Category: Weird


Bad Words Like Tasked

From the bad words department (e.g., concerning incent): “General Washington tasked the troops to battle on the Brandywine” may be a fine use of the transitive verb.  But is that so of “Professor Cunningham tasked the class to brief the Drennan case”?  It seems better to say “Cunningham assigned the class . . . . ”

Before the mid-1990s, tasked tended to be limited to usage relating to military matters.  For example, in legal scholarship, it appeared almost exclusively in military law journals.  But the word gradually crept into other settings in the late 1990s, in part after consulting firms began to talk that way.  Until recently, though, the usage was relatively scarce.  In legal scholarship, for instance, the word never appeared more than 100 times annually through 1998 and never more than 300 until 2004.  

In 2010, however, usage is set to exceed 1000 times.   Staggeringly, the word’s frequency has increased steadily nearly every year from 1989 through 2010: 16, 16, 22, 20, 27, 55, 56, 55, 75, 95, 105, 120, 141, 184, 218, 294, 368, 435, 591, 719, 880, 905 (partial count for 2010).  

This is lamentable.  The stultifying jargon of the military aside, the usage, in general and certainly in legal scholarship, sounds terrible and should be laid to rest.


Tea Partier New Year’s Resolutions

Heard around town amid the blizzard, some top New Year’s Resolutions Tea Party members are considering this year.

1. Get education by home schooling or charter schools, not public schools—skip the Department of Education at all governmental levels.

2. Buy all medicine in Canada, not in the United States—skip the Food and Drug Administration and government-sanctioned patent laws.

3. Never fly commercial—take only charter flights and beat not only the crowds but the Federal Aviation Administration.

4. Buy all guns in interior states—minimize oversight by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

5. Conduct all political activities using a 501(c) to avoid public disclosure of political activity and regulation by the Federal Election Commission.

6. Submit all legal disputes to binding private arbitration—never use public courts.

7. Take advantage of all off-shore opportunities, especially tax shelters, to minimize payments to the Internal Revenue Service.

8. Raise financial capital using private equity, not an IPO—skip regulation by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

9. Use off-balance sheet financing as much as possible—skip adherence to statements of the Financial Accounting Standards Board.

10. Guard US citizenship jealously—subject immigrants to strict oversight and law enforcement by the U.S. Border Patrol.

Privatizing life has never been easier!


Amazon, WikiLeaks, Lieberman: Power and Contract

Public officials interfere with private contracts too often. But most private parties have the guts to push back when deciding that freedom of contract and the law of contracts trump officious intermeddlers from the state. That friction explains stern denials by that government pressure influenced its decision to terminate its Web-server lease agreement with the notorious WikiLeaks, publicist of precious secrets, including a cache of diplomatic cables roiling public officials in capitals across the globe.

Amazon cited a clause in its provider contract where customers represent that they own all content posted on the site. WikiLeaks obviously breached that representation, giving amazon contractual grounds to terminate. Despite amazon’s stern denials, Senator Joseph Lieberman’s government affairs committee acknowledged that its staffers hectored the company about letting WikiLeaks use its space. The corporate denials are thus dubious. But at least amazon is right to cite its contract and the clear clause in it that makes its termination valid and at least the staffers were merely requesting information, rather than the Senator applying direct pressure.

In other visible examples of political intermeddling in contractual relations, at least one side has not come out looking so good. Three examples illustrate.

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Charismatic Megafauna Take the Fall

Recently American thought on ecology has taken a turn in a religious direction. And it’s not toward that boring old talk about a sustainable creation. Rather, a contender for the House Energy and Commerce Committee chair has “maintain[ed] that we do not have to worry about climate change because God promised in the Bible not to destroy the world again after Noah’s flood.” Glad that’s settled.

But nature does still pose a few threats to us. Reacting to a recent bear attack in Yellowstone, the American Family Association’s Director of Issues Analysis has stated that “there is no number of live grizzlies worth one dead human being. If it’s a choice between grizzlies and humans, the grizzlies have to go. And it’s time.” Sharks, rattlesnakes, scorpions, pit bulls, and even golden retrievers had better watch out!

Perhaps Werner Herzog’s film Grizzly Bear shaped Fischer’s imagination. As Herzog stated in the film:

And what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that [the protagonist of Grizzly Bear] ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. . . . I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.”

Perhaps Fischer is just throwing back at the universe its nasty tendency to disregard us.

Photo Credit: Joseph Wu Origami.


Nicolas Cage Broke on $20 Million A Year

Include the Hollywood-based actor Nicolas Cage on the list of victims amid the real estate crisis and ensuing foreclosure flood. A California court last week ordered him to honor the judgment of a Nevada court by paying $2.4 million to a lender who foreclosed on the actor’s Las Vegas resort home. As with many other borrowers, though, Cage doesn’t have the money to pay.

That may sound astonishing for an actor whose 50 roles in big films over 20 years make him among the highest paid people in the world. Cage’s problem apparently is that, despite the massive cash, he still lives beyond its means.

Besides an apparent spending compulsion, during the real estate boom of the 2000s, he acquired dozens of properties whose prices seem to have risen catastrophically just before he bought them, and fell to the depths in the last three years. Not having any savings to buffer the losses, he’s in default not only on housing bills but owes millions in back taxes.

Financial embarrassment is compounded by bad publicity about his lifestyle. Some he brought on himself. By filing a $20 million lawsuit blaming his straits on his manager, Samuel Levin, Cage provoked a counterclaim with mortifying allegations of a life out of control, even by Hollywood standards.

The allegations in Cage’s complaint sound far-fetched; Levin’s counterclaim sought a mere $120,000 for unpaid fees, small under a contract that paid Levin 5% of Cage’s income since 2001 (running to many millions). That may explain reports saying the suit and countersuit have been dismissed. But some of the pleadings are salacious–with lessons for everyone.

NOTE: For more stories like this about celebrities and their dealings, see the author’s new book CONTRACTS IN THE REAL WORLD: STORIES OF POPULAR CONTRACTS AND WHY THE MATTER.
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Law Review’s Thin Filter and Law’s Low Eigenfactor

What’s your Eigenfactor?  Scholars can find out now by looking at their scholarship page on the Social Science Research Network. Since inception a decade ago, SSRN ranks scholars by downloads; in the past few years, it refined that coarse measure using a separate list of citations, but only to other papers in SSRN.  Now comes the eigenfactor, an integrated metric of scholarly influence.

This will be an interesting addition to the dashboard data used in  studies of scholarly influence .  All these figures, old and new, are endlessly contestable.   The new figure adds a new ranking column which, naturally, differs from the downloads or citations columns. 

Often, the difference is of limited significance: scholars with high downloads often have high citations and now have high Eigenfactors.  But sometimes the differences are wild: there are people who rank at the top of downloads but lack many citations at all.    A few of those still have an impressive Eigenfactor rank, but most tumble way down the ladder.   

More striking is how the rank differences among these columns are less pronounced among economists and finance professors, as a cohort, compared to law professors, as a group.  Based on an impressionistic skimming of the columns for the first few hundred, there’s greater stickiness among non-law profs than among law profs. 

Economsits with high downloads still tend to have high Eigenfactors and vice versa; for law profs, though, other than the download leader, Lucian Bebchuk, even those with the highest downloads (ranked in the single or double digits), bounce way down the Eigenfactor rankings into the 200s, 1000s, 5000s or deeper. 

Many theories appear.   Mine attributes this to the student-gatekeeping function at law reviews.  Nearly every piece of legal scholarship gets posted and published because the selection process is modest; the filter comes in citation practice.   The filter in other social sciences is extremely tough ahead of publishing and posting; the practice of citation isn’t much of a filter at all. 

There may be other reasons for this impressionistic difference too.  Perhaps legal scholarship just isn’t as hot out there in the networks that Eigenfactor captures, compared to economic and financial scholarship.  But, no, that doesn’t seem right, does it?


Tea Party Incoherence

The Tea Party’s manifesto, called the Contract from America, contains many interesting and some strange ideas.  Its authors proclaim a passionate devotion to the Constitution and its original text, accusing the nation’s political elite of failing to adhere to the grand charter.  Among the ten items in its plank, the first says: “Require each bill to identify the specific provision of the Constitution that gives Congress the power to do what the bill does.”  The document doesn’t say what provision of the Constitution supports that prescription.

A Modest Proposal for Climate Change Adaptation

Dan Farber has recently complained that many “Senate candidates are signatories of the Koch Industries’ Americans For Prosperity No Climate Tax pledge.” I must assume that Prof. Farber has not heard about technological fixes for the climate change problem. As Jane Mayer reports, the “David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, is a multimedia exploration of the theory that mankind evolved in response to climate change.” The exhibit proposes practical responses for the future:

[Exhibit] text says, “During the period in which humans evolved, Earth’s temperature and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere fluctuated together.” An interactive game in the exhibit suggests that humans will continue to adapt to climate change in the future. People may build “underground cities,” developing “short, compact bodies” or “curved spines,” so that “moving around in tight spaces will be no problem.”

In other words, don’t worry, be Eloi! “Short, compact bodies” might also fit the new 23-inch airline seats better. Perhaps critics of Social Security and the Air & Space Museum can develop an exhibition based on Regis Debray’s Modest Proposal: A Plan for the Golden Years.


Chatroulette, Julia Child, and the Virtues of Virtual Friendship

A Hispanic teenager listening to music through headphones, a masturbating man, 3 young caucasian women (probably American), two young middle eastern men dressed in army fatigues and a child with a kafiah covering his face shouting something in Arabic and smiling, another masturbating man, 3 japanese young women.

This was what I saw in ten minutes of Chatroulette, an intriguing web site that anyone with a webcam can try. I wanted to try it and blog about it after reading an interesting article in the New Yorker on its teenage Russian founder. You turn on your webcam and are randomly paired with someone else on the site with their webcam on, to whom you can chat vocally or by typing. Either party can push a button that spins the wheel again at any time to be connected with a new partner, and there is no penalty for doing so.

Perhaps 31-year-old law professors are not the favored species in this realm, but I was “nexted” almost immediately in each of the cases except the middle eastern men at whom I started laughing and they laughed back as well. At some point, though, I felt uncomfortable enough myself that I ended the interaction.

Chatroulette is only the newest and strangest instantiation of a phenomenon I’ve been thinking about – virtual friendship. Can one be friends with someone that one has never met, and what kinds of benefits do this form of friendship offer over or to compliment non-virtual friendship? In recently watching Julie and Julia, I was struck by a scene where Julia meets up with the woman, Avis, she has been writing throughout the film.  We discover that the two women have never actually met in person despite being extremely close; they have just been pen pals for years.

The disadvantages of virtual friendship are pretty straightforward, but what might the advantages be? Total honesty if it retains an air of anonymity or removal from one’s social circle? The ability to compose oneself (like a piece of music), that is present a very specific slice of oneself? Many people I’ve talked to of a certain age (usually under 35, those who have had socializing technologies for some period of their youth) have had a virtual friend or two at some point.  These relationships, however, do not seem very long-lived, certainly not like the decade long correspondence of Avid and Julia. Is that just because our social circles are thicker or there is more competing stimuli than in earlier periods?

To add a legal angle on chatroulette, after seeing Robin Wilson present her paper on Sex Play In Virtual Worlds at a conference this summer, I wondered whether the masturbating men on the site might be subject to criminal liability in some jurisdictions if some of their viewers turned out to be children.  Robin (she’ll correct me if I have this wrong) was of the view that on Second Life or other virtual environments that don’t even involve actual images of actual people, under existing doctrine in some states adults can be criminally liable for sexually suggestive remarks and virtual activities.  Under existing doctrine this is true even if those minors represent themselves as adults, the perpetrator has a good faith belief they are adults, and even if the service has an 18+ policy (even if enforced by something like requiring a credit card).  If that’s right, the comparably less virtual and less regulated domain of chatroulette would seem to be full of potential criminal liability.  I am neither a criminal law nor a cyberlaw scholar so I will be curious what those with more expertise think….