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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

The Aftershocks

Gripping tale of the Italian scientists who in 2009 reassured the town of L’Aquila that a major earthquake was “improbable”. A quake followed a week later killing 297. The scientists were tried and convicted of manslaughter (they are now appealing). As Wolman explains, the prosecution was wrong but not absurd. Scientists know that “improbable” things do happen; the inhabitants of L’Aquila thought it meant they were safe (5,360 words)

Ferguson: What’s The Crime?

To obtain a federal civil rights conviction against the police officer who shot Michael Brown, prosecutors would have to prove mens rea — that the officer acted with a “bad purpose or evil motive”. Negligence or recklessness alone would not be enough, and would result in an acquittal. A criminal case under state law for murder or manslaughter would be safer, if prosecutors find a prima facie case (1,124 words)

Gangster’s Guide To Upward Mobility

Discussion of Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City; though the first few paragraphs are about an anthropological study of the American Mafia in the 1960s. The argument here, if I read it correctly, is that careless old-fashioned policing used to give criminal families a chance to go straight; efficient modern policing now traps criminals, and their children, in permanent criminality (5,000 words)

Marijuana: Repeal Prohibition

The US Federal Government should legalise marijuana. The social costs of the marijuana laws are vast and discriminatory; whereas the health problems associated with marijuana are “relatively minor”, especially when compared with those of alcohol and tobacco. National legalisation is necessary, because state-by-state legalisation can still be over-ridden by national enforcement (Metered) (510 words)


Account of America’s rules for adding names to its terrorist database, according to the newly leaked March 2013 Watchlisting Guidance. The basic standard is “reasonable suspicion” on the part of a government official. “Concrete facts are not necessary”. Names can be added on the basis of “uncorroborated” social media posts. Family and “associates” of a suspect can be added without further formality. Dead suspects stay on the list (3,488 words)

Dallas Killers’ Club

Sprawling discussion of books on the John F. Kennedy assassination. In brief: Strong case against Mafia don Carlos Marcello; weaker case against CIA; Oswald the scapegoat, either way. “Ask yourself two questions. If there had been a CIA, but no Mafia, would the president have lived through the motorcade? I think the answer is yes. If there had been a Mafia, but no CIA, would the president have lived? I think the answer is no” (6,250 words)

The Parent Trap

A conservative confronts the contradictions intrinsic to American public policy which encourages nuclear families; but does not restrain deserting parents; and expects single parents to work, or, at least, not draw benefits; yet puts them in jail if they let children play or roam unsupervised while they are working. “We have to find a way to defend their liberty as parents, instead of arresting them” (Metered) (775 words)


On vexatious litigants. “They start to carry around bags of paperwork. They use exclamation marks in groups of three. They delight in the use of multiple colour highlighter pens”. The typical querulant is “a man in middle age who often has a family and has held down a steady job”, but who suffers “a blow to his senses”. Property disputes, divorce and claims of workplace racism are common themes (Metered) (1,700 words)

The Hedge Fund That Ate Argentina

A BROWSER BONUS: Our content partnership with Foreign Affairs allows us to bring Browser subscribers the full text of selected FA articles. Here, Felix Salmon explains how an American hedge fund’s claims against Argentina, upheld by US courts, threaten national sovereignty and the international financial system (Our link takes non-subscribers to the Foreign Affairs website, which has a metered paywall) (2,430 words)

The Tragedy Of Mass Incarceration

To deter crime efficiently, punishment needs to be swift, certain, and fair. America has reduced crime from recent peaks by using excessive punishment, in the form of very high rates of incarceration. But this brings heavy social and economic costs. The experience of New York suggests that “the increased certainty that can come from better policing can indeed reduce both the crime rate and the incarceration rate” (800 words)

Most Of Sherlock Holmes Is Now Public Domain

Most Holmes stories were written before 1923, and so are out of American copyright; a few were written after that date and are still in copyright. So, is the character of Sherlock Holmes in copyright or not? Mostly not, says an American court. Anybody can now create new fictions and products around the character of Sherlock Holmes, so long as they stick to aspects of Holmes established before 1923 (450 words)

Owning Digital Content

Should the “first sale doctrine” apply to digital goods in America? It grants a buyer the right to do whatever they want with a product that they have legally purchased; but it currently only applies to physical goods; which is why Apple and Amazon can limit what a buyer can do with a download. It feels wrong. But perhaps a digital product is more like a bus ticket: it confers a right of use, not ownership of the bus (2,350 words)

For Sale: 29,656.51306529 Bitcoins

Auction of the Bitcoins seized when the FBI took down Silk Road. Which raises all sorts of questions. Can you really auction off money? Who would want to bid in advance? Why not just convert the Bitcoins at market rate? “The USMS will not sell to any person who is acting on behalf of or in concert with the Silk Road and/or Ross William Ulbricht, and bidders will be required to so certify” (1,450 words)

All Our Patent Are Belong To You

Tesla will open-source its technology. “Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport. If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal. Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology” (445 words)

How Amazon Patented White-Background Photography

“I was not in the room with the engineers, the patent attorneys, or the patent examiner; I don’t know them and have no relationship with them. But I do have the public record of the documents filed with the Patent Office, the audit trails of the searches conducted by the examiner, and the correspondence between the examiner and the patent attorneys. This allows me to reconstruct the story of the patent” (3,580 words)

Peek Inside A Professional Carding Shop

“Over the past year, I’ve spent a great deal of time trolling a variety of underground stores that sell ‘dumps’ — street slang for stolen credit card data that buyers can use to counterfeit new cards and go shopping in big-box stores for high-dollar merchandise that can be resold quickly for cash. This post takes the reader on a tour of a rather exclusive and professional dumps shop that caters to professional thieves” (1,200 words)

We Need Strong Prisons, But Fewer Prisoners

Expert review of “Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment” by Robert A. Ferguson, law professor at Columbia University. “The solution lies in decriminalization of much conduct that is now criminalized, in fewer and shorter prison sentences, in a more generous social safety net, in greater willingness to learn from foreign penal policies and experience, and in more attention to the mental health needs of inmates” (4,000 words)

Will Regulators Hold Back Self-Driving Cars?

By pitching their first driverless cars towards the elderly and disabled, for short trips on slow local roads, Google is internalising the safety concerns that would probably block the immediate introduction of driverless cars for general highway use. It’s a win for Google, and for regulation. “It would not surprise me if regulators and politicians turn out to be Google’s friend in the driverless car business” (890 words)

Machines Versus Lawyers

Machine intelligence will disrupt law firms as fundamentally as the internet did newspapers. For discovery, machines can sift through any amount of documents finding patterns without fatigue; they can rank precedents using network analysis; they can manage automated forms and simple briefs; and they don’t rely on hunches, they can crunch the data before advising a client whether to bring a case (3,870 words)

I Would Only Rob Banks For My Family

Quirky local story perfectly reported and written. Every detail moves the action forward. Dad robs banks, almost as a hobby. He wants to raise his game. He needs a team. But he doesn’t know any other crooks. Who better to recruit than his wife and kids? The kids hesitate, but not for long. And it seems to work, just as dad says. Big bags of money. Until an inspired piece of police work brings them down (5,490 words)

In Yellowstone Park You Can Get Away With Murder

Literally true of a 50-square-mile portion of Yellowstone National Park, because Americans charged with criminal offences are constitutionally entitled to a jury “of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed”. Nobody lives in the part of Yellowstone where the jurisdictions of Idaho and Wyoming overlap; it would appear impossible to raise a jury to try anybody for any crime committed there (1,790 words)

Lessons Of The Power Loom

Developers of new technologies tend to seek patent protection only once the field gets relatively crowded. While the technology is relatively new and the market is big enough for everybody, open-source development works to general advantage. This was true of spinning and weaving machines during the industrial revolution; it has been true of computing technology during the digital revolution (1,090 words)

Stairway to Heaven: The Song Remains Pretty Similar

A lawsuit claims that Jimmy Page borrowed the opening chords of Stairway To Heaven from a song called Taurus, by Spirit, an American band which Led Zeppelin supported in their early days. Zeppelin has already settled four earlier claims of plagiarism by sharing writing credits and royalties on disputed songs. But Stairway is in a league of its own: It may well be the most valuable rock song of all time (4,200 words)

Google: The EU Ruling Is Wrong

Twice over, in fact. First, because people should not as a general rule be enabled to conceal disreputable information about their past. Second, because the the European Court of Justice ruling mainly prevents search engines from linking to information published legally elsewhere. If you want to check someone’s bona fides you will need to trawl through local news sites individually or use Google’s US site (Metered) (1,080 words)

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