Friday, May 30, 2008

Being a parent is hard

Driving to work today, I saw (as I often do) little kids standing by the side of the road, presumably waiting for the school bus to pick them up. Some of them look pretty darn young, not that much older than my 2.75 year old daughter. And I can't help but think, "What if someone snatches that kid up? What if she doesn't make it to the bus or gets lost? How am I ever going to avoid having a stroke when my daughter is the one standing by the bus stop?"

I had a small taste of that two days ago when our neighbor's kid, who is 13, was over helping my mother and I with my 2.75 year old and my 3 month old. This kid is just starting to get some experience babysitting and so she comes over and helps, both to get her and the kids used to each other and so we can assure ourselves that she'd be ok alone with our kids, which eventually she will be when she's older. I was downstairs then came up and noticed that my toddler was nowhere to be seen. I asked my mother where she was and she said that the babysitter had taken her for a walk around the block. My first thought was a huge worry - what if my daughter gets away from her, runs away, gets hit by a car? My daughter can be somewhat difficult to steer when walking with her out in public - she's very strong willed, and also getting just plain strong as she gets bigger and bigger. The babysitter was not all that big at 13 - I was worried she might not be able to handle it if it came down to a wrestling match to get my daughter home. So I sat there, worried, for a while, then was about to go looking for them when they came back home. No problems at all, my daughter was well behaved and enjoyed herself. But I still worry even thinking back on it.

Damn, being a parent is hard.

(P.S. My mother is over for a few days to watch the 3 month old during the day - my wife just started back to work this week after her maternity leave ended. Her mother comes here this weekend to watch the 3 month old for the next three months. In this way, he doesn't have to start day care til he's about 6 months old and we don't have to start paying for day care until then, either - though we did have to pay for her mother's ticket (1200 dollars) and will have to buy extra food, etc. while she's here. Still, we come out ahead and grandma gets to spend time with the kids.)

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Want to avoid being sued? Say you're sorry!

Yes, it really is often just that simple. In fact, many clients often want an apology more than they even want money. As this article notes, patients who have adverse results (including actual malpractice-caused adverse results) are much much much less likely to sue if the hospital and doctors simply apologize. Of course, sometimes more than an apology is needed, but even there, as the article notes, "Patients seem far less angry when they receive an honest explanation, an apology and prompt, fair compensation for the harm they have suffered." No need for any lawsuits there.

Which applies generally. If you wrong someone, a sincere apology, especially if accompanied by an attempt to make up for the harm, is the surest way to avoid a lawsuit (and is far far cheaper for everyone concerned). That's the first advice I'd give to anyone in a potential lawsuit situation - sit down, talk with the other party, and apologize if appropriate. Refusing to admit fault where fault is pretty clear, refusing to apologize, just really pisses people off and makes them more likely to sue. Even if a lawsuit does happen anyway, it may be far less acrimonious and may settle much more easily and on better terms if, from the start, the defendant was apologetic and expressed true remorse.

This isn't rocket science. (And I've noted it before).

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Tips for the LSAT

The LSAT, or Law School Aptitude Test is exactly that - an aptitude test. You don't need to know anything about the law at all to take it. It is what you take before you've ever set foot in a law class. It is supposed to test reading comprehension, problem solving, and logic.

The LSAT is what got me to go to law school, and I don't mean that in the ordinary sense (which is that to get into law school, you need to take the LSAT and get a good score and also need a good undergrad GPA). I mean that I was in a bookstore one day, browsing (as I often did back when I had time to browse), and I came across a book about studying for the LSAT. I decided to flip it open and take a look, curious as to what it was about. I saw several sample questions. I did them right there (they were mutliple choice) and discovered that they were breathtakingly, almost trivially easy. "Hey, I could do this," was my next thought. So I bought the book (which included a lot of sample questions and a few sample tests) and brought it home.

At the time, I was recently laid off (or about to be, I forget) so I was collecting unemployment and looking for another job. Thus, I had a bit of time on my hands. Which I mostly wasted. But I did spend a few weeks reading through that book and studying for the LSAT. Now, as I indicated above, there is no knowledge you need to bring with you to the exam - every bit of information needed to answer each question is supplied with each question. But what you DO need to know is the format and nature of the test itself. Because it is timed. And the time is very short. You get something like just over one minute to answer each question. Probably most people of reasonably good intelligence could get every single answer correct if given enough time to think about it. But you really aren't given that much time to think about it.

At the time I took the test, I think there were five sections, two of which were the same sort of question, making four different classes of questions. I found one section hard in the sense that the time was not quite enough for me to get through all of the questions. I called this the "puzzle" section - the questions were such things like you have ten people standing in line, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, and J and then it gives a few more bits of information and then you answer several questions about it - with each question supplying just enough additional information that you could figure out the order they were in. I could figure that out, it was just that I had to write stuff down, draw it out, and with only one minute to do it in, time runs out fast. All of the other sections were a breeze - I'd finish with plenty of time to spare.

(One other note - the exam takes all day - my dad when he took the LSAT said his score was hurt by having to go use the restroom during the exam and eating up time. I planned on this happening - and just made sure to go during one of the sections where I had time to spare - after I was done with it, of course).

Thus, the only studying you need to do is of sample questions to figure out the types of questions - and be used to them and figure out your own best strategy for answering them quickly. Just be sure to get a selection of sample questions that is relatively new. They change the sorts of questions they ask over time. In fact, they change them during each exam - you take six sections instead of five, with the sixth being an "experimental" set of questions from one section that don't actually count. But you don't know which section that will be. When I took the exam, the first section was a really nasty puzzler section with questions I had never seen the like of before and it was not a good start to the exam. Then my last section turned out also to be a puzzler, much easier, and so I figured out that the first one was the experimental section that did not count.

Really, there's nothing more to this test than getting used to the sort of questions asked and understanding the directions so that you don't have to waste time on the exam figuring that stuff out. That's it. Do a bunch of sample questions, time yourself while doing them, figure out which areas are a time crunch, and focus your efforts there.

I spent about two or three weeks "studying" for this exam by doing sample questions in sample tests. Then I took it and got a pretty decent score, went to law school, and the rest is history. Oh, though I ended up finding a new job just after I took the exam (and before I even got my results). But this did not stop me from going to school anyway - I just went at night.

Soon I'll put my own thoughts and advice up about the MBE, every lawyer's favorite multiple choice exam.

We Come in Peace! Shoot to Kill!

The drug war is insane. And so it goes: another day, another drug war death. It always irks me to see police held to such different standards than the rest of us, even though, under the law, there is zero difference. It's not that I don't appreciate the police and what they do, I just would like to know that I or my loved ones aren't at risk by the frickin' police.

As it stands now, as someone pointed out in the comments at that posting, if armed intruders ever burst into your house, you better not try and defend yourself because if it turns out they are police, you could be up on murder charges. That is, assuming you survive the police shooting you, which of course, they would not face any charges for whatsoever.

I so ache for the technological solution: Set phasers on stun! If only we had reliable non-lethal means like that, then we could simply outlaw the police from ever being allowed to use lethal force or to even carry lethal weapons. For those that think this would lead to problems, look at Britain - their cops don't normally ever carry guns and they don't even have stunners.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

No Republican Presidents EVER

Shit like this is why we can never let a Republican in the White House ever again.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Anyone taking the LSAT or Bar Exam soon?

I've been inspired to write on my experiences with taking both of those, though I haven't quite the energy to do it right this minute. I probably will soon, though. I have a few pieces of advice to offer, for what they are worth. Anyone about to take either? I do recall hearing Apostate is about to take the LSAT and I know a few people in law school right now. Oh such a joy it is to take tests...

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Lawyers Aren't Rich

I've heard that many people have the impression that lawyers are rich. It is difficult for me to assess this generally, since my dad has been a lawyer for 30 years (his second career, after being an engineer) and my family was far from being rich. In actual fact, my non-lawyer mother made more money teaching than my father did as a lawyer at times.

Now, it is true that some lawyers are rich. But then it is also true that some computer programmers are rich, some grocery store owners are rich, and so on. I do know that Lawyer is listed as the second most lucrative profession (behind doctor). But I think that must be mostly because a handful of well-paid lawyers pull up the average. Speaking of averages, I recall that when I was in law school, I looked at the stats for graduating lawyers and the median starting salary was between 35-45K, depending on which area you went into. Sure, there were some jobs at big firms where you could start at 90K+ as an associate, but those are only a tiny part of the job market. They also tend to involve working 120 hours a week until you burn out, get backstabbed, and then dumped. Well, okay, maybe that isn't exactly what happens, but working in a big firm has a lot of politics, a lot of hours, and surprisingly, very little actual lawyering for those first years. Going to work for a small firm you may actually get to work on real casework and go to court almost immediately. At a big firm you may be reading through millions of pages of documents to see if any are relevant as part of some large lawsuit that ultimately ends up being settled, so all of your work goes nowehere (and was not legal work anyway).

But I digress. My main point is that most lawyers don't make big money. Particularly if they work for the government. Many lawyers have their own small firms and have trouble just making ends meet. Even the well paid lawyers can work ridiculously long hours.

On top of that, it takes going to school undergrad, then three years of law school, to even get the chance to become a lawyer, and unless you have good money (or scholarships, as I had), you will start out as a lawyer with a mountain of debt. My cousin graduated recently and he had over 120K in debt from law school. Plus he had debt left over from undergrad as well. And he had decent income before he went into law school (also a second profession). To a great degree, that level of debt limits what new lawyers can do. It is hard to take a 30K a year job when you own four times that in debt and when the debt payments are over 1,000 dollars a month.

My job doesn't pay a huge amount, though it is certainly adequate. My wife makes over twice what I make (she's an auditor). We are fortunate in that we have no debt because I got my law school paid for on scholarship. And I had no undergrad debt because my parents saved money for college, I worked, and I also got some scholarships. We still have huge expenses now - with two children - but at least it is more joyful to spend money on them than to write a check to remove a teaspoon full of money from an ocean of debt each month.

This brings to mind recent posts I've seen elsewhere about why it doesn't make sense for everyone to go to college. In my prior profession, I actually made more than I make now as a lawyer, and it was something I did not have a degree for (though there are degrees offered for it).

Bottom line - generally speaking, lawyers aren't rich. Many make a decent, middle-class living. Like me. Not that I'd mind being rich. I just don't think it is ever likely. I despise the notion of working at a large firm. And even with a smaller one, to really make a lot of money you need to work so many hours and I simply would rather spend time with my family than sacrifice that for extra cash. It rather limits my options for employment, but I'd rather stay home than work a lot of hours and miss seeing my kids grow up.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Frivolous Lawsuits

While one may think that "frivolous lawsuits" are either the product of the feverish imagination of right-wing "tort reform" Republicans, or alternately, that they are any suit filed that was not initiated by a right-wing "tort reform" Republican (like for instance, one filed by Robert Bork), those ideological definitions are not the real definition.

What a frivolous suit (and this applies equally within lawsuits for frivolous motions) is is a lawsuit (or motion) filed that has no basis in the law or in the facts (if the facts are taken in the light most favorable to the one filing the suit). Or, to get a more specific sort of definition, a non-frivolous suit or motion would be one that does not meet criteria such as those listed in Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 11:

(1) it is not being presented for any improper purpose, such as to harass, cause unnecessary delay, or needlessly increase the cost of litigation;

(2) the claims, defenses, and other legal contentions are warranted by existing law or by a nonfrivolous argument for extending, modifying, or reversing existing law or for establishing new law;

(3) the factual contentions have evidentiary support or, if specifically so identified, will likely have evidentiary support after a reasonable opportunity for further investigation or discovery; and

(4) the denials of factual contentions are warranted on the evidence or, if specifically so identified, are reasonably based on belief or a lack of information.

On the flip side of the coin, if you don't meet those criteria with your suit or filings with the federal court, then you are subject to sanctions. States have similar sorts of rules for state court. So filing a frivolous filing with the court is not a free lunch - you can take a hit for it. On top of that, if the judge has half a brain, you will simply lose the frivolous motion, making the whole thing a waste of time and probably pissing off the judge. If the judge isn't so sharp, a truly frivolous filing that succeeds with a lower court will get reversed on appeal - appellate judges are not only usually quite sharp, there are usually at least three of them on any given case, and unlike trial judges, they have a lot of time to examine the legal issues before them (as opposed to trial judges who can be overworked, understaffed, and limited in time to look at each issue before them).

I laid out all of this background just to point out that there is a specific definition of what a frivolous suit is, what the consequences can be for filing one, and what the chances of success are if you do.

Of course, not everyone is a lawyer and so not everyone is aware of the above (and perhaps some lawyers aren't as aware as they should be). So perhaps some people can get intimidated by having a lawsuit filed against them that really has no merit, and then they fold and settle. The thing is, though, that probably anyone who doesn't understand the above (and who also can't afford to hire someone who does, i.e., a lawyer), also probably doesn't have enough money to make it worth suing them anyway. Anyone worth filing suit against would be able to afford an attorney. Now, one might think it is not fair to have to defend against a suit that is frivolous, but the truth is, if it truly is frivolous using the true meaning of the word, it should not take much time or effort (or money) to defend against it. You file a motion for summary dismissal and you win. End of case. And you also file a motion for sanctions against the other party for filing a frivolous suit and maybe even get your attorney fees back.

Now it is time to point out what is not a frivolous suit: A suit where you simply think the witnesses are lying, but where, if what they say is true, not only is the suit meritorious (because the claim is valid under the law), but the plaintiff should win the suit. Determining which witnesses are telling the truth (and about what they are telling the truth) is a matter for the fact-finder - usually a jury - not for a judge to decide, and no, not for the defendant or for the press or for the pundits to decide, either. You can't just summarily decide that you don't believe certain people, so they never get to go to court. That's what court is for. That's what due process is. Getting a standard, legal process to determine your rights, to determine the truth. And alarmingly, to a great degree, ideologically right-wing judges who buy into the "every suit is frivolous unless filed by one of them" bullshit are making more and more binding precedents that allow cases to be summarily dismissed even though there are fact questions about evidence, denying people their day in court (and essentially substituting their judgment for that of a jury).

At this point, some may complain, "but what about those witnesses who are so obviously lying or are otherwise clearly untrustworthy"? Or non-witness evidence with equivalent problems? Well, just because you get your day in court does not mean you will win. If a plaintiff's witnesses are truly so transparently full of b.s., the jury will see it, too, and so it is likely they will lose. And a defendant will know this, too. Which means that even a non-frivolous suit, when based on such weak evidence, still might not get very far. Unfortunately, this could also be dragged out, causing large legal bills on both sides. But if defendant has deep pockets (which it probably does, since otherwise, why bother suing?) and plaintiff does not, that game of attrition will just result in plaintiff losing a lot of money and perhaps just giving up. After all, why spend all that money for nothing? This is where the "tort reformers" say that this is used as extortion against defendants to get them to settle rather than defend a drawn-out suit. And maybe in some cases that is exactly what happens. But then again, maybe, just like with negotiation with hostage takers, the best action is to just defend every suit like that - then extortionists know not to waste their time (and money). In fact, that is the strategy I would use in that position.

Finally, for those that are still upset about the notion of a non-frivolous suit being allowed to go forward despite shaky evidence and shady witnesses, what really is the alternative? A group of people, witnesses, say that a defendant has wronged them in a way that, legally, entitles them to compensation. How do you determine if they really deserve to be made whole? How do you determine if they are telling the truth? How do you determine if they are just a bunch of liars who should get nothing? It oftentimes sounds to me like the "tort reformers" want them to be found liars, in advance of ever having any trial or even getting to file anything in court. How, exactly, is that due process? The simple fact is, we already have a mechanism in place for determining the truth of claims like that - it is called a trial. It may not be perfect, but it is the system we have. I know I'd prefer to have my day in court rather than having some powerful individuals tell me in advance that I don't get to have my claim adjudicated because they have decided, without any due process, that I'm not allowed to try.

I think a lot of the "tort reform" stuff is really trying to put the cart before the horse - trying to have a case adjudicated as good or bad before there is any actual adjudication. Which is, of course, nonsense. Which is why I always get annoyed when I see people call a suit "frivolous" when they know really nothing about it except for some small sound-bite in an article. Without knowing more, how can you really know for sure? Do you even know what "frivolous lawsuit" means?

I've thought about this a lot, though what triggered this particular posting was reading this post yesterday about a possibly frivolous suit filed about a baseball game. As I commented in that post, if the suit truly is frivolous, it will be dismissed by motion relatively quickly. And if the facts really are as stated, if there was nothing more going on than a baseball game with an unlucky hit to the heart, then it will be dismissed quickly. But as I also pointed out, as is often the case with complaints about "frivolous suits" - that fact will get buried and so we'll hear about this as an example of why we need tort reform based merely on the filing of the suit, without also finding out that the system worked just fine, thank you very much, by dismissing the suit.

That's why I get so annoyed with people who complain about "frivolous" suits who use as examples only the filing of lawsuits, not the final results. Those examples don't count. As I pointed out above, you can't put the cart before the horse. For all you know, the end result will be the case is dismissed and the attorney is sanctioned for filing a frivolous suit. Which is probably what has happened for some of the cases breathlessly touted as examples of why we need "tort reform." The truth is, no matter what system you have, no matter how much "tort reform" you enact, anyone could file suit on anything - that's not where anything gets decided. It is only the ultimate result after that that tells you how the system is doing. So using just the bare filing of suits as evidence of any need for reform is disingenous at best, and more likely a deliberate attempt at obfuscation and deception. The result matters, not what people try to do.

(To use a grisly example, it would be like trying to say the Berlin Wall is a failure by pointing out all of the people who try to cross it without also noting that almost all of them were gunned down and killed). Headline: 20 more people tried to cross the wall today! It is a failure! (and then hidden in the obituary section is the same 20 people).

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

You're Mean! You have the right to remain silent!

Apparently a rather "creative" federal prosecutor is prosecuting the woman who pretended to be a 16 year old boy on MySpace in an effort to emotionally hurt a 13 year-old girl (who had been harrasing her daughter) who eventually committed suicide when the fake 16 year old boy "broke up" with the girl in a mean way.

I think this is utterly ridiculous. What she did was wrong and ugly, but it simply was not a crime. If being mean was a crime, then we'd all be arrested, particularly if my daughter was the prosecutor (she's quite fond of telling someone "You're mean" for the slightest infraction - like for instance not letting her drink from her baby brother's milk bottle).

I think this prosecutor needs to be disbarred or at the very least, disciplined, for doing this. It is a horrible thing to be charged with a crime - and while this woman may not be sympathetic, the tremendous, almost unstoppable power wielded by prosecutors simply should not be allowed to be misused in this manner. This disgusts me.

Another reason churches need to be taxed

I said it before, and now I'm saying it again. Churches need to be taxed. I don't see why a community organization should automatically be tax free just because they believe in a sky faerie. Plus, on top of that, so many churches and officials in them seem to treat the church as a wing of the Republican Party. Like this guy, for instance. Denying someone communion for stating that he thinks Obama is more pro-life than the GOP because of his positions across the board as opposed to only looking at the abortion issue is naked politics.

The GOP, despite calling itself pro-life, is really further than that label than the democrats - they are pro-war, pro-death penalty, pro-violence, and they seem to really only care about the lives of rich constituents.

Listening to the GOP airwaves, you get the sense that Jesus wasn't Jewish, he was actually a Republican. They also tell you that no Democratic candidate is a "true Christian" - which is part of why Obama is labeled a Muslim (even though he's a Christian) - and why the GOP base eats it up and believes it - after all, he's a Democrat, so they KNOW he's not a Christian, so if he's not a Christian, what is he? Why, look at his name, isn't it obvious? He's an evil Muslim, who probably secretly cheered on 9/11. I think they need a new category of stupid for anyone who actually believes Obama is a Muslim.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Inequity Aversion

In part of a fascinating Q/A article about apes and behavior, there was this question about Inequity Aversion, which I think would be an interesting item to consider in Barefoot Bum's (Larry's) ongoing series on economics. Here's the question and answer:

Q: Is yours the lab that did the grape vs. cucumber study? The monkeys got either a grape or a cucumber for doing a task …

A: Yes, together with Sarah Brosnan, we did a study in which capuchin monkeys received either a grape or a piece of cucumber for a simple task.

If both monkeys got the same reward, there never was a problem. Grapes are by far preferred (as real primates, like us, they go for sugar content), but even if both received cucumber, they’d perform the task many times in a row.

However, if they received different rewards, the one who got the short end of the stick would begin to waver in its responses, and very soon start a rebellion by either refusing to perform the task or refusing to eat the cucumber.

This is an “irrational” response in the sense that if profit-maximizing is what life (and economics) is about, one should always take what one can get. Monkeys will always accept and eat a piece of cucumber whenever we give it to them, but apparently not when their partner is getting a better deal. In humans, this reaction is known as “inequity aversion.”

I actually don’t think the response is irrational at all, but related to the fact that in a cooperative system, one needs to watch what kind of investment one makes and what one gets in return. If your partners always ends up getting a greater share, this means that you’re being taken advantage of. So, the rational thing to do is withhold cooperation until the reward division improves.

This holds an important message for American society which is becoming less fair by the day.

The Gini-index (which measures income inequality) keeps rising and is now more in line with that of third-world countries than of other industrialized nations. If monkeys already have trouble accepting income inequality, you can imagine what it does to us. It creates great tensions within a society, and we know that tensions affect psychological and physical well-being. Some attribute the dismal health statistics of Americans (now #42 in the world’s
longevity ranking) to the social frictions of an unfair society (see Richard Wilkinson, 2005: The Impact of Inequality).

This really does not surprise me - I know my sense of fairness is violated by such things. I'm sure this is why, for instance, in armies that are facing supply issues, the truly adored generals are the ones that take the same rations as the troops as opposed to living in opulence while the privates eat bark.

Equal pay for equal work isn't exactly rocket science. Which is why I was always annoyed that salaries were treated like top secret information at every corporation I worked at. The first place I worked they actually made it policy that you weren't allowed to talk with any other employees about your salary. Then they changed this to you couldn't make it an "issue." (Come to think of it, I've discussed this issue before). In this context, I still think that the only reason not to have salary transparency is to avoid problems with inequity aversion kicking in among workers. Though probably the issue is more complicated by the fact that it can be hard sometimes to measure exactly how much two individuals are worth relative to each other if you pay by something other than just straight seniority. Perhaps people will overestimate their own worth and underestimate someone else's worth.

Gay Marriage Wins in California

I am quite happy to hear this. I'm also quite sad to see the same bullshit talking points put out by GOP schills about judicial activism (which I've already pointed out is bullshit).

I can't add much to the analysis of the issue (and bullshit GOP talking points) beyond what Glenn Greenwald has already said. I just wanted to express my satisfaction with the ruling, point out that it is definitely not judicial activism (whatever that even means) and also again express my disappointment that in Michigan we've got bigotry written right into our constitution.

Marriage is a constitutional right. Everyone should be able to enjoy it. It sickens me that so many cannot. The only silver lining is that polling shows that the younger a person is, the more likely they are to support gay marriage, which means in 30 years, when those youngters are of the main voting-age class, we will all be better off.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Laptops in class

I've seen several articles over the past few years about laptop use in classes, usually about law school classes, though I'm sure it is an issue elsewhere. I think the latest place I saw an article was in Newsweek this week. The basic complaint many professors have is that laptops act as a distraction in class because students use them to play solitaire or do other things that prevent them from giving the professor their full attention. As a result of this, many professors in law school are banning the use of laptops in their classes. Before I get to my own thoughts on that, I want to relate my own experience with using a laptop (or going without one) when I was in law school (which was not all that long ago).

I spent my first term and part of my second term without a laptop, taking notes by hand. I found it very difficult to keep up that way - especially when a professor jumped around, forcing me to write in the margins or otherwise squeeze things if I wanted to keep it at least somewhat organized. Then later I'd have to go through and untangle all of my notes and enter it into my desktop computer at home, because it is basically a necessity to put notes into electronic form when forming a course outline for study in a class. This was a very long, slow process and, in the end, I never had time to complete it - I only got through two of my three classes my first term that way, and had to cobble together an outline from the course TA for my third class.

This all changed when I bought a laptop and brought it to class. I can type faster than I can write, so I had more time to listen and spent less time taking down notes. When a professor jumped around, I could just easily insert text where needed. And most importantly, I could basically write and organize and think about my outline in class, and work on it there, saving me hundreds of hours per term, leaving those hours free for doing other things - like having time to more carefully read and go over the material for the next class. Because my outline was pretty much always up to date, as I went to each class, I could see what I understood and what I had holes in understanding, leading me to ask the professor appropriate questions. I don't think I could have finished school if I had been forced to take notes by hand (and my handwriting is terrible).

While in class, I did notice people surfing or doing other inappropriate things with computers in class (from playing games, to texting, to even watching a DVD movie), though never more than 20% of my class even had laptops, and so the surfing was never very much of the class. And I always saw it as them wasting their own money - after all, they are the customers, if they don't want to pay attention, that is their own fault and they will pay the price at exam time. I worked full time, sometimes over 60 hours per week while I was in law school, so I tried to squeeze as much value out of class time as I could (I only took 9 credits a term). I never once did anything in class but take notes and pay attention to what the professor was saying. And for most of the time, I did that using my laptop. And I think my grades reflected that (just like I'm sure the grades of those who played solitaire were also reflective of what those individuals did in class).

Frankly, if I knew in advance a professor would not have allowed me to take notes with a laptop, and it was a note-heavy core course (not like some electives that are more interactive) then I would avoid taking that professor. A laptop computer is nothing more than a tool that can be used to take notes - and I would bet that if notetaking is all that you do with it, it is no more distracting than having to write with a pen and paper. So I suggest to any professor who bans them: rethink your policy. It hurts dedicated students, like myself, and if there is worry that some students will take that as a license to goof off more, not pay attention, or not even attend class, well, that is their loss, and not your concern. In my experience, someone wishing to avoid paying attention can always find a way to do it.

And I have another suggestion for professors - if you want people to pay attention in class, asking questions, and not paying so much attention to notetaking, then give handouts, both printed and in electronic form, that cover everything you would want the students to have in their notes from your lecture. I always hated feeling like I had to be a stenographer in class, but when material is only given orally, material you need to know for the class, you are forced to do it. And since it can be hard to know what material that will be in advance from a given lecture, to be safe, you find yourself taking down as much as possible (though sometimes it is obvious what need not be taken down). So if you want to avoid that, just give all of your notes, well organized, in advance of each class electronically and hand out hard copies in class. I found when professors did that, I could relax, knowing I have the material for my notes, and so I could focus more on getting into the nitty gritty, listening to the professor, and enjoying the lecture and learning experience, taking down additional notes if needed - the digested and shortened version of the material.

Classes where the professors did not give out outlines or electronic copies of material to be covered in class (particularly where that material really was not in the textbook) annoyed the hell out of me because I felt like I was a human xerox machine. It is hard to pay attention and think and ask questions when you are busy worrying about just keeping up with the word-vomit from the professor. As far as I'm concerned, lectures should be where you get to discuss and digest, not where you get things to put down for the first time.

To me, making students go back to pen and paper in the electronic age is idiotic and crazy - might as well say that having students write stuff down is distracting, and ban pencil and paper too. After all, writing might distract them from the bloviating of the professor! Which brings me to my last point - professors - if you really want students to pay more attention in class, in addition to what I've mentioned above about giving out notes in advance (on paper and electronically) - the most important thing you can do is, give more interesting lectures. After all, professors get paid very generous salaries - and students pay thousands of dollars in tuition. The least you could do is be interesting. And any material can be made interesting, as evidenced by the fun and enjoyable lectures I recall from my Civil Procedure II class - a class that otherwise could have been very dry (it being on a somewhat dry subject). If professors would focus on that rather than trying to take away students' tools for learning, we'd all be much better off.

(I also wonder if some professors will get pressure from schools not to ban laptops - after all, a lot of schools make things like easy laptop use or even free laptops as a selling point - that point may fall rather flat if those wonderful free laptops aren't actually allowed to be used in class).

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

De Anza case update

It looks like that state investigation (due to public outcry) about the original failure to file charges in the De Anza rape case has come to the same conclusion: no charges will be filed.

Of course, this has now led to more outcry, but as I stated originally about this case, the outcries really seem to miss the point. The problem, as always, with this case isn't about whether or not there was a rape, but who actually committed it. Unless you can establish that beyond a reasonable doubt, you have no case.

What this final outcome now shows, though, is that likely the prosecutor's office made the correct decision in the first place. With all of the outcry, one would think that they would have charged someone if they had any chance of making it stick.

Sure, it sucks that perps are most likely getting away with a horrible crime, here. But at least the prosecutors showed some ethical backbone by declining to file charges where ethically, they should not have, due to a lack of sufficient evidence to support charging any particular individuals. Far too often in this nation the opposite has occurred, usually resulting in innocent people (often minorities) being convicted, sometimes executed or, failing that, lynched.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Law Firm Associate Burned

There are a lot of posts in the legal blogsphere about an associate (a junior attorney) with a big employment law firm who was apparently given a bogus-sounding bad performance review as part of an excuse to lay her off just six days after she had a miscarriage. Apparently the firm tried to buy her off with a non-disclosure agreement as part of her separation (for three months pay, maybe $50,000 according to some sources), and that she turned them down and then sent a pointed email to some in the firm complaining about how she was treated.

This email eventually found its way to someone who posted it online and thus much discussion has ensued. I won't rehash it all here, I'll just provide the links to the letter post itself and then to one blog posting about it where I have already left a few comments. The jist of my comments was that I thought that this associate was not burning bridges - the behavior on the part of the firm was just reprehensible and they should not expect some kind of generalized code of silence about former employers to protect them from this being made public. I don't think she should be penalized for this. She did not do anything wrong. The firm did. Penalizing her for not sitting there like a doormat and taking it is wrong. My comments at the blog go into some detail about that which I won't repeat here.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Bigotry in Michigan's Constitution is Affirmed

Yesterday, the Michigan Supreme Court released its opinion regarding a case about whether a Rove-inspired amendment to Michigan's constitution a few years back which outlaws same-sex marriage and civil unions also prevents public entities in the state from offering health benefits to same-sex partners.

The Michigan Court of Appeals already said that it did prevent it. Unsurprisingly, the ultra-conservative Michigan Supreme Court affirmed that in a 5-2 decision yesterday.

What makes this particularly sickening, beyond the fact that Michigan voters literally codified bigotry into our Constitution, is that when the ballot initiative was being sold to the public here, there were explicit flyers and other statements promising that the amendment would NOT affect health benefits. Then the same people turned around and, after the amendment was passed, argued that they actually did. In other words, they lied their asses off to get the amendment passed and then used somewhat vague langauge in the amendment to argue the opposite of what they claimed it meant before the election. That alone is bad enough. What is worse is that the Michigan Supreme Court has now condoned and rewarded this behavior. It is now the law of the state that you can commit any degree of fraud you want in arguing for passage of an amendment - you won't be held to any of it when it comes time to interpret what somewhat vague language in the amendment actually means.

I'm of half a mind to go out and organize (if I could) a campaign to amend the constitution again, this time with a change that explicitly allows same-sex marriage, but worded in such a way that it seems ambiguous, and then put up a PR campaign that lies about it in an attempt to get evangelical voters to go for it. What's good for the goose...

What is even more depressing is that bad decisions of this caliber come out of the Michigan Supreme Court with great regularity. We have the most ultra-conservative, radical right-wing court in the entire nation, mostly put in place by Engler appointments (which require no confirmation vote). Strangely, despite our state being the most corporate-friendly in the entire nation when it comes to the judiciary, Michigan's economy is in the shitter.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Faith vs Rationality

I agree with Barefoot Bum (Larry) on this one. Faith is simply not the proper word to use when discussing and contrasting rational secularism with religion.

I also agree with him that it is possible to have entirely rational beliefs. This doesn't mean that one can't be mistaken or wrong or even that one might be influenced somewhat by things such as emotion. All it entails is giving rational consideration to the evidence when considering an issue. And where there is not enough information to make a definitive conclusion, all that is required is uttering the magic words: "I don't know." I think I come to my own set of conclusions about the world through only rational means. I'm open to being wrong. I'm quite comfortable with saying "I don't know" when I don't have the answer to something. This doesn't prevent me from speculating, perhaps making several assumptions along the way (which I'd try to enumerate). But speculation based on assumptions isn't irrational - not where you make those assumptions apparent and also are open to changing your conclusion when it turns out your assumptions are wrong. (Though the assumptions themselves should be rational - I should not assume that there is a sky-god as my starting assumption, unless it is merely an exercise in showing how some religious belief is internally inconsistent, something I occasionally do for kicks, but seldom see much real point in, because those who are lost in the throes of religion often won't let anything change their mind -- then again, maybe someone on the fence would be convinced).

In thinking about this subject, reading Larry's posts, I started to wonder - is it possible for everyone to be rational in the sense that Larry is rational - not just compartmentalized, but in total? Or is there always going to be some significant portion of the population that simply can't function (or won't function) without clinging to an array of irrational beliefs (and I'm leaving out people with actual, diagnosable brain disfunctions)? One might assume that this is the case because of the vast numbers of people with religion. But maybe that is just because they are all taught from such a young age it gets ingrained into their brains and so gets hard to get out. Maybe the only way to tell would be to take a large group of babies and teach them rationality (and the tools to deal with avoiding irrationality) from birth and see how they respond then when let loose on their own into the world at age 18. Do some of them "find religion" (by adopting it - I'd assume their education will already have included religion and all of its irrationality as part of their education on rationality)? Without having done the experiment, it is impossible to say for sure, but one would expect at least more atheists in that group than in the general population.

I'd like to think that irrationality isn't inevitable, that with proper education from an early age, we could limit it. Probably it would be very helpful if the culture as a whole embraced rationality - think on it - if for instance the news was uniformly rational, if the irrational was quickly dissected and exposed by rational analysis from all of the media, that would certainly help alot. You'd have a lot to lose in that environment if you were irrational, because you would be immediately exposed (and probably ridiculed). It would force people to use rational arguments. Of course, they could still be wrong, but at least they'd have a better chance at finding the truth than they would with irrational arguments.

I worry about the education aspect of this with my own children. But that is a subject for another post.

Any billionaires out there want to finance my experiment?

Monday, May 5, 2008

I Love the Whole World

Or rather, this clip - I could watch it over and over.

The Exclusionary Rule

I probably will post more on this later, but I wanted to at least put a little out now as I have been inspired by posting here about this topic.

For those who don't know, the exclusionary rule is the rule that keeps improperly obtained evidence (like evidence obtained by the police without a valid warrant that required a warrant) out of court. Many complain (like at that thread linked above) that this rule is stupid because it lets criminals go free and because it isn't explicitly said in the constitution that the proper remedy for the government violating the constitutional rules of evidnece (like the 4th amendment) is to exclude the evidence. But I think that is nonsense and is not looking at it from the proper perspective.

The exclusionary rule isn't about punishing government officials. Nor, for that matter, is the 4th amendment. The 4th amendment says to the government, you can't do this, period.
So when it comes time for trial, if you let in evidence obtained by means the government can't use, then, you ARE allowing the government to do it. Because the only reason to gather evidence is for use at trial. And the constitution says the government can't do that (in violation of the 4th amendment).

To use a simple analogy, say you are playing monopoly (with the game and its rules representing a trial and its rules). The rules of monopoly say you can't just take money from the bank as if it were yours, you have to earn it through the course of the game (like by passing go). That means you can't do it, period. You do not suddenly get to get around that rule just because some official who "works" for you (say you are playing team monopoly) broke that rule, and hey, we'll punish him, but I still have the money and I'm keeping it and playing it. As far as the rules of the game go, you never legitimately had that money, so you can't use it in the game. You can't say "well, I have it now, and we can deal with those who gave it to me illegitimately later, but since now the money is in my possession I can play it." The rules tell you how you can get the money. If you haven't followed the rules, the money isn't legitimately yours and so you can't play it, period.

Same with the fourth amendment. As far as the rules of the game go, the government never had that evidence - so it can't "play" it at trial. You can't violate the rules (the constitution) and get around that no matter how many government officials you might punish. Whether anyone is punished or not, the rules of the game (the Constitution) says the government cannot get evidence like that. Period. That is totally meaningless if the government could use it anyway, just like it would be totally meaningless ot have a rule in Monopoly that you can't just take money from the bank if you could use it once you got it if some other "official" screwed up and violated that rule. The whole point of having evidence (or money in monopoly) is the use.

And that is why the only possible solution to a government infringement of the fourth amendment is exclusion. To do otherwise is to break the rules of the game as set forth in our constitution. Punishing those who break those rules (by searching without a warrant) is beside the point. Sure, it is good to punish them (though in practice they almost never are). But whether they are punished or not doesn't change the fact that, by the rules, the only evidence that exists for court is that which is acquired by the proper constitutional rules. (There are other rules on top of that, but that is not germaine to this basic discussion because those aren't constitutional rules).

(I'll leave out of this post the sad fact that a lot of our Fourth Amendment rights have been slowly whittled away by some rather egregious police conduct backed up by even more horrendous court rulings by mostly right-wing ideologue judges).

Sunday, May 4, 2008

False Claims Gold Rush?

I read in the Wall Street Journal Editorial section Friday an article called "False Claims Gold Rush." First, to explain why I even have this paper, a bastion of right-wing theodicy matched only by Fox "News" Channel - my wife had frequent flyer miles that were to expire and she could convert them to various subscriptions, one of which was the WSJ. She's an auditor and thought that it might be good to get that paper. So now I read the editorial and opinion pages every morning (just about) to see what insanity the right-wing is up to that day. But back to the article.

The first thing that struck me about this article was that isn't it interesting that the GOP "let's privatize what the government does because for-profit entities do it better" people are totally against privatization when the businesses who benefit tend to support Democrats (and thus tend to spend those profits on Democratic politicians). Apparently a profit motive when it comes to doing government work is evil when those who seek the profits support Democrats. As opposed to GOP companies like Halliburton, who do other government work for profit, who are beyond reproach, even after billions of dollars have gone missing.

But of all of the bullshit in the article, this is my favorite part:

"Recoveries" in these suits have also long been defined as treble the amount of money the federal Treasury lost due to fraud. The new bill would change this to treble the amount of the contract. So, if a company made a $10,000 mistake on a $1 million contract, a trial lawyer could get in on a $3 million suit.

Gotta love the rhetorical sleight of hand. These are false claims suits. These are suits against entities that commit fraud against the government. Fraud is a deliberate act. You can't commit fraud "by mistake." And yet the closing of the article has a law that allows private entities to help punish criminal wrongdoing against the government cleverly changed into a law that allows "evil tort lawyers" to get millions of dollars from some minor thousand-dollar innocent mistake. Poor, poor defendants. Whatever will they do?

Gotta love the bullshit shoveled on the pages of the WSJ. What is really sad is that it seems that the WSJ wasn't sufficiently pro-GOP, so Rupert Murdoch is replacing the editor with someone else.

Sometimes I wonder if the alleged brains of the GOP really believe this bullshit or if they just shovel it out for the unwashed masses. The GOP schills I know personally seem to buy into it all hook, line, and sinker. But then they also think a sky god tortured his "human son" as a proxy for everyone else that somehow magically makes us all immortal. So I guess if you'll swallow that level of bullshit, you'll swallow anything. Then again, not every religious person is GOP. Though sadly, not every non-GOP religious person is any better at critical thinking, and even the non-religious, non-GOP can be just as bad, as evidenced by some of the garbage I've read in the left-wing blogsphere. If I had a battle cry, I think it would be, "Be reasonable!"