We All Need Some Light

The other day at work I was doing some research at a different end of the West Virginia Code that normal and came across a provision that made absolutely no sense to me. It’s WV Code §2-1-2, titled “Ancient Lights” for those playing at home:

The common law of England in regard to ancient lights is not in force in this state.

The background for this is that the prior section (WV Code §2-1-1) adopts English common law “except as altered by the general assembly of Virginia” before June 20, 1863. In other words, we adopted Virginia’s law as is when we left the commonwealth during the Civil War. But apparently it was important to exclude from that this law on “ancient lights.” So what are we missing here in the Mountain State?

Turns out it’s a right to light! In some places, at least. Specifically, it’s a kind of easement, which is a property interest that someone has in someone else’s property – think of someone who has the legal right to use a path across their next door neighbor’s property. In England, if a person has a building with windows that for 20 years have received daylight they can prevent someone else from building in a way as to obstruct the light.

Thus, you have things like this on some old English buildings:

Ancient_lights_signs_Clerkenwell FULL

Pic by Mike Newman via Wikimedia Commons

As it happens, West Virginia isn’t alone in not adopting this doctrine, so very few Americans actually have an enforceable right to light. Which is a shame, since, as the song says, we all need some light.

New Technology = Moral Panic

I’m reading Tom Perrotta’s new book Mrs. Fletcher, which is about a single mother navigating the modern world on her own once her brotastic son leaves for college. At one point she flashes back to a talk given to the local PTA addressing the then latest and greatest moral panic – Internet porn. It was delivered by a prosecutor, naturally, since history shows that the best reaction to any panic is to lock people in cages.

The panic over Internet porn is hardly the first situation where an emerging technology leads some people to think said tech is going to lead the world to hell in a hand basket. In fact, it’s a fairly predictable pattern that’s played out many times throughout history.

Slate has an article about the moral panic that surrounded the great technological breakthrough of . . . cheap paper.

Although the printing press had brought reading out of the monasteries and upper classes, the actual production of books didn’t ramp up all that much because of the lack of quality paper. People lower down the socio-economic ladder didn’t own books, they owned a book – usually a Bible.

That started to change in the 19th century:

The paper machine, invented in France in 1799 at the Didot family’s paper mill, could make 40 times as much paper per day as the traditional method, which involved pounding rags into pulp by hand using a mortar and pestle. By 1825, 50 percent of England’s paper supply was produced by machines. As the stock of rags for papermaking grew smaller and smaller, papermakers began experimenting with other materials such as grass, silk, asparagus, manure, stone, and even hornets’ nests. In 1800, the Marquess of Salisbury gifted to King George III a book printed on ‘the first useful Paper manufactured solely from Straw’ to demonstrate the viability of the material as an alternative for rags, which were already in ‘extraordinary scarcit’ in Europe.

Then, in the 1860s, came the real breakthrough – paper made from wood pulp. Upwards of 90% of modern paper is made from wood pulp or recycled pulp. This cheaper, more readily available paper led to the explosion of low-cost books for the masses. That’s why it’s called “pulp fiction.”

You know, things like this:



And it was of the Devil:

Detractors delighted in linking ‘the volatile matter’ of wood-pulp paper with the ‘volatile minds’ of pulp readers. Londoner W. Coldwell wrote a three-part diatribe, ‘On Reading,’ lamenting that ‘the noble art of printing’ should be ‘pressed into this ignoble service.’ Samuel Taylor Coleridge mourned how books, once revered as ‘religious oracles … degraded into culprits’ as they became more widely available.

By the end of the century there was growing concern—especially among middle class parents—that these cheap, plentiful books were seducing children into a life of crime and violence.

* * *

Moralizers painted the books as no better than ‘printed poison,’ with headlines warning readers that Pomeroy’s brutality was ‘what came of reading dime novels.’ Others hoped that by providing alternatives—penny delightfuls or ‘penny populars’—they could curb the demand for the sensational literature. A letter to the editor to the Worcester Talisman from the late 1820s tells young people to stop reading novels and read books of substance: ‘[F]ar better were it for a person to confine himself to the plain sober facts recorded in history and the lives of eminent individuals, than to wander through the flowery pages of fiction.’

It’s easy now to look back at such panics and roll your eyes and the naive concern about cheap books or television or whatever kind of music kids are listening to at the time. But history, as they say, repeats itself. Rather than being smug in our modern superiority, maybe think twice the next time some panic is sweeping the nation. Try not to give future generations something to roll their eyes about.


Who Is Making These New Brown Cows?

It was big news this week that 7 percent of Americans think chocolate milk comes from brown cows. However, as Ilya Somin points out over at The Volokh Conspiracy, 7% really isn’t that bad. All surveys suffer from communication issues – people don’t understand the question, people fuck with the pollster, etc. – which is why they all have margins of error. Besides, check out the other dumb shit many more Americans believe:

Sadly, there are numerous far worse examples of public ignorance out there, including many about far more consequential issues. The 7 percent figure pales in comparison with the 25 percent who don’t know the earth orbits the sun, the 66 percent who can’t name the three branches of government, and – my personal favorite – the 80 percent who support mandatory labeling of food containing DNA. I cover these examples and many others like them in my book on political ignorance .

I particularly like the one about DNA. But how about these whoppers:

More than twice as many (18%) thought the sun revolved around the Earth (the numbers were similar in Germany and the UK)

Way more than that (42%) believe God created humans as they are today and the Earth is only around 10,000 years old – we’re not talking about “Genesis as metaphor” here, this is hard-core young-earth creationism.

Somin’s take on all this (as it is with so many things) is that people are rationally ignorant about them because either they don’t really matter (who cares where chocolate milk comes from so long as it keeps showing up on store shelves?) or there’s nothing to be gained from acting on them (one vote is a piss in a stiff wind, so why bother taking time to educate yourself before casting it?). I think there’s another possibility – that however far we think we progress as a species, we really haven’t improved all that much. As Frank Zappa said, we are “dumb all over, and maybe even a little ugly on the side).


Apologies also to Zappa for riffing on a line from this for the title.

Scraping the Bottom of the Bucket(head)

One of my favorite Monty Python sketches – a “deep track,” if you will – is one where the whole crew (even Neil Innes) engage in suitably breathless election result reporting. Along the way we learn the fates of the Sensible party, the Silly party, and, eventually, the Very Silly party:

I’ve always assumed that was just satire about the pointlessness of politics. Little did I know that this was closer to a situation of art imitating life than I could imagine.

In the wake of the recent British elections, Christa over at Lawyers, Guns & Money tells us the tale of Lord Buckethead, occasional candidate for parliament. Lord Buckethead comes from a low-rent rip off of Star Wars and looks about like you’d expect a generic Darth Vader with a bucket on his head to look like. Freed from the service of that second-rate narrative, Lord Buckethead has run for Parliament three times since 1987 – all against Tory Prime Ministers.

Now, you might be thinking that even in the United States we have our share of nutty candidates who file papers. What’s different is that in this country we make sure nobody actually sees them during the process. By contrast, in the UK, Lord Buckethead (and whoever the Very Silly party is running) get to be on stage with the “real” candidates when the results are announced. As a result, things like this happen:

How would Lord Buckethead fare in American politics? Hard to say, but he’d at least have to find a different name. We’ve already got a strange guy with a bucket on his head – and he’ll shred all over that stove-pipe motherfucker’s ass:

Three Laws to Rule Them All!

If you’re any kind of science fiction fan, you’re familiar with Isaac Asimov. He didn’t come up with the concept of robots, but a lot of what we picture when we think about robots in fiction (and otherwise) flows from his stories and novels about robots.

Among his contributions are the Three Laws of Robotics. They debuted in a 1942 story called “Runaround” and go like this:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2 A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

The Three Laws were a response to the hoary trope (even in 1942!) of robots run amok, turning on their masters. In other words, turning into Bender:


If you’re already programming them, why not program them not to kill you? Seems sensible.

Which is why, perhaps, one of my local legislators is appropriating Asimov’s Three Laws for West Virginia’s. Feast your eyes on House Bill 2881, introduced last week. It would amend “the Code of West Virginia, 1931” – dig our retro legal code! – by inserting language addressing legal requirements for a “robot” or “autonomous vehicle.” Anything look familiar?

§15-14-3. Minimum safety standards for robotic technology.

(a) A robot may not be enabled, by design or human command, to injure a human being.

(b) A robot shall be designed to obey the orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with subsection (a).

(c) A robot shall be designed to protect its own existence so long as such protection does not conflict with subsection (a) or subsection (b).

All right, it doesn’t track Asimov’s Three Laws word for word, but it’s pretty damned close. Frankly, given the dumb stuff our legislature tends to come up with, cribbing a law about robots from Asimov seems pretty astute, not to mention slightly ahead of the curve. It’s not like you can just throw the three together – you got to get the order right:


What’s funny – or disturbing – is that Asimov himself wrote a short story about autonomous cars. It doesn’t end well. They may not take well to the Three Laws.

Maybe we should think about this a bit.

Hear Those Tiny Auto Horns

Sometimes a headline skips across your screen and you just have to see if the article really lives up to it. Take this one, from CNet a few weeks ago:

Moths take tiny cars out for a spin

You have my attention.

Turns out, scientists have gotten silkmoths to drive tiny cars in search of mates using pheromones:

The methodology taps into how moths sense the world around them: the sensitive scent receptors on their antennae. The researchers placed a target scented with female silkworm moth pheromones, then observed the tethered male moths driving the car toward that target.

How does a moth drive a car with no hands? With an air-supported trackball, much like a mouse trackball. As the moth crawls around on the ball toward the scented target, optical sensors track the ball’s movement and translate that into steering, moving the car in the same direction.

The end game is a better understanding of the ability of insects to detect scents. That could, in theory, lead to a future where the bomb-sniffing dog or cadaver dog is replaced by a drone or robot guided by insect senses.

But the real question that needs immediate follow up is this – when these moths are out cruising for chicks, are they cranking side one of Led Zeppelin IV?

You Want Choices? You Got Choices!

The further we trudge down the path toward the presidential election, the sicker just about all of us are getting of the major candidates left in the race. Thankfully, there are so many more to burn through! Ed Brayton has surveyed some of the 1669 (you read that right) people who have filed to run for president and it is, let me tell you, an interesting bunch. Here’s a taste:

If you’re feeling a bit weird, you could try Sir TrippyCup aka Young Trippz aka The GOAT aka The Prophet aka Earl, if you’re not into the whole, ya know, brevity thing. And if you’re into the whole medieval fantasy thing, you could vote for Actual Literal Dragon. President Frederickson Asshat Kazoo does kind of roll of the tongue, doesn’t it?

There are lots of religious figures running. Jesus Christ himself is taking a shot at it. I can’t wait for the debate between him and The Antichrist. That just has to be moderated by Glenn Beck. And if you’re tired of voting for the lesser of two evils, you might cast your vote for Dr. Ourlordandsavior Cthulu (I can’t imagine how he found time to go to medical school with his busy schedule of devouring souls). I suspect Lesale Venomancer Deathbringer is just trying to get a cabinet position as Secretary of Defense. And for all the Satanists on your shopping list, there’s always Mrs. Luci Fer. She’s apparently running against her husband, His Royal Majesty Satan, Lord of the Underworld, Prince of Darkness. I doubt that guy will do anything about global warming. But I’m sure Abraham Israel will sacrifice whatever it takes to get the job done.

Every name has a link to the actual FEC filing for that candidate – he’s not making these up! Hell, I’m surprised these guys aren’t listed yet:


Those are candidates I could get behind!


All Vocabulary Is Good Vocabulary

There’s no point in lying – I’m fond of profanity. I don’t trot it out all the time (I’ve managed to never let expletives fly in a legal brief, for instance), but I don’t lock it away as something evil, wicked, or never to be said. It creeps into my writing sometimes (much to the consternation of my mother-in-law – but she came around!).

More than anything else, I’ve always thought that deciding not to use certain words because they were “bad” is just silly. I take the position Henry Drummond, the William Jennings Bryant doppelganger in Inherit the Wind, does:

I don’t swear just for the hell of it. Language is a poor enough means of communication. I think we should use all the words we’ve got. Besides, there are damn few words that anybody understands.

Sometimes “fuck” really does say it all in a way that something more elevated just can’t. It always aggravates me when courts bowdlerize cursing in opinions if they’re quoting something a defendant said – if it’s important enough to report, it’s important enough to report accurately!

But what really drives me nuts is the superiority that those who forgo cursing wield over the rest of us, particularly the argument that cursing is a sign of a limited vocabulary. The implication, of course, is that we’re just simple minded beasts, not refined human beings.

Turns out that might be complete fucking bullshit!

A bigger vocabulary is a bigger vocabulary — no matter whether you are quoting Shakespeare or cursing like a sailor.

This is the takeaway from a study recently published in the journal Language Sciences, which finds that fluency in ‘taboo words’ is correlated with having a larger vocabulary in general.

As the article points out, this goes against common sense (which, in my experience, is mostly wrong anyway) and some prior research, but it seems solid:

These findings suggest the idea that ‘fluency is fluency,’ as the researchers write. People who could recall a lot of bad words also tended to be more eloquent in general. In other words, swearing is not necessarily a sign that a person has a limited vocabulary or can’t think of anything better to say.

Some other interesting findings include that the amount of cursing isn’t linked to how religious people are and that the foul-mouthed tend to be more neurotic and less agreeable, but also more open to new experiences. In other words:

swearing is mostly a vehicle for expressing strong emotion – anger, frustration, derogation, surprise and elation — among people who care less about who they might offend. Cursing is an intense, succinct and powerful way of expressing yourself, even if some people find it unpleasant.

Fuckin’ A. Couldn’t have said it better myself.


Technology Changes, Human Desire Doesn’t

I’ve said before that the War on (Some People’s) Drugs is destined to be a failure because it is, at bottom, a war on human desire. People will always look for ways to feel better, to escape the horror/dreariness/boredom of their daily lives, or to just slip away for a little while. Why else do we, as a species, keep coming up with ways to mess with our brains? See my current favorite example, the prevalence of “ether frolics” in the late 19th Century.

The same is true when it comes to technology, but in reverse. Almost anytime people freak out about how some new technological development is going to send the world straight to hell in a hand basket, chances are they’re not being very original. The same complaints have happened before when technology we now don’t give a second thought about was new and perceived as dangerous.

Amanda Hess at Slate has a good example of how, regardless of technological means, human desire is fairly constant. Riffing on a series of think pieces about the evils of Tinder, the hookup app, she goes back more than 150 years to a similar piece about the evils of a then-new technology – the private post office box:

In 1860s Manhattan, young men and women in search of some excitement could duck into a little stationery shop uptown, open the unmarked notebook on the counter, and scribble a message to all the other strangers who were in on the secret.

* * *

Beneath each note, the author had scribbled the address of the nearest post office. Now any man who found himself smitten with the writing of Blanche G. or Annie B. could send the girl a private note to the post office, where her father couldn’t intercept it.

Think of it as Tinder for the pre-steampunk crowd!

A man named George Elliot was having nothing of it. In a book called The Women of New York (which sounds like an app in and of itself) he wrote, as Hess explains:

This postal personal-ad operation, Ellington sneered, could only appeal to ‘a certain class of people of the metropolis—more particularly the classes known as the demi-monde, the fast men and the women who are inclined to a rapid life.’ Ellington hardly deemed these men worth mentioning, but he filled a 650-page volume with opinions on the women he believed were destroying the moral fiber of society with their whoring. Though these women ‘outwardly appear to enjoy their various midnight revelries,’ Ellington diagnosed their private condition as ‘blasé and tired of everything.’

The point is not to laugh at Elliot’s ridiculous notions about the place of women. It’s to recognize that technological moral panic is a recurring theme throughout history. More than likely there were people who thought Guttenberg was going to hell for inventing movable type. Certainly it’s true that similar panics accompanied the early days of the telegraph, telephone, television, and the internet.

Why should mobile apps be any different? And in a few years we’ll find some other technological gizmo upon which to fixate and declare how it, too, shall ruin society just like all its predecessors didn’t.

The Other Side of Jury Nullification

I haven’t talked a lot about law on this blog, but I did at my old one. Here’s a post on jury nullification that I thought I’d bring back in light of this interesting discussion over at The Volokh Conspiracy.

Jury nullification is back in the news, thanks to a heavy handed (and most likely unconstitutional) prosecution in New York.  The local US Attorney has charged a 78-year-old man with jury tampering because:

Since 2009, Mr. Heicklen has stood there and at courthouse entrances elsewhere and handed out pamphlets encouraging jurors to ignore the law if they disagree with it, and to render verdicts based on conscience.

That concept, called jury nullification, is highly controversial, and courts are hostile to it. But federal prosecutors have now taken the unusual step of having Mr. Heicklen indicted on a charge that his distributing of such pamphlets at the courthouse entrance violates a law against jury tampering.

Eugene Volokh does a good job of analysing the First Amendment issues with the prosecution, but I’m more interested in the underlying issue of jury nullification.

Jury nullification really isn’t a thing in and of itself.  It’s more a side effect of the prohibition against double jeopardy in the Fifth Amendment.  When a jury acquits a defendant at trial, that’s the end of it.  The prosecution cannot seek appellate review of the verdict.  By contrast, a defendant can challenged the sufficiency of the evidence on appeal, although (as I’ve explained before) there’s little chance of success.

The upshot of that setup is that a jury can return a not guilty verdict for any reason it wants, from the state’s failure to prove its case to the jury’s disgust at the law being enforced.  Those of the libertarian/people power persuasion see jury nullification as an unfettered good, a way for the people to check the power of the state when it comes to unpopular laws or discriminatory applications of otherwise popular laws.

That’s all fine and dandy, in theory, but it strikes me as naive in practice.  After all, if we tell jurors to “render verdicts based on conscience” there’s no principle that limits it to acquittals.  Judges routinely instruct jurors both to ignore evidence that comes out in court and instructs them about the burden of proof and other legal issues.  If they are free to disregard what the judge says, it could lead to all kinds of problems.

Maybe I’m just cynical, but from my experience it doesn’t look like jurors give the weight they should to the judge’s instructions in most cases. My completely unscientific conclusion is that the presumption of innocence and beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard exist largely on paper at this point, not in the minds of actual jurors.  As a result, we already teeter dangerously close to a criminal justice system that makes convictions of innocent people too easy.  Any program that exacerbates that state of play can’t be altogether good.

Jury nullification has a long and storied history in this country, dating back at least to the libel trial of John Peter Zenger in 1733.  But that was a different era, one in which the basics of the law was much more in the grasp of potential jurors.  In the modern era, I’m not so sure that telling jurors they can and should go rouge won’t lead to more harm than good.  At the very least, it’s a problem that jury nullification advocates need to face head on.

And they’ll have to do better than some of the commentators to this article about the case over at Reason.  Asked to distinguish between jurors who acquit because they view the law as unjust and jurors who acquit for less lofty reasons (i.e., an all-white jury acquitting a Klansman who killed a black guy), the best they can do is a variant on the No True Scotsman fallacy – the second example isn’t “really” jury nullification.  Sadly, it produces the same result, so any theoretical distinction is moot.  In any case, further informing jurors that they can do whatever the hell they want would encourage bigotry and bias as much as more principled decisions.

NOTE: This post was originally published on February 28, 2011.