Monthly Archives: February 2012

Jamison’s Tips For New Bloggers

Jamison Koehler has a post up on his blog offering tips for new bloggers. Although he wrote it specifically for legal bloggers, and some of the examples might not make sense if you don’t know the personalities, it’s good advice for anyone considering a new blog. If you’re thinking you might like to join the conversation, you should check it out.

Naturally, I have a few thoughts on the subject…

Sometimes I write for other bloggers. At the beginning especially, I was intrigued by the back-and-forth among other bloggers I read and sought to participate in the discussion. The problem with this, I have found, is that these entries don’t hold up very well over time.  I’ll look back at a blog entry I did one or two years ago and wonder what we were ever talking about.  Reading such a blog entry can be like listening in on one side of a telephone conversation.

I say you shouldn’t worry about how well your posts will hold up over time. Just because a topic is short-lived doesn’t mean it isn’t worth your time to think about and write about. However, if you want readers from the distant future to understand what you’re saying, make sure to link to other parts of the conversation and quote relevant parts, in case the linked pages go away. It may help to recap a bit. I usually try to do all this in one obvious paragraph, so people already familiar with the context can skip it.

Regarding tip #3, “Find Your Voice,” if your writing skills do not extend to consciously creating a style for yourself (as mine do not), or if you’re just not sure what your style should be, the best way to find a style is to just keep writing. Eventually, you will adopt certain habits — certain turns of phrase, certain narrative structures — and your style will emerge.

There’s also some important tension between rule #5, “Do Your Own Thing,” and rule #8, “Lurk Before Joining the Conversation,” because of the implication that you are lurking so you learn the rules. It’s important to keep in mind that while it’s helpful to know the rules, you don’t have to obey them.

Also, once you start blogging, for God’s sake, make sure you really do join the conversation. Link to other bloggers, and talk about the things they talk about. It’s really the heart of what makes the blogosphere different from other media.

Don’t Let Godwin’s Law Protect Totalitarians

I’ve always been wary of Godwin’s Law — the internet maxim which says that if you are in an argument and you compare someone or something to Hitler or the Nazis, you automatically lose the argument. (Actually, Mike Godwin’s original comment was more nuanced than Godwin’s Law has become today. Wikipedia has a nice summary.)

Granted, there’s way too much of that going around. Not everyone we dislike is a Nazi, and no matter what a lot of silly protesters said, George W. Bush didn’t turn into Hitler and Barack Obama won’t either. We invoke Godwin’s Law as a reminder that such comparisons are often ridiculous, and also as a reminder that an analogy can become a replacement for careful thought.

On the other hand, Godwin’s Law can also become a replacement for careful thought, if we allow it to shutdown the debate.

Part of the reason we have Godwin’s Law is also part of the problem with it: When we think about Hitler and the Nazis, we naturally think of their greatest crimes, and compared to the Holocaust, all our current problems seem small, which is why a comparison is so often foolish. Nothing happening in the United States today comes close the ultimate horrors of Nazi Germany.

However, it’s important to remember that Adolf Hitler didn’t murder 12 million people on his first day, and those ultimate horrors were preceded by many lesser horrors. Hitler was active in German politics for over a decade before becoming Chancellor, and it would be another nine years before the Wannsee conference and the Final Solution. So while it’s correct to say that nobody in America today is as bad as Hitler, it’s also correct to point out that for the first fifty years of his life, neither was Hitler.

Yet it’s not as if Hitler was a nice guy for most of his time in office. It’s not as if Germany was a great place for Jews (or Gypsies or homosexuals or any of the other victims) right up until the moment the death camps began operating. There were clues to what was coming, and those clues are worth thinking about today. It’s not enough to remember history; we also have to recognize the evils of history when we see them again, if we don’t want to be doomed to repeat them.

As Kevin Carson says in his own denounciation of Godwin’s Law:

Godwin’s Law, by treating Nazi Germany as some sort of unique, metaphysical evil in human history, essentially nullifies its practical lessons for people in other times and places. Although Nazi precedents are now used as symbols of ultimate evil — just look at Darth Vader — they didn’t seem anywhere so dramatic to the German people at the time they were happening.

Nazi repression came about incrementally, in the background, as people lived their ordinary daily lives. Each new upward ratcheting of the security state was justified as something not all that novel or unprecedented, just a common sense measure undertaken from practical concerns for “security.”

After all, the bulk of Hitler’s emergency powers were granted by the Reichstag after a terrorist attack (blamed at the time on communists), a fire which destroyed the seat of Germany’s parliament. Any parallels to 9/11 and USA PATRIOT are, of course, purely accidental. Each new security clampdown, after an initial flurry of discussion, was quickly accepted as normal because it didn’t affect the daily lives of most ordinary people. And of course, those ordinary people had nothing to fear, because they’d done nothing wrong!

The Nazis weren’t the last totalitarian bastards the world will ever see, and when the next Adolf Hitler begins his rise to power, it will be a lot harder to stop him if we’re not allowed to point out that he’s acting just like the last Adolf Hitler.

Jennifer Abel gives an example of how this works:

I’ve been banging the anti-TSA pro-civil liberties drum on this blog since 2006, the same year I started it. And America’s gotten worse, incrementally, as people lead their ordinary lives. It led directly to the passage and acceptance of the NDAA, with its unconstitutional insistence that the government can arrest any citizen at any time with no evidence, no trial, no legal rights at all, provided the government first says “Trust me, he’s totally a terrorist.” It’s led to what Carson calls a “de facto internal passport” required for travel within the borders of our own country. And when those who support these laws watch documentaries on the rise of the Third Reich, they shake their heads in patriotic superiority and swear “It can’t happen here.”

But of course it could happen here. America is still basically a free country, but there’s no natural law that says it has to stay that way. There are certainly things going on in this country that look a lot like the early days of the Nazi rise to power. The TSA’s metastasis into a system of internal checkpoints (the hallmark of totalitarians everywhere) is one good example. Another example, is the War on Drugs, which strikes me as a slow-motion Kristallnacht, with drug users and the inner-city poor in place of the Jews. 

I can’t point to any major American politician and say he’s the next Hitler, but I can think of a at least one minor figure who certainly fits the uniform: Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. He fought the DEA’s war on drugs for 25 years, he brags about the cruelty of his prisons (in which inmates regularly die), he uses the investigative powers of his office to intimidate people who criticize him — including journalists and other members the justice system — and he has even tried to imprison judges who ruled against him or his officers. And to top it off, much of his political power comes from exploiting racial and ethnic hatred against illegal immigrants.

So in the spirit of civil disobedience against Godwin’s Law, I’ll say it out loud: Sheriff Joe Arpaio is like Hitler. Not like the Hitler who killed millions in the death camps, of course, but like Hitler from twenty years before, filled with hate and lusting for power. But not as successful. And unlike the real Hitler, we don’t need a time machine to stop him. We can do it by voting him out of office.

That said, identifying “the next Hitler” isn’t really the important point. Hitler wasn’t evil because he was Hitler. Hitler was evil because he did evil things. Similarly, our goal need not be to stop the next Hitler. Our goal should be to recognize when people in our government are doing evil things, and spread the word so they can be stopped. If that means saying that they’re behaving like Nazis, so be it.

Dangers of Searching for a DUI Lawyer Online

If you’ve ever tried to use Google to find a lawyer for a DUI or traffic offense, you’ve probably stumbled across one of those relentlessly SEO optimized sites that isn’t actually a law firm but promises to put you in touch with a lawyer. Basically, they’re referral services.

This always seemed annoying but harmless to me. To Spokane, Washington criminal defense attorney Steve Graham, however, it seemed like something worth a bit of investigation:

I googled the phrase “Spokane dui lawyer” and came across the site, and typed in some very sensitive information about my “case”. I conducted the experiment from a coffee shop in north Spokane. About 5 minutes after I entered the details of my “Spokane DUI case”, the comment I had entered into the site came back to me in the form of a spam email to my law firm email account.

The contact form on these websites usually includes something along the lines of “you are not forming an attorney-client relationship,” which sounds like they’re just warning you that no one has promised to be your lawyer yet. What they don’t say explicitly, however, is that this means that what you are writing is not a privileged communication. The people who receive them are not acting as your lawyer, and they have no legal obligation to keep your secrets.

I was aware of this, but as Graham explains, it’s much worse than I thought:

The lawyers who receive this information aren’t even necessarily DUI lawyers…Many of the lawyers could be friends, neighbors, or relatives of the DUI suspect, and the lawyers are under no obligation to keep the information confidential. In Washington state, it is not uncommon for a lawyer to defend DUI cases in the county district courts, but to work as a part-time prosecutor in the local city or municipal courts…It is possible that a DUI suspect could have his or her DUI case information sent directly to the city prosecutor’s email inbox.

Geez. I did not see that one coming.

Steve Graham’s post has a lot more information, including one site that masquerades as a law firm with offices in thousands of U.S. cities.

Read the whole thing.

Goddesses and Falsifiability

My Nobody’s Business co-blogger Rogier has a pretty good article up about divine delusions v.s. observable reality. It’s a plea for rationality, even if faith and mysticism seem like more fun. As is often my way, I have a small quibble.

Rogier and his opponent are discussing a Facebook poster’s insistence that a bit of lens flare in a photo of a pyramid is actually a sign that the “goddess era has arrived.” Rogier’s opponent is arguing that her subjective interpretation has meaning.

So here’s perhaps how she making the connection between her beliefs and aspirations and this photo. This photo for her is a symbol of her convictions: To bring the masculine energy (which she perceives is out of whack) into balance with the feminine energy.

He goes on to conclude:

So this image is a visual confirmation and symbol of her beliefs, and makes perfect sense.

Rogier had a problem with that:

I don’t see how he arrived there. At all. Unless he means that it makes perfect sense for some poor guy in an asylum to believe that he is Napoleon Bonaparte, or for the cat lady down the street to worship her scraggly charges as multiple reincarnations of Nefertiti. Yes, it makes sense to those two people, I’m sure. But almost everyone else easily recognizes the outsized fallacies involved.

There is no equivalence between the unprovable views of Cat Lady and Fake Bonaparte on the one hand, and the provable ones of Richard Feynman, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and all the rest of science on the other.

This is where I feel the need to add a small clarification. I think “provable” is the wrong word. The key difference between the theories of scientists and the pronouncements of mystics is not that they can be proven, but rather that they can be disproven. In the terminology of Karl Popper, the theories of scientists are falsifiable.

What distinguishes a scientific theory from other kinds of ideas — personal beliefs, religious faith — is that scientific theories allow you to make predictions about the world that can be tested and that might be found false. (Note that I’m not saying that a theory has to be disproven to be scientific — that would make it a false theory — only that it has to be conceivable that it could be disproven.) Conversely, if there’s no way that an idea can be disproven, then it’s not really a scientific theory. If the theory can’t be tested against the real world, that means it doesn’t say anything useful about the real world.

Rogier’s opponent implicitly agrees that the goddess theory is not falsifiable:

For her [the Facebook poster] it’s a sign that the goddess era or whatever has arrived. Who’s going to prove she’s wrong?

If no one could ever prove her wrong, then she’s not saying anything interesting about the world.

in Science

The Long Arm of the Justice Department

I know that everybody stuck here in the wake of the mortgage securities crisis hates bankers, but it still seems like there’s something wrong about this:

The news for Wegelin, its headquarters nestled in the town of St. Gallen next to the Appenzell Alps near the German-Austrian borders, would only get worse. Six days later the U.S. Justice Department, acting on plans it had been making for weeks, indicted the 270-year-old bank on charges of enabling wealthy Americans to evade taxes on at least $1.2 billion from 2002 through last year. U.S. criminal laws apply to foreign banks that do business in the United States, even if the banks, like Wegelin, have no U.S. branches.

So the United States is prosecuting Swiss banking executives for helping Americans evade income taxes, even though the bank’s activities did not violate Swiss law. Apparently we’ve made it illegal for anyone anywhere in the world to violate our tax laws, even if they never enter the United States to do so, and even if doing so isn’t a crime where they are.

[Wegelen’s leading partner Konrad] Hummler’s error, rival Swiss bankers say, was in thinking Wegelin was safe from a U.S. indictment just because the bank didn’t run any U.S.-based branches.

This is a terrible precedent (although it’s hardly the first time). What if other countries started regularly doing that to us? Would we want Americans to be prosecuted for apostasy in Iranian courts for evangelizing and converting Muslims to Christianity in Alabama? Would we want American web site operators prosecuted for helping France-based bloggers violate European hate speech laws?

Martin Naville, chief executive of the Swiss-American Chamber of Commerce in Zurich, told Reuters that Hummler had “exposed himself pretty heavily” around 2009 by publicly calling America the “worst aggressor since the Second World War” while taking in tax-evading clients fleeing other Swiss banks in the wake of the crackdown. “Clearly, he made some people very angry,” Naville said. “And usually, the boomerang comes back.”

What Hummler said is over the top, but it’s not a crime. I would like to think that federal prosecutors have better ways to prioritize their time than prosecuting people who piss them off.

Inappropriate At Work

I’m taking my employer’s mandatory security training course, and I just ran across this paragraph:

The World Wide Web is a powerful tool for such tasks as research, communication, marketing and more. It provides access to more information than we could read in our lifetimes. Unfortunately, it has also become inundated with sites that are completely inappropriate for our work environment.

True, but that’s not an unfortunate thing about the Web. It’s an unfortunate thing about being at work.

in Career