December 2011

The (scientific) development of common-law precedent

One of the defining characteristics of common law (as opposed to civil law) is the binding nature of precedent, sometimes referred to by its Latin name of stare decisis. But before the seventeenth century, the defining characteristic of English common law was not this one, but rather that common law reflected universal and customary law, and as such the goal was for judges to utilize previous decisions as merely guides to help them get closer to the true (unwritten) laws of England, not as binding in themselves.

Privacy and the silo/filter/echo problem

The push for “privacy” that demands an ability to allow us to restrict who sees what–enabled, for example, by new tools in Facebook and Google+–also creates and reinforces silos (filter bubbles, echo chambers) that prevent our exposure to different ideas. But this move highlights potential conflicts between a number of rights: freedom of association and freedom of speech and the press (both from the First Amendment) and rights to privacy (from the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments). What is this conflict? Is it real? How can we (begin) to resolve it?

December 2011

Daniel Solove’s six general types of privacy

Daniel J. Solove’s 2008 book, Understanding Privacy, attempts to characterize and understand the complex and contradictory modern views and approches to privacy. For Solove, “[p]rivacy concerns and protections do not exist for their own sake; they exist because they have been provoked by particular problems” and it “is protection from a cluster of related problems that impinge upon our activities in related ways.”

December 2011

Narrative, free will, and legal responsibility: reading Cathy Gere reading Michael Gazzaniga

Michael Gazzaniga suggests that his finding that we construct post-hoc narratives potentially undermines the criminal requirement of mens rea (the “guilty mind” element of most crimes): if our actions are in many situations automatic, and our explanations of them–our decision-making moral sense, as it were–only post-hoc, then “‘My brain made me do it’ threatens to become a get-out-of-jail-free card available to everyone, not just to sufferers of fetal alcohol syndrome or schizophrenia.”

Common law originalism: the common law was not so common

One reason to examine the reception of English common law in the American colonies is the reliance by modern originalists (like Antonin Scalia) on the generalized understandings of what the Constitution meant in light of its common-law context. But finding that stability may not be as easy as it might seem, at least in part because jurists of the time were, in many ways, as sophisticated as we are today in arguing with, against, and around precedent–which itself was hardly either stable or fixed.

Privacy as secrecy and privacy as autonomy

The concept of “privacy”–as in “the right to privacy”–can be understood in a number of ways. This multitude of potential meanings and uses is partly why the concept is controversial, confusing, and perhaps even contradictory. Previously I have discussed the difference in perceptions of privacy in the 19th century, where the legal focus seemed to be more on “confidentiality” than what we have come to understand as “privacy” today. That is, the 19th century concern was with maintaining trust relationships between people rather than with protecting either secrecy or autonomy (although that is not to say that these were not valued).

November 2011

On “The Role of Technology in Human Affairs”

In The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, Yochai Benkler discusses his vision of the role of technology in historical change. He rejects an overly deterministic vision of technology (which he connects with Lewis Mumford and Marshall McLuhan), but also rejects a view of technology as immaterial to a society’s direction.

November 2011

WordPress under Nginx and Varnish with W3TC

I decided to switch to a Virtual Private Server (VPS) so that I could have more flexibility and control over my server environment. I selected VM Storm based on a review of “low-end” VPS providers (since this is my personal tinkering platform I don’t need to pay extra for a high-end name). I then added Nginx as my Web server, Varnish as a front-end cache, WordPress for blogging, and W3TC as a WordPress performance enhancer.