Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Prosecutorial Misconduct--Part 3

USA Today continues its series on prosecutorial misconduct with the latest article, "Prosecutor misconduct lets convicted off easy," published in today's edition. The first two articles highlighted innocent people who went to prison because of prosecutorial misconduct, and pointed out that few prosecutors get into trouble for these offenses.

Part 3 argues that prosecutorial misconduct often results in the guilty being treated with leniency. It tells the story of James Strode, a career criminal who held up a Rite Aid pharmacy in Seattle in November 2006 after his conviction and sentence for bank robbery were wiped out "when an appeals court concluded that the federal prosecutor in charge of Strode's trial had 'crossed the line' by making improper arguments to the jury."

What happened to Strode underscores one of the least recognized consequences of misconduct by Justice Department attorneys in charge of enforcing the nation's laws. Although those abuses have put innocent people in prison, misconduct also has set guilty people free by significantly shortening their prison sentences.

In some cases, they served no additional time. New crimes sometimes followed.

An investigation by USA Today turned up "201 cases since 1997" of prosecutorial misconduct. "Each was so serious that judges overturned convictions, threw out charges or rebuked the prosecutors." Of these 201 cases, 48 of the convicted defendants received lighter sentences than they would have received in the absence of prosecutorial misconduct. "If prosecutors' chief motive for bending the rules is to ensure that guilty people are locked up, their actions often backfire."

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Poetry Break

My husband, who is a librarian at a public library, recently gave me a poem to read. Entitled "Library Days," it is part of Philip Levine's new collection, News of the World. The poem is copyrighted, but the most of the text, including this poem, is available at Google Books. The poem is set in Detroit during the Korean War, and the narrator is a beer delivery truck driver who plays hooky from his job to "sit for hours with the sunlight streaming in the high windows" of the library. The library is treated with the same reverence as a house of worship. Some of the narrator's favorite authors are Melville, Balzac, and Walt Whitman, "my old hero." The books have "the aura of used tea bags." He also favors the great Russian writers--Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov, Tolstoy; reading The Idiot confirms that "life was irrational." What particularly caught my attention was the depiction of the librarian, one of the most negative I have ever seen. The librarian has "gone gray though young," and sits "by the phone that never rang, assembling the frown reserved exclusively for me ..." Her voice was full of "pure malice" when a patron made the mistake of asking for Jane's Fighting Ships instead of literature. She never exchanges a smile with the narrator despite his tentative attempts at engaging her. Ultimately, however, the librarian is just an annoyance, if a malignant one. Reading is the narrator's real job, and his actual job takes a back seat to it. It did not matter to him that the beer he was supposed to deliver "could sit for ages in the boiling van slowly morphing into shampoo ..." The poem concludes, "it mattered not at all to me, I had work to do."

"Many Hands Make Light Work"

I'll never forget the first time I visited University College London and saw Jeremy Bentham's mummified remains on display in a large glass box in the main corridor. The head is not the original, but everything else is what's left of the great Enlightenment philosopher who died in 1832. Frankly, the sight unnerved me a bit. My husband assured me that Bentham had ordered that his body be dissected, embalmed, and displayed, and that his remains were brought out for departmental meetings and other events. The illustration for this post is a photograph of Bentham as he is displayed at UCL.

The philosopher was extremely prolific, and UCL began to publish his writings over fifty years ago; so far, only twenty-seven volumes have been published, "less than half of the 70 or so ultimately expected," according to an article in The New York Times. The publication project is under the aegis of the Bentham Project, which has hit upon a novel approach to transcribing Bentham's papers, which are already scanned and available online. There are approximately "40,000 unpublished manuscripts from University College's collection," and the organizers of the Project have turned to the public to help them transcribe the documents. This approach, familiar from Wikipedia, is known as crowd-sourcing, and draws on volunteers--"350 registered users have produced 435 transcripts" so far. No specialized credentials are required of the volunteers, and their work is vetted by editors before becoming part of the print edition of Bentham's collected works. Advocates of this approach point out that it has the "potential to cut years, even decades, from the transcription process while making available to the public and ... scholars miles of documents that are now off limits, difficult to read or unsearchable."

As with any new approach, there are those who are not enthusiastic. There is "tension between experts and amateurs." The experts tend to want to make the work perfect before it is published. They also point to the many mistakes made by volunteer transcribers. According to Daniel Stowell, who directs the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project, "nonacademic transcribers ... produced so many errors and gaps in the papers that 'we were spending more time and money correcting them as creating them from scratch.'"

Reading this article, I thought of the quotation attributed to Voltaire: "The perfect is the enemy of the good." The original French is: "Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien," and it comes from the 1764 Dictionnaire philosophique. There are many different interpretations of the saying, and if you're interested, click here to read some. To me, what Voltaire meant is that trying to reach perfection, which may well be unattainable, can get in the way of achieving something very good that would benefit many people. Isn't it better to produce a very good transcription now instead of waiting decades for a transcription that may be only marginally better? There are a number of transcription projects that are taking years to complete that might be candidates for the crowd-sourcing approach if scholars running the projects could overcome their concerns about the quality of the transcriptions produced by volunteers. The Times article mentions the papers of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, both of which are years behind schedule, and also a collection of 55,000 unpublished eighteenth-century documents from the War Department, which will be transcribed starting in January 2011 with the aid of volunteers.

Fonts on Display

Ever since taking a two-semester course on the History of the Printed Book in library school, I have been fascinated with fonts. MIT Musem's Compton Gallery is hosting a show, "Types We Can Make," that highlights new fonts created by Swiss designers from the University of Art and Design in Lausanne. The MIT show is the subject of an article in today's Boston Globe. Switzerland has a distinguished tradition of modern font design starting with Helvetica, which the Globe describes as at once "humble" but "eminently readable," "a giant among fonts." Helvetica is a sans-serif font, which means the letters are clean, and don't have extra strokes on them. The modern Swiss designs are like Helvetica in that they are "exacting and verging on mathematical. White space plays as pivotal a role as curves, stems, and serifs. And, although forward-looking, the Swiss designers are always mindful of tradition."

The Globe article asks why any of this matters. "Type conveys ideas and emotion." Fonts, although easier to create through the use of design software, are more important than ever in order to create custom branding for corporations. Marketers devote a lot of attention to fonts because they know that fonts convey a message to potential consumers of their products.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Prison Libraries' True Value Lies Beyond the Reading Material

A very good essay in the Boston Globe Ideas section today by Avi Steinberg, who recently came out with the memoir, Running the Books about his stint as a prison librarian in the Boston area Suffolk County House of Correction. He writes about the periodic, well, probably ongoing, attacks on prison libraries, from well-meaning reformers who fear that the books will undermine the principle of punishment or might encourage prisoners to consider making a break for it or more fruitless appeals. Steinberg writes with excellent detail about the experiences he had as a prison librarian that lead him to the opposite conclusion. In his opinion, the true value of the prison library lies not so much in the reading material, as in the civilizing, educating locus of the place. The prisoners, who learn that the library is a haven that can make them feel like normal people for that short visit, run there when allowed, they are so eager to arrive.

Prisoners who are allowed to work as library assistants value the privilege, and take the leadership skills into life after prison. It was more educational that spending time in the recreation yard, and it was less formal than the classrooms. It was a public space, and often the only time these individuals had ever been exposed to a library. They were learning important skills to take with them after they were released, even if they only read glossy magazines. Steinberg's argument is the classic rehabilitation argument, but it is an important one, and he gives some very good details from his time at the Suffolk County House of Correction. Steinberg introduces the reader to Fat Kat, his head of circulation, and unofficial captain of the inmate prison work detail. Fat Kat's name describes both his physical appearance and his boss persona. He was mid-way through his sentence when Steinberg met him. Fat Kat declares, "This is where I'm doing my time," pointing at his seat at the circulation desk, "This is what I'm about now."

Kat had about three years of prison behind him, with three more to go. He had spent his 20s involved with guns, drugs, and gangs. As it turned out, he was also an excellent and dedicated librarian. He tutored his fellow inmates in reading and math. He encouraged young inmates to pursue an education. Kat capitalized on his invaluable street cred and, in the library, reshaped himself into a new kind of role model. He was trusted by all — both inmates and staff. When he was released from prison, he found a job as a community mentor and educator, and continues this work today.
Steinberg notes that if they could send even one person like Kat back to the neighborhood as a mentor, the prison was having a significant effect in reducing crime, not just reducing recidivism. If prison libraries became part of a plan to
...systematically develop these skills and values, we would be creating small, but potentially influential, cadres of post-prison citizens. If each prison library were to send even one Fat Kat back into each community, it would already have a significant effect.
Steinberg notes that most of the prison population lacks the education level to work in the prison library detail. But he hopes and believes that the library had a good effect on these prisoners as well. Again, he has a concrete example to illustrate. He introduces a 20-something woman, who has a 3 year old daughter living with relatives. She is lured into the library the first time by a new release movie feature, which Steinberg screened often for this purpose. But she soon came often to flip through glossy magazines, and eventually, look at books. This, Steinberg says, was the average library visitor: one who stumbled in and discovered the pleasures by accident. As her sentence was drawing to an end, this woman confided to the librarian how much she would miss coming to the library. She was pleasantly stunned to hear his reply that there were libraries in the outside world that she could visit for free. As Steinberg got over his own surprise that she did not know about public libraries, he also was excited to hear her make plans.
She left prison, and the library, excited to give it a try. And, she said, she would do for her daughter what had never been done for her: She would bring the child to the public library every week. Just as a prison ID card, stamped with her mug shot, symbolized her civic isolation, I like to think of her public library card as a powerful token of membership back in society. After hundreds of hours logged in the prison’s library, the thought of using a public library now seemed not only plausible to her, but second nature. After her time in prison it was the thought of not using a library that troubled her.

People tend to see a prison as a monolithic institution, a place solely dedicated to locking criminals up. But many inmates experience prison in a more dynamic way, as a clash between institutions. And what I experienced every day was that, in the collision between the institution of prison and the institution-within-the-institution, the library, something constructive and potentially long-lasting was being formed.

Prison libraries aren’t miracle factories. The day-to-day was often far from inspiring. Glossy magazines and mindless movies were, for many, the main attraction. Pimp memoirs were among the most frequently requested books. And yet, even an inmate motivated by nothing more than a desire to watch “The Incredible Hulk” in the back room of the library was much more likely to come across something educational — a book, a program, a mentor — once he entered the library space. Just as important, this inmate was becoming a loyal patron of the library, something he could carry with him to the outside world, and perhaps pass on to his children.

In prison, I saw inmates literally run to the library. I wondered then, as I wonder now, how much we might gain from thinking ambitiously, creatively, how to harness the energy that currently fills this little institution-within-an-institution — and find ways to cultivate it more deliberately, to direct it over the prison walls and back into the lives of our neighborhoods.
I think his insights about prison libraries also apply to how people use other libraries. It has always been less about the books than about the place, the services, the influence of the place. Whether we are talking about public libraries, university or law school, or high school, elementary school libraries, I think the same thing is true. The library is a place that teaches people to look farther, to learn, to be citizens, and to take part in a conversation among intellectuals.

The photo is credited to the Florida Department of Corrections and was located at, the post appears to include some discussion about the library prison. Partly he is complaining that by the time they figure out the books, their time for appeal has lapsed.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Blind & Visually Disabled Students Challenge Universities

The Chronicle of Higher Education, in a news story dated December 12, by Marc Parry, reports that as colleges and universities create more social media-based services and "hubs" for students, there is an increasing problem with visually disabled students lacking access. The developers of these sites simply don't think about making them accessible, the way that architects now routinely consider ramps and braille signage. But the problem is bigger than social sites' accessibility. E-textbooks often lack the metadata tags that are key for the screenreaders used by visually disabled readers. If an illustration does not have a caption explaining what the illustration, graph or image shows, the blind student cannot access that information. When schools mandate the use of Kindles they really need to be aware that these machines do not have decent readers built in, and blind users will HATE or be unable to use the machines to access e-books (depends on the version whether there is a voice at all -- visit this 2009 CNet review for a sample of the voice). When websites require mouse clicks to navigate, a vision-impaired user cannot access the site, because they cannot see to move the mouse around on the screen. They use a keyboard, and need a key substitute for the button click that the web designer imagines for the mouse. With a mouse-only design, visually impaired users have been locked out of the website.

These new developments are actually causing the visually disabled student to LOSE ground from the status of the visually disabled college student of 20 years ago, according to Daniel F. Goldstein, counsel to the National Federation for the Blind. Goldstein helped students file a discrimination complaint against Penn State because of campus technology blocking their access to the library catalog, department websites, and the course management software, which is apparently a nightmare.

The article does a nice job of hinting at the extreme difficulties which students and disabilities support offices alike run into with textbooks, for instance, and the long-time difficulties of trying to convince textbook publishers to do something to remedy the problem:

In the 1990s, he (Blind activist Darrell Shandrow, a senior currently at Arizona State, studying journalism) "virtually bombed out" his first two semesters of college and withdrew from most classes, largely because of a lack of textbooks in Braille or electronic format. Nearly two decades later, access to books remains a very thorny issue. Many publishers have "dragged their feet" making textbooks available in alternate formats, says Jack Trammell, director of disability-support services at Randolph-Macon College, in Virginia. That creates delays and leaves colleges scrambling to figure out alternative fixes, such as scanning books themselves.

Amazon's Kindle had the potential to avoid such problems. Unlike ink on paper, digital texts aren't inherently visual or aural, advocates argue, so they should be equally accessible to blind or sighted users. In fact, the Kindle did come with text-to-speech technology. But its menus were not accessible to blind users.

(snip) In June 2009, he (Shandrow) joined the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind in suing Arizona State to block it from deploying the Kindle. The groups also filed complaints about Kindle pilots at five other colleges.

The outcome was mixed. Since Mr. Shandrow was ineligible for the Kindle pilot, a judge dismissed him from the case for failing to identify "any clear policy by ASU that will in any way impact him." But then, in January, Arizona State agreed to settle the case. Denying any legal violation, the university said it would strive to use only accessible e-book readers for a two-year period. Similar agreements were soon reached between the Justice Department and other colleges identified by the advocates.

In Washington, meanwhile, federal authorities seized on the Kindle controversy to broadcast a sharp message to colleges nationwide: Requiring inaccessible e-readers may run afoul of the law. The warning came in a public letter released jointly by the Departments of Justice and Education. (here is a nice blog post that pulls together the full text of the letter with some excellent links & comments)

"It is unacceptable for universities to use emerging technology without insisting that this technology be accessible to all students," the government said.

(snip) Inaccessibility is a major issue for the movement to post educational content free on the Internet. Hundreds of colleges have spent tens of millions of dollars producing lecture videos, notes, syllabi, and other free online materials. But Hal Plotkin, a senior policy adviser in the Education Department, says he would be surprised if more than 10 percent of these open educational resources are fully accessible. That flaw has "dramatically" held back their deployment, says Mr. Plotkin, a former community-college trustee in California.

Public institutions "will not use these materials," Mr. Plotkin says, "because the lawsuits that would follow would be inevitable, and very costly."

(snip) There are hopeful signs. California State University has shown how powerful colleges can be when they make access a high priority. The nation's largest public-college system turns its size into influence by denying problem companies access to its market of 430,000 students. That helped push Apple, Google, and Blackboard to upgrade their products for the blind. (Here is a newsletter article from 2009 noting improvements from all those companies as well as IBM, Elluminate and Microsoft, that make technology more accessible for the disabled).

Blackboard got so much better that in March, the National Federation of the Blind lauded the company for "great improvement" in the latest release of its course-management software. Navigation is smoother, and so are the forms, allowing blind students to do things like submit assignments and participate in discussions. Blackboard even offers a self-paced course for professors to get guidance on building accessible classes.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department is considering amending the ADA's regulations to specify that the Web, like a building, is covered by the law.
So, things move along, glacially, but they move. Prickly activists like Mr. Shandrow are the ones who make them move, along with supportive government officials who are willing to make change. We will see how much and how fast. If you are in a position of decision-making at your school, keep these factors in mind and perhaps you will save your institution from a law suit, and maybe even make them into the sort of change-maker that Cal State has become.

West Publishing Stung with $5M Damages to 2 Authors

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Dec. 21 that a jury in U.S. District Court awarded David Rudovsky and Leonard N. Sosnov each $2.5 million as punitive damages in a suit claiming that West defamed them. West listed the professors as authors of the 2008 supplement to the treatise on Pennsylvania criminal procedure after both had refused to be associated with the update because it contained virtually no new material! The Inquirer identifies Rudovsky as a "senior fellow" at Penn and a prominent civil liberties and civil rights attorney. Professor Sosnov teaches at Widener. From the Inquirer:

In 1991, West published their Pennsylvania Criminal Procedure: Law, Commentary and Forms. A second edition was published in 2001, and the men provided annual updates tracking changes in criminal court procedures.

But in 2008, West wanted to pay them only $2,500 each, so the two men ceased work on the addendum. Nevertheless, West published an update bearing Rudovsky and Sosnov's names on the title page.

The professors sued, contending that an inferior product - only three new cases were cited - damaged their professional reputations.

West quickly pulled the update, but not fast enough, it turned out.

In an interview Monday, Rudovsky and Sosnov's attorney, Richard L. Bazelon of Bazelon Less & Feldman, said testimony showed "what West had published . . . really was a sham," and done deliberately.

Bazelon said he expected West to appeal both the punitive award and the verdict. Along with the punitive damages, the jury Thursday awarded each man $90,000 in actual damages.
I wonder how much of the brou-ha-ha began with the paltry payment offered in 2008? But I certainly wish more West authors would stand up to them when they believed there were not enough changes to warrant a supplement! We librarians certainly know we are being fed new editions and supplements that are mostly puff. The poor law students are being forced to buy new editions of textbooks, too, as their professors are persuaded to select a newer edition, when there is not a legitimate need for one. And of course, with the rise of e-textbooks that have no resale value, the students are screwed in terms of ever buying a used book. I don't know if I believe the claims that the books will cost less. There only seems to be one party that ever benefits in these new developments, and it's not the consumer. Sadly, I suppose, I can't say the publishers and booksellers seem to be thriving either, in most cases. It just galls me when they use these tricks.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Defending Against Hacker Attacks

Another interesting article in the Boston Globe, by the wonderful Hiawatha Bray, about companies whose business is defending against distributed denial of service attacks, as well as other internet attacks. Denial of Service attacks (DDS attacks) essentially seek to overwhelm the victim's resources by sending so many requests simultaneously that the victim's computers cannot respond to legitimate requests, and crash, or simply slow too much to be useful. The attacker assembles a zombie like army called a botnet by sending a code to random computers via e-mail attachments or a computer worm. The botnet computers then work together to send out the DDS attack in a coordinated way. The owners of the botnet computers may never know their computers were involved. OOTJ readers probably remember when Google publicized its attack by hackers from the People's Republic of China. Twitter and Facebook have also been attacked, and as former supporters of Wikileaks have withdrawn financial support, they are facing similar attacks from outraged Wikileak friends.

The article in the Globe seriously (and perhaps intentionally) oversimplifies the matter of defending against DDOS attacks. The primary defense appears to be providing a large enough number of alternative servers to soak up the attacks. Quoting from the article:

Akamai relied on the simplest defense: a network of servers and data lines with such huge capacity that it can’t be overwhelmed by such an attack.

“If your pipe is bigger than their pipe, you win,’’ said Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer at the British telecom giant BT Group.

The biggest DDOS attack ever to hit an Akamai customer occurred on July 4, 2009, when several US government sites were attacked by a botnet based in South Korea. But that attack generated a stream of data equal to just 4 percent of Akamai’s average daily traffic load, and was easily absorbed.

The data traffic aimed at the five Internet retailers equaled less than half of 1 percent of Akamai’s daily load and was barely noticed.

Akamai’s robust network may have also helped protect Internet retailer from online vandalism.

A group calling itself Anonymous posted Twitter messages that took credit for bringing down the Visa and MasterCard sites, saying the attacks were revenge for the credit card companies’ refusal to do business with the website WikiLeaks, which had published secret US government documents.

Anonymous said that Amazon, which had also cut ties to WikiLeaks, would be the next target. But within hours, Anonymous dropped the idea, posting that “The Hive isn’t big enough to attack Amazon.’’
It could be that this is the current state of the art. Just six years ago, a lengthy article by Cisco presented the difficulties in defending against DDOS attacks in 7 Internet Protocol Journal 4 with many more defense options. But six years is an eon in this field. Akamai's website does actually talk about more than offering a wider pipe. And other DDoS protection firms detail other security measures they offer as well: BlockDOS mentions adaptive filtering, deep packet inspection and flexible content filtering among several other types of filtering as methods of protecting clients servers from attack. Arbor Networks, another DDoS protection firm mentioned in the Globe article also lists a variety of security services beyond enlarging the "pipe:" protecting DNS architecture (I wish Comcast would sign up with them!), leverage IP flow for peak network visibility (I think they mean making the most of the available hardware), and more.

It's becoming a new industry to protect against the attacks. We already have security services for our computers like anti-virus providers McAfee or Symantec and hosts of others. Now there is a burgeoning industry for professional protection against DDoS attacks and more -- theft of information from the databanks, for instance, and other nightmares. It won't be long before universities become clients of these firms. The interesting thing is that the folks who developed the protections often haled originally from the ranks of the hackers who developed the problems. It takes a hacker to catch a hacker. Though hacker is a mutable term -- ignorant outsiders often misunderstand the term. Hackers are not necessarily troublemakers. Black hats and white hats are better distinguishing terms. Which is why I am decorating this post with those images.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Law in Virtual Worlds and How it Intersects Reality

Another article in today's Boston Globe, in the Ideas section, "Virtual World Order," by Rachel Nolan, interviews law professor Greg Lastowka, of Rutgers, Camden, Law School's Institute for Information Policy and Law. Prof. Lastowka has written a book,Virtual Justice, the new laws of online worlds, published by Yale University Press. (On this bio page here, you can link to an audio file of and NPR interview about the book, as well as what is noted as a PDF version of the book. I am not sure he really means to give us the entire file! But maybe so.)

The Globe article is very entertaining and thought-provoking. For instance, Prof. Lastowka relates the terrible story of the Chinese man who called the police to report that his friend had stolen his sword that he had loaned his friend. But since the sword in question was a virtual sword from a video game, the police did not take it seriously. They should have. The complainant had to earn it through many hours of online play, and the sword was worth the equivalent of $871 when the faithless friend sold it online. The angry man stabbed his one-time friend to death and is now serving a life-sentence in prison. If only the police had intervened!

Other stories follow, most involving money as the factor where virtual worlds and the real world intersect and clash. There was a Ponzi scheme, with later investors funding the returns of earlier investors. An online banker set up an investment scheme offering amazing returns in the virtual coin of the game, funded, of course, by the next investor. These schemes work beautifully up until they collapse and then all those left holding the investment chits are ruined! It sounds harmless in virtual cash. But you buy that virtual cash with real-world dollars. People were impressed enough that they bought a good bit and began investing, and then cashing out. The scheme was working like a real bank. But when the scammer accumulated his "goal" amount of the equivalent of $100,000 in the game currency, he declared the scheme over and unveiled it, and himself as a fraud. Oddly enough, the rules of the game forbade Ponzi schemes, and yet, the game authorities did not crack down on this! The game owners simply declared that is did not violate the terms of service.

The interview in the Globe makes it clear that Prof. Lastowka is proposing new legislation to deal with the new problems raised by the virtual games.

LASTOWKA: We’re at a crossroads. I definitely think the current laws are inadequate. With regard to contract law and property law and copyright law, virtual worlds challenge the existing legal categories. Courts are grappling with the right way to apply existing laws to virtual worlds. The trend is toward turning virtual worlds into their own jurisdictions....The way that virtual worlds are structured is that the owners of the platforms have the ability to exclude and expel voices that they don’t agree with. They have almost complete control over these environments due to the way that the law is structured and due to their technological powers over the environment.

IDEAS: If the government starts taxing virtual goods, will these worlds just shut down?

LASTOWKA: The owners would have to engage in elaborate accounting procedures that they don’t want to do. They need some leeway to be able to run their own economies and provide users with virtual property interests that are not treated the same as traditional offline property interests. (snip) The best (historical) antecedent, which is also part of the question, is the Internet....There are special laws about identity theft. There are special laws about hacking. But we’ve developed most of this jurisprudence, common law, and doctrine just in the last 20 years. But we don’t have any of this that is specifically pertinent to virtual worlds, at least not in the US. In South Korea there are some laws, and we’re getting some cases developing here.
The image is of Prof. Lastowka, from the website at Rutgers, Camden, Institute for Information Policy and Law, which, frankly, is where the Boston Globe took their photo.

Don't Ask Don't Tell Passes Both Houses of Congress

The Boston Globe reported today on the Senate vote that finally passed the end of the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy that affected so many gay and lesbian members of the military in recent decades. (111 HR 2965 and 111 S4023 which will become P.L. 111- ?; See Wikipedia article for a role-call vote) It was a lousy compromise policy when it was promulgated during the Clinton presidency, and has remained a terrible policy since. It has resulted in the dismissal from the military of too many willing members in high-need positions simply because their sexual orientation came to be known. The new policy just voted in is much better. It no longer matters. And I am glad that it's a legislative policy, rather than a judicial decision, though I was worried that it would not actually come to pass. Well done, and thank you to the handful of Republicans who listened to their constituents, and represented their interests.

Jubilant supporters likened the vote to President Harry Truman’s 1948 order to desegregate the military: “We’ll some day look back and wonder what took Washington so long to fix it,’’ said US Senator John F. Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat.

Maine Senator Susan Collins, a Republican who was among a small group of senators who led the repeal fight in the Senate, thanked gay troops now serving in Afghanistan and Iraq: “We honor your service, and now we can do so openly.’’

(snip) “It is time to close this chapter in our history,’’ Obama said in a prepared statement after the vote. “It is time to recognize that sacrifice, valor, and integrity are no more defined by sexual orientation than they are by race or gender, religion, or creed.’’

(snip) The Senate vote completed a remarkable political turnaround for the “don’t ask’’ repeal authorization, which looked dead just 10 days ago after the Senate failed by three votes to approve a massive defense spending bill that included language to end the policy.

Several senators on the record in favor of repeal, including (Massachusetts Senator Scott) Brown, helped block the defense bill over procedural complaints. But in the immediate aftermath of that crushing defeat, repeal supporters gathered for one last effort.

They decided to push a stand-alone bill to reverse the policy, racing against the clock before Congress adjourned for the year.

The House last week easily approved the bill by a vote of 250 to 175, setting up yesterday’s drama in the Senate.

(snip) The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen, whose call earlier this year to change the law swayed many skeptics, said he believes the US military will be stronger as a result of the congressional action. “No longer will able men and women who want to serve and sacrifice for their country have to sacrifice their integrity to do so,’’ Mullen said.
To those of us who support this change, it seems clear that this is a civil rights issue. In a few decades, we will look back and wonder why it was such a big issue and why it took so long!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Moveable Feast

I enjoy reading the Library Babel Fish blog, which is written by Barbara Fister, a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, and appears regularly on Inside Higher Ed. The most recent post, "Finals: An All-Consuming Ritual," hit home for me. Fister describes the "binging and purging" that are as much a part of exam preparation at her school as cramming and last-minute writing of papers. So much food is consumed in her library during finals that "the amounts of food-related trash that [the] custodians ... haul out ... [is] prodigious."

Our final exams began last week, and will conclude the end of this coming week. As I reported in a prior post, the library is extremely crowded with students, most of whom are bringing in not only cups of coffee, but large grocery bags filled with all manner of sustenance, some of it extremely smelly. Garlic-laced salad dressing is particularly pungent and the odor permeates all five floors of the library with remarkable speed. We have had to invest in industrial size and strength garbage containers--all with lids--in order to contain the mess and the smell, and we have requested that our long-suffering maintenance staff empty all the containers at least three times a day during finals. Thanks to the large garbage containers and the attention of the maintenance staff, we are keeping the situation under control as we count down the days until exams are over. I never thought I'd become an expert on garbage cans!

Friday, December 17, 2010

New Study Using Google Books

The Boston Globe reports on a fascinating cooperative effort where GoogleBooks has created a new tool, the Google Books Ngram Viewer which allows a researcher to sift through the materials scanned into the Google Books project, and automatically calculate the frequency of a word and watch it change over time. You can then compare the changing frequency of different words across the decades or centuries.

It can be very interesting. The link above demonstrates at Google Labs with "Atlantis" and "El Dorado." But perhaps meatier questions (ha, ha) are raised by the examples in the Globe article. The online article reproduces what I saw in my print paper, and you can see it better online. They looked at changing frequencies of appearances of food terms: sausage, ice cream, hamburger, steak, pizza, pasta, and sushi. You can imagine that in English language publications, instances of pizza and sushi in particular, and pasta, a bit, have really only begun appearing since their popularization by returning World War II veterans. Increasing acceptance of ground beef, improved food inspection perhaps as well, and certainly the rise of fast food chains have increased the frequency of "hamburger."

They also tested the changing terms for types of influenzas. They looked at the frequency of the use of the word "God." This last in particular, allows the reporter to explain that this new tool is merely that. It is a new addition to the scholar's tool chest. It does not take the place of the scholar. The scholar eventually will have to sit down and read at least a portion of the literature. It makes a great difference if the appearance of "God" is in a prayer or an ejaculation or a discussion of theology. So the graphs carry a certain amount of meaning, but to really understand WHAT it means, the scholar still needs to visit the literature.

It's tempting to play with the data, but you really need to download a whole bunch of tiny files to begin. You have to be dedicated to this.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Taking a Hammer to a Mosquito

When dealing with students, it is usually better not to overreact. Although this is true all year long, it is especially true during final exams, when tension levels rise. Right now, my library is literally packed with students, and it is becoming difficult to find a place to study. The staff is endeavoring to ensure that burned-out lightbulbs are replaced in a timely fashion and that the building is a comfortable temperature at all times. We try to remain calm when responding to complaints brought to us by students, but at times it is difficult. An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education made me think about ways that law school administrators interact with students.

The article describes a satirical blog, SUCOLitis, which aims "to be something like The Onion of law-school life." Focusing on Syracuse University College of Law, the blog features "fake headlines about beer pong, third-year students serving burritos, and the election of the university's 'sexiest Semite.' It delights in attributing fake quotes to students and faculty, as well as to famous alumni ... " I think that my reaction to the blog would have been to ignore it, but Syracuse took a different approach. "The law school has threatened 'harassment' charges against a student who is allegedly a writer for the anonymous blog." The student, Len Audaer, is being investigated, but Syracuse refuses to give him any information about the charges against him unless he signs a gag order. This information comes from a press release issued by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization "known for its efforts to stop campus officials from restricting the free-speech rights of students and faculty members." The blog, which is on WordPress, was made private last week, and readers have to access it using secure accounts. More information about the controversy appears here. Coming down hard on the student blog author has generated the kind of negative attention that most law schools try to avoid.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Overseas Parental Kidnapping Difficult Problem In Japan & India

The Boston Globe has a brief article about the problems parents face retrieving children when their estranged spouses or partners take children and leave the country. Some countries, like Japan and India are particularly difficult to deal with in getting these children back. Even when a U.S. court has awarded custody to the parent who remains back in America, the courts or authorities in these two nations seem to be unwilling to offer assistance in finding or retrieving children. I can tell you from a long-ago experience with a client whose young child was taken by an upset ex-husband and lodged with his mother, that it is a very upsetting thing for the parent and child alike and very difficult to solve, legally.

It is a distressingly common problem for an ex-spouse or estranged spouse or partner to take a child during or after divorce proceedings, when that person does not have legal custody. Often, the kidnapper is "correcting" their perception that the judge made a mistake in awarding custody to the other parent. Or, perhaps, that person is punishing the other parent in some way by taking the child. Or sometimes, they feel they are rescuing the child. In all cases, it is a terribly upsetting thing to have the child stolen away.

The National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws has promulgated two related uniform laws on the matter:

Uniform Child Abduction Prevention Act

Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act

Regarding the international aspects, the United States is signatory to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of Child Abduction (signed Oct. 25, 1980). Here is a list of the signing states. Japan and India are our two largest allies who are not signatory, though other Asian nations are problematic as well. The State Department is the major federal agency that works with parents trying to locate and regain custody of their children who have been taken overseas by noncustodial parents. The Globe article states that they have increased staff assigned to this issue from 18 to 65 in the past 3 years, and one of their jobs is to persuade non-signatory nations to sign the Hague Convention. Apparently, Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey is considering sponsoring a bill in the House to create a federal Office on International Child Abductions. This is mentioned in the Globe article and in several related articles gleaned from Associated Press and other news sources. On the Congressman's webpages, though there is nothing listed in the compilation of laws authored by Chris Smith. And his news page does not list anything to do with such a bill yet, so perhaps it is only in the planning stages.

The International Child Abduction Remedies Act, 42 USC §11601 et seq. (click on "next" to see the next part of the law), details the procedure in federal and state courts. The Department of State is the agency to contact in this matter. The Travel Bureau has an Office of Children's Issues, which includes abductions.

You may also want to know about the Polly Klaas Foundation, which was named for a 12 year old girl abducted from a slumber party in a family home in Petaluma, California. An international, high-tech search for Polly ensued, fruitlessly, which ended nine weeks later, when Polly's remains were identified, and thousands of people mourned this child which many had never met. But during the time of the search, many parents with lost children had come together through this search, sparking something new, which grew into a grassroots movement. They will send you a child safety kit to prevent abductions, as well as assist parents in tracing lost children and retrieving them. It looks like a very worthwhile site, and takes donations if you are so moved.