The Laboratorium
March 2004

This is an archive page. What you are looking at was posted sometime between 2000 and 2014. For more recent material, see the main blog at

On the Virtues of Explicit Relationship Ontology

Clay Shirky is an extremely smart man. So it’s with trepidation that I say that I think he’s passed over something important about Friendster/Orkut-style sites that try to make relationship explicit.

The relevant Shirky-text is this one, a generally smart deconstruction of new features at Friendster and Orkut. When talking about Orkut’s “please confirm that this person is your friend” dialog box, he lays down the rhetorical hurt:

Please make sure? I have 30 million years of primate social experience wired between my ears — I know instantly whether someone is a friend or not. There are times when I forget people’s names and I still remember whether they are friends or not. What Orkut means, of course, is “Please do the socially awkward thing of explicitly denying a social overture, to give us more accurate information about you.”

But then, he goes on to describe the shortcomings of Orkut’s new 1-5 scale for rating how close a particular friend is:

That wasn�t enough, however, so now they�ve added this linear scale of friendship that would be laughed out of a freshman sociology course, and then they say tell me the data is private. Of course it�s not private � that data isn�t for me, it�s for Orkut. I don�t need it in the first place, because I am a monkey, descended from a long line of such monkeys, whose main talent consists of keeping track of relationships. Measured on the time scale of our social capacity, fire is a recent invention and agriculture is still a novelty.

This is mostly right, I think, but it omits a possibility of great importance. I may be a monkey when it comes to my own relationships, but reading other people’s relationships is not always trivial. If they’re willing to codify these things to some extent—“have met” vs. “friend” vs. “long-time friend”—it helps me greatly, if I’m trying to skim the shape of someone else’s local social net.

One of the virtues of Friendster is that it lets me get a sense of how far away someone is from someone else, socially. Knowing that someone is one link from someone I know—even if the link measure is a crude one—is very different from seeing that there’s no such two-hop connection in the system. Knowing that A and B are friends changes my perception of both of them, especially if I don’t know much else about them.

Of course, this possibility doesn’t come up with Orkut’s friend-ranking: they keep this closeness rating entirely private to you. That makes it useless to me, and useless to Clay. And if it weren’t private, there’d be lots of social tensions of the form Shirky notes for the “is this person your friend?” question: am I forced to overstate my friendships out of kindness, pity, or fear?

But still. I’ve been saying since I got into this social-network thing that I would love to be able to modify my social horizon based on closeness. A close friend of a close friend I’d like to see displayed; an acquaintance of an acquaintance I’d rather not. Orkut kind of understands this in its relationship to groups: if the only thing I have in common with someone is membership in a shared interest group, I don’t care much about their friends. The people I’m linked to directly, though: their friends “matter” to me in the sense that anyone on a social networking site matters.

So yeah. It’s a little unfair to ding Shirky for not pointing out a positive possibility that Orkut doesn’t understand when he points out something else Orkut doesn’t understand. So let’s not think of this as a dinging, so much as pointing out a thesis that he might have embraced, but didn’t.

Fun with the United States Reports

Someday, I’d like to assemble a cookbook of recipes contained within non-cookbooks. Richard Powers included a recipe for “Healthy Chinese Vegetables and Noodles” in Gain (page 56); my friend Rachel actually cooked it, and reported that it’s not bad.

The crown jewel in such a project, I think would have to come from the United States Reports. That’s right: if you’re ever in a law library and in need of dinner ideas, just pull down volume 533, and flip to page 405. You’ll be looking at United States v. United Foods. At the end of the opinion, you’ll find a special treat: a two page brochure of mushroom recipes, physically bound into the volume.

United Foods involved a federal act setting up a trade association of fresh mushroom handlers: it required them to pay into a fund that would take out pro-mushroom advertisements. The Supreme Court struck down the act; in his dissent, Justice Breyer decided it would be helpful to illustrate the advertisements involved. Thus, “Let Your Love Mushroom” became an appendix to the court’s opinion; in due course, the editors of the bound volumes of opinions decided simply to bind the brochure in.

Wacky, huh?

On the Locality of Trade Names

You know what’s a good name for a coffehouse? “Brewed Awakening.” Yeah. It implies coffee; it’s suggestive of a morning caffeine hit, and the pun is painfully cutesy.

You know how good a name it is? I’ve been able to find eight separate Brewed Awakenings. They’re in Chicago, Berkeley, Las Vegas, Big Bear Lake (CA), Gig Harbor (WA), Ware (MA), Fort Wayne (IN), and Metuchen (NJ). Great minds pun alike, I suppose.

Their peaceful coexistence — and indeed, their peaceful online coexistence — is a nice illustration of a basic principle of names: the same name can happily be used by lots of people, as long as there’s minimal confusion involved. The law of trade names understands this principle fitfully. “Confusion” is officially part of the doctrine, but, like so many terms in the law, it has a disturbing tendency to slide into fiction under continual pressure applied by self-serving litigants.

Status and Conduct

So the White House is busy trying to allow federal agencies to fire employees for being gay. This is a bit of a tough one for them, given that there’s a 1978 law on the books that protects federal employees from job discrimination on the basis of conduct unrelated to their jobs. (Silly good government civil service laws.) The Clinton administration read this provision at something close to face value, figuring that private sexual conduct is rarely if ever related to one’s job performance.

Well, Scott Bloch, late of the Task Force for Faith-based and Community Initiatives, and now in the Office of Special Counsel, thinks he has a way around that pesky statute. Just define sexual conduct as something separate from sexual orientation, and bingo! Suddenly being gay is no longer “conduct” and now falls outside the scope of what the statute protects. In Bloch’s words, “Someone may have jumped to the conclusion that conduct equals sexual orientation, but they are essentially very different. One is a class … and one is behavior.”

We call this a distinction without a difference, class. And it’s a distinction that has already been discredited when it comes to sexuality. But there’s something even more ridiculous about Bloch’s claim … he’s trying to make the distinction cut in the wrong direction.

When it comes to anti-discrimination law and principles of equality in this country, one’s status is more protected than conduct, not less. Romer v. Evans articulated the proposition that “mere” animus against a class of people — even a class that’s not on the historic list of suspect classifications — is not a legitimate basis for governmental policy. Lawrence v. Texas goes even further: it says that some forms of conduct are so intimately (no pun intended) bound up with sexual status as to be beyond the scope of what government can prohibit.

So when Bloch says that the government is “only” allowed to go after status, he’s in fact naming the one thing that government is often not allowed to go after. Leaving aside the issue of whether his statutory interpretation would or will stand up on judicial review, after Lawrence it’s not clear that the government would be allowed to fire someone just for being gay. Even most of the pre-Lawrence cases dealt only with conduct.

For one final illustration of the absurdity, compare Bloch’s proposed policy with don’t-ask/don’t-tell. That policy says that the military will not fire anyone just for being gay, but only for homosexual acts. Whereas in the civil service, being gay will get you bounced, but homosexual acts are fine.

As usual, the Bushies are being not just malicious, but idiotically malicious.

UPDATE: Fixed, thanks.

Praeternaturally Weak Puns

Remember the Henry Maine!

Return madrasa.

The Fashion of the Christ.

Dangling Prepositions Run Amok

The front page of CNN right now is running the following story on the Baghdad hotel bombing:

Insurgents chose a "soft target" impossible to defend against when they bombed a Baghdad hotel Wednesday, one Iraqi leader said. The powerful car bomb went off in central Baghdad, killing 29 people and wounding at least 50 others, senior U.S. military officials said.

Hotel as superweapon, I suppose.

If We Lived in a More Matriarchal World …

Would we have gangstress rappers and taunts of "who's your mommy?"

Memo re: David Brooks

Plenty of otherwise perceptive people, both left and right, have been saying that the Spanish regime change is a direct referendum on long-term national policies towards global terrorism. Within this framework, Aznar and his posse stand for Bush-style take-no-prisoners bring-it-on rough kill 'em all and let God sort it out frontier vigilante justice, and the Zapatero crew represent waffly wimpy appeasement with a glass of dry sherry.

Me, I have my doubts. Even if you do assume that terrorism is the only issue weighing on the Spanish mind -- and it's certainly not the only one weighing on the American mind -- it's still undetermined, as a matter of principle, which way the Madrid bombings "ought" to have cut. They meant either that the government was right to stand with the U.S. against, er, Iraq, or that the government's stance wasn't working. Whatever you already believe, you might project onto the bombing and the election; David Brooks projects the "terrorists will have won" meme, and sees Spain installing an objectively pro-Qaeda government.

First question: Am I correct in reading Brooks's first paragraph to suggest that he thinks the elections should have been delayed or cancelled due to the bombing? Is he really saying that maintaining normal democratic processes in the face of terror is "crazy?"

Second question: Is it at all possible that this was not an election decided by long-term policy considerations but by Spanish public reaction to more short-term indicators of the quality of their current government? Remember, after all, that the Aznar government blamed ETA within hours, and kept blaming ETA after ETA denied involvement, and even for almost a day after its own forces had arrested several Moroccans and Indians with apparent links to al Qaeda. And remember, too, that the government only said yes, it had these men in custody and they didn't seem like Basques after the opposition forced its hand by threatening to expose the lies publicly.

Perhaps I should put this question in terms Brooks might understand. Might it be that Spanish voters do care about mounting an effective defense against terror? And that they concluded that a government which would publicly make statements it knew to be false absolving al Qaeda of involvement might not be counted on to deal sensibly with future al Qaeda threats?

Let's imagine a little hypothetical just to make my point clear. Suppose the Aznar government had said from the get-go that it wasn't certain of the bombers' identity but was investigating all leads aggressively. And that then they had announced, within two days, they had anounced that they had in hand five men linked to the bombings and a videotape linking them to al Qaeda.

It may just be me, but I would have thought that that sort of swift and competent police work would have swept the Aznar government back into office. And, of course, the police work was both switft and competent. Too bad for the Popular Party that the police work was accompanied by a clumsy, detectable, and embarassing lie.

Faith-Based Focus Grouping

The Times is running a story whose main idea is that Hollywod has started looking around for the next film capable of doing boffo Passion of the Christ style. The only specific projects in the pipeline, however, appear to be a film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and a Book of Revelations TV show.

Consider, however, this line from the article: "Mr. Guber said that reaction to that movie's success was butting up against the feelings of many in Hollywood who dislike its widely criticized portrayal of Jewish responsibility in the death of Jesus."

It seems to me that there's plenty of room here for some what-cha-ma-call-it projects. Synergy. The Old Testament is a pretty big book, after all.

  • Exodus never gets old.
  • Cain and Abel with some Matrix-style FX? Killer.
  • There ever been a good movie version of Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac? I don't think so.
  • All that Garden of Eden business with the Biblically-endorsed nudity is guaranteed to pack in the teenage demo.
  • The Babylonian Captivity. I'm sure Mel could do it like Braveheart, with plenty of gore.
  • That Isaiah sure was a fun guy, huh?
I don't mean for my flippant tone to be off-putting. I really would like to see some of these films made. I'd pay good money to see some of them done well, they certainly ought to appeal to the church groups who've been packing the Passion, and I don't see much in them that would run a serious risk of anti-semitism.

A Curious Question

Consider the following exchange:

"Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

"The dog did nothing in the night-time."

"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.



Enfranchised, adjective.

Literally, "given the rights of the Franks." It seems tragic that the word franchise so appropriately and redolently used in the struggle to extend the vote in the nineteenth century, should now be confined to the right to open a fast-food restaurant.
-- James MacDonald, A Free Nation Deep in Debt 262 (2003).

The Strangeness of Spam

In my email inbox, "Lists: Teachers - Media - Libraries - Bookstores - Churches - Healthcare...more." A sampling of the lists I could buy, for prices ranging from $39 to $99.

  • 7,700 K-12 teachers in Missouri . . .
  • 100 New Zealand libraries . . .
  • 350 Canadian Christian bookstores . . .
  • 1,000 science clubs . . .
  • 1,100 film school professors . . .
In my snail mail, I got an ad from a local community college. Ikea is coming to town next year, so now is the time to attend a series of FREE workshops on careers in retail.

As always, I'm forced to ask: do these people know something I don't?