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August 18, 2009

RecapTheLaw.org

RecapTheLaw.org has a Firefox extension that both gives access to public docket records and makes them actually publicly accessible. The courts charge for access to these dockets, including every time you search and for every page of search results. The system is called PACER. RECAP gives you access to PACER (and is PACER spelled backwards). When you use RECAP to view a docket through PACER, RECAP uploads it into the Internet Archive, since the docket info is in the public domain even though the courts charge you for accessing it. The next time someone goes through RECAP to find that docket, she’ll get it for free from the Internet Archive. RECAP also adds helpful headers and other metadata.

RecapTheLaw comes out of the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. Well done!

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July 19, 2009

Transparency is the new objectivity

A friend asked me to post an explanation of what I meant when I said at PDF09 that “transparency is the new objectivity.” First, I apologize for the cliché of “x is the new y.” Second, what I meant is that transparency is now fulfilling some of objectivity’s old role in the ecology of knowledge.

Outside of the realm of science, objectivity is discredited these days as anything but an aspiration, and even that aspiration is looking pretty sketchy. The problem with objectivity is that it tries to show what the world looks like from no particular point of view, which is like wondering what something looks like in the dark. Nevertheless, objectivity — even as an unattainable goal — served an important role in how we came to trust information, and in the economics of newspapers in the modern age.

You can see this in newspapers’ early push-back against blogging. We were told that bloggers have agendas, whereas journalists give us objective information. Of course, if you don’t think objectivity is possible, then you think that the claim of objectivity is actually hiding the biases that inevitably are there. That’s what I meant when, during a bloggers press conference at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, I asked Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Walter Mears whom he was supporting for president. He replied (paraphrasing!), “If I tell you, how can you trust what I write?,” to which I replied that if he doesn’t tell us, how can we trust what he blogs?

So, that’s one sense in which transparency is the new objectivity. What we used to believe because we thought the author was objective we now believe because we can see through the author’s writings to the sources and values that brought her to that position. Transparency gives the reader information by which she can undo some of the unintended effects of the ever-present biases. Transparency brings us to reliability the way objectivity used to.

This change is, well, epochal.

Objectivity used be presented as a stopping point for belief: If the source is objective and well-informed, you have sufficient reason to believe. The objectivity of the reporter is a stopping point for reader’s inquiry. That was part of high-end newspapers’ claimed value: You can’t believe what you read in a slanted tabloid, but our news is objective, so your inquiry can come to rest here. Credentialing systems had the same basic rhythm: You can stop your quest once you come to a credentialed authority who says, “I got this. You can believe it.” End of story.

We thought that that was how knowledge works, but it turns out that it’s really just how paper works. Transparency prospers in a linked medium, for you can literally see the connections between the final draft’s claims and the ideas that informed it. Paper, on the other hand, sucks at links. You can look up the footnote, but that’s an expensive, time-consuming activity more likely to result in failure than success. So, during the Age of Paper, we got used to the idea that authority comes in the form of a stop sign: You’ve reached a source whose reliability requires no further inquiry.

In the Age of Links, we still use credentials and rely on authorities. Those are indispensible ways of scaling knowledge, that is, letting us know more than any one of us could authenticate on our own. But, increasingly, credentials and authority work best for vouchsafing commoditized knowledge, the stuff that’s settled and not worth arguing about. At the edges of knowledge — in the analysis and contextualization that journalists nowadays tell us is their real value — we want, need, can have, and expect transparency. Transparency puts within the report itself a way for us to see what assumptions and values may have shaped it, and lets us see the arguments that the report resolved one way and not another. Transparency — the embedded ability to see through the published draft — often gives us more reason to believe a report than the claim of objectivity did.

In fact, transparency subsumes objectivity. Anyone who claims objectivity should be willing to back that assertion up by letting us look at sources, disagreements, and the personal assumptions and values supposedly bracketed out of the report.

Objectivity without transparency increasingly will look like arrogance. And then foolishness. Why should we trust what one person — with the best of intentions — insists is true when we instead could have a web of evidence, ideas, and argument?

In short: Objectivity is a trust mechanism you rely on when your medium can’t do links. Now our medium can. [Tags: ]

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July 15, 2009

Senator, would you be ok with an all-white Court? Really?

The relevant paragraphs from Sonia Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” speech:

Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, a possibility I abhor less or discount less than my colleague Judge Cedarbaum, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging. Justice O’Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases. I am not so sure Justice O’Connor is the author of that line since Professor Resnik attributes that line to Supreme Court Justice Coyle. I am also not so sure that I agree with the statement. First, as Professor Martha Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.

Let us not forget that wise men like Oliver Wendell Holmes and Justice Cardozo voted on cases which upheld both sex and race discrimination in our society. Until 1972, no Supreme Court case ever upheld the claim of a woman in a gender discrimination case. I, like Professor Carter, believe that we should not be so myopic as to believe that others of different experiences or backgrounds are incapable of understanding the values and needs of people from a different group. Many are so capable. As Judge Cedarbaum pointed out to me, nine white men on the Supreme Court in the past have done so on many occasions and on many issues including Brown.

However, to understand takes time and effort, something that not all people are willing to give. For others, their experiences limit their ability to understand the experiences of others. Other simply do not care. Hence, one must accept the proposition that a difference there will be by the presence of women and people of color on the bench. Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see. My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage.

Sotomayor is saying something designed to inspire those against whom expectations have run: In American culture, the image of a wise judge generally is that of an old white man. Sotomayor is asking her audience to embrace a different image. In fact, she says, the very life experiences that traditionally have worked to disempower people make one wiser than those who haven’t had those experiences. The unfortunate implication of Sotomayor’s rhetoric (or, at least the inference taken by some white male Senators) is that race is the differentiator, not the experiences…an inference that does not survive reading the rest of the passage. Clearly, Sotomayor is saying exactly what all Americans are taught: We are a melting pot made stronger by the diversity of our culture.

So, here’s what I’d ask the Republican Senators who are questioning her about that line in her speech:

Senator, would you be ok with an all white, all male Court?

That is, if all else were equal, Senator, would you prefer to have a Supreme Court made up of nine white men from similar backgrounds, or a Court that includes men and women, people of various hues, and people from a variety of backgrounds?

If you’re ok, Senator, with a lily-white, male Court, you may sit down. Thank you.

If, however, you think we are better now for having some diversity among our Justices, then don’t you agree that “a difference there will be by the presence of women and people of color on the bench”? Don’t you agree that diversity strengths the Court — makes it wiser — because it brings different points of view to bear? So, Senator, you agree that one’s background affects one’s judgment, and that we are better off having multiple life-experiences represented on the Court.

So, Senator, don’t you think it’s a great for the Court to have, say, a wise Latina woman in the discussions? Me, too!

In creating a Supreme Court rather than one Supreme Justice, our founders recognized that wisdom is more reliably a property of a system than of an individual. Wisdom is most likely to emerge from a network that embraces diversity.

Especially a diversity of people who are empathetic. But that’s another issue… [Tags: ]

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July 1, 2009

Crowd-sourcing photos

Steve Myers at Poynter has a good story about NPR’s crowd-sourcing Dollar Politics project. One element of it was a request for help identifying 200 people who attended a Senate hearing, some percentage of whom were lobbyists.

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June 30, 2009

[pdf09] Sunlight Foundation announcement

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Ellen Miller, founder of The Sunlight Foundation, says that after this morning’s sessions at PDF (Vivek Kundra’s announcement, Beth Noveck) “We feel pretty good.”

Sunlight Labs has a staff of 14 and a community of about a thousand. Clay Johnson talks the problem that the government data isn’t always in computable form. Now there’s TransparencyCorps.org, a task queuing service for people who want to help. It’s beginning with three tasks: Earmark reading task, photo uploading task, and find the twitter accounts of your local reps task. E.g., the earmarks are in PDF files which are not easily computer-processible. E.g., “Wal-Mart” may be expressed as “walmart,” Wal Mart,” etc. You get points for doing tasks to level up. Highest level: Transparency Overlord.

TransparencyCorps is open source so you can run your own on your own site. “We ask you not to call it TransparencyCorps because that would be a jerk thing to do.” :)

David Moore with OpenCongress.org announces a complete redesign. “We’re building a social network of actions around Congress.” “Users tracking this bill are also tracking…”

Q: [tim carr of FreePress] Can orgs like mine plug into these?
A: Yes. At OpenCongress, you can use the social info, and you can get at the data via API.

Q: How about for state govt’s?
Clay: We’re working on it. 18-24 months, maybe.

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June 29, 2009

[pdf09] ChallengePost.com

At Personal Democracy Forum, ChallengePost.com announces itself as a “marketplace for challenges” of theX Prize sort. You can create a challenge at their site, or create a “wish” by using #cpost at Twitter.

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May 24, 2009

Data.gov – Symbolic of what’s right with the Obama administration

Wired.com reports that Data.gov has opened to “mixed reviews.” Puhlease. It’s nowhere near what it will be, but OH MY TOASTY GOD, our government is now committed to making public data available in open formats to anyone who wants it. As if it were normal! As if it were obviously the right thing to do! In open formats, people!

So, sure, let’s keep an eye on it. Let’s make sure the news permeates every government department. But first let’s swoon in delight.

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May 21, 2009

Wired.com vs. Wired.mag, out loud

There’s a really interesting discussion going on at BoingBoing gadgets about the relationship between Wired Magazine and Wired.com. Chris Anderson, the editor of the mag, who turned it off its path of Rich Nerd Fetishism, and has made it interesting and important again, is diving in. It’s great to see this sort of discussion done in public.

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May 17, 2009

WolframAlpha’s big problem

After a day of poking at the awesome WolframAlpha and watching some of the reactions around the Web, a major problem has emerged. WA is fantastic if it has what you’re looking for. But if it doesn’t, it looks like it’s failed, as in: “What? It can’t tell me how much energy it would take to move Henry VIII one kilometer, expressed in cheeseburger-calories? What a piece of crap!”

Google doesn’t have this problem. If you get no hits, it’s almost always because you’ve so egregiously mistyped something that no one else on the planet has ever posted anything with that same typo. Or, it’s because you’ve put an odd phrase in quotes, which requires taking the special action of, well, putting things in quotes. Almost always, Google succeeds at what it does (find pages that contain particular text), even when it fails at doing what you want (find a particular answer).

WolframAlpha, on the other hand, is like a roomful of idiot savants. Each knows a scary amount about a topic. And, unlike a such a roomful, WA also knows how to recombine and compute what each of the savants knows. But if the room doesn’t have the savant you’re looking for, you get back nothing but a “Huh?”

The eclecticism of WolframAlpha is its selling point. But the delight that it knows things you would never have guessed at means that you can have trouble guessing what it knows about. The question is whether general users will go back enough times to be trained on the sorts of questions it can answer. If not, WA will remain an awesome tool for specialists but will not become the broad, general-purpose tool it wants to be.

It would, however, be a completely awesome addition to Google…a path I suspect Stephen Wolfram does not want to take.

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May 11, 2009

Smart and secure grids and militaries

The Wired.com piece I wrote about Robin Chase prompted Andrew Bochman to send me an email. Andy is an MIT and DC energy tech guy (and, it turns out, a neighbor) who writes two blogs: The Smart Grid Security Blog and the DoD Energy Blog. Neither of these topics would make it into my extended profile under “Interests,” but I found myself sucked into them (confirming my rule of thumb that everything is interesting if look at in sufficient detail). So many things in the world to care about!

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