How A Pop-Up Ad Can Destroy Your Life

A close friend told me of the surreal story of Julie Amero, a substitute teacher from Mystic, Conn, who was working in a Norwich 7th grade class and is now convicted of exposing minors to pornography (the actual charges are four counts of risking injury to a minor), all because she couldn’t get the pop-up windows to close and wasn’t thinking clearly enough to decide to turn off the computer. Why were there pornographic pop-ups on a school computer? Because the school had not updated its filters. Both The New York Times and the PC Magazine recently covered the story. From The New York Times:

Julie Amero, a substitute teacher at a middle school in Norwich, Conn., said she had simply wanted to e-mail her husband. The authorities contend that she was — purposely or, perhaps, carelessly — exposing 11- and 12-year-old students to pornography rather than teaching them English.

Last month, Ms. Amero was convicted in Norwich Superior Court of four counts of risking injury to a child and faces up to 40 years in prison at a sentencing hearing scheduled for March 2. She has insisted on her innocence, refusing to accept a plea bargain that would have allowed her to walk free. She portrays herself as a hapless technophobe too clueless to unplug a wayward computer.

Ms. Amero, 40, a longtime substitute, contends that when she arrived that day in October 2004, she asked the regular seventh-grade language arts teacher at Kelly Middle School if she could use his computer to e-mail her husband. But first, she says, she went to the bathroom, and when she returned, the teacher was gone and students were gathered around the screen, watching a hairstyle Web site.

When she tried to close the site, what she got was an endless barrage of pop-up ads for pornography sites. The images continued all day, since “I absolutely have no clue about computers,� she said in an interview.

Ms. Amero plans to appeal, and she says lawyers have offered to handle the appeal free.

School administrators and prosecutors have accused her of everything from spending too much time staring at the computer to deliberately surfing pornography sites, and have pointed out that if she was an unwitting victim of an Internet bombardment, she should have fetched help, blocked the screen or, at least, unplugged the machine.

“She could have turned off the computer,� the assistant state’s attorney, David J. Smith, said in his closing arguments. Ms. Amero insisted during cross-examination that she had never turned off a computer herself and did not even know how to turn off a monitor.

An Internet chatter campaign has made Ms. Amero something of a cause célèbre for Luddites worldwide.

Several computer experts who have followed the case said programs known as spyware and malware could have hijacked the machine’s browser so that it visited pornography sites without prompting and created the computer logs that helped convict Ms. Amero.

Craig Ellison, an industry analyst who once ran the computer labs at PC magazine, warned in an interview, “These types of things can happen,� especially “if you’re using a very old system.� [full text]

From PC Magazine’s John Dvorak:

[…] This brings me to an incident that happened in the Kelly Middle School in the apparently backward community of Norwich, Connecticut. There, a substitute teacher was on a school computer and ran into a pop-up porn storm. I haven’t seen one of these for years, since pop-ups are easily blocked with Firefox. But, apparently, they still exist. [full text]

I’ve never thought of Norwich, Connecticut as a backward community. I’m from Connecticut and I like to think we don’t perpetrate these kinds of witch hunts anymore. But apparently I’m wrong. Julie Amero is scheduled to be sentenced to possibly 40 years in prison on May 15th. You can learn more about her case at Wikipedia here. The Defense fund for Julie Amero has a webpage here.

Linkin’ Log (for 04-29-07)

Most Katrina Aid From Overseas Went Unclaimed—The Washington Post reports on how, after Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. government inexplicably turned down “many allies’ offers of manpower, supplies and expertise worth untold millions of dollars” and also failed “to collect most of the unprecedented outpouring of international cash assistance for Katrina’s victims.”

• Borders Spell Trouble for Arab-American—The New York Times reports on the case of an Arab-American man who, like a good many individuals of Middle Eastern descent, is regularly being subjected (without explanation) to intense scrutiny by border patrol agents—”he has been fingerprinted 14 times, his body searched 9 times, been handcuffed 4 times and isolated in a separate detention room 13 times.”

• Too Many Hazardous Waste Sites In Minority Areas—The Seattle Times (via Common Dreams) reports on a recent study showing that “there are a disproportionate number of hazardous-waste facilities” located near communities comprised largely of minority groups and that “over the last 20 years minorities have been subjected to excessive levels of toxic pollutants from sites that have negatively affected their health and, often, property values.”

• Web photo haunts graduate—The Lancaster (Penn.) Intelligencer Journal reports on how a local woman is suing Millersville University—and rightly so—”for denying her an education degree and teaching certificate after a controversial Internet photograph surfaced last year shortly before graduation.”

Bob Kerr on the Cranston Concrete Plant

The title alone – “What the Heck is that thing down the street?” — speaks volumes about the violation which the Cullion Concrete Plant is to the community of Cranston. From Mr. Kerr:

Come on, Cranston, you can’t let this happen. You can’t let an entire neighborhood get mugged.

We have a serious civic failure in the making here. Residents are worried that they might have to move out because of the growing blight down the street. They also worry that they won’t be able to sell their houses for the same reason.

Just take a walk down Hamilton Road, off Pontiac Avenue, past all those modest, well-tended houses with the high dog and kid count. And when you get to the end, with Bethany Lutheran Cemetery on your left, take a look at the hideous affront to the community taking shape on a low-lying piece of land near the Pocasset and Pawtuxet rivers.

It’s a concrete wet-batching plant. All the pieces haven’t been put together yet, but it’s very easy to look at the huge conveyer and other large metal hulks and realize that if they are all put together and put into operation, life in the Eden Park neighborhood and beyond will go into a steady decline. The noise, the dust, the trucks rumbling along narrow, residential streets — they all will add up to a miserable collapse of municipal responsibility. [full text]

Astroturf Wars in Cranston

UPDATE: Since posting on this subject, I contacted Tony Lupino, Council Member at-large, to ask about his position on the astroturf proposal. His response was as follows:

The Council is waiting on a detailed document to understand if the initial expense of $750,000. will be offset by savings in maintenance, upkeep and personnel costs. The $750K might be offset by private donations and sponsorship. Besides, with an artificial surface we may be able to open the Stadium up to more “for profit” events, thus generating more revenues for the City. Keep in mind, the high school sports teams are not the majority users of the field. Many youth groups (not tied to the public schools) are the biggest users. The Stadium may be able to “pay for itself” with an artificial surface.

I know I’m in the minority on this issue, but I believe it has merit. I’m awaiting the final numbers.

You say the schools are not getting an increase. I say let’s see what the Council can come up with.

He then passed my email on to Paula McFarland, Vice Chair of the City Council, who provided this response:

We are awaiting the additional information that was presented at the planning commission meeting. I agree with Tony that the project may have merit to create additional revenues within the City. Let’s see?

Regarding the Astroturf within the capital budget and your question: Do you think this is the best use of education funds, considering that schools are not receiving any increase? However, we cannot use capital funds for education as most items are for long-term cost. The Astroturf is located in the Parks & Recreation Area of the Capital Budget and not with the School Department Projects. For Parks and Recreation is this just one project which totals $1.5 million potential in spending for the coming year on capital issues facing the City’s recreation.

The School Dept’s Capital Projects, which are not paid for within the School’s Operating Budget, but paid by the City’s Operating Budget, is $5.6 million. A much large portion of funding is being made for Capital improvements to the Schools then for Parks and Recreation needs within the City. The list for next year are as followings: East/Briggs – Asbestos Removal, West – Roof, sprinklers, asbestos removal, West Hills – Lockers, sprinklers, Misc. Construction, Gladstone – Sprinklers, replacement of windows, Norwood – replace roof & Waterman – sprinklers, replacement windows for a total of $5.6 million.

I wish we could fund the entire School Dept.’s Operating and Capital Project Budgets with bond money. Then taxpayers could put off paying for education of our children for 10, 20 or 30 years, but is that the way we should starting paying to educate our future — leaving them to paid the tab in the future? I know we don’t want that!

I hope this will clear up any discussions regarding one potential project that may or may not be done within the coming year, which is a Capital Improvement, and the total Capital Projects Bond Funds is $16.3 million. Additionally, the rating agency for borrowing on Capital spending raised the City’s bond rate from BBB- to A- with a positive outlook for the future and did say that our debt to market value is low at 1% and $1,049 per capita. That is extremely low for borrowing for Capital expenditures for an given community in the State of Rhode Island.

My response to Paula McFarland is as follows:

Thanks for your detailed response. I wonder who created the project numbers for the planning commission on the astroturf. I think it would be important to know this to clarify any conflicts of interest. For example, if the projections were created by a potential contractor for installation or the manufacturer of the product, there is obviously an incentive for them to make projections that would be attractive to the city council. In my own head, I can’t see how it will make money. If the cost of the project is about $150,000 a year (when averaged out over the life of the project), do you really think that can be earned in rentals? My guess is that there will be about 25 days available for rental after our schools use the stadium for their own games/needs. What can you charge for this service, $1000, maybe $2000? That means potential earnings of 25,000 to 50,000, not exactly “paying for itself.”

Other questions: Who are these non-school youth groups who have this kind of money and want to use astroturf? Do we have a list of potential customers? How will the city pay for the person who manages the rentals, coordinates the dates for use of the stadium, deals with complaints, problems, etc? What will be done in the event of rain or other inclement weather? Will customers be allowed to reschedule? Will there be increased insurance costs for this field, given that it will get much heavier use?

But as I said, I think it is important to identify the source of this idea, and the source of any projected financial data. Having observed the way government does things, it seems clarifying this question is the first order of business.

And as you know, I am not experienced with this — it’s just my financial gut feeling, which I fully acknowledge could be wrong.

ORIGINAL POST: From School Committee Member Steve Stycos:

MAYOR’S BUDGET MOVES FORWARD

The City Council will vote Monday April 30 on Mayor Napolitano’s budget. The budget’s highlights include borrowing $750,000 to install artificial turf at the Cranston Stadium while providing no new funds for the Cranston schools. Tuesday night only one councilman, Republican Jeffrey Barone, challenged the artificial turf, calling it “ridiculous,” when coupled with level funding for the schools. Napolitano’s parks and recreation director defended the plan at the council budget hearing.

In addition, Council President Aram Garabedian challenged the mayor’s plan to spend $750,000 to expand the Arlington fire house to accommodate a larger fire engine. During the public comment period, I raised several possible ways to free up money to fund the schools. First, I suggested repealing property tax breaks for banks and real estate companies. (The economic development director was not able to detail the costs of the tax breaks).

I also suggested boosting residential recycling by initiating a “pay as you throw” system that charges people who use more than one large bag of trash a week. A pay as you throw system in North Kingstown has produced the state’s highest recycling rates. All savings, I proposed, could fund education. At a minimum a recycling education flyer should be enclosed with the annual tax bill.

I also suggested instituting an energy efficiency program for city buildings similar to the one launched last fall by the school committee. And I urged the council to investigate reducing street lighting which currently costs the city $1.2 million a year.

In addition, I proposed that the city pay the school department’s $117,000 a year sewer bill in exchange for school department custodians picking up trash at city run playgrounds next to schools. Currently two parks department employees drive to Rhodes or Waterman playground, for example, to empty the trash barrels. My proposal, which was endorsed by the school committee, would have school custodians pick up the trash, creating time for the parks employees to do other necessary work. In return, the city would pay the school’s sewer bills.

Finally, I opposed the Astroturf plan as an embarrassment in a year when Napolitano proposes to provide no new money for the schools. The only other citizen to speak was former parks director Bob Clarkin who also opposed the proposal. Clarkin also questioned the size of the capital budget which is about 50 percent more than last year’s budget. With the exception of Barone, council members had no comment on the Astroturf plan.

The plasticized turf would only last ten to twelve years, according to the manufacturer, and interest costs would bring its cost to about $1.5 million, or about $150,000 for the life of the project. That’s the cost of two full-time teachers. While the turf might make the stadium more attractive for rental, there is no way rentals would pay a major portion of construction costs. The proposal indicates that the mayor is more concerned with the condition of sports fields than public school class size.

Citizens who have comments on the budget should contact their council members before Monday night. Phone numbers and email addresses are available on the city’s web site.

Click on the text here to go a webpage that provides both email and phone contact information for Cranston city councilors.

And, for those who missed Earth Day, today is another good day to celebrate:

EARTH DAY EVENT

Thursday April 26, Jeff St Germain of Little Falls Bakery and Café will run a public information meeting at William Hall Library on Broad Street in Cranston on safe biodegradable cleaning products sold by the Shaklee Company. Jeff, who is a strong supporter of the farmers market, welcomes everyone to discuss safer ways to clean and other environmental issues. The meeting will run from 7 to 9 PM downstairs at the William Hall Library and everyone is welcome.

Just Say No to Abstinence-Only Education

What the Bush administration lacks in veracity and competence, it more than makes up for with piousness and truthiness. Consider the “Just Say No to Sex” campaign—also known as abstinence-only education—which continues to be promoted by the factually-challenged Bush administration, despite increasing evidence that such programs are not only ineffective but often considerably inaccurate, as noted in the following Washington Post report:

Condom Information in Abstinence Programs Called Inaccurate

Each of these assertions turns up in federally funded abstinence-only sex education programs: Condoms fail to prevent HIV infection 31 percent of the time during heterosexual sex. The chances of getting pregnant while using a condom are 1 in 6. And condoms break or slip off nearly 15 percent of the time.

And each of them is wrong, says John S. Santelli, a pediatrician and a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

In a 20-page document submitted to the Department of Health and Human Services this week, Santelli detailed what he calls “misleading” and “scientifically inaccurate” information in three curricula used by programs that receive federal abstinence-only funding. His analysis accompanied a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union demanding that HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt ensure that such programs provide medically accurate information about condoms and sexually transmitted diseases, as required by federal law.

“They have been alerted numerous times, and they haven’t done anything,” said Ava Barbour, an ACLU staff attorney. “Studies have shown that the vast majority of Americans do not remain abstinent until marriage, and they need to have this vital information to protect themselves.” [full text]

The New York Times adds its two cents’ worth (not adjusted for inflation) with this editorial:

The Abstinence-Only Delusion

Reliance on abstinence-only sex education as the primary tool to reduce teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases — as favored by the Bush administration and conservatives in Congress — looks increasingly foolish and indefensible.

The abstinence-only campaign has always been driven more by ideology than by sound public health policy. The program’s tight rules, governing states that accept federal matching funds and community organizations that accept federal grants, forbid the promotion of contraceptive use and require teaching that sex outside marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.

At least nine states, by one count, have decided to give up the federal matching funds rather than submit to dictates that undermine sensible sex education. Now there is growing evidence that the programs have no effect on children’s sexual behavior.

A Congressionally mandated report issued this month by the Mathematica Policy Research firm found that elementary and middle school students in four communities who received abstinence instruction — sometimes on a daily basis — were just as likely to have sex in the following years as students who did not get such instruction. Those who became sexually active — about half of each group — started at the same age (14.9 years on average) and had the same number of sexual partners. [full text]

The Real Jessica Lynch

Jessica Lynch never asked to be a symbol of anything, much less play the role of a public hero. She told the truth about her rescue from the start, telling the press that there was a lot she couldn’t remember, and urging people not to forget her comrades who died in the incident in which she was captured. After the brief moment of fame; brief because she didn’t want to feed into it, she resumed her life and her recuperation. Recently she spoke at a congressional hearing about the falsehoods broadcast about her and Cpl. Pat Tillman, whose death by friendly fire was concealed under a load of propaganda until his family demanded the truth.

“At first I didn’t even realize the stories that were being told,” she said. “It was quite a while afterwards, and then I found out. It was a little disappointing. And I knew that I had to get the truth out there because, one, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself … knowing that these stories were portraying me to do something that I didn’t.”

Jessica Lynch survived a mission that took the lives of eleven of her fellow soldiers. Her close friend, Lori Piestewa was the first American woman soldier to die in the Iraq war. Lori Piestewa was a Native American from the Hopi Nation and leaves behind two small children. (A beautiful tribute to Lori can be found here.)
The Bush administration always saw winning the war as a matter of spin,
“From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” said former White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card just prior to the war.

We were supposed to be sold on the war, while our volunteer army rained down Shock and Awe and our President paraded around in a flight suit and a whole rack of other uniforms he never earned. Now we’re facing what we’ve bought with our money and the lives of too many Americans and Iraqis. Feel-good stories about our soldiers that turn out to be lies are just a drop in this bucket of blood. I’m not surprised that George Bush is in no hurry to bring our troops back home. He and we have a lot to answer for.

Former CIA Chief Tells All

Call me cynical, but I have a sneaking suspicion that former CIA director George Tenet will not be invited to any White House galas anytime soon. As reported by the Washington Post, Tenet has written a book that chronicles his experiences as chief sneak of the CIA and that accuses the Bush administration of exaggerating and distorting intelligence to make a case for invading Iraq:

Tenet Details Efforts to Justify Invading Iraq

White House and Pentagon officials, and particularly Vice President Cheney, were determined to attack Iraq from the first days of the Bush administration, long before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and repeatedly stretched available intelligence to build support for the war, according to a new book by former CIA director George J. Tenet.

Although Tenet does not question the threat Saddam Hussein posed or the sincerity of administration beliefs, he recounts numerous efforts by aides to Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to insert “crap” into public justifications for the war. Tenet also describes an ongoing fear within the intelligence community of the administration’s willingness to “mischaracterize complex intelligence information.”

“There was never a serious debate that I know of within the administration about the imminence of the Iraq threat,” Tenet writes in “At the Center of the Storm,” to be released Monday by HarperCollins. [full text]