June 2007 Archives

Bad Luck

It looks like my family picked a crappy week to vacation at Lake Tahoe.

International Linguistic Silliness

I find the subtle differences between American English and British English endlessly fascinating. Leaving aside the obvious divergences, as in spelling and slang terms, I'm intrigued by the ways that Standard English words have acquired different meanings and are used for different purposes in the two branches of the language.

I bring this up because of a BBC headline on the Senate's recent re-consideration of the big immigration bill. The headline is "US Senate Revives Migration Plan". The intention of the headline writer is clear, and I suppose the British use Migration to mean much what we mean when we discuss Immigration, but still the use of the term has a weird connotation to a speaker of American English. I tend to think of Migration in terms of what animals do when they move long distances. "The Senate reached a compromise on the Migration Bill today; foreign guest workers will be permitted into the United States during the warm summer months, but must migrate to sunnier tropical climes when the bitter cold of northern winters looms."

My other favorite dicordant Britishism is the term "Redundancies." Redundancy has no special significance to Americans, and we tend to think of it only in terms of its standard denotation of duplicating other functions. You might speak of a redundant system in engineering or a redundant argument in a discussion. In England, though, "Redundancies" carries the same meaning as the American phrase "Lay-offs," large-scale firings that are not directly the result of malfeasance on the part of the worker but that are instead caused by larger macroeconomic trends.

Of course, "Redundancies," in the British sense, is a euphemism, the kind that passive-aggressive managers devise in the hopes that if the word used to tell someone they're fired is nice enough the worker might forget that they've just lost their job. "It's not that you're a bad worker, you see, it's just that, well, you're kind of redundant. The firm would love to keep employing you, as would I, but, well, through no fault of your own, your function is already done by somebody else. Completely our mistake. An over-hiring problem, really. Best of luck to you, though. Security will escort you out."

What's interesting is when the euphemistic sense of the word doesn't apply at all, which can leave someone unfamiliar with the term a bit confused. "The Thistlebottom Construction Company closed its door for the last time today, as trying economic times and a dearth of new construction starts forced it into bankruptcy. The firm's closure created 600 redundancies." It makes no sense when read literally; if nobody's working at Thistlebottom at all anymore, how can anyone be redundant? I suppose, if one wishes to get metaphysical about it, one could argue that now that it no longer exists the Thistlebottom Construction Company is in the business of doing nothing. Since there are a great slew of non-persons available at Thistlebottom to do Nothing, any actual persons employed there to do nothing would be redundant. On the other hand, one could argue that Thistlebottom is now in the business of Not Existing. While non-persons are superlative at the job of not existing, actual employees have a much more difficult time of it. While the actual persons would not be necessary, insofar as they are not advancing Thistlebottom's primary business activity of non-existence, they can't honestly be said to be redundant.

The question boils down, then to whether Thistlebottom is an ethereal entity in the business of doing nothing, or a non-entity in the business of not-existing. The question is intractable, so we must assume both that Thistlebottom exists and that it does not. This is known in Business Law as Schrödinger's Firm.

I Don't Want to Set the World On Fire

Sorry for the paucity of posts of late; my entire weekend was swallowed whole by Fallout 2. For lack of anything better with which to entertain and amuse, please enjoy the opening movies for Fallout 1 and 2 . . .

. . . and the teaser trailer for Fallout 3, to be released sometime next year.

I reserve the right to expand my discussion here at some point when it's not 2:30 in the morning.

No Justice, No Peace

My time at the Justice Department is at an end. Today I turned in my security badge, said my goodbyes, and left One St. Andrews Plaza for the last time in what will likely be a long while. I've really enjoyed my time at the US Attorney's office and have been melancholy the whole afternoon.

Since I no longer work at Justice, and since all of the matters I worked on, handily, have wrapped up to a significant degree, I can speak a little bit about what I've been doing the last six weeks.

My first task upon arriving at Justice was to work on some research to bolster the case for extradition of a large arms dealer and terrorist financier. I had only minimal involvement in that matter, as another intern took over for me after the first day.

The biggest thing I worked on was the trial of M. "H." S.-E., a Colombian cocain baron who was extradited about a year ago. According to the Government's opening statement, backed up by S.-E.'s own words, H. was responsible for importing between 5 and 7 tons of cocaine from Colombia into the US and laundering between 10 and 12 million dollars of drug proceeds back. Every week. I got to see the entire trial start to finish and helped with drafting a few of the pre-trial motions, as well as assisting with research during the trial. The trial took only a week, thanks to our extremely speedy judge, and H. S. was convicted on all three counts with which he was charged.

The other major matter I worked on was a huge appellate brief. You remember that big embassy bombing that happened in Africa back in 1998? Well, the Department of Justice tried and convicted a bunch of the parties involved. The parties appealed, and a couple of weeks ago the reply brief came due. I was involved in cite-checking portions of it. Cite-checking is the process of reading through a legal document and meticulously checking all of the citations to ensure that they're formatted correctly and properly represent the source that they're citing. It's a slow and not very fun process, but it's worthwhile as you wind up finding a lot of errors that could, if they were allowed to remain in the brief, make the Government look bad. "That's dumb!" you are saying to yourselves, "There are probably, like, a dozen people on the entire planet who actually care about proper citation format in legal documents!" This is true. Unfortunately, those dozen people who care about proper citation are the people who become clerks and judges on appellate courts. To paraphrase Leon Trotsky, "You may not care about the proper formatting of your legal citations and their fidelity to the sources cited, but the proper formatting of your legal citations and their fiedllity to the sources cited cares about you!" If I recall correctly, the final brief we submitted was a little over 800 pages. That's a lot of citations to check.

I also helped out a bit, in a peripheral way, on some other matters. I listened to a recording of a wire tap and checked it against our transcript of it to ensure the transcript's accuracy, and I helped with some random research and drafting issues that cropped up.

I really enjoyed my time with Justice, but that's behind me now. Monday I begin work at The Firm. Hopefully Big Law will prove as interesting and satisfying as government work.

Chem Law

There's a storefront near my house that serves as the commercial base of operations for a true jack-of-all trades. He does shoe repair, operates a driving school, and is a licensed lawyer. The sign above his door reads "Manhattan Driving School - Shoe Repair - Abogado, Attorney at Law."

I wish his name was Avogadro. "There are 6.02 x 1023 reasons why my client is innocent!"

Mayor Mike

Hey, look at that. Mayor Mike Bloomberg has renounced the Republican party. He also appears to be setting himself up for a presidential run, given that he made the announcement while in California, and apparently did so in a speech decrying "the gridlock in Washington." Given that there have not, to my knowledge, been many beefs of late between the city government and the feds, this seems like a message aimed principally at those outside of New York City.

He's now declared himself an independent, which is frankly what he's been all along. For those unaware of New York's recent political history, Bloomberg's a billionaire media mogul who was a Democrat in his personal politics. In 2001 he became a Republican to run for mayor of New York, his first elected office, because the NYC Democratiic Party machine makes it very difficult to win the Democratic nomination if you haven't spent your life working your way up the ladder. Bloomberg won in 2001 after receiving Giulianni's endorsement following September 11. Since then he's governed New York as a moderate-to-liberal politician. He's won a lot of support in the non-white communities that Giulianni had alienated. He's balanced the city's budget, to the point where the city had a large surpluss this year that led to a property tax cut and some modest spending increases. Crime's been down despite cuts to the police budget. And he pushed through the big smoking ban which, if nothing else, was certainly a courageous move. He won re-election in 2005 by a pretty overwhelming margin.

I have to say I like Mayor Mike. He seems like a firm and effective administrator, and he's weathered city politics very well. I would vote for him for president, if I thought he had any chance of winning. Granted, I know nothing of his planned policies, but I have a great deal of faith in the man as being more than qualified for the job.

Also, if nothing else, I think it'd be fun to see a three-way presidential race between Bloomberg, Giuliani and Clinton: The Mayor of New York City, the former Mayor of New York City, and the Senator from the State of New York. Take that, rest of America!

This Damn City...

New York reached a new low this morning. I arrived around 10 at the 116th St./Columbia University station. I was running way late, but didn't really care. We wrapped up trial last week and, if my attorney was running to form, it would be a while before I got another assignment. As it happened, I was right; noone noticed me slinking in an hour and a half late, and noone got around to giving me work to do today. This is, however beside the point. The point is that I was at the 116th St./Columbia University station around 10 AM, long after the rush hour crowd had passed through.

I arrived shortly after a downtown train had passed, which meant I wouldn't be able to catch another downtown train for at least a few minutes. As is my habit when I've got time to spare on a subway platform, I made my way to the far end of the platform so I could board a less crowded car when the train arrived.

That's when I saw it, around a car-length and a half from the end of the platform. A small pile of poop. Real, honest-to-goodness poop. It was sitting perched about a foot from the edge of the platform, in around the place people stand when waiting for the train, as though it was patiently awaiting the next train's arrival so that it could hop on and take a trip to South Ferry. There were no footprints in it, so either everyone had managed to avoid it during the rush hour or some harried commuter had decided that he couldn't wait until he got to the office and relieved himself on the platform.

So I ask: At long last, New York City, have you no sense of decency? I've tolerated the vague urine smell that permeates the city, the unfortunate byproduct of a populace that treats every upright structure south of the Cloisters like a urinal, but poop? On a subway platform? Really? Have we sunk so low?

An E-Mail to Amazon

To Whom It May Concern:

I recently ordered Season Three of The Wire and requested Standard Shipping. My package was shipped yesterday via A1 Courier and, according to your tracking information, was delivered at 5:40 PM the same day.

I am not sure to whom my package was delivered, but I can say with certainty that it was not me.

At 5:40 PM yesterday I was still at work. My roommate moved out a month ago and noone has moved in to replace him, so nobody within my apartment could have received it for me. My building has no doorman, so it could not have been left with one. There was no package left in front of the building, within the vestibule, in the vicinity of the building's mailboxes, in front of my apartment's door, nor, to my knowledge, anywhere within the public spaces of the building. There was no note left on the door to my apartment or my building. I have received no telephone calls from the courier regarding my package.

Your courier, apparently, believes his job to have been successfully completed. Considering that neither I nor anyone acting on my behalf is in possession of the package I ordered, I must respectfully beg to differ.


Molten Boron.

Half a Loaf

There are a number of different strands of interpretation as to what the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment means when it come to state administration of criminal justice.

But you don't care about that.

The important thing is that one of those strands of interpretation is known as the Rule of Law interpretation, first embodied in Justice Matthew's opinion in Hurtado v. California. The basic idea is that there are certain foundational principals of what constitutes a just criminal proceeding inherent in the Common Law, and the Due Process Clause places a constitutional requirement on the states to adhere to those principals when implementing their criminal justice systems.

This led to the Vagueness Doctrine, which holds that laws that are so vague that they can't possibly guide people's behavior are unconstitutional violations of Due Process.

At last, the point: In 1971, the Supreme Court, in the case of Coates v. Cincinnati, 402 U.S. 611 (1971), struck down a statute that forbade conduct "annoying to persons passing by." They expanded upon this in the case of Papachristou v. Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156 (1972), which invalidated a statute outlawing "rogues and vagabonds," "habitual loafers," and "persons wandering or strolling around from place to place without lawful purpose or object."

It's a shame that second statute was invalidated, because it seems like it'd be endles fun to play with. First: Is "rogues and vagabonds" a conjunctive or disjunctive phrase? That is, if I am a rogue, but not a vagabond, am I violating the law? Or is it only to be applied against those who are simultaneously roques and vagabonds? And must you be both at once? Perhaps I am a vagabond in the morning and a rogue in the evening.

Also: Habitual Loafers. How much loafing may one do before it becomes a habit? I have to say I'm very guilty of this. On weekends I usually wake up around 11, and it's a rare day that sees me showered and changed out of my sleep clothes before 2 in the afternoon. Perhaps, though, I could get a lighter sentence by going state's witness and turning in other loafers of my acquaintance. For example, there's a pair of old brown leather shoes sitting beside my desk that I rather suspect of being loafers pretty much all of the time. They've turned habitual loafing into an addiction.

Legally Insane

Doing the Job

As you know, Bob, I'm not aloud to tell anyone anything about my job that they can't read in the daily news.

And that's that.

Comments That Do Not Make You Popular

From the Justice Summer Intern Happy Hour yesterday:

Male Intern: ...You're assuming that when my roommate's girlfriend gets mad at my roommate, she's acting on logic. That's a bad assumption to make about girls.

Female Paralegal: Oh, you did not just go there! If you're going to complain about girls, it gives me the right to complain about guys. I can complain for hours about the stupid things guys do. Like, how come, when two guys have a problem with one another, they can sit right next to each other and never talk about it?

Male Intern: Well, far be it from me to explain how guys think. How about you, Molten Boron?

Me: Actually, I'm really not a fan of gender essentialism.

Male Intern: . . .

Female Paralegal: . . .

Me: . . . I think I'll go get another beer now.

Fun Criminal Justice Statistic of the Day

In 2002, criminal cases were concluded in federal court against 80,424 defendants. Of those, 89% were convicted. Of that 89%, 96% were the result of guilty pleas. Discuss.

Professional Responsibility Follow-Up

I'm pleased to follow up on my blog post from last January about the substitute teacher in Connecticut who was convicted on charges of corrupting the morals of children. Via Feministe, I have learned that she will receive a new trial.

You will recall that Julie Amero was a substitute teacher who faced up to 40 years in prison (though a sentence of 40 years was highly unlikely under the circumstances) for allegedly showing pornography to students in her class. There was no dispute that pornographic images were on her computer screen while she was in the classroom with students; the question was how they got there. The prosecution argued that she was browsing porn sites, while the defense contended that the images were in pop-ups generated by malware resident on the computer's harddrive since before Amero began working.

The problem at trial was that Amero's lawyer failed to inform the prosecution of his intent to present a malware-related defense in time for the prosecution to prepare counter-arguments; the whole issue essentially didn't get raised until after the trial started. This led the judge to exclude most of the defense's malware-related evidence, which left Amero with essentially no argument for why the porn appeared on her screen that didn't involve her making an affirmative choice to put it there.

At the time, I predicted an ineffective assistance of counsel argument might prevail on appeal. At the time, I was unaware that ineffective assistance of counsel arguments essentially never succeed on appeal. In theory, this is because appellate courts are loathe to second-guess the decisions of lawyers after-the-fact. It's very easy, in hindsight, to look at a case and say that a defense would have been marginally better if the lawyer had done X but not Y, but courts prefer not to therefore label the lawyer's decision ineffective assistance of counsel. In practice, a large part of the reason ineffective assistance claims fail is because the overburdened public defender system can't provide a great defense to most of its clients, so the bar for effective assistance has to be set very low in order to prevent most cases from being overturned on appeal.

Happily for Amero, though, she received a new trial on the basis of new evidence that had come to light. Specifically, the trial judge on a post-trial motion examined mountains of evidence presented by IP professionals to indicate that the computer had been infested with malware and that this malware may have caused the images to appear on her screen against Amero's wishes. While the judge couldn't overturn the jury's verdict and declare Amero innocent (judges determine the law; it is the task of the jury to determine the facts) the judge could determine that the jury had not been exposed to all of the relevant information at the first trial, and that therefore a new trial was necessary.

Interestingly, there likely won't be a new trial. The local prosecutor's office has refused to comment on the grant of a new trial, and if the Courant's reporting is accurate this indicates that the prosecution is likely to drop the charges. Obviously this is great for Amero, though in a sense it deprives her of a moral victory. If there were a second trial, he could get an acquittal and use that as evidence in her future career that she hadn't done what she was accused of. As it stands, there may remain some doubt about her innocence. Still, given the choice between a time (and possibly money) intensive trial with an uncertain outcome and being able to walk free, I think just walking free is the option that makes the most sense, moral victory aside.


There's a fascinating article in the LA Times (registration possibly required) today by Megan K. Stack discussing her time spent reporting in Saudi Arabia and what it's like to be a western woman in a profoundly anti-woman culture.

A few excerpts:

I spent my days in Saudi Arabia struggling unhappily between a lifetime of being taught to respect foreign cultures and the realization that this culture judged me a lesser being. I tried to draw parallels: If I went to South Africa during apartheid, would I feel compelled to be polite?

. . .

The rules are different here. The same U.S. government that heightened public outrage against the Taliban by decrying the mistreatment of Afghan women prizes the oil-slicked Saudi friendship and even offers wan praise for Saudi elections in which women are banned from voting. All U.S. fast-food franchises operating here, not just Starbucks, make women stand in separate lines. U.S.-owned hotels don't let women check in without a letter from a company vouching for her ability to pay; women checking into hotels alone have long been regarded as prostitutes.

. . .

Early in 2005, I covered the kingdom's much-touted municipal elections, which excluded women not only from running for office, but also from voting. True to their tribal roots, candidates pitched tents in vacant lots and played host to voters for long nights of coffee, bull sessions and poetry recitations. I accepted an invitation to visit one of the tents, but the sight of a woman in their midst so badly ruffled the would-be voters that the campaign manager hustled over and asked me, with lavish apologies, to make myself scarce before I cost his man the election.

The article touches on the fundamental, perplexing problem of being a western, multiculturalist liberal and at the same time wishing you could do something about a profoundly misogynist foreign culture. On the one hand there are cries for help, as from a Saudi economist:

He told me that both he and his wife hoped, desperately, that social and political reform would finally dawn in the kingdom. He thought foreign academics were too easy on Saudi Arabia, that they urged only minor changes instead of all-out democracy because they secretly regarded Saudis as "savages" incapable of handling too much freedom.

"I call them propaganda papers," he said of the foreign analysis. "They come up with all these lame excuses."

Yet on the other hand, Stack has "met many Saudi women. Some are rebels; some are proudly defensive of Saudi ways, convinced that any discussion of women's rights is a disguised attack on Islam from a hostile Westerner." As an outsider, you can't attack the misogyny without at least creating the appearance of attacking the culture at large, and worse, forcing your own culture upon them. At the same time, it feels somewhat callous to therefore wash your hands of the situation and say "Well! I suppose any change will have to come entirely from within, from an oppressed and politically powerless segment of the population." Any support one gives to native movements will taint them with western imperialism, but, frankly, they'll probably be considered to be tainted with western imperialism no matter what.

I was also interested in a conversation Stein had with a young Saudi woman:

One afternoon, a candidate invited me to meet his daughter. She spoke fluent English and was not much younger than me. I cannot remember whether she was wearing hijab, the Islamic head scarf, inside her home, but I have a memory of pink. I asked her about the elections.

"Very good," she said.

So you really think so, I said gently, even though you can't vote?

"Of course," she said. "Why do I need to vote?"

Her father chimed in. He urged her, speaking English for my benefit, to speak candidly. But she insisted: What good was voting? She looked at me as if she felt sorry for me, a woman cast adrift on the rough seas of the world, no male protector in sight.

"Maybe you don't want to vote," I said. "But wouldn't you like to make that choice yourself?"

"I don't need to," she said calmly, blinking slowly and deliberately. "If I have a father or a husband, why do I need to vote? Why should I need to work? They will take care of everything."

I found this interesting because it echoes some of what you hear from anti-feminist women in the US. Why should women have the right to a late-term abortion when I don't, personally, foresee myself needing one?

I would highly recommend reading the entire article.

Leaves of Grass

I love my job, but I wish they would stop buying me food.

As you know, Bob, I am a vegan. That means no meat, no dairy, no eggs, no animal products at all. But that doesn't mean I'm picky! I have adopted a fairly lax set of rules for eating out, particularly when I'm eating with others. I don't eat obviously meaty/dairy-y food, but I don't grill the waiter for an ingredient list when I order. If something generally has stealth-dairy or meat (like onion rings or baked beans, respectively) I'll ask before ordering, but usually I'll just be casual about it. I've probably eaten more than a few restaurant meals with butter or cheese in them by accident since I became a vegan, but on the whole I think I do a good job. And if I order something and it comes with some surprise dairy item (for example, a plate of pasta that the chef decides to sprinkle with an unadvertised dollop of parmesan cheese) I take a can't-unshit-the-bed attitude and just eat it. I'll remember in the future to specify no cheese, but my sending it back won't decrease the restaurant's net cheese usage. My feelings would be different with unadvertised meat, but that's a different kettle of fish, if you'll pardon the expression.

So I'm about as accommodating when eating out as a vegan can be, and I generally don't make a big deal out of things. The problem with this accommodation, though, is that it makes it easy for the omnivores I work with to ignore my diet in selecting restaurants.

Thus: two weeks ago I had a choice of two restaurants for lunch: Just Chicken, the restaurant that serves chicken and nothing else, or Maria's Cuban restaurant. Now, Cubans are a fine people and I have nothing against them, but their cuisine, at least as instantiated in Americanized Cuban restaurants in New York City, is not particularly Vegan friendly. I had a choice of ten chicken dishes, five pork dishes, two goat dishes, and an ox dish. Among the appetizers there were three chicken dishes and two pork dishes. Sides were similarly meaty.

I eventually found the three plausibly non-meat dishes on the menu, rice and beans, fried plantains (green) and fried plantains (sweet). I'd say there's a greater-than-even chance the beans were cooked in some sort of animal fat and the plantains had whey in them, but I did what I could.

Last week some other interns and I worked late three nights in a row, and our attorney bought us dinner each night. Which, I hasten to add, was very nice of her. The trouble, for me, was that the first two nights we got food from a Vietnamese place with one non-meat dish, the third night from a dinner which had a few veganable items, provided you were willing to order a chef salad, hold the cheese, hold the eggs, hold the bacon, hold the chicken, hold the dressing. Which got you chopped lettuce and some cherry tomatoes.

What annoyed me most, though, was that my attorney started making snarkastic comments about how long it took me to find something to eat. Things to the effect of, "I realize this is the most important decision ever for you, but could you hurry it up?" I was tired and hungry at that point and barely kept myself from snapping "Well, it takes a while to search a two-hundred item menu for the one item that doesn't have meat in it."

Relatedly, for anyone who finds themself in this position in the future: Yes, I realize that your meat item tastes good, and yes, I am sure that I would not like a taste. While there are undoubtedly vegans out there who don't eat meat or dairy because they detest the way that meat and dairy tastes, similar to the way that I don't like onions, I am not one of those vegans. The fact that your chicken is very tasty is an utter non sequitur when levelled as an argument against the reasons I will not eat it. So, if in the future you feel a desire to ask whether I would like to try your chicken, even if just one bite, pretend that you have already asked the question and I have already replied "No, thank you."

I wish I had a vegan cupcake right now

The headline for a condo listing currently on Craig's List:

"$349000 Purrfect PIED a TERRE!-Reno'd STUDIO!"

"Oh!" I thought to myself, "A place that'll let me have a cat! Intriguing!"

The first line of the listing:

"Sorry to say: Pets can’t live in this Pristine, Pre-War, elevator building, two blocks from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade."

Wait, what? This strikes me as real estate listing malpractice; you can't use an onomatopoeiac animal noise to advertise a condo with a no-pets policy.

Some other headlines the lister might try in the future:

"Whatcha got cookin' in our beautiful 500 sq. ft studio apartment?"
"You'll love our gorgeous studio apartment in an up-and-coming neighborhood with one bathroom, no kitchen."

"The convenience of downtown Manhattan in the comfort of Queens!"
"This lovely house is only a quick 45 minute walk and 3 hour train ride from midtown Manhattan!"

"Finally! An Upper-East Side apartment you can afford!"
"Rent starts at $24,000/month."

This strikes me as a really poor marketing strategy. Signalling Pet Friendly in your headline attracts people who want an apartment that allows pets and repulses people who want a pet-free environment. The people who want to live in a no-pets condo won't read your listing, and the people who want pets will read your listing, get annoyed, and write disgruntled blog posts.

This is silly. It's like naming a street Park Avenue that never touches any parks. OH WAIT.

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