Blown To Bits

Archive for the ‘Miscellaneous’ Category

Automated Autocide

Friday, April 17th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

“Autocide.” I just made that up, to mean “killing an automobile.” (To my classicist friends, I do know that’s a hybrid, Greek root and Latin ending.)

My old Volvo (really my daughter’s — she has no place to park it) has had the “check engine” light on for years. Every time the mechanic has checked it, the word comes back the same: “Can’t find anything. Must be the check-engine circuit itself. We could fix it but that would be a waste of money.” And for years the engine has given us no trouble. The car has a few other kinks — an odd noise or two, the odometer stopped at about 135,000 miles several years ago, and it won’t hold an A/C charge — but it’s been a fine second car which I use only for short trips.

I took it to get its annual inspection today, and the mechanic brought it back with the big R sticker on the windshield. What’s wrong? “Check engine light.” “I know,” I protested. “It’s been on for five years and they always tell me there’s nothing wrong with the engine.” “Can’t help you, buddy,” the mechanic says. “They changed the system. These tests are automated now. The computer detects that the check-engine light is on and flunks the car automatically. That’s all there is to say.”

What is there to say? We are the captives of the machines we create to make us safer.

The only consolation, I guess, is that the mechanic didn’t like that sound in the right wheel-well either, and would have flunked me for that anyway. And that probably really is important.

I hear there are some car bargains these days …

Why Are You Asking, Mr. President?

Saturday, April 4th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

I went to the White House web site to download a copy of the recent financial disclosures of Lawrence Summers, formerly Harvard president and now Chief Economic Advisor to the president of the U.S. (I have a particular interest in Mr. Summers, because I have thought a lot about his Harvard years.) Before they would give it to me, they wanted some information about me: My name, addresses (postal and email), and occupation. They also asked me to affirm that I wouldn’t use the disclosure in a bad way (I paste that question below).

Any idea why this is necessary, given that public disclosures are, by nature, public information? In any case, there is no need to supply that information — DocStoc allows you to download the same document, free and with no questions asked. That’s what I did.


The affirmation required by the White House:

I am aware that pursuant to section 105(c) of the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, as amended and 5 C.F.R. § 2634.603(f) of the implementing OGE regulations, it is unlawful for any person to obtain or use a report:

(1) for any unlawful purpose;
(2) for any commercial purpose, other than by news and communications media for dissemination to the general public;
(3) for determining or establishing the credit rating of any individual; or
(4) for use, directly or indirectly, in the solicitation of money for any political, charitable, or other purpose.

The Attorney General may bring a civil action against any person who obtains or uses a report for any such prohibited purpose as set forth above. The court may assess against such a person a penalty in any amount not to exceed $11,000. Such remedy shall be in addition to any other remedy available under statutory or common law.

Harvard Stops Printing (some) Books

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Harvard announced yesterday that it would no longer print the course catalog, the Handbook for Students, and a few other softcover volumes that are issued annually to students and faculty. The Admissions Office had already announced that it would cut down on the amount of printed matter it sends to high school students. The rationale is for doing less printing is, of course, cost savings — Harvard is undergoing significant budgetary contraction. It’s a bit sad — I have a collection of Harvard course catalogs going back to about 1850. The earliest ones, before Eliot abolished most curricular requirements and instituted the elective curriculum, had the course schedule printed on a single page: Hours of the day across, days of the week down, and four lines in each box, indicating which course would be taken by freshmen, sophomores, etc. at that time on that day of the week. I’m going to add this year’s, which is hundreds of pages long, as the last one in the collection.

If I can find it. I think it’s in the office somewhere, but I’ve never looked at it, since it’s generally easier to use the Web version. And that, of course, is the reason this move makes so much sense. The online catalog is searchable, and it’s also up-to-date — there are always additions and deletions to the list of courses after the catalog goes to print.

Still, books are more browsable than online text. Though user interfaces keep getting improved, there is nothing with the high bandwidth of flipping through the pages of a book, creating the opportunity for the marvelous human visual system to catch a word flashing by. And computers are still awkward to read in bed.

Harvard couldn’t have been considered dropping the printed catalog until the Internet became ubiquitous — or at least ubiquitous on campus. The fact that it’s far from ubiquitous in many parts of America poses a challenge to the electronic outreach efforts of the Admissions Office.

One of my colleagues poses an interesting question. The Registrar has always posed a strict 200-word limit on our course descriptions, to prevent our enormous course catalog from becoming gargantuan. But bits are cheap. If we hold to the 200 word limit, it will be another example of a social restriction we used to justify by economic necessity, but which we sustain because we decide that the discipline is good for us even after technology has gutted the economic justification. There are many other examples in Blown to Bits — for example, the regulation of speech on U.S. broadcast radio and television.

And then there’s the question — will some pack-rat, a century and a half from now, be able to assemble a collection of Harvard course catalogs, to compare and contrast? What confidence can we have that institutions on which we rely to provide online information will keep their archives visible forever?

5 Seconds to Change Your Mind After Pressing “Send”

Thursday, March 26th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Google is offering a five-second delay feature in Gmail, giving you a chance to retract an email. We’ve all had that experience of having our blood run cold when we realize, even while our finger is still on the key, that we sent a message to the wrong person. I generally don’t like restrictive technologies designed to save us from ourselves, but this one sounds like a good idea!

Mistrial by Google

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Jury trials are a carefully managed game of information control. The jurors are screened to try to weed out people who know too much ahead of time. Only certain kinds of information are admissible, and whatever is presented by one side can be challenged by the other. The jurors are supposed to isolate themselves from other sources of information — when they go home to their families at night, they are supposed not to talk about the ongoing events or to try to find our more about them. In extreme cases, when it is just too likely that information will assault them by accident, they may be sequestered.

The digital explosion makes such information quarantine an unnatural condition at best, and perhaps an impossible one. And indeed, the New York Times reports today that jurors are routinely using search engines to find out more about the events they are adjudicating. (As Jurors Turn to Web, Mistrials are Popping Up) In a recent trial, a judge at first hoped that only a single juror had been using Google to check things out — in that case, he could throw the juror off the jury and continue the trial.

But then the judge found that eight other jurors had done the same thing — conducting Google searches on the lawyers and the defendant, looking up news articles about the case, checking definitions on Wikipedia and searching for evidence that had been specifically excluded by the judge. One juror, asked by the judge about the research, said, “Well, I was curious,” according to Mr. Raben.

Mistrial. But the impulse is so easy to imagine. I myself was once on a jury trial in a reckless driving case, in which the defendant was charged with careening down residential streets at high speeds. A crucial piece of evidence was a hubcap coming off as he screeched around a sharp corner. The jury deliberations lasted overnight. Were the trial taking place today, I could use Google Street View after I got home to see what that corner looks like.

Did anyone see this coming? Not the attorneys in the case, apparently.

“We were stunned,” said a defense lawyer, Peter Raben, who was told by the jury that he had been on the verge of winning the case. “It’s the first time modern technology struck us in that fashion, and it hit us right over the head.”

Hit over the head by the force of the digital explosion. One minute you have a stable, reliable social institution that is the descendant of centuries of experience, as good and as fair a system as democratic societies know how to create. A minute later, you have to wonder if it can survive at all, since it is premised on conditions that no longer exist.

Will Computerized Medical Records Save Money?

Thursday, March 12th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

That’s a key claim in President Obama’s health care plan — actually, it was a key claim of John McCain’s plan as well. It doesn’t take any acute powers of observation as a patient to notice the places where data has to be re-entered by a new doctor or hospital, or where important data isn’t available and the patient is asked to report it instead. (I was once asked about the results of a cardiac stress test I had had three years before, of which I had only the vaguest memory.) It’s reasonable to hope that computerized medical records could do for delivery of medical care what, say, computerized parcel records have done for parcel delivery.

But it’s also easy to dream of a perfect world that is unlikely to be reached or to look like the dream once we get there. And that is the bottom line on a good Wall Street Journal column by noted physicians Jerome Groopman and Pamela Hartzband, Obama’s $80 Billion Exaggeration. The $80 billion number, they report, comes from a four-year-old RAND Corporation study with a lot of wishful thinking and not a lot of data. The doctors raise a privacy concern, too — not that the data will be mishandled and leaked, but that the entire enterprise is in part designed as a monitoring program by the federal government.

Some have speculated that the patient data collected by the Obama administration in national electronic health records will be mined for research purposes to assess the cost effectiveness of different treatments. This analysis will then be used to dictate which drugs and devices doctors can provide to their patients in federally funded programs like Medicare. Private insurers often follow the lead of the government in such payments. If this is part of the administration’s agenda, then it needs to be frankly stated as such. And Americans should decide whether they want to participate in such a national experiment only after learning about the nature of the analysis of their records and who will apply the results to their health care.

The suggestion that the government will want to chew on the data to try to figure out what works is unsurprising. But it surely hasn’t been highlighted, and it raises some fundamental questions. What is the data in my medical record going to be used for, how long will the data be kept, and can I be sure it won’t be repurposed?

Jefferson’s Moose at Harvard

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Well, not the moose itself, but the author of the book about it, will be speaking at Harvard this coming Tuesday at 5pm, in Austin Hall. As I blogged earlier, David Post’s book is a wonderful rendition of the ways in which the dilemmas that faced the founding fathers about how to empower the people without having everything decided by mob rule are being revisited because of the Internet. Should be a great talk.

A Metaphor Failure Beaut

Thursday, March 5th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Debit cards are just like cash, right?

So a guy goes into a convenience store in West Virginia, gets a soft drink and waits until the store is empty except for the cashier. Then he tells the cashier he has a gun, and demands that the cashier turn over the money in the cash register.

Then a customer comes in, interrupting the robber’s plan. The cashier tells the hold-up genius to pay for his drink. The guy turns over his debit card, the cashier swipes it and hands the slip to the “gunman” to sign. Being no dope, he protects his identity by signing “John Doe.”

The guy is under arrest. He says it was just a joke.

Fighting Anonymous Libel

Thursday, March 5th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

A few months ago, a physician who attended one of my talks started a correspondence with me about sites in which patients critique doctors. Anonymously, sometimes ungently. And sometimes by making statements that are false and injurious to the doctor’s reputation. That’s the definition of libel. What, I was asked, can be done?

There are, of course, many sites where anonymous garbage gets posted — think or But a site such as¬†¬†– the libel is discrediting a laboriously earned professional credential, in a way that could cost physicians their livelihood.

This is a classic case of the problems of anonymous speech. It should generally not be believed, unless there is some evident reason to think that the speakers could be imprisoned if their identities were known. Otherwise, with no skin in the game, why wouldn’t the speakers identify themselves, except to shield themselves from libel charges? It would seem that their confidence in their speech is very low if they hide themselves.

And yet anonymity has always been protected. Whistleblowers may have all kinds of reasons to want to get the truth out without spending their lives defending what they say. Ben Franklin wrote pseudonymously, even when he was just writing his almanac and had no political ax to grind. And so on. Courts generally are protective of online anonymous speech, and won’t force web site operators to reveal the names of their posters. Laws banning anonymity — though they do get proposed every now and then — would almost certainly be unconstitutional.

Now comes a free-market solution. Medical Justice provides waiver forms that doctors can ask their patients to sign. Sign the form and you agree not to malign the doctor on any web sites. Don’t sign the form and you can perhaps expect to be told that you might prefer to see another doctor. At least the doctor will be armed with a signed release from you if he or she tries to get a site to remove something unkind you’ve said.

Now this is a free-market solution, only if there is real competition in the doctor business. In a rural town with only one doctor, there may not be. In that case, the choice would be waiving your right to criticize the doctor, no matter how incompetent or unmannerly he or she proved to be, and forgoing treatment.

I tend to go with those, like the patient advocate quoted in this story, who find this practice noxious. Though you shouldn’t believe anonymous speech, this way of handling the problem blocks speech indiscriminately, the true along with the false and libelous. One can imagine all kinds of professionals asking clients to waive their rights to speak up. Even though only anonymous speech is at stake, the price seems too high.

But the doctors who use these forms are within their legal rights. So how to fight back? With more speech. is planning to create a “Wall of Shame,” listing doctors who make their patients sign waivers. Whatever you think of the criticism, or libel, of doctors on that site, that’s a fine approach to fight the doctors’ attempt to gag their patients.

The Death of Suspense

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009 by Harry Lewis

On Saturday I spoke at a Harvard Club event in Baltimore. In the audience was Ruth Glick, a romance and suspense novelist whose pen name is Rebecca York. She blogged my talk here. The hilarious part is that she says the cell phone causes her problems as a novelist: she has to keep coming up with excuses for why people can’t get in touch with each other! Makes sense — suspense requires a degree of isolation, and that is no longer a phenomenon of daily life, all the scary Verizon ads about dead spots notwithstanding.