Author: Deven Desai

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Thoughts on Giving (and a book recommendation)

Mountain Beyond Mountains.jpg

So it’s Christmas Eve and for many C is for charity and C is for consumerism too. As Frank points out giving can be difficult in part because so many charities have become huge operations and one may wonder whether the money is going to the programs or to the administrative overhead. CNNMoney has a recent article about how to evaluate a charity. It suggests that 75% of the budget should go to its mission (what I call program) leaving 25% for administrative and fundraising costs (yes it costs money to ask for money). The article recommends Give.org and CharityNavigator.org as sites to see how a group uses funds.

Forbes has a survey of the top 200 charities by assets and efficiency. (TIP: use the sort by feature, not the article links. The links go to a useless slideshow. The sort by takes on to the charts.) Here is the efficiency list. Now it may be that some charities are not that efficient but still pretty good. Forbes suggests that 90% is quite possible and that under 70% is suspect. Remember it takes money to attract talent and raise money. Looking for charities with high efficiency is great but some programs require more in staffing to achieve goals. So another way to look at a charity is whether they offer some sort of metrics. Unlike private enterprise the return will not be as easily quantified. Still by setting goals, evaluating them, and seeing where program may need to change, many charities are better able to raise money. For it is easier to give money if one has a sense that someone is at the helm and making sure that the program is working. It may not succeed on each goal but it is focused on understanding why. In addition the idea of social entrepreneurship (see also The New Heroes) which focuses on a problem and tries to find solutions on a large scale uses some of this approach.

Now for a little consumerism. Someone I consider a friend of Concurring Opinions, Patrick S. O’Donnell, often shares excellent insights and further reading suggestions. In one such comment

Patrick mentioned several items for those interested in inequality and development. One of the mentioned authors is Paul Farmer. Although reading Farmer’s work is worth the time, one may desire something a little different from policy this time of year. As such I recommend Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. It details how Dr. Farmer began and continues his impressive work in changing public health systems. So if you want to spend a little holiday money on yourself and want to read a great story that also reveals the problems and some solutions for a major social issue, get the book. I will warn that a friend told me about it, and I hated him for a bit, because I could not put it down and tend to other tasks until I finished.

Ed. Note: Ah yes Frank notes in the comments that one can give to Farmer’s cause at this link. Or I find this link easier for giving directly to Partners in Health.

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What I Want for Christmas (Sort of)

Popular Mechanics has a fun piece about a car company called Aptera. It looks cool and is made here in the U.S.A. In fact it is made up the road from me in Carlsbad, CA. The hybrd prototype will cost $30K according to the company. It can get a claimed 300 mpg. The available all electric gets, well it is not mpg, but has a 120 mile range. That one seems like the same problem all electrics had before: short range and need to plug in. Still the vehicle looks like fun. Apparently it handles well too. Why do I want it? Well honestly I love the idea that such a cool car is designed and built in the U.S. The price seems right too. If the company does well I hope some massive U.S. automaker buys them (making the Aptera people as rich as they may deserve to be) and regains some leadership in the car market. In addition, the company and the approach reminds me of the small, dedicated aerospace companies of California’s past. They went on to greatness. Maybe these folks or others like them will enjoy that type of success too. So that is what I really want for Christmas and having the car is just a proxy for the idea. Then again if someone wanted to give me one, I wouldn’t object.

Here’s the video:

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Court Date? But I Have Tickets to the Game. Judge moves trial date to accommodate bowl game

stadium2.JPGLike Dave grading has taken over my life for the past few days. I try to take breaks so that seeing the same answer with the same good or bad points is at least a little fresh. The Web of course offers plenty of distractions. This article made my day. Apparently a judge was asked to move the start of a trial because the original date was on the day of the BCS Championship Game. The attorney who made the motion represents an insurance company in a case involving a car crash. He happens to have tickets to game and a floor rented on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter for a tailgate party. The motion refers to Ohio Slowhio and according to the article offered:

All counsel to this matter unequivocally agree that the presence of LSU in the aforementioned contest of pigskin skill unquestionably constitutes good grounds therefor … In fact we have been unable through much imagination and hypothetical scenarios to think of a better reason.

It turns out the plaintiff’s attorneys also have tickets. The judge granted the motion. One thing missing in the story is whether the clients, especially the plaintiff, who may be an individual, agreed to moving the date. The new date has not been set. In some courts moving a date means several weeks not just the next day. Then again it is the Big Easy so perhaps all concerned want to enjoy the food and the game. Trials will occur soon enough, Hmm. Maybe that approach would improve associate life and court procedures. Your honor I really need to see the opening of Book of Secrets. O.K. that is not a good example but you get the idea.

Ed. Note: Bill, thanks for pointing out that it is not the Sugar Bowl. I trusted the article title “Day in court can wait for Sugar Bowl.”

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Ah the Good Old Days When You Could Spy Without Help: Private Companies and Their Cooperation with Eavesdropping

Thisbe_-_John_William_Waterhouse2.JPGYet again technology is cited as a problem requiring change. This time it is in the familiar realm of government access to telecommunications. As the New York Times reports:

The federal government’s reliance on private industry has been driven by changes in technology. Two decades ago, telephone calls and other communications traveled mostly through the air, relayed along microwave towers or bounced off satellites. The N.S.A. could vacuum up phone, fax and data traffic merely by erecting its own satellite dishes. But the fiber optics revolution has sent more and more international communications by land and undersea cable, forcing the agency to seek company cooperation to get access.

This information is not exactly new, but the article also notes that it is not just recent terrorist concerns that have prompted the government to seek help in tracking communications. The N.S.A. and the D.E.A. have apparently been “collecting the phone records showing patterns of calls between the United States, Latin America and other drug-producing regions” since the 1990s and the program may be expanding. At bottom the concern is that the Bush Administration wants to offer retroactive protection for the companies that cooperated with the government because as Attorney General Mukasey and director of national intelligence have argued without that protection would be reluctant to help. Yet the article details that some companies such as Verizon may have cooperated and even run a line to a military facility whereas others refused to cooperate because they feared public reaction regarding their privacy. Immunity thus is not necessarily why the companies did not cooperate.

Put differently, how affording such protection makes sense is unclear unless the immunity would work in a way analogous to prosecutorial immunity: “You have to work with us.” “But it’s against the law.” “Maybe. But you aren’t liable anymore so just do it.” Again as long companies fear “customers’ demands for privacy and shareholders’ worries about bad publicity,” the immunity should be less of an issue. Still from an in-house attorney perspective, persuading the other executives that the best practice is not to cooperate would be harder to do if there is general immunity for cooperating in breaking the law. The immunity removes a powerful argument against what should be a practice to be avoided.

image: Thisbe – John William Waterhouse Wikicommons

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Cherry Pies, Candy Bars, and Chocolate Chip Cookies: The Nobel Peace Prize Concert

Nobel_Prize_Medal_2.jpgAl Gore and Rajendra Pachauri, the head of and representing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for their work on climate change. Yes, it is an important issue. Here are Gore’s speech and Pauchari’s speech on behalf of the IPCC. Gore pulled out the stops and invoked Churchill and Hitler. The IPCC speech detailed many problems including one I recall from years ago when I took a class called the Water Planet at Berkeley. The professor had a few lectures on the science and then hammered water policy. This was around 1990 and I remember thinking his points about wars and conflicts turning on water policy were quite persuasive. Today they seem prescient. Gore’s and others’ calls for legislation and ways to address an event that will shape our future pose numerous fascinating and complex questions that require much thought. Maybe that is why I was distracted by the gala aspect of the Prize. I had always thought of the Nobel ceremony as a somber event when I read some of the speeches in high school. Apparently things are bit more festive than I realized.

First there is a banquet, “an event many would pay a fortune to attend.” (seriously right there at the home page) The banquet page details all the themes and history behind the dinner. As if that were not enough there is a big show that was almost thwarted until Kevin Spacey stepped in to cover for Tommy Lee Jones as co-host with Uma Thurman at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert. Yes, folks, the Nobel Peace Prize concert. The Web site looks more like an Academy Awards event than I expected. Alicia Keys, Annie Lennox, Kylie Minogue, Earth Wind & Fire, Melissa Etheridge, Morten Harket, KT Tunstall, Juanes, Junoon, Nick Davies (conductor) and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra perform. Wikipedia has a nice entry about the history of the concert which dates from 1994. Take a look there are some impressive names in there not to mention some Nobel Prize winners. (Sinead O’Connor singing in front of Arafat, Peres, and Rabin must have been surreal. Boyz II Men performed one year. The list is fascinating.)

Now although I do think that the issue is important I think that the committee erred. Maybe Earth Wind & Fire were a nod to the elements and the environment or maybe people miss that fat horn section (I do). Regardless the obvious choice should have been a reunion of Talking Heads and the song has to have been (Nothing But) Flowers. It was 1988 and environmental commentary with intelligent, witty satire flew. (Here are some choice lines but listen to the whole thing. “The highways and cars were sacrificed for agriculture … We used to microwave, now we just eat nuts and berrries. This was a discount store now it’s turned into a corn field”). Not to mention the world music aspect of the song seems to fit with the Nobel Prizes. The album is Naked (I also recommend Remain In Light arguably a masterpiece). You ask where is this song? As Talking Heads might say you got it.

image: Wikicommons

cross-posted at Madisonian

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Slow Boat to China Cancelled: Post Office Ends Bulk Rate M-Bags

Mail_service_seaplane2.JPGNPR reports that the U.S. Post Office has ended its M-bag service, at least the old $1 per pound service which took a long time but as one person interviewed noted that does not matter with books. Now one must pay $3 to $4 per pound and use an air mail service. The problem here is that many charities sending books to Africa, Israel, Indonesia, and elsewhere can no longer afford to send books at the new rates. NPR pointed out that the claim regarding the increase is that the old rate is not viable and impacts the mandate that the Post Office break even in all classes of mail it offers, but apparently the Post Office is not really aware of what the service cost. It does appear that countries are less willing to receive mail at ports other than airports. Some claim that the low-cost surface mail has a political, good-will impact as local schools receive books and know that someone in the U.S. helped them.

The problem reminds me of Maggie Chon’s work regarding intellectual property and development. Her two recent articles, Intellectual Property from Below: Copyright and Capability for Education (Cardozo Law Review) and Intellectual Property and the Development Divide (U.C. Davis Law Review) examine the link between intellectual property and the how it can have a “substantive equality principle, measuring its welfare-generating outcomes not only by economic growth but also by distributional effects.” The piece about education seems all the more pertinent. Insofar as means to distribute hardcopy texts are diminishing, Prof. Chon’s presentation of “A human development framework [which] allows intellectual property norm-setters to prioritize the development of healthy and literate populations” draws attention to the goals of intellectual property and what the system is trying to do not mention offering a potent argument regarding what the goals are. In addition lest one think the postal system is not about distributing information, at least one author, David Henken, details the origins of the U.S. postal service in his book The Postal Age and points out “From its creation, the U.S. Post Office was committed principally to facilitating the wide circulation of political news, allowing an informed citizenry to live far from the metropolitan centers of government while remaining active in its affairs.”

Image: Mail Service Sea Plane, Wikicommons

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Lessons in Irony: AMC’s Mad Men and the Advertising World

MadMen2.JPGMany have noted that cable networks produce some of the better if not the best shows on television of late. The Sopranos arguably started this trend but other shows such as The Larry Sanders Show and Dream On opened the way for more creative shows. Recently Battlestar Galactica and The Wire (possibly the best show in the past 20 years although it and similar shows owe a small debt to Wiseguy, a network show, as a pioneer of the season-long story arc) have shown what can be done with good writing and a dedication to developing complex characters and story arcs. This past summer one show, Mad Men, joined the list of excellent television fare. (Irony hors d’oeuvre: Apparently the term, Mad Men, was coined by none other than the advertising world).

The series focuses on the world of Madison Avenue advertising in the late 50s. The set and costume details alone justify watching a few episodes, but what sets the show apart is the way it captures the highs of American corporate life after World War II and the seeds of the lows to come. The advertising masters drink, smoke, and screw as they manipulate words and images to sell cigarettes, alcohol, cosmetics, and vibrating weight loss devices that happen to have a sex-related side effect.

Irony first course: When the Mad Men must overcome the first wave of restrictions on cigarette advertising the main character who is more than lost and unsure about the changing world offers, “Advertising is based on one thing happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car, it’s freedom from fear, it’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing it’s O.K. You are O.K.” And one is not sure whether he believes he is O.K. or because needs that reassurance at all times he is a master at his game.

Irony Main Course: Unlike shows on HBO or Showtime, Mad Men is on an advertising supported network. So after a scene where characters develop ad copy designed to hide smoking’s harms, one watches the modern advertising created by the characters’ descendants. Of course with DVRs the ads would be missed but even here the show and AMC have a solution. As one clicks–one, two, three–to zoom past the commercials, a frame in the show’s opening credits’ look and feel appears. One stops thinking the show is back. But no, instead the interruption offers trivia about the advertisement and/or the company behind the advertisement about to air. Brilliant.

The person who watches the show in part because of the historical aspect of seeing how the advertising world grew now stops to learn more about advertising and specifically the advertising of the advertiser supporting the show. The move also captures the popup video and factoid culture of the nineties. Perhaps the strategy is perverse, but one can admire the irony of watching a show about how advertising manipulates an audience and then being manipulated into watching the advertising. Of course one could ignore or avoid the trick but then again if the advertiser gains just a few more eyeballs or manages to have the product stick just a little longer the advertisement has done its job. Besides did you know that Jack Daniels never revelaed the meaning of Old No. 7? “The first Friday’s Restaurant was in New York City”? “L’Oreal has designed and patented over 120 molecules” “Heineken was first sold in the US in: the 1880’s”? Well stop and watch and you will learn that and much more.

There are many other ways to commend this show, but I would have to indulge in spoilers to do so.

cross-posted at Madisonian

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Presidential Candidates: New Hampshire Doing a Good Job

Truman_Sound_car.jpgFor better or for worse New Hampshire has a special place in Presidential politics. I visited New Hampshire over Thanksgiving because some close friends had just moved there. I learned that yes when it is cold and bleak one may be more thankful. I also learned that New Hampshire takes its role quite seriously. My friends noted the number of signs for a whole range of candidates and that as he started to know his neighbors he was impressed with how they saw their job as one of testing and probing candidates. Then with NPR on in the background one morning I noticed that John Edwards was on and thought nothing of it; just another candidate offering sound bites. Yet, as I finished breakfast and chatted with my friends I noticed something odd. Edwards was still on the radio and had expressed some detailed views about energy and other matters. The interview lasted for about an hour. That’s right an hour. I would love such an exchange (which is also the name of the show) on my local radio. Luckily the Internet in all its glory allows one to access these interviews (though not all the candidates have been on the show). Here’s how. Go to New Hampshire public radio’s site for the Primary. On the left side is a navigation bar. The Candidates link offers a page that has links to individual Candidate pages. Click on an individual candidate and news, interviews, speeches, and multimedia are available. This site is great and offers a central spot to dive into the Presidential race and enjoy each candidate’s truthiness.

Image: WikiCommons

Cross-posted at Madisonian

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Global Trends To Mitigate Local Special Interests: India and Antitrust

IndianSchoolofBusiness.jpgIndia has a booming economy and although China gets much of the press regarding new economic power, India is usually mentioned as right behind. Indeed, James Wolfensohn, former head of the world bank, has specifically argued that India and China will return to commanding a large portion of the world’s GDP. Thus when India recently tried to change or update its merger laws, the idea was to improve the law so it would keep pace with the potential for economic growth. The law as intended and the law as passed, however, seem to be quite different. The Deal reports that “The new law requires companies with as little as $126 million of assets in India, even if they are only subsidiary operations, to notify officials there of any acquisition from around the globe. Reporting the merger plans and waiting 210 days before completing the deal would be required even if the target is not located in India and doesn’t do any business there.” As such the ABA and several other attorney groups have contacted the Indian government to urge it to change the law which they see as a anticompetitive.

It is entirely possible that the law was not only went “in a different direction during the give and take in Parliament” but reflects some real concerns any developing country will have about corporate law. Those concerns are not clear in the article and should be taken seriously. But taken at face value this situation offers a view of a potential way to see how government may take advantage of international law or at least how global trade can influence the voices in a debate. In one scenario an administration may bow to local interests and protectionist impulses. It may then engage in international deals or even treaties. When the two conflict, the international treaty may demand that the local laws are harmonized and the previous law could change (There are of course many steps and debates to be had over the conflcits between international and domestic law. Still, intellectual property law offers an example of possibly using international norms to achieve one interest group’s (i.e. the copyright industry’s) objectives). This process is not necessarily laudable as the local interests may be undercut and the democratic aspect of lawmaking comes into question. Nonetheless, it is a way the process may proceed.

Alternatively, it seems that the outside voices may provide more information and perspectives regarding the true ramifications of certain laws. If so, the advantage would be that the government may move slower and have too many compromises based on internal pressures, but international groups indicating how they view the law at least ensures that the government has a better sense of the impact of the law at both the domestic and international levels.

image credit: Indian School of Business from WikiCommons

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The Worst Movie, Tagged In

Gymkataposter.jpgHmm, so I being tagged in to go over the worst movie may be a dubious honor, but I can’t help it so here goes. If one had to pay for the film, Black Dahlia leaps to mind. The comments’ focus on expectations is the key. How do you take Sean Connery, Uma Thurman, and Ralph Finnes and create a situation where driving an ice pick through your eyes seems like a good idea? Have them in the Avengers (1998). One of the all time worst has to be Gymkata. Yes gymnatics meets martial arts as Kurt Thomas, winner of gold medals at the World Gymnastics, works his way to a “stan” country (Parmistan) which will be perfect for a Star Wars site. Luckily this generic Middle Eastern/sub-Continental country tends to have pommel horses in its bars so Thomas Flares fly and bad guys die. Wow. I saw this one as part of a bad movie weekend, an event I recommend. It was sort of a Mystery Science Theater precursor where we rented bad movies and then commented/laughed at the movies.

As for the Star Wars problems, I agree with Dan; Matrix Revolutions is far worse. Lucas at least sticks to some semblance of a story and even has some nice set-ups as far as the political storyline goes (yes, somewhat obvious ones but at least he foreshadows which one writer I know jokes is an assurance of quality). The dialogue pain and the fact that in the first films he created culture and in the later ones just emulated it (think low-grade ESPN-style commentators at the pod race) are depressing given the potential. But consider the absolute nonsense of the Matrix series. The cherry-picked gibberish of mythology and subcultures reeked of “Wow that little thing is cool! Insert it!” So enough for now.