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Staff Editorials

I paid $9.99 for a virtual Fruit Ninja

    By Angela Reinhardt, Staff writer
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    I grew up in your garden-variety, middle-class American household in the 80s and 90s so I’m no stranger to video games.
    My sister and I played Sega (we had a Sega Master System and later upgraded to the Genesis console). I enjoyed the futuristic game Fantasy Zone, which let me maneuver my space ship “Opa Opa” through each level to collect coins so I could spend them in the weapons store.
    Even though I rarely play video games now, I let my children have tablets and gaming consoles - but after my 8-year-old son spent over $200 in real money (mine and my husband’s money) for virtual goods just like the ones I collected in Fantasy Zone, we may follow the lead of the neo-Luddites and ban games made after the turn of the century.
    I consider myself to be fairly competent when it comes to electronics, but I’m not a gadget person – and apparently companies like Apple, X Box and Amazon prey on people like me.
    In what I now call the “Kindle incident,” I caved and bought my son $1.99 worth of virtual coins for a free game we downloaded from the app store. The purchase required a password and (like any rational person would have) I assumed each subsequent purchase would require another password entry.
    Wrong. The next day I discovered 15 separate charges on my online bank account for thousands of virtual coins. Total charged? $150.00. Total time taken to charge? Five minutes.
    Apparently Amazon has a “convenient” password lapse that allowed my son to make rapid-fire purchases without my permission.  
    When I called Amazon I was shocked at how easy it was to have the purchases reversed –a little too easy, I thought. It was obvious they did this all the time.
    “Does this happen a lot?” I asked.
    “Oh, yes,” the lady said. “Just be glad it wasn’t worse. We’ve had them get up in the thousands.”
    In a surprising display of candidness she told me that while Amazon “strongly encourages parents to use ‘Kindle Free Time’ to control kids’ usage,” they rarely refuse to reverse unwanted charges. In fact, she had personally never made a refusal.
    After the “Kindle Incident” my husband and I were more diligent about guarding tablet usage, but in a one-two sucker punch we were clothes-lined again last week when my son got an X Box from his grandparents as an early birthday present.
    My in-laws bought Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare to go with the system without realizing it requires a subscription to X Box Live Gold - and I caved again. I agreed to try the service for three months ($24.99) because Auri was so excited about the game. I had to create an account and enter my credit information (I later found out you can buy pre-paid cards for X Box Live and keep your information safe).
    After struggling through many frustrating hours of figuring how to download upgrades that wouldn’t fit on the hard drive (I had to delete demo games to get them to work), Auri could finally play.    
     Then like getting struck by lightening twice,  I checked my email the next morning and found cheerful confirmation letters informing me I had successfully purchased; a Fruit Ninja ($9.99); a Wedge Helmet (.99 cents); a Wedge Uniform ($1.99); Hydro-Thunder (whatever it is, cost $14.99); and $17 worth of coins.
    I thought about the phrase “Fool me once shame on you; fool me twice shame on me,” but I quickly realized I shouldn’t feel ashamed at all. My in-laws paid 30 bucks for that game. Why should I think it would cost more to play it?
    And it looks like I’m not alone with my frustration because just a few weeks ago the Federal Trade Commission sued Amazon for unauthorized charges made by kids, while earlier this year Apple agreed to settle a similar FTC complaint at the tune of $32 million.
    Are the suits fair? You better believe it – and I doubt if Apple (and Amazon when they lose) will be paying that balance off in virtual coins. 

Private probation needs strict state oversight

    In a legislative session that didn’t generate much fire (outside of guns) a veto by Nathan Deal of HB837 allowing private probation companies to operate with even less oversight deserves applause.
    Deal recognized, following some unsavory news across the nation, a watchdog report and a report from the state’s Department of Audits, that private probation companies need higher levels of scrutiny, not less.
    In an era of high court costs and taxpayer resistance to most any cost, private probation sounds great when they use the phrase “offender funded” – meaning that those on probation must pay fees to cover their costs.
    In theory, this is great -- a private company takes over the duties of probation officers and sees that rehabilitation is handled efficiently (saving taxpayers) and with more compassion for those on probation (helping rehabilitation).
    But further scrutiny finds the private system is ripe for abuse – with multi-million dollar companies tacking on services for those they monitor and extending probation periods to take advantage of poor people while using the threat of re-incarceration to back them up. When those on probation are also the paying customers, there is a disincentive to either help them complete probation or to turn them in for an offense that would send them back to jail. Unreported drug test failures were found in  national checks on these companies.
    After realizing the potential pitfalls,  Pickens County’s judicial system wisely decided to use a county probation department that is supervised by the courts.
    Across the nation, abuse stories abound in private programs.
    In one instance highlighted by Human Rights Watch, a Georgia man was fined $200 for shoplifting a can of beer, but the private probation company socked him with monthly charges that were higher than his income – no way for him to ever get ahead.  Eventually he went back to jail hopelessly behind on thousands in probation company service charges.
    As in other instances, this misdemeanor offender was required to wear and billed for ankle cuff monitoring.
    The business of handling probation (mostly for municipal courts) is big business in Georgia with 80 percent of the people who receive probation being handled by up to three-dozen different companies. It was estimated, by Human Rights Watch, that private probation generated $40 million in revenue in the past year in Georgia.
   What is particularly galling are the people forced into the probation system only because they didn’t have the cash to pay an initial fine.
   People coming out of jail or sentenced to probation are convicted criminals who may need supervision, but they are also ripe for financial exploitation, which makes the slope leading to rehabilitation that much steeper.
    Ultimately, for the taxpayers, having these people back working, certainly not occupying an expensive prison cell because they couldn’t pay a probation company, is our best bet. Raiding these probationers meager savings under threat of jailing is not moral nor effective state policy.
    Re-jailing someone simply because they can not pay their fine not only harkens back to the old debtor prison, it is unconstitutional – a 1983 case that originated in Georgia found  someone can not be jailed just because they are too poor to pay their fine.
    Note, however, they can justly be jailed if they refuse to pay, or squander their money and don’t pay.   
    The idea behind the private probation is solid, but if the state lends their force of the courts to any private entity, they have a duty to be sure the power is not abused.              Better supervision of these programs is a must. Governor Deal noted this, saying when he issued the veto that the issues found by the audit, throw up “a lot of red flags.”    
    Convicted people need to pay their debt to society and cover the costs of their crime and punishment when possible. But no private company should be lent the authority of the courts to collect these debts without stringent oversight.

Kids, pets left in locked cars: A deadly summer mistake

    It’s hot outside.
    But it’s even hotter inside a car, even one with a cracked window. We’re talking broiling, furnace-like hot.
    Last week a Cobb County man was charged with the murder of his 22-month-old son after he left him strapped in a car seat inside a locked car for over nine hours. He went to work, apparently forgetting the child was there. The high temperature in Atlanta was 91 degrees on the fatal day. The horror that man will have to live with for the rest of his life is utterly unimaginable. Unfortunately, that father is not alone in his neglect.
    More than 500 children have died from heat stroke since 2000 because they were left in cars on warm days. Some have died because, as in last week’s case, a parent or caregiver “forgot” them, while others have died while their caregiver just ran inside a store for an errand.
    The “I’ll only be a minute” saying can be a fatal thought for a driver who leaves a child locked in a car while running a seemingly quick errand. Temperatures inside a car can reach as high as 130 to 140 degrees in a few hours. Human bodies, which want to stay around 98.6 degrees, can heat up quickly and once our core gets to 106 degrees, it’s a serious problem. And children’s bodies heat up at least three times faster than adults, research has shown.
    There are cases of children left in cars dying on days as cool as 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
    On a 90- degree day a car can become like an oven in a mere 10 minutes, reaching 109 degrees. After 20 minutes it can reach 119 degrees; 30 minutes, 124 degrees; and 60 minutes, 133 degrees - which is 43 degrees higher than the temperature outside the car. Even on a mild day, say 75 degrees, the temperature inside a car can reach 100 degrees in 10 minutes.
    We all know what it’s like to get inside a car that’s been sitting in the sun for a while. The air is stifling and the steering wheel is broiling hot. We experience this so often here in the South it’s hard to imagine how anyone could think a child could handle being left inside a car.   
    And children aren’t the only victims. Pets, especially dogs, are often left to swelter away while their owners run into the grocery store or bank. A pet’s life may not be as precious as a human life, but it’s still one of God’s creatures – a living, breathing being – and should be treated with respect and care. No one sets out to kill their pet by leaving them in a car, but too often owners think they are doing their animal a favor by taking it for a ride without thinking through your stops.
    Do not leave your pet in the car alone, on a sunny day or a cloud day. Leaving a window cracked does not make it safe. It’s just plain miserable for your pet.
    Children and pets should never be left alone in cars, regardless of whether it’s a sunny or cloudy day. You may think just because it’s overcast or you’ll “only be a minute” that it will be OK.
    It may not.

Are we our cells?

    For a U.S. Supreme Court that has notoriously been reluctant to accept any Constitutional view that didn’t originate in the 1700s, their recent ruling on cell phone privacy is startling (and somewhat hypocritical).
    The justices last week essentially ruled that cell phones deserve higher protection during police searches of suspects than anything else a modern American owns. In essence the justices recognized that with a vast majority of Americans their cell phone is their personality encapsulated in a small device.
    For a body of people whose average age is 68 years old and likely not Snapchatting selfies of themselves in their robes, the justices showed a pretty keen understanding of how cell phones are much more than something to make a call on.
    “They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers,” Chief Justice John Roberts explained during the hearing.
    In their ruling, which protected cells from preliminary searches without warrants, the justices noted, “Modern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse. An Internet search and browsing history, for example, can be found on an Internet-enabled phone and could reveal an individual’s private interests or concerns — perhaps a search for certain symptoms of disease, coupled with frequent visits to WebMD.”
    Apparently at least one justice uses a cell phone app for exercise as the discussion at the high court included a query of whether information recording the number of steps someone had taken that day should be protected and, if not, how handy it would be to an investigator trying to determine where a suspect might have gone prior to being handcuffed.
    The basis of what the Supreme Court took up concerned two different challenges to searches of information held on cell phones. One case originated in Boston and showed a stash of drugs on a photo taken by someone arrested for something else. The other case, from San Diego, involved a cell phone that contained  photos and text message accounts of gang activity, including a shooting.
    Police officers are allowed to search anything in a pocket, including going through a wallet when making an arrest, but the court was adamant that cell phones are off limits, -- even though lawyers for the Obama administration presented some reasonable arguments, such as the possibility that information on the cell might alert officers to an accomplice in the area or a related threat.
   The justices didn’t give an inch in protecting the privacy of our mobile devices from police. (The NSA will be a later story. Nothing regarding federal efforts has been brought before the court.)
   “Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life. The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple — get a warrant,” the chief justice wrote.
    It is interesting to see such a senior group recognize the pervasiveness of the cell phone. They are right, just look around. Justice Roberts even posed what might be humor in a Supreme Court setting by noting that cell phones are so widely used, “The proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they [cell phones] were an important feature of human anatomy."
    We applaud the court taking a stand on privacy, but it is troubling that what they say is so accurate -- our cell phones literally do define us. Or in the words of Justice Elena Kagan, “Most people now do carry their lives on cell phones.”

With latest Middle East crisis, it’s time to cut ties in region

    You can’t blame people who have missed the latest news out of Iraq and Syria; as a nation we are  tired of bad news from the Islamic world. But the change now unfolding is extraordinary – extraordinarily bad, including an unconfirmed report Monday that 1,700 Iraqi security forces had been executed.
    The chaos and violence is from a militant group of Sunni Muslims based on the border of Syria and Iraq that have essentially pledged to take over both countries, unite it all as a caliphate (Islamic country).
    The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is succeeding with their troops already taking over or threatening key Iraq cities like Mosul and Falluja that many of us may remember from the U.S. military action there. Reports on national news say the Iraqi regular soldiers are fleeing in the face of better-trained and better-equipped ISIS invaders.
    In Syria, the group has also been successful at carrying out a strategy for takeover that was masked largely by the regular violence there – who noticed a few more militant attacks? In Syria, they have beat other rebel groups for control of territory where the government has been forced out.
    Like everything in the Middle East, religion plays a huge role in this insurgency. ISIS is a vocal proponent of the Sunni branch of Islam and considers the followers of Shia Islam as their number one enemy. The area they have quickly conquered in Iraq was once called the Sunni triangle when U.S. forces were there and the fighting was intense. Baghdad and the area of the country to its south is mostly Shia and it is expected that ISIS will meet stiff opposition once they try to move south of the capital.
    The government in Baghdad has asked the U.S. to defend them and an aircraft carrier and support ships are off the coast. In an odd combination, the Shia government in Baghdad also called upon neighboring Shia-led Iran to help with the Sunni threat.
    Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, has consistently elevated Shiites for government posts and pushed Sunnis to the side. This militant opposition is a problem that was created by the ruling government in Baghdad and it should be remembered a ruling party that never wanted the U.S. there to begin with and was anxious for us to leave. They demurred when we suggested they allow us to handle their security and offered suggestions on managing a country. Perhaps President Obama should have that air craft carrier put in reverse?
    Another thought against any type of intervention is that in the Middle East, the national boundaries were imposed by European nations about a century ago with no regard for ethnic and cultural lines – “you people are now grouped with those people.”
   These divided peoples have been a source of discontent and violence ever since the arbitrary boundaries were created. Ideally the citizens there should set aside differences and work together for the future of their children and the region as a whole – let all the boats rise together on improvements to infrastructure, education and economy.  But there is no evidence the people there desire any cooperation -- they deal with ethnic tension through the use of guns and suicide bombers.
    Maybe we need to let them settle it, even if that means a lot of bloodshed there and innocent civilian casualties. While that seems a dire alternative, nothing else has worked for a century and just maintaining the status quo is also accepting the current levels of violence.
    Ultimately the Middle East is a problem area for the entire globe and may remain that way for some time. But, the latest problems are self-inflicted by corrupt and ineffective governments in Baghdad and Damascus. The U.S. intervention, unfortunately, didn’t solve any of the internal problems in Iraq and jumping back in won’t produce a new result.