Take it to the bank
A proposed set of banking regulations called "Know Your Customer" will order banks to watch their customers' deposits and withdrawals, and then report "suspicious" transactions back to the federal government. "Big Bank is watching," remarked Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). He plans to introduce legislation this month repealing these laws. "With complex laws and unimaginably obscure regulations, the cards are stacked against everyone, ensuring that at any moment, the IRS or other agency can nail anyone for something," the congressman said. Proponents say this plan will help hold back drug traffickers and other criminals who launder money. Opponents-ranging from the Free Congress Foundation on the right to the ACLU on the left-say this brings the government's eyes onto the bank books of innocent Americans. They say it violates the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable search and seizure. The California Bankers Association opposes the measures. Executive director Larry Kurmel says it will force banks to "cast a wide net that covers virtually all bank customers in the hope of identifying a small number of illicit transactions." That includes first time homebuyers, widows collecting life insurance, small businessmen, attorneys, and accountants. Mr. Kurmel predicts Know Your Customer will be misused by federal agencies and distract investigators from the ever enormous task of tracking fraud cases. He also says he wants the laws at least delayed to let banks focus on their Y2K preparations.
The name game
Kirsti Larsen was thrown in a Norwegian jail because she gave her son a first name that was not on the government's list of acceptable choices. She named him Gesher, which means "bridge" in Hebrew. This violates Norway's strict laws regulating names, which include lists of acceptable first and last names. When Mrs. Larsen tried to register her son's name as Gesher at her local county office back in 1995, it was rejected as illegal. She appealed repeatedly but was ordered to change the name, pay a $210 fine, or spend two days in jail. Mrs. Larsen refused to change the name of her boy, who is now four. So she went to prison for two days, leaving her husband and 10 children at home. But since little Gesher is still named Gesher, no one knows how this dispute will be settled. "Many probably would have bowed to 'Big Brother' and paid the fine. On principle, I couldn't go along with such absurdity," Mrs. Larsen told the Verdens Gang newspaper. "Maybe the authorities thought I would come running with the money when they ordered me to serve my sentence just before Christmas, but I didn't let them scare me."
The money pit
Russia failed to make a $362 million payment on debt that it owes to commercial banks around the world. But government and commercial lenders stopped short of calling the non-gesture a default, even though economists conceded it looked like one. When Russia's economic crisis began last August, conservatives in Congress conceded demands for greater scrutiny of International Monetary Fund policies, which led to a bailout agreement for the country's ravaged financial system. Now, in addition to defaulting on loans from foreign governments, Moscow for the first time failed on its obligation to private banks. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev says he is hurting much like the man in the street in the wake of Russia's financial decline. Mr. Gorbachev told a German magazine he lost his life's savings-about $80,000-when the ruble was devalued last summer and the Moscow bank where he had his account went bankrupt.
Betty Crocker dies at 93
Adelaide Hawley Cumming, the woman General Mills hired in 1949 to play Betty Crocker on TV, has died at age 93. The character continues as a corporate logo on over 250 products. She was once "the second most recognizable woman, next to Eleanor Roosevelt," said General Mills spokesman Jack Sheehan. "I am the current incarnation of a corporate image," Ms. Cumming said of herself. After General Mills dropped her in 1964, Betty Crocker's look kept mutating. This icon of American womanhood was radically overhauled into multiculturalism in 1996. Her eye color changed from blue to brown and her skin became noticeably tanner. General Mills says her look changes to reflect cultural shifts in fashion.
Ready for more punishment
If Washington is looking for a diversion, Saddam Hussein looks ready for war. His forces pummeled by four days of Gulf War-reprise bombing and missile strikes ordered by President Clinton, Mr. Hussein just comes up swinging. An Iraqi missile battery opened fire on U.S. aircraft in northern Iraq on Dec. 28. U.S. forces destroyed the missile site, but Iraqi officials remain defiant in the face of mounting losses. Since Mr. Clinton launched Operation Desert Fox on Dec. 16, the Iraqis have denied the legitimacy of no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq; declared the work of UN arms inspectors null and void; refused permission for UN relief workers to fly through Iraqi airspace; and threatened to halt a program permitting the sale of Iraqi oil in exchange for food and medicine. Military experts said the attack on U.S. forces was serious because Iraq made a "meaningful" attempt to bring down U.S. patrols, using a surface-to-air missile launch technique similar to the one that shot down Air Force Capt. Scott O'Grady over Bosnia in June 1995.
500 and counting
The South Carolina execution last week of Andrew Lavern Smith was the 500th since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977. He murdered elderly cousins who refused to let him borrow their car. Today, 38 states have a death penalty, and about 3,500 people are on death row. The Rogue's Gallery of executed murderers includes Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy with most executions coming in six states: Texas, Virginia, Florida, Missouri, Louisiana, and Georgia. But while demonstrators light candles for criminals, South Carolina State Attorney General Charlie Condon says the attention goes to the wrong people: "I prefer to think of this as an occasion to remember the victims-the men, women, and children slaughtered by 500 cold-blooded killers."
One down, many to go
Social Security is ready for Y2K, President Clinton said in a rare mention of the potential Y2K computer crunch. He says that while millennial disruptions are still possible, senior citizens will get their checks because the government has fixed its computers for the new millennium. "The system works," the president claimed. "It is secure, and therefore older Americans can feel more secure." While much of the federal government is behind the curve on Y2K, Social Security had a head start back in early 1989. The massive computer-conversion project required 2,800 workers-but in good bureaucratic fashion only 700 of them were programmers who did the real work of fixing dates in computer code. Government officials said it cost just over $43 million to prepare the Social Security delivery system for 2000. Software expert Capers Jones says such news doesn't mean the problem is solved. "It's more or less the same as doctors saying they performed a cancer operation and the patient is recovering nicely," he says. The Clinton administration wants all critical federal computer systems ready by March 31. This could cost as much as $6.3 billion. The president admits that if things go wrong, the repercussions could be widespread. "This involves not just federal agencies, but everyone who depends upon a computer, which is everyone, directly or indirectly," Mr. Clinton said.
On the eve of his impeachment, President Clinton invoked the words of the Persian poet Omar Khayyam. In his classic poem, The Rubaiyat, composed more than 800 years ago, Khayyam wrote: "The moving finger writes; and having writ moves on. Nor all your piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all your tears wash out a word of it." The president said he took that to mean that neither piety, nor tears, nor wit, ("nor torment,'' he added) "can alter what I have done. I must make my peace with that." What was this "moving finger" and whose finger was it? That "moving finger" is found in the book of Daniel. The King of Babylon, Belshazzar, hosted a great banquet. In the midst of wine drinking and merriment, King Belshazzar called for the gold and silver goblets his father, Nebuchadnezzar, had taken from the temple in Jerusalem. His friends, their wives, and concubines drank from them. These were objects sacred to the Jews. As they drank, they praised the gods of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone. In Daniel 5:5-6, the record says: "Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall.... The king watched the hand as it wrote. His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way.'' Unable to learn the meaning of the message from his enchanters, astrologers, and diviners, the king summoned Daniel, who then translated the inscription: "God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.'' Belshazzar's reign ended that very night, Persia conquered Babylon, and another king took his place. Belshazzar and his father, Nebuchadnezzar, were both ruthless and proud men. The difference between them was that Nebuchadnezzar humbled himself before God and was spared. His kingdom was even restored. But Belshazzar refused to humble himself and perished, along with his kingdom. The poem cited by President Clinton as worthy of his and our consideration contains a deeper and far more important message for him. He also has demonstrated arrogance and pride. He has flouted the law and behaved as if the presidency were his by right. Offered ample opportunities to humble himself, Mr. Clinton used his "contrition'' as just one of several strategies to preserve himself in office and avoid accountability later. This president, like the ancient and proud King Belshazzar, is being weighed on the scales and found wanting. The founders established the process of impeachment because the people are not always right. They often vote their feelings, but the law stands above emotion and holds us all accountable for our mutual benefit. It's time for him to go.
-Cal Thomas, © 1998, L.A. Times Syndicate
A cold war is waging across the Internet between cheating students who plagiarize term papers and professors who go online to catch them. A Web site in Tel Aviv brags that 270,000 students download 1.6 million term papers from them every month. "Students send them in and [the Web provider] categorizes them," says Webmaster Kenny Sahr. "We're giving students what they really want." The University of Washington alone recorded three disciplinary cases involving online plagiarism this year, one last year, and four in 1996. These numbers are low, because most occurrences are handled between the teacher and student and not taken to the administration. UW vice president Ron Johnson says that at best, online plagiarism spawns crummy papers. "When a cut-and-paste thief cheats, what you are getting is a product that is not too smooth," Mr. Johnson said. "They may get away with cheating, but they won't get a good paper." "When the world becomes your oyster, there are so many more opportunities to access information and there are more opportunities to cheat," said Gus Kravas, vice provost for student affairs at Washington State University. "We've had to become more vigilant." Faculty use seminars, e-mail, discussion lists, and library Web sites to compare notes on catching cheaters. The Israeli outfit even lets teachers search their site for suspicious prose. Software offered by Glatt Plagiarism Services removes strategic words from essays and then asks writers to fill in the blanks. Some teachers try checking students' ability to read from their papers without stumbling.
A German couple went for a Christmas drive near Berlin and ended up with a big splash. The reason: Their car's computerized navigation system didn't tell them that they had to wait for a ferry. The 57-year-old driver expected a bridge and kept going straight in the dark. So he ended up in the water. Police say the unidentified man and his passenger were uninjured and the car was fished out about 13 feet from the banks of the Havel River, six miles from Berlin. "You can't always blindly rely on technology," a coast guard officer said.
The no-comment zone
- Montana, the only state with no specified daytime speed limit, must change its laws after the state Supreme Court ruled its "reasonable and proper" rule was too vague; motorists, the court ruled, had no objective standards for compliance with the law.
- Winter weather wreaked havoc through the Northwest as driving rain and melted snow triggered floods and mudslides through Oregon and Washington; there were power outages in the South.
- Arizona Sen. John McCain-a decorated Vietnam War hero and one of the shamed "Keating Five" senators who unethically went to bat for a shady financier in the late 1980s-moved a step closer to a bid for the Republican nomination for president. Sen. McCain has angered some conservatives by his support for new tobacco taxes and liberal campaign-finance reform.
- A 27-year-old Houston mother gave birth to the first surviving set of octuplets; the fifth of the eight babies, weighing just 10.3 ounces, died a week after she was born.
- Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell promised a "thorough and prompt" investigation of alleged bribes by Salt Lake City officials to help win the 2002 Winter Olympic Games.
- Edinburgh University removed a bronze bust of the late writer Arthur Koestler-whose novel Darkness at Noon attacked Stalinist tyranny-after biographer David Cesarani alleged the ex-Communist was routinely violent toward women.
World in brief
Democracy in chains
In one week, Chinese authorities sentenced four dissidents to lengthy jail terms for crimes against the government. Veteran democracy activist Zhang Shanguang was sentenced to 10 years in prison for talking to a reporter from U.S.-backed Radio Free Asia. In China, that is known as "illegally providing intelligence to foreign organizations." Xu Wenli and Qin Yongmin, veterans of the 1978-79 Democracy Wall movement, were imprisoned for 13 and 12 years, respectively, for "attempting to overthrow state power" and "endangering state security." Sentenced to 11 years was Wang Youcai, a student leader during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. The three led a movement to establish the China Democracy Party, the first opposition party since 1949. Prisoner Xu Wenli, 55, issued a defiant statement from his Beijing jail. It said the Communists' grip on power in China is doomed and called political pluralism "historically inevitable." After signing and dating the statement, Mr. Xu wrote, "Penned in handcuffs." His wife said he jotted down the message in front of his lawyer while guards stood nearby. Election heat in Israel
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's call for new elections is producing a lot of drama. Prominent fellow Likud member Benny Begin announced he would leave Likud in order to challenge Mr. Netanyahu. He is the son of Menachem Begin, the party's founder and first prime minister. Mr. Begin opposes the land-for-peace agreement Mr. Netanyahu negotiated with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat last November. He served as science minister under Mr. Netanyahu, but quit the cabinet after Mr. Netanyahu agreed to pull troops out of the West Bank town of Hebron in January 1997. Observers give Mr. Begin a slim chance of becoming prime minister. His breakaway campaign, however, is sure to weaken Mr. Netanyahu's dwindling hold on power. The Likud government also faces a stiff challenge from the left. Labor Party leader Ehud Barak will get help from the West in his bid to unseat Mr. Netanyahu. His hired gun: Clinton strategist and mudslinger James Carville.