Friday, December 22, 2006

Out for the holidays

I'm ducking out of the conversation for a few days, to seriously relax over Christmas and the start of the new year. In a couple of weeks, though, let's put our brains to work on how to straighten things out in the public arena.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Subsidies turn farms into big business

The popular image of the struggling family farm appears to disconnect from reality. Check this out:
The very policies touted by Congress as a way to save small family farms are instead helping to accelerate their demise, economists, analysts and farmers say. That's because owners of large farms receive the largest share of government subsidies. They often use the money to acquire more land, pushing aside small and medium-size farms as well as young farmers starting out.
There's more in the Washington Post.

Using mess for success

As one who has long tried to keep his workspace clean enough to start the day productively, instead of sorting and clearing, I was interested to read of a movement to embrace disorder. Here's a sample:
Studies are piling up that show that messy desks are the vivid signatures of people with creative, limber minds (who reap higher salaries than those with neat “office landscapes”) and that messy closet owners are probably better parents and nicer and cooler than their tidier counterparts. It’s a movement that confirms what you have known, deep down, all along: really neat people are not avatars of the good life; they are humorless and inflexible prigs, and have way too much time on their hands.
You can read more in the New York Times House & Home section (registration required, most likely).

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Inaction by Congress threatens funding

Here's more on the congressional budget debacle and the role "earmarks" play in it:
Republican leaders left behind just enough spending authority to keep the government operating through mid-February, less than halfway through the 2007 fiscal year that began Oct. 1. Democrats have signaled that when they take control of Congress in January they will extend that funding authority for the remainder of the year based largely on the previous year's spending levels, which will result in many cuts in programs.

The Democrats also will do something that is certain to anger many lawmakers but cheer critics of excessive government spending: They will wipe out thousands of lawmakers' pet projects, or earmarks, that have been a source of great controversy on Capitol Hill.
There's more in the Washington Post.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Bush backs reform of congressional earmarks

It's wonderful what an election can do. Here's the president, in his Saturday radio address, calling for an end to the slippery "earmark" process that Congress uses to spend without leaving tracks:
Earmarks are spending provisions that are often slipped into bills at the last minute, so they never get debated or discussed. It is not surprising that this often leads to unnecessary federal spending -- such as a swimming pool or a teapot museum tucked into a big spending bill. And over the last decade, the Congressional Research Service reports that the number of earmarks has exploded -- increasing from about 3,000 in 1996 to 13,000 in 2006. I respect Congress's authority over the public purse, but the time has come to reform the earmark process and dramatically reduce the number of earmarks.
The full address is posted at MarketWatch.
And here's the better-backgrounded Associated Press version of the story, as carried by CNN.

Giving credit where it's due, let's note that Democrats in Congress have already declared an intention to reform the earmark process.

Lesson plan for education reform

Calling for a radical transformation of American schools, the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce issues an education plan for keeping the United States competitive in the world. Business Week writer Jane Porter writes:
If implemented, the commission's recommendations . . . would revolutionize the way children are educated in this country. Among the ideas: a set of board examinations allowing all 10th graders to place into college; improved compensation and incentives to attract better quality teachers; an overhaul of the American testing industry; contract-run schools instead of schools run by school boards; improved education for all three- and four-year-olds; standards for state-run funding instead of local funding; legislation for continued education for adults; a new GI Bill; and regionally focused job training.
Porter's article is here. Or, you could read lots more at the commission's own website.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Big dreams and larger folly

Right up there with Ian McHarg ("Design with Nature") in the realm of writers who show us our folly is Orrin H. Pilkey, the renowned professor of earth sciences at Duke University. Pilkey and a North Carolina colleague, Robert S. Young, wrote a piece for today's New York Times op-ed page that calls down the Army Corps of Engineers for its scheme to restore the Mississippi Gulf Islands in response to last year's hurricane damage. It won't work, Pilkey and Young tell us:
"The corps’ failure to devise a rational redevelopment plan points to the futility of trying to maintain coastal development in such an unstable place. A realistic appraisal would conclude that the long-term outlook for coastal development there is bleak. Yet the corps, urged on by developers, seems determined to wage a quixotic fight.

This is particularly galling in light of a recent report issued by the British government under the leadership of Sir Nicholas Stern, who is widely viewed as a pragmatist. The Stern report concluded that it will probably cost global economies more to ignore climate change than to take steps to address it. It seems we are about to learn this lesson in coastal Mississippi. Rather than use a creative, flexible approach to redevelopment on a vulnerable, changing coast, the corps is commanding nature to behave itself."
They aptly call their piece Castles in the Sand. (Registration may be required.) And if you want to learn more about Pilkey and his thinking, check out this interview from Grist.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Working sick

Did you know there's a name for showing up to work when you're ailing? "Presenteeism," I believe it's called. It's not a good thing, says this piece at Web MD.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Public health and personal responsibility

A senior executive at a major company here, taking note of the number of workers currently absent with colds or flu, has diagnosed the problem as -- messy desks. A clean ship is a healthy ship, he reasons, and everyone is being required to throw away old papers and other clutter from their personal workspace.

I have my own ideas about workplace illness, and a key point is the culture that encourages people to show up for work when they're obviously still sick. These job heroes may look tough and dedicated, but they also spread the virus of the day. They actually hurt both their company and their colleagues. This is especially bad when workers must share desks and equipment, and doubly so if the workers try to eat at their desks.

So here's my own prescription for healthy workplaces:
If you have a cold or flu, stay home until you're well. If you get flu, remember that you were contagious the day before you got symptoms -- so alert your coworkers that they need to take extra care in handwashing, etc.

Do clean your workspace each day, and use hand sanitizer or Lysol wipes if you have to use someone else's space.

Break away for your meals, and wash before you take food of any kind.

If you haven't already gotten the flu shot, do so. And put it on your 2007 calendar for as early as October 1. (I was sandbagged by waiting for a shot at the office and coming down sick before I could get the shot.)

A ploy for leverage in Iraq

I usually agree with Tom Friedman's views on the world, but his column today in the New York Times brings me up short. Here's the nut graf:
The only hope of moving the factions inside Iraq, not to mention Syria and Iran, toward reconciliation is if we have leverage over them, which we now lack. The currency of Middle East politics is pain. And right now, all the pain is being inflicted on us and on Iraqi civilians. Only if we tell all the players that we are leaving might we create a different balance of pain and therefore some hope for a diplomatic deal. Trying to do diplomacy without the threat of pain is like trying to play baseball without a bat.

The problem I have with that is something I recall from my reading on conflict resolution. When you set a deadline, you create leverage all right -- but it's leverage that your adversary can use against you. In Iraq, it would tell the bombers they just have to hang on a few more months and we'll be out of their way. Friedman also sets up a straw man to knock down:
Yes, yes, I know, the conventional wisdom is that if the U.S. sets a date to leave Iraq the whole Middle East will explode in a Shiite-Sunni war. Maybe, but maybe not.
I would have thought the conventional wisdom to be that chaos would ensue when we actually leave Iraq, not when we set a date for doing so. Anyway, you can read Friedman's argument (registration required) and see if you find it persuasive. The piece is called
Set a Date and Buy Some Leverage.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Green light for book publishing

The Internet may be nibbling away at TV and newspaper audiences, but if anything, it is helping the world of books. So says Forbes magazine in a special report. Key thought:
People are reading more, not less. The Internet is fueling literacy. Giving books away online increases off-line readership. New forms of expression--wikis, networked books--are blossoming in a digital hothouse.
There's lots more to chew on, right here.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Rescuing the end of life

Updated December 5
More and more, the American way of death is an agonizing decline rather than a sudden blow. For millions of the dying, the companions of their last days are machines and medicines that manage to extend the vital signs for hours, days – even, in extreme cases, for years. Too often, those last days are endured, not lived. And that just begins to explain the mission of Stephen P. Kiernan in his new book, Last Rights: Rescuing the End of Life from the Medical System (St. Martin’s Press, 2006).

Kiernan was a writer and editor at the Burlington Free Press, in Vermont. His newspaper work documented his state’s End-of-Life Initiative and the effort to make sure that all Vermont doctors were trained in how to relieve pain, a frequent issue for cancer patients and others with fatal ailments.

In his book, Kiernan takes us to the bedside of several people dying badly – that is, in such pain, confusion and turmoil that they don’t get to settle their affairs, forgive their adversaries, say their goodbyes or even say "I love you" to the ones they love the most.

These cases are contrasted with a few where the patient was fortunate enough to have hospice care, which means that their doctors, nurses, friends and family worked to make them comfortable but employed none of the ventilators, defibrillators and other emergency devices or procedures commonly used to extend life as defined by bedside heart monitor.

In a chapter called "We can celebrate," Kiernan puts the point on his values:
"The last wishes of a seriously ill person have little or nothing to do with death. They are about life, about heightened awareness of its preciousness, about expressing individuality in the pursuit of small joys, about how death is an instant and how every moment preceding that instant is about living in all its fullness."

He concludes with recommendations for steps that the government, the medical professions and you and I can take – on the one hand to end the overuse of resources that barely postpone certain death, and on the other hand to make the last of life the most precious and memorable part.

"When the American culture around dying shifts," he writes, "it will improve medicine, cost less, and help families. But the largest impact will be on patients themselves."

These are wise words, and timely for everyone in the healing professions, anyone active in church or charity work, and all who may become the primary caregiver for an ill or elderly friend or relative.

Kiernan was interviewed for the public radio show "Fresh Air," and that segment is scheduled to run today. You can find where to hear it here. Here are his publisher's page, and Kiernan's own.