Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Hobby Lobby, the Divine Right of Sperm, and Religion v. Religion (Hobby Lobby 02)

If I understand it correctly, some human persons hold a religious belief that they must never do anything, directly or indirectly, that could interfere with any sperm's ability to produce a human being.  Let's call that a belief in the Divine Right of Sperm*.

This belief is apparently the one held by the human persons doing business as Hobby Lobby. I mention human persons because the Supreme Court has not yet stated that corporate persons have the ability to hold religious beliefs, or, in the language of the First Amendment, to exercise any religion.  But after Citizens United, maybe they will do that soon.

Some of Hobby Lobby's employees might have a religious belief that they should not harm other human beings.  Consider, then, a mother of five whose spouse is too ill to have a paying job.  Or a childless husband and wife who are the sole support of their parents and siblings. These people might, as a matter of their religious beliefs, use contraception so as not to jeopardize the lives of those dependent on them.  Now we have religion v. religion.  What in the Constitution says that the employer's religion wins?

Maybe employers who believe in the Divine Right of Sperm should be allowed to refuse to hire women at all.  Otherwise, the employers would be complicit in violating some sperms' rights from time to time.  Or should these employers be free to make sure that any female jobseeker is menopausal, celibate or gay?  And what about married women who swear they rely on the rhythm method?  God made women fertile at certain times of the month.  The divine right of sperm is in conflict with the rhythm method.

Can these employers also refuse to hire men who have had a vasectomy?  Can it refuse to hire men who will not promise to sign an oath never to use condoms?

But wait, you say.  Hobby Lobby does not care how the employees spend their wages.  Hobby Lobby objects that the Affordable Health Care forces the business to pay for contraception using the business's MONEY, thus leaving less money for the human owners with the religious beliefs.   Well, I guess that means Hobby Lobby accepts some limits to both the Divine Right of Sperm and to the human owners' willingness to "follow the money" to protect that right.

I admit that government forces businesses to use money in ways that might violate the human owners' religious beliefs besides the one about contraception. That is because it is a government of ALL the people.  For example, a business violates the law if it discriminates on the basis of religion. That means it must occasionally use its MONEY to pay wages to employees whose religious beliefs differ from those of the business's owners.  Does the First Amendment religion's clause trump all nondiscrimination laws?  Not so far.

I say the "religion clause" to remind myself of the words of the First Amendment."Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...."  That is not the same as "Congress shall guarantee every human person total freedom regarding religion."  The Constitution does not permit one human being's religious beliefs to trump another's and it does not permit one human being's religious beliefs to trump other rights that other human beings have under our laws.


* The Divine Right of Sperm:  I find only one hit for this phrase today:  here.  It concerns gender discrimination: the sole right of bearers of a Y chromosome to be bureaucrats in Europe.  I am talking about the right of the little wiggly things themselves, not of the human being carrying them around.

typo corr/minor rev 1/10/14 rjm

Employers' Religious Beliefs - What about Death to Infidels? (Hobby Lobby 01)

The Hobby Lobby case presents an interesting question.  Suppose an employer's religion declares death to infidels.  Can the employer refuse to pay for ALL medical insurance for non-believers?  After all, if those workers become hurt or ill yet still refuse to embrace the employer's religion, letting them die is what the religion dictates.

Citizens United and Hobby Lobby (Con Law - Nov 2013)

(Today I wanted to write about Hobby Lobby, see next posts, but realized that I should first post what I have been saying about Citizens United ever since that case was decided.  I had written briefly at the time of the oral argument, but not since.)

Unlike natural persons (that is, human beings), corporate persons can neither vote in elections nor go to jail.  Corporate persons also lack vocal chords and body parts that can hold pens, tap keyboards or touch touchscreens.  But because 'money talks,' corporations can speak.  Moneytalk has been granted First Amendment protection for a long time.  What was new about Citizens United?

In Citizens United, the Supreme Court granted corporate persons the right to speak
   - about elections,
   - where the penalty for violating the law is going to jail.
Weird, eh?

Citizens United also ensured that the human persons hiding behind that corporate veil of a corporate person have the right to speak anonymously.  That is a right not actually conferred by the First Amendment.  It seems doubtful that the Founders intended it.  After all, the classic example of free speech is Hyde Park Corner.  As far as I know, the right to stand on a soapbox never included the right to put a bag over your head and disguise your voice.  In the late18th century, what were the chances that nobody would recognize you when you spoke out in the town square -- and that you'd actually want to remain anonymous?  Not so good, I would guess, and becoming worse with each successive rant.
Also:  anonymous speakers who could maintain that anonymity would not need the First Amendment to keep the government from throwing them in jail or beheading them as long as they could run fast.

If we are going to talk about the First Amendment, we should look at the words. FYI regarding Hobby Lobby: The phrase 'freedom of religion' does not appear.

1.  Block Format:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
2.  Reformatted for ease of reading, to show what ideas are parallel and to see the overall structure of the sentence.  There are three verbs (-ing words). The first two concern religion:  respecting and prohibiting.  The third -- abridging -- concerns two freedoms -- speech and press -- and two rights -- to assemble and to petition.

Congress shall make no law
     - respecting an establishment of religion,
     - prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
     - abridging
        -- the freedom
             --- of speech,
             --- of the press;
        -- the right of the people
             --- peaceably to assemble,
             --- to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

typos corr 1/10/14

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Gender Stereotyping in Plays and Movies: Advice for Playwrights 01

"Gender Stereotyping in Plays and Movies" is my first post in a new series on Advice for Playwrights (and Writers of Movies, TV, Video, Etc.)

I see many new plays, full length and 10 minute and in between.  Occasionally I have the privilege of acting in them.  Time and again what strikes me is that the playwrights, whether male or female, lose the opportunity to write more interesting plays because they unconsciously stereotype by gender. (Yes, also be race, ethnicity, height, age, sexual orientation, etc., but those choices are specified less often by the writer and more often by the casting director.)

The characters who are active, who have the power, who cause the events that are central to the plot and who change as the plot unfolds, are almost always MALE. The people who are passive, react rather than, dare I say, pro-act, the dupes, the losers and the characters we could cut from the script and just learn about from the ones who actually matter if we wanted to hire fewer actors, are almost always FEMALE.

I have been thinking this for quite a while. I wrote about it in connection with the movie UP and Pixar's apparent preference for a female-free world.  (Silicon Valley - Boys' Club is not limited to the South Bay?)  I have also written about it to Theatreworks - the organization that produced the play that prompts this post - especially when they solicit audience comments for their New Works series.  Theatreworks and Pixar have this in common:  they are not ready to listen yet.

I was motivated to write today because last night I saw Theatreworks' production of Kenneth Lin's Warrior Class. I found it to be mostly a rather wordy and dull affair, with maybe 20 minutes worth watching out of the 100-minute evening in the theater. (The acting, directing, sets, lighting and the costumes for the men were all very good, but those things seem easier to do well than playwriting.  Or anyway, I encounter not-so-good scripts much more often than not-so-good the other things.)

What sprung to my attention was that Lin could have alleviated the dullness, and found inspiration to make the plot more interesting, if only he had had the imagination or simply the raised consciousness to avoid gender stereotyping.

Note: The play has another defect that I find common among new plays: it is essentially a radio play. In most of the scenes, the characters sit at a table in a kitchen or restaurant and talk. The radio-play-problem may be the subject of Advice for Playwrights 02. It is one area where non-stage scripts have an advantage over stage ones, by the way, so perhaps it is not surprising that the TV generation exercises so little restraint in writing radio plays for the stage.

Warrior Class has just three characters:  a politician, a party boss and a romantic attachment from the politician's college years.  Did you guess that the first two are male and the third female?  How much more interesting the play would have been if the politician and the party fixer were female, and the former love were male.

The politician is Chinese and religious.  Neither rules out being female.
As to the religiousness, another post in this series may be about giving characters in a play traits to telegraph whether we should like them or not, that is if we share the playwright's political view.  I find this annoying because after the telegraphy there is nothing more, no fleshing out of that trait.  I feel manipulated, whether or not my politics and the playwright's are the same, as well as cheated.  This kind of lazy shorthand button-pushing means that the playwright did not think very hard.  Suffice it to say that Lin tells us about the religiousness:  he has the politician get upset at the use of the expletive Jesus but not 4 letter words -- I guess we are being told he is a hypocrite as well -- but fails utterly to give a word picture of the religiousness.  The protagonist's stopping in a church on the way home after a bad day didn't really do it; it was another cliche without any real detail.  Were we to think it was further evidence of hypocrisy?  I thought it was further evidence of insufficient self-editing by the writer.

Granted, Mr. Lin would not be able to identify with a Chinese FEMALE politician, but complete identification with the central character is not always necessary.  Lin might have used his identification powers on the romantic attachment -- the dupe here, the victim -- with the result that the play would have become more thought-provoking.

The romantic attachment is a victim because we learn (SPOILER ALERT) that the politician, back in college, was a stalker.  Women can be stalkers, too, and men even fear for their lives from female stalkers.  It is not the usual picture of stalking, but that's why it would have given this play some more snap, and maybe inspired Lin to think more and deeper about his characters and their problems.

Even the party boss could be a woman.  I bet if Lin did some research he would find that there are examples in the real world of women who vet political candidates, do some influence pedaling, know everyone on every state legislative committee, etc.

The other details -- that the victim wants to get a job for her husband not herself, that her motivation is that the husband is having an affair, that the politician's wife has just had a miscarriage after in vitro -- all could work with the genders switched.  OK, having the politician herself miscarry might be hard to work into the timetable, but maybe it would reveal even more about the politician than when he's a he and the miscarrier is his neglected wife.  Or the politician and her husband could have an adoption or surrogate mother deal fall through.  See: once you start thinking beyond the stereotypes, more original ideas may follow.
As I said to Pixar, I will say to playwrights like Mr. Lin:  Write your play the way you usually do, with the active parts for men and the passive parts for women.  Then go back and switch the males with the females.  Now rewrite the play using the non-cliche gender assignments.  If you don't end up with a better play, well, send me both versions, and I'll see if I agree with you.  And maybe give you some more pointers.  For free, at least the first time.  (And if you do end up with a better play, I'd really like to see a comment below that says "It worked! She's right!")

minor rev 10/31/13, typo corr 11/6/13

Monday, October 28, 2013

Tenting and Tempurpedic (PhD Ideas 03)


We were tented last week, Wednesday to Friday. More about that later perhaps, but right now I'd like to suggest a PhD idea.  Or maybe it is an area for EPA investigation.

The question is about the warning gas, chloropicrin, used in fumigations along with the fumigant gas (sulfuryl fluoride, known as Vikane ®).  Does chloropicrin stay in Tempurpedic foam mattresses, and possibly other household foams and fillers, long past when any airborne gas has dissipated?  And if it does, does Vikane as well?

Why I wonder:  We sleep on a Tempurpedic mattress.  Friday night and  Saturday morning, whenever I was in bed and awake, my eyes stung and teared up.  When I got up I noticed I had a raspy throat and a funny (bitter?) taste in my mouth.  I slept all right but was not comfortable being awake in bed.

Chloropicrin effects:  My husband and I returned to our house two hours after the fumigators had posted the sign permitting re-entry so that we could open all our windows and let the house air out some more.  Very soon our eyes began to sting. We left as soon as we could and did not come back for about three hours. We were surprised about the eye discomfort because we knew that Vikane, the fumigant, is not supposed to be detectable by people at all (hence its enormous dangerousness). I looked again at the re-entry notice and saw the reference to a "warning gas: chloropicrin." Ah, I thought, that's what is bothering us.

The question is whether gases lodge in foams such as Tempurpedic mattresses and other porous materials (regular mattresses, comforters, etc.) and do not dissipate at the same rate they do from the air or from hard surfaces like wood and metal or from single-layer textiles like table cloths and clothing.

Prior Research?  I would have thought there would be some investigation of this by EPA and Dow Chemical (manufacturers of Vikane, but they probably sell it in a package with the off-patent "staple article of commerce" chloropicrin).  I searched the internet for anything with both words, chloropicrin and tempurpedic. I didn't find anything directly relevant so I suspect that there are no specific studies yet.
10/30/13:   I found this 2008 EPA document about chloropicrin. The words "foam" and "mattress" do not appear in it.  The section on residential structures  says: "The Agency reviewed monitoring studies completed by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) of the California EnvironmentalProtection Agency. These studies directly monitored chloropicrin.  The results of these studies are below the Agency's level of concern for bystanders."  I am not worried about the level of chloropicrin in the ambient air inside the house.  The question is whether within a few inches of the surface of a mattress, particularly one made of Tempurpedic or other foam, the level of chloropicrin is much higher, and remains much higher, for several days after the house on average is safe.
What I did find that grabbed my attention was a site with the standard warnings and preparation instructions for tenting. Here is an example. I had read that material several times in preparation for the fumigation, but this time I paid more attention to a sentence I had thought did not apply to us:
All mattresses encased in permanent, waterproof coverings must be removed from the structure prior to the introduction of the fumigant, including infant mattresses.
We have no infant or other waterproof mattresses so I had not been concerned earlier.  I know the Tempurpedic mattress has a covering but I don't think it is waterproof.  (Another internet search showed me that many people buy waterproof covers for their Tempurpedics, so I bet I am right.)

What I remain curious about is whether the kind of foam used in a Tempurpedic, possibly coupled with the kind of covering, traps gases and does not release them very quickly.  Gas that settles on hard surfaces like wood or metal, or on single-layer textiles like clothing and table cloths, and even inside the surfaces of drawers and cabinets that are left open during tenting and aeration, departs quickly.  There's nothing except air for it to interact with.  But gas in a foam mattress or fiberfill comforter might take longer to depart.
To use a recently overworked word (but in another context): does Tempurpedic foam temporarily SEQUESTER the warning chloropicrin gas, and maybe the Vikane too, in its air pockets?  Someone could get a PhD investigating this.
Meanwhile, I heartily suggest that the official tenting instructions be amended to mention Tempurpedic-type mattresses explicitly, and to explain what to do with them.  They are common enough nowadays and, alas, so is tenting.

Maybe Tempurpedic would fund the research?  Perhaps if it does, the company can improve how it makes the foam or the mattress cover (cheaper, less gas-trapping, etc.).   That way they could get more patents and keep their hold on the foam mattress market that much longer (the up-side potential of research).


By the way, our Tempurpedic had a very bad chemical smell when we first got it.  We were told it would go away in 30 days.  It took more like 8-10 months.  Perhaps our mattress was a lemon?  Or perhaps we are particularly sensitive to smells?   But I doubt that I am the only person to notice either the new mattress gas or the cloropicrin after tenting in my Tempurpedic.

Other Kinds of Mattresses,  Bedding:  On Sunday night my husband left for a business trip and I decided not to sleep on the Tempurpedic again.  I moved to the guest room's bed which has a regular mattress.  Two observations:

1.  I got snootfuls of gas when I removed the bedding from the Tempurpedic.  This seemed to confirm that chloropicrin takes longer to depart from foams and textiles than it does from air or hard, non-porous surfaces.

2.  The regular mattress was not as bad as the Tempurpedic, but my eyes did smart and my mouth got that funny taste.   Perhaps the regular mattress would have been as bad as the Tempurpedic on Friday night?  My impression, however, was that on the regular mattress it took longer for the chloropicrin to build up to an eye-stinging level.

I admit that I read and play phone solitaire in bed before falling asleep and during middle-of-the-night insomnia.  If you fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow and you bounce out of bed as soon as you wake up, then your eyes are open in bed for mere seconds. My eyes are open in bed for hours.  If you're like me, and if you are also sensitive to smells and eye irritants, I suggest not sleeping in your just-tented house for several days.

PhD Research - Details:  After confirming that the level of chloropicrin (and Vikane?) is higher in or above a Tempurpedic or other mattress than it is in the ambient air in a house after tenting, the researcher might consider whether the heat of the sleeper's body speeds up release of the gas.  I would guess it does.  PhD candidates who want to avoid human subject research, and home owners who just want to avoid smarting eyes and irritated throats, could simulate body heat with heating pads or an electric blanket or turn up the thermostat.  The PhDs could then measure the gas near the surface of the bed; the homeowners could turn on a fan, and if they used pads or blankets, they could cycle them off the bed from time to time to let the fan have better access to the surface of the mattress.


Conclusion:  If you are getting tented and use a Tempurpedic mattress and have sensitive eyes, consider these options:

1.  Move the mattress out of the house before the tenting begins.
2.  Move your food, meds, plants and pets back in when the re-entry notice is posted, and get the gas company to turn the gas back on so that you can warm up the house and have hot water, but sleep somewhere else for several nights.  And maybe try the
warm-body-simulation-plus-fan idea
in the previous paragraph about PhD Research details.

RJM 10/28/13, rev 10/30/13
[original version available on request]

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Three-Minute Fiction's Finders Keepers: Cookies (commentary)

The previous post is my story "Cookies," submitted for the NPR Three-Minute Fiction Contest, Round 11, called Finders Keepers.

This post discusses the

The Contest Prompt

I had never paid much attention to these contests before but when I heard about this one -- about 26 hours before the deadline -- I decided to write something. The prompt was: a character finds something he or she has no intention of returning.

Immediately, an idea for a found item and a finder popped into my mind.  When I finished the first draft, however, I realized that my story did not exactly meet the prompt's requirement of "no intention of returning."  I was not all that concerned because I did not expect to win and I was enjoying the exercise.   Still, I made some changes in order to suggest that the protagonist, as she made an effort to return what she had found, not only expected to fail but was counting on failing.  Any reader willing to read between the lines would, I thought, understand that.

I was surprised then that the winning story by Ben Jahn did not meet the first requirement of the prompt:  his story is about stealing, not finding.  Reading between the lines does not change that. This is not a case of a chance finding that, due to a sudden impulse, becomes a keeping.    Some of the people who posted comments on the NPR webpage were similarly troubled by Jahn's ignoring the prompt.

Not Blind Judged?

When I submitted my story to NPR's Three-Minute Fiction Contest, I was surprised that there were no instructions to insure that judging is blind (that is, without knowing who the writer is).   I expected to see an explicit rule to omit author's name, date, or any other identifying information from the story itself.  But there was none.  Does someone take the time to black out the author's names on the stories?   I hope so but I doubt it.

Names may reveal gender or ethnicity, or they may mislead:  George Eliot, George Sand, Whoopi Goldberg ....  Names may even reveal or mislead about age:  how many babies were named Tiffany or Jason before the Kennedy administration?  And then there is the problem that a judge might recognize an author's name from personal knowledge or by repute.  If the judges know an author's name, their objectivity may be compromised.

Evaluators are often asked to do their work blind.  Enforced ignorance of identity is imposed, for example, on professors grading law school exams and on scientists asked to provide peer review of articles and grant applications.  This practice helps "avoid even the appearance of impropriety," in the words of Canon 9 of the old canons of ethics for lawyers I learned in the bar review course in my youth.  (NB:  This canon, which was in the Code of Professional Responsibility, did not make it into the successor Code of Professional Conduct.  See Kathleen Maher,  "Keeping Up Appearances.")

Judges are free to have prejudices against a writer because of the writer's own choices, whether of subject or language or style, but should not have prejudices based on what they guess, or worse, know from the author's name.  Having the submissions be anonymous would help.

When Current Magazine in Ann Arbor held poetry and fiction contests starting in 1999, it always required that the submission NOT have any personally-identifying information.  (Full - or boasting - disclosure:  I won three Honorable Mentions in those contests:  Poem: Clothes (1999), Story:  The Recycled Bridegroom (2002) and Poem:  Crocuses (2003).)  Each writer filled out a form with nis name and the title of nis poems and stories; the poems and stories themselves were to have the title only.  Otherwise, they would be disqualified.

Suggestion to NPR:  Use the Current rules:  Tell writers to put only the title of the story on the uploaded file that goes to the judges, not their name, the date or anything else that might reveal their identity.  To avoid the possibility of multiple stories with the same name, authors could be assigned a random number when they complete the initial submission form and then they - or NPR software - could put that number on the story.  Random numbers would be better than ordinal or date-based ones so as not to reveal when the the submssion came in.

More Critiques:  Tamara Breuer's Story, My Story

In the days before the contest winner was announced, NPR broadcast some of their favorite stories.  That is how I happened to hear the beginning of Ten Ring Fingers by Tamara Breuer.  I was interrupted part way through  and missed the resolution but what I heard was imaginative, very true-to-life and quite well written.  Now that I have read the full story, however, I understand why it did not win:  Breuer did not know where to take her concept and perhaps this was why the writing toward the end went downhill, too.  But unlike Ben Jahn or me, she did not violate the prompt.  Indeed, I would bet that her scrupulous attention to its words gave her the idea for the story.

[SPOILER ALERT:  READ THE STORY FIRST!]  If I had been Breuer's writing coach, I'd have encouraged her to stop at three rings and change the ending to  have the protagonist acknowledge that she felt funny lying to people about not having found their rings, that three rings were enough to get customers to start a conversation and that her tips were larger than they had been without a ring.  That would be an upbeat as well as a less melodramatic ending than Breuer's and it could incorporate some of the same details. The title would have to be changed from Ten Ring Fingers to Three, but that would have the same, dare I say, ring to it, and the number three would resonate, dare I say further, with NPR's time limit.)  This version might, however, be closer to a 1.5 minute story. Would that violate the implied rules?  Probably not, if the story were as original and beautifully done as Breuer's.

Critiquing Myself:  If I had been my own writing coach, I would have asked me to do a rewrite of Cookies.  Reading the story now I see several things to change.  I would not necessarily recommend stricter adherence to the prompt because to do that would mean altering the concept, but I would suggest fixing the stoppers.  Stopper is my word for anything that disrupts the flow of the prose in the reader's mental ear. 
Stoppers are the subject of my upcoming blog,  I am in the process of completing the introduction and writing up one post for almost every book I have read since obtaining the domain last year.  The posts will consist of annotated lists of words not well used.  So far, I have finished only two books where my stopper list was blank.  The first was Edith Pearlman's Binocular Vision, a very wonderful collection of short stories.  The second was Kurt Vonnegut's Galapagos.  I did not find any stoppers but I thought that the book did need some work.
In "Cookies" my stoppers were a mild sort:  the words in question were used correctly, were accurate in context, and did not rise to the level of a red-penciled AWK.  I am not sure what to call such stoppers but I think of them as fruit-stoppers.  That is because of a passage in one of Bernard Malamud's earlier books in which a character eats an orange.  Malamud, to avoid repeating the word orange, refers to it as "the fruit."   This brought me up short:  in spoken English a single orange would be called a piece of fruit.  The fruit could mean just one of a species but it is more often a collective noun. "The fruit of the vine," for example, includes countless bunches of grapes, not just a single individual grape.  Anyway, more on fruit-stoppers (or a better term if I can think of one) in wordswellused, and maybe a post there on "Cookies," too, because it deserves one.

RJM 7/20/13

Three-Minute Fiction's Finders Keepers: Cookies (the story)

Three-Minute Fiction Contest 2013.  
 "Cookies" by Roberta Morris

Bertha took the first empty seat she saw.  It was next to a Park Avenue grande dame type whose Saks shopping bag occupied the seat on the other side.  With a sniff, the lady stood up, grabbed her bag and moved down the car.  A delicious aroma made Bertha glance down.  Behind where the shopping bag had been was a small box from a place called Martha's Pastries.  Bertha found the smell intoxicating:  party cookies. "Homeless I may be," she thought to herself, "but I was well brought up."  She breathed in one more time, and then, half rising and pointing toward the box, said to the woman's departing back, "You left something."

The man across from her shook his head and mouthed "Don't bother."  Bertha disagreed.  "Homeless I may be," she thought, "and I will accept contributions, but I never steal."  The lady would probably realize her mistake, walk back and give Bertha a sheepish smile.  Maybe she'd even let her keep the box.  It wasn't that big.

The subway lurched along.  Bertha contemplated the situation. "'On further reflection,'" as her boss thirty years ago had always written when he'd overlooked the obvious, "a Muffy's Mother like that won't come back while I'm sitting here."  Sure enough, as Bertha looked down the car, the arrogant face turned away.

"I could make it easy for her and sit somewhere else,"  Bertha acknowledged to herself.  Then she noticed a small envelope taped to the top of the box.  At that moment, the train pulled into 68th Street and the lady exited, stiff-backed and with a studied non-glance at Bertha. 

Bertha immediately pulled off the envelope.  Inside was a Macy's gift card for $100 and a note: "Winifred Higglethorpe!! Enjoy your birthday!!! Affectionately, Cousin Cynthia."  Bertha knew she would never keep that money.  What was in the box, though, was perishable.  And she might never find Winifred.

Bertha stuck the envelope back on the box and carried it off the train.  She headed for her favorite branch library. "I pray I'll die before the end of libraries," she grinned. "If I'm lucky I'll even die before the end of books printed on paper."  The librarian smiled at her -- they both loved Mrs. Gaskell -- and Bertha signed up for time at a computer.

When her turn came, she searched for Winifred Higglethorpe.   "Homeless I may be," thought Bertha, "But my computer skills are terrific."  Winifred Higglethorpe was a perfect name for the Google age.  "Not like Ellen Miller," she laughed.  Ellen had been Bertha's name until she was 37 and a construction worker had called out to her, "It's Big Bertha!"  She was more a Bertha than she'd ever been an Ellen.

The only Winifred Higglethorpe anywhere in the ether lived in the East 80s off Second Avenue.   Not a bad walk.  As Bertha reached her destination, Cousin Cynthia was getting out of a cab.  Bertha walked up to her and offered the box. "You left this on the subway."  The woman backed away and ran toward the building.  "At least take the gift card," yelled Bertha, "I only shop at Prada."  The Saks shopper turned, grabbed the card, and left Bertha with the box.  There were four Linzer cookies, four chocolate-dipped seashells, and four squares of pastry topped with stripes of marzipan and jam.  "Homeless I may be," thought Bertha, "but I do appreciate quality."

Clothes (Very Short Essays 02)

CLOTHES by Roberta Morris

I've lost my stomach
for naked emperors:
the big men
with the long titles,
the big words
in the long sentences,
the lack
of content.
And the listeners,
commenting on the leaves,
or worse, the spider webs,
never the forest,
not even the trees.
They are too polite
(too craven?
too self-absorbed?)
to say,
"That Versace is invisible;
that Armani is imaginary."

(These thoughts
on the academic life
can be generalized.)


This is the first serious poem I wrote after high school.  The year was 1998.  I had attended a talk at the University of Michigan Law School where I was an adjunct.  I won't say who spoke or what the topic was but the talk bothered me. The first line of this poem popped into my head and then I wrote the rest.  In the spring of 1999, Current Magazine, an Ann Arbor weekly, announced its first annual Poetry and Fiction Contest.  I entered my one poem and won an Honorable Mention.  I admit that this encouraged me.

Since then I have written a few poems a year.  Another poem, Crocuses, won an Honorable Mention in a later Current Magazine contest, one that The Way Back Machine captured.  I posted another of my poems, Merit Needs a Publicist, on this blog early on and may post more as part of the Very Short Essays series.
RJM 7/20/2013

Friday, April 26, 2013

New Demographic Category: TECMY (Acronyms - 03)

This morning (4/26/13) I attended a session of the FutureLaw conference at Stanford. The conference overall has 26 speakers.  Exactly one of them is female, and she is a third year law student at Stanford.  I can think of several non-student women who would have been excellent choices for FutureLaw speakers, and it's not even my field.

For whom is the Future of Law female-free?

The irony is that four days ago I was a panelist at the Microsoft Diversity in IP Law Summit, also at Stanford. 

1.  "Women and Minorities in IP Law" and TECMYs

In connection with preparing for the Diversity Summit, I thought about that word "Minorities."  I remembered that when I was at Bell Labs in the early 1980s, I heard that Asians were not considered minorities by the Labs when it reported numbers to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  Whether this was true or rumor, it made sense. Bell would not have increased diversity by hiring more Asians:  the fraction of Asians at Bell at all levels was higher than it was in the general population.

It seemed to me that a more productive discussion of diversity in IP Law would be possible if there were a shorthand ethnic category for WHITE or ASIAN.  Maybe it could be called

Clients for IP law in the Bay Area seem to me to be almost all:  TEC (white or Asian), Male, and Young  -- under 35, say, or maybe by now it's 40. (Sergey Brin, for example, will be 40 this summer.)   I propose calling this subgroup TECMY, pronounced TEK-mee.

TECMY is not the same as that patent law phrase, "having a technical background."  A female with a PhD in Physics (like me, for example), a 60-year old male white electrical engineer,  a male Latino geneticist or a male African-American computer scientist, are all examples of non-TECMYs.

2.  TECMYs and Client Comfort

When I was in law school in the 1970s, partners from fancy law firms would freely say that they didn't hire women because they'd lose clients:  clients like to talk to people who "look like them."

Nowadays (a mere 40-odd years later), the good news for women and minorities with law degrees is that the people who hire fancy law firms -- mostly corporate executives and corporate inside counsel -- are no longer exclusively white males.  But in Silicon Valley, in tech companies, they are pretty much all TECMYs. 

This affects the non-TECMYs both in hiring and in opportunities for advancement.  It also affects decisions whether to stay in IP law beyond that entry-level job or  to change careers.  The effects are due only partly to what the non-TECMY attorneys think or experience themselves.  It is also due to their employers' belief that the clients "are comfortable" only with mirror-image lawyers.

3.  Looking for Excellence

We all know about Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman at HP, and Marissa Mayer formerly at Google now at Yahoo, and Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook. What happens, though, if you look in those companies for the next highest ranking female? How many men do you pass on the way down?  The situation for non-TEC minorities is worse, and much worse for female non-TECs.

I asked the wonderful Stanford Law School research librarians for help, and George Vizvary found me Julianne Pepitone's CNN Money article from March 18, 2013, and its fascinating interactive graphics.  The article is entitled "How Diverse is Silicon Valley?" and the lead image is a map with a dot for Silicon Valley and in big letters the words "Boys' Club."  Pepitone didn't get the idea from me:  it springs to the casual observer.

Too often I have heard from women lawyers that, if they walk into a meeting with a male non-lawyer, the male lawyers in the room talk exclusively to the non-lawyer.

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that so many start-ups start up with a group of buddies of college age and even less mature.  They may know, vaguely, that companies are not supposed to discriminate, but if they think about it at all, they think that the law applies to banks and car manufacturers -- stodgy places with closed-minded people -- not to them.  They are hiring for BRAINS, for ability to THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX, for CREATIVITY.  The fact that every hire looks just the like the previous one is not because they discriminate for any reason of prejudice or other evil, it's just that they find that the people with the right stuff all come from one demographic subgroup:  TECMY.

Maybe, to recall Larry Summers infamous remarks, maybe in certain fields TECMYs on average have more ability than non-TECMYs on average(The blogger mathbabe has an excellent post about the Larry Summers' comment, if you need reminding.)  My answer to the Larry Summers' kind of thinking has always been "So what?" Let's assume for the sake of argument that the statement about the averages is true  It is also utterly irrelevant.  Neither Harvard nor any tech start-up nor any IP law firm nor IP legal department is trying to hire "average.'" They are all looking for excellence.

If you look for excellence only within a demographic subset, you are going to miss out
The tech community of Silicon Valley, by overwhelmingly favoring TECMY people for its employees, executives and lawyers -- and, today, speakers for conferences in FutureLaw -- is missing out.

It is time for change.

Forty years ago I did not expect that forty years later I would be writing something like this.  Let's hope it doesn't take another forty years before I can say, "Times have changed."

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Ne-ner-nis (Part 3) - LANGUAGE 03

It turns out that Dr. Al Lippart,  a Wisconsin veterinarian, independently came up with ne-ner-nis, too.  He wrote an eloquent article in support of these neuter pronouns for his local newspaper in 1999 and posted that article on the web in 2007.  In the language of patent law, Dr. Lippart is the first inventor to file, for sure, but I did not derive my idea from him.  Great minds think alike, once again.

I learned about Dr. Lippart from someone who had found my blog because I wrote about Andy Borowitz. (Thank you, Andy.) 

Veterinarians need neuter pronouns, not because pets are neutered (ha), but because vets do not always know the gender of their patient.   They don't like to use "it" when referring to someone's beloved pet.  As Dr. Lippart explained to me last November, "It is downright embarrassing to call a dog 'she' when ne is a 'he'!"  (Yes, our correspondence was several months ago.  Apologies for not posting sooner.)

Dr. Lippart said he was told by various lexicographers that "'he' and 'she' start with fricative sounds and ne begins with a nasal sound [and] that alone is reason enough for 'ne' not to work into our language."  Hmmm.  "It" does not begin with a fricative sound but people are willing to use it.  As to a general dislike of the nasal:  Ever notice how nobody likes to say NO?  No, I have not, either.  As I'd noted in my earliest post on this subject, N is an underused initial letter and quite uncommon among fiction writers' last names.  Is that because it is not fricative?   I wonder.

Anyway, I'm no veterinarian, but I do find I need ne-ner-nis all the time.  Would that those words would become more common.  Footnotes in email are inappropriate; footnotes in texting and tweeting are impossible.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Israel - Photo Essays - 01 - Manhole Covers

We've been in Rehovot, Israel, for the last two months while my husband is a visiting scientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science.  I usually use email, not blogging, to tell people about my travels, but I'm making an exception for a few photo essays.

I do a lot of walking and I look down too much.  And so I noticed that Israeli manhole covers are (a) square (but didn't we all learn they had to be circular so they couldn't fall in?  maybe there's another solution to the falling-in problem?) and (b) varied and interesting.

The manhole cover here is the first photograph I took in Israel. I used it as the lockscreen background for my Israeli cell phone.   

Manhole Cover at the old HaTachana Railroad Station, now a mall,Tel Aviv/Jaffa.  Dec. 31, 2012
I found my next manhole cover photo op also in Tel Aviv.

Outside the Felicja Blumental Music Center, Tel Aviv, February 2, 2013.

Eilat's manhole covers feature an anchor and a sun and waves - and maybe a Crusader's castle?

February 20, 2013

Blow-up of center medallion

 A similar one in Jerusalem has the lion of Judah in the center.

Jerusalem, February 21, 2013

Blow-up of center medallion.

Two days later we went to Tel Aviv to take the free tour of Bauhaus architecture offered by the city.  This one is a beauty.

Tel Aviv, February 23, 2013

In Rehovot, there are quite a few like this next one.  It says, in English, Hebrew and Arabic: "Caution Optical Fiber!"  Can the fiber hurt you or is the warning to protect the fiber, so that you don't accidentally cut it when you fall into the manhole?

February 17, 2013


February 23, 2013

Also in Rehovot, an interesting one with a twin (see its corner above the one photographed). And look at what is to the left of the center medallion.

March 4, 2013

Patent pending!
A book at the bottom.  A microscope to the left?  Is this in honor of the Weizmann Institute?

Then there are the triples, photographed in Rehovot, later spotted in Tel Aviv as well.  One version has a person in the middle, one a truck.

February 17, 2013

The Person

The Truck (also taken February 17, 2013)