Monday, February 28, 2011

It's All in How You Say It

Tens of thousands of demonstrators converged on Wisconsin's state Capitol on Saturday in frigid weather to protest a Republican plan to curb the power of public sector unions.”

"Protests intensify to block Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's plan to strip union rights"

(Two different reports on the same events)

Friday, February 25, 2011

My Midterm

I teach a course on Analytic Methods for Lawyers. The idea is that there are a number of subjects, such as statistics, accounting, and economics, that lawyers cannot expect to be competent in but should be familiar with. We spend a week or two on each.

Wednesday I gave a midterm. The first question was on decision theory. Such questions usually deal with an attorney trying to decide whether to settle a case or go to court, whether to hire an expert witness, and similar issues, but I decided to do something a little more interesting. And topical.

If any of you would like to take the course virtually, you will find on the course web page recordings of the lectures, power points from the last time I taught it (I'm not using them this year), and related materials.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Is Plagiarism Becoming Obsolete?

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the German defense minister, has been accused of plagiarizing his doctoral thesis; he denies any misdeeds, but has at least temporarily stopped using his doctoral title. I am reminded of earlier scandals involving plagiarism by prominent figures, most notably the discovery that large parts of Martin Luther King's doctoral thesis were copied from an earlier thesis by another student.

The reason why such things happen is, I think, pretty clear. Academic credentials are useful not only to academics but, for the status they bring, to lots of other people as well. To those other people—and, I suspect, to many academics—the requirements for getting those credentials are seen as obstacles not opportunities, a set of arbitrary hoops they are expected to jump through. There is a natural temptation to walk around the hoops and hope nobody is watching.

This may be an issue of vanishing importance, given the existence of the internet and search engines. The better our tools are for discovering plagiarism, the less the temptation to commit it. And in the limiting case—a world where anyone reading a (digital) document can in a few seconds check to see where every part of it came from—the norms that define plagiarism may gradually fade away. Nobody, after all, considers it plagiarism if someone quotes a well known line— "to be or not to be," "there's something rotten in the state of Denmark," "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," without bothering to attribute it.

With sufficiently good tools, every line is well known, and attributions become unnecessary.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

I Called It. Sort of.

In a post I made after the most recent election, I suggested that the rise of the Tea Party had created a de facto three party game in Washington: A coalition of Obama with either the traditional Republicans or the Tea Party was sufficient to pass legislation. At first glance, the latter coalition seemed unlikely, but not impossible, although I couldn't think of any specific issues on which it could come together.

We now have one:
President Obama scored a victory today in the House when Tea Party Republicans helped scrap funding for a jet engine the White House and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have been trying to kill for years. (USA Today, Feb 16, 2011)

Cutting the Budget: A Modest Proposal

Both President Obama and the Republican leadership in the house agree that it is vital to reduce the federal budget, although they disagree about the details of what and how much should be cut. To solve their disagreement and get the budget under control, I offer a simple proposal.

Let the two sides agree that both will support any cut that either supports, and both will oppose any increased expenditure that either opposes. The Republicans get to cut any expenditure that they disapprove of, the President gets to cut any expenditure he disapproves of, and neither gets to make any additional expenditure unless the other agrees.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Guns and Freedom: A Different Argument

A recent post by former BBC North American editor Justin Webb expresses puzzlement at the pattern of gun ownership in the U.S., reporting that the zip code he used to live in, an area safe enough so that people routinely left their doors unlocked, had a surge of gun purchases after the Supreme Court found unconstitutional the D.C. ban on handgun ownership. He thinks it is obvious that his one-time neighbors have no need for guns to protect themselves, and attributes the pattern to a peculiarly American belief in a link between private ownership of firearms and political freedom.

I have no idea whether his facts or his interpretation are correct; his post does not provide any link to his data source on handgun purchases, leaving open a variety of other explanations. He is surely correct, however, that many Americans see private ownership of firearms as something that makes tyranny less likely.

The interesting question is why. Webb takes it for granted that the underlying argument is that firearms make rebellion against oppression easier, and that is indeed an argument common among supporters of the Second Amendment. He points out, as evidence against, that we have just had an example of a successful rebellion in Egypt, and private firearms played no significant role.

As it happens, I agree with the view that private ownership of firearms helps prevent tyranny. But I don't think the main reason is that it makes rebellion easier. That argument was plausible in the 18th century, and probably played a considerable role in the writing of the Second Amendment. But changes since then make it a much weaker argument now. The gap between private weaponry and military weaponry has become much larger, as has the size of the professional military. Part of the original theory, at least as I read it, was that a large militia made a large professional army unnecessary.

In my view, the real argument for private firearm ownership is a different one. The less able individuals are to protect themselves from crime, the more dependent they are on protection by government law enforcement. The more dependent they are on protection by government law enforcement, the more willing they will be to accept abuses by government law enforcement. The more willing we are to be pushed around by the police, the harder it will be to prevent a tyrannical government from arising. Indeed, in some contexts, most obviously the War on Drugs, one can argue that one has already arisen. And been tolerated.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Pad in My Pocket: The Two Screen Solution

What I want is a functional computer with an internet connection that fits in my pocket. The closest approximations currently available are large screen smartphones, of which the largest, the Dell Streak, has a 5" diagonal screen and no physical keyboard; there are several slightly smaller competitors with 4.3" screens. One reason none of them are larger than that is that they are constrained by the limited size of the pockets of potential purchasers. A 5" screen would be a considerable improvement over the 3.5" screen of my current phone, but still well short of what I want. Samsung's Galaxy Tab, with a 7" screen, comes closer, but it won't fit in my shirt pocket.

Sprint has just announced a new phone from Kyocera with a design that might provide the solution to the problem. The Kyocera Echo has two 3.5" screens. It can be configured as a sort of mini-laptop, with one screen providing the virtual keyboard for the other, or, with the phone opened flat, as a single 4.7" screen.

The breast pocket of my shirt, which is the smallest pocket in which I am likely to carry a phone, is about 3.5" wide and 5" long, so a larger version of the Echo, with individual screens about 3"x4.5", would fit. That gives a combined screen size of 4.5"x6", for a diagonal of about 7.5", a little bigger than the Galaxy Tab.

The Tab itself is said to fit into a pants pocket although not a shirt pocket. Replace its single screen with two of the same size and they combine to about 6"x7". That's roughly the size of the iPad screen—and considerably easier to carry around.

Now if only someone at Kyocera, or Motorola, or Samsung, or HTC, is reading this blog ... .