Blog Ipsa Loquitur

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 The city needs to replace its outdated and crumbling elevated highway, called the Viaduct.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

Your briefs probably suck. I mean, I think they’re fine, but Chris Mincher has some advice for you:

The use of monospaced characters on typewriters led to another obsolete yet stubbornly persistent practice — putting two spaces between sentences. With uniformly spaced type, a period has the same space between the last letter of the sentence it’s finishing and the first letter of the next sentence. In this case, an extra space helps create an easier visual cue signaling the start of a new sentence. However, these days, word processors and proportionally spaced fonts place the period flush with the previous letter, thereby leaving plenty of room to serve that function.

Putting an extra space on top of that is absolute overkill, and if those gaps happen to coincidentally align vertically, it can lead to a disrupting ribbon of white running down your document. Two spaces are therefore not only totally unnecessary, but also a potential obstruction to readability, and you should never, ever use them. Anyway, just wanted to get that off my chest.

Amen, brother! Actually, the bulk of his post is about typography – your choice of font, spacing, margins, and so on. Like me, Mincher has read Butterick’s Typography for Lawyers, and is more competent a designer as a result. If you’re lawyering and you’re using Times New Roman, you owe it to yourself to read this. Mincher is a good place to start.

Published on under The Digital Age

This article on New York City’s burgeoning superhero movement started out earnestly. Although as a matter of procedure, it seems dishonest to refer to costumed vigilantes as either super or heroes, I’m sure it’s hard to resist the temptation to romanticize something so instinctively American.

There are hundreds of superheroes in cities across the nation. New York’s superheroes patrol the nighttime streets for crime, putting themselves in situations that ordinary citizens do their best to avoid. […] Though New York City’s crime rate has drastically decreased from its notorious heyday between the 1960s and the 1990s, it has recently seen an uptick. There are dark gaps in the city’s terrain where some superheroes believe the watchful eye of Commissioner William Bratton’s police force does not reach, and where they believe they are needed. One of these heroes is Dark Guardian.

Okay. I’m in. This is totally badass. Dark Guardian is out for justice, courageously standing up for the downtrodden and disaffected among us. Where the cops won’t get their hands dirty, he alone will uphold the law.

Where does he patrol? The rough and tumble neighborhood of Brownsville? East New York? The wretched hives of scum and villainy of … uh … Little Felontown? DoRiTo? Okay, I clearly don’t know where criminals hang out.

It is eleven at night on a Sunday. I’m standing under a traffic signal on the corner of Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue waiting to meet Dark Guardian. We’re going to patrol Greenwich Village.

You’ve got to be kidding.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with New York City’s endless series of boutique neighborhoods, Greenwich Village is one of the nicest parts of Manhattan. In this “hardscrabble” part of town, you can live the authentic life in a 4 bedroom, $5 million apartment. It contains three of the most expensive zip codes in America. How absurdly ritzy is Greenwich Village? Celebrity residents have their own category on Wikipedia.

That being said, it’s not some wonderland without any crime at all. While there were literally zero murders in this neighborhood in 2013, check out the statistics. While Greenwich Village sees below-average crime in almost every category, the rate of Grand Larceny is almost four times higher than the city’s average.

For those of you keeping score at home, Grand Larceny is when you steal:

  1. Anything worth more than a thousand dollars; or
  2. A credit or debit card; or
  3. Anything directly from a person.

There are other ways to get to Grand Larceny (11 different kinds of 4th degree Grand Larceny alone!), but those are your most common.

Well, all right. I stand corrected. Initially, I did a spit take upon reading the “we’re going to patrol Greenwich Village” line. But apparently, there are a lot of muggings there. You go, Dark Guardian. Break up the purse snatchings and the apple pickings, and do Batman proud.

Published on under The Category Gotham Deserves