Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Perils of Technology

Last weekend, I had the distinct pleasure of attending this year’s Boston Book Festival. An impressive array of major literary and academic figures participated as panelists in the event, engaging in discussions with each other and taking questions from the audience. One panel—Technology: Promise or Peril—held particular interest for me as a research and emerging technologies librarian.

I was extremely excited to see Nicholas Carr on the Technology panel, as I was very influenced by his wonderful book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, an exploration of how technology can affect us in unintended and unforeseen ways. Alongside Carr were two other distinguished figures in the world of technology: David Rose, an MIT Media Lab Researcher and author of Enchanted Objects, and Andrew McAfee, co-founder MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy.

The Technology: Promise or Peril discussion began on an upbeat note, with David Rose introducing the audience to the idea of “enchanted objects”—devices containing some small amount of artificial intelligence, with their ultimate goal being to simplify our day-to-day interactions with technology. These devices—such as a self-cleaning Roomba vacuum cleaner—are supposed to have a positive effect on our health, housing, and means of transportation. Rose posits that there are six categories of human aspirations that these objects can fall into: omniscience (the desire to know all); telepathy (the desire for human connection); safekeeping (to protect and be protected); immortality (to be vital and healthy); teleportation (to move effortlessly); and, expression (to create, make, and play). Rose also showed us a period table of elements-style chart—pictured below—displaying different kinds of objects across these categories.

While the discussion had a certain appealing whimsy to it, the whole project felt a bit too utopian in its aims. When an audience member asked about the security dangers that a wired household would present, Rose’s treatment of the question was a bit too cursory for my tastes.

Next on the agenda was Andrew McAfee, who made a sharp 180 from Rose’s forward-thinking talk and brought us back to the past for a moment. He reminded us that the technological advancement that began in the late 18th century created a tidal wave of change that continues to affect us today. McAfee made the point that while the first machine age overcame the limitations of man’s physical strength, the second machine age is bringing with it a means to overcome man’s limited senses in the form of computing. He concluded on a somber note, acknowledging that while technological advancement can be good for society, there is no economic law promising that this progress will benefit all equally. For example, he pointed out that not only is the average American family no better off economically today due to technological changes in the last several decades, but the middle class itself has been hallowed out.

It was appropriate then for Nicholas Carr to begin his talk by quipping, “In the future, you won’t have a job, but you’ll have a really cool umbrella”—referencing the cover of Rose’s book on enchanted objects (above), while bringing to mind the economic fallout that can come with major technological change. Carr told us of a study done in the 1950s to investigate whether or not it was true that automation had emancipated the average American worker from drudgery and allowed him or her to operate on a higher, more skilled level. The study, done in the industrial sector, found that the skills of the average worker did not rise at all, but in fact went down. Factory workers had turned from tradesmen into machine operators. The study found that sophisticated equipment didn’t necessarily require skilled operators; intelligence itself could be built into the machine.

Carr pointed out that this assumption persists, that technology will bring our jobs to a higher level, but real-life evidence counters this at every turn. Pilots spend most of their time on autopilot. Doctors are using computers to help with their diagnoses. Even highly educated professionals are being transformed into sophisticated button pushers. Our complex interactions with the world are increasingly being reduced into what Carr called a “homogenized economy of computer operators.” Beyond our professional lives, we are becoming more dependent on computers for our everyday tasks—from hailing taxis, to looking up recipes, to interacting with our friends and families.

Carr finished by arguing that there has always been a general historical struggle with tools, and that we can distill this struggle down to two choices: we can design tools so that they force us to use our talents and engage in more fulfilling work, or we can use technology as a barrier between ourselves and the world and its complexity. His feeling about our current use of technology was obvious enough that he didn’t have to state which choice he thought we were making in the 21st century. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Lawyer’s Almanac 2014

Every once in a while when I’m looking for a topic to blog about I just turn around to my Ready Reference shelves and pick a resource to highlight. In this way I either make a new friend or become reacquainted with an old one. Today I am sharing my discovery of The Lawyer’s Almanac with you.

On the whole, this is a useful resource. It is divided into sections covering the legal profession, the judiciary, government departments and agencies, and the small last section covering commonly used abbreviations.

As an example of potential usefulness, I have been asked about continuing legal education requirements in other jurisdictions, and just discovered that those requirements are listed for every jurisdiction in Section D of the Almanac. That’s useful. The section on the legal profession also reproduces national statistics for bar examination results, including a chart showing bar passage rates by state, for first time takers, over a 10-year period. While it is true that this information is reprinted with permission from the National Conference of Bar Examiners (“NCBE”), and the information on the NCBE website will at certain times of the year be more up-to-date than what’s available in the book, there is something convenient about being able to flip between pages. 

In the judiciary section, I found a complete listing of the judges in a particular circuit, along with contact information. Now, one can probably find that on the circuit’s website, but when I just tried to do it for the Second Circuit, I actually couldn’t come up with a simple list. There’s also a list of salaries for state judges, a list of state supreme court chief justices, and federal litigation statistics. Now, again, these statistics suffer from the same issue expressed above vis-à-vis bar passage rates – at some point in the year the statistics will be more up to date on the website (Administrative Office of the United States Courts, Statistical Tables for the Federal Judiciary), but they are all the same useful to examine in print.

Part III on Government Departments and Agencies has the expected contact information on each agency, with a useful break down between executive and independent agencies but if you want anything more than that, you will still want to use The Federal Regulatory Directory, discussed in an earlier post. The Part IV list of abbreviations appears to be limited to federal agencies, but there is a useful section on abbreviations of state and federal courts using the ALWD style, which I believe mimics The Blue Book in this respect.  

So, as I say, on the whole a useful resource with a few reservations caused by sometimes less than current statistical information.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Digitization: Where Lincoln and the Internet Meet!

Prior to the advent of the internet, digitization, and other modern technological marvels that we today take for granted, there were only two ways to view very old historical documents in the original: you had to be present at the creation, or you had to make a trek to whatever archive had the documents available, set up an appointment, and view the documents in person at the site. Today, we’re fortunate to have a third option: many documents, of varying historical import, are available for online viewing, and often at no cost.

Should you require an historic document for legal research, always remember to check online to see if something is available in digital format before running off to an archive. You may find yourself happily surprised.

For example, I was doing research on Indian tribal law, and discovered that many early laws and treaties were available online in their original form from the Library of Congress:

Since I am sometimes easily put off the research track, I happened to notice that the good people at the Library of Congress have a significant digital collection of documents relevant to our nation’s history, such as: American Indian Constitutions and Legal Materials; John Adams and the Boston Massacre Trial; the Statutes at Large; and, a collection of documents authored by President Lincoln, just to name a few.

Of course, when viewing them online, you miss the sensation of handling the materials, flipping their pages, smelling their mustiness. Until 3D printers can recreate this experience for you at home, you’ll have to settle for these digital alternatives. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Pay Attention to the Extensions!

Recently I needed some information from the FDA and crafted a very sophisticated search for “FDA.” On the first page of results, there was a number of “official” looking websites, such as I immediately realized that this was not the official government site that I was expecting. Instead, the site contained articles and information related to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. This website is owned by Gelinas Associates, an Orlando, Florida based company, and has no affiliation with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. However, this is not readily apparent unless you scroll down to the Disclaimer.

Similarly, I noticed is a division of GMP Publications, Inc., a private firm and again, not affiliated with the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. In addition to informational links, this site offers numerous government publications for purchase, such as the Code of Federal Regulations, which I remembered is free on several websites.

I wonder how many people take the time to look closely at the extension of a website result before clicking it. Differences among sites may be subtle and easily missed by busy researchers.


One noticeable difference is the advertisements on the .com and .org sites. If someone mistakenly believed he or she was on the official site, it may look like the government endorses or recommends these products.
A few other differences I noticed include the currency of the information provided and lack of any author information. For instance, the .gov site was updated as recently as one day ago, while the .org site has a copyright date of 2010 and the .com site’s copyright date is 2009. Also, without author information the authority and accuracy cannot be verified and may be questionable.  

So what do these different website extensions mean and how do they get assigned? 

The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) maintains a list of all official domain extensions and is in charge of assigning them. 

Here are the most common original extensions created early in the development of the Internet.

.com -- stands for "commercial" and is the most widely used extension. This is categorized as an open extension, meaning any person or entity is allowed to register. Originally intended for use by for-profit business entities, it has become the "main" extension for many entities including nonprofits, schools and private individuals.
.org -- stands for "organization," and is primarily used by nonprofits or trade associations. This is an open extension, similar to .com.
.net -- stands for "network," and is most commonly used by businesses that are directly involved in the infrastructure of the Internet. This is another open extension.
.edu – stands for “education” and is used by educational institutions. This is not an open extension and is almost exclusively used by American colleges and universities.
.gov – stands for “government” and is used by governmental entities and agencies in the U.S. Like .edu, this is not an open extension. 

As the Internet evolves, so do the extensions. Some newer extension that you may not be familiar with include:  
Piqued your interested? Check out these and other extensions on this .net site.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Save Time, Stay Informed: Read BNA Email Highlights

Trying to keep abreast of certain areas of law and stay informed? Why not use a current awareness tool, such as Bloomberg BNA (Bureau of National Affairs).

I think you will find it is a great time saver! Bloomberg BNA offers daily, weekly, or monthly news services on topics that span corporate law, tax, accounting, employment law, environment, health care, intellectual property, litigation, and more. Bloomberg BNA newsletters keep you up-to-date with news and analysis on the most current developments in a particular practice area and are great for staying current for an ongoing research assignment or to ensure as a practitioner that you remain up to date in your field. These products go beyond case law, providing updates on legislative and regulatory developments, and industry trends and developments.

For example, if you follow developments in the area of criminal law, you may be interested in the following highlight from BNA's Criminal Law Reporter issue dated September 24, 2014, Vol. 95, No. 24:
  • Sept. 18 -- The Fourth Amendment does not require that a search warrant for a mobile phone identify the specific components of the phone that the police have authority to search, the Kentucky Supreme Court decided Sept. 18. (Hedgepath v. Commonwealth, 2014 BL 259813, Ky., No. 2013-SC-000343-MR, 9/18/14)
BNA Snapshot
  • Holding: A search warrant doesn't have to particularly describe the features of the mobile

    phone that officers have authority to search.
  • Potential Impact: Takes a position on an issue raised by the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling on digital privacy.
These types of highlights from Bloomberg BNA can be sent directly to your email and keep you informed. Western New England University School of Law students can access BNA by going to the Library's Databases page, and then choosing Bloomberg BNA Databases from the links listed. From that page, a user can select from one of the many different products that focus on specific areas of law. You will then have the option to sign up for email updates for each service in a given area of law. From the initial Bloomberg BNA homepage, you will see "Create an Account Profile" in the upper left of the screen.

Creating an account profile not only allows you to sign up for email updates, but allow you to take advantage of unique features available to personalize your subscription. For each individual BNA database, you will then have the ability to customize what you see each time you access it. By clicking on the "Customize Topics" tab at the top of the page, you can select specific sub-topics, courts, agencies, and states that you wish to see news and analysis from on the home page.

By personalizing your subscription you also will be able to:
  •     Save search history for 90 days
  •     Create folders to save searches, documents, and more
  •     Email a direct link to a colleague with the Share link
Get started on using Bloomberg BNA to keep you up to date!