The Laboratorium
November 2008

Change.gov Is Under a Creative Commons License


Except where otherwise noted, content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License. Content includes all materials posted by the Obama-Biden Transition project. Visitors to this website agree to grant a non-exclusive, irrevocable, royalty-free license to the rest of the world for their submissions to Change.gov under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Talk about doing the right thing. Now the collaborative power of Change.gov isn’t limited by what the transition team itself is able to enable. Anyone can take the policy points and discussions from the site and create their own remix or branch of it. This is a very good sign of the transition team’s attitude towards their task. It’s also a good license choice. Attribution 3.0 is the Barack Obama of CC licenses: modern, dignified, generous, and tolerant.

Stargazy Pie


Stargazy pie is a Cornish dish made of baked pilchards and five other kinds of seafish, covered with a pastry crust. The pilchards are arranged with their tails toward the centre of the pie and their heads poking up through the crust around the edge, so that they appear to be gazing skyward. It is traditionally served with Cornish clotted cream.

The dish originates from the village of Mousehole in Cornwall, and is traditionally eaten during the holiday of Tom Bawcock’s Eve.

I love Wikipedia, even though I lost my bet that it would have a list of the pies baked each year by David Letterman’s mother.

World of Goo I give it 4 stars


In this clever, gentle indie game, your goal is to build imposing edifices out of goo. Yes, goo. By dragging little gooballs with eyes around, you convince them to form links to neighboring gooballs. The resulting structures are mighty wobbly, but position your gooballs well and you can build a tower, or a bridge, or some other neat shape to reach the intake pipe that’s your goal on each level.

Part of the game’s offbeat charm is that right from the start, it’s not really clear whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing for the cute little gooballs that they’ve been harvested by the World of Goo Corporation. The Eflman-esque soundtrack, chatty billboards, and ramshackle plot all add to the fun. So do the cute, squeaky noises the gooballs make as you place them.

What I liked most about this game, though, is its physics. Some games have a physics engine so that the explosions look more realistic, but World of Goo is designed its physics. You’re building trusses out of goo, and by the end of the game, you’ll have wrapped your head around a fair amount of basic structural engineering:

  • You’ll be intuitively aware which gooball links are in compression and which are in tension.
  • You’ll ponder the tradeoff between building a rigid but heavy frame and a light but wobbly one.
  • You’ll know just how far a structure can bend before it buckles.
  • You’ll take into account the degree to which links stretch or shrink when axially loaded, and how transverse loads lead to rotation about the gooballs at their ends.
  • On the very clever levels in which you support bridges with balloons, you’ll become intimately familiar with how applied forces induce torques: a balloon at the leading end of your bridge has a very different twisting effect than one at the middle.

This is an outstanding educational game. It gives players a toolkit and goals, and then sets them free to discover both the underlying rules and useful heuristics for taking advantage of them. I would love to see a high-school physics and engineering module designed around this game.


Larry Solum is right; this is an extraordinarily illuminating article on mistakes of fact versus mistakes of law.


If great art immortalizes, does terrible art mortalize?

Sandy Levinson Is Right


Everyone’s bemoaning the fact that since Bush is a lame duck and Obama won’t take office until January 20, Washington is basically leaderless, even as the financial crisis worsens badly. But (almost) no one is taking the obvious next step. If we need stable leadership between election and inauguration, but the Constitution interposes a months-long delay, the Constitution is broken. Newly elected officials should take office immediately, and we should amend the Constitution accordingly.

Of course, that’s a fix for the long run, thanks in part to our insanely high thresholds for Constitutional amendments. Those thresholds have thwarted any number of healthy fixes for our often-dysfunctional system of government. (They’re also partly responsible for our broken national discourse around Constitutional interpretation, but that’s another rant.) We’re not getting an amendment through before January 20, even though one should be one of President Obama’s first-term goals.

That leaves us with a one-off problem: how to make Obama President now. Our defective Constitution does leave a path, even though it has to be cobbled together out of scrap parts: Cheney resigns, Bush nominates Obama to be Vice President, Congress confirms him, and then Bush resigns. Obama could be President tomorrow. Of course, this plan would throw Obama’s extensive transition plans into disarray, but that’s a small sacrifice to fill the gaping leadership void in Washington right now. In a country with a rational electoral system, Obama would have had his team ready to go on Election Day.

Could it happen? The obvious obstacle is Republican desire for partisan entrenchmant. Between now and January 20, the Bush administration can finalize dozens of rulemakings and burrow dozens of political appointees into career civil service positions. When you look at it straight on, it’s a scandal that this is what’s standing between us and actual leadership in this time of crisis. But of course, Bush is going to go out exactly as he came in: undemocratically.

Databases Touch Our Lives


I recently received a fundraising letter from my law school. Nothing unusual there. Letters addressed to me at my current address usually reach me. Particularly if they’re enclosed in an envelope addressed to me at my current address.

Now the donation card, though, that was another matter. That one was addressed to me at my address in Redmond, Washington. I haven’t lived there in eight years. I moved out of there nearly a year and a half before I even applied to law school. I’ve had six distinct mailing addresses in between my Redmond one and my current one. I don’t believe I’ve ever listed it in any correspondence with my law school.

Where did they get the idea that this was my address? How did they decide this was where I lived for purposes of the donation card but not for the envelope or the letter? What frightful database decided to play this little prank on me, and why?

Brushes with Greatness, Law Professors Edition


1

My mother was on a public radio show with Barack Obama. They talked about slavery and the Constitution. (The interview was later distorted by Fox News to misrepresent Obama’s views about the Supreme Court.) The date was September 6, 2001 and Obama was on the program because he was a law professor, rather than the candidate with a vision for ending the Dark Age that would start five days after the show.

2

As recounted in David Samuels’ The Runner at pages 129—-30, future law professor Orin Kerr was at Princeton with Alexi Indris-Santana. Or rather, Kerr was at Princeton with the 30-year-old con man James Hogue, who created a fake identity and bluffed his way into the Ivy League. Kerr watched from a dorm-room window as Hogue/Santana was “tapped” for membership in the Ivy Club, one of Princeton’s silly “eating clubs.” In Kerr’s words, “I remember being struck that it was kind of a funny thing, because he didn’t fit the stereotype of someone who would be in Ivy.”


As of this writing, lizardpeople2012.com is still available.

(Confused? Go here and scroll down.)

A Capella John Williams Tribute


I could do without the lyrical content, but otherwise this is pretty sweet.


This year’s Creative Commons fundraising drive has some nifty pledge gifts: $50 gets you a USB drive with Jonathan Coulton’s greatest hits, and $500 gets you a signed, personalized copy of Lessig’s latest book.

Justice Roberts Doesn’t Know What “Exponential” Means


From Winter v. NRDC, No. 07-1239 (Nov. 12, 2008):

There is an exponential relationship between radius length and surface area (Area = πr2). Increasing the radius of the shutdown zone from 200 to 2,200 yards would accordingly expand the surface area of the shutdown zone by a factor of over 100 (from 125,664 square yards to 15,205,308 square yards).

Once again, we see that even successful lawyers don’t know enough math. Just because there’s an exponent in the equation doesn’t make the relationship exponential. That there is a quadratic relationship.

This is an embarrassing mistake, or at least it ought to be, like referring to the plaintiff and defendant as “offender” and “defender.” The terms are valid, but not in this context.

Hat tip to Ken; the Volokh commenters are also on the case.

NebuAd Sued for Invasion of Privacy


The complaint is interesting. It names six ISPs from around the country as defendants, all of whom apparently conducted small-scale tests of the NebuAd deep-packe-inspection technology. I’m impressed with the legwork involved in tracking down named plaintiffs who were part of these tests.


I have it on good authority that this blog can’t be read from some workplaces because it’s classified as “entertainment” by their filtering software.

To Be Fair, No One Ever Mails Conference Invitations on Time


Yesterday, I received an invitation to the Connecticut Law Review’s fall symposium on the subprime crisis. Let’s review a few pertinent dates:

  • The symposium itself is this Friday, November 14.
  • I received the invitation on Monday, November 10.
  • “Continental breakfast and lunch provided to those who RSVP … by November 7, 2008.”
  • “If you require reasonable accommodations for a disability, please contact [us] at least two weeks in advance [i.e., by October 31].”

Well, so much for breakfast or for having one’s disabilities accommodated. And really, who makes Monday plans to go to a Friday symposium over a hundred miles away? It’s unclear to me why it’s a good use of the Connecticut Law Review’s funds to mail out glossy invites in the first place. It’s doubly unclear to me why it’s a good use of their funds to mail them to professors like me, in remote areas of the law. It’s triply unclear to me why it’s a good use of their funds to mail them to unlikely attendees, and this late.

Principles and Recommendations for the Google Book Search Settlement


I’ve reviewed the proposed settlement in the Google Book Search case, along with its fourteen appendices. I’ve also talked with a number of my favorite smart people, some in Google’s pocket, some opposed to all things Google. I offer the following as a set of guiding principles (numbered P0 to P5 and in bold) for the court as it considers whether to approve the settlement, and for the public to help in thinking about the effects of the settlement. Interwoven with them are more specific recommendations (numbered R0 to R15 and in italics): concrete changes the court ought to make to the settlement.

(Continued . . .)

A Few Further Thoughts on the Late David Foster Wallace, with Particular Reference to his Aesthetic Theories, and Including the Unfair Revival of a One-Sided, Decade-Old Debate (Unfair Because the One Participant Is No Longer Around to Respond, and Indeed


David Foster Wallace’s suicide is still haunting me, and this Rolling Stone article gets at a lot of it. Jason Kottke said of the article, “It was very difficult for me to read, for reasons which I may never really understand. Wallace meant a lot to me, full stop.” I’m going to try to say more, but I may not be able to articulate it any better than he did.

If there were a David Foster Wallace word, it would have to be “articulate.” Not just that he was articulate, endlessly articulate, hyper-articulate, articulate to the point that his prose had nowhere to turn but inwards, like a worm eating itself into silk. It was also that his writing was forever attempting to articulate, with a long final “a.” The subjectivity of lobsters, the insomniac’s late-night dread, the incomprehensibility of the infinitesimal—when he was on top of his game, he could limn the subliminal into poetic clarity. There was nothing quite like reading a genuine David Foster Wallace piece; he’d established himself as the incandescent nose cone on the rocket of American arts and letters.

Can I even complain now about the things that bugged me in his work? Infinite Jest has scenes of such profound, vivid anti-Québécois fervor that I wondered whether Wallace himself had something against them. His math was superb by the standards of other contemporary novelists, but not always actually, you know, correct. (The Mean Value Theorem proof in footnote 123 of Infinite Jest doesn’t do the computational work the character citing it needs it to do; Everything and More will have pages upon pages of persuasive, precise writing, followed by a sentence that’s simply inconsistent with all that’s come before.) Was Signifying Rappers just a put-on?

What strikes me about this list, though—and about the things I left off because they were even pettier—is how much these are points about the “early” and the “middle” David Foster Wallace. His writings from what, now, tragically, will be thought of as his “later,” mature period, are just as intense, just as perverse—but shorn of everything else. Oblivion is a nearly perfect book of short fiction, Consider the Lobster a nearly perfect book of essays. I was reading anything and everything he wrote; I knew it would challenge me, confront me, haunt me, and leave me feeling a little bit more alive.

What the Rolling Stone article did for me was foreground something else that had been all over his writing but I’d always tried to avoid seeing: the real anguish behind the bleak scenes, the real torment behind the twisted sentences. It seems obvious now that his digressions really were attempts to set out the tangled thought processes of his hyperactive mind, that the obsessive, obsessed fear of death and the unknown that runs through Oblivion came more than a little from the author’s own experience. I was surprised to learn about his clinical depression, but then again, I wasn’t surprised at all. I’ve heard people talk like he writes (if not quite as brilliantly); in my darker moments, I’ve thought like that.

I think that’s part of what makes his work so effective; his mistuned mental aerial was vibrating exactly on one of the resonant frequencies of our recursively obsessive age. Dave Eggers hit that note, too, but followed it to happier places; Rick Moody glances on it now and then; David Foster Wallace found it echoing within him until it shook him apart. So much of his writing is an attempt to come to grips with this anxiety, and somehow to render it harmless. You can see it in his famous Kenyon College commencement address, his plea for the hard work of “attention and awareness and discipline” in daily life, of not slipping into unconscious, uncaring routine. And you can see it in his fiction, in the way his sentences try never to let go of ideas that might matter, in the horror he had of language’s capacity to obfuscate, to sunder us from whatever real meaning there might be in a few moments’ experience before the endlessness of oblivion.

I can accept all of that, I can see its urgent truth, but there’s still one aesthetic stance he took that I’ve never been able to bring myself to agree with. His essay “E Unibus Pluram” (in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again) is, though it’s many other things besides (as all of his work is, of course), an extended attack on irony. It starts as a critique of television, but broadens into a critique of Image Fiction, fiction that tries to respond to television’s influence by imitating its rapid-fire, holographic succession of images and writing about its projections as though they were in some way real or substantial. According to Wallace, the problem with such responses—and Mark Leyner comes in for some particularly sharp nose-coning—is that they’re instantly themselves subverted by the medium they’re trying to subvert.

This much is fine, and as much as I found some of Leyner’s work hilarious, I have to agree that it’s done more to entrench laugh tracks than to deconstruct them. Where Wallace loses me is when he casts his case in terms of rejecting “ironic watching” as a viable strategy. The essay ends with a kind of plea for anti-rebellion, an embrace of sincerity, in work that “treat[s] of plain old untrendy human troubles and U.S. life with reverence and and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue.”

You can see him trying to live up to this creed in his own work, in the intensity of his focus on real people trapped inside thought-mazes, real people struggling to understand their real problems free from the constant recursive chatter of doubts and counter-doubts. And you can see him failing. The antic, articulate David Foster Wallace remains on display; the sentences get a little more astonishingly polished, but they’re just as tangled. The thought-mazes get twistier in Oblivion, heartbreakingly so. It’s effective writing, it gets at the modern (the post-modern? post-post-modern? pre-post-post-modern?) condition with wrenching accuracy, but you can at the same time hear the little voice of self-loathing expressing disgust at every writerly tic. He’s succeeding at the aesthetic task he’s set himself, but at the same time, he’s defined it in such a way that success itself is a kind of failure.

This is why—this is a reason why—I don’t reject irony. We can’t go back to unadorned sincerity. That ship has sailed. The ironic mode has so thoroughly suffused American life in the last two decades that an unironic poetics is simply inadequate to the task of speaking to our existential condition in terms we will find meaningful. I think David Foster Wallace knew this; it’s there in every multiply dependent clause he wrote. But I think he saw the choice as one between a retreat to pre-ironic sincerity, a soul-killing brain-numbing embrace of the Entertainment of irony, or oblivion. He vacillated between the first two while he tried to find some way of merging them for as long as he could, and then he gave in to the third.

But I think there’s another way—there has to be. Not backwards, away from irony. And not just forward into irony’s lotus garden. No, forward into irony and out the other side. There’s real political analysis in the Daily Show; there’s something improbably human in a lolcat. These are not media of resignation. There’s something vital and alive in a mashup; YouTube slash videos are not a surrender to the idiocy of the Image. These media are sincere; these media are ironic. They’re sincere in their acceptance of irony.

Ten years ago, when I first read this essay, I saw the embrace of irony as a Kierkegaardian paradox, a way to give fragile hopes some breathing room. (I cited Douglas Coupland, among others, for the sweetness under the slogans.) In a media-saturated age, faith isn’t something you can just broadcast and drop on newsstands daily, not without turning it into something other and lesser. No, it has to be nurtured, and a quiet irony gives us the twigs we need for our nests. David Foster Wallace was one of the great nest-weavers of our age; beautiful things grew and took flight from the intricate homes he made for them. I mourn him, and I mourn that he experienced the love we tried to return to him for his gifts mostly as something dangerous and addictive.

Today, I have more hope for the aesthetics of our age. Our Knights of Irony have served us well; their charges can stand on their own now. Barack Obama is a leader for these times; he’s gone through irony and beyond. This is a man who gave Leonard Nimoy a Vulcan salute, and who cracks jokes about the silliness of holding elementary school graduation ceremonies—and who’s utterly convincing when he calls for volunteerism and service because he’s also utterly sincere about it. These facets of his personality, and of ours, no longer seem like such opposites. They’re one and the same. That’s healthy, to be secure enough in one’s self and one’s purpose to feel comfortable making jokes about it, about anything. It’s a kind of health we’ve worked our way towards through some very difficult times, and it’s still far from a certain thing. But it’s something, and the sense of peace at the center of all these ironic references is growing.

I am so, so sorry that David Foster Wallace never found his way there.

John Leonard, was 69


His work was hit-or-miss with me (he could be florid to a fault), but sometimes he could really get inside what it was I loved about an author and explain it back to me with an unparalleled enthusiasm.


2008 is the new 1800.


My new favorite used book description: “[X and Y] corners have been chewed on by a puppy.”

Why Are You Hitting My Fist with Your Face?


Paul Goldstein says that copyright isn’t expanding; that’s just an optical illusion. It’s technology that’s expanding, and that’s just bringing the rest of us into contact with copyright, which is right where it’s always been.

The Grim Fandango Design Doc


No wonder the ending felt rushed; they cut a good third from the original design. (via)

Michael Crichton, Was 66


His books were sometimes clumsy vehicles for the politics of resentment and fear, but Jurassic Park remains one of the most compelling thrillers I’ve read.

Questions for Duane Reade


  • Why do you have cards for 96-count boxes of Sudafed on your shelves if you don’t have them behind the counter?
  • Why won’t you sell me more than one 24-count box, given that you also (sometimes) sell 96-count boxes?
  • Why won’t you sell me two 24-count boxes, given that you’re willing to sell me one and my wife one?
  • Why do your pharmacy techs have so much more of an attitude than the ones at the Metro Drug across the street?

It’s high time for a web-based effort to name and shame the legislators who push for pointless laws restricting the sale of pseudoephedrine and the stores that treat cold sufferers like meth-heads. The federal limit is stingy enough as it is; state laws and store policies that go further aren’t serving any rational purpose.

Rock On


A song about the states for all you electoral-map watchers out there (thanks WSK, for vampiring me with this one):

Another Lego music video (Sarah L., this one goes out to you):

And, while I’m linking Mountain Goats fan videos, the best one of all time:

Johnny Horton’s Battle of New Orleans in Lego


Now I’ve got the song stuck in my head again. Also: I’m having trouble with the mustachioed Andrew Jackson.