The Laboratorium
August 2007

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Rumble in the Bronx

Susan Scafidi takes note of a story that the Yankees logo has been showing up on on caps decorated with gang colors. No big deal, right? Well, these caps were official MLB merch! The caps have been pulled, but my attention was caught by the following statement in the Yankees’ press release on the caps.

The New York Yankees were completely unaware that caps with gang-related logos and colors had been manufactured with the New York Yankees logo on them. These caps were made under a licensing agreement between New Era and Major League Baseball and were not subject to the Yankees’ approval nor shown to the New York Yankees at any point prior to their retail distribution.

Dude, from a trademark-control point of view, you do not make statements like this. As a matter of healthy practice, licensing agreements for trademarked goods need to ensure that you retain control over the goods on which the mark appears. If you just give your mark away for someone to use entirely as they see fit, such “naked licensing” can call into question your ability to enforce your trademark, because you’ve just severed the connection between the trademark and your goods.

I’m highly confident that the agreement between the Yankees and Major League Baseball has quality-control provisions. But still, public claims that you don’t control how your trademark is used are the kind of thing you have to waste time and money explaining away if you get stuck in trademark litigation. I’ve seen the same thing happening with the Chinese toy recalls. It’s tempting to blame the contractor and claim there was nothing you could have done—but doing so makes you look like an incompetent mook who can’t be bothered with the little details, like keeping lead paint away from children. In the courts of law and of public opinion, think twice before you admit the laxity of your trademark control.

Burning the Archives

Clark Hoyt’s Public Editor column in the Times today is wrongheaded in more ways than I can count. The basic problem is that misleading stories about people linger in the online (and search engine accessible) archives. Googling a person’s name thus sometimes brings up a damaging story from long long ago. Mixed in with all of the usual hand-wringing are some shocking details.

We Get It Right the First Time, Or Not At All

First off, the Times pleads its inability to re-report every challenged story. Fair enough. But many of the examples Hoyt mentions are of stories that were inaccurate when written:

A woman said her wedding announcement 20 years ago gave the incorrect university from which she graduated. … A woman quoted years ago in an article about weight loss said, tearfully, that she never was a size 16, as the article stated. The husband of a school administrator in the Midwest complained that a news brief reporting her suspension was published after officials had already publicly said she did nothing wrong.

It’s one thing not to revisit stories as new information becomes available. (The Times isn’t Wikipedia, after all, and we shouldn’t hold it to the same higher standards of timeliness.) But it’s something else not to append corrections to articles whose reporting was no good. The Times pleads lack of resources: We’re too busy making mistakes to fix them. (I’m more sympathetic to their predicament if the complaints first arrived long after the articles were published, but Hoyt doesn’t discuss the timing.)

The Memory Hole

Even more startling, though, is the suggestion made by Harvard’s Viktor Mayer-Schönberger:

He thinks newspapers, including The Times, should program their archives to “forget” some information, just as humans do. Through the ages, humans have generally remembered the important stuff and forgotten the trivial, he said. The computer age has turned that upside down. Now, everything lasts forever, whether it is insignificant or important, ancient or recent, complete or overtaken by events.

There’s quite a lot of arrogance in that proposal: it assigns to the Times the wisdom to decide what’s “important” for all the rest of us to know. Rather than being free to consult old newspaper stories and decide for ourselves how much weight to give them, we’re to be kept in the dark: the trivialities will be be forgotten for us, even if we don’t think they’re so trivial. Even ten years ago, it took some significant money or connections to be able to search through the Times’s archives for a name. Now that that search power has been democratized and is available to anyone with access to the Internet, the self-appointed guardians of the “important” and the “accurate” would like to take it away from us again.

In contrast, the healthy way to use the Internet is to make as much information as possible available, and to use analytical technologies and media literacies to make sense out of it. If people are being mischaracterized online through incomplete information, we should work to give them a voice, not to silence others. At times, Hoyt flirts with this fundamental truth, then shies away:

What about allowing an aggrieved party to place a comment in the archive? How would you police its accuracy?

It’s a nice point of journalistic pride for a newspaper that admits it’s published inaccurate stories to worry about “polic[ing]” the accuracy of comments on them.

The Google Game

And finally, I just didn’t know what to make of this paragraph:

Kraus’s situation is an unhappy byproduct of something called search engine optimization, which The Times has been using to make money by driving traffic to its Web site. Technically complex, search engine optimization pushes Times content to or near the top of search results, regardless of its importance or accuracy.

I’d be very curious to know exactly what sorts of practices Hoyt has in mind. The way he describes it, you’d almost think that SEO was some kind of illegitimate and indiscriminate practice that just shoves your content way up in search engine rankings, regardless of its quality. And you’d think that the search engines were either ignorant of or unconcerned by it, so that they’re happy to let the Times place its stories wherever it wants in their results. And you’d think that there weren’t any conceivable ethics issues with a newspaper primping itself for the search engines like this.

But no. The more likely story is simply that Hoyt’s been misinformed by the webheads. The Times puts its archives online and helps search engines index them. Because people trust the times, stories from its archives show up a lot in search results. The search engines have decided for themselves that these stories are relevant; I doubt there’s much “push[ing]” going on. It must be nice to believe that you’re still the center of the media universe, and that everyone else dances to the tune you call.

Unfortunately, Mr. Public Editor, this problem is larger than you alone. Don’t flatter yourself into thinking that you caused it all by your lonesome, or that you can or should fix it acting solely by yourself. Otherwise, you might do something rash … like purging your archives and hiding that knowledge from history.

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Hong Kong is Present, Taipei Awakes

I think I have found a reasonably effective solution to the problem of jet lag. All it requires is a complete inversion in what you think the problem is. The conventional wisdom is that you need to force your body out of its comfortable rhythm and convince it to adopt the alien schedule of the new place you’re going. That’s exactly backwards. If you think of your new time zone as the “wrong” one, of course you’ll have a hard time of it. The trick is to be absolutely convinced that the time zone you started from is the mistake.

Set your watch and your mental clock to the new time zone well before you get to the airport. The sky outside is an illusion, and your body, in a fit of extreme perversity, has decided to wake up at an inappropriate hour. Your task, between then and when you land is to reset yourself to the One True Time.

The conventional view also treats the plane flight as another obstacle. It’s inherent in the name: “jet lag.” This, too, is a mistake. Being in a disorienting environment with unpredictable cycles of light and dark and no real sense of place—that’s a golden opportunity to tell your body any damn thing you want to make it believe. Make the most of it.

Paper Work

I just pushed a paper draft out the door.

Every time I use that metaphor, I get the sense that said door opens directly to the outside, about thirty floors up, with no ledge.

I Feel So Special

Your paper entitled, “Modeling Cultural Cognition” was recently listed on SSRN’s Top Ten download list for HRN Philosophy Network, PHIL Philosophy Subject Matter Journals, PLAW: Legal Theories, Policies & Practices, Law & Society (Topic), Philosophy of Law, Political Methods Journals, Political Methods: Qualitative & Multiple Methods and QMM: Qualitative Measures (Topic). …

As of 08/15/2007 your paper has been downloaded 12 times.

To put that in perspective, this video of a hamster eating Cheerios was viewed ten thousand times in an hour yesterday.

Talks Times Two

This week, I gave presentations on back-to-back days at two extraordinarily different conferences. The American Accounting Association’s annual meeting can only be described as “gigundo.” It filled one hotel, and spilled into a second. My session, on virtual worlds and accounting (!) was one of thirty-one parallel sessions taking place at the time. I knew exactly one other person there.

The IP Scholars conference, on the other hand, was an intimate gathering of researchers from a rarefied and still mildly obscure field, in the same three rooms for two long days, with a bit of a Quaker meeting “everyone speaks as the spirit moves them” ethos.

Both were great fun. As is my usual practice, I’ve uploaded slides and approximate transcripts to my presentations page.

Alternate Titles for the Bourne Movies

  • The Bourne Penultimatum
  • The Bourne Antepenultimatum
  • The Bourne Multiple Identity
  • The Bourne Reflexivity
  • The Bourne Symmetry
  • The Bourne Transitivity
  • Matt Damon IS Kasimir Malevich in The Bourne Suprematist
  • The Bourne Inferiority
  • The Bourne Supremum
  • The Bourne Infimum

Discover Your Inner Economist I give it 2 stars

Tyler Cowen’s blog is endlessly entertaining. He’s an economist with a real gift for lateral thinking, plus insane passions for travel, ethnic cooking, music, and books. It’ one of my favorite blogs, because most days he’ll post something either worth cooking, worth reading, or worth thinking about. His latest book is an awful lot like the blog. So why was I so disappointed?

Because it’s an awful lot like the blog. So much so that many passages are adapted more or less directly from a blog entry. (Or vice-versa, but either way I feel robbed.) He can’t stay on any particular topic for more than four or five paragraphs, the range of subjects is astonishing, there’s absolutely nothing systematic about the presentation (and barely anything orderly), and most of the arguments have the same half-baked, lunch-conversation style as the blog does. I love it in blog form, but in dead-tree form, it gets tedious quickly. I read over a dozen passages out loud, but learned almost nothing Cowen hadn’t already exposed me to.

Cowen’s a fox; his blog is a fox blog; his book is a fox book, too. I bought the book expecting he’d show his hedgehog side; isn’t that what academics do in books? But no, it’s a fox book, too. (That’s a bit of a relief, as compared with some of the unpleasantly hedgehoggy pop-econ book out there, some of which Cowen takes a swipe at in this one.) Now, I like fox books, too: the Mimi Smartypants book is a recycled collection of blog entries, and I like it just fine. But she doesn’t pretend that it’s anything more than what it is. Whereas Discover Your Inner Economist (mistitled: it really should be Nurture Your Inner Tyler Cowen) has chapters, and the occasional claim about an overarching theme. Lies, all lies! What he has to say works much better in blog form. Go read the last two years of his archives, and you’ll save some money and have a more enjoyable time. (Plus, that way you get actual recipes. Tasty ones, too.)

In conclusion, I’d reveal the address of his secret blog, except that he hasn’t posted in over a month, so it’s not as though I’d be letting you in on any big secret.

On Knowing When to Quit

Hi, is this Mr. and Mrs. Grimmelmann?

The Mr. is speaking.

This is Anthony from [same name omitted sweepstakes as before]. How are you doing today?

Actually, someone from your organization called earlier, and I was extraordinarily rude to her, to the point where she just hung up. Now I could do the same to you, or we could just end this here.


Just $2.31 a Week for Literally Seconds of Entertainment

These telemarketing calls are really bringing out my mean streak.



Yes, hello.

I’m with the Record, your local paper. We’re running a back-to-school special … [lengthy, boring details omitted].

Thank you, but the New York Times is our local paper, and everything else is just fishwrap.

Today’s Telemarketing Fun

Can I speak to Mr. and Mrs. Grimmelmann?

Speaking …

I’m calling from the [name omitted] Sweepstakes, and you’ve been entered in a drawing to win $25,000 or a trip to Hawaii. The sweepstakes is also available to cardholders with a Visa, Mastercard, or American Express. Do you have one of those?

Yes. When did you say the trip to Hawaii is?

The winners will be announced August 31.

Oh, I’m sorry. August 31 isn’t good for us. Is there another time we could take the trip?

No, you’ll find out on August 31 whether you’ve won.

Okay, then. We’ll take the money instead. Now, you’ll put that directly on the credit card, right?

I tell you what. We’ll get in touch with you if you win, okay?

I’m getting better at this.

Give Me Some of That Stereotypical Airplane Reading

I have two interhemispheric plane flights coming up later this month. One is a brutal nineteen and a half hours, the other a mercifully short eighteen and a half. I could use some reading recommendations. The key virtues are that any books I bring with me ought to be relatively lightweight and able to hold my attention even when I’m going stir-crazy. Individual length would be a nice plus, but I’d settle for collective length.

Any suggestions?

Obligatory Cheney Joke

Pacemakers wear out faster than normal if you set them to “goose-step.”