The Laboratorium
June 2007

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Some Props for Good Service

Having just completed a move from one end of New Jersey to the other, I’d like to recommend Sinclair Moving and Storage. The two back-office people and three movers I dealt with were all professional and friendly. They worked hard, fast, and smart, and handled two flight of stairs with good humor. The only headaches from the move were the ones I gave myself.

Blog Hits 4 Jesus

According to the Supreme Court’s decision in Morse v. Frederick, a high school student could be disciplined for holding a banner reading “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS.” Justice Alito’s swing vote included the caveat that the holding “provides no support for any restriction of speech that can plausibly be interpreted as commenting on any political or social issue.”

Doesn’t this mean that all future banners reading “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” are now protected speech, since they can be plausibly be interpreted as commenting on the Supreme Court’s free speech jurisprudence? Other pro-drug messages may be punished, but not this particular one.

Praise for the Author

At any rate, [James Grimmelmann] comes of as a ridiculous d-bag in this review. The man wouldn’t know chick-lit humor if it bit him in the butt.

Having gone to law school with James Grimmelman, I’ve gotta say I wouldn’t trust much of anything he has to say, and particularly wouldn’t trust his reviews of novels. … Grimmelman is a status whore and likely uncorked this hatchet job to curry favor with 3d Circuit judges and their friends.

James Gimmelman is a massive tool. He’s an incredibly smug individual with so very little to be smug about.

(from comments at Above the Law)

The Apparatus of Credentialing

Clay Shirky:

Experts the world over have been shocked to discover that they were consulted not as a direct result of their expertise, but often as a secondary effect — the apparatus of credentialing made finding experts easier than finding amateurs, even when the amateurs knew the same things as the experts.

Chambermaid I give it 1 star

Abominable. See my full review at PrawfsBlawg if you need to know more.

How Much for That Burger in the Window?

Dan Markel’s act of matchmaking caught my attention because I knew the bride and the groom from entirely different walks of life. The match is obvious in hindsight; Dan’s third of a ticket to heaven could have been mine!

Zach once asked me, out of anthropological interest, how much I would pay for the best hamburger I would ever eat. To be precise, in this hypothetical, I’d give him $X up front, and he’d give me a hamburger, and that hamburger would be absolutely and perfectly guaranteed to be more satisfying than any other hamburger I would ever encounter. I think I said I’d pay for around $17 for an überburger.

On reflection, I think a better response is that one should pay money to avoid the überburger. How sad it would be, after all, to have eaten it and to know with total certainty that sorry, that’s it, it’s all downhill from here, burger-wise.

Actual Dialogue from My Cab Ride Last Night

Guy outside: Can you give me a ride?
Cab driver: No. I have a passenger already.
Guy outside: Can I get in? Open the door.
Cab driver: I have a passenger.
Me: …

Thoughts on the Occasion of My Wife’s Completion of Two Years of Medical School

Anyone who says that law school should be more like medical school hasn’t spent much time around medical students. My colleague Cameron Stracher has a point that the quasi-apprenticeship that is the last two years of medical school does make newly-minted doctors at least minimally competent when it comes to working with actual patients. But I can report the first two years of medical school are such a Dickensian affair that they make the miseries of law school seem like a casual Sunday jaunt on the seashore with ice cream and balloons for all.

Rosie Little’s Cautionary Tales for Girls I give it 3 stars

This collection of loosely-linked stories about youngish women and their relationships features technical proficiency, a plummy Aussie narrative voice, and a enthusiasm for going with boys. Some of the stories are excellent; none are bad. “Vision in White” is my favorite: a bride decides to wear her wedding dress on an intercontinental trip to meet her in-laws, but the whole story turns out to be a shaggy-dog setup for one wonderful terrible pun. All in all, a quick read, not particularly serious, with some good jokes and a healthy message of female empowerment.

The Name of This Book Is Secret I give it 2 stars

The tone is second-rate Lemony Snicket, but dire Snicketian pessimism doesn’t work when the characters are jaunty and the story more or less happy. Everything dreadful happens offstage, or doesn’t happen at all. This children’s adventure could have been passable if taken straight-up as a tale of plucky kids solving ciphers and discovering an ancient mystery. Wrapped in the wrong narration, it’s not even mediocre.

On the Ascender

A bunch of us saw an Isuzu Ascender today and agreed that it’s a terrible name for a car, but for different reasons. Those who went to Catholic school were doubtful that it would rise from the grave. I was bothered that no part of the car stood significantly higher than any other part.

And by the way, it ought to be considered false advertising to claim that an SUV getting 22 miles per gallon (16 in city driving) is “fuel efficient.”

Insert Fifteen Minute Joke Here

For reasons entirely unknown by me, Interview Magazine included me in its “New Pop A-List: 50 to Watch (Age 30 or Under).” The feature isn’t online, but I’ve scanned the page I’m on and put up a close-up of the blurb on me. Do note that I teach at New York Law School, not at NYU; people make that mistake all the time. At least they spelled my name right, and the description of what I do is, for a magazine of celebrities interviewing celebrities, basically accurate. As for being “the next guru of Internet law,” I sure wish I had their confidence in my prospects.

The thing that blows my mind is the company I’m in. The other folks in the “Web/Tech” category are the YouTube guys, the founder of Gawker, and DVD Jon. To paraphrase Wayne and Garth, “I’m not worthy!” The list as a whole includes Andy Samberg, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Arcade Fire, America Ferrera, and a lot of folks who are clearly too hip for me to have had any chance of having heard of them.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled non-celebrity blogging.

The Almost Moon I give it 4 stars

“When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.” For Helen Knightly, the long-suffering protagonist of Alice Sebold’s second novel, things go downhill from there. Much like Sebold’s debut, The Lovely Bones, this is a sympathetic family portrait that alchemically transmutes violence into understanding. There are also some elements that amused a different, more professional part of my brain, but I can’t say much more without providing spoilers—and for a book not scheduled to be published until October, that would be rather unsporting.

Big City Thrills

There’s an absolutely perfect New Yorker cover this week by Adrian Tomine. A group of tourists atop a Gray Line double-decker red bus are taking pictures of Radio City Music Hall, while a slightly sullen-looking teenage girl sits in the back, almost pointedly ignoring her surroundings as she reads.

The entire genius of the cover is captured in a single detail: her choice of book. Tomine draws it about half an inch high, with only a few short lines to suggest some black text on a white cover, and perhaps a small triangle of something in one corner. It would be easy enough to read it as being merely a generic “book,” but it’s not just some book. She’s reading the Little, Brown edition of Catcher in the Rye.

That single detail requires us to start our ‘reading’ of the picture almost from scratch. Radio City, of course, appears repeatedly in Catcher in the Rye: Sally and Holden go ice skating there and Holden watches a bad movie there to kill time. Most significantly, though, the three women that Holden meets in a hotel lounge, crass tourists from Seattle who are trying to spot celebrities and ultimately stick Holden with the bill, are excited about seeing a show at Radio City Music Hall. I wonder whether that’s the passage that the girl is reading as the others around gawp and take their photos.

I absolutely love art in which a tiny piece holds the key to the meaning of the whole. Surprise movie endings can be cheesy, but there’s a pleasure involved in watching a trick-ending flick the second time, paying attention to how every detail has a double meaning. The same is true, in a different fashion, for fugues and passacaglias that build an entire musical work from a single phrase. It’s rarer to see visual art successfully pull off this effect, but when it works, wow.

The absolute best part is that the drawing would have been a heavy-handed failure if it had been obvious what she was reading.

A Theory of the Novel

Stories about low-drama people have the problem that low-drama people are boring. Stories about high-drama people have the problem that high-drama people are unsympathetic. The central challenge for character-driven fiction is to bridge this divide.

Browsewrap Jujitsu

I’ve added the following text to the User-Agent request-header that my browser sends each time it asks for a web page:

By responding to this HTTP request, you accept legal responsibility for any resulting harm.

Big commercial websites use take-it-or-leave-it boilerplate lawyerese to demand that we give up our basic legal rights; why not give them a dose of their own medicine and take those rights back? So far, a few websites have remarked on my unusual browser, but none of them have turned me away. I guess that means they want my business enough that they’re willing to live with my terms.

Firefox users, if you’d like to join me in this little act of turnabout as fair play, you can use the User Agent Switcher extension to change your User-Agent string or RefControl to change the Referer [sic] request-header. If you’d rather make the change manually, point your browser to about:config, right-click, select New > String, enter “general.useragent.override” for the preference name, and type in the contractual conditions you want to impose on the websites you visit.

And now a warning: As a lawyer, I don’t think this trick works, in the sense that I couldn’t convince a court to agree with me and hold the proprietor of a crudtastic website responsible for making my computer explode. The law of browsewrap isn’t just dumb, it’s actively tilted towards powerful companies with expensive lawyers But if enough of us start changing our HTTP request-headers and demanding that our online interactions take place on fair and decent terms, we have a shot at reclaiming the law. As Arlo Guthrie said, “And friends they may thinks it’s a movement.”

Thanks to Ian Ayres for the idea.

The BookExpo Haul, 2007 Edition

It’s the start of June in an odd-numbered year, which, for the last few years, has meant only one thing: BookExpo is in New York. For book addicts like myself, it’s like drinking straight from the crack hose. Thousands of publishers descend on the Javits Center and set up booths where they do deals and spin the hype machines to full buzz. For a surprisingly low admission fee, you can wander around the exhibition halls, going from booth to booth and trying to score free books.

The tactics and ethics on display would fill a book. There’s a talent to book-sniffing: knowing when the publishers are keeping the good stuff (like pre-signed copies from Famous Authors) hidden in the back. There’s also a talent to book-cadging: some publishers just leave out huge stacks of advance copies, while others try to to suss out which of the attendees are most likely to help build good of mouth. (Name Withheld University Press, I’m thinking of you. It’s not like Famous Name Withheld really needs a mention here to sell his book, but still. Do you want buzz or not?) Distributing the weight of the accumulated books among your bags (convention rules forbid the use of any carrying tools with wheels) is an art in itself. And, of course, timing is a subtle affair: some big-name titles disappear immediately, while others only come out when the author shows up in person for a signing.

This year’s haul of promotional and advance copies, in no particular order:

  • Alan Lightman, Ghost: His more recent books haven’t lived up to Einstein’s Dreams or to Good Benito, but perhaps this one will be better. “A provocative exploration of the delicate divide between the physical world and the spiritual world” could be great, or it could be dreadful pap. Like all his books, it’s a little wisp of a thing: about 250 pages, but they’re smallish and the print is big.

  • Freeman J. Dyson, A Many-Colored Glass: More on the line or link between the scientific and the spiritual. Also a slender little volume, it’s based on the 2004 Page-Barbour lectures at the University of Virginia.

  • Ian Ayres, Super Crunchers. Lawprof Ayres is absurdly prolific; this will be his fourth book in three years. He’s a real inspiration for those of us who value scientific and mathematical rigor as useful inputs to many fields of human endeavor. This ode to heavy-duty data analysis should be fun.

  • Alafair Burke, Dead Connection (not to be confused with the other Dead Connection or the other other Dead Connection or the other other other Dead Connection): This Hofstra lawprof is also a police thriller novelist. She was signing copies; I’m not quite sure what the other people in line made of it when we dropped into shop talk. I wonder how many of them even know that the daughter of James Lee Burke writes for the academy as well as for the airport.

  • John R. Stilgoe, Train Time (not to be confused with Time Train): His books, particularly the elegant Outside Lies Magic are imaginative and observant studies of the environment we inhabit and recreate. He argues that “the train is returning,” and I’d like to believe. One of my friends talked her way past three prerequisites and a crowd of other students to take a course with him whose description promises:

    Visual constituents of high adventure since the late Victorian era, emphasizing wandering woods, rogues, tomboys, women adventurers, faerie antecedents, halflings, crypto-cartography, Third-Path turning, martial arts, and post-1937 fantasy writing as integrated into contemporary advertising, video, computer-generated simulation, and designed life forms.”

  • E.L. Konigsberg, The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World:
    B——: Do you think this would be appropriate for D——? Me: D—— is what, four?
    B——: Well, in a few years, maybe?
    Me: I thought I read that it was about the Nazi attack on ‘degenerate art.’
    B——: Oh.

  • Chris Elliott, Into Hot Air: Mounting Mount Everest: Chris Elliott is the son of Bob Elliott from the great radio comedy duo Bob and Ray. I still think the best thing he’s ever done was drinking a bottle of cooking oil on the Letterman show. Still, The Shroud of the Thwacker generated some fun IP news when Elliott accidentally spoofed a spoof by including as a character in his historical travesty the robot Boilerplate. Boilerplate was himself a fictional historical travesty, and hilarity ensued, stopping just short of a lawsuit.

  • Marie Phillips, Gods Behaving Badly: This story of the twelve Gods of Olympus living together in a London town house and bickering about it could be formulaic patter about the incongruity of actual gods and modern-day city life. But from the first few pages, she has down the droll British narrative voice that Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, and Tom Holt have all mined to great effect in their own studies of that style of incongruity. (Side note: I’m not sure how much longer you’re allowed to call your blog Struggling Author when you have a book coming out from Little Brown with print advertising in the Times and in the New Yorker.)

  • Clare Clark, The Nature of Monsters. Another Brit. Her previous book, The Great Stink, was a historical novel about a sewer system in which the dirty deeds and psychological darkness rivaled anything to be found in the physical sludge. She was at the show, autographing with a fountain pen, and was sweetness itself. (What is it with these disarmingly peppy authoresses? Sheri Holman is the same way: a well-adjusted-seeming person who writes novels with wonderfully twisted cores.) The Nature of Monsters looks to be just as entertainingly morbid.

  • Paula Kamen, Finding Iris Chang: Friendship, Ambition, and the Loss of an Extraordinary Mind: I’m not quite sure about the title here. Iris Chang, the author of The Rape of Nanking, killed herself in 2004. Paula Kamen wrote this book to eulogize her friend and to ask why.

  • Scott Adams, Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain!: The secret to Dilbert is that the punch line usually comes in the penultimate panel. Like Tom Toles and The Onion’s editorial cartoonist, he knows that good jokes can always be topped. There’s a bump-set-spike rhythm to the typical three-panel Dilbert. Adams is also a funny writer (if sometimes strange); this book is basically a collection of short, non-Dilbertian essays from his blog. Could be amusing.

  • Andrea Barrett, The Air We Breathe: Barrett writes luminous novels and stories that combine warm and sympathetic characterizations with the old-fashioned pleasures of science. This novel about tubercular patients during World War I is unexpectedly timely, thanks to this week’s drug-resistant tuberculosis quarantine excitement. She was at BookExpo signing copies, looking glamorous, and said several exceedingly understanding things when I asked her to inscribe a copy of The Air We Breathe for my wife, at home studying for her first round of medical board exams.

  • Alice Sebold, The Almost Moon: Sebold’s The Lovely Bones was a remarkable debut, so expectations are high. This one took some clever book-sniffing skills; the first time we asked, they claimed to have run out. But by circling back later, and asking a different staffer, we got our hands on a copy from the back room.

  • Paul Krugman, The Conscience of a Liberal (not, I think, to be confused with The Conscience of a Liberal): Krugman was there, and so was his conscience, but his book wasn’t. The galleys weren’t ready in time. Oops. I was afraid that the line to meet him was hundreds of people long, but that turned out to be the line for James Patterson. (The longest line I saw was for Styx drummer Chuck Panozzo. That one was absurd.) I now have Krugman’s signature on a promotional cardstock flyer with the odd (and hard to transport without bending) dimensions of roughly 7.5” by 15.5”.

  • Amy Silverstein, The Sick Girl: This memoir by a heart transplant recipient is ideal for a doctor-lawyer couple like my wife and myself. Silverstein was in law school when her symptoms began to appear (me); she underwent major major medical procedures (my wife); and the other centerpiece of the book is the “deliriously romantic bedside courtship with her husband” (us together).

  • America’s Best Lost Recipes: The folks at America’s Test Kitchen have a new book of heirloom recipes gathered from their readers. Apparently, most family recipe collections focus on cakes and cookies; the ratio of sweets to savories in here is 2:1. They were signing books; Christopher Kimball signed with a bow-tie stamp! They also brought cookies (I suppose that setting up an actual kitchen in the middle of the Javits Center exhibition space would have been a little risky).

  • Miyuki Miyabe, The Devil’s Whisper and Crossfire. I read Miyabe’s All She Was Worth some years back, I think perhaps for no better reason than that it had been translated by Alfred Birnbaum, whose work on Haruki Murakami’s novels is some of the best translation I’ve ever seen. Like Murakami, Miyabe casts a skeptical eye on Japanese society, asking unsettling questions about what lies beneath and behind its superficial order. She uses the mystery genre to great effect; its trope of the relentless pursuit of unpleasant truths is a natural fit. All She Was Worth is the best novel about credit card debt I have come across; I hope these two rise to that standard. The poor folks at the Kodansha booth were nonplussed when I showed up and started waving my hands about how great Miyabe is; I think I scared them with my reaction of joy when they pointed out that they had not just one but two of her novels to give out.

  • Saira Rao, Chambermaid: This novel clearly wants to be the Devil Wears Prada or the Nanny Diaries of judicial clerkships: a juicy tell-all that offers the thrill of not knowing which half is made up. (Unlike her predecessors, however, Rao has cast her lot with television instead of the movies.) My own link to this one is that both Rao and I clerked on the Third Circuit, so I’m hoping to pick up on in-jokes and sly references that might be lost even on the average legal reader. In good news for Rao, the folks from her publisher at BookExpo had run out of copies. I’ve already emailed the associate editor I talked to to try and cadge one. (Look! See! I’m already talking it up! How much more buzz do you think I could build with an actual copy in my hands?)

  • Alex von Tunzelmann (not to be confused with Alexander von Tunzelmann) (and bad Alex, for having an author web site that has “related links” for debt consolidation, skin care, gold vacations, and the like!), Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire: I’ve wanted to know more about Indian history for a while. Independence seems as good a place as any to start. Sure. (I did also feel a bit of a twinge to realize that not just wunderkind novelists but actual serious historians are getting to be younger than I am.)

  • David Leavitt, The Indian Clerk: Dude, a novel about Ramanujan. And from David Leavitt, no less. I am so there. The coincidence of two books with Indian subjects and titles is just that: a coincidence.

  • Iain Banks, The Steep Approach to Garbadale: I picked this one up for my friend Steven, who is a huge Iain Banks fan.

  • Ronan Bennett, Zugzwang: I don’t know. It looks like it could be a trashy historical thriller. But it has a chess theme, so that could be good.

  • Steven Hall, The Raw Shark Texts: This one’s been out for a while. I don’t know why they were pushing copies. It’s a bit experimental: strange typography, a narrator with memory problems, you know, that sort of thing. Why not? That sort of thing, I like.

  • Pseudonymous Bosch, The Name of This Book is Secret: Everything about this book, but especially the archly dire narration, screams “Lemony Snicket rip-off.” Perhaps, but it might be a good rip-off.

  • Brock Clarke, The Arsonist’s Guide to Writers Homes in New England: Thanks to the great title, this one was gone before I got to the booth. I’m on the list for them to send me a copy by mail.

  • Janet Malcolm, Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice: “How had the pair of elderly Jewish lesbians survived the Nazis?” Good question, but in classic Malcolm style, the answer expands to encompass also the complex relationship between Stein and Toklas and the nature of biographical truth itself. I got this one from the Yale University Press booth, which I was happy to note also featured a large poster for The Wealth of Networks.

  • Danielle Wood, Rosie Little’s Cautionary Tales for Girls: Remarkably enough, I think this one is at least in part meant sincerely. Yes, it’s a fairy-tale-ish collection about “thoroughly modern” girls and their travails (sexual travails included), but this is not an ironic take on the fairy tale genre. It may even be a collection of inspiring you-go-girl stories that take real-world worries seriously. Or maybe not. I’ll have to read it to find out.

  • Lorenz Schröter, The Little Book of the Sea: Thanks to Schott’s Miscellany and Hodgman’s Areas of My Expertise and so forth, small books of random facts are in in in. This one is blue, and it concerns the ocean and all upon and within it.

I’m going to be busy for a while.

No One Belongs Here More Than You I give it 3 stars

I bought this book because of its spectacular promotional website. No, really. The site is truly wonderful. I figured that if Miranda July was capable of creating something so clever, her stories would probably also be equally original.

I was kind of right. This book comes with blurbs from Dave Eggers and George Saunders. Saunders is definitely right that her stories are “infused with wonder at the things of the world.” But in context, it can be a deeply troubling wonder. The book starts off with a series of stories featuring protagonists whose wonder at the things of the world leads them into unsettling behavior; they’re just too darn wonder-struck to look out for themselves or for other people. She’s exploring some literary territory—people in messed-up situations—that I don’t usually enjoy.

And so it goes, until the first longer story, “Something That Needs Nothing.” Teens run off together and move to Portland, check. Teens find, quit boring jobs, check. Teens place classified ad that “no longer sounded like blatant prostitution, and yet, to the right reader, it could have meant nothing else,” check. But that’s just the first three pages, and like a Radiohead song, the story takes flight, transforming disquieting raw materials into something odd and beautiful. The same thing happens in the other two longer stories, “Making Love in 2003” and “How to Tell Stories to Children.” With breathing room, the wonder comes to feel earned, and the characters’ complex emotional messed-up-ness more honest.

Thus: an uneven and often unsatisfying collection of short fictions, but one of enormous promise.

Markets in Everything, Classical Music Edition

1) An album of intermission noises.

2) New recordings of old performances. No, not new remasterings. New recordings.