Sunday, March 26, 2006

Touch-screen voting

I was one of the first reporters in the mainstream media to raise questions about the accuracy of touch-screen voting machines and I returned to the subject frequently. Here's a column about a hero who spoke out despite political heat:

Date: Sunday, March 26, 2006
Edition: Palm Beach Section: LOCAL Page: 1B

TALLAHASSEE - It's simple. In close elections, we need to be able to recount the votes.

That's most obvious in Palm Beach County, where voters booted out the long-serving supervisor of elections, Theresa LePore, in 2004 -- partly because she didn't think the new touch-screen technology, brought in to replace those disastrous punch cards, needs paper backups.

Unfortunately, the paper trail has gone cold under LePore's successor. Instead of leading the charge for change, Arthur Anderson is taking it slow.

But Anderson's complacency isn't the only roadblock to a paper trail.

Here's a potentially bigger hurdle: Florida has rewritten its elections law to eliminate almost all manual recounts in touch-screen voting.

The reasoning is that the computerized touch-screens are incapable of error. After all, the machine won't let you overvote or undervote -- that is, vote for too many candidates or unintentionally leave blanks, the major problems in past election challenges.

Just one problem.

The machines can be wrong.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Not to the manners born

Bringing education to the table
by Howard Goodman | Commentary

When you pick up the knife -- with the right hand, of course -- you place your palm over the handle and your forefinger on the top of the blade. That finger on top allows you to press firmly in the event the knife is dull or the meat tough.
While you're chewing, you place your knife and fork on your plate in the so-called resting position. That is, you arrange the utensils in a cross, with the fork face down, the tines bridging the knife.
So much I never knew!
And to think I'd learn it by watching fifth-graders in one of the lowest-income elementary schools in Palm Beach County.
We're in Rebecca Hinson's class on the Art of Table Manners. The art teacher at South Grade Elementary in Lake Worth has put away the paints and pottery. She's dimmed the lights, piped in soft piano music and laid out a lace tablecloth.
One by one, over the past few days, her five fifth-grade classes have been coming in for high tea.
This, in a section of Lake Worth that no one would confuse with the town of Palm Beach.
In this neighborhood, people don't read French on the menus. They speak Spanish, Creole and Guatemalan languages at home.
Some 97 percent of the kids get federally funded free lunches -- the highest proportion of any school in the county's coastal areas, said Principal Michael Riley.
The teaching staff here doesn't think any of that is reason for them to think small.
"We want them to go to college," Hinson said, "and when they get there, we want them to fit in. We don't want them going to Duke, Harvard and Stanford not knowing the proper way to behave."
Table etiquette is not a subject that Hinson's students were exactly dying to learn.
Let's face it. For most kids, dinner manners mainly involve whether it's proper to grab the remote with greasy fingers.
"The boys especially are always saying to me, `I'm never going to use that,'" Hinson said.
She tells them they never know. When they're older, they might be invited to a wedding. Or expected to make a toast as a best man. Or taken to lunch on a job interview.
"They need to know these things," said Hinson.
She is no socialite herself. She grew up, she says, on the wrong side of the tracks in a small South Carolina town. A single mother, she works two jobs ("so I can afford to be a teacher").
As she sees it, learning the proper way to use a knife, fork and napkin isn't a frill. It's an essential life skill.
"In order to dig yourself out of poverty," she said, "you have to know what to do in special settings."
We've got a school system obsessed with teaching the three Rs. At South Grade, at least, students are also taught to mind their Ps and Qs.
"We must teach our youth to respect themselves and others," Riley said. Table manners are a way of doing that. But not the only one.
At South Grade, little kids will hold the door for you and say "Please" and "Thank you." That's no accident.
The school runs an array of character-building programs. Kids are encouraged to deplore bullies and celebrate random acts of kindness.
A little after 1 p.m., kids are filing into Hinson's room. They're gingerly taking seats at a long table set out with three-deck silver trays.
English muffins with ham and melted cheese on the bottom tray. Chocolate-covered cream puffs in the middle. Strawberries on top.
Very proper.
The 19 kids in Wednesday's session all had passed a test based on Tiffany's Table Manners for Teenagers by Walter Hoving, a former Tiffany & Co. chairman. But they look nervous, like they're afraid of breaking something.
Hinson gives instructions: Unfold the napkin and put it in your lap. Hold the serving spoon and fork in the palm of each hand and serve yourself two cream puffs and two strawberries. Cut the strawberry in pieces around the stem.
It's a lot to keep straight.
I soon spot Cordarius Joseph eating a strawberry with (horrors!) his fingers. Claudeson Azurin holding his fork with the (egad!) tines facing up.
Monique Horne, on the other hand, daintily finishes off her English muffin like a natural. She's a singer.
She says this stuff might come in handy "when I'm older, or if I become famous."
Before long, lots of kids are standing up and, following Hinson's example, giving toasts.
Kevin Bradlow, a glass of fruit punch aloft, toasts Hinson as his "best teacher."
"I'll miss her in the sixth grade," he says.
I know. There's something inherently silly about a course in table manners.
We've always made fun, in America, of hoity-toity types who jut their pinky fingers while drinking tea. Our movies are filled with stuck-up debutantes getting their comeuppance, snobs in top hats brought to earth by Joe Average.
But if you ask me, this course is a pretty good testament to the American ideal of social mobility.
Every one of these kids, this course is saying, can rise above their backgrounds. Go places. Be somebody.
Every one is capable of someday eating at the Ritz.

Monday, March 6, 2006

Rock'n'roll, fathers'n'sons

Taking son Ben to see the rock legends inspires reflections.
Stones bridge gap of generations
By Howard Goodman | Commentary 
Keith Richards picked up an acoustic guitar. Played that familiar Middle Eastern-like intro.
Then Charlie Watts beat his tom-tom: dumm dumm dumm dum-dum, dumm dumm dumm dum-dum.
My son Ben sprang out of his seat, his fist high.
It was Paint It Black, a song way up in the pantheon of his very favorites, and we were hearing it live, just the way it sounded decades back, hearing it from the guys who wrote it and put it on tape and therefore into radios and stereos and the deep-memory places of our brains.
And I felt an irrational wave of fatherly happiness and -- is this allowed when speaking about the Rolling Stones? -- satisfaction.
This was Sunday night two weeks ago, and we were at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, sitting toward the back of the arena in $200 seats to see the Rolling Stones. A father and teenage son on a splurge to see the living legends.
Legends I first saw 40 years ago.
Turn the time machine way back to 1966. Paint It Black was a radio hit. I was 17 and I thought rock 'n' roll not yet the universal musical idiom, was pretty dumb.
I looked down on Elvis Presley and Beatlemania. My tastes ran to folk and Broadway musicals.
The dirty, loud excitement of the Stones changed all that.
Now Ben, on the day before his 16th birthday, was seeing the group that turned me into a rock 'n' roll fan those many years ago. A fairly obsessed, record-collecting, concert-going, radio-listening, lyric-perusing, music-press-reading, mad-dancing fan.
Unlike me at his age, Ben is a serious rock music devotee. He's already collected memories of greats in concert: Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Jethro Tull. He loves old quirky bands like the Velvet Underground, and new gutbucket bands he counts as personal discoveries: the Black Keys, the Hentchmen, the 22-20s.
This makes me unreasonably proud.
It feels good when your kid likes the same music you do. And to see that he understands why it mattered to you so much.
You expect that your kids will be hip to what's current: video games, cell phones, the Internet, Family Guy.
Yet you really treasure it when they appreciate the old: Casablanca, West Side Story, All the President's Men. James Bond. The Chicago Cubs.
Fathers used to pass on survival skills to their sons: how to hunt or fish, or build a house. In our tamer modern world, a father is more likely to pass on sensibility and attitude and taste.
So when my friend Michael the Attorney said we should surprise our boys with Stones tickets, he spoke to my sense of parental responsibility.
"Once in their life, they have to see the Rolling Stones," he said.
Just as, at least once in your life, you have to see Mount Rushmore.
The Stones weren't monuments when I saw them 40 years ago, on their fifth U.S. tour. The gatekeepers of culture were pretty sure that what they did wasn't even music.
They sneered. They were kind of ugly. Mick Jagger seemed like a gangly grad student trying look sexy
and not totally succeeding, banging a tambourine and dancing and braying.
"I see a red door and I want it to turn black ..."
The music was raw and dark and insistent. And giving in to the band and the crowd in Chicago's vast Arie Crown Theater, from a $7 seat in the last row, was way more fun than anything I'd ever been part of. The '60s took their dark turn before I saw the Stones again, in 1969 in Madison Square Garden. I was a college radical and the Stones were the dangerous figures of Street Fighting Man and Sympathy for the Devil, sorcerers who captured the zeitgeist of an America whose ghetto streets were burning, whose gunships were dropping napalm in Southeast Asia, whose idealistic leaders were assassinated.
No band was ever more urgent.
When I saw them next, in 1981 in Detroit, rock wasn't counterculture any more. And I wasn't, either.
Their show was a extravaganza of art direction and set design and celebrity worship. It was great theater, a good time. But the Stones were no longer central.
I didn't expect them to tell us what the era was about. They weren't breaking boundaries. They couldn't threaten the establishment. Kings of the concert business, they were the establishment.
Twenty-five years have passed since then, when they already were fighting against being a nostalgia act.
I kept my expectations low for this 2006 show. I was just hoping the aging Stones wouldn't creak too much and embarrass us oldsters.
I shouldn't have worried. In Sunrise they performed with more power and energy and high spirits than ought to be human.
"It's insane," Ben said as the Stones took their bows and left the stage. "They're like, the ideal of rock 'n' roll."
And then we were part of the exiting crowd that was singing "Woo, woo!" -- the background part in Sympathy for the Devil -- as we slowly filed out of the arena, a happy mass numbering thousands, young and old, who didn't want the good time to end.

Sunday, March 5, 2006

You've got to be taught

For all the progress we make in America, hate crimes never seem to go away. Here's a column I wrote about one such incident in a quasi-rural area called Loxahatchee.

Date: Sunday, March 5, 2006
Edition: Palm Beach Section: LOCAL Page: 1B

There's a swastika in red paint and a swastika in blue on Marva Moodie's garage and two more swastikas on her driveway.

There are two wobbly "KKK" marks. And a scrawled "WP" shorthand, probably, for "white power."

Defacing the home of a black woman and her two sons, their ugly message is unmistakable.

You can't say much for their craftmanship. They look like the hurried work of illiterates. Or kids. Maybe both.

It feels like the country out here, with big lots, piney trees all around, a road that's more dirt than blacktop.

People move out here to Loxahatchee for a little elbow room, a little privacy, the chance to express themselves with more freedom than is available in the city or burbs.

Some of Moodie's neighbors have horses in their back yards. One man, a few doors down, flies four NASCAR flags along his front fence.

Moodie's house looks all-American: big yard, basketball hoop, screened-in swimming pool in the back, bicycles and sneakers casually left outside the front door. Not bad for a Jamaican immigrant, a former U.S. Army sergeant who makes her living as a psychiatric nurse.

You wish the hate symbols smeared on Moodie's house early Thursday were an isolated thing, an aberration.

But only a couple miles away on Friday I saw a white Ford truck with a 4-by-5-foot Confederate flag snapping proudly overhead.

I listened to neighborhood teens tell me about "redneck" white kids who fling the n-word at dark-skinned people and tell Hispanics to "get back on the banana boat."

Gleb Barabanov, 14, who lives two houses away from Moodie, said, "The redneck people sometimes get on me because I'm from Ukraine."

This stuff is everyday reality, kids told me. But the kind of vandalism at Moodie's house is new.
It's drawn investigations from the Sheriff's Office and State Attorney's Office as a possible hate crime. A county anti-graffiti crew got rid of it on Saturday.

Detectives suspect teenagers. You know, our hope for tomorrow.