April 30, 2007

The Problem With The GOP

A quick glance at this powerful editorial looks to me like this guy didn't just hit the bullseye, he got the little gold dot right in the middle of the bullseye. I'm not ready for a separation like he is (just yet), but there's a reason that the Republican primary is a lot more interesting right now than the Democratic one.

Revision and update to this post will come later tonight, after my litigation and teaching obligations are fulfilled.

April 29, 2007

What If This Were The United States?

A country was founded as a strictly secular state with a Constitution that requires that the government be strictly non-religious. It is poised on the brink of nominating its first religious observant President. The army obviously has serious reservations and there is a massive rally of secular people demanding that the apparent nominee make a pledge to adhere to the secular Constitution. That's what's happening in Turkey, right now.

Seems a contrast from the United States, where most of the major politicians are running towards religion.

UPDATE: The BBC reports:

Scrabble Score

The Wife likes 9-tile scrabble. This morning, she got three 50-point bonuses in a row. It's hard to come back from that, but I made a go of it.

Each turn's score is on the left; running totals are on the right. She wound up winning by 33 points but I came back from being down by 161 points (after her triple-word score for "lodges" and "stove").

TL
The Wife
86 burglars 86
104 vampires 104
12 broom 98
74 failings 178
11 cruet 109
78 bemoaned 256
10 peeve 119
18 el, to, lodge 274
29 sleazy 148
35 lodges, stove 309
72 ungotten 220
14 away 323
29 elixir 249
11 yo, on 334
31 raj, ere, na 280
18 ranks 352
15 feats, if, re 295
15 owe, one 367
21 hid, he, id 316
15 hid, id, hi 382
20 dicta, pa 336
-13 (i, i, q, u)
369

Hitchens For The Brain

You may not like Christopher Hitchens, if you know who he is or what he writes about. If you're a return Reader, you probably have something of a taste for the ironic, iconoclastic, and insightful (whether I provide the insight or someone commenting does is a different issue). So like him or not, he rarely fails to give his readers something weighty to consider.

And for brain-stimulating power, really good intellectual ideas have more effect than strong coffee, which is something I need on this particular Sunday morning. Two things from a recent interview with Hitchens really strike me in that fashion.

First, on atheism and domestic politics: "Karl Rove is not a believer, and he doesn’t shout it from the rooftops, but when asked, he answers quite honestly. I think the way he puts it is, 'I'm not fortunate enough to be a person of faith.'" Karl Rove? The President's right-hand man, an atheist working as hard as he can to support a millenialist Christian whose foreign policy seems driven by a desire to hasten the Apocalypse? Now that's interesting, make no mistake.

Second, on Islam and the future: Islam is "unalterable. You notice how liberals keep saying, 'If only Islam would have a Reformation'—it can't have one. It says it can't. It's extremely dangerous in that way." This rather depressing thought is more interesting to me. Why can't Islam have a Reformation? Both Judaism and Christianity have done so, despite their both possessing texts that are absolutist in content and which derive their ethics from a nomadic or early-urbanized Bronze Age culture of expanding tribal power, or from the desire to endure and eventually seek the overthrow of a Classical-era occupying military dictatorship.

Whatever criticisms I may have of Judeo-Christian religion today, I will certainly concede that Reform Jews and some kinds of Protestants have at least tried to adapt the ancient teachings of their religion to a more contemporary world. I disagree with Hitchens that similar kinds of intellectual updating and editing are impossible for Islam, at least if the reason is that other religions permit the influence of theology -- because they really do not, given a literal reading of their texts, but have done so anyway. Perhaps the real problem is that Muslims do not see their religion as needing reformation; they see their religion in its eleventh-century form as still having application in the contemporary world. Perhaps that is because their contemporary world is really not all that different from the world their ancestors lived in a thousand years ago. That's a real danger, but at least it's something that can be fixed.

Hat tip for the interview to Justin Gardner at Donklephant.

April 27, 2007

Political Incentives

Eugene Volokh suggests that “exploiting 9/11” is really the political process working as intended.  I agree with Prof. Volokh that a past incidence of a politician’s response to an emergency situation is probably the best and most telling thing that suggests what that person’s future performance in a time of need will be like.  Of course, I’m an unrepentant advocate for Rudy Giuliani and I think it’s entirely fair that he should get to tout his performance on that day, and afterwards, as part of his credentials and qualifications for President – and I accept that if he’s going to do that, he fairly subjects himself to criticism for things that could have been done better (sixth paragraph down), too.  Maybe some of you non-Giuliani supporters would care to dissent?

Disgusting Creatures

Our pets are disgusting animals.  This morning, I come downstairs, ready to go to work today, and I see the dogs industriously licking at the carpet.  I know I hadn’t dropped anything on the floor.  “What are you doing?” I ask, and they can’t be bothered to look up or even acknowledge my presence.

 

Turns out that a cat has regurgitated her food all over the place and this is now second breakfast for the dogs.  By the time I got to them, they had pretty much cleaned up everything, so there wasn’t much more for me to do except not let the dogs lick me when I put them in their kennels.

 

Ugh.

New House Guests

Springtime has arrived in the desert, and with it came the beloved cherry blossoms and (allegedly) the flowering of the California poppies. We are starting to see temperatures in the eighties -- that is, when we aren't experiencing week-long windstorms. And along with the coming of spring we have had some new house guests.

The common black cricket is, frankly, an icky-looking bug. I have no love of him for that reason, although I realize he is harmless. His chirpy mating call is thought in many cultures to portend good luck of some sort -- an imminent pregnancy, an unexpected source of money, and so on -- but I've no such illusions. He's come in the house to look for shelter from the snakes, mice, and birds that feast upon him and his friends out in the desert fields, and if he is really a "she" who has just mated, she is looking for a safe place to deposit her fertilized eggs so that there can one day soon be hundreds of little crickets just like her.

Our first cricket invader was spotted by The Wife, who adopted a heightened tone in her voice and asked me to come take care of the "Gigantic icky bug I hope it's not a roach tell me it's not a roach!" She freaks out about bugs.

I took a look at the creature -- obviously not a roach with his big grasshopper-like legs, but I could see how she might think that because the cricket does have really long, droopy antennae. I remembered all the crickets chirping in the ice plant and juniper bushes near the house where I grew up. "Oh, it's a cricket," I said, "He won't hurt anything, but he's tough to catch."

And they are. I found another one, a much bigger one, yesterday on the stairs. I tried to get him in a paper towel but he kept on jumping away from me. Then I tried to get the cats to come and play with the creature, figuring it would be great fun to see them figure out such a thing. Both the cats ran away from me, apparently afraid that I would kennel them. The dogs were completely useless and aren't good for that kind of play anyway. So I vacuumed up our cricket guest and he's lived inside the vacuum cannister with all the dusty pet fur ever since.

We are quite likely to have several more cricket invasions over the next several weeks. No house is ever sealed up from the outside world (not if it wants air conditioning and working toilets, anyway) so this sort of thing is just going to happen. But relax, my lovely wife, these are not roaches even if they are icky looking. Hopefully they don't come in and start their chirpy, loud, and ultimately annoying songs while we're trying to sleep.

Hardened Criminals

British prison guards seize prisoners' Viagra. I just couldn't resist the headline.

April 26, 2007

I Got It Bad

Insomnia, that is.  I couldn’t fall asleep until about 3:00 in the morning.  Then I had to get up at 6:00 to be at an early-morning conference about the local economy.  I feel like a zombie right now from lack of sleep and information overload.  And I just pretty much agreed to a three-hour speaking gig in front of every human resources professional in northern Los Angeles County, to take place a few months from now.  I suppose a three-hour speech is not much different than teaching a class.

April 25, 2007

Would You Be Prometheus?

I told the story of the Ivory Door at dinner tonight with the partners of the firm, both of whom are smart and perceptive. One of them quickly asked the question, "Well, would you really want to be Prometheus?"

I quite enjoyed the sudden shift of symbolism. So, considering the extent of the suffering that Zeus imposed on Prometheus in the myth, I reflected for a moment, but I decided that it would have been worth it. Enlightenment and truth have inherent value and should be pursued for their own sake as well as for the utility that they bring.

Prometheus is perhaps the ultimate heroic figure in all of mythology -- he brought enlightenment to man; he boldly forged his own path and made his own decisions about right and wrong, defying even the arbitrary orders of Zeus when necessary to advance the interests of the good. That he was made to suffer for it later, and indeed given that he acted as he did with full knowledge of the terrible fate that awaited him for so doing, only makes his act more noble by injecting the element of self-sacrifice. He does so not for a desire to assert his own power, as did Milton's Satan, nor does he defy the Gods for the sake of demonstrating his free will like Loki or the pursuit of the enjoyment of life like Kokopelli. Rather, Prometheus acts for the pursuit of an objective good.

Sisyphus had a far more cruel and wretched fate than Prometheus. And more cruel indeed was the fate of Job. Although things turn out for the best for Job in the end, I've always thought the ending of that Biblical story was a narrative cop-out, and Biblical apologists ascribing a good motive to Jehovah for destroying a good man have yet to change my mind that the story portrays Jehovah as anything but arbitrary, capricious, cruel, and ultimately prideful -- all the same sorts of character traits for which he condemns man.

While no one would accept a path of suffering gladly, in some cases it is worth it. Prometheus, at least, suffered for a noble purpose.

Hard To Believe

You'd expect a vinegar-and-baking-soda sort of interaction when Bill O'Reilly interviewed Richard Dawkins -- but in fact, they had a pleasant, civil discussion with no voices raised or names called, and concluded it by agreeing to disagree. I know, such a thing seems beyond the range of possibility, for both of these men whose favored means to attract attention to their opinions is to confront and outrage rather than to reason and converse. But here's the interview to prove that it really happened:



Now, it's true that O'Reilly dominates the discussion and throws in a few cheap shots and intellectual shortcuts (the Declaration of Independence does mention the "Creator" and "Nature's God" but does not "heavily" use the language of religion, for instance; it is mainly a list of political grievances against King George III), but remember that it is O'Reilly's show, so that means O'Reilly gets to control it. If Dawkins wants to be in control, he can go do his own show. Dawkins surely knew what he was getting into when he agreed to make the appearance. But while O'Reilly dominated the conversation, he did not monopolize it and Dawkins got a substantial platform to respond to his opinion, which is pretty fair, all things considered.

Whether it was a case of both men making similar tactical decisions to be reasonable in order to be persuasive, or a case of both men being coached by producers to avoid letting the disagreement descend into a more stereotypical kind of O'Reilly-style shouting match, or if it was just that they both took their meds that day, this is the way people ought to talk to one another about how they disagree; they don't have to moderate their position to show one another respect and they don't have to back down to try and understand each other. Ultimately, I think it was a decent exchange between a prominent theist opinion leader and a prominent atheist opinion leader. So good on, to both O'Reilly and Dawkins.

A better, deeper, and even more civil exchange has been had recently between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan, by the way. Of course, the conclusion is again, as it must always be, an agreement to disagree.

Fred Thompson on Federalism

I have initially been moderately discomfited but at the same time fascinated with the phenomenon of Fred Thompson being wooed by social conservatives to seek the Presidency. Note that Thompson has still not even so much as formed an exploratory committee and his current early-season popularity with GOP voters is largely a reflection of dissatisfaction with the socially tolerant politics that the current front-runners are bringing to the table.

It's facile, though, to suggest that this much sustained excitement and interest can have gone unnoticed, and Thompson has been making moves that seem to be clearing the way for his path to seek the nomination. At the same time, it's clear that Thompson's a pretty smart guy, and he must realize that he needs to reach out to more than just social conservatives to actually win the nomination. So, he writes in National Review Online this little bit, nicely calculated to appeal to Republicans like me, who care less about social issues and more about seeing things get done in the right way by people with principles:

Republicans have struggled in recent years, because they have strayed from basic principles. Federalism is one of those principles. It is something we all give lip service to and then proceed to ignore when it serves our purposes. [¶] Adhering to the principles of federalism is not easy. As one who was on the short end of a couple of 99-1 votes, I can personally attest to it. Federalism sometimes restrains you from doing things you want to do. You have to leave the job to someone else — who may even choose not to do it at all. However, if conservatives abandon this valued principle that limits the federal government, or if we selectively use it as a tool with which to reward our friends and strike our enemies, then we will be doing a disservice to our country as well as the cause of conservatism.


It's worth noting that Thompson at least claims to have put his money where his mouth is on this issue, and that he does seem to continue to take heat from some conservatives for voting against the party line because of federalism principles. I've not looked in depth at all of his voting record, but his article was mainly about tort reform. This is (or at least it ought to be) almost purely a state-level debate; the Federal government properly should have little to say about tort law in most situations. Thompson should be commended for being willing to swim against the tide and stand on Constitutional grounds rather than doing what is politically popular (at least within his party).

It's also worth noting that Thompson, as have many conservative luminaries before him, is critical of the way that Republicans have chosen to govern in recent years. So I feel better about the possibility of a Thompson candidacy now for two reasons -- first, he's made a creditable case for himself as being willing to defend and fight for his principles against all comers, and second, his principles seem to have a substantial root in an understanding of the Constitution, which is one of those things that I happen to think is very good and worth defending.

April 24, 2007

Motivators

I don't know why it took me so long to do it, but I've found a site that creates parodies of those annoying "motivator" posters. You know the ones -- a black background with a beautiful picture in the middle, and a brightly-colored and totally vapid motivational phrase on the bottom. The first time I saw one of these things, surely more than fifteen years ago, I thought that they cried out for parody. For a while, I was pretty pleased with the creations of Despair, Inc. But now that I can do my own, the only limits are the depths of my irony, and my ability to locate amusing photographs on the Internets!

Dream Big

This is kind of a far-out proposal. But then again, so were the ideas of space tourism, instant communication across continents, replacing monarchs with democracies, and transporting fresh water 100 miles to urban centers. We need people who think of fantastic ideas and dream big dreams. So who knows? In a generation, you might be able to take the train from London to New York -- by going east the whole time.

Drop Outs

Sure enough, two of my students (in a class of four) have withdrawn from my graduate-level seminar in Business Law and Ethics for Managers -- rather than write and turn in a cited 1,500-word paper. One of them claimed a combination of a death in the family (which made him sad but he wasn't broken down about it) and an inability to assimilate or convey information by the written word. The other one just bailed out without any explanation at all. Of the two students who turned in papers, one of them obviously failed to understand the nature of the assignment and did not avail himself of the numerous opportunities available to him to seek clarification or to otherwise get my assistance in writing the paper.

Yes, some people are auditory or tactile learners, but if you're going to pursue a graduate degree, you've got to anticipate that at some point you'll have to do some writing.

It's quite disappointing. The class is much less fun with only two students. The remaining students are bright, although one is much less motivated than the other -- this guy I have to poke with a pointy stick to get him to say anything at all. Okay, there's going to be students like that, too, I realize. But it's a blow to my morale to lose half my students because I asked them to produce academic work.

Bizarre Dog Behavior

This is what my little Karma did today when I came home from work.



After this display, The Wife and I took the dogs out for a walk around the neighborhood. Good exercise and it gets the dogs tired, too!

April 22, 2007

She Won

Yesterday was The Wife's Toastmasters competition. Despite a raging headache that medicine would not relieve, I went to the event to support her, and had a reasonably good time in spite of the event starting an hour late.

The Wife competed in the "Tall Tales" contest, in which a humorous speech, containing exaggerations and high levels of emotional content, are told to the point that credulity is stretched. Her speech, told in the person of a gossipy, empty-headed, 13-year old girl, was very funny.

She won. That means she now has the right to represent this division in the regional championship, or to represent the area in the divisional championships, or the region in the area championship, or something like that. The point is she's now competing at the multi-state level and so in a couple of weeks, we need to go to Las Vegas so she can do that. (No complaints here!) The Las Vegas competition in the step before the national competition, which will be in San Diego. The international championship will be in Phoenix. Seems to me we can afford to go to all of these places if the occasion demands.

I'm proud of The Wife and I'm looking forward to seeing her compete in Las Vegas. Now if only the headache would go away.

April 20, 2007

Rudy on Partial-Birth Abortions

Ann Althouse offers about the best reconciliation possible.  Knowing anything about the D&X procedure is a sure-fire gross-out, and Rudy’s current position (pro-choice but anti-D&X) is probably in line with that of the majority of Americans.  But I can understand why people would see this as a flip-flop by the front-runner feeling heat from the non-candidacy of Fred Thompson.

WMD Bunkers Found Two Years Ago?

Here’s an article in the Spectator (the British version) suggesting that we’ve had credible information about Saddam’s WMD bunkers since 2003, and haven’t exploited that rather splashy information because we moved too slowly to prevent the Saddam-era Iraqis from selling the weapons to the Syrians – with the assistance, he claims, of the Russians. Thanks to some colossal incompetence, the only evidence of this was lost in 2005 and has only recently been re-discovered. It sounds a bit conspiracy-theory-ish at first glance. But the Spectator is as reasonable a source of commentary as any other large public affairs magazine. And this jibes with my general impression of our nation’s leaders – arrogant, but conscious of their own images, and not stupid. They stuck their necks pretty damn far out on the WMD theory as the selling point for the war in Iraq, and there must have been a good reason they did that.

On the one hand, it would be nice to think about how our intelligence didn’t fail us so incredibly badly back in 2002-2003 as critics of the administration would like the public to believe. But on the other hand, if true this is yet another instance of the arrogance of certainty leading to making unbelievable blunders – so if this report is to be credited, the Bushmen get acquitted of one failure of competence, only to be damned in the same instance of another.

Barristers' Robes and Wigs

On balance, Legal Beagle likes them.  She also garnered two quite amusing comments.

April 19, 2007

Bad Dental News

I don't normally mind a trip to the dentist and I like having clean teeth. And after The Wife's bad experience recently, I wasn't going to use the dentist she went to (she won't, either) so I went to a different dentist on the advice of one of The Wife's colleagues from work.

When you go to a new dentist, the dentist needs to take X-rays of your teeth and mouth. I understand this, it's part of the process. Taking x-rays is usually uncomfortable but not that big of a deal -- there's this plastic-covered piece something you have to put in your mouth and bite on while you're wearing the lead apron. But this dentist uses a newer digital x-ray camera, and that apparently requires putting into the patient's mouth a plastic-wrapped piece of slate about a quarter-inch thick and maybe forty inches long. "Here, stick this in your mouth and bite, TL. Breathe through your nose!"

Now, bear in mind that I had eaten a tasty lunch of Indian food -- garlic naan and a tandoori chicken in a korma (spicy yogurt) sauce. Taking the x-rays must have taken forty-five minutes because I nearly lost all that yummy Indian food many times. It felt like the dental tech was deliberately trying to induce vomiting by sticking that goddamned thing as far back along my tongue as she could before telling me to bite down and think of Hawaii. Fat chance, perky dental technician, you've never seen a hair-trigger gag reflex like mine before.

The x-rays were completed by having me stand in a kind of a horizontal CAT scan device that looked like something out a science fiction film, biting on a piece of metal (wrapped in Saran wrap) that had been drilled into the wall. Now the Mission: Impossible team can make a vinyl mask of my face.

The result of two hours of this was the conclusion of a young dentist with a surfer-blond haircut that I need two fillings replaced and some extra drilling done, with the replacement to be porcelain replacements that turn out to be ludicrously expensive, all of which is to be done in three weeks or so when it clears the insurance company.

Like I say, normally I don't mind going to the dentist. But this time it really sucked.

Isn't That The President's Job?

The President has proposed the idea of creating a "War Czar" who is to have the ability to coordinate war efforts across governmental agencies.

And here's the rub -- no one wants the job. Hmm. Is this too obviously the position of Official Scapegoat To The President When Things Don't Go Quite As Swimmingly As Initially Advertised? Because I don't think I'd want that job, either.

Of course, the need for the job is obvious. After all, who else in the White House has the task of assimilating information from the military, the various intelligence agencies, the state department and other diplomatic agencies, the economy, the political environment, and the strategic demands of a multi-theater operation? If only someone in a position of authority could do that...

The idea was apparently first suggested by the National Security Adviser. I thought being the "War Czar" -- the guy who coordinates the efforts, intelligence, and objectives of multiple agencies in order to more effectively prosecute national security interests -- was pretty close to his job description, too.

When the wheels are coming off, the solution is not to add more weight to the top of the vehicle. And I'm not interested in the job of war czar. The last czar to take on the job of coordinating an economy, a war effort, and keeping morale up at home wound up being shot to death, along with his whole family, in the basement of his own house.

Snarky Exchange

Hoover Institution scholar Dinesh D’Souza uses the VT killings as an opportunity to take some cheap shots at atheists.

So, Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings snarks right on back. It’s nothing D’Souza didn’t invite.

You don’t have to believe in God to be outraged and saddened by what happened in Blacksburg. All it takes is an ounce of conscience.

The terrible events of Monday do nothing to prove, or disprove, the existence of God or the moral worth of those who debate that issue. If God were to exist, and were to be the sort of entity to pass moral judgments, how would that God evaluate D’Souza’s exploitation of the personal tragedies of thirty families to take a swipe at people with whom he disagrees?

Hat tip to a fellow non-leftist atheist, Rick Moran.

Three-Way Tie

The best "Best Picture" was a three-way tie -- Lord of the Rings, Million Dollar Baby, and American Beauty.

April 18, 2007

Meanwhile On The Lower Middle Corner Of Page Five

I’d been doing a good job of keeping my thoughts brief, until I perused the Fish Wrapper site today looking for news of something other than the massacre at Virginia Tech. Not that those terrible events weren’t worthy of considerable attention, but it occurred to me that there must be something else going on in the world. And there is.

Apparently unnoticed by much of the news-reporting establishment today is an unusually deadly day in Iraq, as six bombs throughout Baghdad killed more than 180 people and wounded more than 225 more, most of them in the large outdoor market where Senator McCain recently shopped for carpets in “perfect safety” while wearing a bulletproof vest and surrounded by a Praetorian Guard of elite servicemen. The Prime Minister of Iraq was so frustrated by the violence that he has ordered one of the top Iraqi Army officials arrested for dereliction of duty. That would be five and a half times the number of deaths in Baghdad today as there were in Blacksburg on Monday. Only one of those attacks was the result of a suicide bomber; the other were of more traditional variety.

I asked a while ago if the “surge” was working. The military has cautioned that there will be good days and there will be bad days. While we’re no longer really using the term “surge,” it sure looks like there are more “bad days” than “good days.” I don’t know that there are any good alternatives but to press on with anti-insurgency efforts, and hope against hope that at some point, the Iraqis will somehow form a common national identity out of its mosaic of ethnic and religious semi-tribal loyalties. We can’t leave, because Iraq would get torn into three parts – Greater Syria, Western Iran, and Nervous Kurdistan, only one of which would be particularly friendly to us and the existence of which could cause Turkey to withdraw from NATO. The fragmentation of the most important military alliance in human history would be a very bad unintended consequence of our invasion of Iraq.

Also today, the United States Supreme Court upheld a Federal anti-abortion law criminalizing certain kinds of mid- and late-term abortions. The procedures in question involve particularly gruesome techniques and it’s hard to generate a lot of sympathy for what is going on when it is described in such graphic detail. And the holding seems fairly narrow to me, about as narrow as would be possible to reach the result that the Court did. Justice Ginsberg disagrees with me on this point in her rather shrill dissent, but on the face of this holding alone, I think the sharpness of her criticism is not justified.

From a legal perspective, though, the reasoning is decidedly odd – especially considering that a nearly identical law from Nebraska was struck down as unconstitutional two years ago, finding no legitimate state interest in regulating the choice of medical procedures to perform an abortion. The invalid Nebraska law, as well as the validated Federal law, would apparently permit something like a C-section to remove a fetus, but not a vaginal extraction of the fetus during the procedure. (Neither law contained an exception for the protection of the mother’s life, presumable because of this.) The Federal interest that the Supremes validated today was protection of the potential human life of the fetus; however, if the governmental interest is protecting the life of the fetus, why should it matter how the pregnancy is aborted?

More oddly, the decision to regulate was made at the Federal level rather than by a state, which is where the critics of Roe v. Wade have always argued against that holding on federalism grounds – that the Federal finding of a liberty interest in a woman’s right to elect to terminate her pregnancy trumps a state’s police power interest in preserving the life of the fetus. So, if the State of Nebraska has no legitimate interest in regulating the manner in which a mid-term abortion are performed as part of its police power, where in the Constitution can a Federal interest in regulating this procedure be found?

The answer can only be found in the Commerce Clause. The “liberal” majority of the Court in Gonazles v. Raich now reaps the bitter fruit sown in that opinion aggrandizing Federal power. If it were a forced choice, I would rather have seen the Court uphold the Nebraska partial-birth abortion ban than the Federal one. That's what happens when decisions are made on the basis of politics, not principles. It will be interesting to see what unintended consequences this decision has that bite the conservatives back in the ass in a few years.

So I guess my per-post word-count average, which many Loyal Readers have been concerned with recently, will spike again. But that’s how it works, I guess; the world keeps on turning and there’s no news like bad news.

Oh, We'll All Go See It..

…but it does seem to me that Harrison Ford (65 years old) is getting just a little long in the tooth to be doing something like this. Maybe the movie will hand the reins of the franchise off to a younger actor (like they tried to do with River Phoenix). The project is being described as a “character piece,” which is not why the audience will want to see this movie.

Rumor has it the title will be Indiana Jones And The Ancient Prophecy, Sir Sean Connery will make at least an appearance as Henry Jones, Sr., and his female co-star will be Cate Blanchett. I hope we get to see more of Jonathan Rhys-Davies, too.

Can they keep the movies set in the 1930's and 1940's? Nazis make great bad guys, but the Communists less so. What will Indy be going after? So far he's had to find the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, and some magic stones that don't really exist in real-life mythology. I’ll create a poll tonight to see what we all think will be the thingamabob that Indy and the bad guys will be chasing.

April 17, 2007

Dropping Out Of The Electoral College

Maryland enacted a law that would give its electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote -- if enough other states do the same. So for the time being, Maryland is still in the Electoral College. Thing is, if enough states pass similar laws, such that 270 votes of the Electoral College would be subject to these laws, then the College would be stacked with votes for the popular winner -- even if the states sending those delegates to the College had voted for the other candidate.

I have grave doubts about the constitutionality of this law. It would have the effect of undercutting and rendering ineffective the Electoral College system described in the Constitution. So in effect, this would be Maryland and several of its sister states amending the Constitution of the United States.

Article V of the Constitution requires larger than absolute majorities, in several phases of the process of amendment (two-thirds vote in the House and two-thirds vote in the Senate, followed by ratification of three-quarters of the states). But if enough states were to adopt this proposal such that 270 electoral votes could be gained by it, in theory this would represent only a slim majority of the states and a slim majority of the population.

Whatever the merits of abolishing the Electoral College might be, this is not the way to go about it. If we need to amend the Constitution, then let us use the process already in place for doing so.

The Hero

Further to my thoughts below about the Virginia Tech killings, there is a sad but heroic story from within the massacre to tell. Professor Liviu Librescu, a Holocaust survivor who escaped to Israel from Communist Romania, and a world-acclaimed aeronautical engineer, saved the lives of his students, at the cost of his own.

Professor Librescu heard the gunshots and recognized what was going on. He shut the door to his classroom and blocked it with his body, telling his students to get out of the room through a window, which they did. Librescu was shot before he could escape himself.

The measure of such a man must have been truly astonishing. The world is measurably worse off today because we no longer have Professor Librescu among the living.

(Hat tip to Eugene Volokh.)

The Killer

It seems that earlier Internet rumors about the Virginia Tech shooter were about half right. The guy who killed 32 other people and then himself had a history of stalking women, according to CNN. Also, he had a recent traffic ticket, and left a polemic note decrying "rich kids," "debauchery," and "deceitful charlatans."

This makes the comparisons to the national hand-wringing over the shootings at Columbine High School apt, in my mind. The initial targets of the Columbine killers were the popular kids who likely either bullied or socially denigrated the outcast kids who eventually snapped and went on their killing spree. It's not difficult for me to imagine a similar sort of social dynamic happening at an insular society like Virginia Tech.

I remember as a teenager thinking that I was fortunate and came from a pretty well-off background. It wasn't until I got to college that I realized just how much better-off a lot of people were than my family. (It wasn't until even later that I realized just how many families were less well-off than mine, and got a decent idea of what that really meant. But I digress.) It was stunning to me to see so many kids from very comfortable families, driving new, expensive cars and playing all the time. A significant percentage of them were snobby about people with less disposable income than they. The proportion of young, affluent hedonistic types rose in law school, leading to the observations of many that law school resembled high school more than it did college.

So it's perhaps not difficult to take a glimpse of the kind of social pressures that squeezed on this guy's mind until he cracked. That doesn't justify it, of course -- like lot of people, I've felt scorned and ignored by the rich pretty girls, and put down by hardbodied rich boys with thirty-dollar crew-neck T-shirts. And I've never killed anyone and the idea of doing such a thing never even crossed my mind.

Drag Queen Rudy

For some reason, some old footage of then-Mayor Giuliani in drag during a skit with Donald Trump is getting a lot of folks upset right now.



Jeez. It was supposed to be a joke. It’s not like he made fun of Trump’s hair. Get a sense of humor, people.

Discovery Responses

Ugh.

Repetitive responses... to repetitive questions... so... boring!

Can't -- stay -- awake!

Eyelids getting... heavy... Easily distracted... Must focus on... completing... discovery!

Biggest Case Of The Year

Well, okay, it’s not Bong Hits For Jesus, but it’s the biggest case of the year for California lawyers practicing employment law.

Labor Code § 226.7 provides that if an employer fails to provide meal and rest periods, the employer owes the employee an additional hour’s pay for each day that such periods were not provided. The question is whether the statute of limitations is one year (as it would be for a statutory penalty) or three years (as it would be for wages). Today, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously that monies paid under Labor Code § 226.7 are wages, and therefore subject to the longer statute of limitations. This is a very pro-employee decision and it is quite unlikely that the Legislature will move to amend Labor Code § 226.7 to provide for a contrary result in the future.

Huge. This triples the liability that employers face for these kinds of wage-hour claims. Employers, make your employees take those coffee breaks!

Democrats Falling in Love

A new post at Oval Office 2008 by Yours Truly, this time about Democrats (mostly).

Oh, they like this guy. And there's lots of reasons why they should. He's new, he's charismatic, he's good-looking, he's against the war, he's raising a lot of money, his last name isn't "Clinton" or "Bush."

And my best guess is that there's lots of reasons why Republicans would be glad about this, too, come next November.

April 16, 2007

Shorthanded

Only half my students showed up to class tonight. Today was the day that midterm papers were due. I haven't got papers handed physically from the two who didn't show up, and they haven't sent them in by e-mail either.

I wonder if they'll be back. Not turning in the paper on the due date is not a good sign for that. I would have never imagined that a 1,500 word paper would have scared away graduate students. But it looks like the evidence is right there in front of me.

Terrible Story

At least 22 people shot and killed in a rampage at Virginia Tech.  The shooter, apparently despondent over a romantic issue, checked himself out after doing all this damage.

 

Worse yet, it is initiating a debate about gun control, because of a recent debate at VT to make the college a “gun-free zone” and in the Virginia legislature about passing a law allowing students and faculty to carry weapons.  I don’t see that it would have made any difference one way or the other.  Crazed lunatics are going to find a way to get weapons no matter what the law is, and whether their victims are armed or not doesn’t matter if they can take hostages or take out the threats before they can return fire.

Laws Are Anarchy

When President Bush announced the creation of the Department of Homeland Security I was mildly irritated at the policy – “coordination” of multiple federal bureaucracies has proven to be not particularly effective with regards to drugs and creates a forum for turf wars rather than the effective implementation of unified strategies.  And besides, wasn’t there already a National Security Advisor to coordinate national security issues already?  Why do we need another high-level bureaucrat governing another high-level bureaucracy?  But my bigger gripe was not with a few million dollars being wasted to add another layer of top-level bureaucracy on top of an already-inefficient system.  What bugged me was the nomenclature.  “Department of Homeland Security” seems so Orwellian, so totalitarian.  Couldn’t the bright people who make political decisions have found some way of describing what this new agency was supposed to do without sounding so… Soviet?

 

Now, it turns out that Republicans are not the only ones with a taste for Orwell in their nomenclature.  Congressman Dennis Kucinich wants to create a Federal Department of Peace and Nonviolence.  This distills into a single bill nearly everything that repels me about the left wing of American politics – it is wasteful, silly, dangerous, and either criminally naïve or downright deceptive in its intent.  Kucinich wants to create a cabinet-level position which will do nothing of any use or importance other than consume money and provide a platform for the pronouncement of high-minded dissenting opinions from within the White House.  There is nothing that this new entity would do that is not already being done by other, already-extant, entities within the government.  If there are to be any policy-making or policy-enforcement teeth in this new cabinet-level department, it can exist only to hamstring our efforts to use our military as part of our foreign policy.

 

It’s bad enough that there are turf wars and policy disagreements between different branches of the government as it is.  These sorts of things should be inputs to the debate, not the products of them.  What we would see from this new entity are a series of regulations, studies, pronouncements, proclamations, and other governmental activity that is explicitly intended to undermine the ability of the United States to make war.  To the extent that this new Cabinet position is given real political power, it would not just undermine but obstruct implementation of military policy – it would create a rogue actor within the government itself.

 

Peace and nonviolence are obviously good things.  No one likes war – least of all the soldiers who fight them and sometimes die in them.  But the fact is that sometimes we need to use our military.  Sometimes we need to defend ourselves against those who will not strum their acoustic guitars along with us while we sing songs of peace and brotherly love.  Not everyone shares our liberal view about the world – there are people out there who think that an open, democratic society where individual rights are meaningful checks on the power of the government, and in which people are free to choose the kinds of politics they espouse and free to follow the religion their consciences guide them to are bad things.  From those sorts, we need protection and since they use guns and bombs to implement their will on others, we need to have guns and bombs to use back against them.

 

It’s all well and fine to talk about how economic and cultural exchanges can promote mutual peace and understanding.  But that sort of thing is not the top priority of the government – finding and neutralizing the bad guys is.  Ultimately, peace is not obtained in our dangerous world through nonviolent diplomacy.  That diplomacy will not work unless the parties to the diplomacy have some measure of power.  Power requires the ability to implement our will be force.  Wisdom is the knowledge of when it is necessary to use that power – you might argue that our current exercise of military power was unwise, but that would not mean that the answer is to create another wasteful bureaucracy; it would mean that the answer is to pick leaders who are wiser than those currently in charge.

April 15, 2007

Millennium

Congratulations! You are reading the 1,000th published post on this blog. To celebrate this landmark, here are some attempts by people to portray the millennium:

The Millennium Bean in Boston's Millennium Park. Big but kind of underwhelming.


An intriguing TV series, full of dread and interesting ideas, that never seemed to go anywhere. Again, kind of underwhelming, especially coming from Chris "The X-Files" Carter. Haven't heard much from him recently.


London's Millennium Eye, a super-Ferris wheel built for the jubilee in 2000. See my comments above about the gigantic bean.

This is all cool, but if you're going to celebrate a millennium, this is what you need:



Sure, it's only a model, but it's still the most impressive thing with the word "Millennium" attached to it. Admit it: when you were a kid, you wanted to fly it, too.

Thanks for your continued readership, everyone.

Exile in My Own House

The Wife is having her girls over for a stamping party. This is where they convene around a table and make greeting cards using a variety of stamps and other craft techniques.

After helping out with the cleaning, I prepared food for them -- from-scratch mac-and-cheese, crudites with mint ranch sauce, and melon balls. I made up a honey butter for The Wife's banana bread, too. Now that this is all accomplished, my job is to get out of the way and let the girls have their fun. I may come down to grab some food in a bit, but aside from that, it's up in the loft with the cats, so I can let the girls have their fun.

All part of being a good husband.

I feel bad after our near-miss on buying a house earlier this week. We found a nice house during one of our open house shopping expeditions, one in which the owners had put in a lot of extras -- granite countertops in the kitchen, custom millwork everywhere, and laminate floors in practically the entire house. We thought they were a bit over the market in this neighborhood at $373,000, but loved the house. So when the owner called me up and said that his realtor suggested they come down in price, and had cut the price to $267,000, we jumped at the chance to buy it.* I pulled the public recordings, saw their mortgage situation, and figured that the drop in price was because the house had been on the market for seven months and the sellers were beginning to feel distressed, so the big drop sounded like it was within the realm of possibility. So I spent a day lining up the financing. But later, the owner and I spoke again and he apologized for misspeaking; he had cut his price to $367,000, not $267,000. $367,000 will probably not be within our grasp for several months yet.

Now, remember that I haven't seen the house yet that has made me swoon, but The Wife cannot make that claim. (I certainly did like the good layout, generous workspace and storage, and granite countertops in the kitchen of this house.) So she was pretty bitterly disappointed with the miscommunication and the likelihood that we will not be buying this house. I feel bad for her and I figured helping her out with her girly event would make her feel better.

Or, maybe we will, when we get in a position to put a bigger offer down on the table than we are in at the moment. The general consensus of the real estate brokers and real estate lawyers I've spoken about this with is that $367,000 is still over the market for this neighborhood and a house like this. Yes, it has a lot of extras one would not expect in a neighborhood like this, but that's the reason why the owners aren't getting the value for it that they would like; they've overbuilt the extra touches and the market won't support it. And real prices are falling faster than these owners seem to be reacting; one broker I had lunch with a few days ago said that real prices** were down 12% in the past three months.

So for the time being, I'm exiled to the loft of the Rented Mansion In The Desert, and that's okay; I'll manage for a few hours. My class for tomorrow is already written; it's about employment law so that's one I will be able to teach with enthusiasm and little preparation since it's my second-favorite subject (after Constitutional law) to cover. I'll just take it easy. If I decide I want to watch a hockey game on TV or something I can always drive out to the sports bar a few miles away, but I'm not motivated enough to do that just yet.


*(I know those prices seem out of sight to people in Tennessee. I assure you, housing in the Antelope Valley is the only place in Los Angeles County that is even remotely affordable like that.)

** "Real prices" are distinguished from face-value prices in that most of the price depression is showing up in after-transaction values to the buyer, in the form of financial incentives like interest rate deductions or principal rebates, or premiums like free swimming pools, free granite countertops, or free cars.

Black Tom and Seeing History Clearly

Today I read a story about Black Tom.

Black Tom used to be an island in the mouth of the Hudson River. Ninety years ago, there was a massive explosion on the island, which was felt as far away as Philadelphia and killed at least seven people. One ton of gunpowder-based munitions -- bullets, mortars, grenades, bombs -- had been stored on a Navy depot on Black Tom, which on July 30, 1916, were destined for shipment to support British and French soldiers fighting in the wasteland of trenches that was northeastern France against Germans and Austrians. Officially, the U.S. was neutral at the time, but everyone knew better and that President Wilson had sided us quietly with the British in an effort to contain expanding German power. So German saboteurs blew up the ammunition -- and took the island along with it. The top of the island was blown off and today, Black Tom is completely submerged at high tide.

Some people call this the first act of international terrorism in the United States. I bet you'd never heard of it before today.

Some people want you to believe that the first time a terrorist pulled off an attack on U.S. soil was five years ago when the planes hit. A great many Americans seem to enjoy that fiction. But fiction it is, as surely was the fiction that preceded it. Foreign powers have never been prevented from acting within our borders because we have oceans on two sides and relatively friendly neighbors on two other sides.

Anarchists tried to blow up Wall Street in 1920.

Peurto Rican nationalists tried to copy the IRA's tactics in 1975 and started blowing up historical buildings in New York City.

Muammar Quadafi blew up an airplane flying to America over Scotland in 1988.

Al-Qaeda had attacked the World Trade Center in 1993, kiling 6 and wounding over a thousand people. Our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were blown up in 1998. The USS Cole was attacked by suicide bomb in 2000. As awful as it was, September 11 was nothing new other than the drama of its success.

We also have a myth that America has never been invaded successfully. The British sacked Washington in 1814, which seems like a reasonably successful invasion to me -- especially since reconquest of the United States was not a British military objective in that war.

In 1915, Pancho Villa, the former governor of the state of Chihuaua and a general in the Mexican Revolution, led a number of raids into Texas and New Mexico, to steal money and military supplies including food and ammunition for his men. His guerilla raids were singularly successful and our punitive expedition to track him down afterwards used overwhelming and technologically far superior force -- it was the first time that aircraft were used in a military operation and coordination with cavalry and infantry forces in Northern Mexico were apparently much better than expected. Still, eleven months of operations singularly failed to find Villa or any of his men, and the military came home empty-handed.

In 1859, the United States and British North America (today called the Dominion of Canada) engaged in hostile military maneuvers in a fight over the San Juan Islands due to poor knowledge of geography on the part of the drafters of the Oregon Treaty that fixed the boundary between the U.S. and Canada at the forty-ninth parallel. As a result, U.S. and British colonists flooded into islands in the Straits of San Juan de Fuca near the border of Washington State and British Columbia. Tensions between the two sets of colonists came to a head when an American colonist shot dead a pig belonging to an employee of the Hudson's Bay Company, giving the conflict its name, the "Pig War." For nearly a year, American and Canadian forces maneuvered and played a waiting game; American forces could ill-afford to open a conflict with civil war brewing in the south, and the British far outnumbered their counterparts, so it could be said that the eventual award of the islands to the U.S. was in part due to American forces acquitting themselves well against tough odds. But mainly it was the result of cool heads prevailing after the death of the Pig -- who, fortunately, was the only casualty of the conflict. Indeed, the U.S. had at odds with Canada once before, in the Aroostook War of 1838-1839, and in this conflict too it took cool heads on both sides of the dispute to prevent shooting deaths.

The myth of American unassailability is pleasant but it's better to be aware of the truth. We're dealing with bigger issues now than a dead pig. But, as usual, what's most interesting about history is what hasn't changed as opposed to what has.

Scott Adams On The Government

Scott Adams is the cartoonist who publishes the usually-funny Dilbert. And he's a guy who seems to share my frustration with the overall state of affairs in the government these days.

The Inverted Church

While surfing this morning, I came across an interesting comment to an interesting blog about atheism and social activism. The comment was from a Southern Baptist and appears about a third of the way down into the comments section. Here's what I thought was really cool (and he fleshed this concept out a little bit himself later):

...the other day, I asked our Youth Minister what he thought would happen if we took the traditional steps of building a church, roughly defined as:

1) buy/build a sanctuary of some kind
2) buy/build educational space
3) upgrade sanctuary for more space
4) add facility for children’s classes
5) add meal/fellowship area
6) expansion of above
7) add recreation space
8) engage in various methods to ATTRACT people into the buildings, realizing that the buildings are almost always under-utilized (lots of action on Sunday, but almost nothing during the week

…and turned them inside-out. What if, instead, the people who are starting a church, who SAY that they love the community, instead did the following:

1) built a community recreation center
2) added a low-cost/no-cost day care
3) create/promote programs for secular activities (theater, sports, etc)
4) find ways to repurpose these facilities for “church stuff” as necessary, but without intruding upon established programs/activities (that is, when they’re not otherwise being used by the community for other stuff)



What a concept! Be a part of the community and start doing good things first, and let the people respond to your good deeds. It's a little disconcerting that his first list seems to be the priority for most of the leaders of the religious community, but this guy seems to have worked a thing or two out.

It helps in his case that his church is free from a lot of the mummery and nonsense associated with, say, a Catholic church, which needs baptismal fonts and holy water dispensers and altars and various statutes and images for devotional purposes. The Baptist churches I've been in have sometimes had crosses (not "crucifixes"; there are no horrifying images of a man who has been tortured to death on Baptist crosses) and sometimes no symbology at all or very non-obtrusive paintings. The focus is on the preacher. So, it would be easier for a Baptist than a Catholic to create a multi-purpose facility and use it for religious purposes when necessary and community services on other days.

But the bigger message is, it's all about being good people and doing good things. So I'm encouraged here, as I am by several of my religious friends, who not only express but actually practice this way of life. It's not these folks who earn my ire and distress aimed at religion; it's the ones who use outward observance of a religion as a substitute for good conduct, or the ones who look at religion as a magical or contractual proposition. ("God, if I pray to you and go to church every Sunday, will you bless my family with prosperity or heal my sick relative?" Ideally, these would be what lawyers call "independent covenants" and not "dependent covenants.")

I know that back in Tennessee, today, even as I write, my friends at RET are debating the issue of whether it's better for atheists to confront the religious people out there with the argument for atheism, or whether it's better to simply ignore the religious messages out there in the world. One thing this message reminds me of is that neither approach is complete without some kind of effort to be a positive force on the community. Now, I think providing education to the public concerning the truth about science and the way the world works is an inherent good, but this is on one level equivalent to the message of religious folks about divine salvation with which atheists disagree.

Perhaps there ought to be a more tangible good that can be provided like child care or a community center, like the "inverted church" would provide -- although of course something big like that would be difficult to provide without a lot of money and organization, the kind which churches are better-equipped to provide than humanist groups. So if our good works are going to have to be the kind that individuals can provide, maybe it's time I started thinking about what my contribution to those good works are going to be.

April 14, 2007

Hockey Night In Anaheim

Yesterday night, I accepted a friend's invitation to go to a game of the Stanley Cup Quarterfinals. It was a night of big fun. Four guys at a hockey game, drinking beer, cheering at the action. Sounds pretty proletarian, doesn't it?

It's not. Honda Stadium (formerly the Arrowhead Pond) in Anaheim is a posh venue for sports, and my friend, a forensic accountant, has premium tickets that he gets for his client development. He gets season tickets and sells most of them during the regular season. But the Ducks are good enough that he knows he'll have a good chance most years of seeing the Ducks in the playoffs, and he goes to the playoff games pretty regularly.

He had a luxury box one time that he invited a lot of people to, but it was actually kind of distracting from trying to watch the game. A good client development function for him and a good networking opportunity for the rest of us, but we were barely conscious that there was a game going on, and everyone kind of missed actually watching the game. So now it's the regular seats down close to the ice.

So the seats are three rows up from the glass, on the back side of the rink (the same side as the penalty boxes). That's pretty nice all by itself. But even nicer is getting to the arena early to meet up at the Anaheim Club above the mezzanine level. There, the club has a bar and a posh restaurant, where we sat in comfort and dined upon boeuf au poivre, roast leg of lamb with mint-cilantro sauce, spring bean salad, and seared scallops (I skipped the scallops as they cause an allergic reaction). The club restaurant was pretty crowded and we had to wait a while to get seated, but it was certainly worth it.

I noticed while at the rink that Orange County women all seemed to look exactly alike. They all have the same whitened teeth, blond hair (and they let their roots grow out a long time before re-coloring it), the same boob jobs and tight shirts to show them off, and the same the shoulder-length "V" haircuts, you know what I'm talking about, the bangs-and-big-hair cheerleader look. Seeing so many women done up like this was kind of like taking a time warp back to 1986. I'm not complaining that they were unattractive -- but there are other ways women can present themselves to the world in an attractive way, too. It was more the uniformity of their appearance than anything else that struck me.

The game was, like all ice hockey games, quite intense and a lot of fun. I don't think I've ever been to a Ducks home game that I didn't see the Ducks win, and last night was no exception. The winning Ducks goal was scored a short-handed, which is impressive to see. For those of you Loyal Readers who have never been to see hockey played live, it is astonishing how fast these players move out on the ice, and at the NHL level, these are really, monstrously big guys who are scary-looking on top of being really fast. The body checks against the glass are big fun and, frankly, so are the fights -- although I do wish that the referees would break up the fights and penalize them more seriously so the guys would play hockey.

I considered buying a jersey for The Wife while I was there; the new black-and-gold Anaheim color scheme and logos are pretty cool-looking and The Wife would no doubt find an oversized jersey comfortable for sleeping. But, I didn't, because the kids working the merchandise sales booth were too busy gossiping with each other to pay attention to potential customers and I wasn't entirely sure that The Wife would want a hockey jersey at all -- she's enjoyed hockey games in the past but I don't know that she's enjoyed them enough to actually wear a sports garment, even if only as sleepwear. I think she'd look cute in the jersey, though.

This was a boys' night out, but if the Ducks continue to play well, they will be going far in the postseason and there may be an opportunity for The Wife to go to a game later on. The Wife doesn't look like an O.C. Barbie Doll, for which I am grateful, and I like to share fun things like this with her.

April 12, 2007

Craving The Love Of Strangers

Last night I got to talking with my friend about why people do things the way they do in public. Mostly we were discussing some local politicians but what we were talking about was why politicians beat the hell out of each other and are willing to risk looking like such asses in the hopes of attracting attention to themselves. And this conversation dovetailed into an ongoing topic between The Wife and I, which is our complete mystification about why anyone would want fame or think that being well-known was a good thing.

What I remembered last night was a wonderful line from Chicago:


Oooh, the audience loves me... and I love them. And they love me for loving them and I love them for loving me. And we love each other. And that's because none of us got enough love in our childhood. And that's showbiz... kid!


A great many people who do things in public do so in order to get love -- and what's sad is that the love they seek is the love of strangers, who of course do not really love them and are happy to cut them to ribbons later if that is more amusing. (Which, in one sense, is what the musical Chicago was all about.)

I told my friend that I had no desire to seek public office, no desire to gain fame, in order to quench my need for the love of people who are strangers to me. I am confident that I have the love of my wife, my family, and my friends, and I find that love to be quite nourishing.

But then I got to thinking that a desparate craving of the love of strangers is not the only reason that people do things publicly -- some of them have a craving for power, not for the love or adulation it brings but for its own sake. These sorts tend to be just a bit sociopathic, one would think. But that's not really fair -- "control freaks" is more like it. The decision may not be a difficult one, but they want to make it. You might make the same decision as them, but it's important to them to be the person who decides.

A partner in the firm tells a story of a lawyer he practiced with a long time ago who would never park in an open parking spot that someone else pointed out. As soon as you would say to this guy, "Oh, there's a spot to the left!" he would turn to the right and drive as far away from that spot as he could. Needless to say, he would never let anyone else drive. In negotiations, I have found that these kinds of people will not accept an offer put to them, no matter how reasonable -- their offer must be the one that my side accepts, not the other way around. I try and figure out at as early a stage as I can whether someone on the other side is a pathological decision-maker, so I can use that knowledge to my advantage.

And then there's the people who have to be right. Their psyches are only nourished if they get the affirmation of being recognized as being smart and being correct. Everyone likes being right, because it's better than being wrong. But for some people it goes a little further than that; they derive a substantial amount of their self-worth from affirmations of their intelligence and correctness.

I have to admit that there's a little bit of that in me, just as there's a little bit of that in everyone who feels the need to express themselves in a public forum -- which, as far as I can tell, includes millions of people who blog and millions more who comment on other peoples' blogs. Being aware of this kind of vanity, and making an effort to keep it in check, is about all I think anyone can do.

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.


Aristotle's maxim is the start of participating in a good debate. Real mental maturity is taking that a step further, and being willing to change one's mind after convincing arguments have been advanced -- even if it means sacrificing the pleasure of being right.

The question for the person who seeks intellectual maturity is "how long do I stand my ground and argue for what I think is right, and when do I admit that the other side has a strong enough point that I need to re-evaluate my own position?" In law, this is an easy question to answer -- you stand your ground until the issue is resolved by the court, and after that you accept the result and move on to the next problem. In less-structured tests of intellect, the boundary is not so well-defined.

So, some people have to be right, some people have to be loved, some people have to be the ones making the decisions. I can't think of any other motivation for people to seek public careers. Can you?

Kurt Vonnegut

Generally an atheist, but was quoted to have said that if there was proof of God’s existence, it would be found in music. A writer of twisted yet profound fiction. Not the author or the giver of the insipid “sunscreen” speech. A person of great fame who found a way to enjoy privacy without becoming a recluse. And a credit to the American arts. He will be missed.

Sandstorm

We're in the fourth day of sustained high winds. For the past several hours, we've have sustained winds of 20-30 miles an hour with gusts up to 60; there is an anonometer on the roof of our building to let me know for sure.

A cloud of sand a thousand feet high has been picked up by the wind, moving the west side of the Antelope Valley to the east side, bit by bit.

I drove to work this morning through swirling tornadoes of sand. Visibility is down and the winds are so high that much of the freeway has been closed. Welcome to the high desert!

Sorry Advice

This article confirms something I have long strongly suspected -- doctors are discouraged from using phrases like "I'm sorry" by their malpractice insurance carriers (and the lawyers they employ). This is intended to avoid having the doctor make an admission of liability in the event of a malpractice suit (and the indignity of looking like an adorable puppy).

Now, we all know that doctors make mistakes like everyone else, and the law of malpractice is there to compensate the patients and their families who get hurt when that happens. (Contrary to a popular misunderstanding in the lay public, doctors are almost never hit with punitive damages in malpractice cases.) And no one suggests that doctors should enjoy a blanket immunity from tort liability if they do make mistakes.

But doctors win most medical malpractice lawsuits that go to trial -- you can look up the statistics on that yourself. You can probably also look up the amounts of money that are paid out in settlements and verdicts, and chances are, you'll find that settlements are higher than verdicts. That's because insurance companies and defense lawyers know when they have a real problem and when they have a case they can win, and they settle out the cases where there is a real issue. These are difficult cases for plaintiffs to win, for a lot of reasons, and there are already a lot of hurdles placed in the way of plaintiffs to pursue those kinds of remedies.

Having spent some time working the plaintiff's end of such lawsuits, I can tell you that a sane plaintiff's attorney is not going to put any significant weight on a doctor's statement of "I'm sorry." Other statements the doctor makes can be very significant, but "I'm sorry" is an inherently ambiguous remark; it can too easily be explained as expressing regret over the outcome of an unsuccessful procedure rather than as an admission of liability. In 99.99% of all cases, the jury will only get a second-hand description of the context and tone of that remark and they will give the benefit of the doubt to the doctor, every time. Doctors are sympathetic defendants as a general rule anyway -- that is, except for the doctors who are arrogant pricks. And refusing to say "I'm sorry" or otherwise express sympathy for the human emotions resulting from an unsuccessful procedure only feeds in to the stereotype of arrogance from which doctors (and other professionals, like attorneys) suffer.

The doctor interviewed by CNN in the linked article is lobbying for a law making statements of sympathy like "I'm sorry" inadmissible to prove negligence. This would open up a gigantic can of worms for a trial court judge, which would be better left to the lawyers and parties to sort out on their own. When is a doctor's remark an innocent expression of sympathy, and when does it evidence knowledge of a mistake? If the doctor knows he made a mistake, that seems like important evidence for the jury to hear and it should be admissible. If the doctor is trying to be nice, holding that effort at human decency against him will probably backfire against the plaintiff.

While it's rarely a surprise when a popular media report about the law misses some important details, the CNN article does an unusually terrible job of distinguishing an actual admission of negligence from a generalized statement of sympathy like "I'm sorry," and I suspect that is because the proposed law is similarly nebulous in its approach to making that distinction. This is as much proof as I need that this change in the law is a bad idea.

What needs to change is the advice that malpractice defense lawyers give their doctor clients.

The doctor in the CNN article linked above found that when he disregarded his lawyer's advice and told his patients "I'm sorry" after an unsuccessful procedure, he enhanced the bond of trust between doctor and patient, and was generally able to work with the patient further to get a good final result -- which is what both doctor and patient wanted all along. Had he used a more neutral, less caring remark like, "That's too bad," he would have angered his patient and increased his chances of being sued for medical malpractice -- before he had a chance to make the situation right.

I've had tens, if not hundreds, of clients say that they didn't want to go after a doctor who was nice to them -- even if it turned out that was the doctor who actually made a significant mistake. The doctor who cares is, by definition, a "good" doctor and not a target for litigation in the minds of most patients. It's the doctor who's an arrogant bastard who should get sued. The patient, my potential client, is not concerned with actual liability because figuring out which doctor is actually liable (if any doctor is at all) is far too difficult for a layperson to do. So they latch on to things they can understand instead, and what they do understand is whether they've been treated like human beings or sides of beef.

So based on that, when I have spoken with doctors, as individuals or in small groups, I've always encouraged them to use these kinds of phrases -- not to trick them into saying something that would realistically come back to haunt them, but to offer good-faith advice about how to avoid being in a situation like that in the first place. Good medical skills are important, making good medical decisions is important, having a large mass of medical knowledge in the doctor's brain and library is important. But the most effective tool a doctor has for avoiding a malpractice suit is her bedside manner, not her skills. Not once has a doctor ever said that this was bad advice, and most have admitted that a great many of their colleagues have terrible demeanors with patients.

So does a doctor face a risk by telling a patient "I'm sorry"? Yes, but the risk is minimal, and the rewards from that risk substantially outweigh the downside. Doctors shouldn't need a change in the law to start expressing sympathy for their patients -- they need to get better advice from their lawyers instead.