Jim's Polka

The life of a former software engineer, now a law student

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Could Be Worse

On the down side, I'm sitting here working on my appellate brief. Actually, editing my partner's section.

On the up side, I'm sitting out on the balcony doing it. (This new deck furniture is great!) The weather's in the 60s. Weather.com claims that it's partly cloudy, but I don't see more than wisps of clouds from here. There's a little bit of a breeze. The air even smells sweet, which is surprising given that I'm in the middle of the city.

Yup, it definitely could be worse.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

That's My Town!

When I was in high school, me, my brother and my friends M and J tried to go cow-tipping. This is not the sort of thing that you learn how to do when you grow up in Baltimore City, so we had a lot of unexpected problems. First, we had a hard time finding cows (see the previous sentence about our location). We ended up looking for them in the Pikesville area. I'm just glad we didn't run into these guys instead.

Police dispatched more than a dozen cruisers and one helicopter. They shut down roads, and state highway workers closed a Beltway ramp.

All to round up a herd of American bison disrupting rush hour and roaming through the upscale neighborhoods of Baltimore County's Greenspring Valley.

...

For going on three hours, more than a dozen officers and a handful of volunteers worked to load the animals on a trailer, which could hold a few at a time, for the ride back to the farm.

Each time one climbed aboard, the crowd cheered and clapped. But when the bison did what animals inevitably do, the crowd let out a collective "Eww."

"I called the Health Department," said Joan Magill, agent for the homeowners association at the complex. "They said we need to use a disinfectant."

Don't forget to check out the pictures, too.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

CFP 2005: Government CPOs and Privacy in Europe

Actually, those were two separate panels. I don't really have enough to justify separate posts on both, though, so I'm combining.

Also, before I go on, if you're more interested in the RFID passports panel, The Practical Nomad was also at the panel and has a much better summary.

Moving along to the government CPO (Chief Privacy Officer) panel. The question for the panel was whether a CPO is any use in terms of actually protecting privacy. Given that all the panelists were government privacy officers of some kind, it's not surprising that the answer was yes. Their reasons are convincing enough, though. They see their role as providing a focus for privacy issues within the organization. The idea is pretty new, so they haven't made much progress, but I think that making someone accountable for this kind of thing should help at least a little bit. Of course, that's only true so far as the agency as a whole is willing to go along, and not all of them are. Homeland Security, for example, doesn't have one yet. But, at least the woman from the Postal Service seemed to be having an impact.

Following that was a panel called "Terrorising Privacy". Their topic was privacy issues in Europe. The panelists said a lot of interesting things, but the number one thing to take away from the panel was that Europe is actually much worse at protecting privacy than the US. They attributed that to a lack of a strong civil society (in the form of NGOs applying pressure). There's no independent funding available for those groups, so the people who run them are basically doing it in their spare time. I've heard about the problem of lack of private philanthropy in Europe for funding museums; this seems to be another side of the same issue. The lack of civil society means that where groups in the US complain loudly about government taking on new surveillance powers, the same laws don't get any objection at all in Europe.

Sick and Other Notes

Ugh. The rough draft of my appellate brief is due on Friday, so of course I got sick. This is not making it easier to recover from last week's slacking.

The worst part, actually, is the dreams. I had a fever last night, which tends to make me have weird dreams. This time, I dreamt about ConLaw. I'm not sure what was going on, but I'm pretty sure federalism was involved. I may even have dreamed about Lopez. It was horrible.

So, it's now been over a month since we finished our exams and exactly one grade is posted. Apparently, they're holding off releasing 1L grades until all the professors have turned in grades. ProfTorts just submitted his grades today (a week after the deadline). The remaining contracts prof could still be working, for all I know. As for CivPro, well, I'm not complaining.

Oh, I shouldn't be complaining about making up for my slacking. One of my classmates went to a wedding in Denver the weekend before last. She was planning to come back Sunday but got stuck there until Wednesday because of a big blizzard. Then she got really sick, so she didn't come in to class on Thursday or Friday. Basically, she didn't do any work at all for a week and a half. Of course, I could look at this as an experiment - how essential is that week of class? Can a smart person recover without losing her mind? (My money's on yes.)

Saturday, April 16, 2005

CFP 2005: Intelligent Video Surveillance*

So, this is the panel that interested me the most. My pre-law school job was as a software engineer for an intelligent video surveillance company. We were mentioned during the panel, but we didn't get as much airtime as some of our competitors. Specifically, one of our competitors sent a sales guy to participate in the panel. He did an OK job talking about what their product can do - alert you when someone in the video does something unexpected or unusual, that sort of thing. Of course, being a sales guy, he exaggerated, but that's the way of the world. After him, another panelist gave an overview of the state of the industry. Then they had an academic researcher talk about the technical capabilities of the technology in more detail. It was a relief to hear him talking, because I think the previous people were giving the audience a sense that the technology is further along than it really is. I mean, they can do lots of interesting things, but it's not as Big Brother-ish as it sounds. Face recognition technology, for example, is horrible. Classification of objects is another area where people are much better than computers and will be for quite a while. The panel was closed out with a guy from the Electronic Privacy Information Center talking about privacy concerns. I was happy to see that he didn't get carried away with the doom and gloom. He correctly pointed out that you don't really have a problem unless the surveilers try to match behavior with specific people. He followed with some other concerns, in particular the problem of what patterns are being detected. If the algorithms are designed with some kind of inherent bias in them, you could have a civil liberties problem. Happily, I think that's not a problem at this stage.

* Rather than look for a strict definition, here's a rough version - intelligent video surveillance is what you get when you have a computer watching your surveillance cameras instead of getting people to do it. Face recognition is an example, but far from the best. The better stuff involves tracking behavior without trying to track people.

CFP 2005: RFIDs in Your Passports

Actually, I have to admit, I missed the good part of this panel. The battery in my laptop was running a little low and I wanted to charge it up a little before the next panel. So, I left after about 20 minutes. Professor Felten has already what sounds like a pretty good description of what happened. I'll just add that he doesn't mention the fun part, which was the yelling that I could hear from outside the room. I give the government a lot of credit for bravery for showing up at all, but there was no way that he was going to make this crowd happy. The biggest damage to his credibility came from his claim that the RFID tag they are planning to put in passports will only be readable within 10 cm. The next panelist, Barry Steinhardt from the ACLU, then demonstrated with his own RFID and reader how you could read it from farther away than that. He had a pretty limited setup and the tag was being read from a couple feet away. It's not hard to imagine that someone could do better than that with more powerful equipment.

Anyway, like I said, if you're interested in the substance of the panel, check out Prof. Felten's post.

Friday, April 15, 2005

CFP 2005: Opening Debate

I'm going to preface my summary post titles with CFP 2005 so people who don't care can skip them. I'll try not to make these too long. This post will be the hardest to do that for.

Although this was billed as a debate, it didn't really work out that way. Each speaker had some interesting things to say, but they only overlapped a little. The general theme was sousveillance, which is basically the idea of putting the cameras into the hands of ordinary people, instead of letting governments and businesses do all the watching.

The first speaker was Steve Mann, or as I think of him, cyborg guy. (Maybe even crazy cyborg guy, although he seems pretty nice.) He had a camera attached to his face the whole time he was there. (Literally. I'm not joking about the cyborg thing.) He thinks that it's just a matter of time before everyone is keeping a record of their daily lives, given how the hardware for it is getting cheaper all the time. He compared it to when you sign a contract. If you sign a contract, you expect to keep a copy of it. Similarly, why should everyone else get to keep a copy of the record of your daily life, but not you? He believes that the process will start as an assist to the visually impaired and will progress to the point that it becomes normal for everyone, to the point that you don't even notice it. I'm not sure whether that will happen in my lifetime, but it's not too hard to imagine, if the cameras (and storage media) get small enough and cheap enough. We're already headed in that direction with cameraphones.

Next was David Brin. His talk was similar to what he'd said the night before at the reading I went to. He's the kind of person who rants a bit, so he's a little hard to summarize. He started off talking about the fundamental characteristic of Americans. The result of the most successful propaganda program in America. Suspicion of authority. You see it in every movie for the last several decades. And that's a good thing. That suspicion leads to criticism, which makes things better. He thinks that what we really need is not to focus on privacy (heretical, given the setting), but to focus on openness. The government is going to be watching, so amateurs should be watching right back. The worst thing about Big Brother's viewscreen wasn't that he was watching. It was that nobody could watch him back.

After that, was Latanya Sweeney. She talked about a project that her lab has been working on. They looked on the Internet for publicly available camera feeds. These are more common than you might think. A lot of the time, people put a network-enabled camera on the network and than don't give any thought to security. Anyway, they used some of those feeds to analyze people-traffic through some heavily trafficked areas, in particular Times Square. They then used that analysis to predict the usual number of people they'd expect to see at a given time. The idea was that they could detect a bioterror attack based on a lower than expected number of people passing by the camera.

This summary is going on a little long, so I'll rush through the next two people. First, there was Ivan Szekely. He talked about the changes in ideas of privacy in Eastern Europe since the fall of communism. The state has lost it's control over people's information and citizens have gained it. Accountability has moved in the opposite direction.

Finally, there was Simon Davies from Privacy International. He stood up to remind us why privacy is important. The more we're watched, the more that we change. So, you have to ask whether we want to create a world where you have to watch your behavior at all times because someone's probably watching you. He wants to see more from government to protect privacy.

Alright. That's all for tonight. I'll pick this up tomorrow.

Conference Over

The conference was excellent. I wish I didn't have this stupid school thing that kept me from going to more of it. I took lots of notes, so I may write up some stuff about what went on. I'll try not to overburden you all, since I know all this law talk can be too much for some of you. (Little brother, I'm looking at you...)

I introduced myself to the panelists after a particularly good panel yesterday. My nametag said I was a law student, but I also mentioned that I was an ex-engineer. One of the panelists, a guy from the Center for Democracy and Technology said (jokingly, mostly) "An engineer? Well, I hope you do something worthwhile with that, like civil rights. Better that than patents." Of course, that's what I'll be doing this summer. But, the other reason I came to law school was because I was interested in things like he was talking about. So, I bugged him for some advice today about what to do if I wanted to go in the direction of what he's working on. He didn't have a lot of specific advice, but he was encouraging generally and he did have some good ideas. I'm thinking of trying to do an externship with his group sometime in the next year or two, if I can convince D that it's ok for me to be out of town for 2 months. I think the quarter system makes it easier to consider this because it involves a shorter commitment.

So, in the midst of all the conference stuff, I skipped all my classes Wednesday and just went to CrimLaw on Thursday. So, yeah, there's a lot to catch up on.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

School? What School?

Tonight, I went to an event at the Science Fiction Museum. David Brin, who is my favorite science fiction author, and Cory Doctorow (of BoingBoing, among other things) did a combined event. They read from their writing and mainly just talked about the world as they see it. It was very interesting. I also chatted with both of them while I was in line waiting for Brin to sign my book. I managed to avoid saying anything overly embarrassing or fanboy-ish. I did tell Brin that I was 11 when I read my first book that he wrote.

Anyway, the two of them are in town to attend the Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference. This is exactly the sort of topic that brought me to law school. As it happens, I even know a little something about the topic, since I used to work for a company on video surveillance stuff. (Sure, that makes me part of the problem from their perspective, but even so...) Anyway, I volunteered to help out with it. They've assigned me the best possible job for a volunteer. I'm supposed to go to the sessions and write up a paragraph about what happened. Then they'll combine it all into a single sheet summary of the day and give it to everyone the following day.

I'll be doing it all day tomorrow and part of the day on Thursday. Classes will be skipped. That research I'm supposed to be doing for our appellate brief? Well, I'll get to it, but it won't be easy.

Oh, since I'm going to be taking notes on the sessions anyway, I'll probably post my impressions when it's all over. Maybe over the weekend.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

A Question

If it's a half hour before bedtime and you've spent the last few hours working on an assignment that's only 5% of the grade, is it worth it to try to edit? Or is it better to declare victory and go to sleep? Bear in mind that the person who's doing the grading is the same person responsible for Friday's review class fiasco. Also bear in mind that mediocrity is a perfectly acceptable outcome here.

Wow. I think I just answered my own question.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Let's Hear It for the Unitarians

First, a Unitarian joke (the only one I've ever heard):

How does a Unitarian begin his prayers? "To whom it may concern..."

Now that I've prepared you, go learn about the Unitarian Jihad. Then, join by going to the Unitarian Jihad Name Generator. I will be called Brother Pepper Spray of Moderation. (Seriously, read the first link. It's hilarious.)

(via Electrolite)


P.S. I give the Unitarians a lot of credit for sustaining small-time arts programs all over the country. They're regularly willing to allow little theater groups to practice there. When I was in college, we ran ballroom classes at the local Unitarian parish.

Times Change

12 hours ago, I started thinking about a post I was going to write. I was going to explain how I was annoyed at my Conlaw professor. Apparently not satisfied to have us in class 4 days a week, he scheduled a review session for Fridays at 1:30. The review was to be run by someone who seems to be serving the same function as a TA. I'm not sure what her formal position at the school is. Anyway, I was going to complain about how it annoys me that he's trying to cut into my time that could be spent doing any number of other things. (e.g. Studying, sleeping, drinking with my friends, playing Halo 2...) Plus, it was encouraging very law school-type thinking like "What if I don't go? Will everyone else have an advantage over me?"

In fact, that annoyance (and a little laziness) led me to skip the review. Apparently it was the best choice I could have made. The people who went say that it actually took them backwards in their understanding of the class and the writing assignment we have due Monday. I guess they spent the whole time struggling to figure out what she's talking about.

So, instead of complaining, I'm just giving thanks. And let that be a lesson to you super-competitive types - sometimes it's better to let laziness win.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Oh My

Prof Property just showed up with a DVD to show us today. Body Heat. I'm looking forward to Kathleen Turner's discussion of the Rule against Perpetuities. I hear it's hot.

Update: Some other guy talking about the rule. Oh, well.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

That's It!

It's not often that you find something on the internet that describes you perfectly. Today, however, I learned that I'm a stealth geek.

An SG looks pretty much like anyone else. It could be said that an SG is a geek who has developed some fashion sense. Not that an SG will ever look like something out of Vogue or GQ, but SGs have learned not to look too out of it, either. Because hey still lack supreme confidence in their fashion know-how, they may not take risks, settling for the standard business suit or simple jeans and shirt combination for casual wear.
Often the watershed in the transition from geek to stealth geek is the purchase of contact lenses, but this is not always the case. A more stylish pair of glasses may replace the sturdy, practical pair worn in the past.

...

the main test is that no one should think upon an initial encounter with a stealth geek, "What a geek!" They may think that when Star Trek finds its way into a conversation, but they don't think it because of general behavioral characteristics.
Yup, jeans and solid colors are the rule for me. And if you could only see the glasses I used to wear......

Yesterday, someone in my section was talking about a bumper sticker he'd seen on the back of a car. It was red and said "If this is blue, you're driving too fast." I laughed out loud, then explained the joke to everyone else. And, as we all know, nothing's geeky like explaining a science joke.

Lucky for me, D's almost definitely a stealth geek, too.


(Courtesy of GeekPress)

The New Schedule

So, I'm done with Torts, Contracts and Civpro. (Still no grades, though.) Property is a two quarter class, so that's picked up again. To go with that, we have Constitutional Law and Criminal Law. The two couldn't be more different from each other. Prof CrimLaw is the most socratic prof we've had so far. He's not as bad as bad as some, of course, but it's still a little rough. It's getting easier now that we've figured out a few things about him. For one thing, nobody's ever right. Since everybody's wrong, it's not embarassing when he tells you so. It's only embarassing when you try to come back and prove that you weren't actually wrong. He also has a weird system for calling on people. It's by row, but somehow some people get called on a lot more than others. I just got called on for the first time today, but the people who sit in front of me have been called on 4 times.

Prof ConLaw, on the other hand, is all about the lecture. It's been almost all historical stuff so far, with brief interludes to talk about Marbury v. Madison and Martin v. Hunter's Lessee. He'll show us Powerpoint slides and talk for most of class. I don't really mind that much yet, since he has a pleasant voice and the slides are pretty well-done. On the other hand, I'm not thrilled with the writing assignment, even though it's only 5 pages.

Prof Property is still super-cool. He really seems to be enjoying teaching us the rule against perpetuities. The best part is that he really seems to appreciate the absurd arbitrariness of it.

Getting Better, Bit by Bit

Last week I took a huge step (for me). I bought a new couch! We haven't had a couch in our house since we moved in back in September. Our old couch didn't fit up the stairs, so we gave up and put it in the garage. The plan was to get a new couch and pay some movers to hoist it up the outside of the house. All we had to do was find someone to do it. (In the meantime, we've been sitting on cushions on the floor.)

Time passed....

And passed...

Finally, I found someone over spring break. It's gonna cost $240, which is about what we were expecting. And then I bought the couch (in Sage, if you're wondering). It's not cheap, but my grandmother always said that buying cheap was false economy, so I think we made the right choice. Unfortunately, we're going to have to wait a month or so for it to come in. Having made it this long without, I'm not too worried.

We also finally got an estimate for someone to trim the tree that's growing into the side of the house. It rubs against the house when it's windy and makes a noise even worse than fingernails on a chalkboard. And that's not even including the special thrill from knowing that it's my house that's being damaged. (The tree is on my neighbor's property.)

Anyway, I'm really procrastinating from reading parts of the Federalist Papers for Conlaw. Time to get back to it, I guess.

Lucky Me

The 9th Circuit is hearing cases at the law school this morning, but I'm going to be stuck in CrimLaw instead. *sigh*

At least the protesters made the walk in slightly more interesting. Everyone said that the big issue would be a Navy abortion case, but the biggest sign I see out there says "Stop the Back Door Draft". I'm not sure if there's a particular case or if it's just a good occasion for protest.

On the bright side, the state supreme court is going to be here in a couple weeks, so I'll try to go to that.

Update: Apparently I was misled about the abortion case. The Back Door Draft sign is referring to Santiago v. Rumsfeld. Santiago is challenging the military's stop loss policy.

Update 2: Yeah, I'm a moron. I looked around the website a little more and found the abortion case. Doe v. United States.