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.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Language Barriers

When I got married in Costa Rica, one of the witnesses to the wedding was the singer who performed each night at the resort. She was very nice, and spoke excellent English, but apparently there was a bit of a language barrier.

That night at her performance, seeing us in the audience, she announced to the audience that we had been married that morning, and dedicated a song to us... and had the band play Careless Whisper by Wham!. (Although she had a great voice, I must say that nonetheless I was happy that she didn't sing along on that particular number.)

That's probably not a mistake that will be repeated after George Michael's wedding.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"Hands Off My Kid"

The London Guardian presents a mother's examination of how children are treated in the modern world and argues that a desire to protect our offspring from harm has turned into an even greater threat to society as a whole.

High Taxes Are Good

Or, at least, that's the message I infer from Sebastian Mallaby. You see, high taxes - preferably focused on the working poor - creat a significant pool of revenue which can be used to subsidize products for all of society, and which can be used to devise programs to help the poor. Sure, it would lower income for the working poor, but between the new social welfare programs and lower prices they may well end up better off. And the rest of us would enjoy lower prices!

Well, perhaps he had something else in mind, but that is more or less his argument as to why WalMart should be deemed a "progressive" company. It's just that instead of having the government tax the wages of WalMart employees, Walmart offers them a lower wage, shares the wealth with the rest of society (like a Robin Hood who rejects "class warfare"), and sponsors its own programs to help the needy. (These new programs could be less targeted at the needy than existing programs - after all, why should only the needy benefit from such programs?)

Mallaby presents a former economic advisor to John Kerry, whose analysis is claimed to show that WalMart saves shoppers (not poor shoppers - all shoppers) $50 billion per year on groceries. (That figure is apparently extrapolated from the savings across all retailers the economist attributes to WalMart's prices and their downward pressure on the competition.) Mallaby then variably speculates that this means that WalMart shoppers save between $200 and $250 billion annually on all of their purchases (despite presenting no evidence that WalMart's effect on prices is the same for non-food items as it is for food). Yet if you recognize WalMart's market share of about 15%, give them a generous bonus of 1/3 to reflect their remaining geographic limitations, their direct share of that speculative savings figure is $40-$50 billion, with the rest coming from lowered prices at other retailers, many of which pay better, offer better benefits, and some of which are even unionized.

Mallaby then speaks of the depression in worker wages caused by WalMart, but unlike his prior, wacky and wild attribution of all retail savings directly to WalMart and fabrication of a multiplier to "represent" all WalMart products, he gets cautious - "Arindrajit Dube of the University of California at Berkeley, a leading Wal-Mart critic, has calculated that the firm has caused a $4.7 billion annual loss of wages for workers in the retail sector. This number is disputed...." Mallaby then contends that other retailers also pay employees poorly. By this point in the column, most readers looking for actual data have probably given up in disgust, saving themselves from this additional disappointment. Mallaby presents no data to back up his notion that WalMart doesn't depress wages, nor does he speak to how WalMart's measured effect of causing its competitors to lower prices might depress wages at other stores. (But then, you didn't really think that Mallaby read, let alone understood, the economic paper he cited earlier, did you?)

And, Mallaby assures us, even if workers are down $5 billion at WalMart, that's "dwarfed" by the $50 billion that everybody saves buying food at all food retailers... well, no, he's still not acknowledging that WalMart doesn't sell all of the nation's food. And despite his excess of caution on wage deflation, Mallaby speculates that even lower wages are still a greater good, because low-wage workers can shop at WalMart and may even be better off due to the low prices which result in part from their low wages. Seriously.
Indeed, Furman points out that the wage suppression is so small that even its "victims" may be better off. Retail workers may take home less pay, but their purchasing power probably still grows thanks to Wal-Mart's low prices.
But let's not think Mallaby is "unfair" - while ignoring the effect WalMart has on its competitors' wages, he is willing to look at the wages offered by suppliers:
To be fair, the $4.7 billion of wage suppression in the retail sector excludes Wal-Mart's efforts to drive down wages at its suppliers. "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price," the new anti-Wal-Mart movie that's circulating among activist groups, has the requisite passage about Chinese workers getting pennies per day, sweating to keep Wal-Mart's shelves stocked with cheap clothing. But no study has shown whether Wal-Mart's tactics actually do suppress wages in China or elsewhere, and suppression seems unlikely in poor countries. The Chinese garment workers are mainly migrants from farms, where earnings are even worse than at Wal-Mart's subcontractors and where the labor is still more grueling.
Ah yes - the "sweatshops are good, because it is better than starving in the country" argument. Mallaby's next column, I expect, will call for a return to the labor policies of the industrial revolution and praise the positive economic effect of companies like Triangle Shirtwaist. No, wait, it will be about communism as a boon to capitalist markets - how great it is that there are still hundreds of millions of people living in totalitarian communist regimes, where they will continue to provide us with a pool of cheap, invisible sweatshop labor for the indefinite future. And how we can plead innocent to our role in perpetuating that regime by retorting that the Communist Party, not the market, sets the value of labor.

And then there's WalMart's high percentage of workers on Medicare. Mallaby presents yet another astounding claim - progressive and capitalist thinkers alike should applaud the fact that its workers are government-subsidized:
Wal-Mart's critics also paint the company as a parasite on taxpayers, because 5 percent of its workers are on Medicaid. Actually that's a typical level for large retail firms, and the national average for all firms is 4 percent. Moreover, it's ironic that Wal-Mart's enemies, who are mainly progressives, should even raise this issue. In the 1990s progressives argued loudly for the reform that allowed poor Americans to keep Medicaid benefits even if they had a job. Now that this policy is helping workers at Wal-Mart, progressives shouldn't blame the company. Besides, many progressives favor a national health system. In other words, they attack Wal-Mart for having 5 percent of its workers receive health care courtesy of taxpayers when the policy that they support would increase that share to 100 percent.
Is Mallaby the world's dumbest man? No, more likely he is regurgitating a set of speaking points he received from WalMart. (One wonders at time if he is paid to produce nonsense like this, or if it is just so easy to regurgitate a memo or press release somebody hands to him that this is typical of his output.)
Companies like Wal-Mart are not run by saints. They can treat workers and competitors roughly. They may be poor stewards of the environment. When they break the law they must be punished.
Let's be blunt. Companies like WalMart do as companies are wont to do. They seek to maximize market share and profits. In the absense of regulation, we see the industrial revolution, we see Union Carbide's plant explosion in Bhopal, we see children and other workers working six or seven long days per week in sweatshops throughout the developing world, we get mercury poisoning in Minamata bay, we see a fifty-mile long benzene slick flowing downstream from a 100 ton benzene spill.... And, as Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, and similar companies have demonstrated, some companies will actively defraud their customers, clients and shareholders, and will permit management to treat the corporations assets as a personal piggy bank to support excess that even the Shah of Iran and Imelda Marcos might have denounced as debauchery. Now I recognize that some people will look at all of that and say "It's still better than having government regulate business," which is a point where we will have to agree to disagree.

All of that said, my objections to Mallaby's idiocy do not mean that I hate WalMart. WalMart wishes to open a store in an armpit of a small town north of Detroit, where despite its wages it will be one of the better paying employers in town, and will provide jobs in an area of high unemployment. If it opens it will cause some local businesses to close, including a small, dismal, run-down K-Mart, the owner of which is putting a lot more energy into fighting WalMart than into measures which might make his business more viable. It will also probably cause the local grocery store to close, but they sold out to a regional chain a number of years ago, and many locals already travel out of town for the better prices and selection available at larger grocery stores in nearby towns. On the whole the net impact on the town and surrounding community will likely be positive.

But that doesn't mean I have to buy into Mallaby's "with friends like these" defense of WalMart.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Why Do We Pretend?

The New York Times shares with us the alarming news that student athletes are finding ways to inflate their high school GPA's such that they qualify for sports "scholarships":
The New York Times identified 14 [graduates of 'University High'] who had signed with 11 Division I football programs: Auburn, Central Florida, Colorado State, Florida, Florida State, Florida International, Rutgers, South Carolina State, South Florida, Tennessee and Temple.

University High, which has no classes and no educational accreditation, appears to have offered the players little more than a speedy academic makeover.
Let's say that a student attempting to enter one of those schools on the basis of academic merit submitted a made-over transcript from "University High"... how many seconds do you think it would take for the admissions officer to stamp "REJECTED" on the application?
The school's program illustrates that even as the N.C.A.A. presses for academic reforms, its loopholes are quickly recognized and exploited
If by "loophole" we mean a way to cheat the system, with the colleges accepting athletes knowing full well that their high school GPA's are works of fiction, then yes, it's a "loophole". But if you were to require even a modicum of good faith action on the part of the colleges....

At least in relation to the "big money" sports, why are we still pretending that college athletics are somehow about academics?

David Brooks Takes On His Irresponsible War Coverage

Today's column by David Brooks (Heroes Abroad, Unknown at Home; It's behind the "Times Select" firewall... sorry) is critical of the war coverage - no, not of the rationale for war or whether there was a distortion of the evidence, but of the scant media attention given to soldiers. His argument boils down to this:

* I have done a terrible job sharing the heroic stories of individual soliders - in fact, before today, I don't recall a single column or television appearance where I shared such a story. But, to the extent that space permits, I'll introduce such a story. ("I don't have space to describe how Ieva and the other marines fought on that hot spring day, but by the end, about 75 insurgents had been killed and 17 captured.")

* The media should be covering these stories.

* The media's failure to cover the stories is your fault.

As Brooks laments that "most Americans couldn't name a single hero from this war", perhaps he has forgotten that when the Pentagon announces that a soldier is a hero and presents the story line, the press will carry the story. That is why Americans can name Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman. But no... in the world of Brooks, it isn't the media or Pentagon who bear responsibility - it's you:
That's partly because in the post-Vietnam era many Americans - especially those who dominate the culture - are uncomfortable with military valor. That's partly because some people don't want this war to seem like a heroic enterprise. And it's partly because many Americans are aloof from this whole conflict, and couldn't tell you a thing about Operations Matador and Steel Curtain and the other major offensives.
So people like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Charles Krauthammer, Sean Hannity, David Brooks himself, and other leading conservative voices are silent on stories of individual courage because they are uncomfortable with military valor? Because they are aloof from the conflict, and know nothing of individual operations? Because they don't want the war to seem like a heroic enterprise? Or perhaps Brooks, in his inimitable manner, presents another thoughtless, knee-jerk rationalization?

Our nation loves its heroes - when it hears about them. There's certainly room in the media to cover the minutia of the love life of Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson... and, for that matter, to manufacture their fame. Looking at the Fox News website right now, I see no individual stories of heroism from the war, but I can read what Russell Crowe thinks of his now-resolved criminal charge for assaulting a hotel employee, of a statue of the Virgin Mary that is supposedly "crying" a substance that looks like blood... and a teaser for The O'Reilly Factor on the murder of the nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford. (If you go to his main page, he's actually talking about the war, but apparently Fox thinks its viewers are more interested in the salacious and sensational.)

And when Brooks writes,
Every time you delve into the situation in Iraq, you come away with the phrase "not enough troops" ringing in your head, and I hope someday we will find out how this travesty came about.
Has he truly forgotten?

Monday, November 21, 2005

"Bush Drinks Mare's Milk"....

Well, read it for yourself. I just hope that Laura doesn't take inspiration for her next White House Correspondents' Association dinner.

Poorly Chosen URL's

When I warned lawyers about taking care when choosing law firm URL's... If you want more evidence of the danger of a poorly considered URL, while they aren't from law firm sites, see Prof. Volokh's examples.

A Victorian Perspective on Manners

In "iPod's Missed Manners", George Will laments how technology seems to be affecting how people behave in public.
Many people have no notion of propriety when in the presence of other people, because they are not actually in the presence of other people, even when they are in public.
And I don't mean to diminish that thesis, as I agree that some people are oblivious to how their public use of technology affects others. It's a bit overstated to speak only to electronic gadgets - George Will's fear of stumbling across somebody who is watching pornography on an iPod is duly noted, but historically that same person could as easily have been looking at printed pornography. And yes, it is annoying when you are stuck on a bus with a person who has the volume on her music player so loud that you can discern the lyrics, but people can also infringe upon your personal space while reading a newspaper, block you from taking a seat by placing a bag or stack of books next to themselves, and can interfere with your quiet enjoyment by singing. Technology isn't the problem.

Will mentions the fact that some parents object to being told that they need to control their kids in public, or that somebody else might tell their kids how to behave. That's unquestionably true - and pretty much anybody in food service is likely to be able to share horror stories. Will writes,
A thoroughly modern parent, believing that children must be protected from feelings injurious to self-esteem, says: "Johnny, the fact that you did something bad does not mean you are bad for doing it." We have, Truss thinks, "created people who will not stand to be corrected in any way." Furthermore, it is a brave, or foolhardy, man who shows traditional manners toward women. In today's world of "hair-trigger sensitivity," to open a door for a woman is to play what Truss calls Gallantry Russian Roulette: You risk a high-decibel lecture on gender politics.
With all due respect, Will is referencing something other than modernity, although for once he didn't use the "l" word to describe the type of person he intends to describe. (Perhaps that's because if his earlier silliness, that liberals see calls for rigid conformity to grammar rules as fascistic, while conservatives view it as a fight against anarchy. Or perhaps it's because he has encountered "conservative" parents who are raising unruly kids.) If I were asked to identify the person in the nation who best exemplifies "people who will not stand to be corrected in any way", the person who first comes to mind is President Bush.

As for holding doors open for people? I've done that my whole life, without once being lectured. (Although I do sometimes experience the thought, "A thank you would be nice.") I think he should check the date on that particular canard - it's past its shelf life. (Or does Will cling to it as an excuse for not getting the door?)

Why do I reference Will's column as a Victorian perspective on manners? Because much of Victorian "polite society" involved rules for behavior in public, while turning a blind eye to what was happening behind closed doors. Will's similar focus on public conduct ignores how private conduct also shapes manners, and permits him to impeach the manners of others without taking a hard look in the mirror. His columns, to put it mildly, cannot always be described as contributing to polite discourse.

As a knee-jerk reactionary blogger, I make no claim that editorials should adhere to a polite and respectful tone. (Well, maybe they should, but the other way can be more cathartic.) I do think, though, that the conduct of columnists such as Will contributes to the manner of public debate, and that he should thus consider his own contribution when lamenting how impolite the world has become.

The State of The Law in Britain

In a rather eclectic editorial in the London Guardian, Marcel Berlins addresses the new system for appointing Queen's Counsels, the demise of "Underneath Their Robes" (and his desire for a British parallel), and horse racing:
Last Saturday, three legally named racehorses were running, two of them at generous odds (admittedly because they're not much good). Law Maker, Law Breaker and Legal Lover. This was the opportunity for our investments to crash into big profit, following a slightly unsuccessful spell. Alas, Law Breaker was a non-runner and the Wolverhampton meeting at which Law Maker was to run (in the subtly named Live Football Cashbacks At Bet Direct Handicap) was called off because of fog. Still, Legal Lover won, and we had another decent winner last week, Legal Glory at 12:1.
I'll dedicate a song to Law Breaker.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Playing Doctor

Over at MedRants, Dr. Centor expresses concern about the growing number of people in their 20's and 30's who are finding ways to get the prescriptions that they feel they need, without going to a doctor.
This article about young adults trading psychoactive meds does scare me. I do understand their concerns, but I am not convinced that they really understand the implications of medication use. We must learn more than pharmacology in order to do a good job prescribing. We should know all the indications and all the contraindications. We should know what other medical conditions the patient has.
It is interesting to note, first, that many of the people in the age cohort he describes are among the nation's uninsured and underinsured - that is, the people who we are routinely assured are choosing not to carry health insurance because they are in good health and don't "need" it. Trading medicines, or buying them online without going through a doctor's office, may well be about saving money. Particularly if they have had the same condition and prescription before.

But even assuming cost isn't an issue, I think the manner in which doctors and the pharmaceutical industry treat medication contributes to self-prescription. Many doctors prescribe medication unnecessarily because their patients expect to leave the office with a prescription. Pharmaceutical companies tell patients to "Ask your doctor about Drug X", not because it's necessarily the best drug for the patient, but because doctors will often prescribe in accord with the patient's request. (Commercials for Zoloft used to spell out precisely the set of symptoms that somebody could describe to justify a prescription - and odds are, doctors prescribed Zoloft or another SSRI to patients who came in, described those symptoms, and requested Zoloft.)

The authority with which doctors pass out prescriptions, coupled with the "miracle cure" depiction pharmaceutical companies give in advertisements for their patented medications (before listing potential side-effects in a rapid, low monotone) contributes to an attitude that pretty much any human ailment can be cured with a pill. And yes, part of the problem is that in reality there are a great many effective medications for conditions that would have been treated ineffectively in the past, and modern medications (particularly psychotropic medications) tend to carry fewer side-effects than the ones they displace, contributing to a perception that if it comes from a pharmaceutical company, it is safe to take.

Woodward's Source

I'll give credit to Vaughn Ververs at CBS News for my favorite "Deep Throat" variation to date - deeming Woodward's newest confidential informant "Sore Throat".
This morning on Don Imus’ show, Post media writer Howard Kurtz described the controversy being inflicted on news organizations from Time magazine to The New York Times, and now the Post as a “virus” spreading from one to the next. He also said he’s taken to calling Woodward’s latest secret source as “Shallow Throat.” I’d take it a step further and say it’s the media’s addiction to unnamed sources that is the virus and it’s giving the entire profession a “Sore Throat.” And if it goes untreated, it could turn into something much more serious to our health.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Roller Coasters

I'm not a huge fan of amusement parks, but my wife adores roller coasters.... So it's probably a good thing I don't have a heart condition. (Right, Forbes... tell us something we didn't already know.)

The Epcot Mission Space ride, mentioned in the article, is quite intense. During the simulated lift-off, it's more like being in a centrifuge than on a roller coaster. The article should also add that it's not for the claustrophobic, or for those predisposed to motion sickness. (The ride is pre-stocked with the paper airsickness bags that you normally find on airlines.) It is interesting to note that, as intense as the liftoff feels, it's at a significantly lower G-force (and is shorter in duration) than an actual liftoff. Although you may not believe this after taking the ride, you'll experience more force (but with much less duration) on a typical roller-coaster. I'm writing it, and I'm not sure that I believe it.

Anyway, that's my first, and probably my last, word on roller coasters. (The literal kind, that is - proverbial roller coasters are still fair game.)

He's Smarter Than This....

Isn't he?

Samuel Alito said, when applying for a job with the Reagan Administration, "the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion." He described that as a strong, personal belief.

He now defends himself by contending that when he made that statement he was "an advocate seeking a job" and according to unnamed Senators now "thinks he's a wiser person" with "a better grasp and understanding about constitutional rights and liberties." Those two claims are not necessarily inconsistent, but there is tension between them.

If Alito's contention that his statement reflects his advocacy as a job seeker but not his actual belief, he is expressing that he would lie to get a job. If his original statement accurately reflects his views, but he is trying to avoid admitting that he still holds that view by suggesting that his past, unequivocal statement on abortion rights was something other than a true statement of his beliefs, he is lying about why he made the original statement. How is this good for him? He's setting himself up for a Perry Mason moment before the Senate - "Were you lying then, or are you lying now?"

As for the Senators' assertions, are they really stating that Alito has approached them in private and expressed that he does think that the Constitution protects the right to abortion, they should be more forthcoming. That would be a highly relevant fact which should be made public. If Alito has not explicitly retreated from his earlier statement, they have no business suggesting that he has.

Further, as I said, there is tension between Alito's claim and the Senators' assertions - if Alito did not believe what he said, but was lying or exaggerating to get a job, his better developed wisdom and sense of Constitutional jurisprudence has no bearing on his position on abortion rights - as he would have had to believe at the time he denounced Roe v Wade that there in fact was some level of constitutional protection of abortion rights.

This isn't (or shouldn't be) part of a litmus test on "choice". We've previously had nominees on both sides of the abortion debate who, although never stating their positions, were expected to advocate for one side or the other, and in fact have done so. The issue, at least to me, is the explanation, which does reflect on the credibility of the witness. (And yes, he is smarter than this, but then even smart people sometimes trip over their own two feet.)

National Stereotypes - Perception vs Reality

Although superficial, this article suggests that while some national or gender stereotypes have a basis in reality, others do not.
In Robert McCrae's most recent study he asked people to assess not their own personality, but a "typical" member of their community. The stereotypes were certainly there: Germans rated themselves as highly conscientiousness; Australians considered themselves to be extrovert, and Canadians thought themselves to be more agreeable than most. But these projections of stereotype had more or less no relationship with the actual personality profile of average citizens of each country.

Germans rate themselves as highly conscientiousness but they score just about the same on this trait as Turks, who consider themselves to be rather unreliable and lazy. Puerto Ricans consider themselves highly extrovert but they are apparently no more so than the French Swiss who consider themselves introverted. These results indicate that such perceptions are social constructs, based on hearsay and prejudice.
It would be interesting to read something more complete about the U.S. than "Americans were similar to Canadians".... The original article is available online, but it doesn't fill in many of the gaps.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Physician Self-Referral

Newt Gingrich has taken note of a problem that has been growing for some time - physician self-referral. The problem is larger than Gingrich depicts, as he speaks only of referrals to physician-owned hospitals. The problem also exists for medical testing facilities, and even for equipment within an individual doctor's medical practice.

Gingrich attempts to avoid tripping over his own feet toward the end of the piece, where he explains that either barring physicians from practicing in hospitals in which they have an ownership interest, or requiring specialized hospitals to take all cases within their specialty, is consistent with his being a "free-market conservative":
As a free-market conservative I strongly favor competition. In fact, I think Adam Smith's description of markets creating more choices of higher quality at lower cost was one of the great breakthroughs in human productivity. His publication of "The Wealth of Nations" in 1776 was as liberating as our own Declaration of Independence the same year.

Yet Smith recognized that sellers often try to create phony markets. He warned that when businesses get together they are often conspiring against the consumer. Businesses can see a financial interest in rigging the market so that it minimizes competition or sets prices. This same temptation to conspire against the consumer can be found in the emerging specialty hospital movement.
And it is present in the auto industry, oil industry, medical insurance industry... anywhere you find a monopoly or oligopoly. Newt is correct to identify the problem of self-referral, which can raise the cost of medicine and hurt the bottom line of community hospitals, but he's somehow overlooking the forest. (Also, I am not sure that Smith would have endorsed Gingrich's notion that the solution to this problem is government regulation, nor for that matter that he would approve of either of Gingrich's specific proposals.)

I don't think Mr. Gingrich actually hates monopolies and oligopolies. I don't think he's particularly concerned about business collusion or price-fixing. He was a dogged advocate of extending copyright protections for the benefit of major media corporations. He was an avowed enemy of the FCC and proponent of relaxed ownership restrictions for ownership of television stations, to the extent that his subsequent attempt to enter a $4.5 million book deal with Rupert Murdoch resulted in a significant public backlash. He has all-but-declared that traditional health insurance should be abolished in favor of medical savings accounts. He wants to limit redress for victims of medical malpractice, no matter how legitimate their claims. His heart does not bleed for the plight of the little guy doing battle with the big corporation, nor for an uninsured person scrambling to afford medical care.

The best explanation for Gingrich's stance is that the various health insurers, hospital corporations, pharmaceutical companies, and health care industry interests that back his various initiatives fear for their bottom line, in the event that independent specialty hospitals cherry-pick the most lucrative patients and treatments. We may eventually get meaningful health care reform in the U.S., but if Gingrich truly wishes to be part of such a reform movement he should come clean about his actual agenda.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Woe is me!

Poor, poor pitiful me!
Poor, poor pitiful me!
Oh, these boys won’t let me be
Lord have mercy on me!
Woe, woe is me!

(It is actually pretty ripe for parody.)

"Don't Forget To Punch Out"

That's the instruction I gave to an employee, many years ago, when she threatened to quit if I insisted that she... do her job. (I wonder what brought that to mind....)

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Digging Yourself A Giant Hole

Several years ago I wrote a simple summary of defamation law, including a discussion of why litigation isn't necessarily a good idea, concluding,
the plaintiff in a defamation action may be required to expend a considerable amount of money to bring the action, may experience significant negative publicity which repeats the false accusations, and if unsuccessful in the litigation may cement into the public consciousness the belief that the defamatory accusations were true. While many plaintiffs will be able to successfully prosecute defamation actions, the possible downside should be considered when deciding whether or not such litigation should be attempted.
The Internet now brings us a case study - Paul Deignan versus Professor Wally Hettle and Bitch, Ph.D..... (Ouch, Ouch.) While some blogs are sympathetic to Mr. Deignan, he gets little support for his belief that a defamation suit is wise, viable, or would result in the $500,000.00 award he guesstimates as the damage to his future earnings (although he has yet to complete his Ph.D. and enter the job market).

As a lawyer, the potential client who declares "I have a great defamation case" sets off an initial set of alarm bells - add dreams of a half-million dollar recovery and my instinct is to conclude the conversation and suggest that they seek counsel elsewhere. It's not that there aren't big money defamation cases - Mr. Deignan mentions Carol Burnett's suit against the Enquirer as an example - but few plaintiffs are Carol Burnett, few defendants are the National Enquirer, and few incidents of defamation are as reckless as that one. Not mentioned, Ariel Sharon's pyrrhic victory against Time Magazine, or Jerry Falwell's unsuccessful suit against Hustler. Or General Westmoreland's suit against CBS which, after costing the General an estimated $2 million, was dropped during the course of trial in exchange for an apology.

What now appears to be happening is that Mr. Deignan's indignation is becoming the focus of debate, as opposed to the offenses he deems worthy of a libel suit. Arguably, had he just let things go, the controversy would have revealed itself as a tempest in a teapot - a few snarky remarks in a weblog and a letter by Prof. Hettle to Mr. Deignan's university which would likely have had no impact on Mr. Deignan or his career, quickly fading from memory.

Instead, Mr. Deignan's placing himself in an awkward position. To maintain his credibility he needs to either find a lawyer willing to file a lawsuit, or state a plausible reason why he has not done so. (A third option, which might not be such a bad idea, would be to declare that he is no longer going to discuss the matter on advice of counsel, and never utter another public word on the dispute.) The more Mr. Deignan expounds on the virtues of his case and the riches he will ultimately recover, the more difficult it becomes for him to credibly say, "I've changed my mind and decided that I don't want to sue." (Am I being premature in my estimate that at the end of the day, no suit will be filed?)

Meanwhile, the attention that he is drawing to himeself and the controvery may have a more profound and lasting impact on his future career than anything that Professor Hettle or Dr. Bitch have said.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The *Horrors* of Divorce

In today's Washington Post, there is an editorial which asks "Just Whom Is This Divorce 'Good' For?" The answer, from the author's perspective, is "Not me!" It's an interesting editorial, not so much for its (lack of) analysis, but for the way it frames the issue, and scrambles data to confuse the reader about its findings.
Before the divorce rate began its inexorable rise in the late 1960s, the common wisdom had been that, where children are concerned, divorce itself is a problem. But as it became widespread -- peaking at almost one in two first marriages in the mid-1980s -- popular thinking morphed into a new, adult-friendly idea: It's not the act of divorcing that's the problem, but simply the way that parents handle it. Experts began to assure parents that if only they conducted a "good" divorce -- if they both stayed involved with their children and minimized conflict -- the kids would be fine.
So we start by misrepresenting the conventional wisdom. That is, we take the notion that "Divorce is going to happen anyway, but by reducing conflict and staying involved we can avoid harming the kids" and distort it into "Divorce is fine if you handle it right." The author doesn't cite anybody as actually supporting her distortion; it would be rather hard to find any authoritative voice who would take the position that on the whole kids aren't best off in a stable, two-parent household. Instead she presents the following claim:
Countless newspaper articles, television reports and books quote therapists and academics arguing on its behalf. A holiday article last year in Newsweek, titled "Happy Divorce," featured divorced families who put their conflicts aside to spend Christmas together. Researchers, it said, "have known for years that how parents divorce matters even more than the divorce itself."
With "countless" examples to choose from, she picks the one example which doesn't actually support her point? (Actual passage: "Although researchers like Ahrons have known for years that how parents divorce matters even more than the divorce itself, some parents still have trouble not putting their children in the middle of conflict".)

Her "evidence" for the new attitude of "Divorce is cool for kids" is presented from two sources: The first, an exchange between a parent and child from the movie "The Squid and the Whale" - which I suppose is rationalized by the claim that the movie is based upon the director's own experience with divorce. The second,
In 2002, The Washington Post Magazine featured a cover story about Eli and Debbie, a handsome, smiling, divorced couple with three preteen daughters. Although their marriage was, according to Debbie, "all in all, an incredibly functional" one, they divorced when she became troubled by their "lack of connection."
A three-year-old magazine article....

I followed a few of the review links on the book's website to see what others had to say about the author's analysis. The Washington Times observed,
In her study of 173 adult children of divorce, Ms. Ahrons found that most of the children had blossomed into effective adults who were connected to their families. Three-quarters thought they and their parents were better off because of the divorce.
It astonishes me that, to advance her theory of the horrors of "good divorce", she glosses over the fact that 75% of the children of divorce whom she interviewed believed themselves and their parents to be better off as a result of the divorce. Over at its alter-ego, the Washington Post, the reviewer comments,
Given the personal pain that Marquardt spreads through the pages of this book, it's hard to take at face value her claim that she does not intend to write a book against divorce or blame any parents who have subjected their children to it. She certainly makes exceptions for "high-conflict" marriages and circumstances in which a spouse or a child is endangered. But when she quotes a couple who have "an incredibly functional marriage" but divorce because one spouse is "troubled by their 'lack of connection,' " she makes a persuasive case against the culture of casual divorce.
Neither marriage nor divorce should be casual decisions, particularly where children are involved. But we're back to discussing a magazine article she read, and not her research.

In her Washington Post editorial, the author apparently forgot that 75% of the people she interviewed believed themselves and their parents to be better off following divorce:
We found that children of so-called "good" divorces often do worse even than children of unhappy low-conflict marriages -- they say more often, for example, that family life was stressful and that they had to grow up too soon; and they are themselves more likely to divorce -- and that they do much worse than children raised in happy marriages. In a finding that shatters the myth of the "good" divorce, they told us that divorce sowed lasting inner conflict in their lives even when their parents did not fight.
"Doing worse" within this context apparently means giving those responses to questions about their childhood, as opposed to, say, their feelings about the divorce itself, their scholastic or workplace achievement, their encounters (or lack thereof) with law enforcement, or even their own self-assessment of whether they are better off. It's a polemic disguised as social science research.

I'm in the same class of kids as the author - she's slightly younger than me, but our respective parents divorced when we were two. She seems to have come from a significantly more privileged background than I, with a post-divorce level of access to both parents that I did not personally enjoy. I agree with the general thesis that even low-conflict, cooperative divorce, divorce will have an effect on kids, how they relate to their parents, their perspectives on relationships and marriage, and their perceptions of their childhoods. But as they say, you can't unring the bell - and I'm not particularly interested in fantasizing about how much better my life would be had my parents not divorced, or attributing every problem in my life to my parents' divorce. Part of growing up is accepting that bad things happen, and sometimes you just have to deal with it. For that matter, more often than not the unhappiness you feel in your grown-up life comes from your own choices and actions, not the decades-old decision of your parents to divorce.

Given the reality of divorce, it is a very good thing that there are researchers who are finding ways to reduce parental conflict and improve the experience for children. I also encourage efforts to help reduce the divorce rate - not through making it harder to get divorced, but by giving people a more realistic view of marriage and providing the resources and information that can help couples work through their problems and remain married. Beyond possibly getting a few people to take divorce more seriously, exaggerating the consequences of divorce does nothing to actually help kids. (Nor, for that matter, does an argument for allowing civil unions but blocking gay marriage in the name of protecting children from possible harms that the author can't even articulate.)