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Friday, February 3, 2017

On Strike! Oh, no

Dad was a union man. I joke that his politics were to the left of Leon Trotsky — an exaggeration not without justification. He railed against the excesses of capitalism and the difficulties faced by the working man and woman. He received the annual Friend of Labor award from the Alabama AFL-CIO (Alabama being the most unionized state in the South) and consulted for the AFL-CIO on unemployment compensation into his 80s. Aside from family, the largest contingent at his funeral were representatives of organized labor.

Reluctantly I differ with Dad on one point. In my travels to Europe I am often confronted by one kind of "labor action" or another in the transportation sector. Sometimes it's an airline, sometimes it's rail, sometimes it's mass transit. Next week, for example, much of the London Underground system — the "Tube" — will be unserved or underserved because of a strike. Is it ethical for a relatively small number of people to inflict inconvenience or even financial loss on millions of citizens, just as a way to resolve a workplace dispute? I'm doubtful. Hostage-taking is reprehensible.

I'm reminded of the 1981 strike by air traffic controllers in the U.S., who didn't appreciate the difference between then-new President Ronald Reagan and previous President Jimmy Carter. Reagan noted that each of the 11,345 controllers had signed a sworn affidavit promising never to strike. He fired them all. The union collapsed but more importantly the American economy carried on.

That kind of reaction has been unthinkable in Western Europe… until now. Watch what happens if the UK and France follow the U.S. by handing control to UKIP and the National Front, respectively. It could happen.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

No pardon before trial

Edward Snowden and Julian Assange are both software professionals. Both are currently in hiding, out of reach of European and American authorities. Neither should be pardoned at this point; rather, both should be charged and then tried in open criminal court.

The now-former President Obama might or might not have done the right thing by commuting the sentence of Chelsea Manning; I haven't decided yet. But at least Manning was tried, convicted, and sentenced before Obama intervened. After sentencing, a pardon or commutation can be considered on its merits. That's the standard process available to everyone.

Of course, the government might still screw up the prosecution; it happened in the Daniel Ellsberg case. I mean a fair trial, not a sham.

Sometimes a whistle-blower performs a public service. That's a judgment of history best rendered a decade or two later. Even when he or she does, I don't believe that an immediate exemption from prosecution is a good idea. The difficulty is that some whistle-blowers don't have clear thinking or pure motivations. Their revelations turn out to have insignificant positive impact but significant negative impact. We don't hear as much in the press about those. The whistle-blower effectively substitutes his or her personal judgment, often self-aggrandized, for the judgment of the government. As a society we must be careful about letting that become commonplace. A whistle-blower must know that there are consequences without deluding oneself that the end justifies the means. It seldom does. When it does, the whistle-blower has a moral basis to violate the law knowingly. But don't expect not to be prosecuted. Make your moral case after being convicted, if you are.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Sounds that touch my heart

Do you have favorite sounds? I don't mean human voices, music in the usual sense, animal, or natural sounds but rather non-musical sounds of human design. Here are the ones that come to my mind.

  • The wind chimes on our back porch. Perhaps Gail remembers how we acquired them; I don't. They've been out there for 20 years, maybe longer. The soft sound beneath the bedroom window is comforting late at night and early in the morning… a familiar sound of solace and peace, a gentle reassurance that life goes on.
  • The theme song of the Yamanote train, the hour-long loop around central Tokyo. Whenever the train stops at a station, the theme song plays. It's about ten seconds, and I've heard it hundreds of times —  each bringing a smile to my face. I'm grateful for my chances to travel the world.
  • The pouring of water into a font before Baptism. Perhaps you the reader are not religious, but to me the sound of splashing, circling water triggers reflections about who I am, why I'm here, what I'm good for, and what happens next.
  • The creaking of the moving sidewalks in Terminal 3, Heathrow Airport in London. I've been to London so many times that it seems like my second home. The creaking is distinctive and, in its peculiar way, shouts Welcome. Terminal 3 was built in the early 1960s. Within 10 years it will be replaced, they say. I can't argue with the rationale for that, but I'll be sad because the new terminal won't have those creaks.
  • The horn that blows loudly when the Carolina Hurricanes score a goal in Raleigh. One of the more memorable moments in my life was attending Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals in 2006. Most sports fans go their entire lives without ever seeing a final Game 7 in baseball, basketball, or hockey. I've got that t-shirt and the horn reminds me of it.
  • Morse code that goes "-.-. --.-", known as "CQ" which an amateur radio operator (ham) like myself sends when he or she wants to converse with anyone anywhere who hears the call. It's an invitation to make a new friend.
  • The Windows 95 start-up sound. Don't remember it? Play it here. Windows 95 was ground-breaking in several respects, among them its inclusion of Internet support (technically the TCP/IP protocol stack) and multimedia support. When I booted Windows 95 the first time after installing it, out came herald of truly a new age of computing that has changed our lives in so many ways. The difference between Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 was as large as the difference between punched cards and online computer terminals.
  • Locomotive horns. They're not all alike! Some are blats, others are dissonant chords, still others are pleasant chords. They vary in keys, both major and minor (when they're properly tuned, that is). Motion is good.
What are yours?

Sunday, January 15, 2017

So goes the circus

Sometimes an event must be understood in a broader context, and that's how I see the announcement that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is ending its 146-year run.

It was once considered acceptable for a zoo to place animals in small cages permanently. Anyone my age remembers those. I always found them more depressing than interesting. The San Diego Zoo led a change toward open-air exhibits without cages, and among others they were followed by the North Carolina Zoo. It's better, although there is the perennial complaint at the NC Zoo that the animals are often hard to see in their faux naturale habitats.

The movie Blackfish gave focus for criticism of SeaWorld's holding killer whales in captivity. Attendance at these shows has been dropping and SeaWorld, if for no other reason than economics, will phase them out — at its parks in the U.S., at least.

I blogged a year ago about the decision of RBBB to drop its elephants. What became obvious to Feld Entertainment since then is that not enough people are interested in seeing an elephant-free circus. Attendance is driven mostly by children, and in a world where children have access to spectacular videos of animals on YouTube and are accustomed to more active entertainment such as video games, RBBB had already seen a drop in attendance before their decision to withdraw elephants. Feld saw correctly, I think, that attempts to reduce further the costs of the circus would be futile because even fewer customers would patronize what remained. Saving a business by downsizing it has a low probability of success.

RBBB will be in Raleigh next month… my final opportunity to see it. Will I go with no children in tow? I'll have to think about that.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Hands off the weather forecasters

On Friday the weather forecast for Raleigh had a high probability of snow. It didn't. Now the ire of some citizens — particularly those who bought sleds for their children — is directed against weather forecasters. Since few people personally know anyone who works for the National Weather Service, they select weather broadcasters on television as targets.

Greg Fishel, by anyone's account the preeminent TV weather broadcaster in the Triangle, posted this to his Facebook page:

The public varies in their individual tolerances of ambiguity. I wish people were more tolerant of it. Ask any physicist and you'll be told that ambiguity is the essential fact of nature. But my experience around the world tells me that Americans are uniquely intolerant of ambiguity, compared to citizens of other countries. Odds are that a citizen of France would simply have shrugged off yesterday's no-snow with a c'est la vie. We see intolerance of ambiguity in Americans' reactions to religion, too.

As a society America could benefit from better education about probability in our schools. Suppose you flip a coin ten times and you get ten heads. What's the probability of a tail on the next flip? 50%, assuming the coin is fair, but lots of people would not answer the question correctly. In a similar manner we have many citizens playing government-sponsored lotteries and attending casinos with the sincere expectation of walking out with more money than they brought in. I can enjoy a casino for the experience and the perks, but I know going in that there is an overwhelming probability of leaving some of my money behind. Neither do many of us understand what it means when the weather forecast says there's a 90% probability of snow.

Another point: the American media have created a TMZ-like approach to personalities where we build them up to unreasonable levels and then enjoy skewering them when they turn out to be fallible, error-prone people just like us. This is bizarre.

I agree with Greg Fishel's post… except in one respect. His employer, WRAL-TV, incessantly promotes its weather forecasters and thereby sets them up for failure. The station owner and general manager should re-think their approach. Forecasting the weather is inherently risky; it's not like reading the news that has already happened. Most sportswriters are reluctant to predict the outcomes of games, and indeed most sportswriters don't care (truth be told) who wins and who loses anyway. They prefer to describe the game in the present or the past tense, as journalists do. Weather broadcasters are in a precarious position, and overly promoting them is unfair.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

How corporate lawyers really are

At my request I'm now working part-time for my employer. The change is a transition toward eventual retirement, and it gives me more time to pursue other interests including this blog. The piece of work that I relinquished was in my employer's law department, where I previously was responsible for our global programs on "compliance" — meaning anti-corruption laws and export controls.

In the course of those responsibilities and going back as far as the early 1980s, I have worked closely with in-house lawyers and outside counsel. Perhaps this is not a surprise, given my father's background. I never seriously entertained becoming a lawyer myself, but I did read all my dad's textbooks from law school and I've always found it easy to work with lawyers. In the process I've been exposed to at least two hundred of them. Of course, these are lawyers practicing in specific areas such as purchase and sale contracts, intellectual property, and "M&A" (mergers and acquisitions)… specialties that don't usually make their way into movie and TV portrayals that focus on criminal law, negligence suits, constitutional law, family law, and the like. But I want to offer a few video clips that remind me of the kinds of lawyers that I have worked with. You'll see no courtrooms in these clips; that's not my world. No Denny Crane, either.

I'll begin with an excellent portrayal of an eloquent in-house corporate lawyer, taken from 1982's Absence of Malice centered on Sally Field's dramatic role.

Dean Jagger won an Academy Award for his performance as Maj. Harvey Stovall, a lawyer in civilian life but adjutant to the Commanding General, 918th Bomb Group, U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. The movie is 1949's Twelve O'Clock High. Sometimes a corporate lawyer's most important contribution is advising his or her client on matters that aren't strictly legal — in this case, about using bureaucracy and accepting risk. Both are abundant in real life.

As for contract negotiations, watch this hilarious scene from 1976's Network. It's satire, of course, but the dialog of the lawyers was written and played "straight". Warning, language is NSFW. I've been in negotiations that really were close to this and I wished I'd brought a 9 mm.

Friday, December 30, 2016

More than loss of a hospital

Yesterday a hospital was demolished in Belhaven, North Carolina after years of controversy. I don't know whether demolition of this hospital was the best decision, but the affair does bring to mind several points.

Belhaven is tiny, population 1600. Like many areas in North Carolina between I-95 and the Atlantic coast, it is depopulating, it is majority African-American, and it is far from prosperous. Unfortunately, it is also geographically isolated. The nearest hospital emergency room (for my British readers, "ER" in the U.S. means "A&E" where you live) is an hour away. Carrie Fisher's life slipped away in less time than that, despite intervention.

Hospitals like the former one in Belhaven that serve a high proportion of Medicare and Medicaid patients face a very difficult financial problem because the allowable reimbursements in those programs are so low. Even WakeMed in Raleigh struggles with this — one reason why WakeMed competes so vigorously against UNC-Rex and Duke for high-spending cardiac patients who are privately insured. I am not a fan of employer-paid healthcare, and there is something to be said for the single-payer model. However, if every hospital in the nation were to have its income restricted to Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements, nearly all of them would quickly go bankrupt. I am not surprised that the hospital in Belhaven was impossible to keep open.

Aside from the beach communities, much of eastern NC has entered a death spiral. The tax base in many counties cannot sustain quality schools. Jobs paying more than minimum wage are scarce. Internet access is slow. Shopping for anything besides gasoline, bread, and milk is difficult. Health care is increasingly centralized, with many residents facing a long drive just to reach a dentist or an OB/GYN (much less an ER). These factors encourage more people to move out and discourage others from moving in, even though real estate prices are cheap.

The British have a useful word to describe this: deprivation. The word is rarely used here, perhaps because Americans in better circumstances prefer to believe that there is little or no deprivation in America and that people who find themselves in deprivation have only themselves to blame.

State government's response to this scenario is minimal. NCDOT proposes road improvements to make the areas more attractive to large businesses, but I question whether that will work by itself. State funding for schools isn't sufficient in the absence of substantial county funding, and the state's community college system that could help these people is consistently under-funded while the state's university system (largely inaccessible to the Belhavens) gets billions of dollars.

Not a happy situation. The question is, can our deeply divided state and national governments — which reflect our deeply divided citizenry — do anything constructive to help these areas… or do we simply let them rot.