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Larry Benjamin's blog

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

"Big Brother'' pays a call

Never does "Big Brother'' feel more real than when you allow a computer provider to remotely access your PC. It's like having someone in your room looking over your shoulder, but he or she is most likely half a world away in India, Bangladesh or some other outsourced land. And when your cursor moves around the screen while you're cradling the phone talking to Mr. or Ms. Fix-It, it's so eerie.

I'm no fan of outsourcing. American jobs come first. But when it comes to making my PC work perfectly, I don't care where the fix-it person is based. I used to make small talk and ask where, but decided that's not a great idea when calling someone to help me. This week, after 45 minutes and two responders to diagnose the problem and then write up a ticket about it one evening, and another 40 minutes the next night with two more folks who didn't seem to know about the ticket, my problem has been solved. "Big Brother'' is gone and I have control of my cursor again.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Our land of incentives

It shouldn't have to be that way, but if Americans need incentives to do the right thing, then let's do it. Energy efficiency is a prime example. There's a bill making its way through the Legislature that would exempt from the state sales tax the purchase of any cars that get at least 35 miles per gallon on the open road. Its sponsor, Sen. Thomas H. Kean Jr., R-Union, is right when he said his bill is "a substantial incentive for New Jersey motorists to purchase fuel-efficient cars.''

Sure, it'll cut into the sales tax coffers. Forgiving 7 percent of a $25,000 car purchase is $1,750. But it's a real savings for the buyer, keeps car dealerships humming and also puts a dent on oil dependency. Makes good sense to me. Is anyone listening in Washington?

Monday, January 29, 2007

A holiday lesson

The brouhaha over a bill to remove the requirement that schools teach about Memorial Day and Veterans Day, among other holidays, is almost over. Gov. Corzine on Friday issued a conditional veto of this misguided legislation. Both houses of the Legislature are going to accept his recommendations.

Several readers have asked who introduced this proposal (Sen. John Adler, D-Camden and Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-Mercer) and why the public didn't know about it until it was passed - unanimously in both houses no less. The answer is Trenton's variation of "earmarks,'' the very local, often expensive projects that get added to bills in Congress without hearings. In this case, the holiday teaching change was part of an otherwise worthy bill to reduce some of the state mandates on school districts.

Earmarks are a slick way for congressmen to act in favor of constituents and/or lobbyists outside the glare of a committee hearing. Add-ons like this holiday provision are almost as bad. It's hard to believe that no legislators questioned how patriotic holidays are a mandate worth dropping. But the fuss this has caused offers a lesson to all legislators: Read every bill through before voting. The public expects nothing less.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The political money game

It's little wonder why our political leaders have such a disconnect from the public they represent. Only the rich or those who curry favor with the moneyed class run for office -- and they have little in common with the average American. Yet that trend is likely to escalate as more and more presidential candidates opt to privately fund their campaigns rather than accept the limits that accompany public financing, which The New York Times reported today could toll the death knell to the 1976 law designed to reduce the influence of big donors and to open running for the presidency to more people.

The candidates would get about $150 million in public money for the presidential primaries and general election. But that's not enough for those already in the field, who obviously feel they can raise -- and need to spend -- so much more. Why? A full year before the first primaries, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mitt Romney said they will forgo public financing. John McCain is seeking private donations, too. Barack Obama hasn't said.

We in New Jersey know what that all means: super-rich candidates and unbridled influence of the special interests who pay their way. It's little different on the national scene, with those donors undoubtedly expecting a return on their investment. The candidates have to know that, yet they tell the "little guy'' they're running on their behalf. That's why politics breeds cynicism.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Dancing with the stars?

How do you prepare to belly dance after dinner? It never crossed my mind until a young woman - with long hair, even longer arms and exposing more skin than is usually seen in a Monmouth County restaurant - slithered into a Turkish eatery to entertain diners Saturday night. It was quite a sight. Two little children, no older than 7, joined in at her first table stop. She serenaded a newly engaged couple at another table. Then she stopped by our table and invited the person nearest the dance floor to join her for a spin. Guess who?

So there I was, not a great dancer in the first place, trying to look like I knew what I was doing. I didn't. Turkish dancing is not like the jitterbug or the cha-cha or even the twist, but it was for my minute of fame. My wife and dinner companions, thankfully, didn't critique my moves. They could only praise what a good sport I was.

I was so flummoxed by the sudden stardom that I forgot to tip her - which I suppose is the point of the whole exercise. By the time we came up with the cash, she was gone. But it was the highlight of a very good evening. And the food was good, too. We'd definitely return, but I won't be sitting within easy grasp of any passing dancers -- even with long hair, longer arms and exposing more skin ...

Friday, January 19, 2007

Politicizing U.S. attorneys

Good-government advocates and, yes, Democrats are decrying the removal of several U.S. attorneys nationwide who have shown their independence by aggressively investigating people close to the Bush administration. One of them, Carol Lam of San Diego, pursued the probe that led to the bribery arrest and eventual resignation of Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif. The ostensible reason for her ouster: She didn't make catching smugglers the priority Washington wants it to be.

Maybe even worse, these critics say, their replacements don't have to be approved by the Senate, thanks to a loophole written into the revised USA Patriot Act that allows the U.S. attorney general to fill vacancies indefinitely without time-consuming confirmation hearings.

This practice politicizes an office that should be above politics. It's apt to discourage U.S. attorneys from going after the bad guys, regardless of political connections, for fear of incurring the Justice Department's wrath.

Let's hope the A.G. isn't looking over the shoulder of Christopher Christie here in New Jersey. Christie has made political corruption a hallmark of his tenure, with members of both political parties stung by the investigations by his staff and the FBI. Christie has become a hero to New Jerseyans fed up with corruption involving their elected officials. He exercises the kind of independence law enforcement everywhere needs.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Student voices' creativity

When our January Student Voices topic asked students to consider what they would try if they knew they could not fail, we were overwhelmed by the creativity displayed in the answers. Sure, we received essays about bringing about world peace or curing disease, some with personal touches. Those responses show how seriously students approach what they perceive as really important.

But then there were those who branched out. Writers and cartoonists who would scale Mount Everest or learn to fly. Another would compete in a dog sled race. There were singers, actors and ballerinas. Several would invent a time machine. One student wanted to exercise super powers so "I wouldn't ever be late for school.'' Then there were the heart-tuggers: the asthmatic who just wanted to finish a one-mile run, the teen who wanted "a day without negative criticism.'' And dreamers such as the writer who would "fall head over heels in love.''

The winning essays from among 221 essays from 30 schools plus the winning cartoon will be published next Tuesday. Enjoy!

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Mr. G's musical legacy

The performing arts progam of any high school never gets the publicity that a sports team receives, but there's as much or more talent, discipline and teamwork on display on the stage than on the playing field. That was clear Saturday evening when students in the Freehold Performing Arts Center program at Howell High School contributed to a concert in memory of Steven Gosewisch, a music teacher at the high school who died just a year ago at age 51. The quality of the show was a tribute to the students, their teachers and the alumni who returned to prove that the lessons of the man they called "Mr. G" have not been forgotten.

This was no maudlin retrospective of a man's life. The singing, dancing and instrumentation was upbeat and precise. It was a wonderful mix of pop and musical theater favorites, with classical music added in from Gosewisch's fellow members of the Monmouth Symphony. One after another of the students who spoke obviously appreciated Mr. G's efforts to make them excel. And they cheered wildly when their teachers (Gosewisch's colleagues and, in one case, a former student) joined them on stage to perform. What more could any teacher ask for?

The Freehold Regional school district has a number of magnet programs that offer talented students a chance for in-depth study and special achievement. These programs work well there and should be emulated elsewhere. The arts program at Howell is a primary example, thanks to teachers like Mr. G and his successors.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Patriotism and the classroom

A letter writer from Jackson wants Gov. Corzine to veto a bill that would no longer require schools to teach about Veterans Day, Memorial Day and four other holidays. She asks whether it's too much to expect schools to devote maybe one hour a year on the significance of each of these holidays. She makes a good point. But a better question is why it has to be mandated in the first place.

There's no reason why schools don't include instruction about our national holidays. If they're important enough to close government offices and schools, then they're important enough to be included in the school curriculum in advance of the holiday. If nothing else, the teaching should remind students that holidays are not just for the mall or the beach. The state doesn't need a law to tell schools to do the right thing. Failing to do it is an abdication of educators' responsibility.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Tainting the Hall

With so much heavy news to absorb with the president's new Iraqi troop "surge'' and three high school students among four dead in a Freehold Township motor vehicle accident, it's comforting to move on to lighter fare. But even there, it's not so easy.

For a journalist who's an avid baseball fan, it was disappointing to read that two most deserving former players, Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn, being named to the Baseball Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility was overshadowed in most stories by the paltry vote - 23.5 percent - garnered by another first-timer, Mark McGwire. That the voting writers snubbed the home-run hitter linked to performance-enhancing drugs was the story, so many of my print-media colleagues decided.

That's a shame. Ripken, a power-hitting shortstop with record-setting longevity, and Gwynn, the best pure hitter of his time, deserve to have their achievements dominate the sports pages, at least for one day. McGwire's standing with Hall voters is a sidebar. I'd also like to know why any writer would not vote for Ripken and Gwynn. Yet, their election was not unanimous. These two deserve votes just for doing something that's becoming exceedingly rare: playing their whole career with only one team. Any baseball fans out there disagree?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

No go for Gecko

Whew, drivers have been spared seeing the Gecko every time they cross the George Washington Bridge. The Port Authority has backed out of a contract for a $3.2 million advertising campaign by Geico with billboards at the bridge, saying it wasn't worth the grief. Somehow, the Port Authority folks, in the words of a spokesman, "misjudged the negative reaction'' of putting ads on a national institution like the GWB. How could they?

Here we have a captive audience, none too thrilled about passing through tollbooths in the first place, faced with an ad and Geico's lizard mascot. Then there's a company in a state-regulated industry gaining a competitive edge with ads on a bridge run by a government agency. And New Jersey officials were never told what other companies, if any, put in bids to gain the contract. Not to mention the reaction when Geico literature was sent out with E-ZPass bills once a year.

The billboard, reading "Geico -- Drive Safely,'' was ready to be unveiled. Someone from one of the ad agencies that came up with the idea had the chutzpah to call it a public service announcement. Com'on. An ad is an ad -- and it doesn't belong there.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Ah, choo! It's an ... allergy

Those of us battling the achy sinuses, sniffles, sneezes, wheezes, coughs or, in my case, the laryngitis of a winter cold probably don't feel any better reading that it's not a cold at all. It's most likely an allergy. The culprits are mold spores that cause allergies. And what's to blame for their increased activity? The warm weather.

It seems mold spores outside would die off in the cold weather or be covered by snow. Of course, there's been little cold and no snow in these parts this winter. So, the spores multiply and spread to our nasal passages as we enjoy the warmer than usual outdoors, or they come on inside with the doors or windows open.

That explanation won't make us feel any better. But if we get a cold wave, complete with snow, we can look forward to getting a real winter cold -- probably because our body has been exposed to the fluctuating temperatures. But this time we won't be able to blame allergies for it.

Friday, January 05, 2007

A profiteer might bow out

It looks as if state Sen. Wayne R. Bryant, D-Camden - undoubtedly the worst example of a legislator who profits from his public service - may be ready to step out of public life. But not before claiming an annual pension of $83,000, about half of his last three years' worth of salaries from four public-funded jobs. Of course, one of them -- at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey for $35,000 -- has been exposed by UMDNJ's federal monitor as a no-work job.

Although Bryant hasn't said he won't seek re-election to the Senate, filing for his pension offers a strong hint. His constituents may miss him for all the money he has funneled to his Camden area district, but residents elsewhere won't miss him or the legacy he'll leave behind. If the legislators ever get around to banning dual officeholding and pension-padding, in addition to stiffening nepotism rules, the public can give a nod to Bryant for providing so much good material for newspapers like the Press in our campaign for ethics reform.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

E-ZPass not so easy

I really like E-ZPass for its convenience. But I don't like getting E-ZPass violation notices. Wednesday, I received two of them in the mail. I fully support the E-ZPass folks going after scofflaws. I'm not one of them. But they've entangled me in the telecommunications nightmare of trying to reach a real person to explain why I'm not at fault and therefore won't pay the 70-cent toll plus $25 administrative fee.

This applies to a notice for failing to pay at the Bergen toll plaza last month. When I saw that my E-ZPass didn't register with "paid'' that morning at both the Union and Bergen plazas, I stopped using it and called the following day to report the problem. The E-ZPass folks said my transponder had run out of juice and they sent a replacement within two days. They warned I might get a violation notice anyway and, sure enough, I have. Now to tell them that they're bothering an innocent motorist. They open at 7 a.m., but I didn't get around to calling until 7:40 today, when I entered a loop from one press-this-button to another without finding the right button or a person to help me. I'll be on the phone at 7 a.m. tomorrow.

Oh, the other notice? That was from the Port Authority E-ZPass folks about the Outerbridge Crossing Thanksgiving morning, probably when my transponder first started pooping out. But since they waive the $25 administrative fee, I'll just write them a check. Who has the time and patience to fight two E-ZPass agencies?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

McGreevey again?

Disgraced former Gov. Jim McGreevey made the news again Tuesday with the private unveiling of his official portrait in his former statehouse office. Fortunately, everyone involved - including Gov. Corzine - kept the event low-key. Given McGreevey's legacy of higher taxes and questionable appointments - plus a resignation that cemented New Jersey as a national laughingstock - the ceremony shouldn't have happened at all. But it did, delayed until McGreevey's book tour ended.

That book didn't set the book world ablaze, proving that most readers know what to avoid. A tell-all book cast as a confession that didn't tell that much just isn't compelling. We predicted in a September editorial that McGreevey's book might go the way of former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's 2005 political book that was fetching 4 cents for a used copy on the Internet. If the pile of about 20 copies of the McGreevey book on and under the "50% off, post-Christmas sale'' table at my local book shop last week is any indication, 4 cents might be a lot.