Saturday, 25 May 2019

Process cost

I wonder how much this termination and associated litigation cost a Nova Scotia firm, and how much it would be likely to cost here in New Zealand. From the National Post:
N.S. arbitrator says employer was right to fire man for masturbating in bathroom — but only because it mortified co-workers

The employee and Unifor, his union, tried various unsuccessful arguments in the man's defence, including that he had a disability of sex addiction.

A company is justified in firing a unionized employee for masturbating in a bathroom stall at work, a labour arbitrator in Nova Scotia has ruled.

The arbitrator concluded that the employer, an aerospace firm operating hangars at the Halifax airport, had just cause to terminate the employee because his colleagues could hear what he was doing, and it caused “embarrassment and distress” in the workplace. The employee had also been warned about his behaviour two years earlier.

The employee and Unifor, his union, tried various unsuccessful arguments in their grievance, including that he had a disability of sex addiction. They also argued he had not been properly warned because managers were too embarrassed to directly tell him what the complaints were about and instead spoke in euphemisms about “unusual noises.”

For privacy reasons the employee is not named in the ruling, which came down last week and is publicly posted in an online legal database.

It appears to be the first Canadian labour case on the subject. “Neither (the company) nor the union’s representative had been able to find any case dealing with masturbation in the workplace,” the ruling says.

Arbitrator Gus Richardson was asked to decide whether the act of loudly masturbating in a stall justified discipline and termination, and whether a bathroom stall is a sufficiently private place.
You'd think that doing that in the washroom at work, repeatedly and loudly, and after warning, would be grounds for summary dismissal.

The case is funny, but the whole process had to have cost the firm a bundle in legal representation and hassles.

Let's stick with the funny though:

“I do not accept the grievor’s testimony that he made no sounds while performing this activity,” Richardson wrote. “Obviously if that were true no one would have known that he was doing it. But people did know. They could only have known about it because they could hear it.”

Two technicians had approached their union shop steward with complaints, but the steward “didn’t want to entertain this issue.” Instead the technicians went to management, who met with the employee but avoided directly mentioning the issue. A manager told the employee there were complaints about noises in the bathroom, such as “breathing heavily, making erratic movements and moaning,” and said management was concerned for the employee’s well-being. They told him that if he had a serious medical issue, he should alert human resources.


But two years after that meeting, complaints about the employee’s behaviour reached a boiling point again, with one employee complaining to human resources that the masturbation had become “more frequent and brazen.” The company conducted an investigation, and the employee was eventually fired.

Richardson considered evidence that the employee has a disability in the form of a sex addiction that should mitigate the punishment. He accepted evidence from a therapist on sex addiction despite protests from the company that the therapist’s education was from an online university that was not accredited by any national psychological association.
“In short, even if there was a condition that could be called a ‘sex addiction’ — and I was not persuaded on the evidence that there was — and even if that was what the grievor suffered from — and again I was not persuaded that was the case — there was nothing to establish that it was disabling in any way,” he concluded.

“I am accordingly persuaded that the employer had just cause not only to discipline the grievor, but to terminate his employment. The grievance is dismissed.”
Emphasis added. You'd hope in cases like this that the employer's costs could be awarded against the union.

In any case, the arbitrator's decision seems entirely correct. I would hope that a similar case in New Zealand wouldn't even make it this far, but if it did, I hope the ruling would be similar.

Friday, 24 May 2019

Herald on sugar

Kudos to Boyd Swinburn and the usual anti-sugar folks for getting this wonderful piece of advocacy published in the Herald as journalism rather than advertorial or op-ed. I'm cancelling my subscription to the Herald and asking for a refund of the balance of my annual subscription fee, but that's a bit beside the point. Swinburn et al have done a great job here with cheer-leading reporter Luke Kirkness.

Here we go.
"I've finished pulling teeth today, my right hand's actually sore I pulled out so many."

Those are the harrowing words of New Zealand dentist Dr Rob Beaglehole who is urging the Government to take action and tax sugary drinks.

The problem is so extreme more than $20 million is spent each year anaesthetising Kiwi children so they can undergo tooth removals as a consequence of consuming sugary drinks.

And today, a petition has been launched in an effort to convince the Government to introduce a tax on sugary drinks.

But the current Labour-led Government and Health Minister Dr David Clark have no plans for such a tax.
Excellent heroic-dentist versus uncaring-government framing.
"The Government needs to modify the environment that we're living in," Beaglehole, the New Zealand Dental Association (NZDA) spokesman, said.

"We've had enough of Coca-Cola, McDonald's and other junk food companies selling this sickness to our kids.

"They keep getting away with it ... we need to make the healthy choice the easy choice."

Beaglehole told the Herald last night the NZDA backed the petition but the Government should go further than just implementing a tax.
University of Auckland academic Dr Gerhard Sundborn, on behalf of The New Zealand Beverage Guidance Panel, is behind the latest petition.

Calls for a sugary drinks tax aren't new he said. One with 10,000 signatures was presented in August 2017 but largely ignored by politicians.

"It was extraordinary that this earlier call to tax sugary drinks ... was snubbed by the then Minister of Health, and by both major parties," he said.
Getting the journalist to fail to follow up with the Ministry, or to check in on whether the Ministry has done prior work on sugar taxes - again, excellent work. Those interested can read NZIER's comprehensive review of the prior five years' published literature on the topic - commissioned by the Ministry of Health. But the journalist isn't interested. At least Newshub's reporting covered that part. Like, you might think that a journalist would wonder why the Ministry has been sceptical.
"NZDA has estimated that we spend more than $20 million every year to anaesthetise children so they can undergo multiple tooth extractions as a consequence of consuming sugary drinks.

"We must find more ways to address these issues."

The Panel, made up of researchers from a range of fields including public health, medicine and marketing, suggests a targeted tax on sugar should be top-priority to tackle the country's interconnected issues with obesity, type 2 diabetes and rotten teeth.
Really? The dentists have been able to sort out what proportion of extractions are due to sugary drinks and what proportion comes down to other stuff and what comes down to a combination of factors including never brushing one's teeth? This is amazing. I'd love to see that research and see how they established it. The journalist wasn't interested, but I am.

I know I'm blockquoting the whole article here, but I don't feel too bad about it. Here's the press release from the New Zealand Beverage Guidance Panel, and much of the article is a paraphrase of it.

Who is the Guidance Council anyway? This Stuff article (no paywall, better journalism) from 2017 says it was set up by FIZZ - an anti-soda advocacy group. This isn't some neutral bunch of nutritionists - it is an anti-soda advocacy group. This brief says they were modelled on the US Beverage Guidance Panel, "The intention of the panel was to develop guidance to government and community groups to limit the intake of sugary drinks." So: Panel established to fight soda consumption argues for sugar tax.

Let's move on.
The Health Minister agrees but in a statement to the Herald he said the Government had no plans for a sugar tax, as he had "consistently said".

"We need to reduce sugar levels in our processed food and drink, and develop a better food labelling system," Clark said.

"I have met several times with the food industry and set out the clear expectation that business and the Government will work together on this issue."

In September, the Herald reported Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was told a sugar tax would generate millions in revenue and save lives.

Ardern was briefed on a potential tax by the Ministry of Health's chief science adviser Dr John Potter at her request.

Potter said a tax of 20 per cent had been shown to work but should be based on volume or sugar content, not value of the product.

"Reduction of consumption via a tax will probably be greatest among the households with the lowest disposable income. In New Zealand, Māori and Pacific will benefit strongly," he said.
Potter did send that memo: 16 February 2018.

It was two-pages of unreferenced bullet points.

It made no mention of the comprehensive NZIER report on the effects of sugar taxes, which Potter had received on 15 August 2017 and which was publicly released, finally, after much prodding from me, on 31 January 2018: two weeks before Potter's memo.

The NZIER report was covered in the Herald on 2 February, by Newsroom on 7 February, and even in the Toronto Globe and Mail on 12 February. If Potter missed it in August, you would think that the Ministry of Health's Chief Science Advisor just might have noticed extensive media coverage of an important report in his brief during the fortnight before he provided his memo. It surely would also have come up in discussions within the Ministry between April and February.

Potter's failure to mention it, and providing advice concluding the opposite of the Ministry's comprehensive commissioned report, could reasonably be characterised as Potter, the Chief Science Advisor in Health, having misled the Prime Minister.

See, if you expect reporters to either know their beat or to ask people who do know the area, you'll be a bit disappointed in the Herald article by now. It would not have been hard to get NZIER's Peter Wilson on the phone.

And you'd be wondering just why you're paying $200/year as a subscription fee, and whether they'll refund the balance of the subscription like you've requested.

I'll stop there. The piece goes on, and does have a quote from the beverage industry saying that the beverage industry doesn't like sugar taxes. And it concludes with a link to Sundborn's petition - despite (I'd thought!) standard drill at Herald being that they don't outlink.

I'll reconsider the subscription cancellation if they fix this mess.


Thursday, 23 May 2019

Data termination

Awww, nutbunnies.

In April, Paula Penfold and Eugene Bingham reported that 2500 women had had their requests for abortion turned down over the last decade.

Me, and a few others, immediately started imagining some rather interesting research that could be done if those records could be linked up in IDI. So I started making enquiries. It's not a study I'd ever do as part of the day-job, but if a few queries from me could help the academics who would actually do the studies and tell me interesting things about the world I didn't know before - well, I was happy to poke around to see whether that data could be linked up in IDI.

It can't be. Or, at least, not easily. Consulting physicians provide up to the government reporting on approvals and rejections, case-by-case, but with an anonymous ID number attached to each case where only the consulting physician has the key. The government can request more detail, and the physician can then check back in the physician's notes. But the government itself doesn't have the keys for linking the records to the de-identified records held in IDI - like by health ID number. It just can't be done without getting physicians to agree to sharing more of their notes up the system - and that's a far bigger battle.

It's a darned shame though. Linked up in IDI, here's the kinds of things that friends back in academia could have looked at:

  • Outcomes (across a wide range of indicators) for women who proceed with termination compared with: 
    • statistically comparable women who never requested termination;
    • statistically comparable women who requested termination, were approved for termination, but then changed their minds (a birth happened soon enough after the request was approved);
    • statistically comparable women whose request for termination was declined.
  • Outcomes (across a wide range of indicators) for children whose mothers never sought termination compared with:
    • children of statistically comparable women who requested termination, were approved, but changed their minds;
    • children of statistically comparable women whose requests for termination were denied;
    • the children of statistically comparable women who did not give birth after being approved for termination (you can't tell whether the termination proceeded or whether a miscarriage otherwise obtained) but who did give birth at a later date.
  • Lifetime parity among women among women whose requests were approved compared to those whose requests were not - how much of this is a decision about the timing of children rather than the number.
I'm sure you can think of a lot more research that looks to be near-impossible. 

Many thanks to the patient communications advisor at the Ministry of Justice who walked me through how the system operates. I think she had to do a fair bit of running around to sort it all out. So big plaudits for public sector helpfulness on this one. No mucking around treating things as OIA requests and then long turnarounds on questions of clarification, just helpful replies. Very happy on that front. A++++ recommendation. 

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Parliament and Twitter Hate

I stay the hell away from twitter fights about which MP draws the most attacks on Twitter and where lines are on what's allowable or not for very public figures who themselves often give pretty hard. Threats of violence seem absolutely wrong; otherwise, I'm not going to be drawn into the argument.

But it seems it would be trivially easy, for somebody who knows what they're doing in Twitter's API, to scrape out all the tweets referring to each MP, and build a timeline of affect. Like, overall volume of tweets referring to an MP, relative mood of those tweets, and how that changes over time.

You'd expect that senior politicians and more vocal politicians draw more attention, both good and bad, and that politicians that are more active on Twitter also draw more attention. All of that should be able to be controlled for. And then you'd be able to check for the effect of things like changing portfolios, movement into and out of cabinet, movement into and out of opposition and all that.

Anyway - a fun project for someone with time and who knows how to play with Twitter's API. I bet the Herald's data journalists could do it in no time at all and put up some ranking that could be interesting.

Update: Thomas Lumley's had a first cut at things:
He later notes that the negative words in reply to me seem to be people sharing my outrage at the outrage-of-the-day, while negative replies to Ms Ghahraman are rather worse. It's an interesting first cut. I also really wonder how much negative engagement is driven by bots as compared to real people. David Hood points out that prior to the last campaign period things just looked less polarising. Did NZ change, or is someone messing with us?

Friday, 17 May 2019

Treasury on the Heartwork event

I'd noted in April that my query of Treasury on the Heartwork event became an OIA request. I have an answer now. I'll copy the letter below, as it also includes the question.

On following up with David by phone, the $35 fee listed on the Eventbrite page was something charged by Heartwork rather than by Treasury, and Treasury staff were not charged for attending. I wanted to check that I'd not gone mad in remembering a $35 Eventbrite ticket fee.

Treasury does host a lot of different events; I've attended a lot of fantastic talks there from external speakers. I've never paid for one of those, but none of the talks I've attended provided take-home materials for attendees. I wonder whether there have been prior instances where an external provider charged an attendance fee for external attendees at a Treasury-venue event. I doubt that Heartwork made much on hosting the event - plausible that it ran at cost on their card decks. Curious on the general principle here.


Thursday, 16 May 2019

State-owned investment vehicles

If I understand the current concerns around Huawei correctly, it isn't so much that there's worry that their current kit is set up for spying, but that it would be too easy for the Chinese government to direct it, down the line, to surreptitiously do naughty things via updates. Everything's a bit opaque in China; the government has ownership stakes all over the place, and ample regulatory/directive ability. Everything in China operates under the shadow of the state. That shadow matters. 

The New Zealand state carries its own smaller shadow. When you're in the Wellington circuit, you start hearing just crazy stories about what regulated entities do, not because they're compelled to do it, but because they think it will curry favour with the government's or regulator's flavour-of-the-month political preferences and make adverse regulatory outcomes less likely. Who knows whether the activity that happens under that shadow of regulation actually affects the regulator's behaviour in any case. But weird stuff happens in that shadow. And you'll just have to take my word for it. 

Anyway, it makes me nervous when state-owned investment entities like the SuperFund and ACC, and Kiwisaver funds that operate under the shadow, start putting weight behind any current government's policy pushes - whether it's the Christchurch Call or anything else.

And I start wondering whether publicly listed companies should be thinking about ways of defending other investors by preventing sovereign wealth funds and public pension funds from picking up too great a total ownership stake. It wouldn't be a cheap call to make - those things manage huge amounts of investment. But if sovereign wealth funds become increasingly activist investors with strong non-return-related preferences, and with an implicit potential regulatory threat behind them where they're aligned with their government-owner's current political preferences - Huawei is nearer than you might like.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Morning roundup

This morning's worthies on the closing of the browser tabs: