The Laboratorium
October 2007

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

Nurikabe Rip-Off

Buyer beware! The Penguin Book of Nurikabe falls far beneath the minimal standards one expects from a puzzle book. The book is supposed to contain fifteen “expert” puzzles; in fact, there are only four, of which all the rest are duplicates! What’s more, many of the puzzles in the book aren’t even proper Nurikabe, since they have more than one possible solution. Like the annoyed reviewer at the site, I found this out the hard way. I doubt that these things were ever test-solved. So much for “the highest levels of Fleet Street professionalism.”

User-Generated Content Mush

Some major copyright holders (though notably not the record companies) and some user-generated content sites (though notably not YouTube) have signed a bunch of “User-Generated Content Principles.” The basic idea seems to be that if the sites first rip out their own intestines and then use “Identification Technology” to filter out and block most infringing stuff from showing up on their sites in the first place, and finally promptly take down any infringing stuff that should happen to slip through upon notice, the content conspiracy won’t show up with lawyers and Lugers. In other words, voluntarily go well beyond what copyright law requires of you and we’ll pretend that we’re letting you off out of the warmth of our stony little hearts, rather than because we’ve got no case.

For me, the real “and a pony” moment comes in principle 3:

UGC Services should use effective content identification technology (“Identification Technology”) with the goal of eliminating from their services all infringing user-uploaded audio and video content for which Copyright Owners have provided Reference Material (as described below). To that end and to the extent they have not already done so, by the end of 2007, UGC Services should fully implement commercially reasonable Identification Technology that is highly effective, in relation to other technologies commercially available at the time of implementation, in achieving the goal of eliminating infringing content.

(emphasis added). That’s not a rule. It’s not a standard. It’s not even a principle. It’s mush. The Identification technology, that wonderful magical animal, should be “commercially reasonable” but also have a goal of “eliminating…all infringing…content.” How well does it need to work? It should be “highly effective,” but only “in relation to other technologies.” Do you know what that means? I don’t.

This is where the bodies are buried, my friends. Sainted Congress itself couldn’t have written a more mealy-mouthed compromise. Copyright holders will claim that whatever technology the UGC sites are using isn’t even “effective,” let alone “highly effective.” The sites will reply that in comparison with the other crud out there, their systems are ust about as effective as you can get. They’re both right. If software that could distinguish infringement from noninfringement automatically and reliably were something a UGC site could just order up, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place. Even identification technology that’s extraordinarily effective in relative terms is still ineffective in absolute terms, and I full expect everyone involved to argue whether “highly effective” is an absolute or relative term until the cows come home.

Can Someone ID This Thing for Me?

I forget what this is

(I couldn’t have gotten the indoor aquarium shots without a fast lens. Whatever this is, I shot it at f/1.4.)

Ends-in-99 Pricing Bites Back

Apple has started taking pre-orders for Leopard—version 10.5 of their OS X operating system. But the pricing is ever-so-slightly wonky. The unlimited-user edition is $999. The 10-user edition is $499. The upgrade from the 10-user edition to the unlimited-user edition is $499. The expected inequality fails to hold.

Warning: Bad Pun Within

What might one call a study to see how much more influential recent American law school graduates are at firms than their colleagues with foreign law degrees?

The Associates and J.D. Power Survey.

125.7 GB Available

Replacing the hard drive in a MacBook is satisfyingly straightforward. The hardest part was buying the eensy-weensy torque driver that fits the screws on the drive.

The transplant appears to have been a success; I’m typing this on the patient. The new drive now has more free space than the old one did total space.

Gridless in Vancouver

I’m off to the Association of Internet Researchers annual conference. Ironically enough, I’m not bringing my computer. Responses will be slow to nonexistent through the weekend. In the meantime, go read my Internet Law class’s latest blog posts; their responses to this week’s question (evaluate whether one of the computer hacking cases they read for class was correctly decided) were thoughtful and sophisticated across the board.

Markets in (Almost, But Not Quite) Everything, Baby Sex Edition

Mary Rabiner is a professional baby-room decorator:

Most Unusual Service: She finds out the baby’s sex, but the parents stay in the dark. Biggest Mistake: “On my first job, I charged the fabric to the mother-to-be’s credit card. She knew the price differential of the boy’s fabric versus the girl’s and figured out immediately what she was having.”

For enough money, you can hire people to know things for you.

Institutions Now Targeted for Destruction by the Right Wing

  • Science
  • Dear Abby
  • The Nobel Peace Prize
  • Sick twelve-year-olds
  • The rule of law

The Real (Legal) Thing

I’ve been reading the American Association of Law Libraries’ State-by-State Report on Authentication of Online Legal Materials. The report itself is repetitive, but the issue it raises is critical: How do we know what the law is? Even for seemingly well-defined legal materials like statutes, it turns out to be a difficult and troubling question. “Go look it up!” is the obvious retort, but it begs the question: Look it up where? If you said, “In the statute book, silly,” you’ve missed the point. How are we to know that the book is right? Couldn’t the printer have slipped in a little something extra, along the lines of the Buggre Alle This Bible?

This kind of worrywarting gets you digital signatures, the official kilogram, and statute books with the Parliamentary seal affixed to the binding. The point of the Report, though, is that states haven’t been paying proper attention to the digital equivalent of sealing wax. A fair number of states—by statute, even—purport to make online versions of their laws “official,” but there’s no guaranteed reliable certification process to establish that any given web page really reflects the duly promulgated text. The site could crash, someone with server access could change a few words here and there, an index might be mis-built and leave out a section—if you’ve worked with computers, I’m sure you have plenty of ideas. States could be using digital signatures, watermarking, chain-of-custody certification, or other authenticating practices—but for now, they aren’t.

Sure, sure, you may be saying, but how realistic are these scenarios? We can trust the site most of the time, can’t we? (If that’s the standard, by the way, can we please stop complaining that Wikipedia isn’t “always guaranteed” and start engaging with the question of how often it’s right and wrong.) Well, consider this. When I was on law review checking sources, I once found a case under two different names in different reporters. The plaintiff had one last name in the state reporter and a different one in the regional reporter—and since the opinion itself never referred to him by name, good luck figuring out which one was right.

And, oh yeah, the official kilogram is losing mass.

Genocide and “Genocide”

The story:

A House committee voted on Wednesday to condemn the mass killings of Armenians in Turkey in World War I as an act of genocide, rebuffing an intense campaign by the White House and warnings from Turkey’s government that the vote would gravely strain its relations with the United States

“We all deeply regret the tragic suffering of the Armenian people that began in 1915,” Mr. Bush said in remarks that, reflecting official American policy, carefully avoided the use of the word genocide.

The photo caption:

Survivors of the Armenian genocide in Turkey attended a session of a House panel that voted to condemn the killings on Wednesday.

You Know You’re Obsessing Too Much About Typography When

You think, “The footnote numbers in this article+pdf) aren’t in the same typeface as the footnote numbers in the other articles in this issue.”

Overheard on Central Park South

Kid A: I’ve never seen a horse before.

Kid B: I have.

Kid A: That s— is big!

Attention Pathmark Shoppers

The lines at our local Pathmark are always outrageous. The store has ten registers or so, but I’ve never seen more than two or three of them staffed at a time. The cashiers are also painfully slow. The lines consistently reach back to the aisles of groceries, creating a massive snarl at the front of the store. We typically spend most of our time at the store in line; everyone else seems just as unhappy to be there as we are. Whenever it’s an option, we drive across town to the A&P or walk over to the much smaller fruit-n-vegetable market instead.

My question is why Pathmark puts up with this. You’d think that by adding a few more cashiers they’d increase sales by far more than enough to pay for it. And yet they don’t. What gives? What kind of forces make these absurdly long lines the equilibrium result? Some hypotheses:

1) Pathmark shoppers don’t value their time very much; the impatient ones like us go somewhere else. Perhaps, but there are plenty of other people in there hopping from one foot to the other.

2) Pathmark shoppers don’t have convenient alternatives. Empirically false, particularly given that most people get there by car.

3) Pathmark shoppers don’t know about their alternatives. Seems unlikely.

4) The low prices make it worthwhile. Would be a plausible theory if the prices were low, which they are not.

5) The shoppers like the social experience; it’s about chatting with their friends who are also stuck in line. It’s true that we enjoy grocery shopping more together than alone; this one suggests we should go with a larger group of grocery buddies.

6) Incomplete contracts are breaking down in front of our eyes; the cashiers don’t particularly need these jobs, and store management knows that cracking the whip will just leave them with even fewer cashiers. This feels psychologically true, but it doesn’t square with the fact that other stores in the same shopping plaza—to say nothing of the other supermarkets in town—don’t seem to have the same issues.

7) Local failure of Pathmark management; our store is run by a bunch of incompetents. But this just pushes the question up a level: why does Pathmark tolerate this organizational pathology? So perhaps there’s a systemic management failure at Pathmark. My experience of other Pathmarks suggests that ours is not an outlier. What sort of mistake?

8) Management has given up this Pathmark for lost; it’s not worth closing but they don’t expect it to do well. If you have low expectations, prepare to have your assumptions confirmed. We need a No Pathmark Left Behind program.

9) Pathmarks everywhere are understaffed; management doesn’t know that that’s the problem. Hierarchies can be blind, yes, but this one is obvious. They must spend some time in their stores, right?

10) Pathmarks everywhere are understaffed; it’s a deliberate decision that, in time, will destroy the company. We’re not in equilibrium; we’re just watching the Invisible Hand wield the Invisible Knife as it claims its latest victim.

11) Pathmarks everywhere are understaffed, and it’s a rational overall strategy in terms of market positioning, for some combination of factors given above. This seems unlikely, but perhaps …

12) Our Pathmark is an outlier in some respect—it needs more than the usual staffing, its store management is more than usually bumbling—but fixing it would require some kind of exception to the Taylorist homogenized rationality by which the chain is run.

Other explanations welcome; I find none of these satisfying.

Best Caption Ever

Today’s New York Times has a small story on page A19:

In a futile effort to evade the police, Norman Thompson, wanted in a car theft, leapt from a balcony in Lewiston, Me., on Wednesday, only to be handcuffed after being tackled by Russ Dillingham, a news photographer. “I always kind of wondered what Id do in a situation like that,” Mr. Dillingham said.

The accompanying dramatic photo of the leap and the rather less dramatic photo of the handcuffing are captioned “Photos by Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal, via Associated Press.”

Great Moments in Cybercrime Caselaw

Lee’s scheme [ed: creating a fake web site mimicking the Honolulu Marathon site and taking money from unwitting registrants] was uncovered and he pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and one unrelated count of selling Viagra without a prescription.

—United States v. Lee, 296 F.3d 792 (9th Cir. 2002)

Up, Down, and All Around

Here’s something interesting:

  • To turn up is to arrive.
  • To turn down is to reject.

That is, if you take “turn” and add either “up” or “down” to it, you get a new, idiomatic phrase. The great part is that the two phrases you get this way aren’t opposites. Here’s another example:

  • To dress up is to put on fancy clothes.
  • To dress down is to berate.

What other verbs can you think of that have this property? Fine print:

  • Both “— up” and “— down” must exist, and must have some idiomatic meaning, even if not much (“Think” doesn’t work, because while you can think up an idea, you can’t think down anything.)
  • It’s okay if one or both of the forms is a compound word. (“Lay” works, because a layup is a basketball shot and you lay down a funky bass line.)
  • There must be at least one meaning with “up” that is not the opposite of any meaning with “down,” or vice versa. (“Dress” illustrates this rule. To “dress down” is also to put on casual clothes, but there’s no up opposite to the “berate” meaning.)

My list is after the jump:

(Continued . . .)