Spring is near

Early most Sunday mornings I see the same two people running up Woodward Avenue as I drive to church. I’m driving the legal limit, 50 mph, and the sidewalk they are running on is set back a bit from the road.

If I ever met them in person I wouldn’t recognize them – couldn’t pick them out of a crowd – but for some reason I get a warm feeling when I see them and feel disappointed when I don’t.

It is usually late winter when I stop seeing them. I don’t know if they go to Florida or if they just stay inside when the weather is nasty, but when I start seeing them again, usually in March, I quietly celebrate because I know Spring is near.

Baked Lay’s

Baked Lay’s Original Potato Crisps are a salty snack food. Judged as a salty snack food Baked Lay’s is (marginally) satisfactory.

However when contemplated as a substitute for Lay’s Classic Potato Chips, Baked Lay’s are just woefully inadequate.

As a potato chip lover and occasionally inflexible thinker I am unable, except in a thought experiment, to evaluate Baked Lay’s as anything but a (completely failed and inadequate!) potato chip substitute.

My wife, a more flexible analyst, is able to take Baked Lay’s as its own thing and enjoys it as a salty snack food – without railing on about how much it is a crappy potato chips substitute. This is good for her because (a) she doesn’t have to worry about me eating her Baked Lay’s, and (b) her scope of potential enjoyment is incrementally larger than mine.

Pink Shirt Trauma

I went to my bank and walked up to an open teller’s window. The teller finished what she was doing, raised her eyes, pointed, and shouted, “Look!” The other three tellers darted to her window and looked at me.
Still pointing, my teller said to her colleagues, “See, men who are secure in their masculinity do wear pink shirts.” She cashed my check and I left.
I’m glad it wasn’t in New Jersey.

Unconscious Bias?

NPR’s On The Media this morning (Saturday, the 8th of December, 2012) had a segment about the ethics of photographing tragedy. Co-host and managing editor of On The Media Brooke Gladstone talked with New York Times’ media correspondent, David Carr about an incident where a man was photographed seconds before he was run over by a subway train; the New York Post published that photo on their front page.

The specifics of the incident were not what caught my attention and I won’t discuss them directly. What caught my interest was a portion of the discussion between Ms. Gladstone and Mr. Carr about whether it was appropriate for the Post to publish the picture. The transcript below is homemade so may contain inaccuracies.

Brooke: Back in August the NYT was criticized for running a graphic photo on the website’s front page of the victim of the shooting at the Empire State Building. Was that okay?

David: At the time I was on Twitter saying that it was. You couldn’t really recognize the victim and as someone who cares a lot about the issue of gun violence and thinks it is often depicted in ways that are unrealistic in popular culture, I thought there was value in suggesting there was sometimes gun violence ends in ways that are, you know, hard to look at but important to know. His family was actually livid about the photo and thought that we were doing precisely the same thing that the Post did which was taking a personal tragedy and deploying it to commercial ends.

Brooke: Okay, and you?

David: I don’t think so. The guy was dead. It was over. He was not about to be shot. I thought it was worth publishing – probably not on the front page of the paper, and we didn’t, but yeah … as one of the images that appeared on our web site, yeah. I think it was OK.

Brooke: Would it have been OK if the Post had put the picture of the man on the subway tracks on its web site?

David: I suppose … I’m not sure. I think it would have been better. What has happened is that it’s been memorialized and the language is doom; “This man is about to die.” That seems salacious. That seems over the top.

Brooke: I am no fan of the Post but I have been impressed by what the rest of the media have done with the ensuing coverage. And if that picture of the man at the Empire State Building serves a value in illustrating gun violence why wouldn’t this one serve an equal value telling you to stay away from the edge of the platform?

David: I am on the verge of being convinced by you which was not my intention when I submitted to your interview wiles, Brooke. You actually may be right. You made me think. That’s horrible!

It is rare to witness conversations these days where someone changes their mind about something or even concedes that doing so is possibile. Mr. Carr does so which redounds to his credit. That is not what piqued my interest however.

In September 2012 On The Media took up Ira Glass’ question, Does NPR have a liberal bias? They did a good job of probing the topic, or as a cynic might observe, as good a job of examining potential liberal media bias as a potentially liberally-biased media organization could possibly do.

What intrigued me about today’s On The Media conversation was that Mr. Carr’s conclusion that it was okay for the New York Times to publish the Empire State Building shooting victim photo because it would illustrate realistic gun violence.[1] This exchange represents an example of why some might think there is pervasive bias in the media.

What is interesting is that the conversation just continues on with this explanation and Brooke’s acceptance of it at face value, as if “Of course, all right thinking people agree with this objective and using the news media to achieve it is a good thing.”

Let’s unpack this a bit.

Who is in favor of gun violence?[2] Nobody. No, not even the the National Rifle Association is in favor of gun violence. NRA policies might affect gun violence levels (possibly upward or downward) but they do not advocate gun violence.

Nobody is in favor of gun violence. So what is the point in publishing the photo if pretty much everybody is already against gun violence? We are already against it. What we are not agreed on is the specific policies that should be adopted to address gun violence.

My inference is that the unstated point is to persuade people to take certain policy positions that Mr. Carr (and the media shibboleth) advocate to address gun violence.

The photo of the Empire State Building shooting victim is particularly problematic for those suspicious of pervasive media bias because, although not posed, the victim is an a Christ-like position with arms extended to the sides and bright red blood flowing from his head toward the gutter.

Can an unposed photo be propaganda? I think the answer depends on how the picture is used and if it is intended here to influence the public’s policy preferences, then it is propaganda.

I am not taking a position here on gun control. I am observing that there may be shared understandings between people – common ways of looking at the world – unarticulated assumptions – that left unexamined can manifest as unconscious media bias. To paraphrase Mr. Carr’s remark above, it could look to a suspicious mind a lot like the Times was “was taking a personal tragedy and deploying it to commercial political ends.”

  1. I suspect that the term ‘gun violence’ is itself is a leading indicator of bias. It silently presupposes that guns are the cause of violence and that the violence implemented with guns is more significant than that using other means.  ↩

  2. I assume that ‘gun violence’ means the criminal use of firearms. Except for pacifists, society make exceptions for limited instrumental violence, e.g. self-defense, law enforement, military actions, hunting that are permissible.  ↩

Mandatory Arbitration: Waiving Your Right To Sue

Last week the Diane Rehm Show discussed arbitration under the rubric Waiving Your Right to Sue. The focus of the segment was on the increasing use of contract clauses to mandate the use of arbitration to settle disputes between corporations and individual consumers / employees. Several years ago my former employer asked me to agree that I would submit any employment disputes that might arise between us to binding arbitration so this subject sparked my interest.[1]

Originally arbitration was seen as a tool to resolve commercial disputes arising between businesses. While justice was a concern, timeliness, low cost, and finality were also important; “Decide against me if you must, but do so today, inexpensively, and without any lingering future uncertainty.” The 1925 Federal Arbitration Act reflects this commercial perspective.

Advocates of arbitration offer up the advantages of lower cost and timelier results. They also offer up statistics that seem to show that for broad classes of issues arbitration and court results are comparable. Indeed it was claimed by the American Arbitration Association that for some types of cases individuals win more often in arbitration than in court and receive larger awards.

So why is this a concern?

A shrewd listener (adamsscn) to this segment commented on The Diane Rehm Show’s web site and reported two of her ‘rules to live by’ that seemed applicable:

Mandatory clauses are in the best interest of the person or entity writing the clause. Or in other words, a mandate favors the one doing the mandating.

When in doubt, it is always in a person’s best interest to maximize his or her options. Giving up an option is never in one’s best interest unless one knows exactly what is being given up.

Postulating for the sake of discussion that arbitration really is in individuals’ best interests, reasonable inferences might include that:

We would expect individuals to select the option of arbitration when the need arose, and further that

There is not justification to mandate arbitration before the fact (since rational individuals would choose it.)

Yet increasingly individuals are coerced to surrender their right to access to the courts and forced to resort to binding arbitration to resolve disputes with corporations. These clauses are frequently written into credit card agreements, job applications, labor agreements, product warranties, cell phone contracts, and software end user licensing agreements. You know, all those things we don’t really read but ought to.

Our agreement is, of course, voluntary but it is a peculiarly coerced, and often hidden, definition of voluntary. Coerced in the sense that if you want to apply for the job agreeing to mandatory arbitration is a take-it-or-leave-it pre-condition; no agreement – no job. And hidden in two senses. The first is that for things like product warranties and software licenses you may not see the clause until after the purchase is made. The second sense is one of hidden in plain sight; the clause requiring you to submit to arbitration is right there in plain sight; see in Article 7, Section 4, Subsection 9, para. 23, line 8 in all of it’s sesquapedalian bafflegabish glory. Unless you have a lawyer on retainer to find and explain these clauses to you, you are surely out of luck. [2]

While U.S. Courts were not originally supportive of arbitration in lieu of legal proceedings, both Congress and the Judiciary now strongly support arbitration as an alternate dispute resolution process with the usual endorsement of arbitration’s accessibility, timeliness, lower cost, and finality vis à vis the courts. Wholly apart from my developing suspicion of corporatism this flags to me a larger problem. The proper response to an inaccessible, untimely, expensive, and indeterminate legal system is to FIX IT!. [3]

A cynic might suspect that the relevant stakeholders are confronting perverse incentives that encourage maintaining of our dysfunctional legal system; it seems to work well enough for them that there is no outcry for reform. Perhaps Dick the Butcher was was right after all. [4]


  1. Late in my effort here I found that there was a relevant recent NY Times Op-Ed piece Struck in Arbitration which I commend to your attention. Alas, if I’d of seen it first I likely would have written less.  ↩

  2. Whatever happened to the movement to simplify legal language?  ↩

  3. The court system also coerces diversion by encouraging plea bargaining; again in lieu of fixing the system. See this interesting recent NY Times Op-Ed entitled Go to Trial: Crash the Justice System.  ↩

  4. Henry VI, Part II (4.2.73)  ↩

Mitt Romney: “Corporations are people, my friend”

I was never very likely to vote for Romney but I never thought I would look to Ron Paul for a cogent response to Mitt’s statement that ‘corporations are people.’

Interviewer Question: “Real quick question for you… What did you make of Mitt Romney’s statement that corporations are people yesterday?”

Ron Paul Answer: “Well obviously, they are not. People are individuals, they’re not group and they are not companies. Individuals have rights, they’re not collective. You can’t duck that you know that, so individuals should be responsible for corporations, and they shouldn’t be a new creature so-to-speak. The rights and obligations should be always be back to the individual.”

He’s right. At the end of the day individual human beings are the agents that make choices, take actions, and are responsible … in corporations, unions, public interest groups, political parties, and the government. When we obscure this we run the danger that people will feel insulated from responsibility from their actions. This way danger lies.

The Move to Amend group is proposing a constitutional amendment to address this issue in the campaign funding context. While I don’t think the constitutional amendment approach will succeed I don’t have an alternative and this windmill needs tilting.

Alice Munro’s ‘Dimension’ and the Rape of Persephone

The story of Persephone’s abduction and return is traditionally referred to as the Rape of Persephone. A potted summary:

Hades, god of the underworld, fell in love with Persephone and consulted with Zeus. Zeus advised Hades to kidnap Persephone since her mother, Demeter, would not consent to the match. Persephone was gathering flowers when Hades abducted her to the underworld. In response Demeter caused the earth to become barren until she was returned. Zeus eventually forced Hades to return Persephone to the earth but there was a catch. Anyone who ate or drank in the underworld must remain. Hades had tricked Persephone into eating four pomegranate seeds. When Demeter and Persephone were reunited the earth became fertile again but Persephone must return to the underworld for four months each year and the earth again becomes barren.

The book discussion group I attend discussed Alice Munro’s collection Too Much Happiness last Spring. The discussion sparked a number of things to think about and I ended up going home fixated on the first story in the collection, Dimension originally published in the New Yorker magazine. The keywords embedded in the New Yorker web page’s HTML for the story almost tell the story:

“Murder, Children, Marriage, Mental Illness, Buses, Ontario, Canada, Social Workers, Husbands, Prisons (Jails), Accidents, Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, Children, Wives”

I wouldn’t have seen any similarity to the Rape of Persephone except for two coincidences: Over twenty years ago I read L.R. Wright’s series of Karl Alberg mysteries, and I live in Michigan. The Alberg mysteries were moderately entertaining but their significance here is they took place in Sechelt, British Columbia on what the local tourist promotions refer to as Canada’s “Sunshine Coast.”

Although I retain almost nothing of the Alberg mysteries what has stuck with me was that there was a golden place in the rain shadow of Vancouver Island’s mountains where it was sunny. If you are a Michigander this is something you notice. In Michigan we live through winters of unending gray. We are gray connoisseurs – my favorite gray is a thick bright gray cloud cover that scatters photons in all directions so that everything is uniformly illuminated and there are no shadows. On one winter walk this particular gray taught me how much I implicitly depended on light and shadow to find my way.

The two primary characters in Dimension are Doree (AKA Fleur) and Lloyd. Doree, age 19, lived with her mother in Sechelt. Her mother was in hospital ‘for a serious but not dangerous’ condition until she unexpectedly died. Lloyd, an older man (late 30s/early 40s) was an orderly at the hospital (and I suspect caused the mother’s death. Embolisms are always just so convenient …)

When her mother died Doree was hustled from Sechelt by Lloyd to a rural life outside Mildmay, Ontario (across Lake Huron from Port Hope, Michigan and ~30 miles inland.) It shares Michigan’s lake effect cloud cover and seasonal sun light deficiency. This swift transition from sun light to gray was the first thing that brought to mind the abduction of Persephone. Doree (meaning golden), is taken by Lloyd (meaning gray, holy), from the sun lit coast into the gray. Golden is a standard epithet for Persephone, while the realm of Hades is described in Greek mythology as misty and gloomy (i.e. gray.)

Hades, usually a passive god, could be provoked to great violence when his subjects try to leave, much as Lloyd was when Doree left. Doree develops a friendship with Maggie, a fellow home-schooling mother. Lloyd dislikes Maggie and as their friendship develops verbally abuses Doree so much that she leaves and goes to Maggie’s house to get some peace. When Maggie brings Doree back to the house the next morning Lloyd has killed their three children.

Lloyd goes to prison and Doree goes into something like a disassociative fugue state. Doree visits Lloyd in prison several times and is on the bus on her way to see him when she witnesses a single vehicle traffic accident. Her bus stops and Doree successfully revivies the teen-aged driver with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Doree decides she doesn’t need to continue on to the prison and waits with the revived driver for the ambulance. Although Lloyd has been in prison for months, Doree isn’t liberated from Hades until now. Where Persephone’s liberation from Hades brings life to the world, Doree’s gift of life brings her own liberation.

Stupid Little Realization Stories

The term New Yorker Stories has become a generic one in my family for stories that may or may not have actually been printed in the New Yorker magazine, but that start and end at apparently arbitrary points and vary in tone from glum to worse.

One weekend last spring I was re-reading Alice Munro’s collection of short stories, Too Much Happiness, in preparation for a group discussion. When I took a break my wife asked me what the stories were like. After I described one she said, “Oh, you mean they’re New Yorker Stories.”

Later that same weekend I ran across the below from Allison Lurie’s review of Julian Barnes’ latest in the NYRB:

“Literary fiction, however, now tends to conform to Tom Stoppard’s addition to Miss Prism’s Rule, first stated in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966): “The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means.” The scale of the tragedy, of course, varies widely. When we begin a story by a known and admired writer in a known and admired journal, we do not always expect a major disaster, but we know that something unpleasant is going to happen to the main characters, and/or that they will end up understanding something unpleasant about themselves, their friends or family, or the world in general. (Years ago, a Harvard student called Speed Lamkin described the latter tales to me as “stupid little realization stories.”)”

This seemed to be a most satisfactory description of the New Yorker Story.   The only opportunity for improvement would be to replace the phrase “known and admired journal” with some more explicit reference to the New Yorker.

Detroit Mass Transit Hypotheses

Hypothesis 1: Low population density inhibits development of public transportation solutions.

Detroit covers a large area compared to other cities and population decreases over the last 50 years have decreased population density. This makes the development of cost-effective public transit solutions difficult and decreases demand for them.

Hypothesis 2: Metro Detroit’s existing hub and spoke public transit architecture is obsolete.

Large scale movement of people in the Detroit metropolitan area Detroit’s used to be mostly about moving people from suburbs downtown to Detroit to work and returning them home after work each day. The architecture of the metropolitan public transport solutions reflected this. Getting downtown was easy; getting from one suburb to another not so much. Going from Pontiac to Mt. Clemens would involve a trip down Woodward Avenue to downtown Detroit followed by a trip up Gratiot to Mt. Clemens; at least twice a far as the crow flies. Although we still have this public transit architecture, commuter traffic is now is primarily from one suburb to another rather than from the suburbs to the city center.

The new Woodward Light Rail Project is perplexing in this context. It is a ~$500M project along the Woodward Avenue spoke and is entirely within the City of Detroit. The Woodward Avenue spoke’s natural length from Detroit to Pontiac is 31.1 miles yet the light rail project is planned for only 9.3 miles – from downtown to the Detroit city limit at 8 Mile Road – all within the city. In the Detroit area more than 77% of area jobs are outside of a ten mile radius from the city’s center.