Saturday, July 31, 2004

Sandy Berger's Socks

...have been cleared of wrongdoing.
The National Archives and the Justice Department have concluded nothing is missing and nothing in the Clinton administration's record was withheld from the 9-11 Commission.

The Wall Street Journal reports archives staff have accounted for all classified documents Berger looked at.
Tapped has more, from the subscription-only Wall Street Journal story:
Officials looking into the removal of classified documents from the National Archives by former Clinton National Security Adviser Samuel Berger say no original materials are missing and nothing Mr. Berger reviewed was withheld from the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Several prominent Republicans, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, have voiced suspicion that when Mr. Berger was preparing materials for the 9/11 Commission on the Clinton administration's antiterror actions, he may have removed documents that were potentially damaging to the former president's record.

The conclusion by archives officials and others would seem to lay to rest the issue of whether any information was permanently destroyed or withheld from the commission.

Archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper said officials there "are confident that there aren't any original documents missing in relation to this case." She said in most cases, Mr. Berger was given photocopies to review, and that in any event officials have accounted for all originals to which he had access.
This is going to get just as much play on the cable news networks and in the right-wing blogosphere as the original accusations, right?


Monday, July 26, 2004

Book Review: Beyond Fear

Now that I've lured you all here with my sensitive handling of emotional nuance, let's switch gears and geek out for a while. I want to talk about Bruce Schneier's new book Beyond Fear. Bruce was nice enough to send me a copy back in May, when I wrote about systematic errors in risk perception. I read it in one big gulp, and ever since then I've been carrying it around in my briefcase, waiting to have enough time to write a review. Here it is.

Bruce Schneier is a security expert who achieved his fame in the field of cryptography and Internet security and has subsequently branched out to write and consult about general security issues. Beyond Fear is his attempt to demystify security for the post-9/11 general public. His general thesis is that all security decisions, ranging from a homeowner's decision about whether to buy a burglar alarm to a government's decision about whether to spy on its own citizens, are based on the same general concepts. By understanding these concepts, we can make rational decisions about whether and how proposed security measures should be implemented, rather than being driven by fear.

Schneier proposes a five-step process for evaluating any security measure: (1) What assets need to be protected? (2) What are the risks to these assets? (3) How well does the security solution mitigate those risks? (4) What other risks does the security solution cause? (5) What costs and tradeoffs does the security solution impose? Schneier models the five-step process in sidebars throughout the book, applying it to security decisions as diverse as "should I use my credit card to make purchases over the Internet?" and "should I invade Iraq to protect my country from terrorism?"

The five steps seem simple, even obvious, but consider how often they're overlooked in public debate. For example, since 9/11 we have frequently been told by pundits that "giving up a few rights is a small price to pay for safety," and have been encouraged to skim over inconvenient questions about how much safety we're actually getting for the price.

I found two of Schneier's concepts particularly useful. First is the notion that everyone involved in a security decision has their own agenda, and that, as illustrated here, these agendas are often driven by factors unrelated to security – such as profit or PR or the need for people to feel safe. Non-security agendas aren't necessarily bad things. For example, Schneier points out that during the 2002 sniper attacks on the Washington DC area, many parents drove their children to school despite the fact that, statistically, the children were at greater risk of dying in a car accident than a sniper attack. Driving them to school was valuable because it provided emotional security, not because it increased their physical security. Schneier's point is not that non-security agendas must be eliminated, but that they must be understood - and not mistaken for real security factors.

The other concept I found especially useful is that every security decision involves tradeoffs. We can't decide to have "no compromises" when it comes to security, we can only decide where our compromises will be, who will bear the brunt of them, and how we will deal with them. Explicit discussion of security tradeoffs is often avoided, as anyone who's read the "child safety" sections of parenting magazines can attest. That makes it awfully difficult to reject proposed security measures. ("Well, why wouldn't we want to do it, if it saves just one life... if there's the smallest chance...") We can't make rational decisions about security without articulating and choosing among the associated tradeoffs.

The first part of Beyond Fear outlines the basic principles of Schneier's approach to security decision-making. The second part of the book discusses specific elements of threats, attackers, defenses, and countermeasures (for example: "Brittleness makes for bad security," "Detection works where prevention fails"), in short chapters filled with vivid real-world examples. Schneier's got a gift for logical exposition; reading this book, I frequently found myself saying "how obvious!" in response to a point I knew had never occurred to me before. At the end of the book, I felt much more confident in my ability to understand security debates and participate intelligently in the discussion.

Beyond Fear is beautifully organized, clearly expressed, and not the least bit dull. Rivka-Bob says: Check it out.

Friday, July 23, 2004


Imagine that it's 1973. The Supreme Court has just struck down abortion laws. You're pregnant with your fourth wanted child, when suddenly the Prenatal Diagnosis Fairy appears to you in your obstetrician's office.
"I've got bad news," she says. "Your baby is not developing properly in the womb. One of her hip sockets is just plain missing, and one of her arms is irreparably small and deformed. She'll spend a year of her babyhood encased in heavy plaster, unable to move anything below her armpits. She'll have surgery 11 times in her first 23 years of life, several of which will ultimately prove to be failures. She'll have a chronic pain condition by the age of 12. She'll never have the physical ability to do certain simple things like braiding her own hair or riding a bike. By her early twenties, she won't even be able to walk one city block unassisted.

"You'll shepherd your infant through not one, not two, but three different surgeries before she's even old enough to understand why she's being hurt. You'll leave your other kids with a babysitter again and again so you can sleep on a chair in her hospital room. You'll try to figure out what to say when she comes home from junior high school crying because her classmates make fun of the way she walks. So I just want to know: do you think you're up for it? And even if you are, do you think it would be fair to her?"
Like most disabled adults, I'm ambivalent about the abortion of disabled children. It's frequently brought out as a pro-choice trump card: "Well, what about children who would be born deformed and suffer terrible pain?" Some people have made the paradoxical argument that disabled children have a "right not to be born." There are, in fact, "wrongful birth" lawsuits. Yes, those are all about children who are much more disabled than me - but I've had friends over the years with osteogenesis imperfecta, with cerebral palsy, with spina bifida, with no arms and legs. Where on the continuum do you draw the line? The answers aren't easy, as this painful article makes clear. It also makes it clear that there are people who choose abortion because of disabilities that are much less severe than mine.

I used to say, "I don't have a problem with abortion on the basis of 'I don't want to have a child right now,' I have a problem with abortion on the basis of 'I don't want to have THIS child.' " But I can't sustain that kind of moral smugness in the face of stories like this one - I can only admire the courage it takes to make such an impossibly hard decision. I would probably do the same thing, and to hell with my disability-rights politics.

"I could never have your strength," people say to parents of disabled children - as if these parents have some sort of special quality that makes their situation easier than it would be for other people. I know differently. Some parents of disabled children - mine, incidentally, among them - rise to the occasion and do a fantastic job. Others don't. My dissertation added to the research literature demonstrating that congenitally disabled children are at greater risk of parental abuse. So I'm under no illusions about the stress, pain, uncertainty, and financial and physical burdens that come with parenting disabled children. And yet I also know that disabled people can make valuable contributions to both family life and society at large. I know that life as a disabled person - even a severely disabled person - can be well worth living.

Where does that leave me? With Barbara Ehrenreich. Her op-ed in yesterday's New York Times takes on "the prejudice [...] that a termination for medical reasons is somehow on a higher moral plane than a run-of-the-mill abortion." Ehrenreich supports the right to "run-of-the-mill abortion," of course, and so do I. Absolutely. But I also refuse to concede that women who abort a disabled fetus have made a choice that's better or more understandable or more deservedly legal than women who have aborted a fetus because they fear they'll never finish college with a baby, or because they've always disliked children. It always comes down to a personal choice, a personal weighing of uncertain costs and benefits. I may not always be morally comfortable with the resulting decisions - but, then again, no one has asked me to be. I don't have to approve of every single abortion to remain determinedly pro-choice.

This next paragraph is pretty much beside the point, but I don't want to leave the first part of my post unbalanced. So: in my imaginary scenario, here's what the Prenatal Diagnosis Fairy didn't say.
"Your baby will grow up smart and determined. She'll earn a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, make some original contributions to the research literature, and help people work through the most painful aspects of their lives. She'll be a good cook. She'll use that deformed arm to play the piano passably well and to complete elaborate needlework projects. She'll have great friends and some successful romantic relationships and a happy marriage. Her disability will cause intense physical and mental pain over the years, and sometimes it will be bitter and awful. But it will also make her stronger and tougher. By the age of 30, she'll have recovered enough mobility to be able to hike three miles over rough terrain, and to her that will feel like a marathon-quality accomplishment. Over the years she'll be active in political campaigns, volunteer organizations, and her church. People will listen when she speaks. And eventually, she'll create a modestly successful weblog that will forever associate her in people's minds with small, furry, aquatic mammals. So when you make your decision, keep those parts in mind, too."

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Secondary Questioning

Kathy Gill, at, has attempted to verify the claim that it's Department of Transportation policy "to fine airlines if they have more than two young Arab males in secondary questioning because that's discriminatory" - as asserted here, for example, by Michael Smerconish. The source of the claim is a statement by 9/11 Commissioner John Lehman, who told Smerconish:
"We had testimony a couple of months ago from the past president of United, and current president of American Airlines that kind of shocked us all. They said under oath that indeed the Department of Transportation continued to fine any airline that was caught having more than two people of the same ethnic persuasion in a secondary line for line for questioning, including and especially, two Arabs," he said.
Something about this apparently didn't sound right to Kathy Gill, who went back to examine the testimony of United and American executives before the 9/11 commission.
I've read the transcript of the testimony at hearing seven of the 9-11 Commission, where United and American executives testified. Lehman's allegation is not reflected in this testimony. Relevant parts follow:
Mr Kerrey (Commissioner):
I must tell you that the law (U.S. Code Title 49, Section 44902) doesn't mention the FAA. The law says, quote, "An air carrier may refuse to transport a passenger or property the carrier decides is or might be inimical to safety."

Mr. Soliday (United, emphasis added [by Kathy Gill]):
"But if I could share some history with you, how that law has been applied to us is that when we have tried to deny boarding --most recently after 9/11, 38 of our captains denied boarding to people they thought were a threat. Those people filed complaints with the DOT, we were sued, and we were asked not to do it again."

Mr. Arpey (American, in response to question from Commissioner Lehman):
"In a post-9/11 environment, we had situations where our crew members were uncomfortable with passengers on board the airplane, they hauled them off the airplane and I think -- there was 10 or 11 of them -- and today we're being sued by the DOT over each one of those cases."
So what was actually reported during that testimony before the Commission is that airlines have been sued because pilots refused to transport certain passengers. (Remember the Arab-American Secret Service agent who wasn't permitted to fly even after law enforcement vouched for his identity? Do you suppose there was a lawsuit on his behalf?) The testimony had nothing whatsoever to do with racial quotas for secondary questioning.

Smerconish admits that, after the first time he wrote about the alleged policy, the Department of Transportation told him that the policy does not exist. (Apparently he never contacted them himself to ask.)
"...A member of the 9/11 Commission was incorrect in telling... that the Federal Aviation Administration used a quota restricting the number of foreign passengers that could be subjected to secondary screening at one time. Despite the testimony... cited in your column, secondary screening of passengers is random or behavior-based. It is not now, nor has ever been based on ethnicity, religion or appearance."
"Is that supposed to make us feel better?" Smerconish asks rhetorically. Yes, in fact, it is. Smerconish (and others propagating this story, like Michelle Malkin and Annie Jacobsen) talks about the alleged policy as if it prohibits the investigation of suspicious behavior. It should be reassuring to know that security screeners can question and search all the suspiciously-behaving Arabs they want, without fear of punishment. But apparently, Smerconish will only be satisfied if random screenings are completely replaced by Arab-only screenings.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Supply And Demand

I'm still catching up on blog reading, so I almost missed Kevin Drum's hilarious economics contest:
Supply and demand. Yes indeed. The labor market is a slave to supply and demand just like any other market, right?

Odd, then, that CEO pay rose 27% in 2003, isn't it? Did the supply of CEOs shrink last year? Did demand skyrocket?

What's more, compared to average workers, who remain stuck in the invisible grip of Adam Smith, CEO pay has increased about 3x since 1990 and about 7x since 1980.

Is this the free market at work? That's what I'm told. So I have a contest in mind: a prize for the least laughable explanation for why CEO pay has gone up 7x since 1980 based on supply and demand. At a minimum, winning entries should explain the following:

Why the supply of CEOs has decreased.

Why the demand for CEOs has increased.

Why the elasticity of the CEO demand curve is apparently steeper than for any other commodity on the planet.
Okay, so plenty of the entries are unimaginative. (Supply has decreased because so many CEOs are in prison, heh heh heh. Repeated ad nauseam by dozens of other people who don't read comments before posting.) But there are also some true gems. Here are my favorites so far:
1. The onslaught of government regulation such as Sarbanne-Oxley has 1) dramatically increased the workload of the CEOs and 2) is discouraging aspiring CEOs from entering the field just like malpractice insurance has dramatically diminished the number of qualified physicians...

2. With so many new businesses being generated, demand for CEO's is higher than ever before, but supply is low because few wish to labor under the extreme tax burden imposed on our nation's CEOs.

3. The post-Enron world has made being a CEO a very risky venture, which assuredly adds a supply curve explanation. [The other two are clearly sarcastic, but I think this guy might actually be serious. Who knew that I could demand additional compensation to protect me from the risk that I might turn out to be an amoral felon?]
So: read and enter. If you win, I insist upon a cut of your fabulous prizes.

It Didn't *Have* To Be A Joke...

Over at the Daily Kos, people are mocking the news that the Department of Labor has set up a website to help homeless people find jobs.

Kos: "No, it's not from the Onion."

Various commenters: "I can see it now, as the sad, homeless person lying under his newspaper in the park, covered with cardboard, powers up his Dell Laptop, logs on, and check the Opportunities forum." "There are over 30,000 homeless in NYC alone without WIFI service. Unconscionable..."

I don't actually think there's anything ridiculous about having a website set up to link homeless people with employment services and other government assistance programs. More homeless people have access to the Internet than you might think, through public libraries and homeless shelters - but, more importantly, a well-designed employment resource website would be invaluable to case managers, job coaches, and others who provide direct services to homeless people. My clients don't have home Internet access either (or, often, homes), but I do searches on their behalf all the time. I've been surprised by difficult it is to find up-to-date Internet information about local services. (Last two searches: an HIV support group for a heterosexual man; organized recreational activities for an adult with mild mental retardation. The support group was so impossible to find that I gave up and created one instead.) A comprehensive web directory would save me a hell of a lot of time and trouble.

So: no, it's not a bad idea. It is, however, a terrible website. There are links to Labor Department press releases and relevant employment laws. There are descriptions of targeted programs and service provision grants, neither of which include information (even telephone numbers) that would actually help clients access services. There's a link to a job search website designed for the general population - I couldn't find any information there about job training, supported employment, job coaching, or other special programs for people who aren't quite workforce-ready. Some obviously relevant information is missing: for example, links to the federally-funded state Departments of Vocational Rehabilitation, which provide employment services to people with disabilities.

The one thing on the page that seems genuinely useful is a link to an HHS website that helps case managers apply for federal benefits on behalf of their homeless clients. In other words, it's a resource that (a) already exists, (b) has nothing to do with the Labor Department, (c) is largely antithetical to the stated goal of helping homeless people find employment, and (d) is for service providers rather than clients.

If you want to know what the government is doing to help homeless people get jobs, this website is perfect. If you want to actually get a job for a homeless person, it's useless. So what we have here is nothing more than a government-funded advertisement for Bush's "compassionate conservatism," dressed up as a resource that actually helps the poor. I'm not surprised, but I am disgusted.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Terror In The Skies!!!

We here at Respectful of Otters are having a lousy day at work.

Typing that, I am reminded that two previous lousy days at work have involved (a) a psychotic HIV-positive person bleeding on my desk from a self-inflicted wound, and (b) an erect penis I very much did not want to see. Considered in that light, today looks much better... and yet it's still been the kind of day that makes me want to retreat into fantasyland.

Annie Jacobsen, of "Women's Wall," is ready to oblige.

If you read World O'Crap, and you should, you're already familiar with the story. Essentially, Jacobsen and her husband were on a flight from Detroit to Los Angeles with a group of 14 Middle Eastern men. This seems to have been all that was needed to send her into a tizzy of racist paranoia:
As we sat waiting for the plane to finish boarding, we noticed another large group of Middle Eastern men boarding. The first man wore a dark suit and sunglasses. He sat in first class in seat 1A, the seat second-closest to the cockpit door. The other seven men walked into the coach cabin. As "aware" Americans, my husband and I exchanged glances, and then continued to get comfortable. I noticed some of the other passengers paying attention to the situation as well. As boarding continued, we watched as, one by one, most of the Middle Eastern men made eye contact with each other. They continued to look at each other and nod, as if they were all in agreement about something. I could tell that my husband was beginning to feel "anxious."
The Middle Eastern men continued to behave extremely suspiciously throughout the flight, provocatively chatting with each other, making eye contact, reading, possessing musical instrument cases, using the restroom, and failing to smile at the strange woman who had been keeping them under surveillance since they boarded. Apparently, at least one flight attendant was also caught up in Jacobson's anti-Arab hysteria, although some of those details are hard to believe. (For example: "About 20 minutes later the same flight attendant returned. Leaning over and whispering, she asked my husband to write a description of the yellow-shirted man sitting across from us. She explained it would look too suspicious if she wrote the information. She asked my husband to slip the note to her when he was done. ")

There is literally no way to make sense of Jacobsen's article if you don't start from the assumption that Middle Eastern men are terrorists. None. She complains that their carry-on luggage was not searched - by which she apparently means that it wasn't searched in front of her, at the gate, because all carry-ons go through security screening. She derives great drama from one of the men walking to the restroom with a bulging McDonald's bag and returning without it. (What do you do with trash you've brought onto an airplane? I suppose Jacobsen would hand it to a flight attendant, rather than throwing it out herself.) She finds it deeply suspicious that the men appeared to know each other, although they weren't sitting together. (I've been seated apart from my Significant Otter at times, when we were late arranging a flight. And we weren't trying to book a group of 14.)

When the Evil Terrorists got off the plane, they were met by the FBI - presumably the work of Jacobsen's flight attendant friend. Jacobsen and her husband gave a statement, and later called "Dave Adams, the Federal Air Marshal Services (FAM) Head of Public Affairs," who proved to be remarkably free with other airline passengers' travel information. He explained that the Middle Eastern men were all members of the same band, had clean records, and were traveling on the flight because of a legitimately confirmed gig. Jacobsen is still not satisfied:
So the question is... Do I think these men were musicians? I'll let you decide. But I wonder, if 19 terrorists can learn to fly airplanes into buildings, couldn't 14 terrorists learn to play instruments?
The right-wing blogosphere is predictably apoplectic, although there are also some reasonable exceptions. More sane commentary comes from the incomparable Sisyphus Shrugged and from Trish Wilson. The dramatic incident of the Coordinated Bathroom Visits is neatly disposed of by World O'Crap commenter Karin:
I have travelled in the Middle East and this sure sounds like prayer time to me. Muslims pray 5 times a day at specific times, and they perform ablutions(wash up) before they pray. That explains why everybody had to use the lav at the same time. Then they would have gone back and prayed quietly in their seats, or standing toegher in small groups in the aisle. I'm sure they were trying to be discreet about it, which ironically caused the passengers to get so paranoid.
The strangest part of the whole story, to me, is that Jacobsen and her supporters continue to maintain that what she observed was a terrorist attack in the planning, despite every piece of disconfirming evidence provided them. (They "appeared to know each other" because they did know each other - they were a large group traveling together but seated separately; they were carrying instrument cases because they were musicians; they were searched and investigated without turning up any evidence of evil intentions.) I suppose that I can understand how a nervous person might become frightened on the flight itself, especially with other people (including flight attendants) succumbing to hysteria. But it takes determined prejudices to remain convinced that death was narrowly averted even after a thorough security investigation revealed nothing.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Security Vs. "Security"

Bruce Schneier relates a parable about the value of security measures:
The other week I visited the corporate headquarters of a large financial institution on Wall Street; let's call them FinCorp. FinCorp had pretty elaborate building security. Everyone -- employees and visitors -- had to have their bags X-rayed.

Seemed silly to me, but I played along. There was a single guard watching the X-ray machine's monitor, and a line of people putting their bags onto the machine. The people themselves weren't searched at all. Even worse, no guard was watching the people. So when I walked with everyone else in line and just didn't put my bag onto the machine, no one noticed.

It was all good fun, and I very much enjoyed describing this to FinCorp's VP of Corporate Security. He explained to me that he got a $5 million rate reduction from his insurance company by installing that X-ray machine and having some dogs sniff around the building a couple of times a week.

I thought the building's security was a waste of money. It was actually a source of corporate profit.
Bruce's point is that, while every security measure is implemented for a good reason, the good reason involved often has nothing to do with security. The canonical modern example is the requirement that all airline passengers show a photo ID. There's nothing about showing photo ID that makes us safer, as was demonstrated on 9/11: every one of the hijackers had an acceptable photo ID. But the photo ID requirement does put the airlines in a better financial position. Prior to the ID requirement, it was possible to resell tickets you didn't plan to use, which meant lost revenue for the airlines. Now, private resale of airline tickets is impossible. The "security" measure was implemented to solve an economic problem, not a security problem.

Bruce was nice enough to send me a copy of his new book about security, Beyond Fear, after I posted about risk estimation a while back. I've been meaning to review it forever - maybe tomorrow evening? - but in the meantime, this story is a good sample.

(So where have I been, and why have I been neglecting my faithful readers? Um. Well, I've been busy, for one thing, but I've also been feeling somewhat depressed. When I'm in that state of mind, it's hard to muster the energy to go trolling through the worst sludge of the news looking for things to be outraged about, and harder still to believe that I have anything to say that's worth listening to. But I'm working on it, and I'll also work on keeping up with the posts. I don't want my readership to vanish completely.)

Friday, July 09, 2004

Counting Book Readers

I'm not sure what to make of the new NEA survey heralding a decline in reading.
The survey sample — 17,135 people — makes it one of the largest studies ever conducted on the subject of arts participation, and the data were compared with similar studies from 1982 and 1992. In the literature segment respondents were asked whether they had, during the previous 12 months, without the impetus of a school or work assignment, read any novels, short stories, poems or plays in their leisure time.

Their answers show that just over half — 56.6 percent — read a book of any kind in the previous year, down from 60.9 percent a decade earlier. Readers of literature fell even more precipitously, to 46.7 percent of the adult population, down from 54 percent in 1992 and 56.9 percent in 1982, which means that in the last decade the erosion accelerated significantly.
These numbers strike me as odd, for a couple of reasons. In the first place: I was recently pointed towards a 1999 Gallup Poll lauding "continuing strong American reading habits." The 1999 poll found that 85% of Americans had read a book of any kind in the previous year, and that 55% had read six or more books in the past year. Those results are dramatically at odds with the Census Bureau's report that in 1992 only 60.9% of Americans read a book of any kind in the previous year, and that the percentage has been dropping since. The Times article also cites the Association of American Publisher's report that total sales of "consumer book products" increased 6% worldwide in 2003, a gain mostly attributed to increased sales of e-books and audiobooks. Who's buying all the books, if people have stopped reading?

In the second place: I grew up in a small ex-industrial city with three tiny, poorly stocked bookstores. Today my hometown supports an enormous Barnes & Noble as well as several smaller chains. Lots of small towns can report the same experience. More Americans have access to larger bookstores carrying more titles than ever before. How does the rise of the big-box-booksellers jibe with the supposed decline in reading? Again, from my own experience - when I lived in the suburbs, I could never get a close parking space at the library. My current urban library is always full of people, not just in the video section but deep in the stacks of the Humanities section. When I get on a commuter train in the morning, everyone's reading something. I'm not just talking about my own friends, who are all nerds - it seems to me, from my observation of the general population, that a moderate level of reading is widespread.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden made this point well in a 2001 interview:
What we really have is an immense explosion of options, so that no individual thing is selling nearly as well as the mass-market phenomena of the past. The Gallup Organization has done all these surveys of America's reading habits and established conclusively that despite all the cocktail-party cliches about literacy being on the decline, in fact most Americans are buying more books and reading more books and talking about more books, and generally being more bookish on an overwhelming level than ever before. It's all classes of Americans. It's not just computer books or self-help books or cat books. We're in an absolute commercial explosion of literary publishing. You couldn't have supported a Barnes & Noble the size of Rhode Island at every other suburban intersection thirty years ago.
I'm suspicious of arguments that the majority of people are stupid, uninformed, evil, or immoral, ranged up against a tiny minority of the righteous. In the circles in which I move, the claim that "most people don't read" is often cited as evidence for this worldview. One of the most vicious online arguments I ever had was with a man who maintained that "only one or two percent of Americans read anything at all," and I see that similarly extreme claims have even made it into published books. It's tempting to believe that our culture is going to hell, and that only a fast-diminishing remnant of civilization remains to hold back the outer darkness... I suppose.

So I don't know what to make of the Census Bureau survey.

The word "literature" is repeated so frequently in the New York Times piece about the survey that I begin to be suspicious about its meaning. It's a word with highbrow associations, and I wonder how the average person applies it. If the Census Bureau asks a voracious consumer of Harlequin Romances about her tastes in "literature," will she consider that it applies to her daily reading, or will she deny that she reads any literature at all? My suspicions are bolstered by the fact that the survey found reading to be highly correlated with visiting arts museums and attending performing arts events, and by the quotes from expert commenters. The chair of the NEA refers to "literary readers," not readers. History professor Kevin Starr talks about books in the context of "high culture," and notes that "You can get through American life and be very successful without anybody ever asking you whether Shylock is an anti-Semitic character or whether `Death in Venice' is better than `The Magic Mountain.'" Even before this "decline in reading," more people were reading Stephen King and Barbara Taylor Bradford than exquisite literary classics, and yet that's not the context in which the NEA and the New York Times are discussing the state of American letters.

Of the three books I'm currently reading (Ted Sturgeon's More Than Human, Dorothy Sayers' Busman's Honeymoon, and Anthony Trollope's Framley Parsonage) two are genre fiction (science fiction and mystery), and one is a 19th century novel which, I suppose, I could classify as "literary fiction." I suspect that only the third one counts as "literature" to the Times - I'm not sure about the Census Bureau. That's the only explanation I can think of for the discrepant results - anyone else?

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

The Last Blogger On Earth To Post About Edwards

I'm quite pleased with Kerry's choice of John Edwards for VP, which nicely infuses Kerry's old-Washington credentials with a shot of energy from the future of the Democratic Party. Edwards was my second choice, after Dean dropped out, because I appreciated his vitality and his unabashedly liberal message. I think his charisma and eloquence will vastly improve the campaign. And Kos thinks that Edwards brings a big piece of the South back into play.

You won't be seeing much from me on the horse-race aspects of the election, because I simply don't have the expertise. Fortunately, the Daily Kos is your one-stop shopping center for electoral analysis. In particular, follow the links from this post to read Tom Schaller's thoughtful coverage of John Edwards.

With Edwards' nomination, expect the national hysteria over "tort reform" to reach a fever pitch. Slacktivist explains why the Republican strategy of using John Edwards as a poster boy for tort reform will backfire, given the particulars of Edwards' biggest courtroom triumph.
The defining case in Edwards' legal career wrapped up that same year. In 1993, a five-year-old girl named Valerie Lakey had been playing in a Wake County, N.C., wading pool when she became caught in an uncovered drain so forcefully that the suction pulled out most of her intestines. She survived but for the rest of her life will need to be hooked up to feeding tubes for 12 hours each night.

Edwards filed suit on the Lakeys' behalf against Sta-Rite Industries, the Wisconsin corporation that manufactured the drain. Attorneys describe his handling of the case as a virtuoso example of a trial layer bringing a negligent corporation to heel. Sta-Rite offered the Lakeys $100,000 to settle the case. Edwards passed.

Before trial, he discovered that 12 other children had suffered similar injuries from Sta-Rite drains. The company raised its offer to $1.25 million. Two weeks into the trial, they upped the figure to $8.5 million. Edwards declined the offer and asked for their insurance policy limit of $22.5 million. The day before the trial resumed from Christmas break, Sta-Rite countered with $17.5 million. Again, Edwards said no.

On January 10, 1997, lawyers from across the state packed the courtroom to hear Edwards' closing argument, "the most impressive legal performance I have ever seen," recalls Dayton. Three days later, the jury found Sta-Rite guilty and liable for $25 million in economic damages (by state law, punitive damages could have tripled that amount). The company immediately settled for $25 million, the largest verdict in state history. For their part, Edwards and Kirby earned the Association of Trial Lawyers of America's national award for public service.
Never forget that the true aim of "tort reform" is to protect corporations that see no reason to modify their products after the first twelve children have their guts sucked out. Edwards' career as a trial lawyer is perfectly positioned to highlight the utter swindle that is the "tort reform" movement.

As Slacktivist says, "It is true that Americans despise lawyers, but only until they need a good one on their side. And that's really the question Americans ask about any given lawyer: Whose side is he on? Prompting Americans to ask that question about John Edwards would not be a wise move for his opponents in this campaign."

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Praying For Wal*Mart

The Respectful of Otters Military Advisory Board has informed me that the Carmelite Sisters of Indianapolis are praying about the Wal*Mart gender discrimination lawsuit this week.

There don't seem to be permalinks, but previous topics are archived. I liked this bit from 5/28/04, when the Sisters were reflecting on whether John Kerry should be denied Communion:
To deny someone that, would be the ultimate interference in that most important relationship [with Christ]. It would be as if one were to take upon themselves the role of Christ’s "bouncers," a terribly arrogant role if I dare say so.
So, is the Respectful of Otters Military Advisory Board monitoring Wal*Mart, or nuns? I've learned not to ask those questions.

Monday, July 05, 2004

"Their George And Ours"

Don't miss this incredible Fourth of July op-ed by my fellow Reed College alumna Barbara Ehrenreich.
George III is accused, for example, of "depriving us in many cases of the benefits of Trial by Jury." Our own George II has imprisoned two U.S. citizens — Jose Padilla and Yaser Esam Hamdi — since 2002, without benefit of trials, legal counsel or any opportunity to challenge the evidence against them. Even die-hard Tories Scalia and Rehnquist recently judged such executive hauteur intolerable.

It would be silly, of course, to overstate the parallels between 1776 and 2004. The signers of the declaration were colonial subjects of a man they had come to see as a foreign king. One of their major grievances had to do with the tax burden imposed on them to support the king's wars. In contrast, our taxes have been reduced — especially for those who need the money least — and the huge costs of war sloughed off to our children and grandchildren. [...]

But the parallels are there, and undeniable. "He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power," the declaration said of George III, and today the military is indulgently allowed to investigate its own crimes in Iraq. George III "obstructed the Administration of Justice." Our George II has sought to evade judicial review by hiding detainees away in Guantánamo, and has steadfastly resisted the use of the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows non-U.S. citizens to bring charges of human rights violations to U.S. courts.
No doubt, this piece will arouse all kinds of indignation from people who think it's "political hate speech" and dreadful hyperbole to compare George W. Bush to a known tyrant. But by the prevailing political standards of 1776, the American colonists weren't particularly oppressed and didn't have much to complain about. George III wasn't a Caligula or a Sun King. There was nothing unusually decadent or cruel about his reign. But American colonists had the bold vision that more was possible. They wanted to live with a degree of liberty and self-governance that had previously been unknown, and they were willing to risk everything in order to obtain it.

Ehrenreich closes with a sober reminder:
Today, those who believe that the war on terror requires the sacrifice of our liberties like to argue that "the Constitution is not a suicide pact." In a sense, however, the Declaration of Independence was precisely that.

By signing Jefferson's text, the signers of the declaration were putting their lives on the line. England was then the world's greatest military power, against which a bunch of provincial farmers had little chance of prevailing. Benjamin Franklin wasn't kidding around with his quip about hanging together or hanging separately. If the rebel American militias were beaten on the battlefield, their ringleaders could expect to be hanged as traitors.
On this Independence Day weekend, may we all find within ourselves the courage of our forebears.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Is The Sky Falling? New CDC Guidelines For HIV Prevention

No fewer than four of my regular readers have written recently to ask me about the CDC's proposed guidelines for the content of HIV prevention literature, prompted by this terrifying Doug Ireland column in last week's L.A. Weekly:
Lethal new regulations from President Bush’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, quietly issued with no fanfare last week, complete the right-wing Republicans’ goal of gutting HIV-prevention education in the United States. In place of effective, disease-preventing safe-sex education, little will soon remain except failed programs that denounce condom use, while teaching abstinence as the only way to prevent the spread of AIDS.
I've read the proposed new guidelines, and re-read the old 1992 guidelines the new ones are meant to replace. Here are the main points where they differ:

(1) The content-review process established in the old guidelines is now extended to information posted on the web.
(2) The new guidelines require "medically accurate information regarding the effectiveness or lack of effectiveness of condoms in preventing the sexually transmitted disease the materials are designed to address."
(3) The new guidelines clarify that program materials need to be judged acceptable by a community advisory board which reflects the demographics of the group being served, not just the demographics of the general population, and require that the advisory board be selected by the health department.
(4) The new guidelines specify that public health officials need to certify that the average person would not find the content of HIV prevention curricula "obscene" according to the Miller standard.

Items 2 and 4, obviously, are the ones that have Doug Ireland up in arms. Let's look at them one at a time.

Condoms: Ireland says, "they demand that all such materials include information on the 'lack of effectiveness of condom use' in preventing the spread of HIV and other STDs — in other words, the Bush administration wants AIDS fighters to tell people: Condoms don’t work." But Ireland's tightly edited quote is a substantial distortion of the actual proposed guidelines, as you can see by comparing it to my item (2) above. Prevention materials are actually required to provide medically accurate information about condoms, whether that information focuses on their effectiveness (for example, in preventing HIV) or their lack of effectiveness (for example, in preventing herpes).

Here's what the CDC considers to be medically accurate information about condoms and HIV, taken from their own factsheet:
HIV, the virus that causes AIDS: Latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, are highly effective in preventing the sexual transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

AIDS is, by far, the most deadly sexually transmitted disease, and considerably more scientific evidence exists regarding condom effectiveness for prevention of HIV infection than for other STDs. The body of research on the effectiveness of latex condoms in preventing sexual transmission of HIV is both comprehensive and conclusive. In fact, the ability of latex condoms to prevent transmission of HIV has been scientifically established in “real-life” studies of sexually active couples as well as in laboratory studies.
So the CDC is going to require that HIV prevention literature explicitly state that "condoms are highly effective in preventing the sexual transmission of HIV," that being the "comprehensive and conclusive" medical opinion. I'm okay with that. Nothing in the proposed guidelines for community organizations requires an "abstinence only" approach or devalues condoms as HIV prevention. Nothing. Ireland's extrapolating from the Bush Administration's preferred approach to high school sex-ed programs to interventions for high-risk communities, and that extrapolation is unwarranted.

Obscenity: Here's Ireland: "These new regs require the censoring of any 'content' [...] They require all such 'content' to eliminate anything even vaguely 'sexually suggestive' or 'obscene' — like teaching how to use a condom correctly by putting it on a dildo, or even a cucumber." With all due respect, that's simply nonsense.

The only place the phrase "sexually suggestive" appears in the new guidelines is the requirement that "educational sessions should not include activities in which attendees participate in sexually suggestive physical contact or actual sexual practices." And the guidelines specify that, although prevention materials are not supposed to directly promote either heterosexual or homosexual sex, that requirement "may not be construed to restrict the ability of an educational program [...] to provide accurate information about various means to reduce an individual's risk of exposure to, or to transmission of, the etiologic agent for acquired immune deficiency syndrome." In other words, it's perfectly allowable to teach people how to put on a condom.

The Miller standard for obscenity requires that an average member of the community would find the material "prurient" and "patently offensive," and that a reasonable person would find that the material has no scientific value (or artistic value, et cetera, but that's not important right now). It is by no means the case that all sexually explicit material is obscene according to the Miller test, yet Ireland writes about the proposed guidelines as if they prohibit any sexual explicitness in HIV prevention literature. Just as the "how to insert a tampon" line drawings inside every box of Tampax aren't considered prurient, and illustrated urology textbooks aren't considered patently offensive, "how to put on a condom" illustrations will certainly pass the Miller test.

Finally, Ireland complains that "the CDC will now take the decisions on which AIDS-fighting educational materials actually work away from those on the frontlines of the combat against the epidemic, and hand them over to political appointees," by which he means public health departments. As someone who does consulting work for a public health department, I'm insulted on behalf of my colleagues. Who the hell does Ireland think is "on the frontlines" if not the people who staff STD clinics and counseling and testing services?

At any rate, the guidelines specify that only one member of the review panel should be an employee of the health department, and that the rest should be representative members of the community being served. (Which means, for example, that you can't have a review panel made up of old white men deciding what information is appropriate for young black women.) Again, Ireland is extrapolating well beyond what the guidelines actually say.

There's plenty of outrage to be found in the Bush Administration's approach to HIV prevention - say, in their relentless pushing of abstinence-only sex ed programs for teenagers and their political scrutiny of NIH grants. It's not surprising that people immediately leap to think the worst of anything associated with the present government. But in this particular case, I think that Doug Ireland is frothing up a lot of public anxiety over very minor changes.

[Otter's note: Sorry to have disappeared on y'all without warning. We've taken a Spanish exchange student for the month of July, and I underestimated how much time Instant Parenthood would consume.]