General Archive

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Our Litigious Society?

Lady JusticesIt seems to be a common perception that America right now is a litigious society. Just google the term, and the first two pages (I didn't go any further) bring up all types of pages confirming this view.

How true is it, really? I'm in aviation, so I know how much liability lawsuits have hurt general aviation. And my wife is in the medical field, so I know how much malpractice insurance costs doctors. (On the flip side, since she works on an Air Force base, where the military culture makes it very, very difficult for patients to sue, I've heard all types of stories of malpractice that go unpunished.)

It seems that what most people base their view on are anecdotes of the most frivolous cases that have gone to court, and even then, sometimes the anecdotes are oversimplifications of the real event. Consider the lady who spilled hot coffee in her lap and sued McDonald's. As usually told in urban legend form, the story says the lady spilled her coffee while driving. In reality, she was the passenger, and the car was stopped when she spilled it while trying to add cream and sugar. The coffee was hot enough that she received 3rd degree burns, and was hospitalized for over a week. Additionally, McDonald's had already received over 700 complaints from others who had received 3rd degree burns from the coffee, and had covered hospital expenses totaling over $500,000 for other burn victims. The lady only sued McDonald's after they refused to cover her $11,000 hospital bill. And, what looked to be the final punitive damages before she and McDonald's settled out of court was only $480,000, not $2.7 million as often cited. I'm not arguing for one side or the other here, just showing that there's more to the case than is usually told.

Additionally, because it's the frivolous cases that have the most emotional appeal, they're the stories that get repeated. You don't often here about the cases that show the system working like it should. I'll give an example. The girlfriend of a friend of mine was recently sued. The background is that she had a verbal agreement with a company to create some spreadsheets for them, which she did. Another guy was contracted by the company to network their computers, which he did. However, right after all this computer work, the employee for the company who had basically given them the jobs skipped out of town with money stolen from the company. Around the same time, the company's computers became infected with viruses. The company owner suspected my friend's girlfriend and the networking guy of being in cahoots with the crook, so they refused to pay them and got the police to investigate. The police did investigate, and found no evidence of any wrongdoing on their part. Additionally, they found that the company's computers didn't have antivirus software, so they were at huge risk of infection. Well, the company owner wasn't happy with the results of the police investigation, so she sued my friend's girlfriend and the networking guy. When all the facts came out and it was clear that neither defendant was at fault, the judge not only ruled in their favor, but forced the company owner to pay each of them the money she'd withheld before, along with gas money to get them to the courthouse (it was an hour away), and lost revenue for the day of work they were missing.

A Snopes article dealing with a list of supposed frivolous lawsuits gives examples of several real frivolous lawsuits. In all the real lawsuits that Snopes listed, the plaintiffs all lost, and in one case, was forced to pay 75% of the legal fees associated with that case.

So, as to whether we live in a litigious society, it all depends on how you want to look at it. It seems pretty easy to sue for whatever you want to sue for, and it seems easy to find a lawyer willing to take your case. But, it's not as easy to actually win lawsuits, and you may end up being the one who has to pay if your lawsuit is too frivolous.

Added 2010-07-22 Okay, after thinking about this a bit, I realize I haven't done enough research to say how many people are actually winning frivolous lawsuits. It may be a problem. However, I still feel pretty confident that most people are biased by hearing anecdotes of the worst cases, and particularly by urban legends of cases that never happened, or exaggerations or over simplifications of actual cases.

Friday, July 9, 2010

New Comments

Well, I don't have anything really substantive for this week. I did leave two decent comments, though, in response to visitors. First is a discussion of why humans should be considered apes. Second is a bit of politics in response to a guy who didn't like my response to Gary Hubbell's anti-liberal article.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Interstellar Potatoes

Alien FoodI like potatoes. A lot. I half jokingly tell people that I'm glad I was born after Europeans discovered the New World, or else I wouldn't get to eat potatoes. But, if I'd been born a thousand years ago, I wouldn't have known what I was missing. And that got me to thinking - what foods might we discover in the future that I'm missing out on, now. Most of the surface of Earth has been explored (if not by Europeans, at least by other cultures), so most of the good foods on this planet have probably already been discovered. But what about if we ever start exploring other planets? What might we find then? And that got me thinking some more - would we even be able to eat what we found on other planets. Of course, we'd probably be able to chew it and pass it through our digestive tracts, but how nutritious would it be? I don't know enough about biology to know the answer, but how flexible are our digestive systems? Are they tuned to the molecules created by the DNA based life here on Earth? I know that we need to consume certain molecules, such as vitamin C for example, because our bodies can't synthesize them on their own (so we'd probably need Earthly supplements for those). But for the molecules that we can synthesize, can we just use matter in any form, or does it already need to be assembled in a form that we can use?

Maybe this doesn't really matter for my culinary question. Since we're talking about the future here, by the time that humans have the technology to travel to other planets, we'll probably have the technology to engineer gut microbes to digest that food for us. Maybe I should go crygenically freeze myself, and get thawed out every thousand years or so to see what new and delicious foods are in humanity's pantry.

Added 2010-03-09 After I wrote this entry, I sent off the same question to a friend of mine who happens to be a biologist. Here was his response.

Good question. Actually its funny that you asked me this now because my lecture on Monday is on digestion. My short and unsatisifying answer is it depends. First, it would depend on whether alien life is carbon based. If it is, I think that there is a very good chance we could digest it unless it is in forms that our digestive enzymes cannot break down, like cellulose. In order to use the nutrients that are in the food we eat, we must break them down into molecules that are small enough that they can be absorbed. In other words, we can't directly use proteins, lipids, and complex carbohydrates, but if we break them down we can reassemble their components into the forms that we need. The enzymes we use to break down what we eat (like amylase that breaks down starch and glycogen) ARE tuned in, as you put it, to the types of food that we eat. So if alien life had some sort of complex chemistry that we do not have the enzymes to process then we would not be able to digest it. The second issue is whether it was somehow toxic, which seems to me to be reasonably likely. If alien life had a different balance of elements, which I assume it would (unless it is derived from the same origin as life on earth, which is possible) I think the chances are good that some of them would be toxic to our systems.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Fastnacht Day

Well, it's that time of year again - Fastnacht Day is tomorrow. Since I don't have anything new to say from last year, I'll just quote last year's blog entry.

Doughnut Picture from Wikimedia CommonsDepending on where you are in the world, you may call tomorrow something else, like Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day. But from where I'm from in Pennsylvania, it's called Fastnacht Day. Traditionally, you make potato based donuts, called fastnachts, supposedly as a way to empty your larder of all the fatty, sugary foods in preparation for the Lenten fast. My elementary school even used to give out donuts with the lunches on this day. So, in celebration of Fastnachts, here's a recipe on my main site on how to make fastnachts, and a link to the (not so thorough) Wikipedia article.

You're supposed to wake up early to make the fastnachts on Tuesday morning (they're freshest that way), but I usually make them the night before. They keep pretty well in a brown paper lunch bag. I also like to put a little bit of powdered sugar into a ziploc bag, and a mix of granulated sugar and cinammon into another one, to coat the fastnachts just before eating them.

Doughnut Picture from Wikimedia Commons

Friday, January 15, 2010

I'm Back

Boy, have I been I busy for the past month and a half. With the new contract at work, we had a ton of work to do to get ready for a big meeting. I was so busy I didn't even get a chance to do Christmas shopping, let alone keep up with this blog. Then, with Christmas and traveling, and then another big project when I got back to work, I just didn't have time to write any blog entries in December and the first couple weeks of January. Well, I'm pretty much caught up, now, so it's hopefully back to blogging as usual.

I mentioned that I did some traveling for Christmas. We flew up to Maryland/Pennsylvania to visit with my family for a few days before Christmas. We got there just in time for a big snow storm that dumped over a foot and a half of snow. Living in Texas, I thought that that was exciting enough, and that even though we wouldn't be up north for Christmas Day, at least we'd gotten to see snow during the Christmas season. When we flew back to Texas, it was 70ยบ when we got off the plane, and we had a bit of a laugh at how different the weather was. That was before Christmas Eve. We had a freak snow storm hit us - a lot of snow. I know the official reports were for 4 to 6 inches, but it sure seemed like more. Maybe some of that had to do with snow drifts, or the ice that was already on the ground from a previous ice storm. The roads were horrible. A lot of people say the drivers down here aren't used to the snow, but I think it's much worse because the counties just don't have the equipment to handle the snow. The drive from Ft. Worth to Wichita Falls, which usually takes us a little less than two hours, took 9 hours that Christmas Eve. And we were lucky. Some people got stuck in a huge traffic jam that kept them in their cars for over 24 hours.

Here are a few pictures from my holidays - the first is from Pennsylvania, and the second two are from Texas. I had a white Christmas all the way around.

Snow in Pennsylvania
Snow in Texas
More Snow in Texas


Selling Out