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Men in Massachusetts should simply not show up to defend restraining orders, divorces, and other family law matters?

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I testified at a Massachusetts State House hearing on S.834 An Act relative to Child-Centered Family Law. This changes the language that courts will use but there are no restrictions on what judges can do and litigants will still fight over a potential for 0/100, 100/0 or any other time split in between; see the “Renaming Custody” section in this chapter for how this has worked in the other states that have tried it. The parent who wins a custody lawsuit would become the “primary parent” rather than the “custodial parent.” (See my own testimony on the likely effects.)

One intriguing fact that I learned at the hearing was that in some cases men are better off not showing up to court when a case is being decided under the family law and domestic violence system. U.S. Census data from March 2014 show that, when there is enough income for a child to yield a cashflow, men in Massachusetts lose custody lawsuits roughly 97 percent of the time. Typically the man is therefore spending $100,000 to $1 million in legal fees in order to have a shot at being one of the 3 percent. But is the guy actually digging his own grave by showing up?

[In theory the law, unlike in some European and Islamic jurisdictions, is gender-neutral. And, as discussed below, the citizens who came to the hearing included a woman who lost custody of her children due to her higher-income, harder-working status. In practice, however, attorneys say that men cannot prevail on a domestic violence complaint against a woman.]

“I was advised by my lawyer not to show up to defend against a restraining order,” said one father, “because if the man doesn’t show up he can be restrained for only 7 days but if he does show up the order can last for a year.” One take-away from the hearing was that when when the children were potentially profitable, motivated female plaintiffs would eagerly seek, and typically win, restraining orders to keep children from seeing their fathers.

[“The Domestic Violence Parallel Track” explains why this is typically a powerful tool for plaintiffs nationwide, but in Massachusetts a restraining order has a specific cash value. Given a $250,000-per-year defendant, for example, obtaining ordinary “winner parent” status and 2/3 time with the child yields $40,000 per year in tax-free cash via the child support guidelines plus, typically, an order that the defendant pay 100% of the child’s actual expenses (e.g., day care, uninsured medical/dental). If a plaintiff can get the defendant entirely excluded from the child’s life, judges are explicitly encouraged to award additional child support (due to the fact that father is not providing free babysitting 1/3 time). Having 100% “custody” may simply mean dumping the child into commercial care, such as day care or with nannies, and the loser parent will pay for those on top of the enhanced child support.]

It seems that if a judge doesn’t see a man’s threatening posture alongside the vulnerable plaintiff victim, the judge cannot legally evaluate whether or not a restraining order/custody plaintiff’s case is strong enough to merit a one-year order. The woman might be there with dramatic tales but that’s apparently not sufficient.

I’m wondering if this lawyer’s idea could be extended to all of family law. Suppose that the man doesn’t file an Answer to the woman’s Complaint (the document that starts the divorce lawsuit). He will lose a default judgment. In theory she gets whatever she has asked for. She wants the house, the kids, and the cash, for example. But she starts out with more than a 90-percent chance of winning these things anyway. The typical rationale for a defendant in a civil lawsuit, of which a Massachusetts divorce is a subcategory, is that by hiring an attorney he can limit some of the loss. But witnesses who testified at the hearing had been ordered to pay their plaintiffs’ legal fees in addition to their own. Every attempt at defense resulted in larger losses due to the legal fees (up to $2.7 million in one case). Whenever it seemed as though they were making a little progress in defending the divorce lawsuit, their plaintiffs made an end-run around that multi-year procedure with a 15-minute restraining order hearing. As one successful entrepreneur noted, a couple of years after his wife sued him, “every time you score a point against her by proving that she is wrong or lying that’s like giving her $1000 in cash. The right way to deal with this is just to let her punch you over and over, never hitting back, until she finally gets tired of punching. The best defense is no defense.”

What about admitting defeat on Day 1 of a Massachusetts divorce lawsuit? It would seem that there must be some limits on what a plaintiff can achieve via a default judgment against a man who chooses not to show up (as happened 18 percent of the time in our statistical study of Middlesex County Probate Court). A plaintiff cannot expect to prevail with “I have no documents to prove this, but my defendant earns $10 million per year so I want $1.5 million per year in tax-free child support.” She will be limited by what the judge is likely to believe and, perhaps, by any paycheck stubs that she can find (or what the man’s employer produces in response to a subpoena). Without the man there to offer a competing story, the woman’s accusations may be less credible. If the mother says “He is having sex with the daughter” and the father says “No, I’m not” it is natural for a listener to assume that the truth lies somewhere in the middle If the father isn’t there at all the judge might wonder “Wouldn’t it be a little too convenient for this woman seeking 100% of a guy’s money if he were actually having sex with the daughter?” Judges have also seem virtually every plaintiff lie regarding household expenses. They’ve seen women get cash back or a gift card with every grocery purchase. They’ve seen women claim $90,000+ per year in current expenses for which there is no evidence from credit card and checking account statements. So a judge might by himself or herself scale back a plaintiff’s demands just as effectively as a high-priced defense lawyer.

Let’s consider a middle-class couple with 90 percent of their home mortgaged and some savings for the children’s college. Based on our study of Middlesex County, our interviews with attorneys in Massachusetts, and witness testimony at the State House, assuming that both sides lawyer up, the mother is going to get the house and the kids and perhaps above-guidelines child support (in a state that already has the world’s most lucrative guidelines) if she spins a good tale and the father doesn’t seem like the world’s nicest guy and just pleased as punch to have been been sued. The father will be ordered to babysit the kids every other weekend. The lawyers will get the home equity and all of the savings, including the children’s college fund, before telling the parties to settle (see “Divorce Litigation”).

What if the father doesn’t show up? In that case maybe the judge simply won’t have enough evidence to support an above-guidelines child support order. Can the woman show that she is destitute when there is still home equity and a savings account? The woman’s lawyer comes to court asserting that child support should be based on last year’s income times two. Why? The man could work extra hours to support his plaintiff. But how can the judge find that to be true if the target didn’t show up to be questioned? Can the man be ordered to pay his plaintiff’s legal fees (limited to filling out a Complaint form and showing up to court once or twice)? Under what theory did he run up her bill by failing to cooperate? Can the man be ordered to work beyond normal retirement age (67) and continue to pay alimony despite the recent statutory discouragement of this time-honored practice? How can the judge find that he is exceptionally healthy and work-ready if he has never shown up to court?

What about losing custody? Statistically that’s a foregone conclusion in Massachusetts for a father, but losing custody after a default judgment might actually be better. The mother, having secured a total legal victory, won’t have an incentive to rat the father out to DCF as a child molester. The mother’s lawyer will have told her that custody and child support are theoretically modifiable at any time that someone can show a substantial and material change of circumstances (not the “best interests of the child” standard as in other states). So she might not want to block the children’s access to their father for fear that he will go to the courthouse with a post-divorce custody and child support modification case.  She would then face at least some risk of impairment of her control over the children and the cashflow that comes with the kids.

Nearly all of the people who testified at the hearing regarding their personal experiences with the Massachusetts family courts would have been better off had they not defended the lawsuit. The legislators hearing the testimony might have assumed that these were unusual and/or horror stories, but our interviews and statistical studies show that their experiences were fairly typical. (Note that, at least for one of the legislators, divorce litigation is never a horror story. Cynthia Creem, a $500+/hour divorce litigator (she’d be getting paid closer to $200/hour in a state without a winner-take-all system), was sitting right next to the chairman. Thus were citizens able to watch, in real time, people with a financial stake in the law making the law.)

Legal-minded readers: Can you think of a good reason for a middle-class man with no unusual financial circumstances to put hundreds of thousands of dollars into defending one of these actions? There is probably a flaw in the above reasoning but I can’t figure out what it is.

[Of course, this advice would not be good in a state that offers fathers a realistic chance at obtaining 50/50 parenting time schedule, e.g., Alaska, Arizona, Delaware, MainePennsylvania ]

Related:

  • Boston.com article on the hearing: “‘I’m out of money, and I’m out of hope’” (opens with the one woman who testified about losing her children; she was a yuppie identified by the court as the family “breadwinner” while her husband, a firefighter whose full-time job consisted of just two 24-hour shifts per week, was anointed the “primary parent” (the “breadwinner” was ordered to keep supporting this guy, and presumably any young hotties he hooks up with, until the kids turn 23))

Female 1960s computer nerd defrosted for the Gender War Age

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TIME has an article on Margaret Hamilton and the software for the Apollo 11 mission. The journalist is quick to point out that “she was successful in the pre-women’s lib era in a field that remains tough for women to crack.” Being an Ellen Pao-style gender warrior was apparently secondary in Hamilton’s mind to achieving a successful landing on the moon, but the present-day journalist is quick to fill in the gaps: “Hamilton says that she was so wrapped up in her work that she didn’t notice the gender problems of the time…”

What kind of discrimination did Hamilton actually face? Wikipedia notes that this female graduate of Earlham College was hired for some of the most advanced computer system projects of the day, e.g., SAGE at MIT, and weather simulation for the professor who popularized modern “chaos theory.” Hamilton was promoted to “director and supervisor of software programming for Apollo and Skylab.” Then she was founder and CEO of her own software company, apparently successful enough to survive for at least eight years. For about the last thirty years she has had her own company as well. Her writings are published by the IEEE (example), one of the two most prestigious societies in computer science.

These are the facts that support the present-day journalist’s conclusion that the software industry was unfriendly to women in the 1960s and remains so today.

[Hamilton may have used her gender to advantage via Massachusetts family law. She married a Harvard Law School graduate who went on to found a Boston-area law firm (Boston Globe). The article says that there was a divorce lawsuit but it isn’t clear what alimony and child support profits, if any, Hamilton earned.]

Separately… what do we think of the ideas in that IEEE paper? Plainly big software systems need to be more resilient and to have some learning capabilities. But is this Universal Systems Language an important step in that direction?

The crazy gusty Boeing 777 landing in Schipol (Amsterdam)

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Friends are asking me about a video of a KLM Boeing 777 landing at its home base in Amsterdam. “We Asked A Pilot About The ‘Terrifying’ Landing Going Viral” is a Huffington Post article where they ask an airline pilot for his opinion:

“It looks fairly dramatic, but it was not dangerous,” he reassured us. Videos of landings tend to look a lot more dramatic than they actually are. Those judders and swerves? Just normal reactions to gusty crosswinds.

“For the passengers on board, I’m sure there was some jostling, but the plane didn’t come anywhere close to crashing,” he says.

For example, you may have noticed that the plane tilts to its right just before it touches down. It looks like it comes close to flipping over into a fireball of death. Actually, Smith says, that’s a deliberate correction to the crosswind. Pilots are trained to land at an angle, so the wheels closest to the wind land first. That helps stop the wind from pushing the plane sideways across the runway.

“That landing was well within the capabilities of the pilots and also the aircraft,” Smith stresses.

Pilots are trained to abort landings if they feel unsafe, and they don’t lose face among the crew for doing so, he says.

What do readers think? Were they close to scraping a wingtip or engine nacelle? That would not be a sign of prudent planning in the airline world (since you can always choose to land somewhere else and send the passengers onward via bus or train and/or wait a day).

The idea that they could have aborted the landing at the point shown in the video seems questionable. The engines on a 777 take a long time to spool up and then pilots seem not to handle these well (see my explanation in this posting about landing the CRJ, a much lower-inertia aircraft; also see this NTSB report of damage to a Boeing 747 after a low go-around at the very same airport)

What do pilot readers think? Was landing in the worst July storm in a century just another day in the front office or a case of get-there-itis? Did we watch awesome skill or questionable judgment and a bit of luck?

Related:

F-16 crash into Cessna 150 (South Carolina) follow-up

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James Fallows has written an interesting Atlantic piece about the F-16 fighter jet that ran over a little Cessna 150 in South Carolina in beautiful clear VFR conditions (NTSB), killing Michael and Joseph Johnson. One technical oddity seems to be that these crazy expensive and heavy F-16s don’t have the standard traffic advisory or TCAS systems that are standard in higher-end civilian airplanes (about $10,000 and 10 lbs.). They are even available as portable electronics for less than $1000 (i.e., when you buy the certified (legal-to-install-permanently) box you are paying about $1000 for the circuitry and $9000 for regulatory compliance).

(You could argue that you wouldn’t want the TAS or TCAS in a fighter jet because they often fly in formation, but I think it would still work because what is typical in formation flying is that only one airplane has its transponder on.)

For me as an engineer this is the saddest thing about the accident. It could likely have been prevented with a small box of electronics.

Related:

Boring but important: State Pension Funding Gap Analysis

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Pew Charitable Trusts released this month a report on U.S. state pension funding gaps. The report is current only through 2013, a measure presumably of how tough it is to get real numbers. The missing $1 trillion represents “historically high levels as a percentage of U.S. GDP” but, if you think about it, isn’t actually that bad against a U.S. GDP of nearly $17 trillion.

There are some interesting points in the report. Chris Christie’s New Jersey moved in the wrong direction, from 68 percent funded in 2011 to 63 percent funded in 2013. Illinois is a joke at 39 percent. Massachusetts has a larger percentage gap than California’s, which is constantly in the news. Wisconsin and South Dakota are 100-percent funded. Don’t they know how to cheat?

One issue with the Pew report, I think, is that it accepts the assumptions built into these funds, e.g., that investment returns close to 8 percent can be obtained every year, that public employees who retire to the golf course at age 50 will drop dead on the actuarially predicted schedule, etc. Generally the economists who have analyzed public pension funds using returns that are actually available in the bond market, for example, have concluded that the gap is closer to 3X the stated gap, in which case states need to scratch up roughly an additional $3 trillion for pensions plus whatever additional they’ll need to pay for promised retiree health care (a worker who retires at age 50, for example, needs 15 years of free health insurance to bridge the gap until Medicare eligibility).

Related:

Ode to the Microsoft Office team

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I just finished writing a 749-page Microsoft Word document containing some illustrations so that it works out to about 5 MB of data. This went through about 100 versions. There was never a single crash of Word (version 15.0.x, part of Office 365, on Windows 8.1, itself crash-free). All of the automatic cross-references worked.

So here’s a public thank-you to the Microsoft Office team. It is tough to imagine that a monster C program like that can be as reliable as it is!

Frontiers of biking with toddlers: Yepp Mini

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One of our household members is not quite ready to ride his own bike. I am playing around with Yepp Mini and love the concept:

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What you don’t see in this picture is me having to ride bowlegged in order to avoid whacking my knees on the bottom of the seat. Nor do you see my chest hitting the back of the seat when getting on or off the bike. The top tube of this Schwinn/LL Bean XL frame is about 23.5″ long, which is longer than my existing Specialized XL hybrid bike. I’m thinking that maybe the solution is a bike with a crazy long top tube and handlebars that swoop back so that one isn’t reaching very far forward. But who makes a bike with that geometry? And note that it has to have an old-style headset and threaded fork so that there is a stem sticking out of the top front for attachment of the Yepp bracket.

It seems as though the obvious answer would be a “cruiser” bike, but do those one-size-fits-all bikes work well for taller riders? (I’m 6′ tall but my legs are slightly longer than average, so I ride bikes sized for a 6’2″ tall person.)

[Mission spec: neighborhood riding on quiet smooth roads. Bike spec: can’t be crazy heavy like the cargo bikes.]

 

 

Divorce litigator on the Bill Cosby mess

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I was chatting with a divorce litigator and asked what she thought about the Bill Cosby situation.

“It will turn out to be all about getting cash from the old man,” she said. But what about the fact that the statute of limitations may have run? “These women are represented,” she continued. “People don’t hire lawyers and go to court unless they want cash.”

Is Cosby a rapist? “He would be if I were representing one of the women,” she responded. Can there be any doubt when there are more than 40 women complaining of at least one form of misconduct? “You’re talking about a guy who had sex with maybe two women a week for 30 years,” she replied. “That’s about 3000 women in a business relationship with Cosby but with no written contract so the terms weren’t precisely stated. That 40 out of 3000 [1.3%] ended up being upset with what they got in exchange for spreading their legs does not surprise me.”

Business relationship? “Let’s go through the three basic ways for a smart woman to make money with her body in this country,” the litigator responded. “She can go old-school with a quick marriage and divorce, getting extra cash by sobbing in court about how the rich middle-aged guy turned out to be a wife beater, child molester, yada yada yada. Doesn’t work with a guy like Cosby because he’s already married. She can give a rich guy a blow job, run to the bathroom, spit into a cervical cap, push it up her cooter, and either sell the abortion or collect a couple of million in child support. Didn’t work that well for anyone until around 1990 when the child support guidelines came in. Wouldn’t have worked with Cosby if he was smart and had a vasectomy. That leaves Way #3: hang out with a married or famous guy and get a continuing stream of cash, gifts, favors, etc. for not telling the wife or the public.”

Dyson vacuum cleaners: the power of marketing?

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A recent visit to the local vacuum cleaner store prompted me to ask the owner whether he recommended the Dyson products on his showroom floor. “Because they’re bagless they need a lot of service and cleaning,” he replied. “In addition to what you do at home you need to bring them in every two years for about $150 of professional service. Then they die after about five years. Compare that to $20 per year of bags for a Miele.” Consumer Reports rates the cleaning performance of the Dysons as far inferior to competitive products (a $550 “Cinetic Animal” machine scores below a $150 Hoover canister), except for their “Ball Multi Floor” upright ($400, albeit underperforms a $160 Eureka, a $180 Hoover, and a $200 Kenmore (all with bags)). How can they sell any machines at all then? “Dyson puts a huge amount of money into marketing,” said the owner. “Miele puts the money into the product and counts on the fact that once you buy a Miele you will be a Miele customer for a lifetime.”

He had scarcely finished this explanation when a guy walked in with a $500 Dyson upright. He plugged it in and there was an insane amount of noise but no suction. “You’re going to need some new filters and a thorough cleaning,” said the vacuum expert….

What do readers think? Is there anything to like about Dyson vacuums or does their success as a company prove that the best path to success is through superior marketing?

[Disclosure: I have a 20-year-old Miele that still works great.]

Good article on becoming a mathematician

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“The Singular Mind of Terry Tao” is a good nytimes article if you’re interested in the difference between high school math and being a mathematician.

Related:

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