Barely Legally

Confessions of a Moot Court Bailiff

I made a token effort to come up with a title

From Engadget, RSA hacked, data exposed that could ‘reduce the effectiveness’ of SecurID tokens:

RSA, the security division of EMC and producer of the SecurID systems used by countless corporations (and the Department of Defense), has been hacked. Yesterday it sent out messages to its clients and posted an open letter stating that it’s been the victim of an “advanced” attack that “resulted in certain information being extracted from RSA’s systems” – information “specifically related to RSA’s SecurID two-factor authentication products.”

I look forward to reading about how this happened. Ars Technica’s magnificent writeup of the HBGary attacks was impossible to put down.

Published in The News on

The Trivia Kingpin Chronicles

I have always enjoys trivia. I have a head for numbers and little factoids (factlings?) memorized in a vacuum. Before law school, most of the stuff cluttering up my head centered around history and science; after law school, I have added to my repertoire basic legal tidbits, like how Fair Use and Copyright work.

Never one to keep my mouth shut (he wrote into his blog, equally self-referentially and self-reverently), I also like to share my trivia. For this reason, social media knowledge markets are a lot of fun for me. I get to help people find answers to their questions, and I also get to release pent-up trivia or seek validation from strangers — depends whether you ask me or that lousy psychiatrist I keep seeing for some reason. It’s the Shirkian cognitive surplus, whatever the motivation.

The Honeymoon

I really liked Fluther at first. It was a wide variety of topics, and the web site was easy to navigate. There were questions about legal trivia, like “how does Fair Use work?” that an astonishing number of people were incapable of answering. Half the populace seems to think there’s a 40 second cutoff for fairly using music, and the other half thinks it’s 20 seconds. Needless to say, here was a people in need of my trivia. I could contribute a lot, and so I did.

However, I copied and pasted the EFF’s FAQ on Fair Use into the answer box so many times I’ve lost count. No one learned, and no one knows the first thing about law, so I kept restating simple little bits. There didn’t seem to be any “gain” for me, because the community doesn’t ask insightful questions, and flagrantly wrong answers were well-regarded.

What Fluther Wrought

As I write this, the most active discussions on Fluther right now are:

  • I have been dating a guy for a month and just found out he’s sending pictures to another girl what do I do?
  • How do you turn down a guy that you like as a friend, but not like THAT?
  • How do I open up multiple programs and work at them at the same time?
  • Legally, if a spouse plans to commit suicide, what must be done prior to release others from legal persecution?
  • Any advice for a person who’s longing for a major, positive change in their life, but who doesn’t have the means to make it happen?

This seems more like a chat room than a knowledge market. I exert too much effort finding questions to answer, and not enough effort finding answers to questions. I don’t see the point in engaging when I’m just going to repeat myself and, given the level of discourse related to my specialty, I see even less point in asking questions of legal niceties I don’t understand. It’d be like a mechanic asking me for help fixing his car: there’s just not enough expertise in this brain to make it worth his time. On the other hand, I could probably hold a wrench with an adequate level of proficiency.

Keep it Sophisticated, Stupid

One of the perks of my job is getting to sit in on talks about interesting things. Earlier this week, I listened to a guest speaker dissect what makes a successful knowledge markets, and he explained very cogently what makes sites like Stack Overflow (now the Stack Exchange Network) so rewarding for more than just people asking how to turn down a guy that you like as a friend but not like THAT.

A site like Stack Overflow has a huge knowledge overlap: everyone is speaking the same language. There are geeks who need just that extra bit of knowledge that they lack to help get them over a single technical hurdle, not teens who have no one better to ask about tragic high school romance than the internet at large. Rather, the questions are granular and accessible to experts who can provide the high-level answer without having to re-invent the wheel by posting basics of, say, copyright law over and over again.

To take Stack Overflow as an example again, here’s some of the specialized computer science stuff way out of my “amateur nerd” pay scale:

  • Script for converting html markup to valid XML
  • Prevent height change of a DisplayObject in Adobe ActionScript
  • Forcing MySQL to use an non inclusive index to avoid table scan?

Popular discussions on Fluther can end up with nearly 100 responses. The aforementioned Stack Overflow questions have 11 answers, and have been viewed hundreds of times. Signal without noise is a beautiful thing.

The Paradox of Accessibility

If you’re not a system of experts with hard to understand questions, you’re a community of newbies with nothing to offer experts who could provide really useful information. The experts leave because it’s really annoying to give out the same answer a dozen times to people who essentially need the whole solution mapped out repeatedly. A low level of discussion breeds low level of discussions. See Yahoo! Answers, which makes Fluther look like the Manhattan Project.

Take Quora, for instance. Quora is functionally identical to Fluther, but Quora seeded their discussion with really, really smart people, and so the discussion started with a lot of experts. You get some really compelling and interesting discussions going, like this essay on the runaway success of online backup service Dropbox. However, Quora might lose learned essayists like Michael Wolfe to intellectual attrition when Wolfe and his outnumber peers begin to find the signal obscured by the noise.

Are there enough experts on Quora to elevate and compartmentalize the level of discourse like Stack Exchange has? Is it even necessary to do so? I’m going to enjoy watching knowledge markets mature and best practices emerge.

Published in A Day in the Life on

Problem Solved

Well, that was easy. House Republicans Vote That Earth Is Not Warming:

Congress has finally acted on global warming—by denying it exists. It’s in the grand lawmaking tradition of the Indiana state legislature’s 1897 attempt to redefine the value of pi.

All Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted against an amendment that states that global warming exists, regardless of cause.

The Republican-led House of Representatives is currently working on the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011, which would bar the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon dioxide emissions to mitigate climate change.

Listen to the rest of this massive triumph of politics over nature on the Scientific American Podcast.

Published in Irreverently Irrelevant on

Oh Come On

From St. Louis Today, Estate of man sues Starbucks over death:

The Starbucks coffee shop here should have known it was inviting trouble by placing a tip jar on an open counter, according to a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the estate of a customer who died defending it. The suit, filed Monday in St. Louis County Circuit Court, seeks unspecified damages from the Starbucks Corp. on behalf of the estate of Roger Kreutz and his father, Edward Kreutz Sr.

Roger Kreutz, 54, of Crestwood, was a customer at the Starbucks, 9590 Watson Road, on March 3, 2008, when he saw a teenager snatch the jar. Kreutz gave chase on foot. Rushing to escape, Aaron Poisson, then 19, struggled with his pursuer over a car door and backed his Ford out of a parking space, knocking Kreutz to the pavement. He died two days later of head injuries.

That Mr. Kreutz is dead is tragic. His actions were noble and selfless, and he certainly didn’t deserve the fate that befell him. That being said, this is a horrible lawsuit. While “inviting trouble” may well be the legal standard for creation of risk in a negligence (Section III) action in St. Louis, I don’t see how “tip jar creates risk of deadly injury to bystanders” passes the straight-face test.

One of the best ways of heading off liability for negligence is to prove what’s called an intervening cause of injury: some unforeseeable event severed the chain of causality between “stupid thing I did” and “wacky injury you suffered.” For instance, if Starbucks put the tip jar on a rickety shelf and it subsequently fell and injured a customer, an earthquake would probably sever the chain of causality, but another customer bumping into the shelf wouldn’t. An earthquake is much less foreseeable than a customer bumping into a shelf. People are clumsy. It happens.

In this case, something unforeseeable would need to happen after Starbucks puts out the tip jar, but before Kreutz hit his head and died. The unforeseeable thing was Kreutz grappling with the thief, chasing him out of the building, chasing him into his car, grappling with the thief again, and then being struck by the thief’s car.

Worse still for Kreutz, (technically, his estate) he was arguably the intervening cause of his own death. Sure, the kid who hit him with his car is another cause of his death, but Kreutz did a lot of chasing and grappling of his own volition. I’d say there’s a good chance that a judge or jury finds Starbucks unable to reasonably foresee a guy chasing a thief into a parking lot and being killed for it. Even if Starbucks could reasonably foresee a customer bravely chasing down a ne’er-do-well (which is what the Kreutz Estate lawyers are going to have to argue), it’s questionable whether being hit by a car is a reasonably foreseeable result.

As I said before, this lawsuit seems like a cheap cash-grab. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if the Kreutz Estate lawyers are banking on a gift settlement out of the hope that someone at Starbucks feels a sense of moral obligation to Mr. Kreutz’s family. I just don’t see how Starbucks can lose in court.

Published in Legal Theory on

Google Books: now with 100% more Blog!

I think I accomplished a lot of things in law school. However, I may be most proud of The Public Index, a leading resource for information about the Google Book Search Settlement. I worked for Professor James Grimmelmann and alongside a great team of students.

As of today, The Public Index has a blog, where the team provides updates on works of scholarship and foreign lawsuits related to digitization. It belongs in everyone’s RSS feeds.

Published in Legal Theory on

Of Newt and Men

I am morbidly fascinated by political theater. If there’s anything my generation has learned from Jon Stewart, it’s that you can spend your days pulling apart the inane things that come out of politicians’ mouths without ever (a) running out of material or (b) getting anything accomplished. In the spirit of pointless parsing, I offer the following.

Newt Gingrich on President (and First Lady) Clinton in 1994:

“He’s a very smart, very clever tactician whose core system of activity is a combination of counterculture and [George] McGovern. … They really are left-wing elitists and they really thought the country didn’t get it and therefore it was their job to give the country the government that they thought the country needed, even if they didn’t want it.”

Newt Gingrich on President Obama Monday:

“[he’s] a Harvard, Columbia, University of Chicago elitist from the most expensive private school in Hawaii, who lives in an elite, radical worldview in his head.”

Newt Gingrich on President Clinton Monday:

“[he’s] a very down home Arkansas kind of guy” with a “common sense understanding of the average person.”

I can understand having the same criticisms of the moderate Democratic president in 1994 and the moderate Democratic president in 2011, but I hope Gingrich doesn’t pay a lot for his speechwriter, because this is hardly new material. On the other hand, at this rate, Gingrich is likely to have very nice things to say about Obama in 2026, so I suppose the charges of “elitist” and “radical” can’t sting too much. 

When Gingrich does decide Obama’s an OK guy in 2026, (at Gingrich’s current rate of divorces and marriages) he will be on his fourth marriage, which will begin in 2019 with a woman 38 years his junior. He’s actually remarkably consistent in his selection of wives. Each is 15 years younger than her predecessor, and Gingrich marries once every 19 years like clockwork.

Credit to First Read, which came up with the quotes, but had the good sense not to crunch the numbers on Gingrich’s marriages.

Published in Irreverently Irrelevant on