Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Hey, you. You see those ads on every site on the internet? You know how they got there, right? I always thought internet ads were a lot like billboards: Company A pays Company B to show ads in a space on a page. And it may have been this way in the internet’s bronze age, in 1997, but no longer.

Today, a robots-only auction takes place in literally the blink of an eye:

A small technological marvel occurs on almost every visit to a web page. In the seconds that elapse between the user’s click and the display of the page, an ad auction takes place in which hundreds of bidders gather whatever information they can get on the user, determine which ads are likely to be of interest, place bids, and transmit the winning ad to be placed in the page.

Oh, man. The first sentient robots aren’t going to try to kill us; they’re going to try to show us ads, aren’t they?

Published on under Eyeballs For Hire

It’s 2015. You’ve heard of Instagram, and you might have heard of medical Instagram, but pilot Instagram is probably new to you. You can learn about it in David Yanofsky’s horriyfing piece on commercial pilots who take photos from their cockpits while they’re (ostensibly) flying the plane.

After his initial report, Yanofsky has enjoyed quite a bit of harassment from pilots who feel he was out of line, which is documented here:

Much of the backlash seems to have been coordinated on message boards and the Facebook page Shit Pilots Say. Yanofsky’s phone number was posted there several times, with instructions to harass him. One of the people who has posted his number appears to be a pilot for Spirit Airlines, the low-cost carrier based in Miramar, Florida.

The pilot, Glen Carpenter, spoke to Yanofsky before the piece was published, arguing that all sorts of FAA regulations are violated during a typical flight and that it would be impractical to enforce them.

You have to at least admire Glen Carpenter’s idealism. He’s so sure that the FAA’s regulations on flying millions of pounds of metal and jet fuel are really just suggestions that he’ll participate in a harassment campaign using his real name. You don’t always see that kind of commitment to internet harassment these days.

I mean, take a look at what Glen Carpenter writes under his real name on Facebook:

“I talked to this Fucktard [Yanofsky] for half hour yesterday… He’s truly an idiot,” Carpenter wrote on Facebook under the pseudonym Glen Christopher, though the account’s username is glen.carpenter.129.

…whoops. Well, I’m sure no one else noticed.

That account has been posting Yanofsky’s cell phone number and encouraging people to call it or text him photos taken in the cockpit.

Spirit spokesman Paul Berry confirmed the airline employs someone named Glen Carpenter and said, “We are taking this allegation seriously.” In a brief phone call, Carpenter denied that he works for Spirit and said he wasn’t the person going by Glen Christopher on Facebook.

Oh, honey.

Published on under Questionable Pilot Programs

David Roberts has an entertaining read on the tunnel construction project in Seattle. The city needs to replace its outdated and crumbling elevated highway, called the Viaduct.

It’s remarkable how disastrous virtually every step of the tunnel has been, including the decision to build a tunnel to replace the Viaduct in the first place. As Roberts writes, Seattle has essentially three options for the Viaduct:

  1. Replace it with a new elevated highway.

  2. Replace it — at least the part of it that goes through the downtown core — with a giant tunnel that would be covered over to allow downtown to connect with the waterfront.

  3. Don’t replace it with a highway at all. In its place, create a walkable waterfront with a modest four-lane street. To accommodate traffic overflow, add transit upgrades and street improvements in the surrounding area.

The third, “surface/transit” option was the cheapest and most in line with smart green urbanism. Naturally, Seattle VSPs ignored it entirely.

The whole thing is beyond flabbergasting. It gets worse and worse the longer you read. But Roberts had even more to add yesterday about the poorly planned and executed tunnel project. He writes:

[Seattle hired an expert on tunnels who] warned that the project was “beyond precedent,” with the largest single-bore dig ever taking place in “the worst geologic environment I’ve ever seen,” beneath the water table, under considerable water pressure, through highly varied soil conditions.

It’s good to know that it’s not just IT procurement in this country that’s broken. The bit that surprises me the most about Seattle’s problem: there seems to have been a lot of research and really smart writing done before the project. For every item in the parade of horribles that Roberts writes about, some expert warned Seattle that it was going to happen. I hope that some day these experts are the ones making decisions instead of the ones being ignored.

Published on under Procurement Hell

Steven Solomon in the NY Times, on why investors in Uber (and tech startups as a whole) might be just a teensy-weensy bit… crazy:

Take Uber, for instance. The company is a rocket, no doubt. In less than five years, it has reached a $41 billion valuation. About six months ago, investors put its value at $18 billion. This valuation exists even though all the revenue from the taxi industry in the United States is only about $11 billion a year.

Sure, maybe Uber is about to scale with perfect efficiency, down to the last taxi in the last rural county in the last corner of America, and eat every single lunch of every single taxi company. All this while not incurring any of the costs, regulatory or otherwise, that legacy taxi companies have. (E.g. background checks for drivers.) A valuation of $41 billion still doesn’t make sense. Solomon observes:

The only way that the Uber valuation works is as a bet that Uber will be able to induce more people to take taxis, expand to ride-sharing and even replace cars. Still, this bet supposes that Uber is a category killer and that only the biggest, fastest-growing company will survive.

Bill Gurley, a partner at Benchmark Capital, which is an Uber investor, used this argument to justify the fat valuation. In other words, Uber will change the way we get taxis as well as how people and things get from here to there.

Yes, that’s right. Investors are just that certain that Uber will completely disrupt (1) all taxies, (2) ride-sharing generally, (3) private car ownership, and (4) public transportation; the last three would be massive enough that what was once known as the taxi industry would double or triple in size.

That’s a mighty efficient market hypothesis you got there. It’d be a shame if something happened to it and rich people just started throwing money into implausible ventures.

Published on under Like Uber but for Blogs

If you’re as obsessed with the true-crime podcast Serial as everyone else is, this Vox interview with Colin Miller may be right up your alley. Miller is a law professor who has taken to writing about legal issues that come up in the podcast.

Vox: How difficult is it to prove ineffective assistance of counsel? My impression is that it’s very hard — there are people whose lawyers fell asleep during the trial, and they didn’t win on that appeal.

Miller: If you are looking at it empirically, there are a number of studies that look at what actually happens [in ineffective assistance of counsel cases]. That claim is successful between 1 and 8 percent of the time.

In terms of the legal standards, Strickland v. Washington [a 1984 court case about when ineffective assistance of counsel violated the Sixth Amendment] set up a two-pronged test. The first prong asks: was there an error or errors by defense counsel that caused the performance to fall below a prevailing standard of reasonableness?

The first season of Serial is wrapping up later this week, but the fun doesn’t have to stop there. Miller is up to sixteen posts about the legal issues involved. We can law nerd all over this, guys! I’ll get the highlighters and you get the index cards.

Published on under What About the 2:36 Call

In this wonderful article, Reuters goes deep on the Supreme Court. You probably know that the highest court in the country is selective about which cases it accepts. Very selective, actually. They get about 10,000 petitions for certiorari each year, and grant just about 80. If you’re a math whiz, you may have already worked it out: that’s less than one percent.

Reuters has some fascinating numbers about the 66 “superstar lawyers”, or “superlawyers” who can improve your odds of hearing a case just a little bit:

They are the elite of the elite: Although they account for far less than 1 percent of lawyers who filed appeals to the Supreme Court, these attorneys were involved in 43 percent of the cases the high court chose to decide from 2004 through 2012.

Some legal experts contend that the reliance on a small cluster of specialists, most working on behalf of businesses, has turned the Supreme Court into an echo chamber – a place where an elite group of jurists embraces an elite group of lawyers who reinforce narrow views of how the law should be construed.

Whoa! What’s their secret? Well, according to Reuters, half of these “hyperattorneys” or “ultrabarristers” used to clerk for the Supreme Court’s justices. Others just socialize with them.

Um. Okay, well, it’s good work if you can get it. So what kind of trade are these “megacouncillors” plying?

Of the 66 most successful lawyers, 51 worked for law firms that primarily represented corporate interests. In cases pitting the interests of customers, employees or other individuals against those of companies, a leading attorney was three times more likely to launch an appeal for business than for an individual, Reuters found.

Really? You get the greatest endorsement the legal field knows how to provide, and you apply it for personal gain? Come on, man. (And almost all of them are men. Naturally.)

You know, part of why I lionized President Obama back when he was just Senator Obama is this quote from Obama’s law school classmate Bradford Berenson:

He turned his back on what would normally be the standard route for any president of the Harvard Law Review, which is to take very prestigious judicial clerkships, probably including a clerkship at the Supreme Court of the United States. And he returned to Chicago instead to begin political work and community work.

From the perspective of people on the Review in 1991, that was an unfathomable, unheard-of decision. The clerkships only take – even if you do get a Supreme Court clerkship – two years. And they’re an extraordinary experience, an extraordinary credential, an extraordinary opportunity to serve the country and serve the judiciary.

Oh, sure, that Obama guy did all right for himself in the end, thanks to that whole memoir he wrote, with the over-the-top publicity tour that helped move a few million copies. Clearly, there are avenues to personal gain that don’t involve making a beeline for SCOTUS and BigLaw and milking every last dime out of every opportunity for personal enrichment.

For the other folks, the ones who don’t turn their backs on the Supreme Court clerkships? It would be nice if more of them, the ones who ascend to such lofty heights, would direct their ambitions toward public service instead of private enrichment. You just rounded third base, and we’re all excited for you, but maybe share some of that love. Especially when so many of you didn’t hit a triple at all; you were born on third base.

The Reuters examination of the Supreme Court’s docket, the most comprehensive ever, suggests that the justices essentially have added a new criterion to whether the court takes an appeal – one that goes beyond the merits of a case and extends to the merits of the lawyer who is bringing it.

The results: a decided advantage for corporate America, and a growing insularity at the court. Some legal experts contend that the reliance on a small cluster of specialists, most working on behalf of businesses, has turned the Supreme Court into an echo chamber – a place where an elite group of jurists embraces an elite group of lawyers who reinforce narrow views of how the law should be construed.

Read the whole thing. It’s enlightening.

Published on under The News