Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Cold Sun at Seven Below

OK, seven below zero Fahrenheit isn't that cold, not for people in Alaska. And it was colder yesterday here and in other spots in town.

The sun was out, but we didn't feel much heat.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Can You Crack the FBI's Code?

[UPDATE March 30, 2011:  The FBI has coded notes posted today that were in the pocket of a 1999  murder victim and is asking the public for help decoding them.]

I've been spending time looking at the FBI webpages while working on another post. This is a copy of their page. The link takes you to the FBI code page with working links.

The page on ciphers is pretty interesting.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Bear With Me

For those of you who drop by often, I'm working on a bunch of things. Some are posts - trying to say something useful about the FBI whistle blower complaint document. I also got a copy of the charter agreement negotiated when BP bought ARCO which I want to post. And since the post early January last year on Famous People Born in 1908 was so popular, I thought I'd do one on people born 1909, so I'm working on that too. Only this time I want to give a little info on each person on the list.

Plus we're getting ready to leave for Thailand for several months which requires a few preparations. Probably the most important is for J to get totally well from her cough. It's getting better, but she's not yet 100%. We have been trying to straighten things out so there is room for the house sitters.

So please bear with me. Now's a good time to check out an old post, or pick a tag on the lower right. If you've never read the main Victor Lebow post - it seems to be the consistently most popular and has the most comments - check it out. It stemmed from my seeing the internet video Story of Stuff which I see now isn't linked in that post. This post is the original comment on Story of Stuff and links to the video which got me started on Lebow. Other posts rise and fall in popularity, but the Lebow post continues to generate a steady stream of hits.

Or go play with your kids, hug your spouse, walk your dog, take a break from the screen.

And while I'm just chatting with readers in general, some of you out there drop by on a regular basis. I see some familiar profiles when I check sitemeter. So if you come here more than three times a week and you've never said 'hi,' leave a comment. Or, if you're shy you can send an email.
(There's also an email link in my profile)

Folks at a certain hotel in San Francisco for example. Who are you?

And, one more thing I learned today while working on the whistle-blower post - how to do bullets with subheadings in html. Blogspot lets you use bulleted lists, but I couldn't figure out how to make it create subheadings. It's pretty simple to just do it in HTML. You can start using the list button on the Compose toolboard in Blogspot. Then go into the edit Html tab and you can cut and paste in the black tea and green tea examples. And you can do it again for subheadings for those. Then just type in what you want over the tea examples. (It none of that makes sense, probably you should do without subheadings in your lists.)

Friday, December 26, 2008

"I don't get superheroes"

[If you can't read it, double click to enlarge it.]

We were invited to dinner for Christmas with friends. We had a nice night. I found this in a book by Paul Madonna they had on the coffee table. I'm still thinking about it.

And there was incredible homemade apple pie. It tasted even better than it looks.

We got home and I cleared the driveway of about six more inches of snow. Then did a short walk in the neighborhood as it continued snowing.

This morning various neighbors were clearing the snow again. Our new neighbors had once again cleaned the sidewalk and the street around our van. I cleared about as much snow as I cleared last night. My back is fine.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Thoughts on Slumdog Millionaire

[Update: for a much more astute review see Great Bong's review at Random Thoughts of a Demented Mind.]

After the (Anchorage International Film) festival, there were just two movies we wanted to see: Milk and Slumdog Millionaire. I've already posted on Milk, which I think is a very well made and powerful movie. We saw Slumdog the other day.

India is probably one of the more fascinating places on this globe. Even calling it a 'place' is misleading. It's a different world, a different time, a different reality. It's got a huge population. It is a mix of so many landscapes and cultures. It has incredibly rich and unimaginably poor people. It's part of the 21st Century, yet the last ten centuries, at least, continue to exist simultaneously. Perhaps most significant, India probably is the biggest countervailing force to the West's materialism. (The whole idea of the movie - winning on the tv show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire - would seem to belie that characterization, but India is still big enough to swallow up and trivialize the tens, maybe hundreds, of millions of Indians who are caught up in Western materialism.) India, for centuries, has had the most advanced knowledge of internal human capabilities. Indian yogis and the many other spiritual traditions have mastered the discipline, certainly equivalent to the discipline required in Western science, of gaining control of one's own human body. Rather than being a technical fix you can plug in, it requires decades, lifetimes even, of focus and discipline and simultaneously letting go.

The world of English literature has been enriched hugely by Indian writers writing novels in English. Salman Rushdie. Vikram Seth. Arundhati Roy. The Indian movie industry has its own traditions ranging from the austere films of Satyajit Ray  [Jan 2015 - noticed the old link was bad, changed to another] or the psychedelic exhuberance of Bollywood.

So, I was looking forward to this British movie told from an Indian perspective, a boy from the slums of Bombay who wins big in the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. [update: Yes, the filmmaker is Western, but unlike many other Western made films, the focus isn't on a Westerner in the other culture, such as in The Last King of Scotland, or Blood Diamonds.]

I was only moderately pleased when I left the movie. Probably without the hype it would have been much more enjoyable. Yes, go see the movie. It's fun. It's a good movie. It teaches more about India than most Americans will ever know. It's just not the great movie that is being hyped. It gives glimpses of India. The way the story is woven together - which I won't disclose - is clever and moves both narratives along nicely. The bollywood ending is contagious.

After a couple of days of thought - no, I didn't sit and think about this for three days, but rather, my brain distilled it in the background while I did other things - I can articulate one key issue I have with the movie, which may be the cause of my disappointment.

Despite the fact that the three main characters are children of the slums of Bombay, and that much of the movie takes place in those slums, the movie manages to use the slums as a backdrop only. I'm not sure how it happened, but we don't at all get to know the slum, to feel it, to smell it, to ache with it and for it. Perhaps the rise out of the slum of the three main characters makes it less menacing. Reagan was called the teflon President, none of the problems of his administration stuck to him. The three characters - while enormously impacted by the slums - seem to have that same teflon coating. The problems of the slums - perhaps the outhouse scene illustrates this most graphically - are there, but they slide off and we go to the next scene. It's not that the film doesn't depict horrible situations - rioters rampaging through the slums to kill Muslims, a child's eyes gouged out so he can beg more successfully. But somehow, through the main characters, we seem to be immune from all this.

Maybe conveying the slums is just too overwhelmingly depressing. But I think it can be done. Gregory David Roberts, for example in his book Shantaram seems to capture some of the spirit of the Bombay slums. He makes us feel its oppression, but also to see that despite what looks totally unlivable from a Western perspective, the inhabitants, like everyone else, live rich lives with joys as well as suffering. But he had over 900 pages to make it work. I'm hoping director Mira Nair, with Johnny Depp, can keep that sense of the slums in the film version scheduled for a 2011 release.

I heard in an interview that it was Danny Boyle's (the director) first time in India. Maybe that explains it. We've seen a number of movies that featured India in the last couple of years, most of which seemed more authentic, connected more on the emotional level.

The trailer is so promotional that it trivializes the whole movie. So I'm putting up this clip I found online. This is just one scene, not particularly noteworthy.

[Update, 22 Feb 2009 - Thai time: This NY Times article discusses what I tried to get at with my comments about Shantaram - that the slums of Mumbai are really far richer, safer, and more productive than our stereotypes.]

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

December Anchorage Sun and Snow, Copying 8mm Film

I found some 8mm film labeled Thailand a while back. I wanted to transfer it to digital and put it on a DVD so I could take it with me to Thailand when I return in a couple of weeks. I'm not even sure what's on it, I just know it was taken around 1967-68.
Someone lent me an old 8mm projector and a Copy Kit - a mirror that projects the image onto a plastic screen. Then I'm supposed to video tape the screen. I tried just running the film.

But the projector chewed up my 3 foot leader. Then I got some of it to work, but then the film broke. Again the film was being crumpled up somewhere in the process. I mentioned this to a friend the other day who said he had an old projector that probably wouldn't eat the film. So today I went over and interrupted him clearing his driveway and street to borrow it.

It snowed yesterday and today the sky is clear. These were shot between 10:25am and 10:30am this morning. The sunrise here in Anchorage was officially 10:15am. The picture with the bike crossing the street is looking south on Lake Otis, at 36th. There's enough trees and whatever to hide the just up sun rising from the south.

Here's a peek to the left (east) at the mountains. This is where 36th changes its name to Providence.

Now, later on, about 2:30pm, you can actually see the sun, maybe 6˚ or 7˚ above the horizon. But solstice is past so every day now we're gaining some light.

I'm setting up this new projector and let's see if I can get some of this film digitized without destroying too much of the old film.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

FBI Whistle-Blower Document Copy

The ADN was very responsive and quickly added the link to the actual Whistle-Blower document after being notified it wasn't up. Here is that document. You can use the down arrow on the right of the tool bar to enlarge the document.

256-2 Whistle Blower Complaint.source.prod Affiliate.7

I'm just putting this up for now without comment, because I haven't had a chance to read it and think about it. I'll either add an update here or I'll do another post.

Political Oxygen and are the FBI Losing Oxygen?

On the show Law and Disorder this morning, Paul Buhle, talking about the current political times, said:
"We have entered a new era, the nation has acquired more political oxygen than it has in a long time."
I recently talked about how "out-there radicals" stretch the political agenda in my post on Milk. There's been "political oxygen" for the Right since the Reagan election. And since that time 'center' has moved steadily rightward, so much so that many of Richard Nixon's policies would be considered far left today, and they've been doing their best to repeal them - Affirmative Action, Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, for instance.

But it looks like the Bush administration's violations have been so outrageous, and the political, social, and economic consequences so extreme, that people are beginning to stand up and say, "No more."

I like the phrase "political oxygen." (But I hope that its use is limited, that it doesn't become a cliche used by everyone until it has no meaning anymore.) I take it to mean that the people who make up this democracy are waking up from their political oxygen deprivation and now will become politically active to demand accountability from their elected officials and the public administrators who carry out the functions of government. But it is clear, we're talking about political oxygen for the left now. This means not simply rooting out the relatively few problems, but also giving support to the honest, competent politicians and administrators who often get trashed or marginalized when they speak truth to power.

This theme of holding politicians accountable was discussed on this morning's Law and Disorder too. The show was aired in Anchorage on KWMD - 104.5 or 87.7 FM. They discussed the necessity of , as well as the obstacles to, prosecuting members of the Bush administration who committed crimes. Without holding the current administration accountable, they argue, there is no deterrent to prevent future administrations from pursuing similar paths. The likelihood that Bush will sign broad pardons to protect both the low level and high level criminals in his administration was a key concern however.

Related to all this, but in ways I haven't digested yet are ADN's lead story today by Richard Mauer about the FBI informant's report alleging misconduct in the FBI investigation on Alaska corruption, particularly as it affected the Ted Stevens trial. I'll try to discuss this when I've read the report, or at least those parts that aren't redacted. The ADN website has a link labeled Court Whistle-Blower Document. I thought it would be the whistle-blower's actual document, but it links to Judge Sullivan's decision to release the document.

My initial reaction is that the rules for dealing with undercover informants is pretty loosey-goosey. Last December I mused on the ethics and rules of surveillance and touched the topic of working with undercover informants who are also players in the criminal activity. If you watch any tv cop shows - I think The Wire is probably one of the best for this - the cops have to play a lot by ear. They have to gain the trust of the informant, they have to be careful not to inadvertently out' the informant, and they have to make sure the informant isn't gaming them. So to claim that the agents broke the 'rules' as this whistle-blower apparently does, well, I'd have to ask, "What are the rules?" Perhaps they're in the document.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

New York Times: Ted Stevens' Departure's Impact on Lobbyists

Monay's New York Times has an article on the shakeup among lobbyists as Ted Stevens leaves the Senate, particularly a coterie of former Stevens staffers who left to become rich by lobbying Stevens. (Some did claim to have lots of other non-Stevens business, thank.) I suspect as time goes by, we'll be seeing more and more of what was going on behind the facade of the Uncle Ted image. Here are a few clips from the article. Click on the link above for the whole article.

With Stevens’s Fall, Pipeline for Lobbyists Shuts Off

Published: December 21, 2008
WASHINGTON — Until recently, there were few better ways to start a lobbying career than by leaving the office of Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska. . .

His power made his good will a valuable commodity on K Street, where many lobbying firms are located. During the past five years, just nine lobbyists and firms known primarily for their ties to Mr. Stevens reported over $60 million in lobbyist fees, not including other income for less direct “consulting.” The most recent person to leave his staff to become a lobbyist reported fees of more than $800,000 in just the last 18 months. . .

Mr. Stevens’s preference for one lobbyist over another was big news in industry trade publications, and he did not hesitate to exert his influence. . .

The article acknowledges that other Senators have done the same thing...
But Mr. Stevens — Alaska’s “Uncle Ted” — is in a class by himself. For most of the last decade he was a dominant voice on both the Senate appropriations and commerce committees, which govern federal spending and business regulation.

23 Uses for Your Digital Camera

The film camera used to be good for capturing images - landscapes, faces - to document where we'd been, what we'd done, and people we'd met, things we'd seen. When I was a student in Germany in the mid 60s, my 12 print rolls of color pictures were relatively expensive to print and it would take a while for me to finish a roll and then - I don't even remember how long it took from when I dropped it off at the shop til I could get the pictures. When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand a few years later, with my brand new Pentax, I could get black and white pictures developed in town in a day or two. But there were either 24 or 36 pictures on a roll and it could take days to weeks before I finished a roll. My color slides had to be sent to Hong Kong or Australia to be developed and that took at least two weeks before I could get my pictures back.

Digital cameras change all that. Now you can see your picture immediately. It's not on film, so you can take all the pictures you want without thinking about using up film. You can just delete the bad ones. The pictures are digital so you can upload them to your computer, email them, send them on your cell phone. You can enlarge them, crop them, even fiddle with the colors and exposure.

So, this means that the digital camera is a tool with many uses that old film cameras never had. Below is a list of ways I've found mine to be useful - in general categories, and then with specific examples.

The main ways I use my camera are as a portable note pad and a copy machine.

Use Your Digital Camera as a Note Pad

1. What's in those boxes in the basement? Take pictures as you load them up.

2. There's a map on the sign, but will you remember the path when you leave the sign? Take the sign with you.

3. How do you describe the part you need at the computer store or to the plumber? Take it on your digital camera. Of course this goes for all sorts of things that you can't take with you.

4. How do you describe your suitcase to the lost luggage people at the airport? Show them the picture.

5. Keep track of the information on the for rent signs you pass and what the place looks like.

6. Where did I park the car?

7. Ordering food in foreign countries - take a picture of food you like to show the waiter, or of a menu with things you like marked.

8. Take a picture of your hotel or other destinations to show the taxi when you want to go back

9. Wonder what kind of flower it is? Take a picture then ask someone at a nursery.

10. How will I remember all these people I just met and their names? Sometimes you need to ask them to write it in English though too.

11. Damn, where did I put my to do list? Click.

12. I want a copy of this legal document, but they charge $1 a page to print - just take a picture of the computer screen. Also good for your airlines reservations or that I paid my bill on line.(You can do a screen saver too, but not if it's a public computer.)

13. I really like this camcorder, (jacket, necklace) but I need to check with my wife before buying it. Snap. (get the price tag too.)

14. That's a nice fence, (door, window.) Wonder if I could make/find one like that? Just so I don't forget what it looked like, snap.

15. Meeting notes on the white board. Just snap 'em.

16. Lecture going too fast? Take digital notes.

17. What's the license plate number of your rental car?

18. Document dings and scratches on rental cars before you drive off

19. Audio memos - Use the audio memo function to have some someone give directions in the local language and play it for a local when you need help.

Use Your Digital Camera as a Copier

20. Need to have a copy of a price quote, birth certificate, or passport (or any piece of paper)? Just take a picture.

21. This recipe looks great. Snap.

Video - some things are hard to explain in writing, so use the video feature on your camera
22. Want to leave instructions for a house sitter? Video tape where the garbage bags are and how much to water the plants, etc.

23. Video instructions for how to do something - here, how to say 'hello' in the Karen language

Saturday, December 20, 2008


We just got back from seeing Milk, the movie.

I'm not quite sure what to say. I found it incredibly powerful. I think everyone should go see the movie. It has everything a good movie needs - sex, violence, villains, heroes, and powerful acting. I'm trying to imagine someone who feels that homosexuality is evil going to see that movie. I can't imagine that at least a tiny crack wouldn't appear in his or her world view. Maybe my imagination just isn't strong enough.

But while the movie is ostensibly about the battle for gay rights, for me it's about the battle for human rights and justice. (Milk, at one point in the movie gets angry at the other politicians who want to avoid mentioning gays in the fight against an anti-gay rights amendment. They think it is politically safer to talk about civil rights. So I want to be clear, this IS a movie about gay rights. But is also about all human rights.) Any human being who has red blood flowing through her veins has to be touched by this movie on some level. I couldn't help but be affected by a man standing up in the face of overwhelming odds, and simply refusing to accept injustice. Not being timid, not being politic, but standing up and speaking his truth the world.

It causes me to think about my style here. I don't write in declaratory sentences. I try to imagine how someone who disagrees with me thinks about the issue. I try to figure out what someone would have to believe - what facts, what values - that lead him to a conclusion different from mine. Sometimes my gut just wants me to declare "That's bullshit." But then I erase it and start trying to examine the ideas more closely. And sometimes, in my own understated way, I do say, "That's bullshit." But it's pretty rare.

During the Vietnam war protests, I came to see that there is a role for different approaches. The way-out-there radicals who invaded draft boards and poured blood on the draft records pushed the debate into territory it had never been. They were often intemperate, obnoxious, and self-righteous, but they created a lot more room on the debate floor. Others, who would have seemed extreme had the more aggressive protesters not existed, then began to seem reasonable in comparison.

Milk, as portrayed in this film, seemed to be able to do both. He managed to push the debate into new territory, yet he managed to be reasonable and understanding.

I've tended to think that each of us should do what we do best. It is hard for me to stand up and declare truth when I can see lots of different perspectives. On many issues I know which one I think is 'right' but understanding why others think something else is right, seems to be the opening to find non-violent solutions. But Milk also reminds me that we can sometimes use logic and reason as a way simply to be safe, to not take the necessary risks. He shows that if we speak from our hearts, others will hear us, others who are afraid to take that step. He died because he stood up, but if he hadn't stood up, he wouldn't have lived either. He moved civil rights in the US a long way forward.

So this film, for me, raises questions about how I want to live the rest of my life. Milk reminds me how much someone can accomplish when they focus. As I've compared my approach to those of some other bloggers, I've concluded that I tend to have a general goal of pushing people to see things they haven't seen before; that my subject is how we know things, how we come to conclusions - about how things work, about what's right and wrong. Many other bloggers tend to focus on specific issues and attempt to change minds on those issues. I do that to some extent, but my larger focus is getting people to change how they take in and digest information, so that on all the issues they will face in the future, they will be a little more open to seeing things from different perspectives, to questioning the how's, the why's of what they see. I think that's the right path for me, but Milk causes me to consider working harder at it.

Yesterday I had lunch with Rick Benjamin. I first met Rick when I was working with the Anchorage Municipal Board of Ethics as a volunteer consultant when they were revising the Municipal Code of Ethics. Rick was the pastor at an Evangelical Christian church. Yet he didn't behave the way I thought someone like that should behave. He listened to what others said. He was modest, made jokes, and used logic and reason. I don't recall any references to God or any piousness on his part. He was a regular guy. I saw him, maybe once a month, for two or three years at meetings.

Some time after the Ordinance finally passed - and it was a long road - I invited Rick to come over for lunch. I said I wanted to ask him questions about Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. We had an engrossing discussion out on the deck over sandwiches. He answered all of my questions thoughtfully and candidly and many of his answers were not what I expected. He wasn't doctrinaire, he acknowledged inconsistencies.

So when the Ex-Gay Conference was held at his church this fall (he was no longer the lead pastor if I have my fact straight,) I really wanted to talk to Rick and ask him what the hell was going on. But it was busy times, I was traveling, Sarah Palin was grabbing all of our attention, and I never made my call. But about a month or so ago, Rick called me to invite me to do an ethics presentation at his class at Wayland Baptist University. So I said I'd like to talk to him about the ex-gay conference too. He said, 'sure, let's have lunch.' And yesterday we did. We talked about lots of things. It was an honest discussion between the two of us, and I went as a friend, not as a blogger. But towards the end of lunch, my blogger identity began to wake up, and I asked if I could blog some of the discussion. He said, "Sure."

But while we were talking I hadn't been in record mode and so I suggested we meet again and he agreed. I'm hoping we can do this before I leave for Thailand. I decided not to raise it in yesterday's post, but after seeing Milk, I think it is important to raise. For many, the Rick Benjamins of the world are the enemy. If there are other Rick Benjamins in the Evangelical movement, I think that the differences between Progressives and Evangelicals may not be nearly as great as we've allowed ourselves to believe. Many in their movement have bought the stereotypes of Progressives and many Progressives have bought the stereotypes of the Evangelicals. That meant, in a lot of cases, both sides wrote each other off, and let the media reinforce their horned visions of each other. Obama's campaign didn't make that mistake. And a number of Evangelicals began to wonder whether the Bush administration had used and abused them.

The human heart is a remarkable and complicated organ. Ultimately, combined with the brain, it can do wonders. I strongly believe that most hate is self-hate re-directed at others. (In the movie, for example, Milk believes that Dan White is a very closeted gay.) If we can get more people to raise kids who feel good about themselves, we can greatly limit the amount of hate in the world.

First Annual 30 Second (More or Less) Film Festival - Part 4

Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3 had three videos each from Mariano Gonzales' Art 257 class at the University of Alaska Anchorage. The last one here is totally different from all the others, edgier. It's a little too long perhaps, but this student was working her own vision. The first one is also a very different approach from the others.

Friday, December 19, 2008

First Annual 30 Second (More or Less) Film Festival - Part 3

Part 1 and Part 2 had three videos each from Mariano Gonzales' Art 257 class at the University of Alaska Anchorage. These are art students (except for me) and only the last project of the semester was a video/animation project. This first one is one of my favorites. But they all have something of interest. And they're all short.

Ski Pics Fun With Photoshop

I went cross country skiing today after lunch. What a treat to go off into the woods and just glide along through the exquisite snowy wonderland. There were a few other skiers out, like these two with their dog. I even saw a guy on the smaller trail on his mountain bike. The trail was firm enough that he was just leaving a slight track, so that's ok.

But most of the time it was just me and trees and the snow and here, the water.

And everyone looked so healthy with bright rosy cheeks. At first my finger tips got cold, but eventually my hands were nice and warm.

And toward the end, I got onto the bridge near the parking lot and looked down at the mostly frozen Campbell Creek.

The bridge does seem like a bit of overkill just to allow skiers, hikers, and bikers to cross the creek.

This also seems like a good opportunity to show what kinds of manipulation someone can do with Photoshop. The Computer Art and Design class (Art 257) I took at UAA this past semester had us using Photoshop a lot. One form of manipulation is changing the content of the picture - cutting out people you don't want in, adding others in, cleaning up the junk, etc. Obama's First Day in the Oval Office that I posted early is an example of extreme doctoring, though I left the style of most of the added pictures as they were so it would be clear that different people from different times were added into one picture. Though I did colorize Frederick Douglass and Jackie Robinson, and played with the color of some of the others. Journalistically, this is - or was - a big no-no.

Original undoctored picture

But what about the kind of manipulation I do below? I'm just using the built in filters in Photoshop and applying them to the same image. Well, it isn't quite that simple because for most of the filters you can move levers that make the effects more or less distinct. Is it ethical to doctor pictures this way? Make the sky more blue? The contrast better? I suspect that war is already lost. I even do it here - but those tend to be more pictures that don't have a political impact rather than 'news' pictures, and the differences is usually so minor it doesn't seem worth it to add a disclosure. But everything is political in that it affects how we see reality and thus how we act on what we see. So if my pictures prettify my subjects that affects how viewers perceive those subjects. And some of these obviously are not natural photos. So, take a look. Here's the original big, and then the variations of the same picture using different Photoshop filters.

Watercolor filter

Posteredges filter

Plasticwrap filter

Cutout filter

Playing with the Hue, Saturation, and Light

Solarize filter

Thursday, December 18, 2008

First Annual 30 Second (More or Less) Film Festival - Part 2

I posted a few videos from Mariano Gonzales' Art 257 class - Computer Art and Design - last week. This was not a film or video class per se, but the last assignment was to use Painter or Photoshop animation to make a video that was more or less 30 seconds. Some did theirs totally animated, others, like me, did a combination. Some just used regular video. You can see the first ones I posted at the link above. Here are three more.

Close to Solstice - Late Sunrise at Thai Temple

I went over to Wat Alaska to meet Jim MacKenzie, the director of Leadership Anchorage, to introduce him to the monks this morning, to help set up a the Leadership Anchorage session there as part of their learning about the different communities in Anchorage. Phramaja (a title for monks) Boonnet was there, but Phramaja Lertsak was in India. With Phramaja Lertsak gone, I learned that Phramaja Boonet's English was much better than I realized. (You can see pictures of the Wat (Buddhist temple) at the Wat Alaska link.)

Phramaja Boonnet is in the picture in the library by the window. I was hoping to get the rising sun in that picture, but that wasn't going to happen without getting the room black, so I took another picture out the window.

Solstice is, according to Archeoastronomy, at 3:04 am on Sunday, December 21 [in Anchorage] this year. You can see we're close because here's the sun just over the horizon at 10:30am on Dec. 18.

After a while, when you're blogging, you realize time is passing because it is solstice again. But I did a post last year on calculating when solstice is, so I don't have to do that again. But since it is such an important date for Alaskans - the amount of light increases after solstice, and given the picture, you can understand why that matters. And as I posted two years ago, the number of minutes we gain per day is definitely noticeable. That solstice post shows how many minutes we gain after solstice. It starts out slow then moves into a gallop. It also has pictures of the earth and the sun to help show how the soltice and equinox work.

Given that we only have five hours from sunrise to sunset now and that J has been home for the last few days with some sort of a chest cold, I decided that on the way home I would stop at the nearby Evalyn's Flowers on Benson to bring some midwinter cheer home.
Like most men, I don't quite understand how flowers work, I just know that they do. And if my wife is happy, I'm happy.

We've got our reservations for our flight to Chiang Mai - January 12 - and house sitters lined up to move in. I'll be going back to the same NGO (Non-Governmental Organization - we'd call it a non-profit) through the American Jewish World Service that I volunteered with earlier this year. Only this time, when I get there, they'll already know me and I'll know them, and my Thai is not as rusty as it was when arrived last February. We've already talked about the job description and I think I can start actually doing something much sooner than last time.

So we have lots to do to get the house in order, to get packed, to finish up projects, etc.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

What Makes ConocoPhillips Employee Volunteers So Atypical?

Note: This post wanders, as do many of my posts. It's not because I'm being lazy, though I could spend several more days revising and rewriting this. But blogging isn't academic research. On the other hand, I don't think I should be blogging just off the top of my head without thinking. I'm hoping - but not holding my breath - that my readers may see something that causes them to think a little differently than they did before. But when I write I also learn new things and see things a little differently. So I'm trying to avoid instant posts that reflect nothing but my own biases. The intent here is to look at things and try out new interpretations, not to vent.

That said, this is written in a larger context about the role of large oil companies in the world that I have written about previously. While on the surface, oil companies project an image of responsible corporate citizens, they are rich, powerful players on the world stage who are well dressed and polite when possible, but also in their pursuit of oil are willing to make deals with leaders of countries like Burma and the Congo, leaders who brutally mistreat their populations. In Alaska, all this goes on much more genteelly, but goes on never the less. Some background to my thoughts on all this can be found in the following posts: Economic Hitman and Responding to Trip1050. Trip1050 works for an oil company and commented on my posts on the AGIA forums. He asks why I mistrust oil companies. So, if you are offended by my skepticism about oil companies, read why I feel that way before commenting.

These posts often wander, because I don't think things can be compartmentalized into neat little soundbites. Well, yes, they can. But those are not accurate reflections of the world. They are attempts to neaten the world into pieces we can understand, but aren't usually accurate. So, when I write, I try to capture how my mind wandered into various areas, I try to capture at least a taste of the messiness of reality, and allow the reader to see that nothing is black and white. While I strive to understand why things happen, understanding why someone does something, doesn't mean excusing it. But understanding why may help devise better ways to prevent others from repeating those things. Ultimately, I'm hoping that I and my readers can step back a bit from whatever the topic is, so they can see it in the bigger view, the view we don't get when we are right in the middle of it.

OK, so here's the post:

The Anchorage Daily News has been carrying large ads from ConocoPhillips touting their employees who volunteer in the community.

"Not Your Typical Volunteer" the ads proclaim.

When help is needed, ConocoPhillips employees don't just get their feet wet - they dive in. That's not your typical volunteering and Peter Brakora isn't a typical volunteer.
So, non-ConocoPhillips employees don't dive in? I've seen volunteers at a lot of non-profits who give of their hearts to help out. At Covenant House, for example, I've seen Mentors (people working full time and with families) come to monthly mentor meetings, plus they meet with the young adults they are mentoring a couple times a month, plus phone calls. This isn't just getting their feet wet, this IS diving all the way in.

So yesterday I called ConocoPhillips to find out what makes their employees so much better than other employees. (Wait, you're saying, it says "not typical" it doesn't say "better". OK, so not typical means, what? Different? Different how? The only clue is that "they don't just get their feet wet, they dive in." To me that is saying they do more, they get more involved, they're better. Come on, why would they spend tens of thousands of dollars (they've posted a number of these ads over the last month) to say their employees are just different? They wouldn't. They are saying their employees are better.) First I asked to be connected to the Human Resources Department assuming they would be running employee volunteer programs. That got me to a recording that told me to apply on line. So I called back. The receptionist wasn't sure who to send me to, but settled on Sandy Tusano, who didn't know, but was very nice and tried to forward me to Sheri Jones, who wasn't in, so Sandy sent me to Gina Luckey, where I left a message. (I'm not sure about my spelling of Sheri Jones. When I tried to Google her, I did find a Sherry Jones who once worked with Bill Moyers on an exposé on chemical companies. But this is a common name and I doubt it's the same person.)

In the meantime I went to the ConocoPhillips site to see if I could come up with answers about what makes them special (not typical.)
Headquartered in Houston, Texas, the company has approximately 33,600 employees worldwide [from Conoco-Phillips Website]
In 2006, the company matched nearly 3,500 employee gifts for a combined total of $6.1 million.[from Conoco-Phillips Website]
So, I started calculating. This would mean that just over 10% of all ConocoPhillips employees participated in this program. Those who participated gave an average of $1743. ($6,100,000/3500 = $1743) What does that mean? Is it a lot? A little? It depends, in part, on how much ConocoPhillips employees get paid. Checking the internet, there are various sites giving us a peek into CP salaries. Payscale.com has salaries that presumably CP employees posted. Theirs is a small sample, and not necessarily all people who posted salaries were actually CP employees or posted their correct salaries. I would guess that people checking out salaries are those earning less than average, but that's just a guess. We also don't know if this is a representative set of salaries or if it skews high or low. But I think this at least gets us in the ballpark. (This is an example of my rambling, because I'm not just giving you a number, but I'm telling you how I got it, and why I'm using it, and raising questions so you can evaluate its validity on your own.)

[You can double click the images to enlarge them.]

I'm also going to assume that people tend to stay at CP if they can, so I'm going to take the 10-19 year median salary of $87,973. A person earning $87,973 contributing $1,743 is contributing just under 2% of her salary. (The regs allow them to contribute up to $6000.)[Or so I thought when I read the website yesterday. This turns out to be related to volunteer time. More on that later.]

Or we can put this into context another way. Here's a list of the top eight executive salaries at CP Worldwide (filed 4/2/2008): (Again, double click to enlarge the chart.)

These eight employees out of a total of about 33,000 employees of CP earned $109,440,405. That's $109 million. (That's eight people making the same amount of money as 1,224 employees making the guestimated 10-19 year employee median of $87,973.)

The $6.1 in matching contributions that CP makes for ALL its worldwide employees is equal to 5.5% of the income of the top eight employees of ConocoPhillips!

But I really wanted to hear from ConocoPhillips about what makes their employees such atypical volunteers. So I called Gina Luckey again. She said she'd sent the message over to her supervisor Natalie Lowman, Director of Media, so I called her and left a message. (The CP website lists her as Director of Communications.) She called back not long ago.

She helped clarify some things. First, ConocoPhillips does NOT match cash contributions, they give grants up to $1500 to organizations that CP employees volunteer with for a certain minimum number of hours. I looked back at the website and it does say grants for volunteering on one page, but the other page that said "... the company matched nearly 3,500 employee gifts for a combined total of $6.1 million" does make it sound like contributions in money rather than time.

As I look back now while writing this, that $1500 figure doesn't gibe with the average I figured based on the CP Worldwide website figure of $6.1 million for 3500 employees, which came to $1743 per employee. That page of the website says

By volunteering their time, employees in the United States enable organizations to receive up to $6,000 in grants per year from ConocoPhillips to defray costs for programs and events, making a positive and important difference in their communities.
Natalie Lowman wasn't exactly sure how much CP gave in such grants in Anchorage, but thought it was around $60,000 for 2008. They could give up to $1500 per employee. When I pointed out that the website said up to $6,000, she said, yes, if there were four employees at one organiztion.

Answers.com says ConocoPhillips Alaska, Inc has 900 employees. At $1500 per employee, that would make a total of 40 CP employees volunteering. If they didn't give the full $1500 per employee, say they only gave half of that - $750 - on average, that would be 80 employees out of 900. So we could guestimate that somewhere between 4.5% - 9% of CP Alaska employees volunteered enough to trigger a grant. Or maybe they did volunteer work but didn't apply for a grant. Or more than four people worked for the same non-profit.

I hadn't done that local calculation when I talked to Lowman, but I did mention that worldwide, given the number of employees listed on the website cited above, that it came out to less than 10% of the employees. That's when she cleared up my misconception that CP matched cash contributions. She said that most employees were really busy, like she is, and so they would rather make a monetary contribution than a volunteer contribution. But, she clarified further, the company does NOT match monetary contributions. She also said that most CP employees contribute through United Way. She said if one in ten volunteered, probably six or seven others made monetary contributions.

I also know that CP makes other contributions to the community such as $100,000 to the Museum in 2007. And there was a $3.68 million gift to the University of Alaska also in 2007. But we need to put an * on that. The University of Alaska press release on the gift also says,
The annual gifts stem from a charter agreement between the oil companies and the state regarding the BP merger with ARCO in the late 1990s. Part of the charter agreement identifies public higher education as a top priority for charitable donations.
So, these donations are part of an agreement negotiated so that BP could merge with ARCO in 1999. The Foraker Group Nonprofit Report December 2006 written by the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER), University of Alaska Anchorage (pp. 43-44) gives a bit more information on this charter agreement:
In 2006 two of the largest oil companies operating in the state, BP (BP Exploration Alaska, Inc.) and ConocoPhillips contributed a combined total of over $22 million in cash to various Alaska nonprofits, including the University of Alaska, and other organizations such as local governments. Their annual contribution is based upon oil production and price as defined by a Charter Agreement that resulted from the ARCO BP merger in 1999. Some in-kind donations are not included in this total, and some of their donations fund capital expenditures rather than operations.
So a minimum amount of contribution is required by this Charter Agreement that was a condition for the BP-ARCO merger. I called Scott Goldsmith, the author of the ISER report, to find out how to get access to the Charter Agreement.He wasn't sure if he ever actually saw a copy, but said he'd check for it tomorrow. [Update: I also called UAA Advancement and later the UA Foundation called and said they would find the Agreement and email it to me .] On the internet, nearly all references I find about BP or ConocoPhillips contributions to the University have that standard clause in them.

I also asked Lowman how ConocoPhillips encourages their employees to volunteer. She said that there's paid time off for clean up day and that employees on Boards can go to board meetings on company time because the company wants them to be involved in the community. I think she said there was additional paid time off allowed for volunteering, but I'm not sure.

So, where's this all going? I initially took exception to the idea that ConocoPhillips employees are somehow better than the typical volunteer. Lowman, when I raised that point, said that wasn't what was intended at all. They were just trying to salute their employees who volunteer and they support all volunteers from any organization. I believe that was their intent.

But was "Not your typical volunteer" simply to mean that they are different? "They don't just get their feet wet, they dive in" implies, to me anyway, that typical volunteers just get their feet wet, but do not dive in.

Well, I guess we could say they aren't typical because they are actually getting their regular salary for some of their volunteer work, not like typical volunteers who volunteer on their own time. I don't say this to belittle the ConocoPhillips volunteers, who, I'm sure, spend more hours volunteering than they are reimbursed for. But it does make them atypical. There's a bit less sacrifice if you're being paid your regular salary to volunteer.

Perhaps the ads should say that ConocoPhillips is not your typical employer, because they pay their employees to volunteer. But then some other employers match their employees' financial contributions.

I think we also have to address the question of why corporations give to charity in the first place.

Many economists argue that the purpose of corporations is to make a profit, that any extra money should be given to shareholders, not to charity. GMR, a blogger whose profile describes him as a Republican MBA in Finance who works for a private equity firm summarizes what many feel about corporate giving:

There are a few times when I think a corporation should give to charity. The first is if it's not really charity: on the surface, it looks like charity, but so much good will is generated, that it's a win-win...

The second type of charity that I'd support is if a corporation were trying to reverse an earlier wrong. Even without the PR benefit. (For instance, if a record company distributed a CD that advocated cop killing, which is within the first amendment rights, but then someone followed the advice. The corporation may not have acted illegally, but it certainly didn't act responsibly).

Finally, I'd support general charity to whatever organization if the board truly believed that the shareholders wanted to give to these charities.
Linda Sugin argues in a long article that the tax law should be changed so that charitable deductions are considered business expenses:
In fact, there is significant evidence that corporations generally make charitable donations in furtherance of their business--either with respect to their employees, customers, or the communities in which they operate. Most corporate charitable giving can easily fit within the requirements of section 162's deduction for ordinary and necessary business expenses. (p. 8)
Corporations, she says later, shouldn't be making charitable donations that don't help the bottom line. When they do it leads to abuse:
Both the popular press and the academic literature are replete with discussion of corporate philanthropy that does more to achieve the private interests of managers than either the public interest, which is the concern of charitable organizations, or the shareholders' interest, which is the concern of corporate governance. (27) The problem seems primarily to be one related to executive compensation; corporate philanthropy that allows managers to support their favorite causes and enjoy the prestige benefits of that support is simply a managerial perquisite. (28)

The Supreme Court's interpretation of "gift" implies something given out of "detached and disinterested generosity." (45) Obviously, a corporation never does anything with feelings of generosity. (46) (p. 8)
The above quotes are from a business professor.

I think Alaskans reading these ads should keep this carefully in mind. The big oil companies used to pretty much have their way in Alaska. The merger between BP and ARCO caused some Alaskans to fight for a few concessions, including the Charter Agreement requiring a set formula for charitable giving. Then, in the wake of the FBI corruption investigations, the Legislature did not approve the privately negotiated deal between Frank Murkowski and the oil companies.

Governor Palin set up criteria for the gasline that the oil companies didn't like and they boycotted the AGIA RFP. They still have a lot of power and they don't have to agree to release the gas. They could scuttle the agreement with Trans Canada. They are working together on the so-called and trademarked "Denali Plan" as an alternative. Plus, the price of oil went over $4 last summer and now has dropped under $2.50 in Anchorage (but still much higher than in the Lower 48) which has a lot of Alaskans wondering if something fishy isn't going on.

So this is a good time to make Alaskans think that the oil companies care for Alaskans. That their employees are good community members (and I'm sure many are). But it was the Communications (PR) office who fielded my questions, not the Human Resources office which normally would be in charge of employee benefit programs. Part of me can't help but wonder whether "it's not really charity: on the surface, it looks like charity."

But I probably wouldn't have had anything to say about this if it hadn't been for the implication that ConocoPhillips employees somehow make better volunteers. We know that oil companies put out 'feel good' ads to make the locals think the companies are good citizens, but when they do this at the implied expense of other good citizens, I just needed to say something.