Oil prices and the Theory of Punctuated Equilibrium

This morning I read the warning from CBS news that gas prices are likely to climb due to hurricane Sandy. CBS hinges this claim on the refineries of the east coast shutting down and tankers being unable to dock.

Here is a link to the ABC article: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505263_162-57540906/hurricane-sandy-could-send-gas-prices-up/

The reason I question this is because of the theory of Punctuated Equilibrium. Punctuated Equilibrium is (cocktail party definition) where something stays constant until a force comes along to drastically change the course of the constant. Think of the enactment of the Patriot Act after 9/11 or gas prices after Hurricane Katrina.

I can see someone arguing that oil prices have been in flux with the combination of current high world demand and the economic downturn the world is experiencing for the last 7 years or so. I argue that oil companies use any opportunity available to raise prices.

It seems funny to me that with the storm incapacitating a large majority of the eastern coast, thus lowering usage, the country’s overall prices might rise due to a lack of production in the east coast area.

A quick explanation of Punctuated Equilibrium: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punctuated_equilibrium_in_social_theory

While it makes sense that it should be more expensive to get gas in an area where the electricity is out and the pumps are unable to pump, that should have no effect on the rest of us and is only a factor while the electricity is off and the refineries are down. We must keep in mind that they were not without oil products prior to the storm and the oil products that are there are not spoiled. At most, they may see a brief increase while the tankers find their way to the docks or the delivery trucks find their way to the stations.

I offer that gas prices are regional and this should not disturb the rest of the country.


Law v. Science: The Continuing Misuse of Litigation Against Scientists

A familiar tactic known to legal academics, students, and practitioners alike is the harassment suit. Although it violates a lawyer’s ethical duties, it is common in many circumstances to file suit without an intention to do anything more than silence or discredit an opponent. Such behavior is sadly commonplace. It now threatens academics with little or no connection to the law. Sometimes, however, the scientists fight back.

Michael Mann is a prominent climate scientist and professor at Penn State. Mann was one of the first scientists to chart historical variations in global temperature in the early 1990s. As a result, organizations that do not agree with the prevailing scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change have regularly targeted him. He has been the subject of multiple lawsuits, including one seeking many of Mann’s emails by the conservative Attorney General of Virginia, which the Supreme Court of Virginia rejected because the the AG was unable to identify the reason for seeking the documents.

Mann has now filed a libel suit against the conservative National Review. The National Review, repeating comments from an online blog, grouped Mann together with convicted child-molester Jerry Sandusky because of the “fraud” that they allege underlies his climate data. As shocking as this comparison is, perhaps more shocking is the use and abuse of the legal system in the dispute. After Mann demanded that the journal remove the peace, The National Review threatened to use discovery to uncover evidence of his alleged fraud.  Mann then filed suit against the online journal.

The legal system is not intended to resolve disputes about scientific evidence. The use of the discovery process to engage in a war of words has a tenuous connection to the courts at best. Potential free speech and ethical issues abound. None of them need be resolved by the courts—they should be resolved with reasoned debate and a semblance of professionalism. The case is actually a proxy war over the issue of climate change, something that is generally accepted as a fact in the scientific community. The courts should not allow themselves to be dragged needlessly into such debates. Use of litigation for ends other than the redress of legal wrongs is already a serious problem impacting the credibility of the legal profession. The courts should tread carefully to avoid entertaining conflicts on well-settled scientific principles.

Traveling Hair

A few days ago I happened to tune to NPR’s Morning Edition where they were discussing a scientific process for tracking human movement through hair analysis. You may have heard that by analyzing a strand of hair, a lab may determine what drugs, if any, a person may have taken. Typically, this is used for drug screening new employees. Well, scientists discovered that they can also tell where a hair is from geographically because hair also stores elements found in water.

As it turns out, all water is not the same. Drinking water in California has different trace elements than water from say Oklahoma. So, how does this pertain to the law? Dead bodies.

Imagine a body found dumped in a remote location with no other identifying markers. The police may be able to gather finger prints and dental records, but they have nothing to compare them to.  Add that there is no missing persons report matching the person found. Where do they go from there? Up until now, those factors may place that body in a cold case.

Now with this hair analysis, scientists can narrow down the area where the person lived by looking at what water elements are stored in the hair. So, a body found in Oklahoma with hair indicating the person primarily drank water from Las Vegas may steer police to search the Las Vegas area for missing persons reports or dental records.

So far, this technique is helping to identify unidentified bodies and remains found in mass graves.

A podcast is available on NPR if you wish to learn more about this amazing discovery.


Social Media at Work

When you join a company you may be accustomed to signing a non-disclosure and non-compete. More companies are now also implementing social media policies that must be acknowledged by employees. As it is, general acceptable social practices for how we are to communicate via the various social media channels are still developing. New work guidelines often speak to how an employee is to handle themselves online, but sometimes these even discuss what is acceptable practice even if the employee is off work and in the privacy of their own home.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has issued three reports in which this group has evaluated the legality of provisions in social media policies of various employers which have had adverse actions towards employees for violations of company policy. Per the NLRB, “Provisions are found to be unlawful when they interfere with the rights of employees under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), such as the right to discuss wages and working conditions with coworkers.”

In September, the NLRB issued its first decision in such a case in Costco Wholesale Corp. and United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 371. The decision against Costco found that several parts of the company’s social media policy violated the NLRA for being overbroad. For instance “unauthorized posting, distribution, removal or alteration of any material on  Company property” was found to be unlawful because it “explicitly prohibits protected activity such as posting or distribution of any material on company property.”

Another area of the policy outlines that ” [e]very employee is responsible for ensuring that all information relating to Costco, its members, suppliers, employees, and operations is secure, kept in confidence, and not disseminated or misused.” The purpose of this provision being to protect the customer/supplier information to which employees have access. However, again, the NLRB found that the policy was overbroad “since it does not distinguish between information obtained in the normal course of work or information obtained from Respondent’s files or even between information obtained by employees from contact with or discussions with other employees.”

While the NLRB is working to help employers gain a better understanding of what language is and is not considered acceptable practice, there is still much confusion as to what is overbroad. The intent behind many of the policies which the NLRB has determined need changes has been to protect privacy. This may be for the customer or for the company itself. There is a fine line between protecting privacy versus violating the protections given to employees.

Painful Choices

On October 24, Texas put Bobby Hines to death.  He was the thirty-third prisoner to be executed in the United States in 2012.  Eleven more are scheduled this year.  In 2011, thirteen states executed forty-three prisoners.  (Texas provided 32% of the 2012 executions and 30% of those in 2011, but I digress.)  All of these executions were performed by lethal injection, most using a three-drug cocktail: first a general anesthetic to put the prisoner to sleep, then a muscle relaxant to stop breathing, and finally a drug to stop the heart.  The process is designed to cause little or no pain while ending what the state has determined to be a life unworthy of life.  It’s all very humane.

Natural death is another matter.  Patients dying of terminal disease may spend days, weeks, or months in extreme agony.  While their medical attendants may provide palliative treatment to reduce pain, these treatments do not necessarily eliminate discomfort.  Further, these patients may suffer mental anguish or psychological trauma if they are aware of the goings-on around them but are unable to communicate.  Many such patients, especially those with slowly progressing diseases, are able to plan how they will receive this care as they reach the end of their lives.  Yet only three states–Oregon, Washington, and Montana–currently permit terminally ill patients to enlist the assistance of a doctor–or anyone else for that matter–in planning their own death.  Oregon and Washington permit physician-assisted suicide; the Montana Supreme Court has ruled that a physician may not be prosecuted for prescribing lethal drugs.  Massachusetts may join Oregon and Washington next month, pending the outcome of a ballot initiative.  (Interestingly, the three states that currently permit physicians to assist in suicide all have capital murder statutes, though Oregon has not performed an execution since 1997.)

This is curious.  We go to great lengths to ensure that those convicted of capital crimes, ostensibly the worst of the worst of humanity, are comfortable and pain-free even as we kill them.  But, in the name of protecting human life, we do not allow innocent people, who may be suffering unbearably, who may have endured excruciating psychological pain knowing the physical pain was coming, to plan to die in similar comfort.  The logic is lost on me.

Advances in medicine have resulted in doctors’ ability to fairly accurately determine when life is nearing an end.  The modes of progression of many terminal illnesses are well known.  Those about to undergo excruciating deaths from disease are fully aware of the pain that is coming and the death that will result.  Yet most states require these terminal patients to suffer as they die.  They should have options.  The circumstances should be extremely limited, and safeguards against abuse should be robust.  Many doctors would have ethical qualms about actively ending a life; these should be respected.  But when a willing doctor is available and a patient is truly suffering, shouldn’t the dying patient be allowed to die as he wishes?  If I lived in Massachusetts, I would vote yes.

Here are a couple of related pieces that I came across over the past week:

(Note:  data on execution numbers was from the Death Penalty Information Center, deathpenaltyinfo.org; I did not attempt to verify the numbers from a second source.)

Effects of Supportive Parenting

According to a recent New York Times article, those who are licked as a child will score an A+ in college Biology!  Well, only if you read the first few paragraphs and skip everything else except for the last sentence.  The article sparked my interest because of a previous class discussion that led to a short debate regarding determinism vs. free will.  Regardless of what side of the debate a person chooses, their beliefs will have an impact on how the legal system is viewed and how it can and should be used.

The article by Nicholas Kristof entitled “Cuddle Your Kid” reported on a study that explained that lab rats that had been licked more as babies were able to find their way through a maze more quickly.  Further, the author equated this with an University of Minnesota research study that found that receiving supportive parenting early in life was just as good an indicator of high school graduation as I.Q.  This was not the most interesting idea presented in the article, however.  The author also wrote of a young girl who started high school with a C average, was arrested, and scored in the bottom one percentile on the ACT.   But after a support group began investing in and nurturing the young girl, she received A’s her senior year and later went on to score an A+ in college biology.  The idea is tha,t although a lack of nurturing and support in infancy might damage the prefrontal cortex and lead to poor achievement, the damage could potentially be undone if that child receives support in another manner.

The article certainly does not settle the debate score from class but the idea could have far reaching implications in the legal system from public policy to sentencing guidelines in criminal cases.  The author of the article directly calls out both Romney and Obama and highlights the effects of investing in parenting education for at-risk moms – those in environments known to lack supportive parenting practices.  Additionally, there may be more hope of reform for those incarcerated at younger ages simply by providing mentors or other means of support.

The article may be found here.