Archive for the ‘humour’ Category

Philosopher’s Guild

What? There’s a Philosophers’ Guild? And it has rules about not using something called data? Watch out, experimental philosophers, if you want to keep your knee-caps.

I wonder what other rules it might have…

  • “The first rule of Philosophers’ Guild is – you do not talk about Philosophers’ Guild.”

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From The Onion, via Omni Brain, we have the fictional tale of a court that can only say ‘it depends’.

Isn’t it great how they injected some philosophy of punishment into the story?

The case, which challenged the extent to which the Eighth Amendment permits the execution of a mentally ill death row inmate who has a factual awareness of the reason for his punishment but does not comprehend its retributive nature, was described in Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion as being “way too tough to call.”

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Henry at Crooked Timber has a post called The Political Economy of Bibliographies in which he asks the sensible question: why do social science publications have different house styles for citations?

It’s a good question, but I’m going to focus on something else he says, because it gives me the opportunity to do something unusual – make a radical suggestion.

He says,

[L]awyers likely do have good reason to have those long confusing footnotes bristling with references.

No, they don’t.

They are just participating in bad habits of misdirected scholarship.

The problem is an artifact of overwrought legal scholarship where breadth of research materials replaces depth of cogent analysis. I blame authors’ overactive sense of precedent, and student law review editors who are forced to ignore poor writing skills. The result: papers devoting more page space to citations than to the authors’ own ideas.

Perhaps this could be changed by an annual award for the law review article with the fewest footnotes?

While it can be useful to a researcher when an article they read has a citation for every statement, that’s only the case if the notes are of good quality. Most are not.

Footnotes tend fall into five groups:

  1. Trigger citations, which appear early in the paper and link readers to essential texts that have provoked the article.
  2. Plagiarism avoidance, identifying the origin of quoted and paraphrased material.
  3. Exploratory notes, where the author has license to make tangential comments on the topic or literature.
  4. Padding pointers to sentences written by someone else saying exactly the same thing, usually in no greater depth than that of the citing paper. This may be an over-cautious defense against plagiarism, in which case their prominence tells me legal scholars are mostly recycling other academics’ ideas, stringing together statements that may as well be cut and pasted from journals and reports.

The first and second are essential, the third is disposable, and the last is noxious clutter.

In a different context, judges have good reason to not like the footnotes that appear in lawyers’ facta. The lawyers cite things that don’t count as usable precedent, or reference well-known cases that are easy to find.

The formatting of legal citation is similarly distraught, and that’s where my radical suggestion comes in.

Journals should get rid of uniform citation style guides, apply a Principle of Parsimonious Citation, and use open access to get the job done.

Whew. That wasn’t easy to say, and goes against deeply entrenched editorial instincts. But it comes from realizations that don’t beggar common sense, and is an argument to trim citations to their bare essentials:

  1. Just give useful information. Readers just need a simple set of information that allows them to find a reference. Anything else is noise.
  2. Completeness is overrated. Thanks to search technologies, we usually don’t need full citations to track down a reference. Even the simplest citations return unambiguous search results. When a Google search won’t get you the information via the journal’s home page, commercial databases will serve it up without much fuss even if you only know the title of the article. So, in most instances all you need is a variant of: [Author’s name; Title of document; Date of authorship]. Toss in a localizer to identify paragraph, page, or section and the reader has everything they need.
  3. Open access does it better. It gets rid of the need for uniform styles, and makes documents easier to find with less information. It also propels online referencing: why bother with ordering and punctuating defunct volume and issue numbers when a digital object identifier (DOI) will do the job?
  4. Citations demand no syntax. Formats are mostly arbitrary. So as long as citations are consistently styled within a document and don’t confuse the reader, don’t fuss over it.

I don’t expect people to agree with this, especially in a traditional field like the law. Instead, I’d expect complaints to the effect that courts need authoritative citation styles, and that this sets the default standard for legal scholarship.

Not so. Even if there is a trickle-down effect, courts using neutral citations don’t need authoritative style guides to locate publications. Judge’s law clerks can probably find information using standard research tools better than anyone else.

Worries about the ‘officiality’ of the law are just public relations laden with bad metaphysics. It ignores how citations function: footnotes are just about flagging sources of interest and finding them, nothing more.

If we are going to use a uniform standard of citation – either to avoid styles that don’t look pretty, or to guide authors who can’t be trusted to think about this for themselves – it should do four things:

  1. Use neutral citations that identify cases without referencing print reporters.
  2. Be short and intuitive, because there is no reason it should take 208 pages and multiple lectures in a first year law course to master this.
  3. Be fluid, to accommodate a wide variety of documents – and the legacy of proprietary or hard-to-find print volumes.
  4. Be open access, because there is no reason to lock citation recommendations within a book.

While we are at it, why not use the styleguide to improve the habits of legal scholars? Prior to press, tag footnotes with metadata along the lines of ‘Essential reading’, ‘See, no plagiarism’, or ‘Just padding’.


In Canada, it is normal to follow the McGill guide, but LEXUM and CANLII are spurring movement towards more universal standards of citation – see the Canadian Citation Committee.

In the US, judges use either the Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation or the ALWD Citation Manual. Their differences are documented at:

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One measure of a leader is the people who champion them. This being the case, I’m directing a twinge of annoyance at the public face of Ron Paul, whose small base of support has hijacked the Internet. Well, online polls, Wikipedia, and the blogosphere as measured by Technorati, at any rate.

It’s novel enough that mainstream media are taking notice, but it just reminds me of how Scientologists bought up L. Ron Hubbard’s books to propel them to the top of best-seller lists.

Not being a voter in the US, it’s hard to stir up enough motivation to comment on this beyond the modest recommendation for the following neologism:

  • Ron Paul Effect: (n) When your supporters’ tactics to subvert a public forum turn the public against you.

Hat tip to Freakonomics, which has a good slap-down of the political spam that ended up in their inbox.

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Quick question: Is colour in your head or on the computer screen?

If you aren’t a philosopher, your first response might be, ‘Does it really matter?’ In this case, it does. A class action lawsuit depends on it.

In the suit the question becomes: is Apple misrepresenting their MacBook and MacBook Pro if they advertise displays capable of millions of colours, when they are really just selling displays that allow the perception of millions of colours?

The plaintiffs in this class action lawsuit, Fred Greaves and Dave Gatley, complain in their filing:

The reality is that notwithstanding Apple’s misrepresentations and suggestions that its MacBook and MacBook Pro display “millions of colors,” the displays are only capable of displaying the illusion of millions of colors through the use of a software technique referred to as “dithering,” which causes nearby pixels on the display to use slightly varying shades of colors that trick the human eye into perceiving the desired color even though it is not truly that color.

There is a rich literature on the philosophy of colour. Somehow, I doubt any of it will be used in court.

The blogosphere’s Cult of Mac is ripe with commentary. Hat-tip to Ars Technica via Apple 2.0 via Slashdot. See also Engadget and Apple Insider.

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