June 2010

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Following up on my earlier post about the Supreme Court ruling against Chicago’s handgun ban in McDonald v. Chicago, the case has been sent back to the lower court to figure out the details, so it’s not quite time to arm ourselves yet.

An attorney involved in the case advised against Chicagoans running out and purchasing handguns until a lower court rules on the matter later this summer.

“Obviously I’m elated by the court’s decision, said attorney David Sigale. “(But) I think it would be prudent to wait.”

Sigale said he expects the U.S. District Court to take up the case again in the coming weeks and issue the city directives on the handgun ban and a number of specific ordinances regarding re-registration and pre-registration.

Naturally, Mayor Daley is planning to fight this:

Daley has scheduled a news conference for 1 p.m. today to discuss the ruling.  The City Council could consider new gun control measures as soon as Wednesday, Daley said last week.

City Hall has been drawing up plans after the justices heard arguments in the case in early March and appeared to indicate they would rule against the city.

In an interview with the Tribune, the mayor said his primary goal would be to protect police officers, paramedics and emergency workers from being shot when responding to an incident at a home.

It’s nonsense to think that the loss of Chicago’s handgun is going to endanger cops or any other first responders. Illinois will almost certainly keep its background check requirement, which means that only people with no significant criminal record will be able to possess a handgun legally. The aren’t likely to suddenly commence a life of crime.

Let me put it another way: Last weekend in Chicago, 54 people were wounded by gunfire, 10 of them fatally. Since ordinary Chicago residents can’t own handguns legally, most of those shots must have been fired by people who had guns in violation of Chicago’s tough handgun ban. It’s hard to imagine that more guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens would have made things any worse.

“If the ban is overturned, we will see a lot of common-sense approaches in the city aimed at protecting first responders,” Daley said. “We have to have some type of registry. If a first responder goes to an apartment, they need to know if that individual has a gun.”

It sounds like the usual obstructive behavior. If the mayor can’t make it illegal to own guns, he’ll figure out a way to harass people who own guns legally. There will probably be lots of paperwork. As Scott Greenfield points out, this could drag on for decades, because the Supreme Court’s ruling was remarkably lazy:

McDonald did one thing only, holding that the right enunciated in Heller applies to the states.  As with the mystery paragraph of Heller, the Court reiterated that the decision doesn’t preclude regulation and limitation.  This leaves open the next hundred years of piecemeal litigation over each and every inch of imaginative legislation to see where the line is drawn.  We’re so far away right now that we can’t even see the line, no less know what the line precludes.

Heck, as Eugene Volokh points out, the Court hasn’t even cleared up whether the right is truly fundamental, and whether limitations are subject to strict or intermediate scrutiny.  While these legal issues aren’t particularly interesting to non-lawyers, they play a huge role in framing laws to restrict the applicability of Heller and its progeny.  More decisions needed to flesh out the right mean more years before anybody really understands what can and can’t be done.

And if anybody doubts that McDonald is merely another baby step in a very, very long journey, consider that it took 214 pages to conclude that the right is incorporated.  Just wait until the Supremes have to struggle with some of the tougher questions, like whether children under the age of 6 months living in a home for which an application to possess a firearm has been made will have to pass a physical examination to demonstrate competency in firearms handling.  Yes, the possibilities are endless.

Meanwhile, getting back to Mayor Daley’s rantings, this sentence gives pause for thought:

He said he also wants to save taxpayers from the financial cost of lawsuits if police shoot someone in the house because the officer felt threatened.

This is absurd. The courts know how to handle lawsuits over police shootings, and police officers have always been allowed to shoot when they reasonably feel their life is in danger. If the handgun ban is struck down, threatening a police officer with a gun will still be a crime, even if the gun is legally owned, and the police rules for use of force won’t change, just has they haven’t changed anywhere else in the country where people can own handguns.

What Mayor Daley is really worried about is that the City of Chicago has been paying out millions of dollars in damages for the illegal or dangerous conduct of its police officers, and Mayor Daley sees the impending fall of the handgun ban as an excuse to drum up some sort tort protection. It’s incredibly cynical.

The Supreme Court has spoken:

Court rules for gun rights, strikes Chicago handgun ban.

In another dramatic victory for firearm owners, the Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional Chicago, Illinois’ 28-year-old strict ban on handgun ownership, a potentially far-reaching case over the ability of state and local governments to enforce limits on weapons.

So, anyone know how soon I’ll be able to buy that pair of Desert Eagle 50s I’ve been wanting? They’re so pretty.

I had a frustrating science discussion with a friend the other day. Somehow, our conversation had turned to the subject of cooking — about which I know nearly nothing — and my friend mentioned that someday he’d like to have an induction cooktop. He told me that when you place a pan on an induction cooker and turn it on, the food will begin to sizzle almost immediately.

To me that sounded like trouble. My intuition was that a fast-heating cooker would result in cooking temperatures that were way too high. I tried to explain why, but my grasp of physics and engineering is sketchy at best, and I wasn’t able to get my point across.

Now that I’ve had time to think about it, and done some research, I think I know how to explain it. So I figured I’d post it here and maybe someone who understands the principles better will stumble on it and straighten me out.

The idea behind an induction cooktop is that the cooking pan is positioned right over an inductive electrical coil that’s just under the surface of the cooktop. An oscillating current is passed through the coil, reversing direction a few thousand times a second. The current creates a magnetic field that oscillates at the same frequency. This field is just large enough to pass through the metal base of the pan, allowing the rising and collapsing magnetic fields to induce eddy currents. The metal of the pan has a natural electrical resistance, so the induced eddy currents cause the pan to heat up.

The advantage is that the cooking pan itself is the source of all the heat used to cook the food. There’s no open flame or red-hot heating coil, and neither the cooktop nor the induction coil heats up. (The cooktop does come in contact with the heated pan, so it will warm up from conduction, but it’s usually made of something that absorbs heat slowly.)

Imagine a pan sitting on a stove that hasn’t been turned on. If the pan has been there a while, it should be at room temperature. This is not as simple a situation as it seems, because the pan isn’t just at the same temperature as the room, it’s also in thermal equilibrium with the room. That is, there is no net heat flow between the pan and the room, so the pan stays at a constant temperature.

This is not to say that the pan is thermally isolated from the room. The warm surface of the pan radiates heat out into the room, and the warm parts of the room radiate heat into the pan. Similarly, if any part of the pan is warmer than the air around it, heat will be conducted into the air, and vice versa. The point is that the pan and the room still exchange heat by the usual means — radiation, conduction, convection — it’s just that the heat flowing into the pan is exactly matched by the heat flowing out of the pan.

This is a necessary condition for any object that is staying at a fixed temperature. If the heat flows in and out didn’t match, the object would experience heating or cooling.

Now fire up the burner under the pan. The flame is a new source of heat that is transfered into the pan. However, simply turning on the burner does nothing to change the rate at which heat flows out of the pan. Since more heat is flowing in than out, the pan must heat up.

When the temperature of the pan rises, that affects the heat transfer between the pan and the surrounding room because a hotter pan will transfer more heat into the relatively cool room. Since the room stays at about the same temperature, the rate of heat transfer back into the pan stays about the same. (When you cook something, the kitchen probably does heat up a bit, but only by a few degrees, which is negligible compared to the cooking pan, which heats up hundreds of degrees.)

Eventually, the rate at which heat is shed to the surrounding room will be high enough to exactly offset the new heat flowing into the pan from the burners. At this point the pan will once again be in thermal equilibrium with its environment — which now includes the burner — and the temperature of the pan will stop changing.

The process is pretty much the same for an induction heated pan, except that instead of heat flowing in from the burner, the heat is generated within the material of the pan by induction. The pan’s temperature still starts increasing, and stops only when the temperature of the pan increases to the point where heat transfer to the room is high enough to exactly offset the rate at which heat is being generated in the pan.

(I’m pretty much hand-waving away the effects of the food in the pan by assuming that there’s just enough food to give us that sizzle we were talking about. Maybe it’s just a few slices of bacon.)

Over a broad range of conditions, the amount by which an object changes temperature is proportional to the amount of heat energy transferred. So, for example, raising the temperature of an object by 5 degrees will require a transfer of 5 times as much heat energy as raising its temperature one degree.

Similarly, the rate at which the temperature changes is usually proportional to the rate at which energy is transfered. Any change in energy over time is called power, which is usually measured in watts. The higher the power, the more energy is transferred per second. So the less time it takes to heat an object to a given temperature, the greater the power of the heating mechanism.

For our purposes, let’s assume that a typical gas stove can heat a pan to the sizzle temperature in one minute. Let’s also say that when my friend says an induction cooker makes the food sizzle almost instantly, he means within 5 seconds. Since that’s 1/12 the time it takes the gas burner, that means that the induction coil must produce heat in the pan at 12 times the rate at which the burner transfers heat.

Actually, since the shorter time span allows less time for the heat to flow out of the pan into the room, quicker heating is also a more efficient way to reach the same temperature. The magnitude of this effect is very dependent on the system under consideration. In the interest of keeping the math simple, I’ll assume that the induction system has 10 times the power of the burner.

Now let’s pull another number out of thin air and assume the burner is transfering heat at 1000 watts. Then the induction coil must transfer heat at the rate of 10,000 watts to achieve the desired heating speed.

That gets the pan to the sizzle point, but the heating process doesn’t necessarily stop, since the heating only stops when the pan is in thermal equilibrium with its environment, which now includes a 10000 watt burner.

As near as I can tell from a little Googling, on a typical gas stove, a dry pan can heat to about 500°F. In other words, if the burner is transfering heat to the pan at 1000 watts, then when the pan reaches 500°F, it’s transfering 1000 watts to it’s environment. So how hot does the pan have to get to shed 10 times as much energy?

It’s hard to say, because it depends on details of the heat transfer mechanism, which I’m not very sure of. However, since a gas burner heats a pan hot enough to cook food, I think the induction stove with 10 times the power is going to get way too hot for normal cooking.

I’ve since looked up a little bit of thermodynamics and learned that in the worst case, getting rid of 10 times the heat could require a full 10-fold increase in temperature difference between the pan and the room, meaning the pan wouldn’t stop heating until it hit about 3000°F. That’s more than enough to turn the pan into a pool of white-hot molten metal, melting its way down through the stove.

On the other hand, I think the best case would be if the process is dominated by radiative cooling, in which case the radiated energy increases as the fourth power of the the temperature, which my rough calculations show would require a temperature of only 860°F. That’s still way above normal cooking temperature. If you turned the lights out, you’d see a faint red glow like a branding iron.

When I was trying to explain my concerns to my friend, I didn’t present it nearly as clearly as I have here (and I realize this is still not a model of clarity). He didn’t see the problem, and he kept pointing out the induction process heated the pan much more efficiently than an open flame, so not as much energy was needed.

But that misses the point. The amount of waste heat is irrelevant to the problem. In order to heat the pan 10 times faster, the induction cooker simply must pump energy into it 10 times as fast. This means that when the pan stabilizes at its equilibrium temperature, it’s going to have to emit 10 times as much energy into the surrounding room. This far higher energy emission rate can only occur if the equilibrium temperature is also far higher.

My point was that something was missing from our mental model of how induction cooking worked, because our mental model predicted a top-end cooking temperature far too high for normal cooking. No engineer would design an induction cooktop to overheat food so much. There’s no point to it.

We did manage to come up with a couple of theories. My friend pointed out that induction cookers only heat the bottom of the pan. This means the burners need less than 10 times the power to get to the sizzle point 10 times as fast, because they are bringing less of the pan to that temperature.

My theory was that the induced eddy currents would occur on the surface of the pan, the inside and the outside, without directly heating the interior thickness of the metal. Since the food sizzles when the surface touching it reaches the sizzle point, this again reduces the amount of mass required to be heated, thus reducing the required energy and requiring less power to reach the sizzle point quickly.

A bit of research on the web seems to indicate that both of these theories are true. Induction cookers don’t heat the pan sides directly, and eddy currents do indeed hug the surface. However, it turns out that neither of those is the real solution to the overheating problem.

When heated by an induction cooker, each type of pan reacts differently, depending on its shape, size, and construction materials. To achieve optimum cooking and energy transfer, an induction cooktop has to be able to adapt its performance to each pan. Fortunately, the effectiveness of a particular frequency can be detected by measuring the rate of energy consumption of the induction coil, and the induction wave can be modulated until the energy transfer is at the desired level.

The point is that, contrary to what I had been imagining, an induction cooktop is not just a coil that blasts out a magnetic wave. The inductor’s resonance circuit includes a switched power supply that is controlled by a microcontroller — a small computer — that continually monitors the coil current and adjusts the induction wave form from moment to moment according to a programmed formula.

Once you have a computer on board, lots of things become possible, like changing the wave if the pan is moved to a new position, or shutting off the power when the pan is removed.

Or detecting when pan overheats. In a modern induction cooktop, each induction coil has a temperature sensor that detects when the cooktop, and therefore the pan, gets too hot, at which point it cuts off the power until the pan cools.

Hey, does everybody remember those viral dance videos from OK Go? They did them for songs like “A Million Ways” (the one in the back yard) and “Here It Goes Again” (the one with the treadmills). If not, you might want to follow those links to take a look (they won’t let me embed them).

Those are great fun, and I have a lot of respect for the amount of work OK Go puts into entertaining their fans…

But now take a look at the Nicholas Brothers in this scene from Stormy Weather:

Fred Astaire once called this “the greatest dance number ever filmed.”

I think if you wanted to do something like this today, you’d probably have to use CGI…

A little while ago, my wife and I noticed that our ragdoll cat, Dozer, had taken to sleeping on the floor right in front of our china cabinet. We wanted to make him more comfortable, so we put down a cat pillow for him, right in the spot where he liked to sleep.

Anyone who owns a cat could’ve predicted how that would turn out:

Dozer Meets the Cat Pillow
Larger ImageDozer Meets the Cat Pillow

People complain about reporters asking asking crazy questions, but those are sometimes the ones that get the most interesting results.

For example, in the video below, the reporter goes through the trouble of setting up an ambush interview on a Congressman, and then asks him a really dumb generic question: “Do you fully support the Obama agenda?”

I mean, seriously, couldn’t he have phoned that one in? Ambush interviews are supposed to be for hitting people with questions they really don’t want to hear, like “We have a witness who says you sold your BP stock because you received inside information from the CEO. How do you respond, Senator?” or “Is it true you just spent a week in Argentina with your mistress?”

A good ambush interview is wasted on a pointless question like “Do you fully support the Obama agenda?” which any seasoned politician can answer with a platitude like “My voting record speaks for itself.” There’s no way you can get a good story out of that.

Unless, that is, you get a response like this guy got from Democratic representative Bob Etheridge:

Of course, this is all over the internet. Yet, as Ethical Alarmist Jack Marshall points out, the news media is missing the story:

Today, the day after a video surfaced showing North Carolina Congressman Bob Etheridge grabbing, restraining, and wrapping his hand around the neck of a young man who dared to ask him a question on a Washington D.C. sidewalk, “The Daily Beast’s” #4 story was the revelation that former Ebay CEO and current G.O.P. candidate for governor of California once shoved an Ebay subordinate in a moment of anger and paid six figures in damages. The story about a sitting U.S. Congressman assaulting a U.S. citizen without provocation on a public street doesn’t appear anywhere in the liberal-leaning news aggregation site’s news summary.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post relegated coverage of the Etheridge attack to its blogs, most of which made the focus of their coverage the “mystery” of the assaulted student’s identity and that of his companion. This theme was picked up elsewhere too: Who were these guys? Were they Republican operatives? Right Wing hit men disguised as students? Was this a plot?

Here is the complete list of people who could have been the victims of Etheridge ‘s assault whose identity and motives would change his culpability: nobody. It doesn’t matter if the student Etheridge assaulted was really Karl Rove on his knees, or Ann Coulter in a mask, or Lindsay Lohan in a desperate cry for help. It doesn’t make one bit of difference. A U.S. Congressman assaulted a citizen in public.

Really, shouldn’t that be the big story?

Some people have suggested that this is a Republican dirty trick of some kind, buttressing their arguments with the fact that the face of the on-camera interviewer is blurred out, and he has not been identified. As some Democratic party hack puts it:

“Motives matter, and I think you can see who was behind this,” said DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse just now. “This was a Republican party tracking operation. If it wasn’t a party tracker or intern, why is the face blurred and why is the source hidden? You know if it had been a right wing blog, they’d identify themselves and they’d be booking this person on TV all day. Republicans know if they admit their involvement in this game of gotcha it will undermine their credibility. One minute this guy is interviewing a member of Congress on camera and the next a video is released with his face blurred out? If that doesn’t tell you this is a Republican Party hatchet job nothing will.”

I was inclined to buy this scenario at first. I know if I had been the interviewer and gotten a video this great, I sure wouldn’t have taken my name off of it. It does seem a little suspicious.

(Note that I was just buying the scenario, not the argument — assaulting people on the public street doesn’t become okay just because they’re members of the opposition party.)

But then, I got to thinking…If this was a setup, what exactly was the plan here? How could these supposed Republican party operatives have known the Congressman would go off like that?

And here’s another one:

“It was pure Gotcha, try to trap a congressman, because they refused to tell them who they were, what school they were from,” [Democratic Consultant Brad] Crone said. “And if you’re working on a project, tell the truth.”

Crone’s got a point. It’s not required by law or anything, but most real reporters give their names and the name of the organization they work for. I know I try to do it when I interview someone, but I sometimes forget. Maybe the kid forgot too.

Or maybe he intentionally withheld his identity.

But so what? If this was a “Gotcha,” what was the plan? How was asking a simple, vapid question a “trap”? Most public figures would have politely asked for a name and then walked off if they got no response. Again, for this to be some sort of Republican plot, these two guys would have had to somehow predict that Etheridge would go nuts like this.

I’m not buying it. Etheridge assaulted some guy on the street. That’s the story.

Update: Jamison Koehler discusses the legal definition of assault in D.C.

Nick Gillespie notes that Peter McWilliams died ten years ago today. McWilliams was a resister of the War On Drugs. He was also one of its casualties.

peter_mcwilliams1987a.jpg

McWilliams was very sick with AIDS and cancer, and the medicines he used made him nauseated, which he was able to ameliorate by smoking marijuana. The DEA charged McWilliams with various crimes in connection with a medical marijuana operation. Forbidden by the judge from mentioning his medical condition in court, he was forced to plead guilty and hope for leniency. While out on $250,000 bond for sentencing, and refraining from using marijuana as a condition of the bond secured by his mother’s house, he apparently vomited and choked to death.

I only know of McWilliams through his amazing book, Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in a Free Country. It’s a passionate cry for freedom, the simple human freedom to do what we want as long as no one else gets hurt. Go ahead and click the link. That’s not an Amazon page, that’s the entire book, posted online for free the way McWilliams wanted it.

This book has been a huge influence on my personal moral philosophy. I had already come to an intellectual conclusion that things like the War on Drugs were wrong, but I hadn’t really internalized the idea. Then I read a section in Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do where McWilliams describes getting a ticket for a traffic violation and later getting busted for smoking marijuana. He points out that the traffic violation presented a genuine danger to his fellow human beings, but using drugs harmed no one other than perhaps the user, so despite what the cops and the legislature and almost everyone thought, the traffic violation was the greater crime. In fact, using drugs was no crime at all. I realized that this crazy idea was something I could believe. And it changed everything.

The other thing I remember about McWillaims is his astonishment at the types of people who fought on the dark side:

I write these things and feel myself in mortal combat with a gnarly monster; then I remember the human faces of the kind people who tried to make me comfortable with small talk as they went through my belongings as neatly as they could. Then I remember, painfully, that the War on Drugs is a war fought by decent Americans against other decent Americans, and these people rifling through my belongings really were America’s best — bright young people willing to die for their country in covert action. It takes a special kind of person for that, and every Republic must have a generous number of them in order to survive.

But instead of our best and our brightest being trained to hunt down terrorist bombs or child abductors — to mention but two useful examples — our misguided government is using all that talent to harass and arrest Blacks, Hispanics, the poor, and the sick — the casualties in the War on Drugs, the ones that, to quote Leonard Cohen again, “sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.” It is the heart of the evil of a prohibition law in a free country. After all, picking on someone with AIDS and cancer is a little redundant, don’t you think?

On the way out, one of the DEA agents said, “Have a nice day.”

I believe the comment was sincere.

I never know what to make of that. Oh, I understand what McWilliams was saying, and I think it’s probably true. It’s a mistake to think these people are stupid, and it’s probably unhelpful to think of them as evil. But sometimes that just makes it all the more hopeless: How can these “decent Americans” not understand that they are hurting people for no reason?

Peter’s gone now, but in his short time on earth he influenced a lot of people, and his ideals live on in so many of us. I wish he was still here to see some of it.

Chances are, you don’t enjoy movies as much as you think you will. That’s because movie tickets present us consumers with a tricky problem of incomplete knowledge. We want to buy tickets to movies we’ll enjoy, but the only sure way to know how much we’ll enjoy a movie is to watch it, and we can’t do that unless we’ve already bought a ticket.

So we try to make an educated guess. We watch trailers, read reviews, and talk to friends who’ve already seen it, hoping to get enough information to make a good estimate of how much we’d enjoy it if we bought a ticket. Then we compare our estimate of our enjoyment to the cost of the movie — including the price of the ticket, the cost of snacks, and the value of our time — and decide whether or not to give the movie a chance.

We’ll never be able to estimate exactly how much we’ll enjoy a movie we haven’t seen — we just don’t have enough information — so there will always be an error factor. That is, our estimate of our enjoyment is conceptually equal to our actual enjoyment plus a random error factor (which can be positive or negative).

If the error factor is random, you’d think that would mean we would find ourselves enjoying movies more than we expected or less than we expected with equal probability. But it turns out that that only happens if we ignore our estimates and just go see every movie we can. We get a different result if we only go see movies for which we estimate a high enjoyment value, because the movies we overestimate will tend to have a higher estimated enjoyment value than the movies we underestimate.

For example, if you estimate your enjoyment of 100 movies and split them into two groups by rank — the highest 50 and the lowest 50 — the higher group is likely to have more overestimations, and the lower group is likely to have more underestimations. So if you go and see all the movies in the top half, you will see more movies which you overestimated. In other words, you will see movies which you enjoy less than your estimate predicted you would. As I said at the top of this post, you don’t enjoy movies as much as you think you will.

This is a variation on a phenomenon called the winner’s curse. The name comes from the observation that in an auction, the person who bids highest is likely to be the person who overestimates the value of the auctioned item the most.

I was reminded of all this a few days ago by a post I first saw at Gideon’s a public defender blog about a new American Psychological Association paper which shows that lawyers overestimate their chances at trial which has made the rounds of the legal blogosphere. Here’s a bit from the abstract of the paper:

The study investigated the realism in predictions by a sample of attorneys (n=481) across the United States who specified a minimum goal to achieve in a case set for trial. They estimated their chances of meeting this goal by providing a confidence estimate. After the cases were resolved, case outcomes were compared with the predictions. Overall, lawyers were overconfident in their predictions

This makes sense as another example of the winner’s curse. Lawyers and their clients are more likely to take a case to trial when their estimate of the outcome is high, but because overestimations result in higher estimates, those are precisely the cases which they are most likely to be overestimating. Whereas the cases they underestimate are more likely to look like losers, so they’re more likely to settle before trial.

In other words, the cases lawyers take to trial are those in which they have the most confidence, but those are also likely to be the cases in which they are most overconfident.

Unfortunately for my nice little story, the winner’s curse is also something of a paradox. The problem is that lawyers presumably know about the winner’s curse — maybe not by that name, but the concept isn’t exactly a dark secret. More importantly, the lawyers will have experienced the winner’s curse. They will see the outcomes of the cases the take to trial, and they should be able to use that knowledge to adjust their estimates to eliminate the curse. And yet this recent study shows that doesn’t happen.

It’s not just lawyers. Economists have studied the winner’s curse in artificial simulations and in the real world for years, and there is some evidence that people consistently fail to compensate for it. It’s a bit of a mystery. The most obvious non-economic explanation is that people are a bit stupid, but that’s unsatisfying because it accomplishes too much: Once you assume that people are stupid, you can use that to explain any behavior you don’t understand.

The APA paper doesn’t mention the winner’s curse, but a section called Metacognitive Realism does discuss several possible causes for overconfidence: It could be a side effect of zealous representation, a result of the need to display confidence to attract clients, distortion due to the perception of control, or simple wishful thinking.

I don’t know enough about psychology to begin to guess whether any of those theories are correct, but I know enough about economics to notice something that’s missing. Lawyers are supposed to represent the interests of the client, but they wouldn’t be human if they didn’t also consider their own interests. Depending on the fee arrangements, many lawyers get paid more when a case goes to trial, which gives them an incentive to go to trial when it wouldn’t be best for the client.

So if lawyers are following the path of higher earnings, we’d expect the rate of overestimation to be higher for lawyers who make more by going to trial.

The APA study doesn’t report fee arrangements directly, but we can try to make a few guesses from the data in the paper’s Table 2, which I used to prepare this data:

Success
rate
Criminal
prosecution
Criminal
defense
Civil
plaintiff
Civil
defense
Estimated 72.8 50.1 65.1 65.1
Actual 67.1 43.7 51.6 62.6
% Overestimated 8 15 26 4

Some criminal defense attorneys have a fee structure that brings in more money when they take a case to trial, but as far as I know all prosecutors work for a fixed salary, so the overestimation rate should be higher for criminal defense attorneys than for prosecutors, and indeed the data seems to confirm this, with defense attorneys overestimating their chances of achieving their goals by 15% to the prosecutors’ 8%.

For the civil bar, I’d expect to see a similar result, since plaintiffs’ attorneys often work on a contingency basis (which aligns their interests with their clients) but civil defense attorneys usually charge by the hour and therefore make more by going to trial. However, the data goes the other way, with plaintiff’s lawyers wildly overestimating their chances at 26%, while civil defense lawyers only miss by 4%.

Whatever’s going on, I guess it’s more complicated than my simple economic theory. Or maybe I’m misunderstand the data. Or else I’m misunderstanding how lawyers earn money from legal work. In any case, it’s getting late and I’m going to bed.

Heck, maybe plaintiff’s lawyers and criminal defense lawyers are all just romantic dreamers…

Jeff Gamso has a fascinating post about the probabilities behind a DNA match.

If you do felony criminal law (from either side of the aisle) and I tell you the number is 6.17 quadrillion, you probably assume that I’m talking about DNA.

The number will reflect just how unlikely it is that the DNA in the whatever left at the scene could have come from anyone other than the defendant. There are four things you need to know about that number.

If you want to know what those four things are, read Jeff’s post. I want to talk about something else. It’s that number, 6.17 quadrillion. There’s an important proviso that’s missing, although Jeff touches on it at the end of his post:

Next time you’re on a bus or a plane or a train or in a restaurant or movie theater or anywhere where there are a bunch of people, look around.

You never know when your not-twin, the one whose DNA profile is the same as yours, might be in the crowd. Despite the odds of 1 in 6.17 quadrillion. Hell, it might be one of the jurors.

If you pick a person at random off the street — or one of the random readers of this blog — the odds of someone else having that person’s DNA are not 1 in 6.17 quadrillion. They’re only about 1 in 500. That’s because about 1 person in 500 was born as one of a pair of identical twins.

Identical twins occur when a single zygote in the mother’s womb splits into two separate zygotes which develop into two separate individuals. Since all the cells in the zygotes trace back to a single zygote and therefore a single fertilized egg, they have essentially the same DNA.

All of this makes me wonder why this problem doesn’t come up more often in news stories about trials. If a criminal defendant has an identical twin, claiming he committed the crime would explain the DNA evidence. As a bonus, it would also explain things like photo arrays, line-ups, and lots of other eyewitness testimony. I guess a defendant might be reluctant to accuse his closest brother of a crime, but I would think that a pair of identical twins creates enough reasonable doubt to protect them both.

I’ve heard that claiming someone else commited the crime is sometimes called the SODDI defense, which stands for Some Other Dude Did It. I’d think we’d occasionally hear about the METDI defense: My Evil Twin Did It.

Some of the lawyers on my blogroll have been poking fun at a guy named Jack Marshall. He calls himself an “ethicist,” runs a consulting firm called ProEthics, and has a blog called Ethics Alarms. I don’t really know anything about him, but I thought his blog might make a good source of stuff for me to write about.

For the most part, his blog turns out to be about ethical situations I don’t find interesting — baseball, politics, frivolous lawsuits — but then I found one from a few days ago that I can work with:

Ethics Pop Quiz: “What’s Unethical About Auctioning Intern Positions?”

Are you ready to exercise those ethics brain cells?

The News Alert blog is reporting that the Huffington Post auctioned off an intern position for $9000, and another internship–three weeks of it with Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways, and three weeks with hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons — was auctioned off for $85,000, to benefit Simmons’s charity, Rush Philanthropic.

Question: Is there anything unethical about this, and if so, what?

My answer will not surprise my regular readers: No, there is nothing unethical about this. Neither the organizations providing the internships nor the people bidding for them are being coerced. The transaction would not have gone through unless all parties found it acceptable. Since everyone involved likes the outcome, there’s no ethical objection.

Marshall, however, sees a problem:

Answer: It is unethical to have interns do substantive work without paying them, and it is more unethical to make them pay for the privilege of being exploited.

How did HuffPo or Virgin make people pay? It’s hard to imagine a more voluntary market activity than casting bids in an auction.

When a for-profit organization allows an intern to work without compensation, it is 1) taking advantage of workers desperate for experience, 2) skirting the minimum wage laws, and frequently 3) using unpaid interns to take a job that an unemployed worker could fill.

Wow. That single sentence has an amazing amount of muddled thinking. Start with the qualifier “for-profit.” None of the issues he mentions in the rest of the sentence depend on the for-profit or non-profit status of the organization. Marshall is saying these interns are being exploited, but by singling out for-profit organizations, he’s implying that it’s okay for non-profit organizations to exploit people. I suspect he thinks there’s nothing wrong with non-profit organizations accepting volunteers, and he’s trying to hand-wave the distinction.

The first issues he raises, “taking advantage of workers desperate for experience,” is probably the strongest one, in the sense that not paying people for productive work seems exploitive to a lot of people. However, the fact that people have volunteered for these positions, and even paid for them, implies that they must believe they are getting something valuable in return. I think “taking advantage of workers desperate for experience” is probably better read as “providing experience to people desperate to acquire it.”

The second issue, “skirting the minimum wage laws,” is a mind-boggling muddle all by itself. First of all, correct me if I’m wrong, but if you’re skirting the laws, aren’t you obeying them? Second, the minimum wage laws have the same logical form as the ethical issue itself, so appealing to them is a form of begging the question. Third, it implicitly assumes that anything illegal is also unethical, which seems to make it impossible to ever change the law.

The third issue, “using unpaid interns to take a job that an unemployed worker could fill,” is the silliest of them all. What possible change could we make to the intern’s terms of employment that would not take a job that an unemployed worker could fill? Even if the company paid their interns 10 million dollars per hour, the other guy would still be out of a job. And if we give the intern’s job to the other guy, doesn’t that leave the intern unemployed?

If the internship has no real educational value and consists of medial tasks, it’s unfair to the intern for that reason too.

If the internship has no real educational value and consists of menial tasks, don’t you think the intern would quit? I’m sure people wanted these internships because they expected to get something out of them.

The fact that someone agrees to be mistreated doesn’t relieve a person or an organization from the ethical obligation not to mistreat them. Just because you know you can get someone to work for unfair compensation doesn’t make the compensation fair.

I’m not sure why you need a concept of “fair” beyond the fact that people are willing to work for it. To put it another way, if the people who accept the compensation think it’s fair enough for them, who are we to question their judgement?

Auctioning off the exploitive internship to the highest bidder just compounds the unfairness. The interns are now being chosen according to financial means rather than merit. Whether or not the money goes to charity, this is ethically indistinguishable from a bribe or a kickback.  “Okay: we have ten good candidates for this internship. Who’s willing to pay the most for it? Cash only!” This method of choosing interns would be unethical for paid internships.

What makes bribes unethical is that the person receiving the bribe is dishonoring a duty. A facilities manager who picks a roofing contractor because he got a kickback is betraying the interests of his employer in finding a good roofer, and a building inspector who overlooks faulty wiring because of a bribe is betraying the city that pays him to keep buildings safe. In the case of the auctioned internships, no one is being betrayed. A professional ethicist should be able to spot a distinction like this.

I imagine that spending time at a major media organization or hanging out with captains of industry is a pretty educational experience. I’m sure plenty of people are willing to pay for those experiences. If there’s an ethics issue here, it’s not that people paid for internships, it’s whether or not they got good value for their money…which is the same question we have about any purchase.