Saturday, September 26, 2009

CPMS and other ODAR acronyms

Merry's been away this week taking a load of fragile items and a canoe back to Syracuse, so there is no new picture for this blog. Check out her new pictures from the Adirondacks here:

I've been mostly focusing on work this week. I have a lot of cases pending and need to decide as many as possible before leaving for my new post in Syracuse. As I work through these cases I've been reminded of the amazing process Social Security uses to keep track of cases as they move through the adjudication system. If you are interested in knowing more than you need to about how this bit of bureaucracy works, keep reading.

The last Friday of every month is the “official” last day of the month for purposes of toting up what has been accomplished. For ALJs this means the “bean-counters” make note of the total number of cases assigned to each judge, the number scheduled for hearings, the number of final decisions issued and the number of cases pending in “judge controlled” status. They get their data from an electronic case management system called CPMS that can display a constantly updated listing of the current status of every case for every judge. When I'm reviewing a case before a hearing it's in ARPR. If it's waiting for my post hearing review it's in ALPO. Decisions waiting to be edited are in EDIT and decisions waiting to be signed are in SIGN. There are “benchmarks” assigned to every status. If a case remains in any status too long, someone, somewhere is bound to notice. Did I mention that four letter acronyms are dearly loved by your government?

This case tracking system applies to every employee at the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review [ODAR]. From the second a case comes to ODAR at the beginning of the request for a hearing until that case is finally closed, it resides in some status on CPMS and responsibility for the work is assigned to someone. Yes, there is a category of “unassigned” cases but that case is actually sitting for a day or two in a supervisor's cue just waiting to be assigned to the appropriate employee.

Not only are there benchmarks that apply to the time individual cases stay in a given status, there are “goals” for total numbers of cases decided. All ALJs nationwide have the goal of issuing 500 – 700 “legally sufficient” decisions per year. To achieve this overall goal, each office assigns sub-goals to every employee. Every month everyone knows exactly how many cases need to be completed to meet the goals at every level. Everyone is acutely aware that their numbers will be toted up on the last Friday of every month. To deal with this mutual stress the unwritten rule seems to be to pretend not to care about the pressure while keeping an eye on your goals. Managers, including the Hearing Office Chief ALJ [HOCALJ], the Hearing Office Director [HOD] and the Group Supervisors [GS], send out email updates on everyone's progress toward monthly and yearly goals so no one forgets they are watching.

So far as I can tell, nothing bad happens when goals are not met. Then again, our office has met or exceeded our goals for every month I've been here. Coincidence? I don't think so.

There is a very good reason for all this attention to numbers. Social Security operates the largest judicial system on the planet. More than 2.6 million people applied for some type of disability benefit this last year. Every one of those applications gets decided at some level. Over the past decade the “backlog” of applicants for benefits who are waiting for their case to be adjudicated has grown. Right now if a person is not approved at the initial level they can expect to wait 15 – 18 months for a hearing before an ALJ. In some parts of the country, especially the northeast, it's worse.

Everyone acknowledges that this is too long to wait. It's too long for the deserving applicant but also for those who don't qualify. People put their life on hold while they wait. We need to do better. This year agency-wide the top goal was to decide all cases pending 850 days or more. Last year it was 900 days. That's right, highest priority was to decide cases pending 2 1/3 years or more. When I left work Friday no official announcement had been made, but I know St. Louis met this goal on Tuesday.

This past Friday, Sept. 25, marked the official end of the federal 08-09 fiscal year. I took a look at my own first year numbers. I held hearings in about 675 cases, about 56 a month, or about 12 a week. That gives me about 3 hours to work on each case including preparation, a one hour hearing and decision writing. Since I did take two weeks or so off for vacation, the real averages are a bit higher. I issued decisions in about 540 cases. The remainder of the cases were postponed for future action. My productivity is speeding up a bit, so I'm confident I'll do slightly better next year.

After working in St. Louis for just over one year, I have over 800 cases pending on my docket. I started with about 500. Some judges in St. Louis have over 900. The situation is pretty much the same across the country. If every judge in the country issues 500 decisions a year [that's 700,000 cases] and if cases keep flowing into the system at the same rate, we won't ever reach a point where every case can be concluded in one year.

So, it's easy to see how numbers can become a fetish in my job. I try not to think about it too much. My work is to decide each case on its merits, not to meet a quota. Wish me luck.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

St. Louis Smells

Wind's from the south today.”

When we toured the big Budweiser plant here last December we realized that the slightly sweet odor we occasionally smell in our neighborhood emanates from the brewery, a mixture of fermented grains with strong overtones of hops. The brewery is only a mile from our house. It vents massive amounts of this non-toxic gas every hour. We only smell it when the wind is from the south.

It's a good clean smell. Nobody complains. It's also a reassuring smell in a time of economic uncertainty since it means beer is still being brewed by one of St. Louis' biggest employers.

Most of the time I'm not aware of smelling anything. The scientific explanation for this is fairly simple. First, compared to other mammals, humans have a very puny nose. Second, we have evolved so that sight is our primary contact with the world. We've got eyes exquisitely well suited to interpret everything we encounter, so smelling the world takes a back seat. Third, our olfactory system stops smelling things quite quickly. Even though the chemicals for the odor are still there we forget we can smell them. The result is that human beings are not very discriminating in the olfactory department.

Because we live in a world mostly encountered by sight, we're unreliable reporters of smells. Some people are better than others at recognizing and describing what they smell. Most people typically just categorize smells as pleasant or unpleasant. To describe a specific smell we refer to common experience rather than the smell itself. Something smells like rotting fish or like a rose. Descriptions of complex specific smells are elusive. No one can describe a specific perfume, for example, without sounding hilariously vague: “violets, sugar and a hint of musk” does not conjure up anything for me.

I bring this up because of an incident this week involving our dog, Joli. First thing every morning while it's still dark I let Joli out into our yard. She's gone 2-3 minutes then comes back to eat her breakfast. On Tuesday I realized about 10 minutes had passed and she had not come back. I was concerned enough to go out to see what was up.

I saw her at the foot of the steps crouched in a typical border collie “stare.” This stance always means she has spotted something she believes is potential prey. I went down to her. In a group of flower pots overflowing with annuals was a small possum. I'd seen two in our yard before so I wasn't that surprised. Joli's nose was within a foot of the possum. The possum was cornered. It was hissing. Joli was so interested in this small animal that she growled at me to let me know how unhappy she was at being told to get inside and let the possum go on its way.

After about 15 minutes I let Joli out again to see what she would do. She immediately went to the spot where she had confronted the possum. She took a minute or two to investigate that area then set off on a complete patrol sniffing every inch of our yard and garden. She seemed sure the possum was still around. Its persistent odor told her to keep searching.

For the next two days she repeated this very complete search every morning to no avail. Only when there was no residual scent left was she finally convinced the possum was gone.

As chance would have it the Times Sunday Book Review this past week featured Inside of a Dog: What dogs see smell & know by Alexandra Horowitz, a psychology professor at Barnard College, Columbia University.

Professor Horwitz contends that we can only discover what our canine companions are thinking by trying to understand how they experience the world, their umwelt as it were. The key to understanding a dog is to realize that dogs primarily sniff the world. “As we see the world, the dog smells it. The dog's universe is a stratum of complex odors. The world of scents is at least as rich as the world of sight.”

A dog not only has a much larger area in their nose and brain devoted to smelling, they constantly renew the air in their noses so they continue to smell things long after we humans can sense no odor at all. Recent research into the mechanics of sniffing shows it to be a complex phenomena that allows a dog to exchange the air in its nostrils without inhaling or exhaling. Humans are just not very well equipped to sniff.

For me St. Louis is the strong smell of hops on a south wind; for Joli it's the subtile scent of opossum.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Chado - The Way of Tea

The Japanese Festival is one of the premier events at the Missouri Botanical Garden, a/k/a Shaw Garden, after its founder, Henry Shaw. Held every Labor Day weekend, it attracts thousands. When we first visited Shaw Garden last fall we were astonished to find it contains a 14-acre formal Japanese garden. This part of the garden is named Seiwa-en, which means “the garden of pure, clear harmony and peace.” A four-acre lake is complemented with waterfalls, streams, bridges and water-filled basins. Dry gravel gardens are raked into rippling patterns. Carefully placed islands rise from the lake. Largest of these is Nakajima. It crosses the lake, connected to each bank by traditional bridges. We were both drawn to Nakajima, but the entrances were barred.

We learned that Nakajima is a sacred teahouse island reserved for tea ceremonies that are held one weekend each year in a traditional soan, or “farm hut style” teahouse, a gift from Missouri's sister state of Nagano, Japan. This soan was built in Japan, shipped to St. Louis, reassembled by Japanese craftsmen, and dedicated with a Shinto ceremony in 1977.

Merry and I resolved to attend a tea ceremony and see the island. We finally did last Sunday, September 6, but not without a little drama.

Chado, forty minute tea ceremonies, are held on Nakajima 6 times a day for the three days of the Japanese festival. Each seating is restricted to 12 people. Tickets can only be purchased at the entrance to teahouse island one hour before the seating. We planned to go Saturday early.

Saturday dawned gray. Thunder could be heard just before a sustained downpour started. When we reached Shaw Garden at 9 am it was still pouring. We were told at the gate that the three early seatings of Chado had been cancelled. We went in anyway and enjoyed the garden in the rain. We toured the Bonsai exhibit, listened to some traditional drumming, ate, and watched people. Merry has some terrific photos of this visit on her blog

We decided to come back the next day to try again. When we reached the gate we were told due to the threatening weather the ceremony would be held in a room indoors. The disappointment was too much for me. I decided to leave, but Merry wanted to stay and experience Chado, even in a much reduced form. I got in the car and started to exit when I saw Merry running toward me. Plans had changed, the ceremony would be in the teahouse on the island unless it started raining again. Merry ran ahead to stand in line to buy tickets.

An hour later we meet our guide by the Arbor of the Plum Wind. He opens the outer gate that bars the bridge to the island. As we walk he explains the design of the “roji” garden. The outer garden called “soto-roji” is paved with broad stepping stones laid in a sweeping arc. The plants are simple, small shrubs, no flowers. This is a transition area where we can walk without being required to pay much attention as we leave our daily cares behind.

At the end of the arc we come to two parallel rows of thick trimmed bamboo that narrows the focus dramatically. Now the path is paved with uneven tobi-ishi stones, slowing the gait and encouraging much closer attention. An inner gate opens to a courtyard of raked brown gravel. A stone basin filled with water sits by the entrance for symbolic cleansing. Three boulders rise from the gravel sea, two bigger ones on the right, a smaller on the left.

The teahouse is a small room in a simple hut with a tile roof, rough wooden pillars and mud walls. Bamboo hedges screen it entirely from any view off the island. The room has an alcove with a calligraphy scroll and some fresh flowers, and an alcove for the host to prepare tea. The scroll is white, with only four characters: wa [harmony], kei [respect], sei [purity], jaku [tranquility]. The floor is covered by four and a half bamboo tatami mats. One wall is open to the weather, but this is not the door, rather a window. The door is along the side, so small it must be crawled through. We learn only seven of us can enter, the rest will be served tea in the courtyard. I'm right by the entrance. I slip off my shoes and crawl in first.

I'm told to sit in the “least honored guest” spot nearest the host. The last guest across from me will be honored by being served first. Our host is Professor Kimiko Gunji of the University of Illinois. She is assisted by three of her students and a young girl in a beautiful red kimono.

Our host trained in Kyoto to be a tea master in the tradition of the Urasenke school. She leads us through the simple steps. She carefully cleans the utensils. Powered green tea is wisked into a foam in hot water. You eat a sweet cookie and candy. A bowl of tea is carefully placed before you. You offer your tea to the guest seated to your left. They politely refuse. You drink the tea. The bowls are collected.

Every move is choreographed. The utensils are beautiful. Every thing encourages contemplation.

We reluctantly leave the teahouse. We linger in the courtyard. Finally, we cross a wooden drum bridge and return to the rest of the garden.

The forty minutes on the island was one of the most peaceful meditations I've experienced. It opened a small space in my consciousness. I feel ready.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Blog 52

This is my 52nd weekly blog. When I started this project last September I was unsure whether I could or would be able to write an interesting short entry every week, but I've gradually learned the rhythms. I find the discipline it imposes helpful. I write for an hour a day from about 4-5 am. This fits my schedule as an early riser and pleases Joli the dog. She's in the mood for play, pats and eating her daily meal as I write. I work on a few different story ideas each week. Often I don't settle on the final topic until Saturday morning, then I assemble the fragments, rewrite, have Merry edit the result and get her help finding the appropriate photographs mostly from those she's shot during the week.

In retrospect I'm glad I decided to also post these reflections on the internet. Since I started posting to Blogger back in March, about 800 people have visited my site. Thanks to a handy little tool called Sitemeter I can tell a bit about each visit. By far the most visits were from people who somehow already had my web address. The pages with the next highest number of visits due to the use of search engines like Google were the stories about towboats, catfish, Lemp Junque, Devil's Back and the black fly derby. I have no idea why these subjects are the most popular. The average number of daily visitors has increased over time with my current average at 8. I've had hits from all over the world, but most are from Central NY and the St. Louis area.

The number of visits to my site jumped dramatically when I got a plug from Bob Crowe, a local lawyer who posts the amazing blog called “St. Louis Daily Photo.” Bob mentioned his photography hobby in court last spring and gave me his blog address. I've been faithfully checking his site on a daily basis since. He has a terrific eye for portraits. His weekly photographs of the St. Louis Arch are a revelation. Check him out at

Bob's photo blog inspired Merry to start her own daily photo blog and join the group of dedicated amateur photographers who record daily events in cities around the world. Merry's blog can be found at Merry's daily posts also appear on the site of City Daily Photo where you can find beautiful images of everything imaginable. I recommend this site highly, but be warned, you can easily spend hours at Merry and I were both surprised about a month ago when a fellow in England decided to include our blogs in an index he maintains of all the blogs he can find focused on specific localities. He includes blogs that are active as well as those with no current posts. His site called “Around the World” is a treasure trove of photos and written reflection at

Using the internet to post publicly accessible personal reflections started in the mid 90s. The first blog is credited to a Swarthmore College student, Justin Hall, who started in January 1994. The term “weblog” was coined by John Barger in 1997 as a contraction for “logging the web.” Peter Merholtz shortened “weblog” to “blog” in April 1999. The first free web tool for blogging was “Blogger” released by Pyra in August 1999. When Google bought Blogger in 2003 it had 200,000 active users. Now there are a host of free tools for blogging and millions of users.

As a result it is now possible to catch quite intimate glimpses of life everywhere on the globe. There are also blogs on politics, sports, and some that are just plain crazy rants. Major news outlets have gradually come to style their web-based presentations after blogs and promote feedback from readers. My favorites are those that just focus on the surprises, mystery and beauty of everyday life. I enjoy the images. Most people who post such entries love the places they live and want to share that love with others. It promotes understanding in a way not possible before the development of the blogosphere.

Another big advantage for me is the heartfelt response some of my posts draw from you. The post last week about cleaning out my mother's house brought a number of quite beautiful email replies from those of you who have done the same, or who anticipate the experience. Thank you Barbara, Chris, Margaret, Allison, Aaron, Kerry and Dan for sharing your stories.

Now, on to year two.