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Larry Benjamin's blog

Friday, April 28, 2006

Hitting the wrong chord

The immigrant community's campaign against congressional moves to punish illegal immigrants as criminals and their insistence that they deserve equality, fairness and civil rights has turned off many Americans. What part of "illegal'' don't these immigrants understand, they ask. Play by the rules, they add. The protests with immigrants wrapped in Mexican flags provided visuals to spark the opposition. The work boycott planned Monday to demonstrate how important immigrants are to the U.S. economy will no doubt aggravate the situation. But that's nothing compared to the reaction they'll get to the release of a Spanish version of "The Star-Spangled Banner.''

The producer of the recording sees it as an ode to the millions of immigrants seeking a better life here. But the foreign language version will just remind so many Americans of their many contacts with "Press 1 for English, Press 2 for Spanish.'' Plus, there's something sacred about our National Anthem. It's written in English and should be sung in English. And when the remix of the song comes out with several lines in English that condemn U.S. immigration policy, the furor will boil over.

Yes, they're all very constitutional exercises of the freedoms of speech and assembly. But members of the immigrant community don't seem to understand how this in-your-face approach is hardening the opposition. It's probably too late to call off the work stoppage. But messing with the National Anthem should be stopped in its tracks.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Calling all cryptographers

Who says judges can't have some fun? British judges, no less. But the judge who presided over the unsuccessful copyright infringement suit brought against the author of the "Da Vinci Code'' has created his own code in the first 13 1/2 pages of his 71-page ruling. Deciphering the italic letters mixed in with the regular roman typeface reveals that it's the "Smithy Code,'' a takeoff on the judge's name, Peter Smith.

What it all means has been left to code-breakers. Smith has revealed very few clues, other than to send inquiring minds to study the code breaking in the books he was asked to consider: HBHG ("Holy Blood, Holy Grail'') and DVC ("Da Vinci Code"). How clever!

Cynics will say it all feeds into the publicity machine for the movie version of "Da Vinci Code,'' which opens in May. Maybe so. In the entertainment business these days, any mention of a movie title is good publicity.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

An educated consumer is ...

Four students from Southern Regional High School in Stafford have a chance to become state champs in the New Jersey Consumer Bowl. They've won the South Jersey title and face off against the North Jersey and Central Jersey winners next month in a quiz show format that features multiple-choice and individual questions and even lightning rounds.

Spelling and geography bees may be important teaching tools, but a contest educating young people about consumer issues may have even more long-term value. Members of the club at Southern discuss telephone scams, lemon laws and credit-card fraud. They learn about charitable solicitations and online shopping privacy issues.

This is something all schools should be offering. It's a life skill all parents should push their children to appreciate. Regardless of our station in life, we're all consumers.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

By the sea, by the sea ...

It should come as no surprise that Atlantic City's boardwalk -- the granddaddy of them all after 135 years -- should be ranked as the nation's best boardwalk stroll by Reader's Digest. After all, it has a special place in the American psyche ... the Miss America pageant, the Monopoly board, storefronts (and now casinos) on one side and the ocean on the other.

But this renewed fame should prompt other areas with boardwalks to ask: "What about us?'' This part of the Jersey Shore boasts Seaside Heights, Point Pleasant Beach, Belmar and, of course, Asbury Park, among others. They're all special in their own way and have provided memories for generations of visitors. Their advocates and the chambers of commerce that support them should point with pride to their "boards'' and let the world know that Atlantic City isn't the place in New Jersey for an oceanfront stroll.

Anyone in the blogosphere have some heart-tugging boardwalk memories to share?

Friday, April 21, 2006

A homer for the ages

For those of us too often reminded that the people around us are getting younger, Julio Franco's home run for the New York Mets last night is reassuring. Franco, 47, became the oldest major leaguer to hit a home run, displacing the Philadelphia (yes, Philadelphia) Athletics pitcher who held the record for almost 76 years.

And Franco's not ready to rest on his laurels. "That won't be the last home run I hit, and I hope I hit one when I'm 50,'' he said. He'll be 49 when his two-year contract with the Mets expires. So if he re-ups with them, he might do it as a Met.

Franco's indomitable spirit and confidence can be the Baby Boomers' version of their youngsters' "The Little Engine That Could'': "Yes, I Can; Yes, I Can.' '

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The best pension deal

If you think state employees have some of the best pension benefits around, you haven't heard about members of Congress. They can be in office only 12 years, retire at 60 and immediately receive $25,000 a year and lifetime benefits that can exceed $800,000. They can serve only five years and get health care benefits until they become eligible for Medicare. After five years of service, they're eligible for full benefits at 62. Plus they get annual cost-of-living adjustments. That's quite a deal.

And if a congressman is criminally wayward, he needn't worry. Randy "Duke'' Cunningham was sentenced to eight years four months in prison after pleading guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes related to his work in Congress. At 62, he's eligible for an annual pension of $36,000 for his 15 years in the House. That's outrageous. It's something Congress should fix. But given the good-ol'-boy network there, we're not holding our breath.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Duke's campus defenders

The vibes coming from the Duke University campus about the lacrosse team party that has led to rape charges against two players are disturbing. Too many students are rallying about ''innocent until proved guilty.'' The university president is calling for a speedy resolution to an incident that "has brought pain and suffering to all involved.'' And the attorney for one of the accused dismissed the photographic identification as "we all know how reliable that is.''

Yes, the accused have the presumption of innocence. Yes, Duke would love to see the cloud lifted that is hanging over one of the nation's elite universities. Yes, the identification must be beyond dispute. But what about the alleged victim? And shouldn't investigators get to the bottom of what really happened at that party?

Let's hope that athletes at Duke -- or any school -- aren't put on such a high pedestal that they get an automatic pass for their off-field actions. And school officials should address any systemic problems this episode has exposed with the same vigor that they are addressing the accusations.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Cheneys' tax refund

Those of us who had to pay the IRS this tax season have to envy President Bush and Vice President Cheney. They make a whole lot more than most of us, but each is entitled to a refund.

The Bushes had an adjusted gross income of $735,180 and paid $187,768 in federal taxes. After taking into account withholding and estimated tax payments, they still overpaid the government by about $39,000. But they're not pocketing the refund. They're applying it to their estimated tax payments for 2006.

It's a different - and much larger - story with the Cheneys. Their adjusted gross income was $8.82 million, inflated by exercising some stock options. They paid $527,636 in federal taxes. But their withholding and estimated tax payments mean they overpaid the government by $1.9 million. After applying $200,000 as their estimated tax, they're getting a refund of a mere $1.7 million.

The Cheneys don't really need the money. But there is a fund that really needs help: the federal debt. Wouldn't it be great if Cheney set an example for all multimillionaires by kicking in to trim our national deficit? After all, he did have something to do with it.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Signs to nowhere

Motorists driving in a strange area and hoping those overhead street-name signs will guide the way all too often are left frustrated. Not because they don't know where they're going, but because they can't even read the signs the state put up to get them there. Why post signs if the paint doesn't last?

My colleague Joe Adelizzi has written in his "Joe on the Go'' column on several Sundays about this problem, which is evident from the Jersey Shore to most any point in New Jersey. On a jaunt this week, I couldn't read the sign on the street that passes my western Monmouth County development, several more along Route 33 heading west into Mercer County and even more on Route 206 north in Somerset County. At least, there's a street pole bearing the name of one key street there, probably because it leads to a high school.

A Department of Transportation spokesman told "Joe on the Go'' last April that maintenance crews are supposed to report the unreadable signs to the DOT, but with 15,000 miles of highways to patrol, they're likely to miss some. Just some? He recommended motorists e-mail the department ( See if that helps.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Clothes make the man

Sometimes common sense does carry the day in our justice system. An appeals court in Trenton ruled Monday that a defendant's accomplice, already jailed after striking a plea bargain, can't show up in shackles and prison garb to testify on behalf of the prosecution. The outfit conveys guilt - that the man is "one of the 'criminal class' '' - and makes it too easy for jurors to transfer that mind-set to the defendant, the panel decided.

It's hard to believe this prison garb ban on prosecution witnesses hasn't been in place for years. It's long been applied to defendants and defense witnesses. The court did make an exception for security risks, but the prosecution has to prove the security concerns outweigh the potential prejudice.

Nice try by the Warren County prosecutor's office in trying to win its case, but the unfairness of putting a bad guy in uniform on the stand is obvious. The jury should focus on what he says, not on how he looks in a telltale outfit. The defendant still is entitled to a presumption of innocence.

Monday, April 10, 2006

No cause for boycott

The four Wall Board of Education candidates on the Four for Wall team who planned to boycott a candidates' forum tonight because some of its organizers are supporting their opponents are missing out on a chance to make their best case. Every public forum offers candidates a valuable opportunity to explain why they should be elected, even to a hostile audience. And it's pretty hard to snub one sponsored by the Wall High School Booster Association and the district's PTOs. Staying away makes their boycott the issue rather than what's best for the district.

Of course, these organizers' very public support of other candidates casts doubt about the objectivity of the sponsoring groups. They are surely entitled to express their views, but those who are officers should have waited until after the forum or kept their preference to themselves altogether. Try as they might, it's hard to separate an officer's organizational and personal allegiances. That's why forum organizers often turn to a nonpartisan group such as the League of Women Voters to moderate or even sponsor a forum.

The Four for Wall slate claims that the event sponsors are injecting partisan politics into a school board election for the first time. Oh, really! Even casual board election observers in most towns know that just because there are no political party labels doesn't mean the parties aren't paying close attention. Too much money and too many employees are at stake.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Behind the scenes

After Saturday's matinee of musical "Carnival'' at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, the producer, director and stars of the production invited the audience to Cast Talkback, where they fielded questions about their parts in the show. What a satisfying way to reach out to your patrons.

The exchanges were very enlightening. How long do you rehearse? (Three weeks, in New York no less, with the show then assembled in New Jersey in five hours.) Where did the stars get their voice training? (The female lead went to NYU and then had lots of voice lessons; the male lead started in rock bands and had to unlearn a lot from that experience.) When you have two shows a day, what do you do in between? (The female lead said she eats sushi and takes a nap; the others said they always find time to eat.) You couldn't help but come away as a more informed theatergoer.

If it works for regional theater (summer stock has been doing it for years), why not on Broadway, concerts or after sporting events? We patrons/fans are paying quite enough to attend these events. Shouldn't the stars reciprocate?

Friday, April 07, 2006

By the book for good reason

One car slides into another. The driver jumps out. Flames shoot from the hood. The driver, in halting English, says something about "uranium.'' He starts returning to the car. Police on the scene tell him to stop. The driver gets to the car, reaches inside and pops open the trunk. The officers yell at him again, in vain. The man goes to the trunk and pulls out a yellow cooler, marked with the radiation logo. He places it at a fence outside a nearby home. Police train their guns on him and order him to the ground.

An overreaction? Not at all. The law enforcement officers did what they should when faced with the unknown after this accident happened on Route 9 in Lakewood Wednesday. It turned out the cooler contained a hand-held meter used by construction testing firms. It does have two radioactive materials - cesium-137 and americium - inside, but with only a fraction of the radiation of a dental X-ray.

"I didn't want to profile,'' the Lakewood fire chief said of the reaction to the native of India who wasn't communicating well with police. "This was textbook, done by the book, because you never know,'' he added. He's right, when dealing with the unknown. Everything the driver did - in his desire to avoid having the gauge catch fire - reinforced that concern. Let's hope his employer tells him to identify himself in the future as working for a testing laboratory with a radioactive meter aboard. That would prevent a hazmat call from being treated as possible terrorism in the super-vigilant 9/11 world.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Flouting handicapped parking

Star power triumphed over common sense for some Rowan University students in Glassboro this week. A group of them protested outside municipal court against Maryann Cottrell's crusade to have police write tickets for the owners of vehicles parked illegally in handicapped parking spaces. The attraction Wednesday: two Philadelphia Eagles football players, Donovan McNabb and Jeremiah Trotter, were in court. They were fined for their vehicles' wayward parking, even though neither was driving at the time.

The students wore T-shirts with the message: "Thank you, Maryann Cottrell, for wasting my tax dollar$.'' There's no need for the sarcasm, regardless of how persistent this activist may be. These students don't get it. They should recognize what Cottrell is doing: merely demanding that the law be enforced, on behalf of her handicapped daughter and all other disabled people.

Handicapped parking spaces are there for good reason. These students should walk in Cottrell's shoes and feel her daughter's pain. Then they might realize that this is not something to belittle but rather to praise. It's a lesson you don't have to go to college to learn.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Taxing time for preparers

It may be only a small sample, but tax preparers must be alarmed that all 19 forms distributed to big-name tax companies by the Government Acccountability Office about two hypothetical families were returned with errors. Only two of them had the correct refund amount, but even those had other errors. Talk about bad publicity about the most visible practitioners of a profession with 10 days to go before the tax filing deadline.

Some of the reported problems serve as cautionary tales for those who have yet to file their returns, either with help or by themselves: Side income was not reported in 10 of the 19 cases. The number of dependent children - a pretty basic matter - was overstated about half the time. The itemized deductions for the fictional family were incorrect. Child and dependent care credit went unclaimed for the fictional single-mother filer.

Tax preparers aren't in the business to make errors. Most know their craft and do it well. They face penalties for negligence or for willful or reckless disregard of tax rules. But the taxpayer has a role to play, too. The tax code isn't so complicated that some common-sense questions can't be asked and some old-fashioned math can't be applied to ensure accuracy. After all, the taxpayer signs off on that return.

Hey, tax preparers: Speak up for your profession. Oh, tax filers: any tax preparation horror stories out there?

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

An A for the arts

The state is sending an online survey to every school district to learn what schools do with their resources when it comes to music, art, theater and other subjects broadly called "culture.''

It's startling the Education Department doesn't already know, but it's reassuring that the arts are getting front-burner attention. The visual and performing arts can be the only way some students excel. They also can teach as much about goal-setting, self-discipline and collaboration as any sport. But all too often, these courses are the first to go in a budget crunch.

Too many studies we've read about become excuses for taking action. Let's hope Education Department officials don't allow that to happen and turn the survey results, due April 30, into an action plan that helps reinforce the arts as an indispensable part of the school day.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Play ball!

Ah, opening day! There's no need to ask: Of what? The baseball season is under way and all is well with the world. Even President Bush recognizes it. He was to throw out the first pitch today at the game in Cincinnati. Of course, baseball purists would insist that he should reserve that duty to the opening game in Washington, which his predecessors did for seven decades and which he did when the Expos/Nationals relocated there last year. But the Reds' new owner was one of Bush's partners in his Texas Rangers ownership days, so it's payback time.

Why do we love a game that critics find so boring? Because it's not defined by a clock but rather 27 outs (in a normal nine-inning game). Getting 26 will not do, so there's always hope if your team is behind. So many plays demand offensive and defensive execution at the same time. And any one of them may be the turning point.

Unlike other major sports that must be watched on TV, baseball also works on radio and now on the Web. The focus is on the pitcher, the batter and the fielders. You know where they play, so all you need is to follow the ball. For the next six months plus the playoffs, we baseball fans are ready for the action.