Archive for February, 2010

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The Power of Earthquakes

February 27, 2010

Last night a powerful earthquake struck the country of Chili.  It registered 8.8 on the Moment Magnitude Scale (MMS), making it much more powerful than the recent quake in Haiti that registered 7.0MMS.

News coverage shows the devastating power a 7.0 earthquake possesses, a large portion of Haiti is in ruins.  Still, understanding the scale is not as straight forward as other scales we use, like the ones on thermometers.  Growing up, I remember earthquakes measured in points on the Richter scale.  Now, the Moment Magnitude Scale, for major quakes, replaces that system.  Only a scientist is really interested in the difference between the two, for the general public, its best to simply understand the new scale provides a higher degree of accuracy.

What does a one digit increase, or the case of Chili vs. Haiti, a 1.8 digit increase, mean?  The numbers really don’t hold value on their own.  Unlike the thermometer, starting at a number like zero and increasing incrementally to something like 250, the measurement for earthquakes is measure with a logarithmic scale.  A logarithmic scale uses an index based on a formula rather than simply increasing in whole numbers.  In the case of the Moment Magnitude Scale, an increase of one number means the power increased 31.6 times.  That is difficult to conceptualize, think about it applied to measuring gallons of water.  If 1MMS equals 1 gallon of water, 2MMS equals 31.6 gallons or 31.6 times as much water.  3MMS does not double to equal 63.2 gallons but increases 31.6 times again to about 1,000 gallons.

If MMS Measured Water

MMS        Gallons

1              1.00
2              31.60
3              998.56
4              31,554.50
5              997,122.07
6              31,509,057.53
7              995,686,217.81
8              31,463,684,482.92
9              994,252,429,660.36
10             31,418,376,777,267.50
11             992,820,706,161,653.00
12             31,373,134,314,708,200.00

Another way to look at it, the average home swimming pool in the United States has about 22,000 gallons of water. In the gallon example above, that equals 3.7MMS.  It is easy to see that a one point increase in scale equates to a huge increase in volume.  To increase from one to over twenty-thousand gallons takes less than a two-point move.

Of course, the scale does not deal with gallons of water but the power of earthquakes.  Perhaps the best thing to remember from all this is a small increase up the scale means a huge increase in power.  Across the planet, there are a dozen or so earthquakes a day people can really feel, in the 4.0 to 6.0 range, they barely make the news.  A 7.0 quake destroyed much of Haiti.  The damage to Chili by this 8.8 one, though not known, is expected to be major.  Therefore, when the news reports an earthquake, remember there is more to the number than you might think.  It is not the same as increasing the temperature in your home by a degree or two.  A one point increases in the Moment Magnitude Scale can have disastrous results.

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What Ever Happened to Judgment?

February 25, 2010

Back in the 1990s, Phillip K. Howard wrote a relatively small book called The Death of Common Sense. The book is a cautionary tale describing the cause and effect of the regulations we deal with as we go though our daily activities.  It was very successful, as far as this type of book goes, but unfortunately, we (the United States of America) did not heed his warnings.  In truth, we pressed the gas pedal of regulation down hard, to the point of stifling every aspect of our daily lives.

Reading the book left me with one huge question then, and it still remains today – what has happened to our judgment?  As a lawyer, Mr. Howard is well aware of the negative aspects regarding regulation and the legal system.  That is not to say he wants regulation removed, to the contrary, he describes a system of regulation that allows for common sense to prevail.  That is the point, not every issue is equal in basis, nor should the rules regarding every issue be “one size fits all.”  Common sense judgment must be applied.

Today, life revolves around lawsuits, we are either suing, being sued, looking to sue or fear being sued.  It drives our lives in ways we no longer even see.  Want to make a snazzy new bucket everyone will want to buy – not without a warning label that a small child might drown in it.  Let’s be honest, it would not be much of a bucket if a small child could not.  A logical question might be what is wrong with taking the extra precaution of a warning label?  The problem is one of familiarity, warning labels are so common we no longer see them; they no longer have meaning.  Why does the bucket label exist in the first place?  Fear of a lawsuit.  Heaven forbid a child drowns, but if it happens, your new bucket company is safe, you warned them.  Still, that warning does not prevent the lawsuit as much as give an affirmative defense and limit liability.

Of course, now the federal government now requires such a label.  Rather than work on trivial matters such as our economy or health care, they spend their time on regulations that allow them to claim action when in reality, it does nothing to improve safety.  For example, ten times as many children drown in bathtubs as buckets each year but the tubs do not carry the warning.  Maybe the plumbing industry has better lobbyists.

As silly as the example is, the bucket warnings are real.  I am sure businesses do not mind the warnings for fear of a lawsuit making it to trial, not an individual’s safety.  People have lost faith that a judge will look at a stupid claim and throw it out.  We cannot fully blame judges; in addition to things like warning labels, our various legislative bodies have passed laws that restrict a judge’s ability to judge with the result being they are more a referee than true jurist, especially when a jury is involved.  In the end, the more we define how a judge must rule, the less judgment takes place.  The problem with such legislation it is the assumption that all situations are equal, that every claim is at least valid and should be heard.

If judges cannot use common sense, individuals and businesses are left to try to cover every possible out come, however remote.  As Mr. Howard points out “society is boiled down to our least common denominator.”  There is a difference between driving 100MPH to get to the ballgame on time and doing so to get your child to the hospital.  A judge should not have a law that prevents seeing each case with its particular circumstances and applying sound judgment.  In both cases, the individuals are guilty of the same offence but intent does matter.  Judges must be allowed to take that into consideration.  A party of a lawsuit can appeal a decision they feel is wrong.  We, as society must accept their verdict even if we do not agree with it.  They heard the case, weighed the facts, took situations into account, we did not.

We need to return common sense to our legal system.  We need fewer dictatorial laws and ones that are more reflective.  Laws that allow judges to do their job; laws that allow the public to have faith in the system, no matter what side they are on, not feel as though they’ve been run over by it.

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The Stewardship of Footprints

February 22, 2010

A recent blog (click here to read) touched on the need for good stewardship of the earth; after all, it is our home.  With the juggernaut of the global warming movement these days, the basic need to act responsibly seems to take a back seat in areas outside of the generation of greenhouse gasses.  It would not be at all surprising if the ultimate global warming solution ends up polluting the world in some other form.

It’s not that addressing global warming is a bad thing, to the contrary.  What is wrong is to see CO2, and other naturally occurring gases, as a pollutant.  What we are concerned with is the balance of CO2, and these other gases, in the environment.  Statements regarding a person’s carbon footprint are commonplace today.  Thinking only about greenhouse gases, with regard to a footprint, is incredibly shortsighted and results in our “kicking the can” of our real problem down the road; the real problem being pollution as a whole.  Only when naturally occurring compounds are out of balance with nature are they pollutants, thinking about a carbon footprint does not take into account the unnatural compounds we create, other than the energy to produce them.

While many misconceptions about global warming exists, none is more glaring than the value of CO2 in the atmosphere.  It is impossible to remove it all.  Besides, we need it there, to remove it would end life as we know it.  CO2 must be looked at like a river’s level.  It has a normal level, a low level, and a flood level.  The CO2 we add takes the atmosphere closer to the flood level, what we want is to keep it normal.  You would never drain a river of all its water, nor should we attempt to drain the atmosphere of the compounds that give it balance. CO2 and other natural gases are only pollutants when we saturate the environment with them.

Here is a question to think about, do we hurt the earth when we pollute?  In reality, no, we hurt ourselves; we hurt the other living creatures and the ability of the earth to support life.  If we pollute the planet to the point were life ends, the earth will recover in time and start over, just without us.  I am reminded of the Jon Cleary quote, “the oxen is slow, but the earth is patient.”

The effect of pollution does not matter as much today as it does tomorrow.  Polystyrene, the ubiquitous Styrofoam cup, is not biodegradable.  It will erode over time into smaller pieces but remains polystyrene.  Even if you cannot see it, it is there.  In other words, if Jesus Christ and the Twelve Apostles used Styrofoam cups and plates at the last supper, they would still be in a landfill today, maybe not as a cup but the polystyrene would still be there.  That is the designed characteristic of most plastics – they are not biodegradable and last indefinitely.  Therefore, they have no use to the planet with regard to life cycle.  In truth, they hurt the life cycle as animals ingest eroded plastics they cannot process as food.

Styrofoam is just one easy example of the endless pollutants we surround ourselves with, but what other options do we have?  We could go backwards, but there’s just not enough caves for all of us to live in.  No, our only true option is to move forward responsibly with good stewardship of the planet, in all regards.  This means to not squander resources, like water, recycle waste products to prevent them from remaining in nature (including excess natural compounds like CO2), and changing our thinking regarding the long-term viability of the products we bring into our lives.

There is no question that plastics, and the other chemical compounds, we develop have the ability to improve our particular situation.  One only needs to visit a neonatal ward in a hospital to understand plastics are a blessing.  We simply need to handle that blessing responsibly after it’s served its purpose.  If nature did not make it, let’s not leave it to her to deal with.  Nature keeps the world in balance, we change that balance.  It cannot be helped but that does not mean we have carte blanche on the matter.  We have to act responsibly regarding our impact on the world.  It is in our own best interest to do so.

It is time to stop thinking about today and put tomorrow first.  Rather than thinking about “carbon”, we need to expand out thinking to our overall footprint.  Teddy Roosevelt said to “speak softly and carry a big stick,” its time we learn to walk that way, and reduce humanity’s footprint, no matter how big a stick we carry.

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Hey Washington – Solve a Problem, Any Problem, Please!

February 21, 2010

It seems, each day, as we watch or read the news our frustration with the government only increases.  Republicans blame democrats – democrats blame republicans.  The Executive branch blames Congress – Congress blames the Executive branch.  Government truly illustrates for every argument there are two sides.  Of course, that illustration does not mean either side is right.

What all this finger-pointing and blaming each other fails to accomplish is solving problems.  As a nation, we sure have our share, it would seem a better strategy to stake out a position on a few and solve them.  Pointing this out is not rocket science, still it is the one thing our government seems incapable of accomplishing and it prevents them from accomplishing anything at all.

Part of our government’s inefficiency comes in deciding which problems to address first; no one is happy when their unique issue is set aside for one deemed a higher priority.  Elected officials find themselves involved in a constant popularity contest where its better to look good than have your sleeves rolled up working.  By not taking a stance, they seek to alienate no one, instead they enfranchise no one.

A few years ago, I was teaching a friend’s son to sail.  As we approached the dock, it is the custom of people to lend a hand in tying up, I told my young friend which person to toss the line to and we were soon docked.  I thanked the man who helped and made introductions.  After that, the young man asked me something like, “if you did not know him, how did you know to throw him the rope?”  I gave him the standard reply I learned years before, “He was the only one with varnish and paint on his clothes, the others looked like they spent their time drinking at the bar, that man knew something about boats.”  That is exactly what we need in  Congress right now, people that know something about work, people that are interested in accomplishing things rather than walking around looking good.

As it stands, simply developing a list for issues will be monumental and require very hard work.  We need to organize and prioritize so we address urgent matters first.  Some may not agree and have a false belief that we can work on all things at once with the efficiency we have focusing on a few.  It’s the same sort of difference between a shotgun blast and a hit from a high-powered rifle.  A shotgun gives a wide coverage; a high-powered rifle has true penetrating power.  Both have their purpose, but for problem solving, it is more important to solve a few issues than to start working on many and solving none.

For the sake of understanding, it helps to look at a simple example.  Each year many Americans die.  According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), here are the top ten reasons in 2006: heart disease, cancer, stroke, respiratory diseases, accidents, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, influenza & pneumonia, kidney disease, and infections.  A graph known as a Pareto chart best illustrates where we, as a nation, should focus our efforts.  Here is the CDC’s data:

(Click for larger view)

A Pareto chart places items with higher number of occurrences first.  In looking at the chart, it is obvious our greatest effort should be in dealing with heart disease and cancer.  If we solved just these two items, it reduces the death rate by 64%.

The chart does not address the difficulty in solving a particular problem but rather shows where to focus attention.  To be clear, no issue on the list should be ignored, but if the intent is to affect the greatest number of people the fastest, then concentrate on heart disease first, then cancer, then stroke, and so on.  Returning to the shotgun analogy, it would be disproportionate to give kidney disease the same level of attention as cancer. Of course, a person with kidney disease is not necessarily impressed by this argument.

With our two-party system, each party (Democratic and Republican) could easily publish a list of priorities in some form similar to a Pareto chart.  They could let us know where they see the issues we face.  In addition to our understanding their position, it would give them focus.  As it stands, all they do is snipe at each other and end up accomplishing little.  Even if the list lacks the objectivity of the information in the above example, we would gain in the end by either agreeing or disagreeing on the direction our country moves.  Progress, or the lack of progress, can then be measured, people can be held accountable.

Maybe that is the real reason little is accomplished, someone would have to answer for it one way or another.  Now, they have the luxury of blaming the other side for all the worlds’ problems without being specific.  It is time we stop looking at political parties in Congress and see Congress as a whole, judge them by their accomplishments and not their efforts.  To use a phrase from my Navy days, “don’t tell me about the pain, show me the baby!”  It’s time for Congress to show us the baby, it is time to solve a few problems.

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When No One Says No To A Bad Idea

February 20, 2010

There is a saying that deals with getting input from many sources before a making a decision, it goes “no one of us is as smart as all of us.”  If only we would follow that advice, the world would be a much better place.  Still, even when the “us” part is consulted, there is no guarantee the outcome will not be patently boneheaded.

This particular idea turned out so bad, we have one “Big Brother” outfit, the FBI, investigating another that’s not normally thought of as “Big Brother,” the Lower Merion School District in Lower Merion Township, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia.  It seems the school district gave itself the ability to remotely activate the webcams on 2,300 laptops issued to high school students, even when the laptops are located within the student’s home.  What parent, in their right mind, would allow strangers to monitor their children, even in their bedrooms?  That’s just it, they didn’t; parents did not even know the laptops had the capability.  While current civil legal action brought this to light, the FBI is now investigating whether or not the school district violated various federal laws, including wiretapping.

Here’s what we know so far: last November, a vice principal at Harriton High School confronts a sophomore about inappropriate activities the student was involved in within the student’s home and produced photographic evidence to prove it.  The student stated the issue concerned drug use, which he denies.  The VP claims he took drugs, the student claims he was eating candy.  In fairness to the school district, they dispute that they took any improper images, state the vice principal never confronted the student, and that the only time the feature is ever used is to recover a lost or stolen laptop.  Here is a link to their website and their statement concerning this issue: School District Response.

As intriguing as this is (there is bound to be a made for TV movies soon) focusing on this particular incident misses the much broader problem, the school district gave itself the ability to monitor students anytime they have the computer open.  They can claim to the end of days that the ability is only used to recover lost property but they cannot get around it amounting to a government agency placing a “bug” in the home of every high school student that received a laptop.  It brings several questions to mind, does the school district have a legal department?  If so, why don’t they use them?  What morons made this unbelievably bad decision?  What are the odds that voters keep the current school board members in the next election?

The school district seems to be positioning itself behind a claim of oversight regarding consent to this invasion of privacy.  A case can equally be made they deliberately held back this information to prevent tampering with its ability.  Regardless of their true intent, when ability exists, it is used.  An ironic example being the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) recently found the FBI, the organization investigating the school district, abused a prevision of the Patriot Act designed to gain intelligence to prevent terrorist attacks without a warrant.  In other words, they used the act to circumvent the need for a warrant in non-terrorist related investigations, what the OIG called “a systemic abuse of power.”

The point is no agency should be allowed unchecked power.  The school district is not the police and they do not have the right to investigate crime and gather evidence.  More importantly, they do not have the right to serendipitously monitor students within their homes.  As the case with the FBI illustrates, regardless of initial intent – ability will be used.  This school district may or may not have abused the power, the courts will decide that, but they cannot deny they have the ability.  They cannot deny they did not inform parents of this ability.  Had they, parents would have revolted against the school board.  They had to understand that going into it.  It is the only way educated people, with the intent of improving the education of children can possible make such a stupid decision.

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Punishment Beyond the Crime, Way Beyond!

February 19, 2010

Alexa’s thoughts were no different from most twelve-year old girls that morning, thoughts about her friends and how much she cared for them.  Nothing at the start of her school day at  Forest Junior High (School 190), in Queens, New York led her to believe it would end with her being handcuffed and hauled away to the local police station.  Of course, when you commit a crime that is what happens.  Alexa Gonzalez’s crime – doodling “I love my friends Abby and Faith.  Lex was here 2/1/10” along with a smiley face, with a marker on her desk.

After the initial shock of hearing a twelve-year old girl winds up in custody of the police for something this trivial, it is easy to think there must be more to it.  Maybe she was out of control – nope.  Perhaps she had drugs on her – think again.  It must be she had done this time and time again – not even that.  By all accounts, Alexa is a normal well-behaved young lady who simply had a lapse of judgment.  How have we come to a place were school systems are so dysfunctional, the police become involved for the smallest infraction?

When I was in seventh grade, I remember being paddled for saying the word “damn” in class.  I did not even make it to the principal’s office, the teacher handled things right then and there.  Of course, I was given the choice of going “down the hall,” as it was called, or taking my corporal punishment.  I took my licks, returned to my desk and went back to work learning, case closed.  Rather than debate corporal punishment, I heard some of you gasp when you read that, the larger point is a minor infraction was dealt with quickly and effectively and normality resumed in the class.  By not addressing small infractions at low levels of authority, that resumption of normality is what is lacking today.

A student finding herself tangled up with the law seems commonplace today and happens coast-to-coast (click here to read a West coast example).  Before we criticize the school system, we need to understand their point of view.  Parents often sue school systems when they take corrective action and the systems become gun-shy regarding discipline.  Schools have a legitimate responsibility to provide for the safety of each student and student body, as a whole.

The line we ask them to walk, with regard to discipline, is thin, very thin.  Over time, we’ve lost something, or forgotten it.  When we send our children to school, in addition to educating them, the school fills a quasi-parental role during that time.  To that end, a level of order and civility must be maintained, requiring the schools to provide parental-style guidance when called for.

Does this mean we allow schools to beat our children, of course not.  In the case of doodling, even Alexa expected punishment, something along the lines of detention or cleaning all the desks in class.  When schools loose the ability to exercise judgment regarding various levels of punishment for small infractions, we end up with the draconian result of a “zero-tolerance” policy.  Effectively, schools have turned over all matters of discipline to the police department, which is not equipped or trained in the areas of child development or education.

We give the school systems the responsibility to educate our children; a large portion of our tax dollars goes to that end.  With responsibility comes rights, schools have a right to expect our children to behave and follow the rules that allow for education to take place.  When one child disrupts a class, the disruption affects the other children.  We need balance, we need a way that allows schools to function, and infractions dealt with at the lowest level.

Alexa paid the price of a society that is out of balance.  For the high crime of drawing on a desk, she wound up in the custody of the police.  Who benefited… not Alexa, not the other students or the school system, not even the police.  The answer is nobody gained anything.  The system must change and that change has to restore to schools the ability to punish students that break the rules.  Let’s accept that corporal punishment is off the table.  If not that, then what?  What tools are we to give schools that allow them to maintain order and not worry about ending up with a lawsuit?  This is the debate that needs to take place before we end up with all our children having police records for simply being tardy.

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Formula For The Day: Life = X–X(Z/X)

February 18, 2010

Each person has a fixed number of days to live; it is an abstract thought but one worth examining.  Thankfully, we don’t know that number, but we have it nonetheless.  Given that it’s unknown, let’s call it “X.”  Think about a historical figure, Benjamin Franklin for instance, he lived 30,580 days so that is his X number.  Other than instances of self-destruction, we have no absolute control over X.  Even if we did, it would still be X.

“What good is knowing this?” you might ask yourself about now.  You need to understand life does not last forever, at least here on earth.  The argument regarding life post-earth, though interesting, is for another day.  You also need to understand that you do not control X, as a whole, but you do control the individual days that make up your X.  Franklin did not control X either; just like you, his control was over how he spent each day.  Given the vast volume of work he produced, he did not waste many.

That is the point, it is not the number of days lived that matters, it is what you fill them with that holds value.  Looking at it another way, wasted days do not add value to life, so why count them.  That is where the title’s formula comes in; it calculates the days that matter by removing the days that don’t (Z).  Now, some smart math genius will point out that my formula is overly complex and X-Z will accomplish the same thing.  While that is true, people often refuse to believe simple things hold any value, besides “Life = X-Z” is not nearly as catchy.

How will you reduce the number of Z-days you have; are you one to sit idly by as more and more slip away?  Another point, the closer you are to X, the more important Z becomes.  We cannot have our Z-days back, once spent they are gone forever.  The good news is no one can define for you what a Z-day is, that is something you must do for yourself.  For some, simply reading may be enough to hold a Z at bay, for others reading may be the very definition of a Z-day.  Some days are filled with work; they have value, though they may not be fun.  A wasted day is one where you sit around bored for no reason.  Think about that the next time you have nothing to do and reach for the remote control and have a mind-numbing experience.  Wasted days are not limited to boredom; they include the days we allow petty obstacles to eat away at our time, obstacles like holding a grudge and allowing that to isolate us from the ones that care about us.  Life is hard enough without making it harder on ourselves.

Regardless of what you do, avoid wasting a day in useless pursuits that, in the end, add nothing to the quality of your life.  We will all have our share, for sure, even Franklin did, but we can reduce the number by simply doing things that matter.  Think about what matters to you, spend your days on that.  Keep your Z-days low.  Remember, it is not about how many days you have, but how you choose to fill them.

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