Less is More

Apropos the subject of employers and overweight employees, a reader passed along a report that since 2002 Microsoft employees have lost more than 30 tons – 61,100 pounds actually, from 2,152 people, an average of 28.4 pounds each. The employees took advantage of Microsoft’s weight management benefit program, in which the company pays for 80% of “a comprehensive, clinical weight-loss program” up to a maximum of $6,000 per employee. Since offering the benefit in 2002 Microsoft claims it has realized a one-to-one return on the expense, from lower drug and health care costs. All employees who are obese or clinically overweight can take advantage of the benefit which includes personal training sessions, counseling, support groups, and medical supervision. The report cites Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s 50-pound weight loss in 2002 as an inspiration for the benefit, but does not say whether Ballmer’s famous “monkey dance” is part of the weight-loss regimen. (Thanks, WSHustler)

Money Talking

Scarily prolific Ann Althouse wrote a post titled Bloggers who take money from politicians, based on a linked New York Times article. She also linked to an accompanying chart “showing who got money, how much they got, and the embarrassing ass-kissing quotes they dished up.” When politicians buy favorable coverage from a newspaper or on television it’s called an ad and labeled as such. When they buy it from a blogger who doesn’t disclose the payment (and who the pol hires after the election) it hides under the umbrella of blog triumphalism which sees political blogs as the wooden stake to the heart of mainstream media. I do not doubt that this article and chart touch the tip of the iceberg, and that such undisclosed conflicts of interest will grow as we run up to the 2008 election.

Information Wants to Be Free, Unless it Doesn’t

To Wikipedia woo-hoo-ers the collaborative Internet encyclopedia embodies the wisdom of crowds and the power of peer production. Acculturated as I have become today to the possibility of my personal biases, I’ll confess that I dissed Jimmy Wales’ baby in Wiki-Wacky, a post about the Wikipedia-founder’s boast that his open-source project is superior to Encyclopedia Britannica. With that on the table, consider the contrasts between Wikipedia’s English-language and Chinese-language treatments of Mao Zedong, as reported last Friday in The New York Times. The English-language account states that Mao was “a mass murderer . . . accountable for the deaths of tens of millions of innocent Chinese.” The Chinese-language account credit Mao’s pivotal role in the creation of modern China without mentioning the human cost of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and other less-than-saintly aspects of his long rule. According to The Times, “the Chinese version diverges so significantly from its English counterpart that it sometimes reads as if it were approved by the censors themselves.” These significant differences arise from the “powerful influence of Chinese education, which often provides a neatly sanitized national perspective on turbulent events” in China’s past, and by China’s powerful state-imposed censorship on news media and access-restrictions on non-Chinese web sites.

China’s experience challenges old-Internet cyber-utopianism. The Chinese government continues to mate two strange bedfellows: effective network control of information it deems unsuitable and sufficient network freedom for powerful economic growth. In the words of Jack Goldsmith & Tim Wu’s Who Controls the Internet, “the Chinese Internet is becoming less and less like its Western counterparts – it is pulling away from the rest of the world.” (1) One might argue that information subversive to Chinese control will eventually filter through the Internet’s permeable membrane but, as Goldsmith and Wu also point out, China reinforces its political and network control with ever-stronger market control. Companies that do business in China must dance to China’s tune for, as Elvis said, 1.3 billion Chinese wallets can’t be wrong. Wikipedia’s competing versions of English and Chinese crowd-wisdom reflect that governmental control can trump open-source informational democracy.

Howard W. French, Who did What in China’s Past? Look It Up, or Maybe Not, The New York Times, 1-Dec-06; Jack Goldsmith & Tim Wu, Who Controls the Internet Illusions of a Borderless World, Oxford University Press, 2006 p. 89

Smoking Ban, Weight Tax, and Bias

Two news items bring to mind themes addressed in At-Will At Work, a recent post about Scotts Co.’s termination of an employee for smoking. First, the global smoking zone continues to shrink. Germany announced last Friday that it intends to ban smoking in restaurants, discos, schools, and public buildings. The ban would not affect smoking in pubs, bars, or beer tents unlike laws more-restrictive anti-smoking laws enacted recently by Britain, France, Ireland, and Italy. Good news for those who like breathing cleaner air, although I’m puzzled by one policy choice: why ban smoking in discos and allow it in bars?

The second is prompted by comments to the cited post that also arose in class discussion, namely that employers’ could target obesity using the same rationales that support terminations for non-smoking. In an article titled Extra Weight, Higher Costs The New York Times reported on Saturday that “being fact costs money – tens of thousands of dollars over a lifetime.” Factors imposing a “weight tax,” if you will, on obese people include higher life insurance premiums and medical expenses, lower incomes, and less accumulation of wealth. In discussing weight discrimination in employment the article states: “[S]ome employers do not want to be burdened with higher health insurance costs. Other times it is a matter of appearance or a belief that ‘people of size’ . . . are lazy, weak-willed or considered too unattractive to interact with customers.” The article notes that Michigan – ironically the home of Weyco, a company mentioned in At-Will At Work for its refusal to employ employees who smoke – is the only state that outlaws weight discrimination. (The connection between smoking cessation and weight gain means there is a wise-ass remark to be mined from these facts. I’ll leave the spade work to others.)

The sidebar to the online version of second article contains a link to Implicit Association Test, a Harvard-based demonstration site for “a method the demonstrates the conscious-unconscious divergences” in our beliefs. Before taking one of the tests the user must click on on the following warning: “I am aware of the possibility of encountering interpretations of my IAT test performance with which I may not agree. Knowing this, I wish to proceed.” Thinking “I can get my carefully-constructed self image dismantled and thrown back in my face. How fun!” I clicked through to the test menu. It offers tests for unconscious reactions on race, religion, disability, gender and science, sexuality, weapons, and other matters. I took the Weight (‘Fat – Thin’) Implicit Association Test. The test itself is somewhat maddening. After responding to a brief questionnaire one sits at the keyboard and makes binary choices by pressing the e or i keys in response to words and images flashed on the screen. First come a series of faces which one classifies as “fat” or “thin.” Next come a series of words which one classifies as “good” (joy, laughter) or “bad” (evil, agony). The words and images are then mixed in various ways that require one to consider which key to press, e.g. for some sequences one must press i for “bad” words and “thin” faces, for another one must press i for “”good” words and “thin” faces. Through the miracle of psychological testing the results are calibrated and the verdict rendered: you are biased, or not, based on weight. The entire test takes about ten minutes, if you care to run the risk of self-knowledge.

By the way, the test told me I do not make negative associations based on weight. Whether that is true or a consequence of my keen self-awareness while taking the test will require further testing to determine.

Mark Landler, Germany to Restrict Smoking, Joining Other Nations in Europe, The New York Times, 3-Dec-06; Damon Darlin, Extra Weight, Higher Costs, New York Times, 2-Dec-06

Do Laptops Impede Classroom Learning?

I just posted a comment on a discussion thread titled Laptops in the Classroom on the blog of law professor Michael Dorf. Dorf’s post discusses his ban this semester on the use of laptops in his first-year civil procedure course, a ban inspired in part by the article Taking Notes Without a Computer: How Laptops Distract from Classroom Learning by Sherry Colb posted on FindLaw. In large part the anti-laptop stance is an anti-surfing-the-web-during-class-discussion stance, but not entirely. Colb states “[w]hen you take notes by hand, you are forced to digest what has been said and write down only a fraction of it. You are forced, in other words, to think while the class is in progress.” Dorf states “[g]enerations of students (including mine) succeeded in law school without laptop computers, and anecdotal evidence suggests that they were better able to give their undivided attention to class.”

Colb’s statement assumes that laptop users take notes in a qualitatively different way than those who take handwritten notes, that they transcribe verbatim like speech-recognition drones. Dorf posits written notes as a superior vehicle for holding one’s attention. My personal anecdotal experience supports neither view — I am both eminently distractable armed only with pen and paper and a thoughtful note-taker on a laptop. I am curious what others think.

Justices Vote For Bong Hits

In January 2002, when the Olympic torch passed through Juneau, Alaska on its way to the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, high school student Joseph Frederick and friends displayed a banner with these words: “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.” School Principal Deborah Morse told the students to take down the banner; all but Frederick complied, earning him a ten-day suspension–and, almost five years later, an invitation to the U.S. Supreme Court. Frederick sued the Principal in federal district court, claiming that the suspension violated his First Amendment rights. The District Court in Juneau dismissed the case and Frederick appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Ninth Circuit reversed, held that the suspension violated Frederick’s First Amendment rights, and held that Principal Morse was liable for damages in an amount to be determined by the district court. Yesterday four Justices agreed to hear Morse’s appeal. My vote for most memorable headline on this story goes to The Volokh Conspiracy, which reported 4 VOTES 4 BONG HITS 4 JESUS.

Freeman to release new film online

In yesterday’s Internet law class, culminating a month of readings and discussion on copyright law and digital technology, we discussed whether and how the entertainment industries might change their business models to move beyond their largely defensive, enforcement-centric response to file sharing. Today I saw a report that Clickstar, Morgan Freeman’s production company, will release his new film “10 items or Less” on the Internet on December 15, two weeks after its theatrical release today. The film, about an actor (played by Freeman) spending a day with a grocery checkout clerk to prepare for a role in an indie film, will not play in multiplexes or large commercial theaters, a factor that may have contributed to Freeman’s decision to release it online. Of his residence in Mississippi Freeman said “[w]here I live, in my town, there’s no movie house . . . There are many, many, many, many people who don’t have access.” The film’s download will be protected by digital rights management coding of a type not described in the article.

Morgan Freeman to release new film online two weeks after theater opening, SiliconValley.com, 30-Nov-06