P.L.A. - A Journal of Politics, Law and Autism

PLA is a fair and balanced Journal published by Dwight Meredith with a Focus on Politics, Law and Autism

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Saturday, August 23, 2003
A Cruise On The Lake

I have written before about the difficulties encountered when taking autistic children into public places. It is hard in the best of circumstances. Without careful planning and a modicum of cooperation from others, it becomes impossible,

Outings to public places are rare and precious for families with autistic children. They permit a semblance of a normal family life and provide crucial training for the autistic child.

One of the situations many parents of autistics (POAs) avoid is standing in line. Waiting his turn is not Bobby’s strong suit in any event, and waiting for a long period in a strange place filled with unfamiliar people, sights, sounds and odors is a recipe for disaster.

Success breeds success and failure breeds failure. When taking an autistic child to a new place, it is best to plan the trip carefully. If standing in line is a possibility at the proposed destination, it is best to call ahead and speak with the management.

Management should be informed that the family includes an autistic child. It should be made very clear that the child is not able to wait in line for extended periods. Management should be asked about the wait times. Typically, the answer will be an “average” wait. My rule is to assume that the actual wait will be double whatever management admits.

I suggest asking about what surrounds the waiting area. If the autistic child can be taken for a walk or to a playground or other area while the rest of the family stands in line, a long wait can be broken up into a couple of short waits. It is a good idea to ask if there is a quiet place that management will permit you to use as an alternative waiting room.

Once the trip is planned, the autistic child should be carefully prepared. The autistic child should be repeatedly told where he is going and what he will be doing. Some POAs have had success by giving the child a picture of the destination so that it will not be completely unfamiliar upon arrival. Do not forget to bring a familar, conforting and beloved toy, game or CD.

Finnaly, it is advisable to have a backup plan if the destination is just not working. Even with that level of preparation, a pleasant experience is not always possible.

Given the effort required and the importance we place on successful outings, stories like this (scroll to local news) make me crazy.

Aaran Stewart is an 11 year old autistic boy living in Rutland, UK. Rutland is located near the Rutland Water. The Rutland Water is the largest man made lake in Western Europe. It is particularly noted for bird watching and other leisure activities.

One of the attractions at Rutland Water is a tour of the lake on the Rutland Belle. The Rutland Belle is a cruise ship capable of carrying 110 passengers. If, after reading this story, you have any comment you would like to make to the Rutland Belle, they may be contacted at the email and phone number listed on this page.

Aaran Stewart’s mom, Mandy, wanted to take Aaran cruising on the Rutland Belle. Being a POA, instead of just showing up, she called two weeks before the planned trip.

As the news report states:
Two weeks previously, Mrs Stewart had phoned to pre-book tickets, explaining that Aaran was autistic and found queuing difficult. She was told to arrive at 12.30pm to board at 12.45pm… Mrs. Stewart explained that “the worst possible situation would be for us to arrive and not be allowed” to board.

Apparently Mrs. Stewart received appropriate assurances and she booked the tickets. She then began to prepare Aaron for the trip, giving him a brochure of the Rutland Belle. The night before the trip, Aaran fell asleep holding the brochure.

On the day of the trip, Mandy and Aaran arrived at the Rutland Belle at 12:30 as instructed. The 12:45 boarding time came and went with Aaran and his mother still waiting in line. Around 12:50 someone came to remove the ropes barring entry. That made it seem like boarding was about to begin but they were still not allowed on the boat.

By 1:05, Aaran, frustrated at not being allowed to board, had begun to cry. While I suspect that Aaran had a full blown autistic tantrum, his mother describes it as “Aaran began getting grizzly and crying, just like a five-year-old would... all Aaran had done was cry.”

The ship Captain then appeared and refused to allow Aaran and his mother to board.
Mrs Stewart described how she had begged the Rutland Belle captain to let her prove that Aaran would be happy once he was allowed on board. "Aaran was only distressed because they were making us wait. I asked the captain to give us a chance to get on and Aaran would be fine. The captain kept saying that he had made his decision - I believe the decision was taken before we even arrived." … "Anyone would think I had a raging monster who was going to attack everyone on board. He just wanted to get on the boat. I feel we were totally discriminated against and I hope they are ashamed.

The captain would not relent and Aaron and his mother were turned away.

Mrs. Stewart noted that:
The following day, we went on a boat in Newark and nobody even knew we were there. We went straight on instead of being made to queue like school children and Aaran had a lovely time.

Mrs. Stewart did everything right. She called ahead and explained the situation. She told the Rutland Belle that Aaran was autistic and could not stand in line. She prepared Aaran for the trip. She arrived on time. She explained to the Captain that if he permitted Aaran onto the boat, everything would be fine. Despite that effort, the outing was ruined.

Outings with autistic kids are hard. When other people, such as the Captain of the Rutland Belle, are insensitive, ignorant jerks it becomes impossible.

I am not a person quick to anger but the story of Aaran Stewart being turned away from the cruise makes me seethe.

Political Integrity

I read a story today that reminded me that some politicians have integrity. That story involves the use of the computerized, paperless voting machines in Georgia.

After the 2000 election, Georgia decided to purchase and install new voting machines. The choice of the new system fell to Georgia’s Secretary of State, Cathy Cox. She chose the Diebold system.

Much has been written on potential problems with the Diebold system. Its source code is proprietary which makes the system a non-transparent “black box.” The Diebold system is completely computerized with no paper ballots. It leaves no audit trail. Some have argued that it is possible to hack the system and that the integrity of the vote tabulations is open to question.

I share those concerns. I think that a transparent voting system with a paper audit trail is a minimum requirement to ensure fair elections. The results of the 2002 elections, the first in Georgia using the Diebold system, have also raised concerns in some minds.

Via Electrolite, I learned that Bartcop had listed two Georgia races on his "Was it Magic?” page:
****Poll by Atlanta Journal Constitution/WSB-TV of 800 likely voters on Nov. 1
For Georgia Governor
Roy Barnes (D) 51% up 11
Sonny Perdue (R) 40%

** "Official Results" from the 'Diebold Electronic Voting Machines' on Nov. 5
Roy Barnes (D) 46%
Sonny Perdue (R) 51% up 5 - that's a 16-point pro-Bush swing - was it magic?

****Poll by Atlanta Journal Constitution Nov. 1 for Georgia Senate

Max Cleland (D) 49% up 5
Saxby Chambliss (R) 44%

**"Official Results" from the 'Diebold Electronic Voting Machines'
Max Cleland (D) 46%
Saxby Chambliss 53% up 7 - that's a 13-point pro-Bush swing - was it magic?

Cathy Cox does not believe that the 2002 election results are the result of anything but voter preference. She believes that the Diebold system is safe and accurate. If it is ever proven that the system has been hacked or could be hacked, Ms. Cox will take a huge political hit. Her political future is tied to the wisdom of her selection of the Diebold system.

The choice of the Diebold electronic voting system has come under increasing fire. In response to that criticism, Secretary Cox is conducting a series of seminars around the state. At the first such seminar, held at Kennesaw State University, Secretary Cox demonstrated that she is willing to risk her political future in the interests of protecting the integrity of the election process in Georgia.

Today’s Atlanta Journal Constitution, in an article by Jim Galloway, reports the following:
In the end, Friday's two-hour discussion of whether computers should be the sole tabulators of Georgia voters' ballots came down to a challenge.

Roxanne Jekot, a 51-year-old computer program developer from Cumming, said she and a few expert friends could crack Georgia's $54 million touch-screen voting system in a matter of minutes.

Bring it on, said state election officials.

"If something can beat the machine, we need to know that," said Brit Williams, a retired Kennesaw State University professor who helped design the state's touch-screen security system. He put the odds of corrupting the software undetected at 1 billion to one.

The dare was made and accepted at the first of a series of seminars at Kennesaw State sponsored by Secretary of State Cathy Cox to defuse questions about the vulnerability of the statewide system she installed last year.

Jekot said she could be ready as soon as next week. She said all she wants to do is point out weaknesses so that they can be fixed -- and declares she can put an unauthorized vote anywhere she wants.

Election officials promised to provide a voting machine, and a computer server into which votes from the machine are fed.

There was no political upside for Cathy Cox in accepting the challenge. If Jekot successfully hacks the computer system, it will prove that the system is vulnerable and Cathy Cox will look like a fool for choosing the Diebold system. Her political career will take a substantial hit.

If Jekot fails to hack the system, it will only prove that Jekot lacks the skills to do so and will prove nothing about whether a person with greater skills could do so.

Apparently, Cathy Cox accepted the dare out of a genuine concern for the integrity of the electoral process in Georgia and was unconcerned about any political damage that may befall her.

Whether or not it is shown that the Diebold system is safe from tampering, Cathy Cox has political integrity.

A False Impression

On August 7, Al Gore gave a speech in New York. In that speech, the former Vice President argued that the public held certain false impressions in the run up to the war in Iraq. In particular, Mr. Gore asserted that among the false impressions held by the public were the following:
(1) Saddam Hussein was partly responsible for the attack against us on September 11th, 2001, so a good way to respond to that attack would be to invade his country and forcibly remove him from power. …

(3) Saddam was about to give the terrorists poison gas and deadly germs that he had made into weapons which they could use to kill millions of Americans. Therefore common sense alone dictated that we should send our military into Iraq in order to protect our loved ones and ourselves against a grave threat.

(4) Saddam was on the verge of building nuclear bombs and giving them to the terrorists. And since the only thing preventing Saddam from acquiring a nuclear arsenal was access to enriched uranium, once our spies found out that he had bought the enrichment technology he needed and was actively trying to buy uranium from Africa, we had very little time left. Therefore it seemed imperative during last Fall's election campaign to set aside less urgent issues like the economy and instead focus on the congressional resolution approving war against Iraq.

In some quarters, Mr. Gore was excoriated for suggesting that the public had false impressions about Iraq’s activities and capabilities. For instance the Washington Post editorialized:
Thus, Mr. Gore maintains, we were all under the "false impression" that Saddam Hussein was "on the verge of building nuclear bombs," that he was "about to give the terrorists poison gas and deadly germs," that he was partly responsible for the 9/11 attacks. And because of these "false impressions," the nation didn't conduct a proper debate about the war. But there was extensive debate going back many years; last fall and winter the nation debated little else. Mr. Bush took his case to the United Nations. Congress argued about and approved a resolution authorizing war. And the approval did not come, as Mr. Gore and other Democrats now maintain, because people were deceived into believing that Saddam Hussein was an "imminent" threat who had attacked the World Trade Center or was about to do so.

Was Mr. Gore correct when he suggested that the American people were under the impression that Iraq was connected to the 9/11 attacks and that Iraq threatened America with WMD including nuclear weapons?

While looking for something else, I ran across a blog entry that suggests that Mr. Gore may have been correct in his assessment.

In his October 13, 2002 Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan wrote that “More interestingly, the polls show that Americans get the president's arguments about Iraq in a post-9/11 world.” He then linked to an ABC News story (now off line) about a Pew Center poll and quoted the story as follows:
86 percent of those surveyed believed Saddam had nuclear weapons or was close to acquiring them, and 66 percent believed he was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. Bush cites the attacks as demonstrating the need to act against Saddam, and has linked his campaign against Iraq to the "war on terrorism" he launched last fall … Bush has also warned that Iraq could build a nuclear weapon within a year if it can get enriched uranium. "Clearly, the president's major arguments in favor of taking military action against Iraq are resonating with the public," the Pew center said in its report on the poll.

Perhaps the Post owes Mr. Gore an apology.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003
Better Evidence

Riffing off one of my tort reform posts, the Angry Bear has an excellent post analogizing part of the tort reform debate to scientific hypothesis testing:
There are two categories of errors in scientific hypothesis testing: a false negative (rejecting a true hypothesis), and a false positive (failing to reject a false hypothesis). These are called, respectively, Type I and Type II errors (there's a third, more widely committed error, the "Type III error", which is forgetting which error is Type I and which is Type II).

Limiting the scope of pursuable lawsuits will undoubtedly decrease the number of false positives (less unmeritorious lawsuits will be won), but it will come at the expense of more false negatives (lawsuits that should be filed and won because the claims are valid will not be filed and won). As statisticians well know, there's generally a tradeoff: as the odds of a false negative decrease (the "significance level" of the test increases), the odds of a false positive (the "â" of the test; 1-â is the "power" of a test) increase, and vice-versa.

Assuming sound statistical techniques are being employed, the only way to simultaneously decrease the probability of both types of errors is to add more observations.

The last point is an important one. It is possible to reduce the chances of non-meritorious suits being successful and the chances that meritorious suits will be unsuccessful if the legal equivalent of more observations can be obtained.

In the legal context, “more observations” means better evidence. If we can increase the reliability and availability of evidence, the result will be a more accurate and just court system.

The rise of DNA matching is a prime example of that phenomenon. In crimes in which the perpetrator leaves behind a DNA sample and in which the identity of the perpetrator is an important issue, the chance that an innocent person will be convicted and the chance that a guilty man will go free are both greatly reduced. The chance of error will be reduced but not eliminated as the O.J case and the reluctance of prosecutors to reopen cases in which DNA has exonerated prisoners attests.

There are a number of areas in which AB’s insight could be put to good use to improve both the criminal and civil justice systems. A Slate Explainer discusses the “black boxes” now in some cars. The “black boxes,” also known as event data recorders, typically record and hold data for the five seconds immediately prior to any collision in which the air bags deploy. The black boxes record and store such information as speed, RPM, gas petal position, whether or not the brake was depressed and other data.

Slate notes that such devices are now in some GM, Ford and Isuzu models. As event data recorders become more popular, it will become routine to use the data as evidence in court. The existence of such evidence can only improve the accuracy of both the civil and criminal justice systems.

Similarly, a policy of requiring all in-custody interrogations to be videotaped would eliminate a lot of uncertainty in determining whether a confession was voluntary.

Third, the presence of dash mounted video cameras activated at traffic stops would give the jury a good look at drivers alleged to be drunk and would go a long way to prove or disprove many police abuse cases.

There are undoubtedly many, many other ways to improve the reliability and availability of evidence in both civil and criminal litigation. Those improvements reduce both Type I and Type II errors (only education can eliminate Type III errors). The only people who lose from improvements in the accuracy of judicial decisions are those who deserve to lose.

The political battles over our court system too often sheds far more heat than light. Underlying much of the debate over tort reform and criminal justice reform is the mistaken notion that the results of trials are random.

Efforts to improve the reliability and availability of evidence to all litigants will not only restore a measure of the public’s confidence in the justice system, it will also improve the quality of justice administered by the courts. Those are goals that can be shared by all honest participants in the debate.

Tuesday, August 19, 2003
A Sheltered Cove

I reside in a peaceful little cove on the wide sea of blogtopia (ysctp). In my sheltered bay, arguments over policy and politics are more or less polite, respectful and intelligent. I rarely find myself places in which vitriol replaces reason or hatred replaces logic.

I read a great number of sites both right and left. Many of the right-leaning bloggers I find to be interesting, funny, decent, entertaining, informative, thought provoking, principled and smart.

Today, Atrios did me no favor by pointing me away from my safe little cove and to one of the less hospitable ports.

The New York Times reports on the truck bomb that killed at least 17 persons in the U.N. facility in Baghdad:
A suicide bomber detonated a truck full of explosives at the United Nations compound here today, killing at least 17 people, including the top United Nations representative in Iraq, and injuring at least 100, in a direct attack on one of the principal agencies in charge of rebuilding Iraq.

The bomb demolished the three-story converted hotel, filled with United Nations workers, scattering the wounded and their remains across a wide swathe. United Nations personnel, many of them recently flown in from Europe and the United States, crawled and ran from the wreckage, their clothes torn and splattered with blood.

Mr. Bush made appropriate remarks:
President Bush, speaking in Crawford, Tex., condemned the bombing as the work of "enemies of the civilized world." He said: "The terrorists who struck today have again shown their contempt for the innocent. They showed their fear of progress and their hatred of peace."

The twisted proprietor of the less hospitable port reacted by saying:
I heard this on the news this morning and had almost popped the cork off of a bottle of sparkly when I heard that it was the U.N. HQ in Baghdad.

Oh well, it's a start, I suppose.

A reader of the twisted blogger commented:
Quite so. Perhaps the general assembly could be next. Not that I like bombs going off in my city, but it might almost be worth it to be able to scrape Dominique de Villepan's tattered remains off the curb.

Over at a different twisted site, one comment bemoaned the absence of Kofi Annan from the bombed building writing that it was a “Damn shame that Kofi wasn't visiting at the time.”

A second comment echoed the theme:
The UN compound bombing in Iraq is indeed very unfortunate. It is obvious that someone took a wrong turn in Yonkers and blew up the wrong U.N. building.

There was much, much more of the same at both sites particularly in comments.

I am going to return to my little cove soon but first, I need a shower.

Model Airplane Crosses the Atlantic

About five years ago a group of people involved with the TAM project decided to fly a model airplane across the Atlantic Ocean. On August 12, a small red model airplane emerged from the sky and landed in Ireland. A diary of the trip is here.

Photographs of the model airplane and a number of the people involved in the project are here.

The flight was more than 1800 miles and took around 39 hours. It was launched from Newfoundland and landed within 35 feet of its intended target in Ireland.

The model plane is 72 inches wide, 71 inches long and weighs less than 11 pounds including fuel. The plane is made mostly of balsa wood and mylar film and is powered by Coleman stove/lantern fuel.

The flight of a model airplane across the Atlantic Ocean is a formidable achievement. Congratulations to Maynard Hill, the leader of the project, and to all who worked on the project.

Monday, August 18, 2003
Speeding For Autism

New Jersey Governor James E. McGreevey recently signed a measure that will provide about $3,200,000 of additional funding for autism research.

As you may expect, I wholeheartedly approve of increased funding of autism research. To fund the increase, New Jersey added one dollar to all traffic fines and court penalties.

New Jersey has previously increased traffic fines by $1 with the increases earmarked to fund body armor for police and research into spinal injuries.

Now, I should begin by saying that I thoroughly approve of providing body armor to cops as well as autism and spinal cord research.

I also support having New Jersey set the fines for traffic violations at any (reasonable) figure it chooses.

Finally, I do not oppose having the government raise money by taxing voluntary and socially destructive behaviors such as speeding or reckless driving.

What I do find unseemly is the direct link between the violation of the law and the good causes supported by the increased fines.

Funding good causes by increasing the fines for traffic violations could encourage police officers to find traffic violations where none exists. It might also provide a rationalization for those who wish to break the law. It gives perverse incentives to those of us who would like to see all police officers have body armor. An advertising campaign of “run a red light, our cops need vests” encourages behavior we want to discourage.

New Jersey should simply impose taxes to fund the level of government it chooses to have. Traffic fines should not be set by the amount New Jersey wishes to spend on autism research. Those fines should be set by considering what constitutes fair punishment for the gravity of the offense and by considering the level of punishment necessary to deter the proscribed conduct.

I think that linking traffic fines to specific good uses of the money is a bad idea. New Jersey, however, chose not to ask my opinion before enacting the new law.

Given that, the next time you are driving through the Garden State, please remember to “Speed for Autism.”