Friday, May 31, 2002

THE DATA DEALERS. "Just try it. See if you like it,” a mysterious, shadowy person says. “No cost this time.” Soon, inevitably, the target is hooked. Then the dealer starts charging. Five bucks for a little hit, a hundred or more for a big one. This is a well-known plot, but it is not just the story of playground drug dealers, it is the story of the modern legal research industry. And like their brethren on the streets, legal research pushers not only line their pockets, they may even do a little bit of harm to those they exploit.

The data dealers peddle the most addictive drug of all: information. While not the only dangerous fellows on campus, the two biggest, baddest dealers that haunt the law school playground are Lexis and Westlaw. Law students’ impressions of the two companies are that they are locked in a pitched battle for market share, as demonstrated by all the goodies both sides try to trade for our affection. It is certainly true that they are competitors with each other, but focusing on that alone obscures the more disturbing fact that what they are competing for is our minds, and more importantly, our habits.

Legal research is a habit. By that I do not mean people should abstain from legal re-search. Rather, the way one researches is often more habitual than reasoned. There are always many roads to the same conclusion, but Lexis wants to make sure that road leads through the MEGA/MEGA database, which is free and easy in law school but can cost upwards of $130 in the real world. To answer my most basic bluebooking questions, I fire up Westlaw and search the HVLR directory. But now that it has become indispensable to the way I do things, I find out that such searches – which take only a moment to input and run – cost $23 when you’re in actual law practice.

That’s not to say there aren’t many ways in which law school paints an unrealistic por-trait of the way life is out there in practice, but what is particularly disturbing is that this bit of unreality is by design. Legal research training in law school doesn’t teach us to be sensitive to price – indeed, there is no price in school – so of course students flock to the quickest methods. Lexis and Westlaw, like crafty drug pushers, seek out the young and naïve, and get them hooked.

As a result, the price of online research is now a legal fact of life. A whole generation of law students has been brought up with nearly no idea of how to use the books beyond looking up a case to which they already have the citation. Shameful though it would have been for a lawyer of the previous generation, today I can easily confess to having actually pulled Shepard’s Citations off the shelf only one time; it’s so much easier to use the online service, which, it turns out, costs $4.25 a pop. The old, fixed-cost book techniques have been lost to the shifting sands of time.

Realizing that we law students are online research junkies carefully manipulated to sustain an industry is a little disturbing. Not too disturbing, of course – clients foot the bill for our expensive habit – but at least mildly unsettling. I’m addicted, and it is too late for rehab. I’m certainly not planning on trying to quit. And at the very least, I’ve got my pens, clock, coffee mug, and gym bag—I’m a happy addict.

Saturday, May 18, 2002

SCOVILLE SCALE FOR PEPPER HEAT. Did you know that the "hotness" of peppers is measured in units called Scovilles? I only note this because one of my good friends is named (Michael) Scoville, so I found it memorable. Peppers range from 0 Scovilles for bell peppers to up as high as 500,000 Scovilles (usually around 100,000 to 300,000) for the mighty habanero (To get a sense of how mighty, the jalapeno rates a mere 2,500 to 5,000 Scovilles.) One question: do we really need a scale with quite that much granularity? For more on the Scoville Scale, see this site and also this one for the chemistry-minded.

Friday, May 17, 2002

ON BEING THE GUY IN THE FEZ. Every now and then, we all change roles, move to a new place, and start over. What most people don't realize is that during these transitional periods in our lives, we have a remarkable opportunity. When you move to a new job, or to a new school, or to whatever new place you are moving, and no one there knows you, you can get away with anything. That is, you can change your look, your personality, your behavior, and no one will know that the new you isn't how you've always been.

Consider the following thought experiment. If I suddenly started wearing a fez every day, all of my friends and acquaintances would probably laugh at me. "Why the heck are you wearing a fez these days?" they'd chortle. You see, no matter how badly I might want to wear a fez, I just can't get away with becoming a fez type of guy any old day of the week.

But, if I was just starting my first day on the job, or my first day of college, and meeting new people for the first time, I could easily make the transition to being a solid fez man. Perhaps some people might be taken a little aback by the fact that I was wearing a fez, but they wouldn't want to press into the affairs and habits of someone they had just met. You don't just go up to someone you just met and ask, "So, why do you wear that silly fez?" No. You'd be afraid of insulting someone you just met, appearing culturally insensitive, and the like. So no one would say anything directly. A couple of people might whisper to each other behind your back, "What's with the fez?" but in general, they'd quickly come to accept it. You would soon be "The Guy in the Fez." People would always recognize you in crowded parties, and few people would forget your name. In short, you'd have created a real indentity for yourself.

Now, I've used the fez merely as an illustrative example. When moving to a new job, school, or town, you might easily change to wearing cowboy hats or berets, wearing only black, talking like Forrest Gump, wearing only denim clothing, riding a motorcycle, eating only ice cream and apple pie, or whatever else struck your fancy. At these critical moments in your life, when you are "starting over", just realize how great your opportunity truly is to "start over" in the most profound sense. If you're starting over, take a moment to think about how you'd like to redefine yourself, because right then is when you have a real chance. Just everyone don't start wearing fezzes all at once.

UNDERSTAND YOUR COMICS. I myself am not a big comics reader. Still, I found myself capitivated by a comic book about comic books. Appearing at first glance as a rather juvenile, iconically drawn paperback, Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics is really a sophisticated treatise on comics as art; comics as language; modes of communication; how comics offer a subtly skewed representation of time; and the objective neutrality of comics as a medium for expression, a medium that has been maligned by a conspiracy of the more entrenched media to portray it as juvenile escapism. Hogwash, says McCloud, comics, like books, television, movies or radio, can express the entire range of subjects, from the banal to the informative to the sublime. Yet, utilizing ideas inherited from Marshall McLuhan's seminal Understanding Media, he acknowledges that comics may alter the ways we approach communication and think about objective reality. McCloud also expands on the typical notion of comics, ultimately definining them very broadly as "Images (and sometimes text) juxtaposed in sequential order to convey information or produce and aesthetic response in the viewer." From this definition, the tradition of comics can be said to include not only Spiderman, but also Egyptian hieroglyphics and tomb-paintings, stained-glass windows in cathedrals, and even movies, which, at the most basic level, are a rapid succession of static images.

McCloud is on a crusade: comics are art, and perhaps the most exciting area of visual art at the moment, whose limits are always being pushed. Along a literary critical bent, McCloud argues persuasively that what is most important about comics is not the frames themselves, but the work that our minds do as we pass from frame to frame. In trying to make sense of the successive images we see in comics, our minds create meaning as they fill in the space between the pictures, creating "closure". What is most important then, is what is not shown. The work of the comics artist is not just to draw pictures, but to skillfully (and willfully) manipulate this ontologically ambigous "space between the pictures." Thus, much of McCloud's work is about the psychology of comics, how the mind of the reader creates comics' meaning as much as the artists' pen.

Along these lines, McCloud quite insightfully explains that the shared cultural conventions for how the images represented by comics are to be interpreted by our minds vary from cultural context to cultural context. For instance, the rules for generating closure in Japanese Manga and Anime are quite different from American comics, and McCloud draws some interesting comparisons between the two styles. I was fairly amazed at the level of analysis McCloud performed in comparing the comics of differing cultures: he divides the types of frame-to-frame transitions into six categories, and then tallies the average proportion of the types of transitions in various cultures and times. Displaying this information in histograms, McCloud highlights some of the specific differences between, say, Japanese and American comics styles, or American comics in the 1950s and in the 1980s. He also shows how the styles of varying artists can be compared and differentiated via this kind of statistical analysis--each artist gives off their own statistical signature in terms of the proportions of different kinds of frame-to-frame transitions they use.

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, of the Clan McCloud. Even if you don't read comics, this comic about comics is for you. It will not only change the way you think about comics, but also the way you think about the meaning of meaning itself.

Been reading a lot about blogs lately and decided to try my hand. Always looking for new ways to procrastinate...