The Laboratorium
October 2006

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I was punished for my virtue while I was flossing Saturday night. One of my crowns popped off. I spit it into my hand, and though I was relieved to see that it was a crown and not a tooth (I wasn’t thinking quite straight, or else I might have realized that a tooth would have hurt, though fortunately I don’t know from experience), it was still not good. This is close to the least convenient dentist week imaginable for me—I’m in a different city every day from Sunday through Thursday, and otherwise unavailable on Friday and Saturday.

First I cussed; then we discussed. We decided that the best strategy was for me to wait until today and call my regular dentist here in New Haven first thing. I’d managed to wedge the crown back on and it seated rather securely, so I wasn’t worried that it would fall off again too easily. The wife was a bit worried that it’d fall off in the night and that I’d aspirate it, leading to horrible consequences of the sort she was studying for her pulmonology test today. Me, I was more sanguine, figuring that I was more likely to swallow it. This claim was not reassuring to her.

In any event, I called the dentist’s office this morning and, happily enough, they were able to fit me in in late morning. Since my first visit ever with them involved having a crown reglued, I knew that I could trust them to do it well and that it was a quick and basically painless procedure. Both statements held true, and now I once again have a bionic jaw. There’s something about having a freshly-crowned tooth that makes you feel like you could chew through I-beams.

One other bit of praise. I have a fairly well-developed gag reflex; even having a straw (on which I was expected to bite down while the adhesive set) protruding too far into my mouth was enough to set it off once the saliva started pooling. The technician, noticing my distress, started telling me soothingly to focus on breathing through my nose and touched my arm reassuringly. It was quite effective, and quite thoughtful. It’s touches like that that make a difference between pleasant and unpleasant trips to the dentist (and to the doctor more generally—I had a good experience with a checkup last week, for similar reasons). Well done, and I am deeply grateful for the humanity involved.

If you need a dentist recommendation in New Haven, I’d be happy to tell you where to go. Just ask.

Uncommonly Generative

I post most of my photos to Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution license. Today, I received some nice positive feedback for doing so.

Schmap publishes travel guidebooks in electronic form; each book has maps, links, reviews, and photos. They gather photos, at least in part, by trawling Flickr and looking for photos under CC licenses of particular attractions. They’re now using two of my photos in their Copenhagen guide. Not that the photos are particularly great, I must admit, but they’re still useful in illustrating that there are more picturesque castles in Denmark than the rather drab Amalienborg. I’m happy to have helped out.

The Formulaic

Malcolm Gladwell has an article in the New Yorker about a consulting firm using neural networks to predict box office grosses. It’s unbelievably depressing. For one, these algorithms—which, by and large, attempt to pick out the distinguishing features of the most successful past offerings—are intrinsically blind to the possibility of new creative forms. They might help you, for example, distinguish good Westerns from mediocre Westerns, but they would never have invented the Western in the first place.

More painfully, as Gladwell observes, the algorithms can tell you what needs fixing but not how to do it:

That was the thing about the formula: it didn’t make the task of filmmaking easier. It made it harder. So long as nobody knows anything, you’ve got license to do whatever you want. You can start a movie in Africa. You can have male and female leads not go off together—all in the name of making something new. Once you came to think that you knew something, though, you had to decide just how much money you were willing to risk for your vision. Did the Epagogix team know what the answer to that question was? Of course not. That question required imagination, and they weren’t in the imagination business. They were technicians with tools: computer programs and analytical systems and proprietary software that calculated mathematical relationships among a laundry list of structural variables. At Platinum Blue, Mike McCready could tell you that the bass line was pushing your song out of the center of hit cluster 31. But he couldn’t tell you exactly how to fix the bass line, and he couldn’t guarantee that the redone version would still sound like a hit, and you didn’t see him releasing his own album of computer-validated pop music. A Kamesian had only to read Lord Kames to appreciate the distinction. The most arrogant man in the world was a terrible writer: clunky, dense, prolix. He knew the rules of art. But that didn’t make him an artist.

But even this passage misses the point. Gladwell is correct to observe that even a perfect predictive algorithm may not be useful as a generative tool. You can test one verison against another, and you can tell when you’ve improved on the last one, but you can’t simply have the computer dial you up a hit. But I dont’ regard this objecetion as decisive. It’s a matter of degrees; with the algorithm you can probably do better at cranking out hits than without. Future algorithms may do even better. And someday, perhaps the machine will be able to generate as well as predict.

No, what’s truly sad in this passage—something Gladwell brings up and then ignores—is that there is more to the long-term progress of creativity than pure hitmaking. That nobody knows anything means that Hollywood can’t help but be innovative now and then. It has to be, because the attempt to serve only the bottom line is inevitably so muddled by a million complications that it will allow some genuinely creative projects to go forward. Those projects are the seed corn of the future; they teach audiences how to enjoy film in new ways; they provide a fresh stock of techniques and ideas upon which future films can build.

Thus, if you can predict box office grosses with great assurance, you have the perfect recipe for short-term gain and long-term peril. The spillover benefits of this accidental creativity will disappear, and with it, a lot of films worth making with the benfit of artistic (if not necesarily financial) hindsight. True, the Hollywood system may be an extraordinarily inefficient way of fostering such creativity, and we might be better off if only those who couldn’t afford Epagogix’s services were to try to be original—but I still think something would be lost. The workshopping that Epagogix does on a few drafts of The Interpreter is painful to read about; it’s hard for me to say which version they suggest is the least interesting as a film. I, for one, am content to “see” most movies on The Movie Spoiler, and I blame the formula system for making most movies not worth experiencing in any other way.

Why Does Life at BigLaw Suck?

Here is one answer, via Marginal Revolution. In a nutshell, large institutional law firms establish personnel policies to limit opportunities for lawyers to defect and bring clients with them.

The underlying mathematical model is clever. Inexperienced attorneys are less productive than experienced ones. In the absence of opportunistic defection, firms would hire equal numbers of junior and senior attorneys, and promote everyone. The junior attorneys would make less than they could elsewhere, but the client-specific knowledge that they built up would be valuable enough to the firm that as senior attorneys, they’d more than make up the difference.

Everything changes when attorneys are able to grab the clients and leave. Instead of splitting the surplus generated by their client-specific knowledge with the law firm, they’d start their own firm and keep it all. In order to keep the experienced attorneys with the knowledge from setting up shop down the street, the firm must let each partner appropriate the full value of the knowledge. That is, they maximize not the total profits but the profits per partner.

Maximizing profits per partner, as any associate can attest, means that the firm will use fewer partners and more associates in doing work. (It also means, in the formal model, that the firm does less total work than the client would prefer, which I find slightly questionable.) It also means that the firm will start trying to minimize contact between associates and clients, lest the associate build up too much client rapport and become a threat to defect:

If our property rights perspective is correct, up-or-out personnel policies discourage grabbing and leaving by dismissing associates before they have established strong relationships with clients. The length of the associate period can therefore be increased (and the unit cost of hiring associates be reduced) if firms limit the direct contacts between clients and associates. Indeed, if it were possible to completely eliminate contact between clients and associates, associates could be employed indefinitely.

And that’s the associate life in a nutshell: no client contact and indefinite employment.

I Was Right, Dagnabit!

The judge in the Spamhaus case has issued an order denying the plaintiff an injunction against ICANN ordering it to cut off Spamhaus’s domain name. Because ICANN wasn’t a party to the litigation, he cited Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 65(d) and denied the injunction.

Which was exactly what I predicted in a blog post yesterday, one eaten by a crashing browser about ten words from completion. Spamhaus has not exactly been litigating intelligently, but the world is not end-coming. It’s nice to see the normal protections of due process protecting normally.

However Your Logarithms Work

Kevin Poulsen has a great, disturbing article at Wired News about tracking sex offenders on MySpace. Poulsen wrote some custom Perl code to take names and zip codes from the national sex offender registry, which he then compared with names and locations in MySpace profiles. He turned up a great number of perfectly innocent profiles, a few quite worrisome ones, and at least one parolee actively soliciting young teenagers. Poulsen went to the cops, and rode along with them as they made the arrest.

The issues involved are too numerous and significant; I would like to point out just one. MySpace, claiming inability to do similar searches themselves, is lobbying for federal legislation to require convicted sex offenders to register their email addresses. Be careful what you ask for, MySpace. Poulsen juxtaposes the request with the following quotation from Congressman Greg Walden (R-OR):

“If you’re checking for the amount of skin in an image and that sort of thing, and however your logarithms work, you’d think you ought to check, you know, ‘John Doe’, who happens to be a sex offender, and weed them out.”

Mandamus is an Extraordinary Remedy

Thereafter some parties, including the two district judges themselves, Judges Robson and Will, filed their own certiorari petitions in the Supreme Court as well as a petition for a writ of mandamus. The grounds stated for the issuance of the mandamus writ were that the action of the appellate court contravened the sound exercise of appellate jurisdiction when this court substituted its findings and discretion for that of the district court, and further, that the interpretation of the escheat was a serious error of law.

Houck on behalf of the United States v. Folding Carton Admin. Committee, 881 F.2d 494, 497 (7th Cir. 1989).

Yes, you read that correctly. The trial judges asked the Supreme Court to set aside the appellate court’s ruling on appeal from their own decision. (Yes, you also read that correctly. Trial judges, plural.) They withdrew the petitions after a tentative settlement of the issues involved by the affected parties. When that settlement broke down (the U.S. attorney’s office changed its mind on a question involving escheat(!)), the case wound up before the Seventh Circuit for the second time. The court was remarkably magnanimous:

The circumstances of this case call into question the power of this court and the enforcement of its judgments. Such a situation should not have arisen. We shall, however, not unnecessarily dwell on individual contributions to this situation.

Id. at 499. Nonetheless, given one district judge’s announcement that the Seventh Circuit’s prior decision had been “silly” and was merely advisory, it took no chances:

When the district court comes to a conclusion on the remaining issues in this case, a copy of that decision shall forthwith be filed with the Clerk of this court. It will then be reviewed by this present panel for conformity with the mandate of this court, and on any other basis which may be raised by appropriate parties. To expedite that review, this court retains jurisdiction.

Id. at 503.

(I learned of this “extraordinary litigation” from Douglas Laycock’s Modern American Remedies. More gems from this quite enjoyable book to come …)

Oh, Singapore!

The fourth State of Play conference will be in Singapore on January 7-9. (My suggestion that it be called “The Phantom Conference” seems to have been deep-sixed; the actual name is the much more respectable “Building the Global Metaverse.) It should be a great show—I’m especially looking forward to the Neal Stephenson-Cory Doctorow keynote conversation.

I signed up to moderate a panel at some point in the way-back-when; looking at the current iteration of the program, it would appear that I’m now scheduled to present. O-kay. I can do that. I may wind up writing my remarks on the plane ride over, but I bet I can think of something.

In any event, you should attend, if you like this sort of thing and can spare the time and money and carbon debt involved in international travel.

A Little Lawsuit Backstory

I’ve been looking at Google v. Parker, 422 F. Supp. 2d 492 (E.D. Pa. 2006), available at, as part of my search engine research. In a nutshell, Google archived and linked to various things that upset the plaintiff, including a portion of an e-book that he posted to USENET and a page created by someone else that said some not-nice things about him. He did what any right-thinking American did, and filed a 72-page pro se complaint complaining about copyright infringement, racketeering, and the like. The court gave his complaint the benefit of every doubt but concluded that even if everything he said were comprehensible and true, Google hadn’t infringed his copyrights or done anything else against the law.

The reasoning for the copyright holding is a little interesting, as William Patry observes: Google’s automatic archiving wasn’t sufficiently volitional to count as “copying.” This view provides Google a stronger defense than would conceding the copying but claiming that the copying was nonetheless legal as a fair use. It also represents another step in what appears to be a trend by some courts of repudiating an older theory under which any temporary computer copy—even the copy made as you load a program from a hard drive into memory—is a potentially infringing “copy” for copyright purposes.

The opinion is succinct, and short on facts, but I was curious enough to try to reconstruct what I could of the context. The court only explicitly clues in readers a few times, with offhand references to the plaintiff’s “website on seduction advice.” That’s right, this is a case about how to be a player. And when you look more closely, it appears that much of the brouhaha concerns jealousies and tensions within, well, the community of seduction-advice panders and procurers.

Item the first: The plaintiff’s website, mentioned in the opinion, is a slightly obsessive but oddly compelling collection of e-books about how to pick up hotties. With a dense terminology of initialisms and terms of art, it provides the usual assortment of massively stereotyped analysis of how dating and seduction work and how to game the system to one’s sexual advantage.

Item the second: The plaintiff’s e-book most at issue in the suit is “29 Reasons Not to Be A Nice Guy.” To which USENET group did he post it?, I believe.

Item the third: A little quick Googling (ironic, no) reveals this letter to the editor of the Houston Press. Our plaintiff claims to be the originator of the term “pivot,” as applied to “a woman a man goes out with ‘as friends’ specifically for the purpose of building his reputation.” The source? His 29 Reasons. He wants a little attribution credit for the book and for his web site.

Item the fourth: The allegedly defamatory content that Google distributed? The “RayFAQ,” according to the court. It goes way back—to 1998, at least—and appears to consist of various documentation of the plaintiff’s unsavory USENET history, and his harassing posts to a.s.f. Here’s one version. For more docmentation on a man sometimes described as a “newsloon,” see this description of some of his other litigation.

In short, this was not a suit against Google because Google seemed like a rich defendant. It was not a suit trying to stop search engine caching. It was a highly personal dispute that spilled out of USENET and is more about ego, reputation, and attribution than about any more rarified legal matters.

I like law, but I love facts. It’s a rare lawsuit without at least some interesting backstory, and often the backstory is the best part.

If you would like to share in the fun, there’s another recent Google case that’s just as good. Have a look at Langdon v. Google, 1:06-cv-00319-JJF (D. Delaware complaint filed May 17, 2006). (Eric Godman has a quick take on the case. I don’t share his “ennui” with pro se complaints against search engines—I think their rise tells us something significant about the cultural importance of search engines.) If you want to find out more about Langdon’s case, start with his sites at and Both are quite interesting.

From the Department of ‘That Explains That’ Department

Charles V. Bagli, Tenants’ Bid Among a Dozen for Complexes, New York Times (Oct. 6, 2006):

In a bid to slow down the sale of the property and give a boost to the tenant bid, City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez said she plans to submit legislation next week that would slow down MetLife’s plan to sell the property and boost the tenant bid.

Is Anyone Trying to Ship Us Something?

If you have tried to ship something to Aislinn and me recently, please get in touch immediately. There has been some kind of bureauractic foul-up. Whatever was supposed to be sent here was given the wrong apartment number somewhere along the line. UPS has our phone number and called to straighten things out.

So far, so good. But we weren’t home when the call came in, and when we called the 800 number back, they refused to do anything without a tracking or reference number. Since we have no idea what the package is or who is trying to send it to us, we’re in kind of a pickle. We have five days before it gets sent back to you, so prompt action would be for the best.

Interfaces Good and Bad

I am finding the new Google Reader remarkably good. After discovering Bloglines, which allowed me to read blogs via RSS with the full text of entries laid out one after the other, I vowed never to go back to “list view,” in which one sees the headline for each entry and must click on it to see the full entry. With a triple-digits blog intake, I depend on skimming. The old version of Reader was a list-view, and hence unacceptable, but the new version has a beautifully slick scrolling full-text mode.

It also fixes one misfeature of Bloglines that drove me nuts if I fell behind—asking it to display all the new posts from a blog would dump them to my screen, marking them all read. If there are 40 or 50 new posts—as there can easily be with some of the verboser bloggers I read, after a surprisingly short break—that’s a significant investment of uninterrupted time right there. I like my blogs as a steady drip, not as huge jolts.

What Google’s new Reader does is only mark as read the posts you have actually seen with your own eyeballs. If it hasn’t scrolled onto your screen yet, it’s still unread. Genius. Just as with the grab-to-scroll maps in Google Maps and the expand-collapse conversation view in Gmail, it’s a remarkable bit of Ajaz wizardry. I hope it diffuses widely into other Web apps.

That’s the good. Now for the bad. every single one of the applications I use regularly has an icon that is predominantly blue. There are touches of yellow, white, black, and brown, but blue is overwhelmingly the most common color. Even iTunes, which I am accustomed to thinking of as green, is now blue. I suppose this is partly my fault, for preferring those apps that have blue icons (even if for utterly unrelated reasons), but it makes it harder than necessary for me to tell them apart when I command-tab back and forth between them.