The Laboratorium
February 2007

SSRN Considered Harmful


You may recall that in November I decided not to post my papers to SSRN. I was disturbed by a number of their decisions that seemed to me to interfere unduly with open access to scholarship. While I planned to continue using SSRN itself to email out abstracts of my papers, its decision to place an intrusive SSRN-promoting watermark on every page of hosted papers was just too much for me. I therefore shipped my scholarly archive over to the Berkeley Electronic Press, and vowed to post to SSRN no more.

Well, I have now broken that vow. I recently discovered that SSRN forbids non-SSRN URLs in the abstracts of papers, so I couldn’t supply a BEPress or grimmelmann.net download link myself. When I attempted to upload a PDF with abstract, contact information, and non-SSRN download URL, they rejected the entire submission. The move is essentially protectionist; it uses SSRN’s dominant email abstract service to drive business to SSRN’s paper-hosting service. The overall effect of the combined policies is a form of lock-in that is in significant tension with open access principles.

Thus, I’ve just uploaded SSRN Considered Harmful to SSRN. It’s a short explanation of how SSRN’s policies impede open access and what SSRN should to to fix matters. I am attempting to engage SSRN in a discussion of this URL policy, and I hope that I will be able to revise this essay with an explanation that my criticisms are no longer accurate and that SSRN has become an appropriate place to post scholarship. Still, if that discussion does not work out and things don’t improve, the essay ends with a call to scholars to stop using SSRN. If you care about broad and free distribution of scholarship, please have a read.

UPDATE February 27: Interesting! The version I uploaded wasn’t watermarked. I wonder whether this is an optimistic sign that the watermarking policy is flexible or has been suspended, a fluke, or just a temporary status until the paper is reviewed by SSRN staff. Another optimistic sign is that I’ve dug up some papers on SSRN that are watermarked only on the first two pages. I’d prefer no watermarks, but this is a good start.

UPDATE February 28: I’m informed by a friend (and I’ve seen with my own eyes) that BEPress adds a cover page to some papers, including those in its ExpressO Preprint Series. I’ve been dealing with the Selected Works sites, which don’t watermark. Since only the former is generally open (the latter is in beta and is invitation-only), I’m concerned about the details.

Share and Enjoy 3.0


I know that I just revised the Creative Commons license on this site, but they’ve gone and done a version bump on me. (The version bump wasn’t a surprise, and neither were the changes, but the timing of the change was up in the air for a while.) Well, nothing to do but keep up with the Joneses: I’ve put the Lab under a version 3.0 license.

The actual changes involved will probably be of interest only to license geeks. The most visible change to you, the reader, is that the license is now a “Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States” license, rather than just a “Creative Commons 2.5 Attribution” license. That’s because instead of the United States license being the default, you now need to pick the U.S. specifically if you want a license tailored to U.S. law. (A new “unported” license contains language not tailored to any one country.) The CC licenses have been a global phenomenon for a long time; this change puts the U.S. on the same footing as other countries.

Trainenfreude


On the platform for the train from New Jersey into Philadelphia, there were four or five people, one of whom made more noise than the rest combined. He was yammering loudly into his cell phone about how wasted he’d gotten the previous night, in fairly unpleasant detail. When we got on the train, with his American Eagle bag and snowstorm-inappropriate sweatshirt and sandals, he took a seat opposite from me and cranked his iPod up high enough that one more knowledgeable of the genre than I could have identified the thrash-rock he was listening to.

But there is some poetic justice in this universe. He just leaned behind him and asked another passenger, “Does this train go to Atlantic City?”

C. Edwin Baker Needs a Better Editor


Page 109 of Ed Baker’s Media Concentration and Democracy contains the following remarkable assertion (emphasis added):

Fark.com, the most visited blog listed by TTLB [The Truth Laid Bear]on June 7, 2006, with slightly over a million daily visits, was visited about 3,000 times as often as the blog at the bottom of this top 7 percent group, which received 350 daily visit. Moreover, since blogs tracked by TTLB are likely to be much more visited than the average blog, the drop-off rate among the top 7 percent of all blogs would be much, much greater. On a typical day, it is very likely that of the millions of blogs that reportedly exist —- in early 2006 Technorati reported counting over 34 million blogs —- over 99 percent will be lucky to receive one visit.

The logical fallacy is the blithe assumption that it is “likely” that TTLB blogs are much more visited than average blogs. (Evidence offered for this assertion: none.) TTLB is an opt-in system. Are popular or unpopular bloggers more likely to register with it? I dunno, and I doubt that Ed Baker does, either. Nonetheless, he seems to have assumed that the TTLB blogs constitute the very crème de la crème of all blogs, and then extrapolated (using who knows what function) to find that the number of daily readers crosses below 1 before we get out of the top 1 percent. From a use-of-evidence point of view, the “it is very likely” isn’t well-supported.

But that last sentence should never have gotten past the editor for a more fundamental reason: it’s self-evidently implausible. The sentence asserts that 99 percent of blogs have no readers on a given day. If that’s the case, then who, pray tell, would be writing these blogs? The claim that there are over 33 million bloggers who blog only for themselves simply does not accord with any common-sense view of reality. Do you know any bloggers with no readers? If there were 33 million of them, then statistically speaking, you probably would. To write a sentence like that, you either have to not be thinking about what you’re writing, or not really have a clear sense of what a blog is.

As this example suggests, Media Concentration and Democracy is a frustrating book. Ed Baker is a very smart scholar, and I want to be sympathetic to his arguments against concentrated media ownership. (Two words: Silvio Berlusconi.) But the book reads as though he’d put together his argument and was then told by someone that he really ought to say something about the Internet.

Domain Name Exceptionalism?


Eric Goldman doesn’t like exceptionalism. He’s against search engine exceptionalism, virtual world exceptionalism, and now domain name exceptionalism. In each case, he situates a potential law to regulate some kind of online activity against a hands-off legal attitude toward the Internet in general. It’s a clever rhetorical move for the libertarian Goldman; it allows him to argue that any law he doesn’t like is a form of “exceptionalism” and hence bad.

I’m with him on his point that DNS-specific legislation has proliferated to the point where it’s just plain silly, but I’m not sure it’s a great thing for him that I’m starting to think of him as Exceptionalism Guy. If he keeps up with this pattern, when he writes a paper that’s not about exceptionalism, will people object that the paper is a kind of exceptionalism within his scholarship?

Habits of the Medical Mind


Aislinn: When people who haven’t been to medical school hear the word “Legionnaire,” do they think of the disease or of the American Legion?

Me: Actually, I think of Romans.

Digital Cops in a Published Environment


I hold in my hands a copy of Cybercrime: Digital Cops in a Networked Environment, just out from the Ex Machina series from N.Y.U. Press. I’m one of six editors of this collection of essays, so while my proportional contribution to the volume is not huge, it’s my first genuinely published book. Way back in the day, I wrote a solutions manual for a computer science textbook, but it’s in the nature of solutions manuals that they’re kept under lock and key. The cybercrime book, though, this one you can buy. Be the first on your block to own a copy!

Addendum: To be perfectly honest, I put the book down while I wrote this entry; holding it in my hands was proving incompatible with typing.

Working for the Weekend


I just received my first law review rejection notice. I’d start a wall of shame, but with the simultaneous-submission system, I’m going to accumulate vast stacks of them.

I was tempted to write back to the student editor who emailed me at 6:30 on a Friday evening with a compliment on his work ethic. It’ll serve him well when he gets to the firm.

UPDATE: Another one, sent at 10:30 PM. I wonder when that editor is going home.

Arrival


A little under six years ago, I quit my job. It was a good job; there was little wrong with it. But I knew that I didn’t want to be programming full-time ten years from then, and given that knowledge, I figured I should quit before I grew to hate coding, rather than after. Rather than wait a decade before doing what I really wanted to do with my life, it seemed better to start in on that task immediately.

At the time, I had two thoughts about what that might be. First, I’d been blogging a lot—I’m not kidding; check out the archives from 2000–01 and you’ll see how much more active then I was than I am now—and finding it more fulfilling than work. I knew that my highest and best use would involve a lot of writing. And second, after reading a few great books, I was convinced that law professors were a pretty smart bunch. Particularly on my home turf of computer technology, they seemed to have a better understanding of what was really going on around the turn of the millennium than did most people from the technology world. I’d soured on computer science academia, but perhaps legal academia might provide a way to think seriously about the social impacts of the technologies I loved.

And so I launched myself out into the unknown, with a vague short-term plan of trying my hand at freelance writing and a vague long-term plan of becoming a law professor. The former didn’t work out so well, but during the year during which it was becoming apparent that I just don’t have the self-starter mindset to keep on pitching stories to editors again and again, I applied to law school; when I started, I still had in mind the idea of someday being on the other side of the lectern.

I’m happy now to report that I’m batting .500 on my quit-my-job ambitions. I’ve accepted an offer to join the faculty of New York Law School, where, starting this coming academic year, I’ll be an Associate Professor of Law.

Along the way, something perhaps not-so-strange happened. I went into law school thinking of myself as a computer scientist sneaking into enemy territory to report back on what I saw there, and perhaps to engage in a little strategic sabotage. But once there, I started to appreciate the professional virtues of good lawyers, and to appreciate the integrity of a legal way of looking at the world. I still think of myself as a computer guy, but I think of myself as a lawyer, too.

Dual identities can be difficult to manage; trapped between two worlds, one is never wholly at home in either. But if it were easy, it probably wouldn’t be worth doing. Law and computer technology have a long and difficult reconciliation ahead of them, and I love them both too much not to want to help in smoothing the way. I don’t know exactly where I’m going from here, but I know that I’m now exactly where I want to be—exactly where I’ve wanted to be for a long time.

Thank you all.

And the Results Are In


Thank you all for your answers to my question about tanker capacity. I received the following fourteen guesses:

  • 10,000
  • 100,000
  • 500,000
  • 1,000,000
  • 3,170,064
  • 10,000,000
  • 20,000,000
  • 25,000,000
  • 40,000,000
  • 50,000,000
  • 101,520,224
  • 150,000,000
  • 200,000,000
  • 200,000,000

The correct answer is, to two significant figures, 170,000,000, which is rather towards the higher end of the guesses. Both the median (22,500,000) and arithmetic mean (57,235,734) are substantially smaller than the true value.

And now for the other shoe. In Sunstein’s original example, he surveyed his colleagues at the University of Chicago law school about the weight in pounds of the space shuttle’s fuel. His point was that when the members of a group know nothing at all about a topic, there is no particular reason that statistics computed from their guesses will be any better than the guess of a random group member. (Put another way, for a crowd to be wise, its average member must know something rather than nothing.) I thought that this conclusion was a little too strong; people might know extremely little about a question, but there might be more appropriate statistics about their guesses that would extract and combine what little they do know.

In Sunstein’s experiment, the true value was about 4 million pounds, but the median was a paltry 200,000. On the other hand, the mean was outrageously high, at 55 million, thanks to one absurdly large guess. Looking at his report of the experiment, it struck me that the geometric mean might have done better than the median or the mean. My theory, such as it was, was that guesses about unknown huge numbers are little more than guesses about order of magnitude, so that the real statistic we ought to be averaging is is the number of zeroes at the end of people’s answers.

Thus, from this little experiment, two things are apparent. First, my hypothesis is in bad shape. Your geometric mean—8,462,166.40—is worse than your arithmetic mean or your median. In hindsight, I should have expected this. Sunstein had a sample in which most people’s guesses were substantially too small, I would assume because people get uncomfortable with really big numbers and because people tend to underestimate volumes, even when their intuition about linear dimensions is good. Thus, the median was also too small. His mean, on the other hand, was dominated by one almost implausibly large guess.

It was something of a coincidence, then, that the geometric mean (which is smaller than the arithmetic mean) was probably closeish to correct. His outlier just happened to be the right size for it to work. With a more restrained set of guesses and no big outliers, the arithmetic mean is less wrong than the geometric. I would be interested to repeat this experiment in other contexts to see how often one gets outliers of that sort and by how much they tend to be off. But I now no longer expect the geometric mean to have any sort of consistent systematic advantage for problems of this sort.

The second thing I learned from this experiment is that (for a sample size of one experiment) my readers are on average more knowledgeable than the Chicago law faculty.

Frontiers of Fashion


Imagine, in a time not too far in the future, that big sleeves become incredibly fashionable. I’m thinking either of shirt equivalents to bell bottoms, taken to a ridiculous extreme so that the cuffs are two feet across or more; or perhaps a revival of the medieval style of sleeves whose elbows reach almost to the ground. Imagine, too, that this fashion is nearly universal; in your average department store, you won’t find any non-enormous sleeves.

Given this background, what profession would be most susceptible to an ill-advised adherence to this trend of big sleeves? It can’t be some profession where the sleeves really aren’t a problem, such as telemarketer. It also can’t be some profession for which gigundo sleeves would be such a problem that they would refuse to bow to fashion, such as the military.

Aislinn suggested “preschool teacher,” which I think pretty much hits the sweet spot. Grotesquely large sleeves would be disastrous when dealing with unruly kneebiters—and yet, it’s all too easy to envision big-sleeve storytime. We agreed that most professions with official required uniforms probably wouldn’t change too much, but I can certainly see various alterations in tailoring to make one’s shirt suggest enormity of sleeve without quite going there.

Share and Enjoy 2.5


I’ve changed the Creative Commons license for the Lab. It’s now under Attribution 2.5. Anyone can reuse anything I write here for any purpose, provided that they give me credit.

The change is that I’ve stripped off the “Non-Commercial” limitation. On due reflection, I realized that it was only vanity making me keep this site under a non-commercial license. But I’m an academic; I make my living by giving my ideas away.

An Experiment in Distributed Knowledge


At the suggestion of Cass Sunstein, I’m attempting to replicate an informal experiment he conducted for his book Infotopia. I would appreciate your guesses as to the following:

What is the capacity, in gallons, of the largest oil tanker ever constructed?

Please DO NOT look up the answer. This is an experiment in distributed group knowledge.

Please DO NOT post the answer in comments. Email your guess to me instead. I will keep all guesses confidential, and will report only the set of numbers guessed and various overall statistics.

Thanks for your help.

Fun with LaTeX


I’ve had a cold for the last few days, and while it hasn’t been the most debilitating I’ve had, I’m both slow on the uptake and disinclined to go anywhere. That kind of pressure towards sitting-around activities usually drives me to the comfort of electronic screens: games, videos, and tinkering with my computer. Two movies yesterday was our limit, and my XBox is still packed away, so there was a fair amount of tinkering time. I decided to install LaTeX, everyone’s favorite mathematical typesetting language.

I never did my problem sets in LaTeX, the way some people did, but it’s hard to get through a mathematico-scientific education without significant exposure. In my case, I wrote my college thesis, a solutions manual, two term papers, and a whole bunch of teaching materials for the class I TAed. It can be persnicketity and confusing, and some tasks are much harder than they ought to be, but when you get in the LaTeX groove, the quality-typesetting high can be quite a thrill.

In any event, I can report that LaTeX on OS X is both easier to install and much easier to work with than any LaTeX environment I’ve ever used on a PC. Given OS X’s strong Unix roots and high-quality graphical interfaces and development tools, this should not be surprising. As refresher exercises, I’ve typed up two thing I’ve been meaning to throw online for a while. Both were very easy work in LaTeX, and would have been nightmares using HTML. Both are fun exercises using ordinary first-year calculus:

  • Integration by Clever is a tribute to my sister (currently taking calculus) and how she managed to discover integration by parts on her own.

  • No Lebesgue Needed is a solution to a contest problem that shows off a neat application of the fundamental theorem of calculus.

Scene: Track 19, Grand Central Station


Me: Hey! Something yellowish just dripped on me!

Metro-North Conductor: I’m not at all surprised.

Mooninites and Responsibility


Boston was shut down on Wednesday following the discovery of a “suspicious object” at a T station. Police found several more of the objects, each of which included a circuit board, batteries, and a blockish cartoon figure in LEDs giving the finger. The ensuing bomb scare shut down highways and subways. (There is some indication that another, garden-variety bomb scare also took place Wednesday, and the police conflated the two, leading to terrifying intimations of a massive coordinated something-or-other.)

It then transpired that the figure was a Mooninite, from the Cartoon Network show Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and that the devices had been placed as part of a guerrilla marketing campaign for the forthcoming ATHF movie. The show, which stars a milkshake, fries, and ball of meat, is surrealist and frequently plotless; how they’ve stretched it to movie length is beyond me. Given the show’s cult status, the marketing campaign was deliberately oddball, and the Mooninites were to be placed in “areas frequented by students into alternative arts.” The campaign took place in cities nationwide, several weeks ago. Boston is, to date, the only city to wig out.

Police were able to locate the two young men, Peter Berdovsky and Sean Stevens, who installed the Boston Mooninites. They were to be paid $300 each by Interference Inc., which was organizing the promotion on behalf of Turner Broadcasting, the owner of the Cartoon Network. They were arraigned on charges of “possession of a hoax device” and “disorderly conduct.” After the arraignment, the two scapegoats gave a brief press conference in which they treated the situation with appropriately absurdist humor.

I don’t think the two are actually in that much trouble. The hoax device law requires the “intent to cause anxiety, unrest, fear or personal discomfort,” which they almost certainly didn’t have, They just wanted to market a movie. That was the point. I don’t know for certain, but “disorderly conduct” in the Bay State seems to be charged under Chapter 272, Section 53 of the Massachusetts General Laws, the relevant prong of which would be “disturbers of the peace.” That offense carries a maximum of six months in jail and a $200 fine, making it strictly misdemeanor territory. “Disturbers of the peace” would also seem to give these two fellows a reasonably good vagueness or lenity objection, at least as applied to them, though I haven’t researched Massachusetts caselaw on point.

But leave the precise and lawyerly details aside. The powers that be in Boston, up through and including the mayor and the governor, are ticked off, from being made to look like the fools they are. Panicking at Mooninites is not exactly a sign of wise and sober governance. As at the airport security line, those in authority, being humorless and joyless themselves, fear and hate humor and joy. (Thus, Stevens and Berdovsky’s performance at the press conference, while brilliantly funny, was not the wisest of moves.) I have the sense that cooler heads are unlikely to prevail in the corridors of Bostonian power, and that the orders will be coming down from on high to punish these young men for the stupidity of their elders. (That the Boston press continues to call them “hoaxsters” is a sign of the misdirected anger still boiling in Beantown. There was no “hoax;” no one was ever supposed to think that anything remotely terrifying was taking place.)

Which brings me to my point.

If Turner Broadcasting, on whose behalf all of this was done, has any conscience, then it will fund the legal defense of its two hapless Mooninite Men. Turner and Interference were the entities here that could see the whole picture, and that should have been aware of the possibilities that some humorless dolts might take things the wrong way. I approve of randomness and whimsy in day-to-day-life, and I don’t think that Turner and Interference did anything seriously wrong. But given the risks attendant on this sort of marketing, if someone has to take the fall—or to pay the legal fees to avoid taking the fall—it should not be Stevens and Berdovsky, who did a silly job well and have since handled themselves with panache. Dealing with prosecutions from those who don’t get the joke is a marketing cost, and it should be treated that way, just as IBM paid to clean up its Peace, Love, Linux stencils on the streets of San Francisco. If it were an executive in the dock, you know that the corporate checkbook would be open already.

If, on the other hand, Turner has no conscience and does not look after its own … well, then, it will be incumbent on the rest of us to boycott the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie. The show’s appeal is cult; the movie’s is, too. The entire marketing campaign was designed to appeal to people with a taste for the surreal. Turner, you were reaching out to us with this Mooninite marketing. We recognize ourselves in Sean and Peter. If you are not with our brothers, we will not be with you. If you turn your back on them now, we will know that you see us just as a narrowcast demographic, and not people with whom one might share a joke. If you shirk your responsibility, then you had best start preparing for empty seats when the movie opens, because you will have just irrevocably alienated the very group to whom you were trying to hype it.

The ball is in your court, Turner. You know what’s the right thing to do.