Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Published on under Legal Theory

At the risk of sounding pithy, you know the maxim: ignorance of the law is no defense. Whether or not you know the law, you are responsible for following it. This might seem a little unfair, but the other option is roving gangs of untouchable illiterate super-criminals who don’t know a single law. Cops would have to read the law aloud through fantastically large megaphones as they engage in breathtaking chases with criminals.

…That actually sounds kind of cool. Remind me to come back to this during NaNoWriMo.

Okay, so ignorance of the law is no excuse. Kinda unfair. More unfair when you understand that getting your hands on a copy of the law is expensive.

For example, some states claim a copyright interest over their laws. They make you pay to get a copy. Or, more accurately, some publishing company has paid the state for the exclusive right to sell people a copy of the law. That’s bad enough, but the law isn’t “just” the laws passed by Congress and state legislatures and so on. The law is actually those laws plus a bunch of court cases about what those laws mean. There’s a $6.5 billion industry built up around selling access to court cases. The law is simply not freely accessible.

Even if we made all of that free today, laws are really complicated and the cases that modify them are even more complicated. I always joke that “I have no practical skills; I’m an attorney,” but the fact is that the one skill lawyers do have is ‘can read laws and cases and figure out what the heck.’ Normal people aren’t as good at that as lawyers are. Probably because they actually have practical skills.

Published on under Eyeballs For Hire

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 Questionable Pilot Programs

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 Procurement Hell

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 Like Uber but for Blogs

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 What About the 2:36 Call

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.