Wednesday, December 17, 2003

11. Just say what you mean

Undoubtedly each industry is forced to adopt its own lingo to effectively communicate. Usually this lingo is compromised of abbreviated words, acronyms and catch phrases, and, for the most part, is harmless and limited to the industry that uses it. Business jargon, however, is the exception because of its potential adoption into mainstream language. This avenue into our language is delivered through marketing, as businesses promote their goods to the public. Worse, however, is the use of these words within business- usually with the same purpose- to either market ideas, appear intelligent or as a measure of deception.

The word "utilized" is not only overused and often used incorrectly, it has become the favorite of those trying to sound intellectual. "Utilized" should be used naturally to describe, "the profitable use of," such as, "Machine utilization in the factory is at an all-time high." It should not be indiscriminately substituted for the word "use." Thus, if the word "use" more accurately describes the action, then it should be preferred. Consider, "Please utilize the mop to clean up the mess." This just sounds ridiculous, and the word "use" would have been much more appropriate. I often think that business managers need vocabulary sensitivity training to encourage them to speak normally and use words appropriately. They need to know that multi-syllable words or adding "ize" to verbs (or nouns...unionize, philosophize) do not make them sound more impressive, nor does it make them better leaders. Leaders are to be judged by the decisions they make, not the words they use (or utilize)!

Perhaps the phrase "empowering employees" is the biggest fallacy in the business world. While the idea behind the phrase is a good one, its application is utter nonsense. Managers are constantly taught that they need to empower their employees, the question is- what does this really entail? The "real-world" empowerment of most employees consists of making suggestions and placing them into the suggestion box. Best-case scenario, the company, if the ideas are implemented, offers a few bucks or a t-shirt to the newly "empowered" employee. However, the definition of empowerment ends where dissent begins. Empowerment does not allow one to ever, ever disagree with management- especially on its policies. With every policy ever imagined, the company has always known best. Worse, to offer ideas against an unfair policy is to brand "bad attitude" on one's forehead. Those who rise up against an issue leveled by management are committing career suicide. If one is lucky enough to keep his or her job, stagnation is the sentence. Those who work their way up to the top do so as a salesman of the "company line," by sacrificing principles, and keeping their opinions to themselves. I am convinced that given the choice between a "practicing" empowered employee and a "mindless robot," the company would pick the "mindless robot" every time. Companies would prefer the employee who shows up every day on time and doesn't say much except to participate gleefully in the team building exercises to the employee who performs his or her job with outspoken passion. Outspokenness equals dissent and dissent is not tolerated- thus true "empowerment" is an ideology that rarely, if ever, really exists.

Another popular phrase is "thinking outside the box." With this, I have never really understood thinking "in the box." Does this mean putting forth the same, usual, boring ideas? Does "outside the box" then mean new, radical ideas? Is brainstorming the culmination of ideas of which some fall in the box and others outside the box? Are not ideas good or bad, practical or impractical, possible or impossible- does it matter whether or not it came from within the box or outside of it? I can tell you what the phrase really is- it is a marketing technique. Someone who is having trouble selling a "radical" idea, that is an idea that has not been regurgitated over and over, boasts- "we need to think outside the box." In other words, the idea, thus far, has not caught on with other executives because of its originality- thus we must convince them otherwise through an alternate approach. How much entrenched management dislikes originality or change is legendary. But if this idea is attached to a cool catch phrase, one that management feels might impress investors, without sacrificing their primitive methods, embedded biases and driving prejudices...well, then, it just might work.

Terms such as "moving forward," that have no reciprocal, are obvious business jargon. Has any company ever used the term "moving backwards?" "Moving forward" is encouraging, synonymous, in a way, with progression and toward a profitable change. Actually, its meaning seeks to erase, or hide, the mistakes of the past. "Moving forward, the company seeks to improve its efficiency by 50%" sounds much better than "From now on, we're going to stop being inefficient."

There is actually a phrase for "moving backwards," it is, "returning to our core values." Again, the idea is marketing. Core values inspire thoughts of principles, strengths and tradition. It, of course, to its employees, could also mean layoffs and downsizing. Returning to our core values means that we, the company, made bad decisions- probably got too greedy or became too arrogant. The company may have purchased a new division, thinking they could do things better than the company they bought it from.

One word muttered in business school over and over was "dynamic." Group dynamics, product dynamics, "the dynamics of the situations dictated"... blah, blah, blah. This word means everything! When in doubt, call it dynamic. When you don't really know or don't want to take the time to explain it- call it dynamic. Consider, "The group dynamics prevented us from coming to a reasonable solution." What does this mean? Were people not getting along, could they not meet at a convenient time, were some speaking in English and others Spanish, or were they just not agreeing (perhaps some were thinking in the box, some out of it!) With this word, business has conquered the art of vagueness.

To end, consider the following sentence that is likely to be found on your company's annual report, "Moving forward, the ABC Company plans to return to its core values, to create new and dynamic ways of marketing its product and to utilize its greatest asset, its employees, by empowering them to think outside the box."

Thursday, November 27, 2003

10. Thanksgiving is not for everyone

On November 26, 1941, President Roosevelt signed the bill establishing the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. I always wondered if the Indians celebrated Thanksgiving. I found the answer of that question to be, "not exactly."

On Thanksgiving Day, 1970, the United American Indians of New England organized the day as A National Day of Mourning for Indians. Earlier that day, Frank James, a Wampanoag leader, was asked to speak at a state dinner celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrim landing. The content of the speech he had prepared was, however, deemed inappropriate, and his speech rewritten. He wouldn't accept the revised speech and left the dinner- before speaking to a small group on Cole's Hill, overlooking Plymouth Harbor and the replica of the Mayflower. The plaque on Cole's Hill commemorating the event reads, "Since 1970, Native Americans have gathered at commemorate a National Day of Mourning... Many natives do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European Settlers. To them, Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture. ...It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience."

Only the superciliousness of Americans or the lack of knowledge of American history would anyone ever have the audacity to ask a Native American to make an "appreciative and complimentary" speech celebrating the anniversary of an event that led to the oppression of his own people. Frank James' original speech noted, "It is with mixed emotion that I stand here to share my thoughts." That, "this is a time of celebration for you- celebrating an anniversary of a beginning for the white man in America. A time of looking back, of reflection. It is with a heavy heart that I look upon what happened to my People." Exactly what did they expect him to say? Malcolm X's remark of the African American experience in America would have been just as appropriate- "We did not land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us."

If Thanksgiving is to be a day of gratitude for the good fortune bestowed upon us in this country then we should note that we have a lot to be thankful for. If that gratitude is extended to the God of your choosing, one certainly has that right. However, only remorse should be considered of the relations with the Indians, and one should be appalled at the misrepresentation of our early history in this country as depicted in textbooks. Early settlers were not pure and righteous; they certainly did not act in a manner even scarcely resembling those of the Christian teachings. Americans, especially the early Americans who risked their lives in crossing the ocean, have always acted on behalf of self-interest- such as money, land, and freedom.

However, the argument can be made that while this was the Indians' land, that war was not in any way unusual. Europeans, in fact most of civilization, had been at war for centuries. And those who suffered defeat lost land, wealth and power. In some ways the Indians were fortunate, having North America all to themselves, to avoid the conflicts occurring on other continents. As despicable as it is, the act of war, of taking land and possessions, making treaties and breaking treaties was the way of the world (and still is). It's not intended to be a defense; rather it is a sad fact.

But as sad as it is, it is deplorable to hide from the truth - to censor textbooks, to create myths. To depict the Indians as anything other than a race of people trying to defend their land, by the means available to them is simply not fair. They were savages no more than we were. We were, and are still, as idealistic and ritualistic. And they too, were no less entitled to the God(s) of their choosing.

In this manner, to celebrate a holiday in which a picture is painted so far from the truth is indefensible. Even if there was an initial feast (and there are many different stories), the history between the groups of people to follow is so tumultuous that the moment has lost its value. The act should be dropped. We can celebrate through appreciation this great country of ours- we should just have the respect to leave our "dinner guests" out of it.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

9. Post office has sound advice

I was pleased to learn that the United States Postal Service has introduced a campaign promoting the neutering and spaying of pets. It has rolled out postcards, pins, and even notepads featuring the story of an adorable dog that was taken in from a shelter. The products note that an estimated 8-10 million of unwanted pets are taken to shelters each year, along with the "tens of millions" of strays that roam our neighborhoods. They also note that neutering and spaying your pets can help address behavioral issues, has health benefits, and prevents unwanted animals from being born.

The adoption of a pet can be a wonderful experience, a lasting relationship and a demanding commitment. While everyone enjoys the warmth and charm of a new puppy or kitten, often this initial affection wears off- leaving the pet ignored, unappreciated, neglected or bored. Before adopting, one should consider if he or she is willing to accept the challenge of bringing home a pet. Sometimes the training, attention, and care a pet requires can be overwhelming.

One question to be answered is why one wants a pet. Hopefully it is for the right reason; alas many have ulterior motives. Most are kind, caring individuals with the intention of smothering their pet with compassion and love. However, a few use their animals to serve them, bring them attention, as part of their image, or for profit. While some love their animals like a member of the family, others regard them as no more than a material object.

The adoption of exotic animals is often based on novelty, and is unfair to the animal. The capture and transport of these animals can be difficult and many die before even reaching their new homes. Snakes, birds, and as we have seen lately, tigers and alligators, just to name a few, are animals that do not belong in cages (or apartments). Equally as unfair is the feeding of these animals, such as mice to snakes. In nature, each animal is afforded a fair opportunity for survival. A mouse, in a cage with a snake, has been stripped of this opportunity. Some have these exotic pets because they enjoy the attention the rare or untamed animal brings onto them or, worse, they indulge themselves in the savagery of nature.

Unfortunately, some have pets primarily to service their egos. Dangerous animals, such as pit bulls, and animals that project an image, such as rottwillers, are, for some, owned only to portray their idea that "image is everything." Others use their animals to communicate wealth or elitism. High priced breeds are owned, because, well, just "any" dog wouldn't be good enough. Some people spend lots of money on "show dogs." Is this for them or the dogs? Who is really competing here? Would the dog rather be at the park eating hot dogs and chasing squirrels or standing perfectly still with his or her tail at just the right angle? Show dogs and those of "AKC registry" ensure value and potential earnings for their owners, should one ever decide to breed them.

I've found no difference in the unconditional love offered by pure breeds and "mutts." (One book on mutts subtitles them, "Pure of Heart, Not of Breed). Frankly, I don't understand the commitment to pure breeds by many owners when so many other animals are available for adoption. It is estimated that for every puppy born, three die in shelters. Furthermore, the pure breeding of animals often accentuates not only desirable traits but also undesirable. Often, due to selective breeding, some types suffer through vision, breathing and other physiological health problems. Many of these breeds would never survive in nature- sure they are cute, but nature didn't select them, breeders did. They suffer from a lack of genetic diversity, and therefore problematic genes are bred over and over. However, they will continue to be bred as long as people continue to purchase them. It just saddens me to think that dogs are being bred and purchased for upwards of $1200 when so many needy animals sit homeless in shelters.

My naturalistic viewpoint is perhaps extreme, but I don't believe any animals should be in cages, on chains or in tanks. These are not pets; these are prisoners. And one way to keep them out of the cages of our animal protection leagues, pounds and humane societies is to take care of them. This involves treating them as humanely as possible, not as novelties, for show, or for profit. This also involves limiting the number of unwanted animals that are born. The post office has delivered a very compassionate message- please spay and neuter your pets.

Thursday, November 13, 2003

8. Humans end perfect history

"Give me a home where the Buffalo roam, where the deer and antelope play," are opening the words of the romantic prairie song, "Home on the Range." The problem is that this place no longer exists- Buffalo, actually "Bison," no longer roam freely in this country. Whereas their numbers were estimated upwards of 60 million before the white man came, they now exist only through legislation in National parks and preserves. Their slaughter in the late 1800's reduced their numbers to as low as 250-300 in the early 1900's. Never before in history had a large animal of one species been so thoroughly exterminated.

Male Bison stand 5½ to 6 feet tall and weight as much as 2400 pounds. Females are smaller weighing in at 800-1000 pounds. They reached America about 1 million years ago, during the Pleistocene period, through a land bridge across the Bering Sea. In their peak, migrating Bison would travel in herds up to 25 miles wide! They live to be about 15-20 years old and females bear a calf every other year. With such a long period between births, and hence the slow population growth of the species, one can extrapolate the time it must have taken to reach 60 million. Even now, with national protection and the help of breeding farms, they only number around 300,000. It's dreadfully amazing what history humans can erase in such a short period of time.

What is more amazing are the reasons they were killed. One reason was that they had the nerve to hinder the western frontier expansion of Americans, namely, the construction of our railroads. The most famous (or infamous) character of this act was Buffalo Bill, William F. Cody, who once killed over 60 animals in an eight-hour period. And, of course, the railroad made the transport of fallen Bison to market much easier.

Another reason they were killed was sport, or just for amusement. The size of these animals made their butcher valuable, as well intensified the challenge of the hunt. When deer and other small animals moved out of range, they were not pursued. Bison however, were pursued for miles. It has also been noted that passengers on trains would lean out the window and shoot at the Bison as the train rolled on- as a lust for slaughter or entertainment.

Finally, and the most disgraceful reason for their massacre was to keep the Indians under control. The Indians for centuries relied on the Bison for survival. They only killed what they needed to survive and consumed every bit of the animal. Some say the Indians treated the Bison like their brother who sacrificed himself for the tribe. They also thanked the spirits for their good fortune. So the white man realized that killing the Bison also eliminated a valuable food source of the Indians. It also aided in keeping Indians on their reservations, for if there are no Bison, then there is nothing to chase. As a result, the execution of the Bison disarmed their nomadic way of life. Thus, the white men sought not only to take the land of the Indians, but also to remove their source of food.

From 1872-74, Bison were being killed at a rate of more than 5000 per day. In 1878 the last of the southern great herds was decimated, while 5 years later, by 1883, most of the northern herds had been ruined. Therefore, it is not without truth to note that in approximately eleven years, a million years worth of the life in America for the Bison had been destroyed.

Those who are religious might wonder why God went to the trouble to create so many species of animals, if it is our destiny to simply eradicate those not of our liking- with or without good reason. Might not he just as easily presented us with a checklist from the beginning to select those animals we might permit to survive our inhabitance? Although, on further thought... maybe he did. The Bison may have slipped upon the Arc when Noah was sorting through the numerous species of beetles.

If one takes a more naturalistic view, how even more tragic is the human infliction of (near) extinction for those species that simply lack a purpose in "our" world. What a waste of nature's time and the eloquent mechanisms of natural selection to create such a successful animal, only to have it destroyed in a blink of an eye. And how pathetic it is to imagine that a species of animal was nearly wiped out to obstruct the survival of a race of people from our own species.

Thursday, November 6, 2003

7. Is recall a true reflection?

In one sense, the California recall is an exercise of democracy- the people, acting through the rules of government, voting to oust elected leadership that has performed unsatisfactorily. In another sense, it is the continuation of the never-ending partisan battles that continue to plaque our country. From the beginning, George Washington himself warned of party-led politics. And today, with so much at stake- from the elections themselves, to special interest groups and lobbyists, to the naming of the judges who interrupt our laws, its no wonder that we live in a world of political warfare. There might never be a finer example of political conflict than the 2000 presidential election, in which the pro-republican Supreme Court overstepped their boundaries, and previous rulings, to essentially decide the election of our president. The simplicity of what an election should detail, has become a bogged down legal affair. The California recall was no different, from the recall itself to the already legal battles over when the election was to occur and even whether or not it was constitutional.

It's amazing to listen to intelligent, knowledgeable political analysts that, based on partisanship, report the same event from two completely different perspectives. Where has the objectiveness gone? To listen to the side opposing your personal views inspires outrage at the obviousness of their distortions and lies. Of course, the other side feels the same way. Every event, every word, is analyzed with both parties searching for the slightest advantage. In the California recall, the Democrats claim that Arnold Schwarzenegger groped and acted inappropriately with women; the Republicans counter that this was a political move and that the women that came forward were not credible. This is just one example in which both sides are adamant and convincing.

The recall itself is a frightening precedent. Only 12 percent of the voters from the previous election need to sign the petition to enact a recall. Consider any close election and it is easy to speculate how easily this might be accomplished. The case against Gray Davis is that he won a close, low-turnout election and that under his leadership the California budget has suffered an eight billion dollar deficit. Does that sound like anyone else? Under this system, and these conditions, how difficult would it be to recall our current President? At least Gray Davis didn't promise weapons of mass destruction!

The election procedure itself is flawed under certain circumstances- although it didn't play a role in this election. The first part of the election was whether or not to recall Gray Davis. In this case, although not enough to save his job, 45% voted "no"- thus voicing their opinion that they want Davis to continue as Governor. The next part of the election is to decide who should succeed the Governor in the case of a recall. Arnold Schwarzenegger won with 49% of the vote. But, he COULD'VE won with 33% had the balance voted among the 100 or so lesser known candidates. In this situation, 45% of the voters would have expressed their desire for Gray Davis to continue as Governor, while only 33% of the voters would prefer that Arnold Schwarzenegger assume Governorship- yet Arnold Schwarzenegger would be the Governor-elect.

Although I am a resolute defender of democracy- I would argue against the recall on a couple points. Besides, as I have already mentioned, that I think it is too easy to initiate a recall and that under circumstances the less popular candidate can be elected, I am bothered to the fact that this was a recently reelected politician. There is discussion as to the spirit of the recall legislation, whether it was put in place to recall extreme misconduct, or to be used to dictate the result of changing voter preference. But in this case, Californians, less than a year ago, actively reelected Gray Davis; thus my point is if he was so incompetent, they certainly had their chance.

Of his possible successors, it's a shame that it inevitably came down to a popularity contest. While Arnold Schwarzenegger has done a lot for charities and with kids, his campaign was almost cartoon-like. He has no government experience, and, at times, appeared to be researching for a movie part- clich├ęd lines and all! Meanwhile candidates with serious credentials such as senator, law school president, scientist and engineer were, for the most part, ignored.

The recall cost Californians upwards of 65 million dollars. However, by creating precedent and entrenching the animosity between the country's two major political parties, this could just be the beginning- the beginning of legal battles, controversy and wasted taxpayer dollars. The Democrats have now suffered two controversial defeats in the last three years and with a presidential election forthcoming next year- the fight may have just begun.

Thursday, October 9, 2003

6. Bats get a bum holiday rap

Halloween brings out all the scary creatures- ghosts and goblins, vampires, and mummies. Witches and the Grim Reaper, too. Don't forget Frankenstein, the devil and flying bats. Wait, bats? How ever did they get grouped in with this deplorable cast? Who is responsible for this inexcusable sort of prejudicial slander? Where is a good lawyer when you need one?

If you really look at them- bats are cute, at least in a flying-Gremlin sort of way. One just has to look past its rat-like body, big ears, piggish nose and beady eyes. Looks can be deceiving; it's what is underneath that counts; beauty is only skin deep- did I miss any?

Actually these little guys do lots of good. They save farmers money on pesticides by eating millions of pounds of insects each night. They pollinate key tree and plant species in the rain forest. They even produce (through there droppings known as Guano) an important component in gunpowder. That's right! In fact, in the War of 1812 and as late as the American Civil War, bat caves were so important that guards were stationed outside to protect them from their enemies. Finally, to aid in the World War II effort, Brazilian free-tail bats offered to have small bombs attached to their backs. Their Kamikaze-type plan was to be dropped by planes over Japan, land on buildings, and then detonate the bombs when they groomed themselves. Appreciating the patriotism offered by the bats, the plan was abandoned. Who are the "real" heroes anyway?

For their effort, how are they treated? In typical American fashion, a lack of appreciation and ignorance prevails. We destroy their habitats. But then again, bats shouldn't be offended- we indiscriminately destroy lots of habitats. We tell lies. Bats have rabies; they are evil and dangerous. They suck blood. They have become the victims of negative human attitudes. All the while the truth would tell us that they contract rabies at comparable mammalian levels (about .5%) and no North American bats include blood in their diets. Bats have been around for at least three million years, with over 1,000 species (or about 25% of all mammal species). But, alas, one-half of these are listed as endangered or as a candidate for endangerment, as many fail to realize that they are a peaceful and beneficial part of our ecosystem.

In the study of their nature, we find that bats really are amazing creatures. Famous for their echolocational abilities, they catch their prey by emitting a high frequency sound and with the returning waves paint themselves a mental picture of the prey's location. In mastering this technique, they are able to detect a single strand of hair in complete darkness. Bats are also the only mammalian species with the ability to fly. They have hands like humans, four fingers and a thumb, which have become elongated to form the wing (they also have five little toes). There are two general types, microbats- as small as a bumblebee and megabats- as large as two pounds. Microbats live off of insects, while megabats eat fruit and nectar. Finally, and in true Halloween spirit, northern bats hibernate in the winter- in colonies known as Hibernaculas!

There are three species that are classified as vampire bats, deriving their name from the European legends that preceded their discovery. They use their three front fangs to puncture the skin of a sleeping cow or horse and lap up the blood. They do not suck. Their saliva has a special chemical that prevents the blood from coagulating. Scientists believe that this chemical, as a blood thinner, could help humans. And now, suddenly, these bats, at least, aren't so bad.

So have your fun this Halloween, hang those scary plastic creatures in your house and off your porch. Shriek at the thought of being attacked by these bloodthirsty animals or getting them caught in your hair. Maybe even take in an old-time vampire movie. But next Spring, attempt to make amends with our cute furry insecticides. Invite them into our gardens and fields. Beg forgiveness for that whole World War II Kamikaze thing. Do the right thing- put up a bat house and welcome them in!

Thursday, October 2, 2003

5. Sounds like computer theft

Imagine, if you can, opening the hood of you new car and noticing a bright red warning sticker proclaiming, "Unauthorized duplication is a violation of applicable laws." You see, the sticker is now applied to all new cars because the Internet and slick new software programs enable the buyer of the new car to scan his or her car and "share" it with his or her friends anywhere in the world. That's right, friends anywhere can check out your new car, and if they like it, they can simply download it and, subsequently, duplicate it. And then their friends can download it, and their fiends, and so on and so on. Pretty soon, only a few people will ever actually have to purchase a new car because they will all be available on-line for free- that is, if people are willing to ignore the bright red sticker.

Although demonstrated through an impractical analogy, the point is the same- unauthorized duplication is stealing. Consider the impact on society and in the community of this somewhat absurd comparison. The car companies employ workers to design, create and produce automobiles to be sold at a profit. This profit ensures jobs for the employees and transportation for the customer. Consider the public outrage if the unauthorized duplication of automobiles cost thousands of workers their jobs because customers could, thanks to technology, obtain them for free!

Why then is it perceived justifiable in the situation of downloaded music? What ever gave file "sharers" the impression that what they were doing was legal? Here's how it works: someone in Australia (or wherever, with the user name "BigDog156") purchases a CD and places it on the Internet, "friends" then download it, write it to disk (duplicate it) and enjoy it without ever paying a cent to the creator or producer of the music. What explanation could defend the obvious duplication (or receipt) of material that was not paid for by the end user? Did the musician and music company not design, create and produce a product in the same manner, and with the same intentions, as the car companies?

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) estimates that there are more than 2.5 billion (yes, billion) illegal downloads of copyrighted material every month. Yet many express no or little sympathy for the music industry. Because they can obtain unauthorized over the Internet, they have assumed entitlement- that somehow this has become their right. They hide under the term "file sharing"- a type of sharing equivalent to one person paying for the dinner buffet, and the rest of the family eating for free.

The defense of those who download copyrighted material ranges from weak to ridiculous. Some complain that CDs are too expensive and that artists are already very wealthy (some automakers became wealthy, that didn't mean their cars were free for the taking). Others justify their actions by noting that they wouldn't purchase the CD anyway, so the artist is not actually out any money (is that like saying the baseball game would've been played anyway even if I didn't watch?). The best of the best ask why should we pay for them when we can get them for free- noting, graciously of course, that this is a free country (they're kidding right?).

The RIAA has sought a number of measures to protect their product from the illegal duplication, but at best are hoping for compromise. They have filed lawsuits against Person-to-Person (P2P) networks such as Napster and Kazaa, sought the introduction of legislation that would make file sharing a felony, and put pressure on universities who allow their networks to be used for illegal downloading. However, realizing that technology will continue to outrun enforcement, their requests have been modest- asking for "subscription fees" and possibly even bundling music fees into the room and board charges of universities. The problem will undoubtedly continue with the increase in availability of broadband connections and extension of illegal downloading to include other media such as software programs and full-length movies.

In many ways the battle has just begun, but ultimately some feel the only solution will be personal responsibility. They hope that some will wind up purchasing the CDs because it's the honest thing to do. Others, such as Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association of America, noting the "casual regard" some have in regards to file sharing asserts that people need to have a sense of the moral compact: to take something that does not belong to you is thievery.

Thursday, September 25, 2003

4. Politics, religion don't mix

As most have probably heard, Pat Robertson has asked his followers to pray for the removal of three Supreme Court justices in hopes that President Bush will replace them with conservatives. With these conservatives on the bench, Robertson hopes to tear down the wall separating church and state, thus empowering the government to force upon its citizens the belief systems of the majority (or ruling party) through law. Ironically, it's the principle of church and separation itself that allows him to worship the God of his choosing.

The principle that separates church and state is one of the most passionate issues facing this country today. Unfortunately, it is often one of the most misunderstood. Supporting the separation of church and state is not an endorsement of atheism, immorality or communism. As usually happens in passionate debates, both sides seek to discredit the other by using exaggerated terms or analogies. Actually, in understanding the issue one only needs to comprehend the purpose for church/state separation. The purpose of building the wall between the two disciplines is to ensure religious freedom. With this wall, America thrives as a multifaith community and, with the exception of the Muslim fundamentalist states, is in receipt of worldwide admiration. However, if the purpose is religious freedom, one then has to question why the religious right (or anyone) opposes its establishment.

The concept was born a radical experiment, as the ratification of the U.S. Constitution marked the first time any nation separated the two disciplines. The framers of this country were well aware of the dangers of a state-supported religion- having witnessed firsthand the deplorable acts of religious persecution in Europe. For example, in 800 C.E., the emperor of what is now China, recognizing the wealth and power of Buddhists priests, destroyed nearly 5000 monasteries and forced more than 250,000 monks and other religious figures to renounce their vows.

Among the earliest settlers of America were the Pilgrims and Puritans- both of whom sought religious freedom from the Church of England. However the religious freedom they desired was only for themselves- they had no interest in religious tolerance (the Puritans worse than the Pilgrims, who were eventually absorbed by the Puritans). In this manner, Massachusetts was settled such that only members of the Puritan church could hold office, and those who did not pay taxes supporting the church were immediately jailed. Baptists, Quakers and even Catholics and Jews who tried to settle in Massachusetts were unwelcome and often moved elsewhere.

Devout Christian preacher Roger Williams was among the first seeking to separate church and state when he challenged Puritan law in Massachusetts. Guilty of "disseminating new and dangerous opinion" he was to be sent back to England. He escaped and founded the city of Providence in modern day Rhode Island, where all that chose to live there were promised political and religious freedom. Massachusetts, of course, went on to demonstrate the potential atrocities of church-state relations- culminating in the witch trials of 1692 in which 19 "witches" were either hanged or stoned to death.

On the issue of government and religion in Virginia, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson took the lead. Influenced by John Locke's Letter on Tolerance, Madison successfully fought The Henry Bill, and Jefferson wrote The Religious Freedom Bill- that Madison helped pass. Approvingly, Baptist minister John Leland on the issue of religious tests wrote, "If a man merits the confidence of his neighbors in Virginia- let him worship one God, twenty Gods, or no God...he is eligible to any office in the state." Moving forward and with America's defeat of Great Britain, revolutionist now faced the challenge of forming a government.

The Constitution, formed in 1787, was a secular document, without the reference to any religion, except to forbid religious tests as a qualification to any public office. However, a couple of states wouldn't ratify the Constitution without the addition of the specific rights as eventually outlined in the Bill of Rights. The first amendment that states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion", was carefully crafted, changed and reviewed. The intent of congress and the first amendment was obvious- to mandate government to keep its hands off religion- neither aiding nor hindering it- to the fullest possible extent.

In light of the first amendment, the government has no right to endorse any particular religion, which is why the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools and government offices is illegal. There are a number of myths concerning both the forming of the first amendment and its interpretation. For example, many don't realize that children can pray in school, as long as it is not a school-led prayer or reading- anything that may disrupt interfaith harmony. Schools may even discuss religion as part of a curriculum, objective and academic, relating to its role in world and U.S. history (it is not permitted in Science classes, because, firstly, it is not science, and because there are numerous creation stories- all of which would be entitled to fair account). Another is the attack claiming that the principle of church and state was formed under the influence of the communism (and atheism) found in the Soviet Union. Of course, the American Constitution was written 145 years before its Soviet counterpart. A final myth, although there are many more, is that the first amendment only prohibits the establishment of a national religion. If the framers of the constitution desired this, they had ample opportunity to say so. In fact, earlier drafts included such language, but were ultimately rejected.

In analyzing the alternatives, at least two must be considered- a national state supported religion or the equal support state for all religions. A national religion, even as broad as Christianity, is discriminatory to all non-Christian religions. Americans would be forced to accept, study and subscribe to the beliefs particular of Christianity. Furthermore, beliefs within Christianity differ; the debate would be extended to the details. Religions would spend millions in elections to ensure that their views were represented- whereas currently, as a non-profit organization, they are required to be politically neutral.

Perhaps worse than a national religion, although more civil, would be the equal establishment for all religions. If the government enters religion with the premise of being fair, the fear is that this approach would be immeasurable, suspect to abuse and logistically impossible. For example, in Columbus, Ohio there is more than 1700 churches alone- all of which would seek government support for their programs. Unequal distribution would be disastrous. Potential abuse would have to be regulated, perhaps even requiring churches to reveal their financial statements. Notably, and to this point, the voucher program, in its infancy, has already seen abuse. In Cleveland alone, the Islamic Academy and the Golden Christian Academy were cited for enrolling fictitious students and teaching students almost exclusively through the use of videos, respectively.

The freedom of religion ensures the right to believe and worship any and all gods of one's choosing, without the fear of the oppression, discrimination or intolerance that is so often experienced by citizens of other countries. The freedom of religion protects the rights of all Americans, not just those of the majority- and therefore is not subject to majority vote. If percent of the population or even 15 individuals represent the minority, their rights are protected equally under the Constitution, no different than the civil rights of other minorities. Its hard to understand why anyone would oppose religious freedom, noting exceptions such as Pat Robertson who wishes to impose the beliefs of his religion on the citizens of this country. Sadly, the views of Chief Justices William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas threaten religious freedom- thus the reality of Robertson's America is only a few prayers away.

Thursday, September 4, 2003

3. Fans don't have to follow blindly

When the Kobe Bryant story broke, I swore to myself that I would not get involved in the media circus that was sure to follow. I would not pay the matter any attention, as these stories always seem to bring out the worst in people. However, the inescapable media attention eventually wore down my disinterest. And the story itself is an introduction to the subject matter of this column.

What caught my attention about the case is the "blind" support for Bryant that has been evident in the courtroom and his subsequent public appearances. Fans cheer, picket, and make signs to profess their support for their hero. Their hero, mind you, in his own words, is "only" guilty of adultery. He has claimed that he is innocent of the charges of sexual assault. From this information, and this information alone, the fans that support him have also declared a belief in his innocence. If Bryant would have said that he never met this woman, fans would have believed him and, alas, they would have been wrong. In fact, if he had said that he had never been to Colorado, fans would've supported him. The truth is that at this point nobody knows what actually happens except Bryant and the woman involved. It's amusing to see the opinion polls regarding his innocence or guilt. What are people basing their judgments on? The only conclusion is that their judgments are wrapped in the opinions of prejudices and biases- surely not critical thinking.

It's disheartening that Bryant would claim that he is "only" guilty of adultery, as though that wasn't a big issue. Was he trying to be analogous to someone who was only in the area, but had nothing to do with the crime? For many, adultery is a crime, or at least, a very serious issue. Furthermore, he was guilty of poor judgment. Why did he even put himself in that position? Why did he risk his career, fans, family, reputation and even his life? And, considering this, why are people showing such support for him? Even if he is cleared of the charges, he is not innocent, and certainly doesn't deserve to be cheered.

The loyalty demonstrated by fans to their sport heroes in this country is growing concern. Celebrations swivel out of control, even when the outcomes are favorable. Last season, when Ohio State beat Michigan, assuring them a spot in the national championship game, fans celebrated by destroying the very city and campus their team represents. Ohio State is not alone in this action, the fans of many cities have celebrated a victory (or loss) by turning over cars, starting fires and carrying on out of control. Mind you, I was as happy as anyone following Ohio State's national championship, but never did I consider running next door and tipping over my neighbor's car.

In the oddest of occurrences, fans celebrate even when they know the outcome beforehand. Earlier this spring the Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA lottery and with it a chance to draft the already legendary LaBron James- surely worthy of a celebration. In fact, many have postulated that his selection has saved the franchise. What brought my attention to the state of fans today was the actual draft itself. The Cleveland Cavaliers held a draft party at the Gund in which thousands of fans showed up. Then when they selected James, whose selection was a forgone conclusion, the fans erupted in cheer and celebration. Are fans so desperate for a celebration that they are willing to take the time and effort to cheer things that have already happened?

The popularity of sports continues to grow, and the issue is much greater than the scope of this column. Recalling the success of the Browns in the 1980s and Indians in the 1990s, we have seen here how a successful team can bring people together. The city was united in the quests of our teams. We gained national attention and wore their colors with pride. With this, we saw the good a sports team can bring to a city. There is nothing wrong with being a fan (I, myself, bleed brown and orange). But being a fan should never challenge our integrity, morality or our civility towards others. It should never prohibit us from applying critical thought, even to our heroes. And, hopefully, fans have other interests and better things to do than to cheer afterthoughts.

Thursday, August 21, 2003

2. McCoffee lawsuit stirs up a brew

Inevitably every water-cooler discussion on lawsuits, especially frivolous lawsuits, end up in a discussion, or joke, about the woman who was awarded a couple million dollars after spilling hot coffee on her lap. The lawsuit gained national attention, and for many, cast doubts about the quality of our legal system. Currently, businesses and the insurance industry use this case as an example for the need of liability limits. The problem is that many don't know the actual facts of the case, and that, in reality, the decision was a sound one.

McDonald's sells about $1.3 million dollars worth of coffee each day. For years McDonald's knew they had a problem with the way they prepared and sold their coffee. In truth, people who had burned themselves on McDonald's coffee had filed more than 700 claims between 1982-1992. However, based on consultants advice for optimal taste, McDonald's decided to keep their coffee at between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit (by comparison, most restaurants keep their coffee at 135-140 degrees). In addition, McDonalds' own quality assurance manager testified that McDonald's knew that food substances served at over 140 degrees Fahrenheit were capable of producing third degree burns. With this information, McDonald's made no effort to lower holding temperatures or warn their customers.

Recalling the case, a 79 year-old woman named Stella Liebeck was burned when riding in the backseat of her grandson's car as she opened the lid of her coffee to add cream and sugar. She was not driving, nor was the car in motion. The coffee spilled and inflicted third degree burns on 6 percent of her body. She was hospitalized for eight days, undergoing a skin graft and debridement treatments. For this, she asked McDonald's for $20,000 to cover hospital expenses and eight days worth of her daughter's salary- who took the time off to care for her. McDonald's offered $800.

Lieback subsequently sued and won the case against McDonald's. Expert testimony from the trial stated that substances at 180 degrees or higher would cause third degree burns in two to seven seconds. She was awarded over 2.7 million dollars in punitive damages. She also received $160,000 in compensatory damages, after the jury reduced the damages by 20 percent because they found her at fault for spilling the coffee. On appeal, the judge lowered punitive damages to $480,000, for a total award of $640,000- a bit shy of the "couple million" or so that is usually quoted. The case finally came to an end when Lieback and McDonald's, unbeknownst to the public, entered into an undisclosed settlement agreement.

From the beginning we realize that McDonald's was fully aware that its coffee was capable of inflicting third degree burns on its customers. With this information they sought neither to lower the holding temperature nor provide a warning label. With the sale of approximately one billion cups of coffee per year, it doesn't take an intellect to realize that some of these people were going to spill their coffee. And that with each spill existed the possibility that someone would be burned. To prove it, they had 700 claims filed to that fact.

In a society that has become accustom to lawsuits engaging the smallest offense or accident, it's easy to assume that this case is about unaccountability. The argument of many is, of course, that it was her fault for spilling the coffee. However, statistics would indicate, that some customers were going to spill their coffee- especially when so many are purchased "on the go." The deplorable aspect of this case is that it appears that McDonald's selected risk management over customer safety. One might speculate that McDonald's found it more economical to pay the small settlements rather than risk losing "optimal taste", and hence market share.

When considering responsibility, it's important to remember that there are differences between corporate knowledge, corporate action and customer fault. There are also differences in the stories that we are told. Of this, Eldred Jones fittingly wrote, "Legends die hard in the popular mind, while facts tend to languish in books."

Thursday, August 7, 2003

1. Every life is worth our efforts

The inspiration of The Starfish Poem is easily understood- that one needs not to save the world in order to make a difference or perhaps even more simply stated- "every little bit matters." However, from an ethical, anthropocentric perspective it could mean that every individual life matters, at least to that individual. The poem begins with a wise man walking along the beach and noticing a young man "reaching down to the shore, picking up something and very gently throwing it into the ocean." It continues:

As he got closer he called out,
"Good morning! What are you doing?"
The young man paused,
looked up and replied,
"Throwing starfish in the ocean."
I guess I should have asked,
why are you throwing starfish in the ocean?"
"The sun is up and the tide is going out.
And if I don't throw them in they'll die."
"But, young man, don't you realize that
there are miles and miles of beach
and starfish all along it.
You can't possibly make a difference!"
The young man listened politely.
Then bent down, picked up another starfish
and threw it into the sea,
past the breaking waves and said-
"It made a difference for that one."

Probing deeper into the ethical side of this poem, that every individual life matters, draws into question one of America's favorite family activities- visiting the zoo. While zoos have implemented many commendable and credible educational programs, they, by in large, remain as entertainment and, harshly stated, as a form of imprisonment for the animals they harbor.

Educationally, zoos detail animal natural habitats, social characteristics and where the animals are naturally found. In addition, zoos have promoted to protect endangered species with their rescue and breeding programs. Zoos also strive to inform the public as to the sensitivity of many species in relation to human activity- such as rainforest destruction and human overpopulation. These are important issues that the general public rarely thinks about except when visiting the zoos.

Zoos have made great progress in animal living conditions, as best they can, by creating a living environment similar to what these animals may have encountered in the wild. However, many remain in very confined spaces or cages. And while many have had their habitats recreated, they still don't get to experience life as they would in the wild. They don't have to search for there own food. They don't have the social environment that for many species exists naturally in the wild. They don't have reproductive freedom. Captivity acts against all their natural instincts. In the popular movie, Jurassic Park, the scientist notes upon seeing a dinosaur being fed a goat, "They don't want to be fed, they want to hunt."

The argument against this, of course, is that they are well provided for, they live a long time and that they live without the danger of being hurt or killed. True as this may be, are they really living? What is life without the experiences that are instinctual to it- even if those experiences are not always favorable? Another argument is that these animals are suffering for the well being of their species. By educating humans, they may make things better for their relatives, that their individual sacrifice will save the rainforest and make humans more responsible. As admirable of a case that this might be, most regard the zoo as entertainment- a place to take the kids on a nice summer day.

Whether or not zoos do more good than harm is not necessarily the question. It is of the ethical belief that every individual matters, as suggested in The Starfish Poem, that we are forced to conclude that zoos clearly infringe on this poetic theme. Zoos, and society's support of them, have decided that it doesn't matter to that one.