouldn’t be handing out their Facebook password – or ANY password – to anybody, period. If we need a law to mandate that companies can’t ask for that kind of digital information, then let’s go a step further and extend a job applicant’s – or an employee’s right – not to be drug tested unless there is a specific job related need for doing so. (For example, a school bus driver should likely be drug tested, while someone working a clerical job in an office may not have need to be tested.) While I don’t have any illegal substances in my system – and never did in all my years of working and beyond – I still believe that drug testing is a major invasion of privacy. Oddly,  there’s been no outrage about that over all these years. Maybe there should be.

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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Cleveland Catholics Win Appeal But Will They Lose The War?

First and foremost, I should explain that I was raised in a strict Catholic family but have been a lapsed Catholic for almost 40 years. I could write volumes about all the things I think are wrong with the Catholic Church but for today, I only want to focus on one issue.

In March of 2010, I wrote an editorial titled ”Who Is Destroying Cleveland’s Catholic Churches?” about the closings of many Cleveland Catholic churches at the hand of the head of the diocese, Bishop Richard Lennon. In that editorial, I stated that Lennon “completely botched the execution of his church consolidation plan” and spoke of the ensuing protests from Clevelanders who were affected by the subsequent church closings. I also wrote that “Local Catholics have protested in many ways, some making very vocal protests at church closings and also picketing churches. A group was formed called Endangered Catholics whose intent is to get justice and equal opportunity for parishioners. Protests are also working their way up to the Vatican. Sadly, I suspect that these protests will fall on deaf ears for the most part…”

I am pleased to say that as far as my latter statement, I was completely wrong. In a shocking move – shocking because the powers that be at the Catholic Church never seem to listen to the “little people” (the church parishioners in this case) – the Vatican reversed the Bishop’s ruling on the 13 churches that appealed the process.

This is huge news in Cleveland for many reasons. Those that appealed feel like they won a big battle with the Church, a victory that has been described using words like “extraordinary,” “unprecedented,” and “unheard of.”

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that Boston activist Peter Borre who was working o the appeal, said "This is very significant because it means that Lennon erred procedurally and substantively," Borre said in an email to The Plain Dealer. "If he had been reversed only procedurally, he could re-boot, start the procedure again and fix the procedural error. "But he cannot fix a substantive error [regarding canon law]." My translation – Bishop Lennon really botched it, and in a big way.

But while the affected parishioners have won this battle, the war still continues. Bishop Lennon can still appeal the appeal. The churches who have appealed were already closed by the diocese, and many objects have already been removed from the churches and either moved to other parishes within the diocese or worse yet, sold to churches far outside the Cleveland area. (In the case of my mother’s church, the church organ was removed within days of the church closing and moved to a neighboring parish that remained open, despite the fact that her parish was appealing to the Vatican). As the Cleveland Diocese has not put money into these closed churches, some are falling into disrepair. Some parishioners have moved on in various ways, such as finding other churches (even moving to other Christian faiths) or leaving the church altogether. So, while the battle was won, the war within the Cleveland Catholic Diocese still continues, and may not necessarily end in victory for the individual parishes.

St. Casimir's, Cleveland Ohio (Now closed)

But there were important lessons learned here. For church parishioners: you don’t have to take every non-dogmatic ruling by your church or diocese as “gospel.” The men that run the church (and make no mistake, the Catholic Church is a man’s world) are just that – people, and they can make mistakes. They can also be so focused on making money that they forget that it’s the people of the parishes who keep them in business (so to speak) and provide the money they need to keep functioning. The Catholic Church may have learned that their members don’t see Church leadership as being infallible when it comes to the management of a parish or diocese. We live in a day and age where parishioners have many tools available for them to mobilize and to affect changes, and the Church really needs to get with the times and begin to listen to their members.

So while I am somewhat gleeful at this local victory, I still hope for the day where real change can take place in the Catholic Church, changes that show respect to women and a woman’s ability to contribute. But I’m not holding my breath.

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Friday, March 2, 2012

Rush Limbaugh Opens Mouth, Confirms He Is A Big Fat Idiot

A few years ago, Al Franken – before he became a Senator - wrote a book titled “Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot.” Just this past week, Rush Limbaugh opened his mouth and confirmed that Franken’s observation is still true after all these years.

It all started when Sandra Fluke, a grad student, was denied the right to testify at a recent House Oversight Committee hearing on the topic of contraceptives as it related to health care law. Instead, the panel consisted of all men.

Many women across the country were appalled that women -  the ones who pay the physical price (pregnancy and related health costs) for the inability to access birth control - had no say in the matter. Making the issue more complicated is the fight over whether the religious organizations can be told by the government to pay for medical coverage for contraception for its female employees. It’s important to note that the Catholic Church, the most vocal against being forced to pay for birth control coverage, is a organization run by celibate men. The Catholic Church has been out of touch for years when it comes to allowing women to have a say about anything, much less birth control. The Catholic Church also forgets that its many organizations may employ women who are not Catholic. Many women who say they are Catholic don’t follow the Catholic Church’s rules when it comes to birth control. But that is another story for another day.

Back to the idiot – er, topic – of Rush Limbaugh. When Sandra Fluke was eventually given the right to speak to the committee, her words drove Rush to spew some nasty vitriol. Here are excerpts from his radio show transcript:

“Three thousand dollars for birth control in three years? That’s a thousand dollars a year of sex — and, she wants us to pay for it. … They’re admitting before congressional committee that they’re having so much sex they can’t afford the birth control pills!...

…What does it say about the college co-ed Sandra Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She's having so much sex she can't afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We're the pimps. (interruption) The johns? We would be the johns? No! We're not the johns. (interruption) Yeah, that's right. Pimp's not the right word. Okay, so she's not a slut. She's "round heeled." I take it back.”

The following day, Limbaugh even makes himself sound even more idiotic (if that is even possible!) by going on to say:

“Folks, if you ask 'em - if you ask 'em - the Washington, DC, Department of Health will send you free condoms and lube. The DC Department of Health free condoms and lube if you just ask 'em for it! So, Ms. Fluke and the rest of you feminazis, here's the deal: If we are going to pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it. And I'll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”

I rest my case.

It’s been a long time since I have been so deeply appalled at one man’s attitude toward women. And make no mistake, even though he is responding to Sandra Fluke’s testimony, his comments are directed to all women.

Without mentioning Limbaugh’ name, Sandra Fluke released this statement:

“I thank the thousands of women and men, including members of Congress, Georgetown University students and faculty, and total strangers of all political stripes across the country who have offered kind words and support following recent egregious personal attacks.

“We are fortunate to live in a democracy where everyone is entitled to their own opinions regarding legitimate policy differences. Unfortunately, numerous commentators have gone far beyond the acceptable bounds of civil discourse.

“No woman deserves to be disrespected in this manner. This language is an attack on all women, and has been used throughout history to silence our voices.

“The millions of American women who have and will continue to speak out in support of women’s health care and access to contraception prove that we will not be silenced.”

Yesterday, the Senate voted 51-48 to set aside the measure that would have exempted employers like Catholic hospitals, universities and charities from an Obama health care provision requiring most employers to offer free insurance coverage for women's contraceptives.

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Monday, January 30, 2012

Facebook The Evil Empire Part 3: “Timeline” Is Not Your Friend

In early January, I wrote a follow up editorial titled Facebook: The Evil Empire Part 2” which spoke to some problems I was having with Facebook locking me out of my account plus their poor customer support in getting the issue resolved.

Facebook earns my scorn again for its impending “Timeline” which will outline and catalog every little single thing that a person does using Facebook. Many don’t realize that Timeline will also reflect everything that a person said they “liked”, every place checked into with Facebook, every photo in which a user has been tagged, and any activity done using a Facebook app. It will be very easy for anyone to track everything you’ve said, everything you’ve done, and every place you’ve been.

That is – if you let them.

I loathe Facebook,  but maintain a Facebook fan page for one of my blogs (as a convenience and courtesy to my readers who use Facebook), and my main Facebook page is reserved for immediate family connections only (none of which post very much anyway). I rarely post anything on my family page, and never post any personal information on my fan page. If I need to communicate anything of real importance to family or close friends, it’s done in person, by phone, or by email. I guess I am just one of those people that doesn’t think that the minutia of my life has to be chronicled for posterity by Facebook. After all, Facebook could care less about the actual people using Facebook – Facebook simply wants all the data it can get on you so it can advertise to you and make money off your personal activities.

Before Facebook Timeline switches on for everyone – which I believe will begin in the next week or so  – I suggest everyone review what they have on their Timeline and delete what they don’t want others to see. Also, check all your Facebook privacy settings to make sure you’re sharing with only those people you really want to see all your activities. Review all the Facebook apps you’re using and revisit whether you really need to use them at all. Facebook users may not see the harm in having all that data out there about themselves, but it’s for the things that Facebook hasn’t told you about OR dreamed up yet for using your personal data that should be of concern. Because after all, Facebook  is really NOT YOUR FRIEND

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

SOPA – Bad for Everyone

The “Stop Online Piracy Act” – or SOPA for short – may sound like a good thing in concept, but looks can be deceiving. The act, which moves to prevent copyright infringement and intellectual property theft, is actually a bill that would make it very easy for the government to shut down any web site.

Current legislation in the form of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) which protects copyrighted material, make perfect sense as it gives copyright owners the ability to have the specific infringing content removed from a web site. But SOPA goes even farther by targeting the entire web site. This is a chilling thought.

Wikipedia, along with other web sites, have gone dark today in protest. It is an interesting move as it highlights to the world what can happen if someone deems that the web site is showing any content that is copyrighted. Other web sites, such as Google, have their logo blacked out and it some cases, the content will also show black bars (but can still be accessed). Imagine if someone – ANYONE – posted content or a video where they did not own the copyright, knowingly or unknowingly, that was fed into the Google search engine. SOPA, as written, could mean Google could be shut down it its entirety. Or, imagine if someone did the same on Twitter, Facebook, etc. You get the idea. All those web sites could be shut down, and you could find yourself silenced and cut off from information.

A recent experience I had with YouTube highlights what can happen with SOPA. I had uploaded videos that were given to me with complete approval from a television network. But, YouTube’s “bots” that look for copyrighted content not only sent me an email to tell me that I uploaded copyright content, but they threatened LEGAL ACTION if I disputed the claim and the network disagreed. This was horrifying to me that my YouTube channel would be shut down, and as it is connected to my web site, my web site would go with it. This is also what could happen to anyone else, with any web site, and happen in the blink of an eye. (By the way, I removed the videos and complained to the network’s PR organization, and videos I uploaded afterwards went through with no problem.)

I understand why content owners such as movie and music creators and publishers don’t want their content stolen and/or given away for free on a mass scale. But it makes more sense to me that the content owners work the issue out with the web site and get the facts FIRST before shutting a web site down or even threatening to shut down a web site. In my case, YouTube didn’t say they would shut me down right away, but with SOPA, they would likely not only have done so, but they would have risked being shut down themselves. (By the way, I believe that if a person legally purchases music, movies, books, etc. that they should have the right to share them with whomever they want.)

We live in a digital age where content is easy to share and easy to spread. But the answer to protecting copyrighted material is not to silence everyone. A simple process to allow the content owners to file a grievance against the hosting site with a designated authority, and allowing the site to appeal the ruling or confirm that they do have the approval to use the content is all that is needed.

The entire content of the SOPA can be found here:
Library of Congress: H.R.3261 -- Stop Online Piracy Act (Introduced in House - IH)

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Monday, January 9, 2012

Facebook: The Evil Empire (Part 2)

In April 2010, I wrote an editorial titled “Is Facebook the New “Evil Empire”? Answer: Yes” which focused on Facebook’s game playing with privacy policies and controls. My most recent nightmare experience with Facebook deals with Facebook being too quick on the trigger for locking my account and their awful customer service.

Last week, I went to my Facebook page that I use for my collective web sites and got a pop up message saying that my account was “unavailable”. I could not log into my account but I – as well as others – could access my individual page to view it (but not post or make changes to it). The pop up message also said it was sending a code to my phone number (which was already on file from a previous verification process) so I could unlock my account. The code never came. Never.  The same message gave me the option to request the code being resent, and when I did so, I got a message saying I was asking for too many codes!

After trying a few times to log in over the following few hours, I tried navigating Facebook’s help system to get an answer. Not finding an answer that addressed my specific issue, I used the option Facebook gave to send them an email to request help. I received an email within minutes – likely automated - that explained that I had to send in a scan of a government issued ID (like a driver’s license) to verify my identity. (It apparently didn’t matter that I already gave them my cell phone number under my own name months ago when they first requested it but I suppose they still didn’t think I was real.) I had my driver’s license already scanned so I was able to quickly attach it to the email and return the information to them within a few minutes.

Their response was less than immediate. I had to follow up 24 hours later pleading for a response. Meanwhile, I get the automated emails from Facebook saying “Here's some activity you may have missed on Facebook” and asking that I go to Facebook. I would have loved logging in to my page, but sadly I was still locked out. After another 24 hours, I finally get an answer from Facebook, saying that they changed my Facebook name from my web site address to my real name. Now really, why didn’t they simply ask me to do that first, rather than locking me out of my account and then making me jump through hoops? The page I had been using had been established for YEARS and frankly I have no idea why, after all that time, they could not have sent me an email in advance asking me to correct my name and/or giving me the chance to confirm my identify BEFORE they locked me out of account.

This experience is another reason why I only post links to my web sites – and not any actual content – on my Facebook page. With a Facebook lockout, users can lose all access to their own content. This is another reason why I will never store anything of any real significance in “The Cloud.”  If any service that you use, such as Facebook or photo web sites like Flickr or Photobucket or Picasa, decides that you have somehow violated their lengthy and often complicated terms of service, you too can be shut out from all access to your personal content. While I do use blogger for all my web sites, I have all my content backed up so I could literally take it anywhere if the need arises. I should state that I am extremely careful with ANY service that I use not to violate their rules. And this is why Facebook’s behavior – assuming that I was somehow being dishonest and then locking me out of my account before simply asking me to clarify the situation – is what continues to make Facebook “The Evil Empire” in my eyes.

(A side note – of you are posting personal photos and videos on your Facebook page, just remember that Facebook is making money off YOUR content and you get no share of that huge revenue. Consider setting up an account with Google’s (the blog web sites are FREE) and also set up an account with Google’s AdSense which places ads on your blog web site. This allows YOU to make money off your own content. You won’t be able to retire on it anytime soon (unless you get a high volume of traffic) but at least it gives you a share of the bundles of money the web hosts are making on your content!)

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