replenishing returns

3 November 2009

This Hour Has 22 Minutes takes a look at copyright and file sharing, and blank cassettes, and blank video tapes, and blank paper:

It’s too bad they didn’t bring up probably the oldest and most common form of legal media sharing – libraries – but no worries, The Philadelphia Story covered that one decades ago.

Update: For anyone who doesn’t want to click on the link, here’s the video. You’ll have to manually go to the 6:49 mark; the link jumps there automatically but for some reason the embed code won’t let me do that.

keynesianism within one country

17 September 2009

I still have only a rudimentary understanding of the Canadian political system, but one thing that’s stood out in my news reading in this time of public budget crises is the fact that Canadian provinces are allowed to run deficits. As far as I know, every U.S. state has to balance its budget. There must be limits to the provincial deficits or potentially the situation could get out of hand, but I don’t know how those are determined (assuming that they exist).

Long-term questions aside, I suspect that, in the short term, the ability to run a deficit gives the provinces the flexibility to avoid the furloughs and closures faced by the public sectors in many of the states.

e-government is great

15 September 2009

I received my juror questionnaire last Thursday night, quite some time after it was forwarded from the U.S. I thought I’d have to rush it back to make sure it got processed in time, but it turned out I could complete it online. So I did. And only two business days later, I now see that I have been excused from service.

leaving one’s peers

10 September 2009

The federal courts want me; the summons must have gone out just as I left California. I hope having moved to Canada is a good enough excuse to not have to serve on a jury in Los Angeles, but we’ll see. I can’t imagine missing class and having to fly back – that would throw everything off.

It’s too bad, in a way. I’ve never had a federal summons and indeed I’ve never had to go into a courthouse at all. Every time I’ve been summoned at the local level, I’ve been excused over the phone. I know jury duty is usually something people grumble about, but I’d like to do it at least once, if it’s in a near enough place. And the federal summons looks so much more – serious isn’t quite the word, and neither is solemn, but the consequences for missing it without approval are much tougher and you’re considered “on call” during your time period.

They pull from surrounding counties, since there are only a few districts; had I been in California, it would have been about a 70 mile commute each day. There’s a checkbox for if you’re requesting an excuse because you live over 80 miles away. It’s about 1400 miles to here.

a history of bribery

4 January 2009

Aside from visualizing the criminal complaint against him a few weeks ago, I’ve been waiting to see what Rod Blagojevich is actually going to be indicted for before blogging about the case. But if the indictment is postponed, I’ll probably pick it up sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, with corruption so much in the news, I’ve begun reading John Noonan’s history of the concept of bribery, appropriately entitled Bribes, parts of which I read a few years ago while researching 19th century corruption in graduate school. In pursuit of the idea, Noonan ranges from the ancient world, to medieval Europe, to early modern Britain, to the United States, to bribery on an international scale in the late 20th century (the book came out in the mid-1980s).

Is it really possible to follow a single concept of bribery through so many places and times? Noonan argues yes, provided the concept is properly abstracted:

The core concept of a bribe is an inducement improperly influencing the performance of a public function meant to be gratuitously exercised. The core turns out to be remarkably constant if its elements are taken with enough abstractness. The concrete constituent elements–what counts as “an inducement,” what counts as “improperly influencing,” what counts as “a public function,” what functions are “meant to be gratuitously exercised”–change with the culture. The concept of a bribe contracts or expands with conventions, laws, practices. Relativized, it does not disappear. The idea is used in postexilic Jerusalem, late Republican Rome, imperial Ravenna, seventh-century Yorkshire, thirteenth-century Paris, seventeenth-century London, eighteenth-century Calcutta, nineteenth-century Washington, twentieth-century Tokyo. Cross-culturally compared in these very varied settings, the abstract central concept–with no forcing of the evidence–recurs.

Noonan also provides a helpful framework for understanding the different standards of bribery that may prevail at any one time in a given context:

Bribery is a legal concept, hence the law determines what counts as bribery in a particular society. This is easy to say but legal definitions turn out to be only superficially helpful. Is the law the edict issued by the prince and the statute written on the books or is the law that which is actually enforced? If one takes the proclaimed rule as the measure, one chooses a standard that is often demonstrably unreal. If one answers that the law is that which is actually enforced, then one is led to ask: How many trials must take place before a law is enforced? Is prosecution enough for enforcement or must conviction follow? Is conviction enough or must serious punishment be imposed? Is there enforcement if only small offenders but not large ones are seriously sanctioned? Actual enforcement is not a clear and simple measure.

Probing the various meanings of any law on bribery leads to perception of a tension between it and the morals of any community. Typically, the morals in practice are less demanding than the law on the books and the morals in public expression are more exigent than the law enforced. Often a society has at least four definitions of a bribe–that of the more advanced moralists; that of the law as written; that of the law as in any degree enforced; that of common practice. If one is to say that an act of bribery has been committed, one should know which standard one is using. The great advantage of the concrete materials drawn on here–trials, confessions, letters, poems–is that one can see what bribery means in these contexts; one can conclude with some assurance as to which standard was in play and what a bribe meant for a particular prosecutor or poet, politician or publicist in a particular society.

This is particularly relevant to the Blagojevich case, where the “morals in public expression” were expressed quite literally in the form of the arrests and the ensuing press conference, while the standard of the law as enforced has yet to be determined. Additionally, I’ve seen the question come up in a number of places of whether there’s a meaningful distinction between what Blagojevich is alleged to have done and more conventional practices of deal-making or logrolling, with some arguing that both types of activities are a kind of bribery, and others arguing that there’s a real difference between trading support for public activities for support for other public activities and trading support for public activities for personal, private enrichment. I’m more in agreement with the latter group, but in any case the difference of opinion suggests that there are different standards in play here.

I’ll be posting more on Bribes as I work my way through the book.

the visual display of qualitative information

12 December 2008

If you really want to know what it’s in the criminal complaint filed against Rod Blagojevich, you can read it. But in this 2.0 world, why read when you can visualize? Bill Allison at the Sunlight Foundation’s Real Time Investigations blog uploaded the complaint (via) to a site called Many Eyes, which is the kind of site I wish I’d already known about, and which offers a number of ways to visualize text.

(Unfortunately, wordpress strips out the code that makes it possible to embed these images at their full size and functionality, so I’ve re-sized these images to be larger than what the embed codes were giving me. If you click through, you’ll be able to do all sorts of things, like re-arrange the displays, search for particular words and phrases, count or highlight specific occurrences, and even zoom in on the word tree.)

Let’s start with a Wordle:


That gives you an idea of the most important topics/people in the complaint, but it’s more of a bird’s eye perspective. If you want more precision, albeit at the cost of some visual elegance, you could look at a couple of tag clouds:

Here’s a cloud formed on the basis of single words:


And here’s a two-word tag cloud:


The two-word format does a better job capturing many of the subjects – not just the proper names, but also senate candidate, financial advisor, planning board, campaign contributions, and so on – as well as the alleged activities – Blagojevich spoke, Blagojevich talked, attempted extortion, phone calls. But it also has some pairings that are simply the result of the stylistic conventions of a criminal complaint. For example, the phrase “2008 rod,” which has 53 occurrences, isn’t a phrase in the usual sense – it’s the result of writing out the date of an alleged action (in 2008), followed by Blagojevich’s first name: “…the morning of November 12, 2008, Rod Blagojevich talked to Fundraiser A…”

Finally, the most innovative and analytically interesting visualization is the word tree. Want to know how the Senate candidates appear in the text?:


Judging by the number of occurrences, Senate candidate 3, who appears to have been identified, is looking pretty good.

Incidentally: a cursory search for profanity doesn’t turn up nearly as much as you’d expect from the news coverage.