Camera Lucida

July 26, 2006

Atheism in OK

Filed under: Religion and law, Uncategorized — CL @ 6:49 am

The web site of American Atheists has posted an article about a jury verdict of acquittal in a case brought against an atheist who was charged by an Oklahoma high school principal with assault and battery. The altercation in front of the principal’s home arose out of a dispute about the propriety of the practice on the part of the public high school’s basketball team of reciting the Lord’s Prayer before games. The defendant’s daughter had objected, based on her beliefs.

The article ends with this:

    The night of the verdict, tornados of unusual violence descended on the panhandle of Oklahoma. The home of the Principal who had brought the false charges against Chuck Smalkowski was severely damaged.
    This fact has no relationship whatsoever to the verdict.

July 5, 2006

Combining two tools, part 2

Filed under: Software — CL @ 7:54 pm

This time, we are going to look at methods of copying blocks of data (from a PDF file or from any Windows program) as images, and pasting them to Atlantis, a low-cost ($35) RTF editor.

As you are reviewing documents, medical records, drawings, handwritten entries, etc., you will find that there are certain entries that won’t lend themselves to OCR to get the text of the item into your word processor. Some items simply have to be included as images rather than as text.

Following the steps described here, clipped items are pasted as images in the target RTF document, and from there text annotations can be added as desired to provide comments, context or detail. What is very surprising (to those who have previously tried to paste images to Windows programs) is that pasting these images to Atlantis produces very small files. I have used the following techniques to paste ten or twelve different images to a single Atlantis document, and the end result still is only about 300-450 KB in size. 

If the desired source materials are found in a PDF file, the clipping can be done with Acrobat’s Snapshot tool, which is even available with the free Adobe Reader. Choose the Snapshot button and then use the mouse to choose the region that you want to clip. Then switch to Atlantis and paste. There you have it, ready for your comments and annotations. 

If the source materials are found in any other Windows program, the same capability can be found by using HyperSnap, the very capable and very low-cost (also $35) screen capture utility published by Hyperionics. The Capture menu item has a number of selections, one of which is “Capture Region” – keyboard shortcut Ctrl-Shift-R. You will need to change the default settings (Capture|Capture Settings) to enable the “Copy each capture to clipboard” option under the “Copy & Print” tab. Once you do that, then each successive clipping can be pasted to Atlantis, in the same fashion. As a bonus, each of the clipped items remains visible in one of a series of HyperSnap windows, where they can be cropped or modified as desired, and then saved in any of the standard image formats.

June 10, 2006

Misunderstanding metadata

Filed under: Law practice, Tech — CL @ 7:41 am

We keep hearing this mistake: "metadata is data about data". This is a wrong formulation.

In general, “data” describes that which is contained in a document. Data may include words, ideas, arguments, conclusions, opinions, analyses, numbers, or any other kind of information. The document is nothing more than a container in which the data is found.

Metadata is data about the document, not data about the data. The commonly-created metadata includes the identifying information, such as:

  • author
  • date and time
  • subject
  • keywords

This is all data about the document. It is independent of the data contained in the document. It is also usually innocent and will not spring traps for the unwary, although there have been reported instances where the inadvertent inclusion of this information has tripped up a user.

"Data about the data" would be such things as total word count, or the total number of occurrences of a certain word or phrase. It is usually findable but is not usually recorded within the document.

The word is also commonly used to refer to

  • hidden information – text that is deliberately hidden but intended by the user to remain within the document, such as hidden text, hidden rows or columns in a spreadsheet, or hidden comments;
  • unintended remnants of information – i.e. text that is inadvertently left within the document after a deletion.

In this sense, metadata is neither data about the document or data about the data. It is simply additional data, tucked away in a place not immediately visible or accessible.

May 5, 2006

New Supreme Court decision reins in Medicaid liens

Filed under: Law practice — CL @ 6:34 pm

You are involved in a case in which a Medicaid recipient is suing for personal injuries. (Whether you represent the plaintiff or defendant does not really matter.) The state Medicaid agency has paid over $70,000 for her medical treatment over the last year, all of it related to the injury in question. Trial is two months away. You want to settle the case.

You figure that the full liability value of the damages is about $250,000. Liability is a bit thin, with maybe a 20% chance of a verdict for the plaintiff, so both sides feel that the case should settle for $50,000 or so. But Medicaid's lien presents an obstacle. The state agency is insistent that it should be repaid in full. If you settle the case for $50,000, all of it will go to repaying the lien. If you try the case, the plaintiff will have to recover more than $70,000 before she will see a dime of the recovery. If the jury awards $100,000, and includes $30,000 for medical expenses (sure it is inconsistent, but the courts give juries a lot of leeway), the Medicaid agency will still demand that its $70,000 be repaid in full. And your state's Medicaid statute supports that position.

If you represent the plaintiff, you are in a quandary. If you represent the defendant, you are likely going to have to go to trial even if your client wants to settle the case.

The U.S. Supreme Court has come to your rescue. In the newly-decided case of Arkansas Department of Human Services v. Ahlborn, issued May 1, 2006, (link) the Court unanimously ruled that

• a State's Medicaid agency may recover against proceeds of a personal injury case only as to the part of the proceeds that compensates medical expenses, and
• (most significantly) when it is established that a settlement represents a particular percentage of the total value of the case, the State may recover only that percentage of the total amount it has paid.

Thus, if the jury awards damages in the amount of $100,000, and attributes $30,000 to medical expenses, Ahlborn means that the state agency will be repaid only $30,000. The jury's verdict provides a binding determination on the value of the medical damages.

What if you settle the case? Most pretrial settlements do not try to allocate between medical expenses and other expenses. If they involve a competent adult plaintiff, they do not even need court involvement, except to enter an order dismissing the case. Under the Ahlborn decision, you will now need to add one more step to the process. The Court's opinion in Ahlborn specifically sanctions approval by a court of an allocation between medical expenses and other elements of recovery as a way to ensure that plaintiffs and defendants do not collude to keep the medical expenses element artificially low, to the detriment of the Medicaid program.

In many cases following this pattern, we are going to see regular requests from litigants for a hearing before the trial court (which will inevitably be called "Ahlborn hearings") for a judicial finding allocating a settlement between medical expenses and other elements of damages. The Ahlborn case is silent as to whether the Medicaid agency would have to be given notice and an opportunity to address that issue (assuming that it has not joined the case as an intervening plaintiff to protect its interests), but it can be reasonably concluded that notice to the agency should be required if the judge's allocation is to be binding.

Under Ahlborn, you would be able to ask the court to make a finding that the full liability value of the case was $250,000, and that the $50,000 settlement represents an 80% discount. Based on that finding, the Medicaid agency should be able to recover no more than $14,000.

As we read Ahlborn, the court's finding on the allocation issue will be final and binding as to all parties.

April 2, 2006

Combining two useful tools

Filed under: Tech — CL @ 2:56 pm

pbWiki is a free hosted wiki service which allows a user to create one or many wiki sites for personal or shared use. QuickTopic is a free service which allows a user to set up one or many web-hosted discussion pages, with optional e-mail integration and without requiring people who want to add a comment to register first.  

Combining the two provides a very flexible set of interrelated tools. A new wiki site and a new QuickTopic page can be created, with each linking to the other. The QT page can be used for comments (beyond the three comments per page allowed with pbWiki) about entries on the wiki site, by visitors for suggestions for additions to the wiki (if general public editing is not allowed), or by the wiki author as a temporary storage site for items before they are added to the wiki site.

March 26, 2006

Lessons from the field

Filed under: Tech — CL @ 8:26 am

The City of Tuttle, Oklahoma has a website, and its ISP uses CentOS, a free open-source version of Linux, as the operating system for its servers. The ISP made some configuration changes, and this resulted in a generic error page (a "no index" page) being displayed instead of the city's home page. Jerry Taylor, the city's manager, wrote a series of e-mail messages to CentOS, demanding that its "software" be removed from the city's servers, accusing it of hacking the city's system, and threatening to report CentOS to the FBI. The CentOS administrators responded by asking Taylor to contact his IT people, and trying to explain why this error page appeared.

CentOS has posted the entire exchange of e-mail messages on its web site, for the amusement of all. The lesson to be learned, however, comes from this perceptive comment posted by a visitor:

Yeah, this is a great idiot user story. I think it's also an excellent demonstration of a big reason why many businesses are nervous about using open-source software. Allow me to enumerate some differences between the response here and what a company or city would normally expect from its vendors.

1. A real business which cares about expanding its customer base does not post conversations with hapless users in order for the world to point and laugh. Not even if said user declares that he is unafraid of the conversation being publicized.

2. "I feel sorry for your city" is an understandable sentiment, but saying it is not going to help fix anything. Especially not if it's the *first* thing you say.

3. Consider the user's state of mind when he first comes to you. He thinks his city's site has been hacked. All the careful work put into building the site may be lost. Maybe the hackers are breaking into city records, too. This is bad! This needs to be fixed yesterday! He may not understand what's going on, but he does understand that powerful people are going to have his head on a platter if he doesn't demonstrate that he is doing everything he can to have this cleared up right this minute.

In this panic, a flat-out "this is not my problem" going to bounce right off the mental filter. You have to use small steps. Start with "Our product is completely legitimate, but perhaps it is causing an error which is blocking your site. Could you please tell me who operates that site…" This allows him to start seeing you as a partner in fixing the problem. As he calms down, you can lead him toward reason.

4. Pick up the phone. If your user thinks it's an emergency, you have to treat it as one to retain credibility in his eyes. Failing that, when he threatens to go to the FBI, consider the cost of a long-distance phone call vs. the potential cost and hassle if he hooks up with an equally clueless FBI agent.

5. Contact his ISP yourself. Okay, this one isn't something the typical tech-support operation would do, but I recommend it because it means you can make sure the problem is reported to them properly, and at the same time it gets you more points with the user for demonstrating that you care about his problem.

6. When he apologizes, don't be a sore winner.

I know a lot of you are exasperated at this point, thinking, "But it *wasn't* CentOS's problem, and the guy *is* an idiot." This is perfectly correct. It's also perfectly irrelevant to dealing with a human being in a state of panic. Saying it won't fix the problem, and it won't make him go away.

Finally, consider this: People who have a good experience with a business or organization can turn into loyal customers. But the *really* loyal customers are the ones who have had a problem and seen it resolved in an efficient and friendly manner. No, I understand the complainer in this case wasn't a CentOS customer. But someday someone is going to suggest that the city check out open-source software, maybe even your software, and this experience is going to be the first thing to come to mind.

This an excellent lesson in public relations.

March 25, 2006

L’affaire Rahman

Filed under: Religion and law — CL @ 5:34 pm

If you read nothing else about the prosecution of Abdul Rahman, the Afghani who is threatened with execution for converting to Christianity, read Eugene Volokh's It's Not Islamophobia When There Really Is Something To Fear. A key point:

This is telling evidence, it seems to me, that there is something very wrong in Islam today, and not just in some lunatic terrorist fringe. Doubtless many, I would hope most, Muslims would not endorse executing converts. But a strand of the religion, and a strand that is not far from the levers of political power in at least some countries, does seem to endorse such a position. This is deeply dangerous, most obviously to residents of countries in which radical Islamism has broad support, but also to residents of Western countries as well.

There are some who are not yet ready to be admitted to the community of civilized nations.

March 11, 2006

A resolution?

Filed under: Politics — CL @ 10:30 am

The announcement that the Dubai ports deal was called off included the following:

“Because of the strong relationship between the United Arab Emirates and the United States, and to preserve that relationship, DP World has decided to transfer fully the U.S. operation of P&O Ports North America to a United States entity. . . “

There is, of course, no information about what the “United States entity” is going to be. It could be a corporation registered in the United States, and nothing more. That would be enough to satisfy this commitment, but it tells us nothing about who would own the corporation, who its directors would be, and who would serve as its officers.

March 8, 2006

South Dakota’s effort at a challenge

Filed under: Constitutional law, Religion and law — CL @ 10:23 pm

Jack Balkin has this to say about the new law in South Dakota:

Many are now wringing their hands over South Dakota’s new abortion law, fearing that it means the end for abortion rights in this country. But the people who should really be cowering in fear are Republican political candidates. For South Dakota has begun the process of undermining the Republican Party nationally. . .

Most Americans may want abortions more difficult to obtain (as they imagine current circumstances) but they don’t want almost all abortions criminalized. If Republican presidential candidates announce their support for criminalizing abortions in the primaries in order to win the votes of the pro-life faithful, their Democratic opponents will be more than happy to remind the public of that position when the general election comes round. That, I predict, will help split the Republican coalition that has governed the country for years. . . By making it important for Republican politicians to take a stand — not on the relatively popular issues of partial birth abortion bans and parental notification requirements, but on the far less popular question of criminalizing abortion — South Dakota has managed to do what years of Democratic politics could not — create a wedge issue that will destroy the Republican party’s winning coalition nationally. 

    It seems to me that most Republican presidential candidates have consistently declared opposition to abortion. It also seems that it would be fairly easy for presidential candidates to dodge this particular issue – passing state legislation is, they would say, a matter for the states, and whether that legislation will stand is a matter for the courts to decide. And as Eugene Volokh has noted, the predicted trajectory for this legislation will be: invalidated by the District Court, affirmance by the Circuit Court, and certiorari denied by the U.S. Supreme Court. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

    March 6, 2006

    An answer to the “Were you there?” challenge

    Filed under: Religion and law — CL @ 10:58 pm

    A twelve-year-old, acting on a suggestion by his minister, decides to challenge his 6th-grade science teacher after she describes the development and then the demise of saurian creatures. She has a comeback:  

    Q    How do you know that occurred? Were you there?

    A    No, but we know it happened. If we had to limit our knowledge to things that we ourselves saw, we would be a stupid race indeed. The advancement of our knowledge as a people has been built upon the collection, recordation, transmission, and learning of stored knowledge accumulated by others.

       You weren’t there to see Jesus Christ, were you? Yet you know that he existed and you know a lot about him. You know what he did and you know what he said. That was because others told you about him, and you are willing to accept what they said.

    Of course, it would be a cold day in hell before the School Board would let her actually say this.

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