Saturday, September 28, 2002

WADDLING LAPTOPS. Waddling Thunder offers thoughts on the great laptop debate. Says Waddle: "The simple answer is that they're part of modern life, and it borders on the totally ludicrous to exclude them." I hear you, Thunder, but you're setting up a straw person. Just because laptops are a part of modern life doesn't mean they make any situation better. Cell phones are no doubt a part of modern life, but that doesn't mean talking on a cell is better than talking to someone in lo-tech face to face when you can.

Thunder makes the case for classroom laptops on utilitarian grounds: "[F]or work, the computer wins every time." Now, I agree that a laptop (or desktop) is much, much better for composing and writing; I use it constantly; I take mine to the library to work on my outlines and papers, I use it for exams, and even to blog (I know, pretty revolutionary). But I think Waddling, and the other defenders of laptops, display a widely held misconception that the goal of attending a law school class is simply to generate as much text as you can. As if at the end of law school those with a million words of notes win out over those with 200,000. I so often see fellow students generating four or five-hundred pages of transcript per class, which overwhelms them when it comes time for finals. Not using a laptop forces you to actually condense your daily takeaway from class (unless you write shorthand). While Waddling Thunder and others would no doubt see this as a loss of precious data, condensing a vast amount of material into something usable is actually pretty important. Taking notes by hand forces you to do this. Moreover, taking notes, whether by hand or by laptop, is hardly the most important part of what's going on in a law school classroom anyway. Rather than the factual details of this or that class, the general "smell and feel" of legal argumentation is much more important. If you're paying attention actively and trying to anticipate the professor -- rather than typing everything they say -- you'll come out of class with something much more valuable than a large MSWord file: actual skill in legal analysis. Finally, the argument that "my handwriting is crap" and I can't function without my laptop because I'm a scriptographic cripple leaves me skeptical: most law students were outstanding, or at least competent, undergrad students, and that was well before the proliferation of laptops in the classroom. Notetaking is actually much more important in undergrad lecture courses than in the active-learning socratic environment of the law school classroom, yet they clearly survived in college.

No, there's something more to laptops in the classroom than utility, whether based on rampant misconceptions, herd mentality, or conspicuous consumption.

Friday, September 27, 2002

CARBONATION BIAS. I have to applaud the data-collection effort of The Great Pop v. Soda Controversy. (link via Paul Gutman) But both the site itself and Paul's links refer to it as only the "Pop v. Soda" Controversy, when even their own data show that the entire Southeast is clearly "Coke" country. Does the large part of the country that says "Coke" not count? By just calling it "The Great Pop v. Soda Controversy," the framers of this experiment reveal their regionalist bias.

(Full disclosure: As a kid from the Florida Panhandle (who's been living in Boston going on seven years now) I still say "Coke" at least fifty percent of the time...)

Thursday, September 26, 2002

LAW STUDENT BLOGGERS, WEEK IN REVIEW. What's riling up law student bloggers this week? ("sblawggers"?) Thanks to the miracle of Pitt's Jurist website, we can quickly find out. The fabulous Alice at A Mad Tea Party is clearly thinking about becoming a legal academic; she knows way too much about this kind of thing. She also adds another squib on laptops. But more important than that, who is the mysterious Alice? What is this "Boston-area law school" she talks about? She (?) employs a wide range of camouflage and misdirection. But someday, eventually, she will misstep and give herself away.

John Branch, the Tarheel Pundit, is evidently surfing the web more than me; maybe he's using a classroom ethernet hookup. Of particular interest is his Jay and Silent Bob news. By contrast, Nikki Furrer, 1L, is actually writing about law school: kvetching about class rescheduling (but see JMBzine celebrating torts cancellation), commenting on study-aid-company-induced grade anxiety, questioning the law school decision, and mentioning laptops. (I can't help but add this: you can't draw one of Arthur Miller's intervenors "parachuting in" on a laptop nearly as easily as with pen and paper). Sua Sponte takes on the somewhat surreal September ritual of on-campus interviewing, not to mention more on laptops in the classroom.Finally, Waddling Thunder, who writes with a British accent, provides a number of incisive or at least entertaining musings on law school. On law reviews, Waddling Thunder tacitly notes the "sorcerer's apprentice" aspect of law reviews, in which students actually "gatekeep" for their professors. In one sense it's absurd or at least a little crazy that inexperienced students get to have a hand in shaping legal academia. On the other hand, the fact that students are gatekeepers to even the most prestigious reviews in the field helps combat ossification; unlike most academic disciplines, new and exciting ideas don't have to win over the old curmudgeons to get published where they will be noticed; as a result Kuhnian "revolutions" may occur more easily in law. But it's still weird. Even more delightful is Waddling Thunder's effort to develop a typology of law students, including "cacklers" and "sidlers".

That is to say, law students everywhere are blogging about things intelligible to law students everywhere. Ah, universalism. I wonder what exactly it is that creates this shared culture at so many different campuses. Media portrayals? Expectations? The interpenetration of faculty trained at other schools (or who previously taught at other schools) moving around from school to school? The triumph of the Langdellian law school? The fact that we are all training for similar systems of work? In the ancient Roman Empire, lawyers were split between the Sabinian and Proculian schools, each with their unique cultures and quirks. And while quirks may continue today (the Harvard-trained say "Smith v. Jones," while Yalies (apparently) say "Smith against Jones") what is most striking about my perusal of law student bloggers at several schools across the nation is the commonality of their experiences.

It is just that commonality that provides Alice with a cloak of secrecy...

ON SAFARI. Ah, the thrill of the hunt. Though the illumination here in Darkest Africa is more than I might expect, the game is as ferocious as I dreamed. Roughing it here in the bush, far from the comforts of civilization, is what manhood is all about. I clean my rifle, and ask my porter to fetch a spot of coffee with a shot of my favorite brandy. Whether I bag a rhino or not today, I will return to my tent for evening massage knowing that I am living the primeval, natural life the Lord intended for men.

I look across at my native guide and extend my palm, silently signaling for him to fall back and prepare a luxuriant body wash of natural oils and herbal essences. But this will be for my bath after the hunt. Now, I pursue my quarry. Kneeling, I carefully examine the spoor of the gazelle I have been tracking these last few days. Do I go South or Southwest? My thoughts are interrupted by a stampeding horde of rhinoceroses mixed with elephants, followed by a group of bounding gazelles. I clear my head. Southwest. I press on, in pursuit of my elusive prey.

The African interior is not a hospitable environ for the white man. Not only are tropical diseases a threat, but the natives—with the exception of the Swambuluu cannibals who so often invite me to dinner—are hardly cordial to white hunters. Never have I been invited to their drum-beating rituals, or been allowed into the sacred hut, where I speculate they keep a very nice synthesizer. This synthesizer, it is fabled, can produce the haunting drum rhythms of the jungle without a human hand to play it.

But I digress. I must return to the hunt, for I have lost the trail of the mighty gazelle. Such is the hunt. But what is this? It seems, my friend, that we have stumbled into gorilla country. How do I know? The telltale broken brush is like a sign that says “Welcome to Gorilla Country” to the experienced tracker.

What’s this? A sign? I pause to read the inscription: “WELCOME TO GORILLA COUNTRY.” As I ponder the message, an enormous silverback leaps in front of me, bellowing his challenge. I thrill for this moment when hunter faces hunted, and revel in danger. Wanting the battle to be equal, I toss aside my rifle, hunting knife, and superior human intellect.

But the gorilla does not charge. In the universal language of primordial struggle he lets me know that he too desires the battle to be fair. Wait, maybe he is clearing his throat. No, he wants to…thumb wrestle. Invoking the ancient ritual, we declared thumb war between man and beast right there in the midst of the African wild. It was a mighty contest.

“Best of three?” I ask, when the matter is resolved. The gorilla picks up my discarded gun and aims it in my direction. “Just kidding,” I say, handing the brute my money-pouch filled with crown sterling.

The gorilla hefts his new treasure. Having no use for money in his primordial violence-based society, the gorilla hands it back and disappears forever into the trees.

For years after the safari, that battle against the gorilla was a vivid memory. Then one day, I suddenly forgot it. Luckily, I remembered it again. These things happen when you get older.

Monday, September 23, 2002

LAPTOPS, THE REAL STORY. A bit about laptops in one of my not-so-recent posts apparently sparked a modest bit of debate over laptops in law school classrooms (nicely summarized by Professor Cooper; see Cooper for some anti-laptop advocacy; see also A Mad Tea Party for the strong form of the pro-laptop position).

In part, the debate over laptops has revealed surprisingly strong views on both sides because it pits professorial desire for control over the classroom against students' autonomy- and rights-based claims. On the rights-based side, consider Alice: "I pay too damned much not to be in control of my educational experience." I admit this has a nice, Patrick Henryesque ring to it, but arguably students waive their "right" to be in control of much by the fact of their paying. If I wanted to be in control of my educational experience, I don't think I'd be in school. No, I'm specifically paying people -- or the future me is paying people -- "too damned much" specifically to control my educational experience for me. If not that, what the heck is future Garrett paying for?

Just kidding. The above argument is premised upon far too idealistic a conception of law school. Beyond "education," Alice and I are paying for credentialing; in the guild-hall world of law, it's the paper degree that allows you to reap the benefits of artifically low supply caused by high barriers to entry. In such a world, one might as well have as much personal freedom as possible while counting the days 'til admittance.

Rather than Professor Cooper's concern with how well students using laptops are able to pay attention, an effect I don't really care about except to hope that it redounds to my benefit, I'm just fascinated by the way my classmates have completely fetishized the laptop. It's become the paradigmatic law school accessory; people feel they have to have one, and it can't be any other way. In a class of over a hundred, maybe five or ten people will use pen and paper. You just have to look at that vast sea of laptops, maybe $200,000 worth of hardware arrayed in militaristic semicircles in each class, to realize that it's not about educational value but conspicuous consumption value. He sports a sleek new Vaio; she flaunts her cute, vaguely intellectual iBook. Laptops in law school classrooms are more about haute culture than learning.

Which brings us to why I don't take a laptop to class, despite owning one (and in fact typing on it right now). Is it because I think a laptop would put me at a disadvantage? Maybe, but I doubt it. Really I don't bring a laptop to class because they're heavy, and casebooks are heavy enough as it is. I'm also afraid I'd be at risk of breaking it if I carried it around all the time. (Seriously, many of my classmates lose whole swathes of their notes each semester due to busted laptops). But perhaps above all else, I don't tote my 'top to class simply because everyone else is doing it. Despite being a ruthless conformist, I like to pretend that I've got a contrarian streak. So I don't take my laptop to class. (But I'm not a Luddite; I love technology, and would probably take my laptop to class if other people didn't).

Sunday, September 22, 2002

ACCORDING TO GOOGLE, this blog is the leading site for "sexy law students." If only!

Monday, September 16, 2002

A RECENT COMMENT suggested that international law was useless or worse, because law is only as good as its enforcement mechanisms, and the only "enforcement" for international law is the power and will of the United States. According to this "realist" line of thought, all that matters is states' military and economic power, and international law is just a bunch of niceties which look great on the outside but ultimately ring hollow, and are more trouble than they're worth.

While I think this view shouldn't be ignored, I think it misses something. For one, it basically takes the model of American criminal law system and generalizes it to all "law." There you have a powerful central state, and if you disobey its rules, it will come and get you, and it has the power to (usually) do it if it wants. No doubt with this model of law in mind, the author of the comment looked for an international analogue to a police force, hovering above the states, and found none, unless it was the United States. (of course, even the U.S. criminal law system has imperfect enforcement capabilities; most crimes go unprosecuted because of a lack of resources or will on the part of investigators or prosecutors. So maybe U.S. criminal law and international law are different only as a matter of degree...)

However, this is hardly the only concept of "law" available. Historically, there have been plenty of societies without centralized enforcement schemes, which nonetheless had well-developed legal systems filled with rules that actually worked pretty well for maintaining order. For instance, in medieval Iceland, there was no centralized enforcement mechanism; rather, when someone was wronged (within the legal framework), people resorted to self-help through the bloodfeud, calling on their extended kin groups for support. Because bloodfeuds were best avoided, medieval Iceland maintained a successful legal system without any sort of top-down "enforcement mechanism." (For more on this, see William Ian Miller's magisterial Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Medieval Iceland. For a similar discussion of the way powerful social norms can emerge in the absence of (or in spite of) centralized power, see Robert Ellickson's Order Without Law).

The reason these systems work -- and the reason much of our own legal system works, enforcement or no enforcement -- is because people are by-and-large genuinely interested in settling their disputes as efficiently as possible, and in an environment of repeat, iterated play where today's adversary can be tomorrow's ally, systems of rules can emerge which are meaningful despite the absence of a centralized "enforcer." There's no reason this can't happen in international law as well. For instance, in "small-stakes" disputes, international law -- often a mix of customs and treaties -- will often settle an international dispute whether a decision is rendered by an international tribunal or by a court within one of the states applying international law.

While the threat of force always exists, force wouldn't be appropriate in many disputes. For instance, in the "Cod War" between Iceland and Great Britain, a fairly recent period of dispute over fishing rights between the two countries, Britain's nuclear capabilities were almost totally irrelevant. While the issue was one of economic importance, the realities of international affairs made the likelihood Britain would invade Iceland over this matter virtually nil. In such a case, which is hardly uncommon, international law is quite relevant and useful, and is less about a great power stepping in and flexing muscle then dispute resolution among neighbors who know they will have many disputes over time.

That said, there are certainly many situations where "international law" is invoked to justify or condemn this or that particular aggression by results-oriented statespeople. For instance, in the current national debate over the potential invasion of Iraq, recourse to principles of international law is made by both sides, and it's hard not to feel that it's just politics, and the rhetoric of international law is being used as best as possible by both sides to suggest legitimacy/illegitimacy of the endeavor, depending on the speaker's viewpoint. One could -- and many do -- say that this just goes to show that international law is manipulable and meaningless. Of course, enforcer or not, regular domestic law is hardly unmanipulable. Moreover, the concern of all sides with fitting their goals into the language of international law shows that policy elite are concerned with international law, or at least the appearance of conforming to international law, and to the extent they use its vocabulary in justifying their decisions, perhaps the principles of international law start to place some modest boundaries on the range in which raw state power can be exercised. Indeed, one of the best ways to give the appearance of caring about international law is to actually abide by it every once in a while. In an age in which the specter of nuclear annihilation still threatens us all, perhaps this is not a terrible thing.

Friday, September 13, 2002

GTEXTS PRIMER ON THE BICYCLE. Bicycles. A quaint kids’ toy, right? Maybe today, but in the 1890s, the bicycle was the hot new fad. Before bicycles, people had to walk, ride horses, or be carried on a litter. Or use trains. But with the advent of the bicycle era, everything changed.

For instance, England’s Prime Minister once disappeared for a week to go on a Hertfordshire bicycle tour with his mistress. The country was scandalized—but not because of the illicit liaison. England was in uproar when it learned that the Prime Minister still rode with training wheels.

England laughed its incompetent leader out of office, and bicycling replaced cricket, gambling on cockfights, and unicycle racing as the most popular pastime. A vote in Parliament was taken, and England narrowly missed being renamed “Bikeland”.

Capitalists and Marxists alike caught on to the bicycling fad. In Czarist Russia the Bikesheviks plotted an insidious proletariat bicycle tour. In an amazing display of inter-ideology cooperation, the man who made this vision a reality was the raffish financier and ardent velocipedalist JP Morgan, who turned the mass movement into the Tour de France.

Meanwhile, children the world over tried to emulate their bike-riding elders. Playing “bicycle” was a popular pastime and many children would take great pains to build complex ten-speed racing “bicycles” at which parents only shook their heads and laughed. But Mom and Dad weren’t laughing any more when seven-year-old Johnnie won the Tour de France.

Johnnie’s glory was short-lived though. Jealous mobsters murdered the young superstar and the obscure Bicycle Prohibition was instituted. Bicycle dealing went underground, and it is estimated that several million bicycles were traded each month on the black market. The excesses of the infamous “Handlebar Massacre” led to the global Congress of Bicycles, and Bicycle Prohibition was quickly brought to an end.

In 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany first “popped a wheelie,” simultaneously starting the era of trick riding and beginning World War I, where cruel trench racing forever changed the face of modern bicycle warfare.

Since then, the bicycle fad has faded a little. But now that you know the history, you’ll be a little more respectful. And if it was you who stole my BMX Mountain Racer in fourth grade, please return it.
THE MYSTERIOUS CACTUS. The cactus is a paradox. Though its surface is prickly, it has a soft, moist core. This core contains water, the “jewel of the desert,” as well as jewels, which are worth little to a man dehydrated to the point of insanity.

Never punch a cactus. Also, I don’t recommend hitting it with your face.

While the cactus is indeed prickly, it also produces beautiful flowers after rare desert rainfalls. Ah, the mysteries of the cactus! It is like a venomous viper with beautiful patterns on its skin, or like a deadly spider with a lovely fresco strapped to its back.

What’s the plural of “cactus”? Cacti? Cactuses? Only they really know.

The desert owl makes its home in the cactus. Digestive bacteria live in the owl’s intestines. Even smaller parasites live in the bacteria themselves. Who is the winner in this complex game of life? The bacteria. But they cheated.

When I was a little boy, a cactus was a good friend of mine. But we grew apart, and I left the desert for the city. Years later, I saw the cactus in a fancy downtown greenhouse. Was I jealous? No, I wasn’t jealous. In no way was I jealous.

I don’t recommend lending a cactus money.

If a cactus could talk, it would probably whisper. It would pretend to be saying something important, but then when you ask what it just said, it would say “nothing” and then be silent. Typical cactus.

I mean, why do they have to do that? I just want to be nice, start up pleasant conversation and all that, when the cactus starts pulling the old whispering routine.

Teaching a cactus how to read is difficult, and teaching it to dance is nearly impossible. But dressing it up like a Cowboy? That’s something any child can do.

Thursday, September 05, 2002

A COUPLE OF INTERESTING THINGS happened during the first day of international law class today. First, the professor decreed a technological experiment: a ban on laptops in the classroom. For those of you who don't know, law schools are overrun by laptops, with nearly all students taking notes on them in class. I have a laptop myself, though I don't take it to class because it's too much bother; technology is great when it's useful, but technology for technology's sake makes little sense. While the professor's theory was that laptops put students in "stenographer mode" and thus discourage them from thinking actively, I don't see how scribbling notes on paper is any less stenographic. (On the other hand, you can't play Solitaire with your pen and paper. Perhaps this was the sub rosa basis for the policy.) Whatever the merits of the professor's argument, the ceasing of the incessant keyboard-clacking was alone more than enough to deter me from dropping the class.

The second interesting thing that happened began when, without really discussing what he meant by "international law", the prof took a straw poll of how many were "for it" and how many "against it." While sensing some pros and cons, I was thinking of voting "against" because I had unresolved questions regarding international law's bases of legitimacy, plus I saw it as a way of giving the hegemonic power (i.e., the U.S.) a means to present its foreign policy decisions as if the product of neutrality and legalism. (I'm not against Metternich- or Kissinger-style realpolitik, but I am fairly ambivalent about presenting what is really just a naked exercise of power as though it were clothed in a cloak of legitimacy through "international law." I know it's asking a lot, but I guess I just like things in the sunlight, where all can see them.). Once I saw that almost no one was "against," I chose to abstain -- not because I mind being identified as in the minority, but because I didn't feel like being called on right then. Of course, the handful of people who voted "against" did get called on, and one student explained that he was "against" international law for the exact opposite reason as my above doubts: because it was too constraining on U.S. ability to exercise power abroad, and that international law's "egalitarian bias" too often impedes actual action by the U.S. While I could disagree -- probably on the grounds that maintaining the status quo is often in the best interest of the U.S., and that the "egalitarian bias" is part and parcel of this -- for now I think it sufficient to note the radically different grounds we two students used to reach the same result. Hmm...

Monday, September 02, 2002

THE FEDERALIST & ORIGINAL SIN? Been skimming Christian Perspectives on Legal Thought, an anthology of short essays which I won in a book lottery. Not that I'm particularly religious, but I've found it to contain some quite interesting stuff. For instance, Michael McConnell argues that the various checks and balances of American government are rooted in a firm belief that human government will never overcome original sin. Professor McConnell cites Federalist No. 10: "As long as the reason of man continues to be fallible,...different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other." CPLT at 7. (And of course, we all remember from high school that no, men are not angels.)

Now, anyone waiting in the wings to declare a theocracy should keep in mind that along with Federalist No. 10, Madison also authored the famous Memorial and Remonstrance, in large part pronouncing the doctrine underlying the First Amendment's religion clauses. Still, Professor McConnell proposes an interesting idea and makes a nice connection. Certainly the founding generation was steeped in protestant theology, even if many of the founders themselves were dyed-in-the-wool rationalists and iconoclasts.

That said, Christianity is not the only route to cynicism regarding human nature. Indeed, the snippet from Federalist No. 10 is also closely in line with experimental psychological insights into social cognition. As you can read in Ziva Kunda's sweeping survey, scads of experiments show that we human beings consistently engage in various forms of "motivated reasoning," tailoring our thinking to serve various ends, from justifying our selfishness to ourselves to making the "fundamental attribution error," for instance, chalking up random unfortunate events to other people's faults when it happens to them, but characterizing such setbacks as "bad luck" when it happens to us.

Of course, Christianity and psychology needn't be mutually exclusive, at least when it comes to human fallibility, which they seem to agree on wholeheartedly, though not necessarily agreeing on that fallibility's source. At the very least, my own fallibility (not to mention yours) is definitely something I can believe in.