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The Decline of Blogging?

A WSJ article (free online content) tries to debunk rumors of the demise of blogs:

Maybe you’ve heard: Blogs are a vanishing fad — this year’s digital Pet Rock. Or a business bubble about to pop. Or a sucker’s bet for new-media fame seekers.

Recent weeks have seen the rise of a cottage industry in Whither Blogging? articles.

I find it hard to believe that rumors of blogging’s demise have even surfaced. It strikes me as ridiculous to presume anything about whether blogging has peaked given how early in the game it is. The WSJ article debunks these rumors, but concludes by reaching some middle ground:

But blogging will no longer be a phenomenon. When people talk about it, they’ll often be referring to tools for putting up simple Web sites easily, or a certain style of Web publishing: brightly written, frequently updated and inviting reader conversation. That may feel a long way from the claims of blogging’s first heady days, but then that’s the way most such things turn out: Wikis aside, today’s Web looks very little like Tim Berners-Lee’s original idea for a kind of digital whiteboard. Blogging is easier, faster and more conversational than traditional Web publishing, but that doesn’t change the fact that relatively few people actually yearn to be publishers. Nor do they particularly care what category the things they read fit into, or what technological tools produced them. That may not sound like the stuff of revolution or VC riches, but it also doesn’t sound like a fad or a failure.

The author should have also looked at social network chat sites such as MySpace, Xanga, and Facebook. Members of the upcoming generation are living their lives online, and blogging is the way that many are communicating with each other. These sites are growing at a phenomenal rate. MySpace boasts 50 million users.

Hat tip: Bashman

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About Blogging and Legal Scholarship

An article today in the National Law Journal discusses blogging and legal scholarship. Doug Berman and Paul Caron are quoted on the pro side of blogging. According to the article:

Berman said he is not suggesting that law professors blog “24/7,” but that exchanging ideas with other scholars and practitioners and keeping as current as possible on specific topics can enhance traditional scholarship.

John Eastman and Kate Litvak come out against blogging, which they don’t find intellectual enough to be considered as much more than a diversion. There’s a lot of law review bashing going on in the piece, including Ann Althouse and Berman. It seems from the article that many praising blogging attack law reviews, but Litvak manages to bash both law reviews and blogs:

“[Blogs] have nothing to do with scholarship,” said Katherine Litvak, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law. . . .

“Blogging has the presumption that you write something thoughtful, important and valuable. I don’t think the medium allows that,” she said. . . .

The amount of time professors devote to blogging is not the real problem with blogs, said Litvak, of the University of Texas. She added that if faculty members want to pass the time on nonscholarly pursuits, they will find a way to do it, blogging or not. Calling the traditional law review system “fundamentally corrupt,” she said that scholars might better spend their time writing for peer-reviewed journals. . . .

While blogging is not a replacement for scholarship, I agree with Berman that it is a useful form of sharing ideas and staying current. More of my thoughts on blogging and scholarship are here. I also diverge from Litvak on law reviews, which I do consider valuable; I just wish we professors could write better.

The article also discusses the upcoming conference at Harvard in April that Paul Caron is organizing about blogs and scholarship. I will be participating along with many others. Additionally, the article mentions my law professor blogger census.

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Paper Discovers Trove Of Unseen Civil Rights Photos

Thurgood Marshall.JPG Today the Birmingham News published a treasure trove of photographs documenting the Civil Rights movement. These absolutely remarkable photos, featuring Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall (pictured at right in a group that included Constance Baker Motley), and other significant individuals and events from that era, can be accessed here. While some appeared at the time, many of these images have not been published previously. According to the account in today’s News, the photos were found accidentally:

[The discovery was] the result of research by Alexander Cohn, a 30-year-old former photo intern at The News. In November 2004, Cohn went through an equipment closet at the newspaper in search of a lens and saw a cardboard box full of negatives marked, “Keep. Do Not Sell.”

The accompanying article includes interesting interviews with News photographers and others discussing why many of these images never saw the light of day. One photographer recalled that “the editors thought if you didn’t publish it, much of this would go away.”

The News has changed over the years naturally. In 1988, it offered a tempered self-critique of its civil rights coverage saying: “The story of The Birmingham News’ coverage of race relations in the 1960s is once marked at times by mistakes and embarrassment but, in its larger outlines, by growing sensitivity and acceptance of change.” That remains a fair characterization of the broadsheet. The editorial board is iconoclastically conservative. It is anti-abortion and solidly Republican but unafraid to confront ideological inconsistency and social injustice. For example, the News recently reversed course on the death penalty, calling for its abolition. Why?

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Total Information Awareness Strikes Back

total-information-awareness.bmpGovernment surveillance and data mining programs, it seems, never die. They just get renamed. So it has been with the much maligned airline screening program, which was originally called “CAPPS II.” It was canned, and a new program was started called “Secure Flight.” Recently I blogged about Secure Flight being canned, and I predicted that it would soon be reincarnated. That hasn’t happened just yet . . . but wait . . . it will. It’s a pattern.

Remember back in 2002, when a program called Total Information Awareness (TIA) came to light. TIA was a plan to create a massive government database of personal information which would then be data mined. The project had a website, and its logo (pictured) had the words “knowledge is power” in Latin. There was a considerable public outcy when news of TIA made its way through the media. William Safire wrote a blistering op-ed in the New York Times attacking TIA. In 2003, Congress voted to deny it funding. The program was ended.

But I was skeptical. In my book, The Digital Person, I wrote:

While public attention has focused on the Total Information Awareness project, the very same goals and techniques of the program continue to be carried out less systemically by various government agencies and law enforcement officials. We are already closer to Total Information Awareness than we might think.

I hate to say “I told ya so,” but TIA lives. It has been broken up into pieces with nifty names like Genoa II, Basketball, and Topsail. As the National Journal now reports:

Research under the Defense Department’s Total Information Awareness program — which developed technologies to predict terrorist attacks by mining government databases and the personal records of people in the United States — was moved from the Pentagon’s research-and-development agency to another group, which builds technologies primarily for the National Security Agency, according to documents obtained by National Journal and to intelligence sources familiar with the move. The names of key projects were changed, apparently to conceal their identities, but their funding remained intact, often under the same contracts.

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Dan Filler Signs on the Dotted Line

I’m delighted to report that Dan Filler has agreed to stay on permanently here at Concurring Opinions. He probably doesn’t fully appreciate the fact that he has just signed away his life for nearly nothing in return. He’ll spend eons of time producing content for the blog and get no financial rewards or otherwise.

But his loss is our gain. We think that Dan is a terrific blogger, and he’ll continue to add greatly to this site. We couldn’t be more pleased. Welcome aboard, Dan!

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Becker, Posner and the Purpose of the University

Richard Posner and Gary Becker, over at their eponymous blog, have been blogging about the Summers resignation. They both come out for Summers, and against tenure. The discussion is worth checking out in full.

I wanted to focus in on what seemed to me to be an underlying issue that neither Becker nor Posner really nails down: what good is the university supposed to maximize? Or, clearer put, what is the purpose of a university? Posner argues that faculty and university incentives and capabilities are misaligned:

The faculty are interested primarily in their own careers, and what is good for their careers and what is good for Harvard are only tenuously connected . . . What is more, [a replacement president] might be more inclined to kow-tow to faculty, enhancing their careers at the expense of the long-run health of the institution.

But this does not tell us what success or “long-run health” means. Both eminent economists turn quickly to market measures of value. Posner claims that “our universities are the best in the world” [Ed.: Now is the time to remind the reader that such puffing claims are not to be trusted, and to suggest that they look for this paper on that very topic.] Becker is more explicit:

Still, I believe the only satisfactory way to evaluate how universities (or businesses) are run is by their success or lack of it in the long run. Although there is no simple way, like profitability, to judge universities, there is an effective way to judge a university system. The American college and university system is widely accepted as the strongest in the world. This is why American universities are filled with students from abroad, including those from rich nations with a long history of higher education, like Germany and France.

I conclude from this that the American university system must be doing many things right, at least relative to the other systems. And what is right about this system is rather obvious: several thousand public and private colleges and universities compete hard for faculty, students, and funds. That the American system of higher education is the most competitive anywhere is the crucial ingredient in its success.

This argument confuses me. Is the claim that because our universities attract foreign students at higher rates than foreign graduates attract U.S. students our universities are “successful” and should do more of what they are already doing? That claim would seem tough to swallow given that our universities allow entry into our economy and (through marriage to fellow-students) citizenship, and thus attending Harvard isn’t necessary a proxy for endorsing its governance structure. Or is the claim that our success is a product of competition itself? In that event, who cares what internal governance looks like as long as we have established a market for private education?

More generally, it seems to me that without a good account of what the university should be doing (and not what the market is rewarding it for doing) arguments about proper governance structure are founded on quicksand. After all, there are a significant number of more autocratic colleges than Harvard extant. Almost all such schools are traditionally seen as less successful in many ways. Should we chalk Harvard’s success up to path-dependence? The distorting effects of tenure and labor unions? Does this internal market not matter to our evaluation of Harvard’s success? Because if it does, how can we say that the faculty governance model that Harvard has long followed is inversely related to “long term health” of that institution?

(Hat Tip: Todd Z.)

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Shameless Plug

blow.jpgAs multiple teasers in this space have hinted, I’ve been working on an article about vivid commercial lies and boasts. That article is now out to the law reviews, under the heading: The Best Puffery Article Ever. Given the title,further description seems sort of unwise, but for the curious, perhaps an abstract would be in order:

This Article provides the first extensive legal treatment of an important defense in the law of fraud and contracts: “puffery.” Legal authorities commonly say they make decisions about whether defendants should be able to utter exaggerated, optimistic, lies based on conclusions about buyer behavior, concluding that consumers do not rely on such speech. However, as the Article shows, such conclusions are proxies for a deeper analytical question: does the speech encourage or discourage a type of consumption activity that the court deems welfare maximizing.

The Article presents a novel constitutional analysis of puffery doctrine that focuses on the meaning of “misleading” speech, a term of art at the heart of the Supreme Court’s contested and still evolving commercial speech jurisprudence. Missing from that jurisprudence is a satisfactory account of how consumers and investors react to speech that is not literally false but which has false implications. I present such an account, focused on the incentives and capabilities of sellers to exploit buyers’ cognitive vulnerabilities. I draw on economic, marketing, psychology and consumption literatures.

I conclude by offering a novel liability proposal. Because legal authorities are incapable of satisfactorily drawing a line between harmful and innocuous puffery, the law should make sellers presumptively liable if their speech contains exaggerated, but vague boasts. This approach would place the onus on sellers to balance the costs and benefits of puffery, and thus lead both to more satisfying doctrine and a more optimal level of fraud.

I’ll be putting a draft up on SSRN shortly. And, now, I can return to my regular quota of blogging!

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Starbucks’ Secret Menu

starbucks.jpg

Everyone has a different perspective on Starbucks. In a place like San Francisco, with a strong independent cafe culture, it’s seen as Corporate Joe. In Birmingham, though, Starbucks helped balloon the city’s tiny pre-existing cafe community. Enough cultural commentary. My main goal with this post is to alert interested Starbucks consumers to a few attractive menu items that have inexplicably been left off the menu. (I speak primarily for the Birmingham stores, but in my experience these items are generally available nationally.)

For for the frugal and/or low intenisty addict: the Short coffee. It’s served in the same cup as the kid’s hot chocolate. And you always thought that it was nonsensical that Starbuck’s small was called tall. It isn’t; they just don’t want to explain matters to you.

For cafe au lait lovers: the Misto. Cafe au lait fans will love the Misto because, well, it is a cafe au lait. Half cup of coffee, topped with steamed milk. Ask for it extra foamy.

For people who have strong coffee preferences: the French Press. They don’t tell you this, but for 3 or 4 bucks, they’ll serve you up a french press made of any coffee in stock. So when the coffee of the day is House, and you just gotta have Sumatra…it’s your choice. And you’ll have enough to share with a friend.

Take control of your Starbucks experience. Order off menu.

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John Paul Stevens In Picture And Song

stevens1a.jpg premises_stevenshotel.jpg

If you haven’t heard this Air America spoof of Hang on Sloopy – retitled Hang on Stevens – it’s worth a click. I can’t imagine that Stevens, a Republican (OK, a Hyde Park Republican, but still…) would have predicted this fate 30 years ago.

And if you haven’t yet seen this wonderful childhood photo of the Justice at his dad’s hotel (known, eponymously, as The Stevens, but since transformed first into the Conrad Hilton, and later the Hilton Chicago, and shown at right) take a look. According to this article, he’s the kid on the left.

UPDATE: It seems that you can’t create a permanent link to the photo. To see an enlarged version go here and search keywords for “Stevens Hotel Two Boys”. The photo is entitled “two young boys playing a games, sitting at a small table in a playroom at the Stevens Hotel.” But the picture actually has three boys, and the aformentioned descriptive sentence actually has a grammatical error.

UPDATE 2: I’ve altered the pictures so that everyone can now see both the kid-pic and the hotel.

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Government Issue Porn

agReport.gif It’s no surprise that the Attorney General is turning up the heat on pornography. (Christine started us talking about DOJ recordkeeping rules last week, and the Google issue bubbled up a few weeks before.) Porn is an anathema to the GOP’s base, and with few supporters (other than those card carriers over at the ACLU and the 34 million (soon to be 40 million) anonymous consumers hunkered down behind their monitors), such attacks are an easy way to satisfy social conservatives. Perhaps Alberto Gonzalez will take the same approach as Reagan’s AG, Edwin Meese: preparation of a Porn Report. The Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography Final Report (available, at least in part, here) was more than a condemnation of pornography; it was a complete reference volume on the field. History, law, a feminist critique of objectification – everything was there in one intimidating tome. To prove that world was filled with truly porny porn, the Commission produced serious evidence: loads of material extracted from genuine dirty books and magazines. This was one racy government document; I can only imagine the lines at those designated library repositories. Sales must also have been solid. Just as happened with The Starr Report, a commercial publisher stepped in and republished the fat government document. (The flashy book cover, to the right, is the reprint.)

The moment is ripe for a new update – Porn 2K, perhaps – but times and technology have changed a great deal in the interim. Nowadays, a report need not take the form of a paper book that gathers dust in the Government Document Collection. Like many government publications, it can be distributed on the web – complete with hypertext links to sources. Imagine the manifold ways that a Gonzalez Report might show the nature and extent of pornography in America. If the Meese Report soldiered through, making its case through the use of dry text, a new hi-tech report could provide readers with link after link to graphic, vulgar, offensive, genuinely nasty smut. And the nature of this smut has changed! Pornography, like everything else, has gone the way of the celebrity. So what atrocities might be exposed in this report?

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