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April 29, 2005

Lizard drugs

A diabetes drug derived from a poisonous lizard has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, its developers, Amylin Pharmaceuticals and Eli Lilly, said yesterday.

The drug, called Byetta, will be the first in a new class of drugs to reach the market for Type 2 diabetes, the form that usually occurs in adults. . . .

Byetta is a synthetic version of a peptide, or small protein, found in what has been variously described as the saliva or the venom of the Gila monster, a poisonous lizard that lives in the Southwest and Mexico.

April 28, 2005

Salazar v. Dobson

Sen. Ken Salazar has apologized for calling the Rev. James Dobson of Focus on the Family "the Antichrist" in an interview with a local Colorado Springs TV station. This probably wasn't the most statesmanlike accusation that Salazar could have made, but I'm not sure I agree with Rocky Mountain News columnist Mike Littwin that it was a "minor disaster."

Let's look on the bright side. Salazar demonstrated that he wasn't going to put up with Dobson's bullshit, and that's more than we can say for too many national politicians these days. Sure, it would have been better if Salazar had demanded that Dobson stop indulging in self-righteous demagoguery and apologize for accusing defenders of the Senate filibuster as "attacking people of faith." That would have been the more statesmanlike thing to say, but the real political disaster would have been to treat Dobson with kid gloves, like most Democrats have been doing for far too long. If anything, calling Dobson the Antichrist is like my junior high school friends and I calling our English teacher a fascist. It's kind of, well, a bit too junior-high-esque.

Immature behavior is a common politician's mistake, though; not a political disaster. At least Salazar's got the right junior-high role models.

April 23, 2005

Studying jurisdiction...

Like some other people I know, I should be studying Jurisdiction and Choice of Law. Michigan is kind of anomalous, in that these topics are broken out of civil procedure and taught as an upperclass course.

My favorite parts of the course all involve the interplay between federal and state courts. I'm less enamored of the material on interstate choice of law, which often seems to me like a big mushy blob of mumbo-jumbo compared with the often subtle and sometimes indeterminate but consistently exciting issues of removal, preemption, and 1331 subject-matter jurisdiction.

Maybe it's just an esthetic preference. Something about the impact of Merrell Dow on the "necessary construction" prong of the test for federal subject matter jurisdiction just seems more esthetically engaging than arguments about whether Minnesota can apply its law to a car crash between two residents of Wisconsin.

I never did much like Elvis Costello's music much, either. Go figure.

Anyway, the sad part is that I probably need to spend more of my time studying the things that I'm least interested in. I'm sure I don't know those things as well. Life is really not fair. So back to interest-analyis, the 2d Restatement, and comparative impairment I go...

April 22, 2005


Your Linguistic Profile:

75% General American English
15% Yankee
5% Midwestern
5% Upper Midwestern
0% Dixie

I'm from Colorado, my mom's from western Pennsylvania, and my dad's from Chicago.

Via Samples Connection.

U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar (CO)

The junior senator from Colorado might not have gotten off to a great start, but he's doing better now.

April 20, 2005

Health care flab in the land of hypomania

Although we have many reasons to be proud of our doctors and hospitals, Symtym reminds those of us in the U.S. that we're still living in the world's medical money pit.

America does some things right, but it could stand to learn a little bit about the things other nations do better. How, then, can I not link to Ezra Klein's effective and short summaries of the health care systems in France, England, and Canada? While none of these nations is quite as pleasant as the USA for rich people who get sick, each of them manages to squeeze a whole lot more efficiency (and efficacy) out of their health care spending than we Americans do.

Perhaps some Johns Hopkins psychologist will explain to us someday why our healthcare system is so bloated and flabby despite our overabundance of hypomanics. Or maybe Ezra Klein, that nauseatingly over-achieving student at UCLA (sounds like hypomania to me!) will tell us all about the rest of the world, and we won't listen. Stay tuned, folks -- there's never a dull moment when the subject is health care in the United States.

April 19, 2005

Habemus Papam*

I'm not a Catholic, so my thoughts about the new Pope count less than a small hill of beans. But since all the liberals seem dismayed over Joseph Ratzinger's elevation on the grounds that he's "anti-modern," I thought this might be a good opportunity to speculate about what it would mean to be anti-modern and anti-conservative at the same time.

I read about the new Pope Benedict XVI's refusal to defer to contemporary trends and opinions and I'm heartened. Yes, I think, there is no reason to think that the way we do things today is always better than the way we did things yesterday, and it's refreshing to know that at least one of our world leaders won't turn every public speech he gives into an homage to "progress" or "the future."

On the other hand, when I read about the things that Cardinal Ratzinger has defended against "progress," I'm reminded of why I'm not a conservative, much less a Catholic. The opposition to the ordination of women seems to me to be to be a frank rejection of the idea that women are fit to hold power -- especially when this position is defended by the head of a Church that tries so hard to protect the authority and power of its clergy. The Church's opposition to homosexuality is simply unnatural and bigoted. Both positions fetishize irrelevant gender differences. There's nothing about these doctrines that would ever lead me to accept them, apart from the sheer fact that they're traditional.** But to rely entirely on tradition is as big a mistake as the modern habit of disparaging tradition as having no intrinsic value at all.

At first glance, it might seem that 'rejecting modernity', whatever that might mean, commits us to embracing some kind of conservative ideology. After all, can anyone really point to an influential anti-modernist that wasn't profoundly conservative? If people can name any anti-modernists at all, they usually point to people like Russell Kirk or Richard Weaver (or John Paul II). Liberals and other leftists seem to want nothing to do with any criticisms of progress. The most left-wing among us choose to describe themselves as "progressives." It hardly seems that there's much hope for a good critique of modernity from that quarter...

I'd like to think that we might all recognize the wisdom of Joseph Ratzinger's insistence that some good things are timeless, and that change can as often lead us away from the good as it can lead us towards it. Why should conservative dogma be a prerequisite for recognizing this wisdom? Must they always go together?

Happy, and sad

Lance Armstrong is going to wrap up his career after this year's Tour de France. Regardless of whether he wins his seventh straight or not, he'll go out on top, by a wide margin.

That's the happy story.

The sad story is Tyler Hamilton's fall from grace. Unless something unexpected happens, i.e. Hamilton is somehow able to prove he didn't dope up, his inspiring ride with a broken collarbone in the 2003 Tour will be eclipsed by his decidedly un-gritty decision to artificially enhance his abilities.

April 16, 2005

Saved by technology?

Buried in this interesting article about the World Barista Championships in Seattle and U.S. champion barista Phuong Tran's preparations for the competition is some interesting news about Starbucks. Spokeswoman Lara Wyss says that the chain is planning to install automated espresso machines in all of its locations. This means that all a Starbucks "barista" will be responsible for is pushing a button and steaming milk. We'll never be able to experience the abilities of a top-notch barista like Tran at a Starbucks ever again.

I wonder, now that they've dumbed down the job considerably, whether wages and benefits for the "baristas" at Starbucks will start to look more like those other button-pushers, the "cooks" at McDonald's. But I don't want to give the impression that I think automation is an entirely bad thing.

From now on, you'll probably never get a badly-drawn shot of espresso at Starbucks (not that any of you who order foo-foo drinks like decaf nonfat sugar-free lattes would ever notice). If there's really no more room for the virtuoso barista to ply her trade at Starbucks, at least the stoned-out slackers that constitute a distinct minority of the workforce won't be able to screw up your espresso.

Now if only the Starbucks on South University here in Ann Arbor could install an automated system to do something much simpler than draw espresso shots: take the scones out of the freezer in the morning. Twice in the last week I've gone in there around 8 am looking for my morning fix, and the employee blithely told me that all the scones were still frozen solid in the back. If Starbucks ever wants to try out a completely automated store, that one on South U should be it. Quality would improve.

I wonder whether, in the end, automation is more effective at preventing human beings from screwing up, or is more effective at keeping human beings like Ms. Tran from exercising her virtuosity. Sadly, I suspect the latter is most likely true. It may be easier to stamp out human excellence than it is to protect ourselves from human stupidity.

April 14, 2005

The bankruptcy bill

No surprise, the House has passed the bankruptcy bill that the credit card companies wanted.

If this were a vacuum, I'd be a fan of this bill. What could be more irresponsible than running up huge consumer debt and then hiding behind Chapter 7 so you don't have to pay it all off? This bill makes the very reasonable demand that you should pay off your debts, not dissolve them.

But this isn't a vacuum. This is a place where credit card companies hand out credit cards like candy; where they actively work to encourage people to buy more things than they can pay for; where they do all in their power to suggest that their customers not pay off their debt each month; where they add double-digit interest to the difference between the minimum monthly payment and the total balance.

None of this is an excuse for avoiding debts in bankruptcy, but it is an argument for why House Republicans might have been wiser to at least allow a vote on some of the 35 amendments offered by Democrats that would have done such sensible things as exempt victims of identity theft from the law's tougher requirements. The Republican leadership might then have been able to argue plausibly that they were primarily interested in protecting access to credit for everyone by encouraging personal responsibility.

Alas, however, the details of how this legislation was passed suggest instead that the Republicans were more interested in rewarding their patrons in the credit and retail industries than in making good public policy for everyone. If people find it hard to distinguish me from the typical liberal, its only because I agree with the liberals that our conservative political leaders virtually always get it wrong.

April 12, 2005

Blame the local press?

Nicholas Kristof describes the current public distrust of the media:

Since 1973, the National Opinion Research Center has measured public confidence in 13 institutions, including the press. All of the other institutions have generally retained a good measure of public respect, but confidence in the press has fallen sharply since 1990.
Certainly FoxNews and, for conservatives, the New York Times can take some of the blame for this, but I suspect that local news media are at least as responsible as these national outlets are for the dwindling public respect for the press.

Think about the encounters that you or someone you know have had with the press as the subject of a news story. Most of us will have had interactions with the local press if we've ever "been in the news" at all. Now think about whether you thought the journalist you spoke with or who reported a story about you acted fairly and professionally. My guess is that many of you will say "Ick, no way, that guy was a slimeball."

Sadly, I don't have any juicy anecdotes of my own to share. I can only point to friends and relatives of mine who've felt slighted by the local press. It is a surprisingly common impression, though: everyone I know who's ever been interviewed can come up with a few choice four-letter words for the reporters in question.

If I haven't been living in some weird slimeball-local-reporter vortex, I suspect that much of the distrust of the press might be due to the pervasive lack of professionalism in the local news media.

April 09, 2005

Overheard at breakfast

Waitress to customer: "I don't see why people need to go overseas. I mean, America has everything. Upper Michigan is beautiful; I don't see why anyone would need to go anywhere else." [True enough, if you don't like Colorado.]

Waitress, continuing: "The South has great cooking. Lots of grits. That's all they eat down there, grits."

No comment.

April 07, 2005

Poetry and prose

We used to have a literary magazine here at Michigan Law called Dicta. I say "used to" because it hasn't been published since 2002.

That's THREE YEARS of literary quiescence.

This year an enterprising 1L who decided it was better for law students to express, not suppress, their literary talents, resurrected the old Dicta as Griot*. Thanks to a friend of mine who both writes poems AND absents herself from campus on opening night, I got to read her poem aloud in front of a roomful of people. It was fun. They applauded. Now I know how Hilary Swank feels.

Although my colleagues here might sometimes seem to exist in only one dimension, that's just an unhappy illusion. If you give them half a chance to really express themselves artistically, they'll remind you that you're still surrounded by some jaw-droppingly creative people.

* Griot: a storyteller in western Africa who perpetuates the oral tradition and history of a village or family.

April 06, 2005

I am Jon Snow

Find out which George R.R. Martin character you are.

(Via Ned Stark... uh, Prof. Bainbridge.)

April 05, 2005

The right reason to bitch about law school exams

Anytime you talk about grades in law school, you inevitably set off a law school bitch fest.

I'm (usually) willing to participate in the bitch fest. As usual, though, I think the arguments over whether law school grading is random or biased miss the point. Law school grading deserves criticism, if it does at all, because it depends upon skills that aren't emphasized in law school teaching.

As Christine Hurt at The Conglomerate (boldly) emphasizes, most law school exams reward the application of legal knowledge to new sets of facts. In my experience, however, most law school reading assignments and classroom discussions don't teach this skill. Very often, the first and only time that students are asked to apply their knowledge to new facts in a typical law school class is on the final exam.

The standard law school reading assignment provides great practice at puzzling out rules of law from appellate opinions, many of which omit virtually any mention of facts at all in favor of long-winded discussions of the merits of competing legal rules. The typical class discussion does the same thing: the professor asks students to consider the court's arguments for this rule over that rule, and encourages students to think carefully about the policy rationales for each argument.

I'll be the first one to say that these are valuable intellectual skills, and if I'm glad I came to law school, it's because law school has made me better at doing these things than I was before. Much better. But that's not the point.

The point is that these wonderful skills are not the skills that law school exams are primarily designed to test. Esoteric arguments about competing legal rules are not the same things as applications of these rules to facts. Sure, there is some overlap -- if you know the rules cold and have paid close attention to the arguments for and against each, you'll be more likely to recognize which facts are important, and more likely apply the rules correctly. It's also true that many professors will give points on exams for good policy arguments in favor of this rule or that one. I suppose this is why I'm not really, really, really pissed off at law school exams. They aren't random. They do reward interest and effort in the class, but they only do so only incidentally.

That's why I'm just highly critical of law school exams. If any halfway-intelligent educator were asked to design a curriculum that effectively taught students to do what law school exams ask them to do -- apply legal rules and arguments to facts -- he or she would never design a curriculum that looked anything like the one that law schools use now. It would probably include a lot of straight lecturing on legal rules, doctrine, and arguments in class, along with a lot of problem sets asking students to apply this knowledge to hypothetical fact situations (just like law school exams). We wouldn't read anywhere near as many appellate opinions as we do now. Conversely, if an expert educator were asked to prepare an exam to test what we currently practice in class and on reading assignments, they'd never write the kind of exams law professors give now.

Our current curricula and exams are historical accidents. While they may each have great merit in themselves, they don't fit together very well at all. And that's why I enjoy bitching about law school exams.

UPDATE: The Listless Lawyer agrees with me that law school pedagogy isn't exactly perfect (in fact, it's "dumb"), but then goes on to claim that law school only serves two purposes: indoctrination into the professional culture, and testing students' "solipsistic and analytical instincts."

There's no doubt that professional indoctrination is one of the purposes of law school, but I can't agree with LL that law schools don't also care about teaching you the law. Maybe not black-letter law, certainly, but it's a stretch to claim that law schools don't care about training lawyers. A lawyer, of course, must be willing to work hard, but they also have to learn how to make legal arguments, apply law to facts, etc. Law schools are obviously concerned with teaching these things.

As for testing "analytical instincts," sure. But "solipsistic" instincts? Here I think LL is in the weeds. It's the opposite of "solipsistic" to learn to make arguments that you may not subscribe to, but that your clients or your professors "want to hear." I don't buy LL's claim that you'll do better if you make Tribe-arguments on a Tribe-exam as opposed to Scalia arguments. In my experience, if you make only one or the other you'll do pretty badly either way. To the extent that law school exams ask students to make policy arguments, they ask students to make opposing policy arguments.

If legal education is "stupid" (and I don't think it is), it's not stupid for the reasons LL gives.

April 03, 2005

Idle thoughts on the papacy

I'm not a Catholic, so I don't usually think about the Pope very often. Now that John Paul II has passed away, though, I'd love to eavesdrop on some of the furious political maneuvering that must be going on in the offices of most of the cardinals.

Think about it -- the stakes are much, much higher here (at least for Catholics and probably not just for Catholics) than for, say, a Supreme Court nomination in the Senate. A Supreme Court nomination is only 1/9th of the whole ball game, but (major medieval schisms aside) there's always been just one Pope.

Also, cardinals get to elevate one of themselves into the Papal office. Imagine if Senators could do that for a vacant Supreme Court seat. Joe Biden would get more hyperactive than the Tasmanian Devil.

Finally, the cardinals get to do most of their political maneuvering in secret. If you'll pardon the hockey analogy, secrecy probably means that the gloves come off. I can't help but think here of the church-intrigue novels of Thomas Gifford.

Oh, while I'm on the subject of the Pope. . .

Anthony Rickey rightly takes the New York Times editorialists to task, recognizing that they "just can't resist getting their licks in", no matter how nonsensical they may be.

Mr. Rickey then asks, "when did modern liberalism become the haunting fear that someone, somewhere might disapprove of some act of sex?"

A brilliant rhetorical riposte! Anthony beats the NYT and the Washington Post at their own game.