March 18, 2009

The Golden Shield of Law

Filed under: Politics, Tech — Chris @ 12:05 am

It sound like the legal system might be the next RIAA, doomed to stand athwart history, yelling stop:

Jurors are not supposed to seek information outside of the courtroom. They are required to reach a verdict based on only the facts the judge has decided are admissible, and they are not supposed to see evidence that has been excluded as prejudicial. But now, using their cellphones, they can look up the name of a defendant on the Web or examine an intersection using Google Maps, violating the legal system’s complex rules of evidence. They can also tell their friends what is happening in the jury room, though they are supposed to keep their opinions and deliberations secret.

A juror on a lunch or bathroom break can find out many details about a case. Wikipedia can help explain the technology underlying a patent claim or medical condition, Google Maps can show how long it might take to drive from Point A to Point B, and news sites can write about a criminal defendant, his lawyers or expert witnesses.

“It’s really impossible to control it,” said Douglas L. Keene, president of the American Society of Trial Consultants.

Judges have long amended their habitual warning about seeking outside information during trials to include Internet searches. But with the Internet now as close as a juror’s pocket, the risk has grown more immediate — and instinctual. Attorneys have begun to check the blogs and Web sites of prospective jurors.

Mr. Keene said jurors might think they were helping, not hurting, by digging deeper. “There are people who feel they can’t serve justice if they don’t find the answers to certain questions,” he said.

But the rules of evidence, developed over hundreds of years of jurisprudence, are there to ensure that the facts that go before a jury have been subjected to scrutiny and challenge from both sides, said Olin Guy Wellborn III, a law professor at the University of Texas.

“That’s the beauty of the adversary system,” said Professor Wellborn, co-author of a handbook on evidence law. “You lose all that when the jurors go out on their own.”

All of the lawyers or judges quoted in this article seem to think the question is: how can we make these people STOP?

The real question is: how are we going to adapt?

Instead of reinforcing the levees, let’s tear them down and let the wetlands do the work. Instead of “nobody looks at the Internet,” how about “everybody looks at Internet”? The jurors are encouraged to independently research the case. If a juror finds something she thinks is interesting or relevant, she has to present it to the judge so the lawyers can respond. Nothing gets cited in the jury room that hasn’t first been aired in open court. If that means the jurors have to work harder to look past prejudicial evidence, so be it. (It probably means the end of the exclusionary rule, but that was all over but they crying anyway.)

You think this idea is stupid? Give me an alternative, short of sequestering all juries five miles from the nearest cell tower.


November 6, 2008

Good job, America.

Filed under: Politics — Chris @ 1:34 pm

Probably the most historic aspect of Tuesday’s election is that it broke my four-year-old election-canvassing jinx:

  • In 2004, I canvassed for ACT NOW (not John Kerry, wink wink) in Liberty, Missouri. John Kerry lost Missouri by 196,000 votes (though he won Jackson county by 53,000).
  • In 2006, I canvassed for Lois Murphy in Pennsylvania’s 6th House district. She lost by 3,000 votes.
  • In 2006, I canvassed for Diane Farrell in Connecticutt’s 4th House district. She lost by more than 6,000 votes. Her opponent, Chris Shays, was the only New England Republican to win re-election to the House. (In fact, this year he did not win re-election. But I didn’t canvass there this year.)

This year:

  • I canvassed for Obama in Northeast Philly. Obama won Pennsylvania by more than 600,000 votes. He won Philadelphia country by more than 450,000 votes. (I knocked on about 200 doors, at most.)
  • I did Election Day phone-banking for Obama into Miami-Dade County in Florida. Obama won Florida by more than 194,000 votes. He won Miami-Dade by more than 139,000 votes. (I made maybe 100 phone calls… By around 4:30PM, there were no voters left to call who were willing to pick up the phone.)

Barack Obama has taught me an important lesson about democracy: A really good candidate with an overwhelming advantage makes all the difference. And I make no difference at all.

AN ALTERNATIVE THEORY: LC’s brisket and Stroud’s fried chicken on Election Eve are bad for Democrats. Chink’s cheesesteaks? Electoral gold.

November 4, 2008

Seriously, People: Vote

Filed under: Politics — Chris @ 6:01 am

If you live in a Blue State: Vote.

If you live in a Red State: Vote.

If you live in a “battleground” state: Vote.

Tell your parents: Vote.

Tell your siblings: Vote.

Let your born-again uncle slip your mind.

Tell your slacker friends who think they’re too fucking cool: Vote.

Tell your yuppie douchebag friends who think they can never leave work: Vote.

Tell your cat: Vote.

Tell your dog: Vote.

Tell Mickey Mouse: Vote.

Then: Vote.

Vote, vote, vote.

To find your polling place, visit*

* If you are uncomfortable asking Barack Obama where your polling place is: Don’t Vote.

November 2, 2008

Notes on Canvassing, 2008

Filed under: Politics — Chris @ 10:23 pm

It’s often said that Democrats need to work harder to attract rural and suburban voters. As a campaign volunteer, I say: More urban voters. More apartment complexes. More row houses. Fewer front yards. Fewer side fences. Let the rich people with the long driveways figure out when the election is on their own.

I leave you with some wise words from the old people of Northeastern Philadelphia:

  • “I may burn in hell for it, but I think I’ll vote for Obama.”
  • “You keep knocking on my door and calling me by the wrong name! I’m sick of it! I’m not going to vote!”
  • “Be of faith!”

August 25, 2008

Being on television means never having to say you’re wrong

Filed under: Not Tech, Politics, YouTube — Chris @ 8:46 am

This video clip has been getting a lot of play in the liberal blogosphere (e.g., TPM):

In it, Mark Halperin says (with respect to the “how many houses” “controversy”):

My hunch is that this is going to end up being one of the worst moments of the entire campaign for … Barack Obama. I believe that this has opened the door up to not just Tony Rezko, in that ad, but to bringing up Reverend Wright, to bringing up his relationship with Bill Ayers…. It would have been hard for John McCain—given the way he says he’s going to run this campaign—to do all this stuff without the door being opened.

What’s interesting to me is that pretty much the entire panel jumps on him to say: that’s stupid, that’s illogical, that completely contradicts both objective reality and common sense. And he sticks to his guns, unfazed, and keeps making the argument for 2 minutes, 43 seconds.

It’s possible that Halperin is just exactly that blinkered and stupid. But it strikes me as the kind of argument I’d pitch over a beer and, after my drinking companions tore it apart, I’d shrug and say, “Yeah, that’s dumb. Forget it. I was just talking shit.” Maybe Halperin would say that over a beer, but he’s on TV. And on TV you never repudiate a stupid argument.

August 6, 2008

Did Barack Obama Play the Race Card… Again?

Filed under: Not Tech, Politics — Chris @ 12:11 pm

Can you name a category of people (besides Republicans) who are often said to “take pride in being ignorant”? Here’s a hint. Here’s another. What is Barack Obama saying about John McCain?

Nota bene: Just kidding.

July 21, 2008


Filed under: Not Tech, Politics — Chris @ 8:41 pm

Bicing in Barcelona
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but… wandering around Barcelona, I noticed these rows of red bikes in self-locking racks. It turns out this is an enterprise called Bicing, basically Zipcar-for-bikes. You pay about $45 a year to be a member and you get a card. When you need a bike, you walk down to one of these racks, sprinkled liberally through the city, wave your card and grab a bike. You pay about 50 cents a half hour to have the bike for up to two hours. When you get where you’re going, you find another a rack, lock the bike up, and leave it.

This is really cool! Similar services are popular in Lyon, Paris, and Stockholm. Why not New York? Why not your home town here? Write your local municipal representatives and demand 1/10,000th of a bike!

[UPDATE] A pilot program launched in Washington, DC.

April 3, 2008

On the Subject of Dementia

Filed under: Not Tech, Politics, YouTube — Chris @ 10:35 pm

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mike Gravel, former Democratic and current Libertarian candidate for president. (Via Matthew Yglesias, who needs the traffic.)

March 22, 2008

The Big House

Filed under: Not Tech, Politics — Chris @ 5:25 pm

Via Matthew Yglesias, the best, most practical government reform idea I’ve ever heard: increase the size of the House of Representatives.

In 1789, the House had 65 members, each representing about 30,000 constituents. That number grew consistently for the next hundred years. In 1913, the size of the House was fixed at 435 members. At that time, each member represented about 200,000 constituents. Since then, the population of the U.S. has more than doubled. The average size of a congressional district is now 700,000 constituents.

Increasing the size of the house and decreasing the average size of a district.would have the following salutary side effects:

  1. It would be cheaper to run for office, making more districts competitive and decreasing the need for fund-raising (and, thus, the influence of money).
  2. It would decrease the influence of individual law-makers, thereby decreasing the amount of money to be gained from corruption.
  3. It would make both Congress and the electoral college (which is based on congressional representation) more proportional and, thus, more little-D democratic.

To illustrate that last point, consider Wyoming and New York. Wyoming has about 500,000 residents, 1 House member, and 3 electoral votes. New York has about 19 million residents, 29 House members, and 31 electoral votes. A vote in a presidential election in Wyoming is worth about 3.7 times as much as a vote in a presidential election in New York. If we doubled the size of the House of Representatives, a vote in Wyoming would be worth only 2.5 times as much as a vote in New York. If we reduced districts to 30,000 constituents each (this is the lower bound specified in the Constitution and would yield a House with more than 10,000 members—picture the Galactic Senate in Star Wars, hopefully with fewer Gungans), a vote in Wyoming would be worth only about 1.1 times as much.

Now obviously that last scenario is not going to happen. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the current Congress voting to make any change that would significantly reduce the influence of its own members. But the change doesn’t have to be that dramatic: literally any increase would be a change for the good. And the population keeps increasing, so the problem will just get worse and worse. Why not shoot for, say, 50 new members after every census, with a target of keeping or slightly reducing the current average district size? It would not require a Consitutional amendment: the size of the House is determined by statute, just as the number, size, and shape of congressional districts are.

For more information, check out

P.S. While I’m at it, you may notice at left a badge for Change Congress, a somewhat goo-goo attempt by Lawrence Lessig for create a movement to political reform. I’m not sure exactly how I feel about this (just as I wasn’t sure, as much as I admire Prof. Lessig, whether I really though he should run for Congress), but, if it doesn’t cost me anything, I might as well cast my lot with the wild-eyed dreamers of the world.

February 6, 2008

The Crank Becomes the Cranked, Part 2: The Gloating

Filed under: Not Tech, Politics — Chris @ 12:46 am

The media did all they could for the last month to make this a winner-take-all race, but now everybody wants to talk about delegates. Go Obama! W00t!

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