Saturday, December 31, 2005

Politics Overpowering The Story Line

In the past couple of years I've seen two movies in which Chris Cooper had major roles - Silver City and Syriana. Those films had something else in common - the mistake of working so hard to advance a political message that the story line suffered.

Silver City, which you probably missed, mixes an interesting "whodunit" where a body floats to the surface of a lake as a political ad is being filmed. Instead of simply telling that story, the movie focuses heavily on criss-crossing plotlines surrounding Dickie Pilager, a less-than-intellectually-stellar candidate for Governor of Colorado being carefully managed by his handlers as he runs for office. Pilager is a parody of George W. Bush, and the movie's politics are about as subtle as the "play on words" represented by his surname. (However, even as they clearly disagree with his politics, the film makers depict Pilager as sincere in his beliefs.) Even the competent cast and strong performances can't save the film from itself.

Syriana has an even more impressive cast, at least by Hollywood A-list measures, and is in many ways more coherent. But again, to advance a political message and to "educate the audience" about the Middle East, the film incorporates a couple of unnecessary plotlines, one of which was not sufficiently developed to be convincing. You knew from the start that the story lines would ultimately intersect, but the ultimate intersection was surprisingly clumsy. In comparison to most political movies, the film did not condescend to the audience in order to advance its political message... which may be a problem in terms of its effort to create a deeper understanding of the issues. If you don't have at least some awareness of what the film is trying to convey, you are probably scratching your head in the manner of a woman a couple of rows back who, as the closing credits started to roll, asked "Did you get that?"

Both films take a very cynical view of the manner in which this nation is run, and the manner in which corporate interests can override the public good with little to no consequence. Or should I say, circumvent laws which interfere with the public good, as Syriana was rather explicit in its position that the government's collusion with business interests was perceived as advancing American interests. At most, the government will ask for a couple of sacrificial lambs who can be prosecuted in the name of good governance, as it otherwise blesses international business dealings and corporate mergers that increase the reach, wealth and power of America's corporations. Given a choice between two possible leaders for an oil-rich nation, one of whom is a regressive moron who will cater to American oil interests, and the other of whom is a progressive who wishes to transform the nation into a modern, progressive democracy, and to invest the nation's oil wealth in building that society, we pick the former. (It's easy enough to see a history where we supported thugs and dictators in the Middle East, and subverted democracy. But I'm not sure that the brand of progressive Arab leader depicted in Syriana can be found outside of fiction - and if such a leader exists, he's certainly not outspoken in his beliefs.)

Unfortunately, beyond its heavy-handed caricatures, there's truth to its depiction of the merger of corporate and government interests. True believers in our claimed effort to bring Democracy to the Middle East will probably hate the film. The film was rather explicit in its belief that the United States wants to keep the Middle East backward, dependent, and open for business with the U.S., and doesn't much care what happens to the region when the oil runs out.

The biggest surprise of Syriana? Alexander Siddig, who played the annoying Dr. Bashir on Star Trek Deep Space 9, really can act. (It's like seeing Jamie Foxx's outstanding performance in Ray.... Whodathunkit.)

In any event, had either film cut down on the amount of political baggage it chose to carry, either could have been quite enjoyable. And perhaps (metaphorically speaking) had they chosen carry-on luggage instead of overweight checked baggage, both films would have been in a better position to win converts to their respective causes.

Facts? Who Needs 'Em?

Not the "tort reformers", apparently....

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, David Bernstein relates something he read on Overlawyered, about two secretaries who settled a sexual harassment case for $450,000.00. Bernstein comments, "the complainant's in the 'Ride Them Hard' case won a settlement, apparently largely because the school district's lawyer was thought to have mishandled the investigation, and the distict was afraid this would make them look bad before a jury.... Regardless, this might just win my vote for the most ridiculous case of the year." Elsewhere on the Internet the settlement is declared the "Outrageous lawsuit story of the year."

The news accounts which inspire all of this horror relate,
The two secretaries' claims came from a comment Assistant Superintendent Thomas J. Kirschling made to them and two others in July 2002. At some point mid-month, Kirschling said "I ride them hard and put them away wet."

The two secretaries sent him a memo saying they were outraged. He later explained and apologized, according to a subsequent memo.

Kirschling was apparently using a rural idiom that means someone is tired or worked hard. The phrase is taken from the need to cool down a horse after strenuous exercise. Only a mistreated horse is stabled while it is still sweating.

After the women complained, the district assigned an outside attorney to investigate, but that probe inadvertently lapsed.

After the suit was filed, school officials said Grosskreutz recommended settling the claims and updating the district's sexual harassment policies. The district is reviewing its sexual harassment policies.

That is, the coverage is very sympathetic to the school district and defendant, and relates their version of events qualified only by the word "apparently". Another news story relates,
At the time of the complaints, district Superintendent Fredrick Nickles said the district's affirmative action office would look into the remarks.

After the initial 2002 report, the district hired an outside attorney to research the remark, Davis said, because they wanted the investigation into a top staffer to be without taint.

However, the attorney they hired apparently did not do the work, Davis said.

"Something developed, something personal with the legal representative, and it was never reported back to the (district) administrators," Davis said. The investigation "kind of just fell through the cracks, and that later on created problems for the district because it looked like we didn't show any concern for the issue of the harassment."
Okay, so what's wrong with this picture. The School Board supposedly conducted its own internal investigation through its Affirmative Action Office, and also contracted for an independent investigation through outside counsel. When an undefined problem with the outside attorney developed, no new attorney was brought into the case.

These are the facts deemed so outrageous by the school board and its insurance carrier that they opted to settle for $450,000.00? Why am I thinking that there is a lot more to this story.

It appears that Overlawyered seeks to "objectively" relate summaries of news coverage, thereby disclaiming any responsibility for error, omission or misrepresentation that finds its way into their content by virtue of their failure to engage in any analysis or fact-checking. Given their agenda, perhaps their preference for stenography should not be surprising. But it makes me wonder why anybody takes them seriously.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Attack on Iran

The Volokh Conspiracy's David Bernstein predicts that Israel will attack Iran within the next few months:
Given that the anti-Iranian consensus is so solid even on the Left, I would be very surprised if the Israeli government fails to follow through on its promise to prevent Iran from acquiring atomic weapons--assuming, of course, that Iran isn't stopped by other international forces.
If he is correct, it would seem that any such military venture would be for the benefit of popular opinion within Israel, not for any legitimate defensive purpose. And it would likely backfire.

Let me explain. Almost twenty-five years ago, Iraq had an active nuclear weapons program which Israel eliminated with a single air strike. Iran has been slower to get into the nuclear weapons game, but they paid attention to Iraq's experience and have structured a program that is by all accounts dispersed across the country (declared sites as of November, 2003). There is no single site to hit, and even successful strikes on several facilities may have little impact on the overall weapons program. I expect that Iran has also been calculating in putting some key facilities in densely populated areas, such that any strike against their weapons facility would likely result in significant casualties to civilians. (Followed, no doubt, by "video footage" of those facilities analogous to Iraq's "you attacked our baby milk factory" claims from the first Gulf War.)

Any significant loss of life to Iranian civilians would be used as a rallying cry against Israel throughout the Muslim world. Any strike at all would be used first as a basis to declare that the attack was an offensive failure (whatever the reality) and second as a justification for the necessity of a defensive nuclear weapons program.

Iran is engaged in a form of oil diplomacy, whereby it is forging economic relationships with Russia, India and China which would likely make it impossible to get any authorization for sanctions, let alone for military action, from the UN Security Council. Even if military action were authorized it is not clear how it could be effective - the U.S. is strained already in its occupation of Iraq, and no other nation is up to the task of invading, disarming, and occupying Iran (even assuming a nation were willing). Unfortunately, I am not sure that there is an answer to the problem of Iran's developing nuclear weapons.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Oh No... Here Come the Bloggers

Apparently corporate America is running scared... from bloggers:
Web logs are the prized platform of an online lynch mob spouting liberty but spewing lies, libel and invective. Their potent allies in this pursuit include Google and Yahoo.
Forbes shares with us the story of a businessman whose company suffered a drop in its stock value following its loss of an important potential contract with Nestlé... but, of course, the drop is attributed entirely to the work of one evil blogger. They also repeat this utter nonsense:
Even some bloggers see the harm they can pose. "Some people in the blogosphere are too smug about free speech. They'll say it's okay if people get slandered or if people make up fake stuff because in the end the truth wins out," says John Hinderaker, a lawyer in Minneapolis, Minn. who helps run a right-wing blog, Power Line, which hounded CNN's Jordan and CBS anchor Dan Rather. "But I don't think that excuses it."

When Hinderaker published an item saying left-wing bloggers should stop assaulting a White House reporter alleged to have worked as a gay prostitute, his blog brethren went on the assault, publishing his phone number at work and prompting a deluge of harassing phone calls and e-mails. "My secretary was crying" because callers kept swearing at her, he says. "Then we started getting calls at the house. My wife wanted to hire a bodyguard."
Who is the loser who posted Hinderaker's office number on the Internet? Who do you think?

While Forbes does an atrocious job covering the story, such that one might wonder if there is actually a story to report, I had been thinking about the effect of blogs on corporate America. If I ran any sort of company with a major public profile, I would have somebody on my public relations staff actively monitoring weblogs (and other Internet sites and forums) for posts about my company, and would be proactive about responding to any negative rumors or innuendo. Forbes makes some suggestions as to how companies should respond to negative attacks on blogs... some of which seem likely to backfire.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Have a Dowd Paul Krugman Christmas!

What are blog readers searching for this hour? According to Technorati:

1. Dowd - Apparently people are searching out her latest column, which (from the stuff that's not behind the firewall) is an update on last year when she "let her brother" (a Republican) write the bulk of the column for her.

2. "Paul Krugman" - The other Times columnists are "hit and miss", but you can always find Paul Krugman's latest column through technorati and Google's blog search.

3. Christmas - You would almost think it was Christmas Eve....

4. James Dungy - Which reminds me of my post of last evening. It's Christmas, it's tragic for his family, leave it alone... at least for a few days. Okay?

5. Wafa Dufour - Apparently the niece of Osama Bin Laden and an aspiring professional singer / Paris Hilton wannabee.

6. Intelligent Design - Give me a break.

7. Luciana Salazar - Apparently for some people it's not Christmas if you don't get some Argentinian cheesecake.

8. Apple - Apple what? Apple pie? Apple iPod?

9. Mu Zimei - Apparently China's equivalent of Paris Hilton. (Distiction: I had heard of Paris Hilton before today; Similarity: I wish I was still blissfully ignorant of both of them. Along with the Argentinian, um, model and that Bin Laden niece....)

10. Brokeback Mountain - Oops. Refreshing technorati shows that Brokeback Mountain was just replaced by "Sarcozy". Neither being what I would pick for Christmas entertainment.

Apparently, I don't have my finger on the pulse of American society.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Too Much Information?

I recently, on a whim, Googled the name of a law school classmate - and the first result was information on his disbarment. A few days ago I Googled the name of a lawyer I hadn't seen in a few years, and the first hit was a newspaper article implicating him in a financial scandal. Not too far down below was information about his three year suspension from practice. Ouch. (But it's probably good for the public to be able to quickly find information on attorney discipline.)

In response to a weblog post questioning whether the author of a newspaper editorial was a real person, Google not only produced the person's real name and background, but a lot of information on his family tree, his sister's obituary, and some other stuff that also seemed rather personal.

It's pretty amazing how much information is now distributed online, and easily obtainable through Google. And a bit scary sometimes.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

George Will Gets It Right

I have to make sure I'm picking the right adjective....
Whoring, intr v., "To compromise one's principles for personal gain."
But if you don't have principles that's not quite right... Oh yes, here we go....

The Washington Post gives Bush Administration shills William Kristol and Gary Schmitt the opportunity to argue why the President should feel free to ignore the Constitution:
A U.S. president has just received word that American counterterrorist operatives have captured a senior al Qaeda operative in Pakistan. Among his possessions are a couple of cell phones -- phones that contain several American phone numbers. In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, what's a president to do?
Well gosh, golly gee... a hypothetical Al Qaeda operative is picked up, his hypothetical cellular phones contain hypothetical phone numbers of American citizens within the United States, and (although they can monitor the numbers for up to 72 hours under FISA before submitting a back-dated application for a warrant) a hypothetical Administration official fears that their hypothetical application might be denied for hypothetical reasons, which might cause them to lose hypothetical evidence. What is a President do do, other than flout the Constitution?

George Will outthinks them both, even before you get past the headline of his editorial - "Why Didn't He Ask Congress?"

Monday, December 19, 2005

Out With The Laundry

Today's Washington Post, in an unsigned editorial, complains about money laundering charges:
It may be, as the judge found, that the money-laundering statute technically applies in this situation, but its use here strikes us as odd. Ordinarily, money laundering would be taking criminal booty -- say, drug money -- and finding a way to transform it into legitimate-looking funds. In this case, though, the "proceeds of criminal activity" -- the corporate-funded campaign checks -- are the same as the alleged criminal activity itself.
Doesn't this boil down to an argument that you should never be able to be convicted of money laundering in relation to a purely financial crime (e.g., a ponzi scheme or 'sale' of non-existant real estate) because the "'proceeds of criminal activity' ... are the same as the alleged criminal activity itself"?

One of the peculiarities of modern interpretation of double jeopardy is that we frequently see what would seem to be a single criminal act split into parts, with each part subject to separate criminal charges. Drive a truckload of drugs across a border? That's separate offenses of importing drugs and possessing drugs. Forge a check and deposit it at the bank? That's separate offenses of forgery and "uttering and publishing" - hey, and if you deposit the check by mail, we can get a few more charges out of that as well.

Is It Torture?

Given that some people have a great deal of trouble deciding what is torture and what is not, I propose the following test:

If you wish to assert that something is not torture, you subject yourself to the technique at the hands of those who disagree. If, after a standard application of the technique, you continue to insist that the technique is not torture, you win! If you confess that it is torture, even if just to get things to stop, you lose.

This may be a suprisingly fast process:
Water Boarding: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.

According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in. They said al Qaeda's toughest prisoner, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two-and-a-half minutes before begging to confess.
The larger question is whether you get valid information through torture, or torture-like techniques (if you prefer not to use the T-word). My point is not so much that you need to admit that these techniques constitute torture - it is that you would admit that they were torture, often within a few minutes of their onset.

Do you think Khalid Sheik Mohammed gave a full and truthful account of everything he knew after one round of waterboarding? Or do you go for round two, round three, and additional rounds until you are sure? And are you sure because the story he gives you is consistent? Or are you sure when he starts telling you what you want to hear?

The rational torture victim is probably a lot like Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man - "What do you want me to say so I can get out of this?":
Christian Szell: Is it safe?... Is it safe?
Babe: You're talking to me?
Christian Szell: Is it safe?
Babe: Is what safe?
Christian Szell: Is it safe?
Babe: I don't know what you mean. I can't tell you something's safe or not, unless I know specifically what you're talking about.
Christian Szell: Is it safe?
Babe: Tell me what the "it" refers to.
Christian Szell: Is it safe?
Babe: Yes, it's safe, it's very safe, it's so safe you wouldn't believe it.
Christian Szell: Is it safe?
Babe: No. It's not safe, it's... very dangerous, be careful.
(A more personal account of torture and its impact on society is available in the Washington Post.)

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Rolling the Percentile Dice

I'm all for taking care before violent criminals are released from incarceration, and that concern is heightened where they have killed and may kill again, but what should I make of this:
Why was Hanson considered for release when he had apparently been evaluated in prison as being an inmate with a 91% chance of reoffending and an increasing tendency towards violence?
By what scientific method, dare I ask, can one establish such a specific probability figure?

So His Silence Means... Guilt?

President Bush is famously tight-lipped about the criminal acts of his underlings. Even when it seems obvious that he knows or could easily determine the culprit's identity, has promised to take strong action against the culprit, and an inictment has been issued, he insists that we must reserve judgment.

Except, as it seems, where he believes the suspect is innocent.

On Wednesday, Bush was asked on Fox News Channel whether he believed DeLay was innocent, and he replied, "Yes, I do."

Spokesman Scott McClellan said Thursday that Bush was exercising his "presidential prerogative" in commenting on the case.
Yesterday, Wilson delivered a speech in which he said Rove should lose his job regardless of whether he knowingly used Plame's name or revealed her CIA connection. "This is a firing offense," he said.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan rejected that idea and said Rove was at work, engaged in meetings and enjoying Bush's full confidence. McClellan said the White House will not comment on the leak because the investigation is ongoing and it does not want to prejudice the Libby case.
Oh, no... They certainly wouldn't want to do that....

Fighting Plain English

I was making revisions to another lawyer's work today, and was reminded of the proliferation of articles and practice guides which encourage the use of plain language when drafting legal documents. While many lawyers write clearly enough... stepping into character:

In the instant case, were said lawyer referencing an biographical article about Professor Edward Said, said lawyer might be inclined to reference said article with, "Said article on Said said clearly what Said said about said circumstances."

And he wouldn't see a problem with that.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Reefer Madness Redux

In the U.K., it seems that a growing number of people (including some who used to deem marijuana relatively harmless) are embracing the notion of reefer madness. The idea is that marijuana is more potent than ever, and as a consequence it actually is making people psychotic. The evidence boils down to anecdote, and correlation as causation. The potency argument:
Much of the alarm is due to the fact that the drug is not the same as it used to be, and the very high content of active ingredient in skunk compared with more benign weed. Called tetrahydrocannabidinol or THC, it is the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, the bit that makes us high. Skunk tends to be grown hydroponically (without soil), indoors and without natural sunlight, and whereas 30 years ago an average joint contained about 10mg of THC, a joint of skunk today might contain as much as 300mg.
Except... I happen to know a few people who might be deemed "aging hippies" (and who still, um, dabble). When this notion of declining potency comes up in conversation, to date every single one has thought the notion ludicrous, and has insisted that pot was much more potent in the 60's. (Any other aging hippies out there? Add your thoughts in the comments.)

It is interesting to read that the critics of this new potent marijuana, even those who argue that it causes psychosis and perhaps schizophrenia, support legalization.
Interestingly (and it might come as a surprise to the Daily Mail), there is one point on which almost everyone I spoke to agrees: it would be much better if cannabis were legalised. At present, consumers cannot be sure about the strength of the stuff supplied by dealers. If they could buy it over the counter, the THC content clearly displayed like alcohol proof on a bottle, they would know what they were getting. Prohibitionist Jeremiahs warn that punters would inevitably go for the high-octane stuff, but the argument does not follow: given the choice, we do not all opt for brandy rather than beer. Meanwhile, few mental-health professionals see the point of criminalising already vulnerable people.
This is qualified with the suggestion that the legalized pot should be regulated in its THC content. (Regulate it down to 10 mg, though, and I am quite confident that my aging hippy friends will continue to find alternative sources....)

Monday, December 12, 2005

Of Mice and Men

I've been having a peculiar problem with my computer mouse, which causes the mouse to jump suddenly to a random corner of the screen while I am scrolling. This happens more frequently when the computer is performing CPU-intensive tasks, which led me to believe it was a hardware or driver problem. When this phenomenon kept repeating as I was trying to highlight text I was editing in a long, complext document (which results in my suddenly selecting several pages of text instead of a few lines), I decided to research the problem more deeply than I have in the past to try to pinpoint a cause.

I found some relatively obscure discussions of the technical problems which can cause this problem, with talk of reinstalling drivers, adjusting the mouse settings, updating the BIOS, reinstalling Windows, or junking the mouse. Occasionally there was a reference to using an uneven surface under the mouse, but I was using a clean Dell mousepad which I obtained years ago when I purchased the computer. The overall tone of the advice was "You'll probably have to throw away the mouse and buy a new one." Which wouldn't be so bad, except for the fact that I only recently purchased this mouse to replace one that was dying of old age.

And then I found a practical joke:
The optical mousetrap is a gag device designed to torture your coworkers.

It's a small clear sticker that affixes to the optical pickup on any optical mouse. Embedded in the sticker are small etchings designed to diffuse the light and cause the mouse to go crazy and fly off to the corner of the screen.

Coworkers go crazy trying to figure out what's wrong with their mouse and finally give up and get another one from the supply room. Luckily, the stickers come in a 10 pack. Fun for everyone.
I think for a moment.... My Dell mousepad has an interesting texture built into its surface, presumably to make a mechanical mouse roll more smoothly. So I took a sheet of plain white paper, placed it over the mousepad, and... problem solved.

I wonder how many other Dell users upgraded to optical mice, and are frustrated by Dell's inadvertent practical joke?

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Looking For Villains In All The Wrong Places

Recently, Nicholas Kristof wrote a column, The Hubris of the Humanities, in which he quite rightly pointed out that the U.S. is losing ground in maths and sciences.
But put aside the evolution debate for a moment. It's only a symptom of something much deeper and more serious: a profound illiteracy about science and math as a whole.

One-fifth of Americans still believe that the Sun goes around the Earth, instead of the other way around. And only about half know that humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs.
In this society, which for generations has venerated the high school athlete and demeans studious ("geek", "egghead", "nerd", etc.), who is to blame for this?
The problem isn't just inadequate science (and math) teaching in the schools, however. A larger problem is the arrogance of the liberal arts, the cultural snootiness of, of ... well, of people like me - and probably you.
Now I admit to having a liberal arts education, which (as you would expect) included extensive study of the natural sciences and math. Kristof conflates the liberal arts with the humanities.

Leaving aside his careless choice of words, I can agree with Kristof's overall argument that our society would benefit from greater scientific literacy. Kristof's examples, though, seem designed to advance his notion that it is experts in the humanities who are somehow at fault for this nation's poor grasp of science:
What do I mean by that? In the U.S. and most of the Western world, it's considered barbaric in educated circles to be unfamiliar with Plato or Monet or Dickens, but quite natural to be oblivious of quarks and chi-squares.

* * *

In terms of the skills we need for the 21st century, we're Shakespeare-quoting Philistines. A year ago, I wanted to ornament a column with a complex equation, so, as a math ninny myself, I looked around the Times newsroom for anyone who could verify that it was correct. Now you can't turn around in the Times newsroom without bumping into polyglots who come and go talking of Michelangelo. But it took forever to turn up someone confident in his calculus - in the science section.
Apparently, those Times employees confident in their calculus did not include Kristof, hence his need for verification. Which isn't a surprise as, "math ninny" or no, if you don't exercise your calculus skills they become rusty. And Kristof concludes,
But there's an even larger challenge than anti-intellectualism. And that's the skewed intellectualism of those who believe that a person can become sophisticated on a diet of poetry, philosophy and history, unleavened by statistics or chromosomes. That's the hubris of the humanities.
This isn't the first time that Kristof has invented a soft target at which to aim his barbs. I am wondering - can he identify even one person who believes "that a person can become sophisticated on a diet of poetry, philosophy and history, unleavened by statistics or chromosomes"? And upon what basis could he possibly suggest that this fictitious faction poses a greater danger to scientific literacy than anti-intellectualism? Perhaps it's all the sports dads suddenly pulling their kids off of the football team to study Monet and Michelangelo.

Kristof perhaps takes his call for scientific literacy beyond what I would deem necessary. I could devote the necessary time to refresh my math, calculus, physics, and other science knowledge and skills, or even to expand them. But realistically, there is not much call for calculus in my daily activities, and when there is I find it more efficient to refresh my memory in relation to the specific need. My knowledge of science and statistics provides a framework which I attempt to use when processing information, even as some of the specifics become hazy. I would like to see our society embrace the maths and sciences as an important part of all levels of education, and to provide both opportunity and encouragement to kids who are inclined toward the maths and sciences.

Wasting Time At Work

How much time do workers waste at work? According to Microsoft, it's two days per week:
In the U.S, the biggest productivity pitfalls were procrastination - picked by 42 percent of those polled - lack of team communication (39 percent), and ineffective meetings (34 percent). Global numbers were quite different. There, procrastination got 29 percent of the vote, while unclear objectives and ineffective meetings garnered 32 percent.

More than a third of the hours down the tubes are those wasted in meetings, said American respondents, who estimated that they spent 5.5 hours in meetings per week, with 71 percent of those workers feeling meetings are unproductive.
Ah yes... The glorious meeting. I once worked at an organization which appointed a committee to pick the decor for the restrooms. They met for a couple of months, looking at various wallpaper and wall covering samples, and after many hours of diligent work... picked beige paint and a 6" wallpaper accent around the ceiling. But then, the meetings on more weighty issues never seemed to produce any meaningful results.

According to CNN/Money, it's more like 1.5 days per week... based upon a more management-friendly definition of wasting time:
By "wasting time," all that's meant is time spent on the job not doing actual work, said Bill Coleman, senior vice president of

(Tempting though it may be to include, it doesn't mean all that time you spend in pointless meetings or carrying out inane requests from the boss.)
Apparently we waste an average of 2.09 hours per day, when managers expect us to waste only one.

By we, of course, I mean you. If you look at the number of hours attorneys bill in a typical week, you will immediately recognize that lawyers don't waste time and maintain peak productivity even when working 70 hours per week. (Bill padding, you say? No, really - it's our exceptional productivity.)

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Judicial Activism, or Asleep On The Bench?

From the ACLU of Michigan (emphasis added):
After exhausting all avenues in the Michigan courts, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan announced today that it has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a Catholic man who was criminally punished for not completing a Pentecostal drug rehabilitation program.

* * *

Unbeknownst to Mr. Hanas when he entered the program, one of the goals of Christian Outreach was to convert him from Catholicism to the Pentecostal faith. He was forced to read the bible for seven hours a day and was tested on Pentecostal principles. The staff also told him that Catholicism was a form of witchcraft and they confiscated both his rosary and Holy Communion prayer book. At one point, the program director told his aunt that he “gave up his right of freedom of religion when he was placed into this program.” Mr. Hanas was told that in order to complete the program successfully he would have to proclaim his salvation at the altar and was threatened that if he did not do what the pastor told him to do, he would be “washed of the program and go to prison.”

After seven weeks of receiving no drug treatment whatsoever and only coercion of the Pentecostal religion, Mr. Hanas left Christian Outreach. Though he objected to a pervasively religious rehabilitation program, he was denied reinstatement to the drug court program.

The judge acknowledged that Mr. Hanas had been prohibited from practicing his religion, that Christian Outreach was a religious program, not a treatment program where there were no drug or alcohol counselors on staff, and that Hanas was prohibited from attending Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings.

Nonetheless, the judge determined that he did not satisfactorily complete the program, removed him from the Drug Court and sentenced him to jail for three months and then to boot camp. It was only after his release from boot camp that he finally received drug treatment at a secular residential rehabilitation program.
What a wise use of our "faith based" tax dollars.

Dems and the Center

I've been reading lots of commentary lately on how when you poll people at the political center - so-called swing voters - they tend to align themselves with the Democrats on social issues, but that doesn't stop them from voting Republican. Much of the commentary concludes that security is the most singificant factor in causing swing voters to choose a "strong on defense" Republican, even though they don't agree with that candidate's social agenda. I do think that the stereotype of Republicans as being better on defense and "law and order" issues helped Bush win reelection, but what about the first time when the nation was pretty evenly split between the candidates?

I think Bush's self-portrait as a "compassionate conservative" who believed in "a hand up, not a handout" was a significant factor in his first victory. His campaign recognized that voters did not support a hard-right social agenda, so they depicted Bush as advancing policies of individual responsibility and opportunity. I think that resonates with voters. I believe that many swing voters and low-income wage earners view the Democrats as a party which gives handouts to people they see as the undeserving poor, and will perpetuate and even expand upon "welfare" programs they see as a wealth transfer from them to the poor. Recall Reagan, who is credited with "shifting the middle" and his tales of the welfare queen who drives a Cadillac? That perception still resonates, particularly with people who live from paycheck-to-paycheck.

It even resonates with some who are the beneficiaries of welfare programs, such as food stamps, Section 8 housing subsidies or Medicaid. Some don't see the benefits they receive as welfare, and some may believe that they pay for those benefits through their taxes. But some probably feel that that it's okay to take a subsidy if you're working (the proverbial "hand up"), but not to get a hand-out if you're not. Some fear a tax increase.

Bill Clinton's popularity was not driven by the notion that he was a hard-as-nails Republican who would increase our military might. He was frequently depicted as having avoided the draft, of being weak on military, and even of weakening our defense capabilities. But his welfare reform was pretty conservative and in the eyes of many was not-so-compassionate. Yet the reforms resonated with voters to the extent that the Republican party frequently accused Clinton of stealing their ideas. When was the last time one party accused the other of "stealing" an idea that was a loser with the voters?

Monday, December 05, 2005

Diagnosis of Autism

According to the London Guardian,
Detailed snapshots of the children's brains showed that networks of nerves thought crucial for understanding other people's emotions and intentions did not spark into life at the appropriate moment. The more severe a child's autism, the less activity the circuits showed.
Let's hope this discovery leads to innovations in treatment.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

"Make Mine Unleaded"

I recognize that a common joke at a coffee shop is to ask for "unleaded" instead of "decaf", but apparently George Will takes that quite literally....
Because the average price of a gallon of gasoline has swiftly plunged from the post-Katrina high of $3.07 to $2.15 (compared with $185.60 for a gallon of Starbucks espresso), the recurring populist fever that always follows oil price spikes has broken. It will be back.
So is he suggesting that we economize by drinking gasoline instead of Starbucks espresso, or is he pioneering a line of cars that run on coffee? [Insert smiley here for the sarcasm-impaired.]

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Walmart, Walmart, Walmart....

Over at TPMCafe, Matt Yglesias posted a rather dismissive comment about criticism of WalMart which, needless to say, inspired reaction.
This [notion of WalMart's payroll as subsidized] is a genuinely perverse way of looking at the situation. Here's what's happening. You have some people. Once upon a time, they didn't work for Wal-Mart. Then they decided to take jobs at Wal-Mart. Presumably, their previous jobs were worse, or not jobs at all. Wal-Mart jobs don't pay very much money, which makes many of the people who work at Wal-Mart poor. The government, at the behest of decades of liberal agitation, runs programs that provide services or money to poor people. And now liberals are supposed to complain that this amounts to Wal-Mart getting subsidies?
I think his analysis is simplistic, but it did inspire an interesting response from Mark Schmidt about a trend away from a minimum wage (which would be paid by business) to subsidies for low-wage employees (which are paid by our taxes). Personally, I don't think this is a WalMart question - lots of employers pay their employees poorly, with WalMart standing out due to its size - but instead reflects the outcome of public policy decisions which attempt to ensure a basic standard of living for wage-earners, but which doesn't require corporations to bear the full cost of that public policy.

If minimum wage is $5.15/hour, and WalMart pays a typical entry level employee $7 or $8 an hour (pulling numbers out of the air here), it is difficult to argue that the minimum wage is forcing up the cost of labor. But if you were to raise the minimum wage to $7.50 per hour and also mandate reasonably comprehensive, employer subsidized health care, you would significantly increase the cost of labor. The subsidies we give to low-wage workers allow "pro-market" politicians to pretend that they are letting the market set wages, allow "labor-oriented" politicians to pat themselves on the back for protecting low-wage workers, and... well, beyond the political convenience, they aren't really pro-market and probably aren't the most efficient subsidies we could offer if we truly wished to improve the lot of low-wage workers and their families. Like so many things in our society, we create an ugly kludge of policies that perhaps best serve politicians by allowing all of them to declare victory, and to give themselves glowing self-appraisals in the letters they send to their constituents.

If you have ever been a manger in, say, food service, it would be difficult to leave the situation without recognizing that there are people in the job market who will never rise above the lowest levels of employment. Some are capable of more, but either by poor work habit or by preference don't rise through the ranks. Some aren't capable of more. Some, you wonder how they managed to successfully complete the application (and, actually, some don't). We can't pretend that corporations will take care of these low-end workers - WalMart's factories in China (or heck - the history of the industrial revolution, or the story of Triangle Shirtwaist) tell us how it would treat its employees here if given the chance.

The population which always rises to the defense of corporations would use the same line, no matter what the circumstances for the workers - "They decided to take jobs at a sweatshop. Presumably, their previous jobs were worse, or not jobs at all." Anything above penury is an improvement, and is thus justifiable. To some, it seems like profits are a moral imperative, people an afterthought.

At its heart, the question of how we treat these workers - whether through education, minimum wage, subsidies, other anti-proverty programs - helps define our culture and society. Are we truly committed to providing opportunity for all, or do we prefer to give lip service to equality while instituting or perpetuating policies which perpetuate or even expand the population of workers who will never rise more than a few inches above the entry level.