Friday, December 30, 2005

Wex: A Legal Wiki

Cornell's Legal Information Institute (LII) has a a project to create a collaborative legal encyclopedia called Wex.

While the founders of Wex claim to agree with Wikipedia's philosophy that open editing is a good solution, they have chosen a different path.

Any collection of information that is collaboratively edited, as Wex is, has to strike a balance between the scale and quality of its offerings. That balance is affected strongly by the way it conceives and governs its pool of author/editors.

We agree with the founders of Wikipedia that materials that are left open for the world to edit will, in general, evolve into better and more authoritative resources over time. However, this approach raises serious policing issues in the short term. Some are quality-related; others have to do with problems of objectivity or of inappropriate use of the encyclopedia as a platform for advertising. The LII has a very small staff, and would find such problems difficult to control. |Link|

Monday, December 26, 2005

How to Slip a Bribe

I've been adding some safety & survival links on the right hand toolbar and National Geographic's Adventurer's Handbook is a colorful new addition.

My favorite advice so far is to never travel without whiskey and cigarettes.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

When Christmas was illegal

Law Librarian's blog has a post discussing when private celebrations of Christmas were banned in America. And by the Christians no less...

More background here.

The Minnesota Shuffle

Sarah and I are relaxing a bit in between bouts of unpacking and putting together Ikea furniture.

It's quite warm here by Minnesota standards, but this is creating its own complications. There's approximately six inches of snow on the ground and it's all turning to slush.

When the air temperature gets below freezing, the entire neighborhood becomes a huge sheet of ice. Our car slid down the driveway last night and this morning I had to go out and scrape all the slush off.

And I've learned from the Minnesotans that you the best way to travel on ice is to shuffle along...the Minnesota shuffle.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Blog confession nets 5 years in prison

A Florida teen has plead guilty to manslaughter charges after he confessed to causing a fatal accident on his blog.

Blake Ranking wrote "I did it" on his journal three days after the October 2004 crash that caused a friend's death and left another seriously injured. He had previously told investigators he remembered nothing of the crash and little of its aftermath. |Washington Post|
I think this reveals an interesting phenomenon about privacy in general. For some reason, many people seem to operate under the premise that if you do not see their face, then they are anonymous.

How else can you explain the countless stories of people who commit online sexual harrassment or blog about starting riots or commit online hate crimes or look at child porn on their computers when they must know somewhere in the back of their minds that all Internet traffic can be traced?

One of my fellow students at UCLA did a study where she asked people in a survey if they thought their email was private and most said yes. A few questions later she asked these same people if they were aware that IT people could access their email and most of these people said yes. It's a textbook case of cognitive dissonance!

I think this is part of the reason why people tell pollsters that online privacy is a serious concern, but these people will rarely do anything to improve their online security and privacy.

To my mind, it's similar to an ostrich sticking it's head in the sand. If you can't see my face, you don't really know me...

Monday, December 19, 2005

Video Games and Emergent Social Reality

On December 12th I attended a presentation focusing upon the educational aspects of video games, titled:

Retooling Libraries for the Digital Age: What Gamers Can Teach Us About Knowledge Production and Consumption
by Dr. Kurt Squire and Dr. Constance Steinkuehler.

Massively Multiplayer Online Games

The first type of video games discussed were Massive Multiplayer Online Games (MMOG). MMOG’s are persistent real-time game worlds where individuals create characters and develop complex interactive worlds. These worlds are typically a fantasy or science fiction setting.

The game discussed most was Lineage II, which is a fantasy game, similar to the Lord of Rings world.

While these games are largely escapist fantasy, they exhibit elements of emergent social reality, which is to say that players exhibit many of the characteristics that we associate with real life. Characters in the game world get married and divorced, save money to buy houses, join social clubs, have meetings, etc.

These game worlds are richly textured and are populated by real people controlling a single character (or avatar). There are a few computer-controlled characters, but most interactions are between real people acting through their avatars.

Due to the complexity of these games players develop cognitive models of the world and use collective intelligence and to discover how to beat the game.

Players band together in groups (called guilds) and develop databases of topics ranging from military tactics to virtual manufacturing (which require balancing raw materials, labor, and capital).

Expert players assume leadership positions in these guilds and become executives in this virtual world responsible for the training and organization of 100’s of individuals in order to make their guild a success in the competitive world of gameplay where battles and hostile takeovers are commonplace.

Thus players exhibit managerial skills and an implicit understanding of cross-functional teams that have real-world applications.

These virtual communities typically initiate newcomers into the etiquette and customs of the virtual worlds through apprenticeship and information sharing. Each Guild hosts its own website with extensive proprietary game documentation.

Players also exhibit nascent scientific reasoning by developing hypotheses about how the game operates and then testing these hypotheses through experiments. This is especially significant because the educational literature indicates that this method of scientific inquiry is difficult to cultivate through classroom learning.

Gamers develop a functional language (or gamespeak) that allows them to communicate very quickly and efficiently in a fast-moving setting with 10-20 other players while multi-tasking game actions.

While gamespeak is a pidgin of English (and other languages), Gamers also create “fan fiction” that exhibits creative writing skills and a proficiency with grammar and dialogue.

There is a significant community of MMOG players. World of Warcraft currently has approximately 5 million players (at the time of this writing) and Lineage 2 has around 2 million players. The presenter analogized it to the populations of the cities of Los Angeles and Chicago playing these two games.

Typically the time investment is 20 hours per week for gamers and a subscription fee of $15 per month. While addiction is an issue for some players, most players are well-adjusted.

Studies indicate that gameplay time replaces television viewing for most individuals.

The Ethos of Games

The presenter asked why is it that people find these fantasy worlds so much engaging than the real world?

She outlined an ethos of MMOG’s as meritocratic and a participatory culture which encourages collaborative problem-solving and empowers people as needed individuals and not as cogs in a faceless bureaucracy.

Historical Simulation Games

The second type of game discussed was Civilization 3 which is a turn-based game where players lead a civilization from the Stone Age to the Space Age. There are a variety of victory conditions and multiple paths players can take to achieve victory.

For instance, players can achieve a cultural victory through trade and commerce or a diplomatic victory through global democracy. Players can win the game by building a colony on another planet. Finally, players can achieve a military victory by conquering or dominating all of the other civilizations.

The game has a built-in encyclopedia function called the Civilopedia that allows students to learn about the game, but also to learn about how societies function. The civilopedia covers civics, religions, technologies and other game features.

Players learn about the relations between politics, economics, and geography in the course of playing the game.

However, the researchers were interested in a site created by game fans called Apolyton University through players could increase their understanding of the game.

The players became so sophisticated that the game’s production company asked them to beta-test the newest iteration of the game, Civilization 4.

The Apolyton player community submitted an edited, comprehensive set of suggested changes that was longer than the Old Testament.

This is interesting for many reasons. First, this University is a self-organized educational venture. Second, it asks players to move to the next level and think about the game not as users, but as designers.

The presenters at one point described these video games as being a gateway drug to higher technology and a significant number of these expert players go on to write computer code to alter (or mod) the behavior of the games.

Games like Civilization 3 are essentially simulations of the world. By changing the code of the game, these expert gamers can see how the simulations react. This implies that as citizens these individuals will have a more sophisticated understanding of computer modeling and its inherent limitations.

It also suggests that these games are a design space for creating a better society and many of the gamers see analogies between gameplay and political contexts, such as the War in Iraq.

The gamers actually set up different historical scenarios and try to re-play history and see how different variables affect the outcome.

Why Libraries Matter

The presenters are both in the department of education at University of Wisconsin at Madison.

However, due to the strict statutory construction of school curriculums, schools have very little room to innovate and bring the insights gained from gaming into education.

The current elementary and high school pedagogical model is based upon a factory model that does not lend itself to individually driven educational plans and “out of the box” thinking. (The Montessori model is more amenable to self-driven and flexible instruction.)

Libraries therefore become better venues for pedagogical innovation. Libraries allow individuals to guide their own learning at their own pace and to make choices about what interests them.

The presenters suggest a new direction for libraries, along the lines of Wikipedia, in an article they wrote for Library Journal:

It is impossible to resist imagining a library built on gamer principles, where patrons decide which materials and services are offered and which are not. All discussions of the library's future direction would be open, with full transcripts digitized, searchable, and part of the permanent record. Mechanisms would be put in place so that patrons are welcomed as new users but encouraged to participate in decision-making and, eventually, contribute their own materials. Library users would be linked to their relevant social networks through a variety of tools. |Link to PDF|
It was a fascinating presentation. If you’d like to learn more, visit the presenter’s websites:

Dr. Kurt Squire and Dr. Constance Steinkuehler

We don't have to tell you a thing

Over at the Bellman, Jason has a great post about the administration's inability to foresee the logical implications of their policies.

Over at the Law Librarian's Blog, there a link to a report sent to Sen. Feinstein by Congressional Research Services about the duty of the Executive Branch to share (or withhold) intelligence with the Legislative Branch.

Absent a court ruling more clearly defining executive and legislative branch authorities in this area, which most observers view as unlikely, the executive branch has contended that it is under no legal obligation to provide Congress access to all national intelligence. By contrast, Congress, through its congressional intelligence oversight committees, has asserted in principle a legal authority for unrestricted access to intelligence information. The Committees, historically, have interpreted the law as allowing room to decide how, rather than whether, they will have access to intelligence information, provided that such access is consistent with the protection of sources and methods. In practice, however, Congress has not sought all national intelligence information. Unless there has been a compelling need, the intelligence committees generally have not routinely sought access to such sensitive intelligence information as intelligence sources and methods. When they have cited such compelling need for access, the committees generally have reach an accommodation with the executive branch usually, but not always. (footnotes omitted)|Link to PDF|
Of course, this administration seems to think that executive privilege gives it carte blanche to do anything it wants from authorizing torture to conducting illegal surveillance operations.

Maybe Jason's right and it's just a lack of imagination rather than megalomania.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Bush admits to breaking the law...again

Paul Harris describes Bush's admission that he authorized an illegal wiretapping campaign this way for the Observer:

President George W Bush yesterday admitted that he personally authorised a secret spying programme on American soil and vowed to go on approving such operations.

The existence of the monitoring scheme by the National Security Agency was first revealed in news reports on Friday and triggered a storm of criticism over whether it violated civil rights.

Previously, domestic surveillance by the agency has only involved foreign embassies or needed the permission of a special court. But the new scheme, put in place after the attacks of 11 September, 2001, allowed the NSA to track the phone calls and emails of people in America without going to to court.

The President robustly defended the secret operations and said the agency's powers were reviewed every 45 days. The spying was vital in fighting terrorism and he would continue to authorise such operations.

'The American people expect me to do everything in my power under our laws to protect them and our civil liberties and that is exactly what I will continue to do,' he said. (emphasis added) |Link|
For once, President Bush put it well. I, personally, expect him to do everything he can do to accomplish his assigned duties that is countenanced by the law.

The court charged with oversight of intelligence monitoring is popularly known as FISA.
FISA is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which establishes a legal regime for "foreign intelligence" surveillance separate from ordinary law enforcement surveillance. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, Pub. L. No. 95- 511, 92 Stat. 1783 (codified as amended at 50 U.S.C. §§ 1801-1811, 1821-1829, 1841-1846, 1861-62).|EFF|
Now, if there was any suspicion of US citizens collaborating with terrorists, the FISA court would grant an order to surveil these individuals.

The FISA court is basically a rubber stamp for intelligence operations. Why is Bush so hostile to the tiniest vestiges of separation of powers that he isn't even bothering with FISA warrants?

This administration has no respect for the rule of law.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

3 more years of Dubya

The Guardian has an anthology of reviews of Dubya. Some positive, some negative. Here's a choice tidbit:

Behind George W, there are four generations of Bushes and Walkers devoted first to using political networks to pile up and protect personal fortunes and, latterly, to using absolutely any means to gain office, not because they want to do good, but because they are what passes in America for hereditary aristocrats. In sum, Bush stands at the apex of a pyramid of privilege whose history and social significance, given his animosity towards scholarly thought, he almost certainly does not understand.|Guardian|

Monday, December 12, 2005


Our possessions finally showed up Saturday morning. We're in the process of unpacking and our apartment is littered with boxes, but it already seems more like a home already.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Disaster Map has a disaster map that shows some impending crises nationally. I was disappointed that they didn't show my two favorite disasters waiting to happen: LA and San Francisco's propensity for earthquakes.

The New Malthusians

Kate Ravilious reports on new research that indicates that approximately 40% of the Earth's landcover is being used for agriculture.

Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison combined satellite land cover images with agricultural census data from every country in the world to create detailed maps of global land use. Each grid square was 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) across and showed the most prevalent land use in that square, such as forest, grassland or ice....

"The maps show, very strikingly, that a large part of our planet (roughly 40%) is being used for either growing crops or grazing cattle," said Dr Navin Ramankutty, a member of the Wisconsin-Madison team. By comparison, only 7% of the world's land was being used for agriculture in 1700. |Guardian|

With the human population continuing to expand at an exponential rate, where will we grow food for future generations? (Especially given that we now have more elderly members of the population than at any other time in human history.)

Perhaps we will be able to grow food on top of our buildings...

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

On liberty and subway searches

Interesting conversation going on among the bloggers over at Concurring Opinions regarding the advent of subway searches by the NYPD. This is as good an entry point as any.

Monday, December 05, 2005

My poor car

I am dealing with the cold quite well, even if the wind chill is 10 below today. The dog likes the snow and romps around, although at a certain point she will get chilled and just stand and shiver until I scoop her up in my arms and carry her for a while. After she warms up a bit she goes back to romping through the snow.

But my car is not dealing with the cold weather so well. The gas cap cover refuses to release anymore. If I warm it with a hair dryer it will open, and if I get Sarah to pull up on the lever while I push on the lid it will open, but otherwise it is stuck tight. And now one of the windshield wipers has stopped working. The car does not seem happy about the change in climate. At least it's still running.

Friday, December 02, 2005

You know you're in Minnesota...

You know you're in Minnesota...when you get scolded for suggesting that 12 degrees Fahrenheit is cold.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Above the law

It appears that a former senior U.S. State Department official also believes the Dick Cheney is guilty of war crimes.

Asked [on a BBC program] whether the vice-president was guilty of a war crime, Mr Wilkerson [Colin Powell's chief of staff from 2002 to 2005] replied: "Well, that's an interesting question - it was certainly a domestic crime to advocate terror and I would suspect that it is ... an international crime as well." In the context of other remarks it appeared he was using the word "terror" to apply to the systematic abuse of prisoners. |Guardian|

As if we needed more proof that our government is run by those who feel themselves above the law, it also has come to light that our fearless leader wanted to bomb Al-Jazeera.

The one indisputable fact, though, is that part of the memo - 10 lines to be precise - concerns a conversation between Bush and Blair regarding Al Jazeera, the Arabic satellite television station that the US accuses of being a mouthpiece for al-Qaeda. According to those familiar with the memo's contents, Bush floated the idea of bombing the Qatar-based station. The Daily Mirror, which ran the story last Tuesday, claimed the Prime Minister talked Bush out of the plan.

As they attempted damage limitation last week, government officials suggested Bush's comments were nothing more than a joke. It was preposterous to suggest Bush would countenance such an idea, the officials said. The White House described the allegations as 'unfathomable' although according to those who have seen the memo 'there is no question Bush was serious.'|Guardian|
These people are totally out of control.