9/29/2010

Journalistic-ish view from the 3rd floor

Looking out over the 1200 block of South Second Street in Louisville, Kentucky, I file this report.

Traffic is flowing smoothly, but way too fast. The sun is shining and the weather is cool. No problems.

End report.

9/28/2010

Kill the lawyers

Many before me have written about the possibility of eliminating lawyers. It was Shakespeare who wrote in Henry VI, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."

It's an impractical goal in an age of specialization, and in which the lawyers have insinuated themselves into every aspect of modern life. The necessity of lawyers is bonded to our national ideals, as a nation of laws and not of men; or a nation of laws and not of church authority. Lawyers are indispensable artifacts of the way we live and what we value. Looking on the bright side, it is lawyers and the judicial system which allows us to resolve disputes without bloodshed. Not like the old days.

But, giving lawyers their due does not require total capitulation. There are, in fact, many lawyers who are interested in noting more than to line their own pockets at anybody's expense. That is just a fact, and it is not intended as an indictment of all honest hard-working lawyers. But, the ancient question, "How many lawyers does it take to skin a client?" has always been answered, "Two. One of whom is supposedly working for the client."

Lawyers are expensive, and paying for lawyers is a game for the affluent. The less affluent suffer, or do without. Win or lose, it is always expensive in one way or another.

Just as you don't need a doctor for every little cut or scrape, you don't actually need a lawyer for every trifling legal matter. This is assuming you can tell the difference between when you do need a lawyer and when you do not, but there is an inherent danger in any system that is structured so that defending one's own vital interests is dependent upon pricey outside assistance.

The legal self-help movement has a long history, going back at least to 1845, when Thomas Wooler published his Every Man His Own Attorney. Wooler wrote,
"When attorneys are employed, they must be paid; and their charges are not always regulated either by their abilities, or their service to a client, but by their own desire to make as much as they can. This evil can only be remedied by making their clients well informed on common subjects, and able to see what course they are taking in matters of more intricacy."
The lawyer's Code of Professional Responsibility and the Model Rules of Professional Conduct reflect an idealistic goal of the profession pursuing legal education of the public, but the extent of what education that actually happens does not go beyond pointing out the need to hire an attorney. The Canadian legal system recognizes that Lawyers "share responsibility for ensuring that broader society has a knowledge and understanding of the law and an appreciation of the values advanced by the rule of law." Robert Bell & Caroline Abela
"The question of whether lawyers have an ethical duty to perform public service--and, in particular, whether the obligation requires that a percentage of time be devoted to providing free legal services to the poor has a disjointed and uneven history. Leaders of the bar, espousing various and often conflicting views of morality, compassion, noblesse oblige, and individual autonomy, have contributed to this state of affairs, creating a complicated web of vague ideals that today jeopardizes the legal profession's sense of its own public obligations. On the one hand, the legal profession remains dedicated to the traditional view that public service is a matter of personal charity, to be performed at the discretion of the individual attorney. And yet, despite the prevalence of this dominant notion, an undercurrent of thought rejects the relativistic approach to public service, arguing instead that lawyers have a professional responsibility to help assure that legal services are available to all, including those who cannot afford to purchase representation on the open market. The Code of Professional Responsibility and the Model Rules of Professional Conduct reflect both notions of public service, sending mixed signals to members of the bar as to whether their professional duties include the obligation to render free legal services to those in need." - The lawyer's duty of public service: More than charity? - 96 W. Va. L. Rev. 367, Winter, 1993/1994

9/23/2010

A note to novice bloggers

Seth Godin has advocated writing blog entries every single day as a means of confronting and overcoming inner resistance, at least in a small way. To all outward appearances, this is what Godin himself has done for the past few years. There was a time before that when he skipped a day or two nearly every week.

It is a useful exercise, but there comes a point when the resistance shifts from opposing doing it every day to opposition to skipping a day. This is reminiscent of fiction writer Stephen King following his encounter with an automobile as a pedestrian a few years back. While laid up in the hospital in traction and on pain killers, he insisted on keeping up his usual habit of writing every day. This is what successful writers do. They write every day, and by any measure Stephen King is a successful writer.

But Stephen King's daily writing had a focus. He was writing horror stories.

With blogging it is possible to write about something every day and have no continuity from one blog post to the next, and to have no overall focus. Seth Godin generally writes within a definite range of business and marketing topics, with recurring themes.

When writing blog posts just for the sake of writing blog posts, there is a risk of writing about the wild hare du jour, which is continually shifting. Whatever comes to mind or is triggered by the big news story of the day, that is what gets blogged. Writing every day for the sake of discipline is good, writing every day to improve your writing skills is also good. Even better is limiting your writing to a semi-focused topic.

A useful practice is to go back after a few months of blog posting and read what you have written. Do the daily accretions add up to anything? Then comes the time to face the possibility of embracing a purpose greater than overcoming old self-defeating habits.

9/16/2010

The dirty secret of organic foods

This is a secret I've kept for over ten years now, but not because it's much of a secret or because I want to keep it. It is a bit of information that is difficult to convey with an appropriate sense of importance. Maybe someone else will pick up the ball and run with it, and forgive me my lack of evangelical zeal.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has generated and accumulated data on the nutritional composition of grains and produce since well before WWII, and the data is all publicly available. If you compare the nutritional contents of various farm products from 1950, you will notice the major vitamins and minerals were present at about twice the concentration as they were for similar food items in the year 2000.

There's not much to argue about with this observation. Look a the data and you can easily see for yourself that the nutritional composition of commercially grown food is one-half now compared to what it was fifty years ago.

My explanation for this is simple, and it may even be accurate. Traditional farming practices were quickly abandoned after World War II when cheap nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK) fertilizers became available due to surplus chemical factory capacity after the national need to produce high explosives abated. Industry switched from making chemicals for bombs to making chemicals for fertilizers.

Although NPK fertilizers are very good for growing plants, they do nothing to replenish other chemical and elemental components of soil that are very good for human health. Every growing season the crops sucked iron, calcium, chromium, selenium, and magnesium out of the soil, and no thought was given to replacing these and other minerals.

Elemental minerals, however, are the essential building blocks for the more complex vitamin compounds. In the right conditional and with the right minerals present in the soil, plants produce an abundance of chemical compounds that are good for people to eat, but don't seem to be necessary for the plant's own survival. If the basic elements needed for producing a certain vitamin are lacking in the soil, the plant simply does not produce as much of that vitamin.

The plant itself does not seem to suffer from these mineral shortages.

There seems to be some vague sense which nags us that there's something not quite right about the food supply, when we stop long enough to think about it. The organic food movement is a symptom of this foreboding, but I think they threw out the baby with the bathwater when "organic" is defined to exclude NPK fertilizers.

Doing that makes organic foods much more expensive without making it more safe or more nutritious. Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are about as natural as it gets.