Sunday, July 31, 2011

The one that got away

I was shocked. One of my newsletters (Sovereign Digest from the Sovereign Society) answered a question one of their subscribers asked about privacy when it comes to the purchase of gold coins from dealers: "Do they report the purchase to the federal government?" asked the subscriber.

"There is considerable confusion about U.S. reporting requirements for precious-metals sales and purchases," wrote the expert respondent.
This issue was highlighted last year when the Obama Health Care law imposed an onerous requirement that all sales exceeding $600 – not just sales of gold – be reported to the IRS on Form 1099. Fortunately, that little ray of misguided sunshine was extinguished in a rare Congressional act of reason.

The Health Care law required all sales exceeding $600 be reported to the IRS on Form 1099? --What's that all about? I never heard of that!

I decided to do some research. I looked up purchase $600 report on Google. I thought I'd find something on the issue.

Not much. Just one article titled $600 Sale? Get Ready for Tax Form. --Strange: It's from June 2010 and originally appeared in a numismatic (coin collecting) magazine. And it didn't seem to clarify much of anything.
Passage by Congress of the national health care legislation has had an unintended consequence to the nation’s coin collectors, vest-pocket dealers who buy and sell coins, and larger dealers who are frequent buyers of coins that collectors periodically liquidate as they trade up their collections for better coins, or simply sell to take a small profit or loss.

What has happened is that effective Jan. 1, 2012, the whole system of giving and receiving Internal Revenue Service 1099 forms will be turned on its head and all persons (including corporations) who are in business will now have to give 1099 tax reporting forms for coins and other goods that they sell as well as buy.
A little bit later in the same article:
Form 1099 is used to report independent contractor income, income from dividends, income from other things – and is one of the reasons why children receive tax bills for work or labor or services performed.

Section 9006 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Public Law 111-148 . . .) turns 1099 forms into reporting forms not only for independent contractor’s income – what they have long been used for – but also to show sales, gains and losses on purchases and sales of goods as part of a trade or business.

The section reads (in relevant part) “SEC. 9006. EXPANSION OF INFORMATION REPORTING REQUIREMENTS. (a) IN GENERAL. – Section 6041 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 is amended by adding at the end the following new subsections:
"(h) APPLICATION TO CORPORATIONS. – . . . for purposes of this section the term ‘person’ includes any corporation that is not an organization exempt from tax under section 501(a). . . ."

Subsection (a) of section 6041 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 is amended –

(1) by inserting ‘‘amounts in consideration for property,’’ after ‘‘wages,’’
(2) by inserting ‘‘gross proceeds,’’ after ‘‘emoluments, or other’’, and
(3) by inserting ‘‘gross proceeds,’’ after ‘‘setting forth the amount of such.’’
??? Whoa! Now, wait a minute!

We have a lady come and help clean our house every week. We pay her more than $600 a year for her services. And, as a result, we have been told, we have to give her a 1099 for her services. We have been doing that for years. And we are not a company. That's a private transaction. And we have had to issue 1099s.

By any chance, was this new rule supposed to force us to issue 1099s to anyone from whom we purchased $600 or more worth of goods in a year? And what about that susection (h) where it says, "‘person’ includes any corporation that is not an organization exempt from tax under section 501(a)"? Any corporation that is not exempt from tax under section 501(a) means any for-profit corporation! So . . . ???!!!??? Does that really mean what I think it says?!?!

The article mentions a bill introduced by Rep. Dan Lungren (H.R. 5141) that is (or was) intended to repeal that particular section of the Health Care bill. So I thought I would look that up.

I found little bits and snatches that confirmed the worst of what I could possibly imagine. And it is truly unimaginable.

Forget small businesses only having to report; we ourselves would be required to turn in 1099s to all vendors from whom we make "purchases totaling $600 or more during a calendar year."

I read comments by others and sense my interpretation is not too far off:
I don't see the sense in filing 1099's to companies I do business with such as, Costco, American Airlines, Marriott and Comcast. These are large corporations that I would trust would not be hiding income. If the IRS believes this to be so, why don't they audit these companies instead of overloading us with forms? I don't see how the IRS will make more money. I do see how they will cost everyone more dealing with these forms. As for my reaction, I will try to limit my purchases from any company to be less than $600 a year to avoid this or only use one provider to avoid multiple forms. Could this also be an incentive for some companies to buy from foreign companies?

--Mary Taylor, June 20, 2010

I sure do not want to fill out a 1099 form to Walmart and all the other stores that we shop at. We would definitely have to keep track of receipts and try to find out all the tax payer ids for all the businesses we shop at all year. What a nightmare. What if I can't remember who I bought $600.00 worth of stuff from? . . .

I'm an American customer. If this bill to stop 1099's does not pass, does that mean that we will have to send a 1099 form for our electric bill, gas, water, house, food and clothing, etc.? All these things add up in a year's time to way over $600.00.

--Diane P, July 19, 2010

Sadly, the bill to repeal, I found, "is no longer current." And, apparently, never passed. So then what?

Well, there was S. 3578, The Small Business Paperwork Mandate Elimination Act. But that never passed and that went defunct, too. And S. 3946, The Small Business Paperwork Relief Act. Same result. Nothing happened. And then, finally, I read an article dated April 5, 2011 and titled, Senate Votes to Repeal 1099 Information Reporting Requirement--and there was an "Update": "On April 14, 2011, President Obama signed this measure into law." And as double reassurance, there was Small biz applauds 1099 repeal. The article concludes:
Nancy Ploeger, president of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, said some members wondered why the provision was inserted into the health care bill at all.

“The fact that it was buried in the health care bill was bizarre enough, and then it was yet another burden on the backs of business owners, more paperwork,” she said.

“Also, what is the point of it?” she asked. “You issue a 1099 to an outside contractor, which is understood because the government wants to keep track of the income of outside contractors. But any major corporation you're making purchases from already has a reporting requirement.”
I am unable to answer the last question. But the earlier one, about why it was in the health care bill?

Check out what CNN discovered when it pursued the story in May of 2010:
The idea seems to be that using 1099 forms to capture unreported income will generate more government revenue and help offset the cost of the health bill.

A Democratic aide for the Senate Finance Committee, which authored the changes, defended the move.

"Information reporting improves tax compliance without raising taxes on small businesses," the aide said. "Health care reform includes more than $35 billion in tax cuts for small businesses ... indicating that during these tough economic times, Congress is delivering the tax breaks small businesses need to thrive."

The new rules could drastically alter the tax-reporting landscape by spotlighting payments that previously went unreported. Freelancers and other independent operators typically write off stacks of business expenses; having to issue tax paperwork documenting each of them could cut down on fraudulent deductions.

More significantly, the 1099 trail would expose payments to small operators that might now be going unreported. If you buy a computer for your business from a major chain retailer, the seller almost certainly documents the revenue. But if you buy it from Tim's Computer Shack down the street, Tim might not report and pay taxes on his income from the sale.

The IRS estimates that the federal government loses more than $300 billion each year in tax revenue on income that goes unreported. Using 1099s to document millions of transactions that now go untracked is one way to begin to close the gap.
Wow! The (minimum) 5 minutes you would have to spend each year filling out a 1099 for each of the people and corporations from whom you purchase $600 or more worth of goods in a year, not to mention the postage required to send these forms to all the companies with whom you deal--and to send the reports to the IRS: this is less onerous than an additional tax?

I guess there is one last thing going on here that niggled at the back of my mind: "What about privacy? --And what about privacy when, in another two or three years, when the government-sponsored monetary inflation begins to show up in more dramatic price increases--the purchases you make today that cost, say, $50, suddenly become denominated as $600?"

The government isn't going to suddenly come back and say, "Oh, let's alter the threshold of reporting requirements as specified in Section 6041 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986."

I'm glad that section "got away."

But I am upset
  1. That Congress would have passed such legislation in the first place. And,
  2. That such legislation would have been on the books for so long--almost a full year!--with so few Americans even being aware of its existence.
Are we really aware of what "our" legislators are proposing in our behalf?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The difference between debt and deficit

I have been observing with ongoing horror at what our nation's political "leaders" are doing with respect to the onrushing fiscal crisis.

I finally decided, on Thursday, to take the time to write them. Not that I expect they really care that much what I have to say!

I wrote first to my congressman, who is a Republican, then to my two senators, who are both Democrats. I wrote much the same to each one. Except for the last one. Senator Mark Udall has the beginning of a statement on his homepage that directly addresses the situation: "Letter to Congress on the Debt." He offers only the first few sentences, before hitting a link to Continue Reading. I realized I needed to Continue Reading if I was to write him. So I clicked the link.

And the first thing I saw on the new page, was a statement he makes on the side of the page: "Add your name to my letter to Congress and send the message: we need a sensible, bipartisan debt plan -- now."

And, of course, my first thought was--and still is--"Oh, yes! We do!" And, boy! If his plan is sensible, I absolutely do want to sign it.

So what was (or is) Senator Udall's sensible, bipartisan debt plan?

Here's what he wrote:
Letter to Congress on the Debt

Dear Members of Congress,

Today, I delivered remarks on the Senate floor about our government's inability to come together to address our looming national debt and its fast-approaching limit. The clock is running out, and Americans are calling for a comprehensive, bipartisan solution. Yet once again negotiations are at an impasse. Our escalating national debt stands at over $46,000 per citizen - that's an outrageous number that is weighing down our economic recovery, jeopardizing our status as the world's economic leader and threatening our national security.

There's a growing disconnect between what most Americans want - quality roads, a safety net for the sick and elderly, and strong investments in education and research that will develop the well-paying jobs of tomorrow - and our country's ability to pay for them. But I believe we have to be realistic and make tough decisions - on both sides. For example, spending cuts alone won't reduce our deficit. And if those cuts are too deep they will hurt the middle class and prevent us from creating the jobs we need for a full economic recovery. So I believe generating more revenue must at least be part of the solution. There are plenty of wasteful tax loopholes - not tax rate increases, but corporate giveaways through the tax code - that can be closed. Our economic future rests on the fulcrum of this balance: both sides have to come to the negotiating table with skin in the game and agree that nothing is off limits.

If we continue arguing over whether to use the right or left paddle, we'll just keep going in circles until we careen over the edge together. I'm willing to stay in Washington as long as it takes to achieve a sensible, bipartisan plan that puts our country back on track. We already have a template: The President's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, chaired by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, came up with a set of recommendations that would reduce the debt by over $4 trillion over the next decade, including spending cuts, reasonable entitlement reform and revenues generated from closing special interest tax expenditures. Now let's start paddling in unison.

Senator Mark Udall and co-signers
It was that penultimate sentence that put me over the top: "The President's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform . . . came up with a set of recommendations that would reduce the debt by over $4 trillion over the next decade."

Though I should have been ready for it based on what he wrote in the middle of his second paragraph: "spending cuts alone won't reduce our deficit. . . . I believe generating more revenue must at least be part of the solution. There are plenty of wasteful tax loopholes - not tax rate increases, but corporate giveaways through the tax code - that can be closed."

In case the problems with Udall's letter aren't immediately obvious, please permit me to point them out.

1. The President's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform came up with no suggestions on how to reduce the federal debt, as Udall claims. All they proposed was means by which, maybe (if Congress could possibly allow itself to do nothing to alter the situation over the course of 10 years! --Ha ha!), . . . --They proposed means by which maybe they would spend $400 billion less each year, for ten years, than they were otherwise planning to spend. They would continue to spend in deficit--$1.2 trillion more than they bring in in taxes. The debt would continue to increase at a pace of $1.2 trillion a year (again, assuming no one got any ideas over the course of 10 years concerning how to spend more money than they did in 2011--a far-fetched idea if I ever heard of one).

So Udall's comment about "reducing debt" is total hogwash.

But his first comment about "spending cuts alone [not being able to] reduce our deficit" is also hogwash.

2. Look, I'm all for closing wasteful tax loopholes. Or even non-wasteful tax loopholes. If the government would treat everyone with greater equality, that would be fine with me: The tax code that impacts one person should be the tax code that hits the next.

But if you're spending more than you can afford, then if you cut spending--any spending at all--you will reduce your deficit. You won't be spending quite as much beyond your means.

Clearly, either Udall doesn't understand the difference between a deficit and a debt, or he is cynically playing upon the lazy thinking of his constituents to try to woo them with his nonsense.

I decided to write him much the same letter I wrote to his colleagues--with just some minor modifications that directly address his letter:


--Oh! . . . And I was sure I had saved a copy. I planned to share it here. But it seems to have disappeared from my computer.

So summary: Basically: Hey, I'm one of the people whom you want to tax more. I am more than happy to pay more taxes . . . under one condition, and one condition only: That you-all come up with a reasonable plan actually to stop the bleeding, stop the deficit, balance the budget and, eventually, actually pay off the debt.

My problem: I have seen no one in Congress--or the White House--at any time during my adult years make any serious attempt to pay down the debt, even at the best of times. Even when the economy was screaming along, the government was wracking up more debt, more unfunded future obligations.

Until our supposed "leaders" in Washington actually lead and come up with a real plan to stop borrowing more and, at some point, actually pay off what they have already borrowed, I don't want to throw any more of my somewhat-good money after bad.

That, more or less, is what I wrote.

But there is more.

The government talks about the $14-point-some-odd trillion debt. But that's only what they are willing to acknowledge. Our federal government has obligated itself for far more. At this point, well over $100 trillion--most of it, obviously, "off book."

I mean, we're talking about Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security and all the retirement funds for all the federal retirees, not to mention the unlimited obligations they have signed up for with respect to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. They never reference those obligations. (Oh, yes, they reference them: that they contribute--or will, at some day in the future, contribute--to the federal deficit.) But they don't acknowledge that the funds supposedly set aside to pay off these obligations don't exist; that all the Social Security taxes you and your employer pay (or used to pay) go (or went) directly into paying the current expenses of the federal government. There is absolutely nothing there--or anywhere--to pay you what the government has promised to pay you . . . other than the "full faith and credit of the U.S. government"--which means the tax generating and paying ability of those Americans who will be paying taxes at the time you try to draw upon the program that the federal government has set up supposedly to meet your needs.

Put another way: The acknowledged debt of the federal government is "only" the debt upon which it is actually paying interest at the moment. It is not the future debt--the contracted obligation--for which any normal business would be investing in anticipation of having to pay.

All those tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars you hope to draw upon from Social Security? They don't exist. And the federal government has no plans for how they are supposed to come into existence . . . except somehow, miraculously, that taxpayers will show up in the future to give up the funds they need to live a modest (hopefully non-dismal) life so you can enjoy the benefits you believe you are entitled to (because the federal government made some promises to you: that if you paid in your Social Security taxes now--which would go to pay off those who had come before you--they would ensure that they fleeced future taxpayers to cover what they have been promising you).

[By the way, if you would like to read a very clear summary article about the on-going frauds involved in the Social Security system, read this from Merrill Matthews at Forbes.]


When my family was all together a week ago, I got talking with my sister and brother-in-law from Germany. They are the ones who are being directly impacted by the Greek government's fiscal irresponsibility as they are being taxed to pay for their Euro-using cousins down in Greece. In Greece, I read, the average retirement age (and, therefore, the average age for receiving government funds), is 61! In Germany--where they are having to pay for the Greek government's largesse--the retirement age was recently increased from 65 to 67.

It strikes me: When Social Security was first created, the average lifespan of Americans who hit adulthood was significantly shorter than it is today. According to the Social Security administration, the numbers look like this:

1: Life Expectancy for Social Security
Cohort Turned 65
of Population Surviving from Age 21 to Age 65
Remaining Life Expectancy for Those Surviving to Age



































"As Table 1 indicates," writes the author of the article in which I found the above table, "the average life expectancy at age 65 (i.e., the number of years a person could be expected to receive unreduced Social Security retirement benefits) has increased a modest 5 years (on average) since 1940."

Okay. But/and/so why hasn't the retirement age been raised to match? And considering the fact that our government has obviously over-promised on its ability to deliver, why isn't the retirement age raised a little bit more than a mere match to the obviously erroneous earliest assumptions? Put another way, why aren't we looking at full Social Security benefits beginning only for those who refuse to accept them until age 70? And significantly reduced benefits for those who take early retirement at 62 or 65 or any other age before that?

That kind of change might actually be real "reasonable entitlement reform," to borrow a phrase from Senator Udall!

Let's stop offering false hope to Americans that they (we!) can continue to retire in our 60s and expect to receive the kinds of Social Security benefits our parents or grandparents did. It's not going to happen.

One way or another, our system is collapsing. Let's acknowledge the collapse and make solid plans to move forward.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The value of libraries

Jamie LaRue, head of our county library system, wrote an interesting post about the value of libraries. He begins and ends with Yogi Berra quotes.

To begin: "You can observe a lot just by watching." To end: . . . --well, you'll have to read on.

The problem LaRue was trying to address: How "everyone" thinks libraries are outmoded and unnecessary, especially now that we have the internet and e-readers.

"Wrong-headed thinking!" says LaRue.
At the heart of the public library is the notion of community sharing. We are a cooperative purchasing agreement. . . . [P]ublic libraries take many small contributions of money, and leverage that into the purchase of collections, or access to collections, that are far beyond what any of us could afford individually.

You've got an ebook reader? Wonderful! . . . The library can provide books for your e-reader, too.

The argument is pretty straightforward: libraries are way more cost-effective than buying everything yourself, most of which you really don't want to keep anyhow. Just because the book is electronic doesn't change the value proposition. Teaming up - buying once, using many times - is a smart investment.

A second [benefit of libraries:] we help individuals of any and all ages and backgrounds to explore and discover anything they like . . . for school . . . for their jobs . . . learning a new language, or building a porch, or growing a garden, or learning to play banjo. Or . . . just reading science fiction or murder mysteries or romances or browsing fashion magazines. Public libraries are a patriot's dream: We are all about the pursuit of happiness.

A third [benefit of libraries:] we build community. . . . Last year our 7 locations in Douglas County racked up over 2 million visits. People come to homeowner's meetings, children's story times, civic clubs, and evening programs. They meet friends and associates. They chat with each other as they wait to use public computers. They get out of their homes and get to know one another.

So it's ironic. Often the busiest place in town, a place where people can follow their interests, save heaps of money, and build enduring bonds with their neighbors, libraries still have to fight the false perception that no one needs them.

Once again, Yogi nailed it. "Nobody goes there any more," he said. "It's too crowded."

Monday, July 25, 2011

Our protectors? "Dominate. Intimidate. Control."

"The transition to a police state will not come about with a dramatic coup d'etat, with battering rams and marauding militia," writes constitutional attorney John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization that provides free legal services to people whose constitutional and human rights have been threatened or violated. "[The police state] will creep in softly, one violation at a time, until suddenly you find yourself being subjected to random patdowns and security sweeps during your morning commute to work or quick trip to the shopping mall."

So begins his article about the Federal Transportation Security Administration's (TSA's) VIPR (Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response) teams.

The TSA explains VIPR as being "Comprised of federal air marshals, surface transportation security inspectors, transportation security officers, behavior detection officers and explosives detection canine teams" designed to "work with local security and law enforcement officials to supplement existing security resources, provide deterrent presence and detection capabilities, and introduce an element of unpredictability to disrupt potential terrorist planning activities."

Hey! What's not to like about that?

Read on!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Some of the prettiest countryside in the world . . .

So Sarita and I had the privilege of visiting Norway for almost three weeks. We took off on June 21st and returned on July 11th.

As I have told several friends: It's an absolutely gorgeous place to visit, but I don't think I'd want to live there.

We took off from Denver late Tuesday afternoon, June 21st, landed in Frankfurt on Wednesday morning (the equivalent of about midnight here); five hours later took another flight to Copenhagen; spent the evening exploring Tivoli Gardens--the place, we were told, that inspired Walt Disney to create Disneyland. After a good night's sleep, we walked to city center and took a two-and-a-half hour bike tour. Then walked to our ship, the Oceania Insignia.

From Copenhagen, we traveled around the southern tip of Denmark and Norway and began our journey up the west coast of Norway--far past the tip of the mainland out into the Barents Sea . . . to Svalbard (halfway between the northern tip the mainland and the North Pole) and then on to the Arctic ice barrier.

Returning south, we headed slightly east, to visit the Russian "Hero City" of Murmansk, then back west, down the coast of Norway, visiting a few additional cities, and finally ending up in Dover, England, on the morning of the 11th. With the aid of high-speed travel chasing the sun, we were able to land in Denver just as the sun fell behind the mountains that evening.


I thought I'd share a few photos and videos with you.

Probably to set the "mood" (though this was by no means "typical Norway"!), let me share a few photos and a video from our entrance to Geiranger on the morning of July 7th. These were taken from the back deck where Sarita and I ate as often as we could (until the temperature dropped below about 55 degrees, and the staff would no longer let us go out there!). This was the first day in over a week that we were permitted on the back deck again. And it was gorgeous.

First a video.

Can you imagine living on that farm?

A mile or two further up the fjord:

Yes. The air is amazingly clear and clean. So is the water.

Geiranger, they say, is probably the most photographed area of Norway. And you can understand why.

This shot, of the Flydalsjuvet [best approximation of pronunciation I can offer: FLEE-dall-syu-vet], in particular, is famous. To get here, we walked at an unbelievable clip, pushed by a couple close to our age that we had agreed to spend the day with. . . . We walked up the road from the city (yes, very much up the road!), taking shortcuts across major switchbacks, through a churchyard and a couple of campsites to arrive at this site, 4km from city center, about 45 minutes after getting off the boat--and about 15 or 20 minutes before the tourist buses from the boat began to come.

I should note: the "city" of Geiranger has, we were told, a year-round population of only about 250. Our cruise ship carried 680 passengers. Geiranger receives somewhere between 150 and 200 cruise ships each year during its four-month tourist season--somewhere, I am told, around 600,000 visitors. Considering that our ship was first in and alone for the first two hours we were in port, we had the town almost to ourselves . . . except for the few hundred Scandinavians and other Europeans who were there for a more relaxed, extended holiday.

See Sarita standing in the upper right-hand corner of the photo above, on the rock outcropping? No? (Click on the photo to see a full-screen rendition of the photo.)

If not, here's a telephoto picture:
And here's a shot from about 100 feet or so below where I was standing, showing how the Flydalsjuvet outcropping used to be before authorities had to worry about tourists suing them because of their (the tourists') foolish behavior:
(For some more thrilling "before" photos, check out the Geiranger Tourism site and click on the grayed-out thumbnails at the bottom of the page.)

After Flydalsjuvet, we hiked a short way back down the main highway and then up a side road to visit the Westerås Farm. There, at least while we were close to the farmhouse itself, we encountered some sheep and goats and--on our way back from the farthest point we traveled--just a few other hikers:

(The man in front of Sarita was the male half of the couple we hiked with.)

As we went to the farthest point to which we wanted to travel, we had some great views of the fjord and our ship:

. . . and the other ship that came into port that day, from Portugal:

As we began our descent, we bumped into a couple--an older couple; he had retired just a few months before--who were from New Zealand. Somehow we got talking about how we had arrived there in Geiranger.

"We drove from Hong Kong," she said.

"Hong Kong!?!"

"Yes. We shipped our vehicle from New Zealand to Hong Kong, and have been driving for the last three and a half months--across China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia . . ."

They said the hardest thing was to get their itinerary all pre-set in China. The Chinese government wouldn't permit them to enter unless and until they had established a complete itinerary, including confirmed and prepaid reservations at every point along their route. They had to bring a government-approved guide along to accompany them all the way through the country as well.

They said it took them 18 months to plan the trip and they began almost as soon as he retired. Three and a half months later: Here they were in Norway.

They intended to garage their vehicle in Denmark, and then their son and [about-to-be?] daughter-in-law would pick it up in another month or so to do their own touring around Europe.

As we made our way down the path and into the parking lot at Westerås Farm, we found their vehicle:

I would have posted this 10 hours ago, but I have spent a goodly amount of time today trying to find the scrap of paper on which we wrote the URL for the Kiwis' blog about their trip. I can't find it. And I want to post.

If and when I find the URL, I will create a separate post for that alone.

Finally, if you're interested: Here's a map that shows generally where we walked (with special thanks to As always, to see the details, feel free to click on the image to expand it:

And where is Geiranger? Here's a map of southern Norway that should help you find it. (While we're at it, notice Oslo at the far right, at the northern tip of the Sandefjord. Also Kristiansand, at the southern tip of Norway. We stopped at Kristiansand on our first day out of Copenhagen, and at Oslo on our last day in Norway--two days before we made it to Dover.)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Precision . . . Corrections . . . and Apologies

As someone who deals with words, I was struck by this article from The Atlantic.
Osama bin Laden was dead, and Frank Lindh -- father of John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban" -- had been invited on [San Francisco's KQED Forum show] to discuss a New York Times op-ed piece he'd just published about his son's 20-year prison sentence. The moment host Dave Iverson completed his introduction about the politically and emotionally charged case, Lindh cut in: "Can I add a really important correction to what you just said?"

Iverson had just described John Walker Lindh's 2002 guilty plea as "one count of providing services to a terrorist organization." That, Frank Lindh said, was simply wrong.

Yes, his son had pled guilty to providing services to the Taliban, in whose army he had enlisted. Doing so was a crime because the Taliban government was under U.S. economic sanctions for harboring Al Qaeda. But the Taliban was not (and has never been) classified by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization itself.

This distinction might seem picayune. But it cut to the heart of the disagreement between Americans who have viewed John Walker Lindh as a traitor and a terrorist and those, like his father, who believe he was a fervent Muslim who never intended to take up arms against his own country.

That morning, the clash over this one fact set host and guest on a collision course for the remainder of the 30-minute interview. . . . The collision was set in motion nine years before by 14 erroneous words in the New York Times.
The 14 erroneous words? "Mr. Lindh agreed to plead guilty to one of the 10 counts in the indictment against him. It charged he had provided service to the Taliban, which is a felony because President Bush and former President Bill Clinton had declared the party a terrorist organization."

Reality: Neither president, Bush or Clinton, ever formally declared the Taliban to be a terrorist organization. Okay. But in most Americans' minds, does it really matter whether the Taliban was formally declared to be a terrorist organization? After all, the Taliban gave Al Qaeda a haven and Al Qaeda attacked the United States. So aren't we merely splitting hairs to try to distinguish whether the Taliban was a terrorist organization?

Absolutely not! says Frank Lindh.
"It is no small thing to accuse a person of being a terrorist, or of providing assistance to or conspiring with a terrorist organization. . . . It's basically calling the person a murderer." His son, John, maintained that his purpose in joining the Taliban army had been to defend Muslim civilians from attacks by the insurgents who would later come to be known as the U.S.-allied Northern Alliance.

The record of the Lindh legal proceeding shows that federal prosecutors wanted very badly to hang the "terrorist" label on Lindh, but they [didn't]: either they didn't have the evidence, or they had some other reason to drop all of the terrorism-related charges. As New York Times Justice Department correspondent David Johnston reported in a front page companion piece to [the] story [that contained the error], U.S. officials "had grown skeptical that Mr. Lindh played any meaningful role in Islamic terrorism." They allowed Lindh to limit his guilty plea to two violations of the Taliban economic sanctions.

Lindh's statement to the court carefully maintained this distinction. He said: "I provided my services as a soldier to the Taliban last year from about August to December. In the course of doing so, I carried a rifle and two grenades. I did so knowingly and willingly knowing that it was illegal."

The [Times'] mistaken description of the Taliban as a federally sanctioned terrorist organization was therefore far from a minor detail. For Lindh and his sympathizers, it was the crux of the story.
Besides the fine legal distinction, I am intrigued by The Atlantic article's discussion about making corrections in news stories online.
After the KQED show hoisted the mistake into the spotlight, MediaBugs, an online service for recording and fixing problems in news coverage, filed an error report and contacted the Times about the matter. And within a week, the Times had corrected the error--in a way.

If you look up that July 16, 2002, story today, you find the words "correction appended" inserted, a little awkwardly, between the byline and the first paragraph. And if you press "next page" three more times to get to the conclusion of the story and scroll all the way down, you'll find the following notice:
"Correction: This article gives an imprecise explanation for why providing assistance to the Taliban was a felony. Executive orders by Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush forbade such assistance because the Taliban was considered a threat to the United States and had provided haven to Al Qaeda, but those orders did not declare the Taliban to be a terrorist organization. (The error was brought to The Times's attention after related news reports in June 2011.)"
One might quibble with this wording's halfhearted walk-back: After all, the article's explanation wasn't "imprecise" -- it was wrong. But correction notices have a long history of defensive phrasing; minimizing your missteps is human nature. The main thing is that the Times noted, and corrected, its goof.
Or is it?

I noted a similar problem with a young-earth creationist site that modified and, from my perspective, wildly misrepresented something Charles Spurgeon once said in a sermon. (See Honesty . . . it's such a lonely word . . . and Editorial license.)

As I complained there, so the author of the Atlantic article complains in his article: the Times' correction is way too difficult to find. Indeed, it almost begs to be ignored:
[T]he paper did not edit the story's original text to reflect the correction. The same erroneous 14 words still sit, live, on the Times' website. To learn that they've been superseded, you have to click through three more pages. (Or, if you're really unlucky, Google might send you to a different version of the same story that shows no trace at all of any correction.)

Philip Corbett, the Times' associate managing editor for standards, explained in an email, "For practical and technical reasons in this case, we decided simply to append the correction, rather than trying to rewrite a passage in a nine-year-old article." (Editor's note: The Atlantic approaches corrections on a case-by-case basis. However, in a similar situation, we would probably leave the original wording intact but provide a linked asterisk at that spot in the text, which would take you to the full correction at the end of the piece.)

Is that enough? Corrections expert Craig Silverman, author of the book and blog "Regret the Error" and Columbia Journalism Review columnist (he is also an adviser to MediaBugs), doesn't think so.

"If you only read the first two pages of that story," Silverman says, "you're not going to get to the correction, and you're going to get the mistaken piece of information, and so it's just not effective. That's a very long article. What percent of people are going to read to the end of that and get to the correction, or even know that 'correction appended' means that it's necessarily on the exact last page? The basic principle of 'Let's make sure that this error stops spreading' is not really being upheld here."

Institutions like the Times honed their correction practices in the age of print, when appending a notice was the best feasible option. But an always-available digital page is also always editable -- and is part of a rapidly evolving news ecosystem in which stopping the spread of misinformation is more important [than] ever. Post-publication edits can uphold that principle without being furtive or seeming to rewrite history. Any changes to long-published articles can be made transparently, either in the text of an accompanying correction notice or in an archive of previous story versions.
So how should newspaper editors take care of errors in news stories? (According to a study referenced by the Atlantic author, "59 percent of local news and feature stories were found by news sources to have at least one error.")

"For starters," writes Atlantic author,
[editors] can demonstrate that they invite and welcome pointers to potential errors from readers. Today's stance -- "we're willing to consider fixing our mistakes if you hunt down our contact information and pester us" -- is too passive. But it can be upgraded to an active pursuit of truth via some simple interface changes on a news website. Put a button on every page of every story, current and archived, that says "Report an error" -- and then follow up on what the public tells you. Think of this as a customer service feedback loop, or a quality-control system. That's how the most efficient large businesses that produce software or cars run their operations today; surely the information we use to run our society deserves at least as much care.
There's more at and on the KQED webpage dedicated to the Frank Lindh interview. (I encourage you, especially, to read the Listener Comments.)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Brilliant idea?

Sarita and I just got back from a three-week trip to Norway.

As often happens when traveling, I get thinking about things I wouldn't normally think about at home.

Since I had the--ummmm--privilege of being able to use many urinals in different restrooms, many more urinals than I would normally encounter in such a brief period of time, I got thinking about the--ummm--experience.

One "experience" that always bothers me in men's restrooms is the inevitable dribble--inevitable dribble--I always see in front of every urinal. (Not to mention--what I know drives women absolutely bonkers, when they have to share a toilet with men: the inevitable dribble on the front of the toilet bowl and/or, even, on the seat because some stupid, lazy lout couldn't be bothered to lift the seat while he did his business standing up! --Aaargh! . . . But we're not going there, today.)

I got thinking about how to eliminate the dribble.

And that reminded me of an idea I had heard about and have actually seen in Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands: an etched fly in the urinal that seems, unconsciously, automatically, to get guys actually to aim their urinary flow!

When Schiphol installed the fly toilets, messes declined by some 80%!

I don't know what got into me on this trip, but I thought, Why not expand upon and improve the idea? Why not turn it into a kind of computerized video game in which, when the subject male actually hits the target, he gets points ringing up--with actual audio feedback bells and a counter above the urinal: "Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding!" --Like the old pinball games.

Let him wrack up as many points as he can while hitting the target.

Lose points if he dribbles or splashes anywhere outside the bowl: "Honk! Honk! Honk! Honk!"

I thought a bit further: How could we turn this into not just a personal 'How well can I perform?' issue, but a social pressure item as well? --What if there were some kind of total score for the entire bathroom in which, if "you" miss, you destroy the entire score for everyone? Would that increase neatness?


We had a big Strategy Review meeting at Sonlight yesterday to which, as an owner, I was invited.

As we went to lunch afterwards at the "Sonlight Cafe" (a Wendy's restaurant about half a block away), I shared with the guys what I was thinking about.

They loved the idea. And suggested some further refinements . . . that I imagine would engender far better social pressure than my idea would.

"Take a photo of the guy who misses and plaster it all over Facebook: 'Loser!'" . . .

I'll stop here.

Any further refinements to the idea?

. . . After talking with the guys at Sonlight yesterday, I checked online.

Apparently, I'm not "first to market" with my idea.

According to Duncan Geere of Wired UK, Sega, the game company, has begun testing some ‘Toylet’ Games in Japanese urinals.

Each urinal is installed with a pressure sensor. An LCD screen is mounted on the wall above, letting the gamer select from and play four different minigames. There’s “Mannekin Pis,” which simply measures how hard you can pee, and “Graffiti Eraser,” which lets you remove paint by pointing a hose in different directions.

There’s the faintly misogynistic “The Northern Wind, The Sun and Me,” where you play as the wind trying to blow a girl’s skirt up, and the harder you pee, the harder the wind blows.

Finally, the bizarre “Battle! Milk From Nose” is a multiplayer game where you compete against the person who last used the urinal. The strength of your urine streams are compared, and translated into milk spraying out of your nose. If your stream is stronger, your milk-stream knocks your opponent out of the ring. If you do particularly well on any of the games, you can download and save your information to a USB stick.

Of course, it’s not just about games. Between sessions, the Toylet will display ads, hoping that you’ll pay more attention to them than to a traditional ad.
And as Geere notes, Sega is only one semi-knock-off of someone else's idea.

Worse, as I think about it, I realize this is almost assuredly uneconomical. How much true benefit would the additional electronics provide over the simple and inexpensive fly in the toilet?

Oh, well.

It was a fun thought experiment while it lasted!

Further information at NPR's video article.