For years, my colleague Dan Rodricks has entertained us with columns entitled "Guilty - but mostly stupid." They're tales of criminals who just don't get it, like the bank robber who scribbles a holdup note on the back of his business card.
Today I offer my own tale of criminal stupidity in the digital age - and the power that access to information holds to save us from terrible mistakes.
I heard the story from a young woman in her early 20s who was raised in a small community, way-out-West, where people are friendly and direct about who and what they are. This is not necessarily the best preparation for working in the nation's capital.
Not long ago, she was riding the Washington Metro home when she returned a smile from a presentable young man who subsequently engaged her in conversation - and asked if she would be willing to meet him for a drink.
"I'd never ever done something like that," she said, "but there was this spark, and I figured that as long as it was in a public place, it couldn't be too bad."
A week later, they met for lunch in Georgetown. "I took him to a little French cafe, and we really hit it off. We had very similar political beliefs, and he even liked the weird food I like - I'm a vegetarian. I don't hit it off with everyone I meet, so this was really a nice experience."
Not being a fool, she asked him a bit about himself, including the most important question for any young woman sizing up a potential boyfriend: Are you an ax murderer or serial killer?
Neither, he replied. He was in advertising.
That was OK. After a pleasant meal, which he paid for, the two parted on the best of terms, with promises of a return engagement. He even told her his last name - a big mistake, as it turned out.
That's because she inevitably felt compelled to do what her generation does when it meets someone who strikes an emotional chord.
"I was absent-mindedly searching for him on Facebook, just to see if he was on there, and he was," she recalled. "And his profile wasn't private, like most people's are. Very few people have it set up any more so that just anyone can look at their profile, but he did. I opened his, and saw a picture of him, and the profile says, 'In a relationship with:' And it gave the name of another girl.
"I thought, maybe they just broke up or something. Maybe he's not there with her. But he had pictures of him posted kissing her cheek on March 30. He was still obviously in this relationship."
"So I decided to click on her profile, and it wasn't private either. So I looked at it, and he and I had talked about living situations. His said he lived alone, but her profile said, 'Living in [a Washington suburb] with my honey.'"
That was enough.
"I'm normally a nonconfrontational person - but I decided to do something about this because I thought it was such atrocious behavior," she said. "I guess I'm still a small-town girl when it comes to that kind of thing. So I composed an e-mail that said, 'Funny, you didn't mention your girlfriend at lunch.'"
Not surprisingly, there was silence from the other end. After a few days, she could stand it no longer. "I got back on Facebook to check his profile again," she said. "This time his profile was private."
Boys and girls, there are lessons to be learned from this tale. You can decide what they are.
Canary-in-the-coal-mine department: Last week I wrote that the Federal Communications Commission was still looking for a city with broadcasters foolhardy enough volunteer for an early test of the nation's switch to digital transmissions. The very next day, the FCC announced that it had found one: the coastal metropolis of Wilmington, N.C., America's 135th-largest TV market.
Wilmington is an ideal location. With a population of 100,000, the city doesn't have enough people to kick up a really big election-year fuss if things go wrong - especially with a congressional seat occupied by a safe, six-term incumbent. And with only 7 percent of its population using antennas to receive TV (less than half the national percentage), Wilmington has even fewer people to get mad when their TVs go dark than a city more like the nation as a whole.
So beginning Sept. 8, Wilmington's five major stations will turn off their analog transmitters and broadcast strictly digital signals. People who rely on over-the-air broadcasts (as opposed to cable) will have three options: buy converters for their existing analog TV sets, replace them with digital sets, or sign up for cable, satellite or fiber-optic service.
The same thing will happen nationwide Feb. 17, 2009. The FCC hopes the timing of the Wilmington test will allow enough time to warn local viewers about the switch but still leave enough time to act on any lessons learned before the national rollout.
Some critics, including public TV broadcasters who refused to terminate analog signals till February, question the wisdom of turning thousands of TVs dark in a coastal city in the middle of hurricane season. This is especially worrisome when the people who rely most on over-the-air broadcasts for emergency information tend to be the most vulnerable in a disaster: the old and poor. Stay tuned.
For more information, visit www.dtvtransmission.org
Beware SP3? If your computer has a microprocessor made by Advanced Micro Devices (as opposed to Intel), think twice before installing Service Pack 3 for Microsoft Windows XP.
Microsoft acknowledges that some releases of the SP3 "image" that's burned onto CDs or downloaded over the Net contain Intel-specific settings that can cause some computers with AMD processors to reboot continuously, rendering them useless.
The service pack contains the 3rd collection of bug fixes, security patches and performance enhancements compiled over the years for Windows XP. You probably have most of these if you regularly update the operating system online. So, if your computer has an AMD processor, check with Microsoft or your computer manufacturer before installing SP3.
The address for the DTV Transition Coalition Web site listed in Mike Himowitz's Plugged In column in yesterday's editions of The Sun was incorrect. It should have been www.dtvtransition.orgThe Sun regrets the error.