Category: Culture

17

Kentucky: Boy, 5, Kills Sister, 2

That’s not my headline.  It was in the New York Times earlier this month, in the section where the paper provides short blurbs about what is happening around the country.

My youngest daughter is in kindergarten.  Here is a list of some of the things that she either cannot do or is not allowed to do: cross a busy street by herself; pour milk from a full gallon jug; ride in a car without a booster seat; and tie her shoes (I know . . . she’s working on that one).  She is, however, a highly capable kid.  So it might be fairer to her if I listed some of what she can do:  get herself ready for school; ride her bike around the block; make her bed; use a variety of electronic devices that begin with an “i”.

But regardless of whether the list is of “cannots” or “cans,” it does not square with this statement from the county coroner in Kentucky:

 Mr. White said that the .22-caliber rifle had been kept in a corner and that the family had not realized a bullet was left inside it. “It’s a Crickett,” Mr. White said, referring to a company that makes guns, clothes and books for children.  “It’s a little rifle for a kid,” he said, adding, “The little boy’s used to shooting the little gun.”

I grew up in a small Wisconsin town.  At my high school, so many teachers and students were absent on the first day of deer season that school might as well have been cancelled.  Today some of my close relatives keep hunting rifles in their closets.  So while I absolutely do not want to suggest that I know anything about the family that suffered this terrible tragedy, I am familiar with the kind of culture in which a .22-caliber rifle is put in a corner.

Which is not to say that I wasn’t jarred by the phrase “a company that makes guns, clothes and books for children.”  Or that I expected, when I visited Crickett’s website, to see child-sized guns in bright blue and pink.   And watch out Joe Camel, because Crickett’s mascot is a jolly green frog sporting a rifle, boots, and a hunting cap.

Footbinding, smoking, drunk driving—these are all legend among law and norms scholars.  But with few exceptions, almost no one talks about trying to change gun culture through the sort of small, incremental changes that have made such a difference elsewhere.  Certainly it is daunting to even think about how to spark change.  And it’s also true that those whose ideas would make a difference would only receive posthumous gratification, because change might not actually be realized until my kindergartener has great-grandchildren.

But Boy, 5, Kills Sister, 2.

2

Daily Routine: Then and Now

Intellectuals used to refine ideas in relative solitude before releasing them to the world.  Modern technology has led the incubation of ideas to occur publicly, dynamically and in real-time. Is that entirely good or are some ideas better developed in private?  Brief reflection on the daily routine offers a window onto the transformation.

A typical Wednesday during the academic year in 2003 for a professor might have begun by reading the printed newspaper delivered to the front door, evaluating stories of interest to one’s class, followed by a trip to the office, a review of a binder of teaching notes, and the live interactive dialogue with students assembled in person.  After lunch, reading of printed journal articles and bound books would stimulate  production of such output, as well as op-eds, essays, chapters and treatises.

Today, the typical day begins by checking (1) email, including Google alerts, (2) Twitter, (3) Facebook, (4) Linked In,  (5) this blog (Concurring Opinions), (6) several bookmarked blogs, (7) blawg search, (8) SSRN and Scholarly Commons, (9) reddit, and (10) the web sites of one or more news organizations.  Then professors email students, create and update PowerPoint slides on course web pages or MOOC sites, type Tweets, update Facebook, draft responsive blog posts and download papers to lap tops and books to e-readers.

Eventually, the scholar will still turn ideas generated during a semester’s worth of such daily routines into the old fashioned products, such as books and articles.   But the route differs considerably.  In the old days, study would be relatively private, with ideas developed reflectively in one’s school, tested against a careful review of a vetted literature, surfaced in substantially mature form via classroom lecture, faculty workshop and conference presentations, refined, submitted, reviewed, edited and published.  More speculative ideas might appear, if at all, in footnotes classified as such.

Today, much of the incubating process occurs in real time and in public, with inchoate ideas floated on Twitter and Facebook and then perhaps in blog posts and comments before being turned into op-eds, essays, chapters, articles, books and the rest. It is exciting and interactive and creates a sense of communities engaged in broad pursuit of knowledge.  Yet reading some of the unrefined stuff out there raises the question, to paraphrase what Moses Hadas said of a certain book, whether modern technology fills a much-needed gap.  Just an idea.

3

Data Streams and E-Textbooks

Today “smart” e-books are in the news.  These books give professors access to a stream of data about how individual students are using their e-books—whether they are skipping pages, highlighting specific passages, or taking notes in the book. The software that makes such monitoring possible even provides an “engagement index” for each student.  The news stories I’ve encountered have mostly focused on how the data enables professors to identify and then reach out to students with poor study habits.

I don’t know how to spell the sound I made when I first heard this particular news angle, but it was something close to the classic UGH.  The company that created the software says its surveys indicate that few students or colleges have privacy concerns.  But I know I would feel like I was spying on the adults I teach.

Which is not to say that I couldn’t put the data stream to some use, at least in an aggregate form.  If a meaningful portion of my class does not appear to be reading the textbook but is nonetheless performing well in class and on exams, then my course is too easy or the textbook is a dud, or some combination of the two.

The data stream may also be of interest to the institutions that employ professors.  Every university, college, or graduate school has at least a couple gut courses—classes in which students can do very little work and still get good grades.   One concern in law schools is that GPA-conscious students will flock to a gut course instead of one that would better prepare them for the bar and eventual practice.   A dean who is trying to convince a professor that her class needs to be harder could put the data from smart e-books to very effective use.   In fact, some professors will be disinclined to embrace smart e-books once they realize that students aren’t the only ones who can be watched.

Last, I am struck by the connection between the emergence of smart e-books and a post Larry wrote a few weeks ago.  Larry’s post laments that as e-books become increasingly dominant, he will no longer be able to peruse the bookshelves of colleagues or friends as a means of sparking a connection or sizing them up.   E-books do not serve the same (often inadvertent) signaling function as a print book.  E-books mean that no-one can get a window into my interests by scanning my shelves or seeing what’s open on my coffee table.  They also mean that I can no longer pick out law students on the subway by looking for a telltale red binding.  But with smart e-books, a select group will know more about these students’ reading habits than most of us would have imagined just a few years ago.

23

“Where Are the Books?”

Books have lined the shelves of the offices of all my colleagues at every school where I have worked.  In my early days of teaching, or when spending a term as a visitor, I’d wander into a learned neighbor’s office to get acquainted.  The titles and content of those books announced a persons’s intellectual background and interests. They were instantly and extensively a topic of earnest discussion.  If my interlocutor should be interrupted by a call or an assistant popping in, I’d amuse myself by grazing over the titles, scanning the shelves that added up to an inventory of knowledge.  On their shelves and mine, students attending office hours would likewise find easy ice breakers.

When visiting the homes of friends, especially new friends but longer-term friends as well, it has always interested me to see what books are stacked on their shelves, in the living room, the study, along hallways. At parties, these books have been great conversation starters, fountains of discourse and debate.  You could even pick them up and hand them over, citing the passage on a given page where you recalled a point being made particularly well.

My wife and I, when house hunting the last time around, inspected two dozen apartments before falling in love with the homey charm of the one where we live now.  As an anonymous broker showed us through the absent homeowners’ place, we’d scan the stacks of books that gave a sense of the people who lived there–lovers of art history, a denizen of Wall Street, devotees of history, biography, the Civil War.  Stephanie and I would joke, when viewing that rare apartment empty of books, that the absence of books was an absence of warmth and that we would not trust the people who lived there.  “Where are the books?,” we’d ask in bewilderment as we rode down the elevator, never to return.

Today, with reading so often done and “books” acquired digitally, stored in pixels on hand-held devices, we see fewer new titles gracing the offices of colleagues and teachers, the homes of friends.  No longer on display, they can no longer be conversation pieces.  The average age of books on shelves is rising steadily and even these becoming anachronistic.  Shelves are given over to decoration, clocks, cups, bells, photographs.   My wife and I wonder, “what will our kids think, 10 or 20 years from now, when they see an apartment without a single book in it?”  Maybe nothing.  We would be horrified.

But exactly what the future holds is uncertain.  One of my recent books, The Essays of Warren Buffett, is selling briskly in both print and digital, though with vastly more sales in print than digital, yet it costs $35 in print and half that in digital.  Time will tell.

3

Why Other People’s Money is The Best Hollywood Film About Business

Go down the list of Hollywood films about business and you will find one biting portrayal of capitalism after the next. As the late Larry Ribstein documented and explained, all of the following movies and most other artistic renderings have this biased flaw: Erin Brockovich, A Civil Action, The Constant Gardner, Blood Diamond, Michael Clayton, Pretty Woman, Wall Street (or take older examples such as Dinner at Eight or The Hudsucker Proxy or those once listed by Forbes as epitomizing this genre, such as Citizen Kane, The Godfather, It’s A Wonderful Life, Glengarry Glen Ross).

That’s why I find Other People’s Money (1991) refreshing, and probably the best Hollywood film about business (contrary to dominantcontending, opinion).  The movie is among the few nuanced artistic portrayals of corporate life. The play, and the movie it became, presents two sides of the story when conflicts arise between economic imperatives and socially pleasant outcomes. That’s why I often assign the film as part of my course in Corporations  (hello students!).

OPM pits against each other two men seeking to control the destiny of an ailing New England family company in the dying industry of manufacturing wire and cable: a greedy and creepy takeover artist called Larry “the Liquidator” Garfield (in the film played by Danny DeVito) and the patrician lord of the target company named Jorgenson (Gregory Peck, making for perfect casing of both roles).

Garfield opens with a monologue celebrating money, along with dogs and doughnuts, and denigrating love and basic human kindness. In his first encounter with Jorgenson, Garfield announces that the New England company is worth “more dead than alive.”

Jorgenson sniffs at such short-termism, stressing moral aspects of business life, and refuses either to pay Garfield to go away or borrow money to navigate through the difficult times. Garfield counters with assertions about free enterprise, Darwinian markets and the imperatives of business change.

The drama pursues this contrast between “doing right” and “doing well” through a proxy fight for corporate control. It climaxes with an exchange of speeches at a special meeting of shareholders.

Jorgenson acknowledges the financial losses currently facing the company, stressing that they are due to the rise of fiber optics that impaired demand for wire and cable.  But he makes the pitch for tradition, loyalty, and sticking with the company and its employees through tough economic patches.   Admitting that the company’s niche business may have become anachronistic, he argues that it will be able to re-purpose itself and prosper over the long term, if only everyone would be patient.

Jorgenson lambasts Garfield as a mere money-man who gets rich by using other people’s money yet “creates nothing, builds nothing, runs nothing.” He gets a standing ovation when thundering against

 murder in the name of maximizing shareholder value, substituting dollar bills where a conscience should be. . . . A company is more than money. Here we build, we care about people.

Garfield follows by saying “Amen,” and calling Jorgenson’s plea to save the company a mere prayer, one that fails to appreciate earthly economic reality, essentially referencing Schumpeter’s famous principle of “creative destruction.” Fiber optics rendered wire and cable obsolete and the best thing to do is recognize that fact, sell off the company’s remaining assets, and move on. He explains:

This company is dead. I didn’t kill it; it was dead when I got here This business is dead, let’s have the decency to sign the death certificate and invest in the future. Who cares [about the employees]? They didn’t care about you. . . . Employee wages went up way more than stock. Who cares? Me. I’m your only friend. I’m making you money; that’s the only reason you became shareholders. You want to make money, invest somewhere else, create new jobs. . . At my funeral you’ll leave with a smile on your face and a few bucks in your pocket – that’s a funeral worth having.

Who wins?  [Spoiler Alert: Answer Coming.]

The shareholders vote with Garfield, siding with a capitalist over Jorgenson’s impassioned plea for broader concerns. That is somewhat unusual in Hollywood films about business, where the capitalist’s argument rarely carries the day.

Here the referendum accepts that what may be the downside of capitalism, short-term effect on employees and communities, can be outweighed by its salutary long-term effects of moving forward on a clean slate towards ultimately brighter futures all the way around. It turns Jorgenson’s view of the long-term around on itself.

On the other hand, the Hollywood film version of the art adds a scene that did not appear in the stage version: Garfield falls in love with Jorgenson’s daughter and the two hatch a plan to sell the dying firm to its employees who will then repurpose it along the lines Jorgenson envisioned. A happy ending is snatched from the jaws of creative destruction after all.  As Larry Ribstein wrote in his assessment of this twist, which thus ultimately does not stray too far from Hollywood’s favored pathways: “Capitalism is acceptable only if it has a heart.”

 

0

Sunday Night Monday Morning music

I’m re-reading Gravity’s Rainbow (Pynchon now on Kindle by the way). Finished V. Finished Crying of Lot 49. Tried to pick up Vineland which I loved. Wanted the difficult, mad, beautiful language. Back to Gravity’s Angel. For fans I post a song I knew before I read the book. It is Laurie Anderson’s Gravity’s Angel. Honestly, she’s not for everyone. Maybe not for most. But if you dig experimental music and complex lyrics give it a shot. The album Mister Heartbreak from which the track comes is fun too. Again fun for some. It has William Burroughs on Sharkey’s Night. I quoted it at my Cal graduation. That is below too. Shorter.

Where’s the law? Not sure. As Burroughs intones, “And sharkey says: hey, kemosabe! long time no see. he says: hey sport. you connect the dots. you pick up the pieces.” OK for a bit more, as I have said here before, life beyond the law matters. And it turns out that knowing life beyond the law might make you a better lawyer. That, by the way, is why empathy for a judge is important and a good thing. If you can’t walk in someone else’s shoes, at least read more, listen to more, watch more. Great writing, great communication opens the door to the world beyond yours and mine. At least those are the dots I connect. The pieces I pick up.

6

42 minutes 59 seconds + copper wire (and a little more) = bliss

Question: Why 42 minutes 59 seconds? Not 43 minutes. Not 42 minutes, 58 seconds. 42 minutes 59 seconds. Solution: Step One. New receiver. Step Two. Unpack old B&W speakers. Step Three. Strip casing, twist copper. Step Four. Connect all. Step Five. Insert album designed for stereo. Step Six. Hit Play. Step Seven. Bliss.

Answer: Dark Side of the Moon. Forty years old as of March 1, 2013.

I unpacked my speakers and set them up a few weeks back. Headphones are nice. They are portable. They are personal. They may even allow sound to envelop you. But not like speakers. Dark Side of the Moon was the first CD I bought. It is a great way to appreciate music engineered for stereo. I put the disc in years ago. Hit play. The next 42:59 was great. The same was true a few Sundays ago. I had a cup of tea (loose leaf, my mix of lapsong, Assam, and Kenyan). I hit play. 42 minutes and 59 minutes slipped away. That was a good, damn good day.

I recommend getting to a stereo and trying it.

(Even on your computer, check out Money, below, for the stereo fun.)

0

Vintner, lawyer, pioneer, James Barrett has died

I know that Silicon Valley gets all the hoopla for the way knowledge and industry can thrive, but look a bit north and you will find that similar things happened in the wine industry. That industry just lost a leader. James Barrett was the head of Chateau Montelena when its Chardonnay beat French wines in a taste test that changed the wine industry. He died yesterday. (Stag’s Leap’s Cabernet Sauvignon won the red category). The story (embellished but fun) was told in the film Bottle Shock.

Barrett was an attorney (Loyola L.A., ’51) who became a winemaker. Reports say he fell in love with wine. He followed a dream. I would bet that his legal training helped with the business. Regardless, he and others in Napa changed the wine industry. Part of that success came from using science and research from U.C. Davis to guide the wine making process. The vineyard also employed Mike Grgich who went on to run a rather good vineyard on his own. As Barrett said about the success, “Not bad for some kids from the sticks.”

Technology, lawyers, and new approaches to a business that has made a huge amount of money and that happens to bring joy to those who imbibe wine. What’s not to love? I, for one, will raise a glass to Barrett and hope that other kids from the sticks are inspired to try and do likewise in whatever field they love.

0

Autonomous Vehicles: Unintended Upsides and Changes

Some day we might do away with pretext traffic stops, because some day autonomous vehicles will be common. At ReInventlaw Silicon Valley, David Estrada from GoogleX, made the pitch for laws to allow autonomous vehicles a bright future. He went to the core reasons such fuel sustainability and faster commutes. He also used the tear jerking commercial that showed the true benefits of enabling those who cannot drive to drive. I have heard that before. But I think David also said that the cars are required to obey all traffic laws.
If so, that has some interesting implications.

I think that once autonomous vehicles are on the road in large numbers, the police will not be able to claim that some minor traffic violation required pulling someone over and then searching the car. If a stop is made, like the Tesla testing arguments, the car will have rich data to verify that the car was obeying laws.

These vehicles should also alter current government income streams. These shifts are not often obvious to start but hit home quickly. For example, when cell phones appeared, colleges lost their income from high rates for a phone in a dorm room. That turned out out to be a decent revenue stream. If autonomous vehicles obey traffic laws, income from traffic violations should go down. Cities, counties, and states will have to find new ways to make up that revenue stream. Insurance companies should have much lower income as well.

I love to drive. I will probably not like giving up that experience. Nonetheless, reduced traffic accidents, fewer drunk drivers, more mobility for the elderly and the young (imagine a car that handled shuttling kids from soccer, ballet, music, etc., picking you up, dropping you home, and then gathering the kids while you cooked a meal (yes, should I have kids, I hope to cook for them). The time efficiency is great. Plus one might subscribe to a car service so that the $10,000-$40,000 car is not spending its time in disuse most of the day. Add to all that a world where law enforcement is better used and insurance is less needed, and I may have to give in to a world where driving myself is a luxury.

0

The Rule of the Clan – Mark Weiner’s new book

What is happening with the world? Is it falling apart? Is the state the problem? Is everything to big? Is everyone better off breaking into small groups? Mark Weiner has answers in his book The Rule of the Clan. Understanding clans helps us understand the problems and relationships among individual liberty, the state, domestic policy, and foreign policy.

Mark Weiner is one of the best thinkers I know. I will note that Mark is one of my dearest friends as well. Mark has authored three books. The first two have won awards. The latest, Rule of the Clan, is, to me, yet more impressive. I will be posting more about this book. But for now, here is Mark on the Brian Lehrer Show.