Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Examined Life: A Reading List

A fairly recent Saturday Essay in the Wall Street Journal started out by noting: We all ask each other a lot of questions. But we should all ask one question a lot more often: “What are you reading?”

It’s a simple question but a powerful one, and it can change lives. Here is a sampling of my reading list for the past year:

"It’s impossible not to admire the ambition and scope of Homegoing, and thanks to Ms. Gyasi’s instinctive storytelling gifts, the book leaves the reader with a visceral understanding of both the savage realities of slavery and the emotional damage that is handed down, over the centuries, from mothers to daughters, fathers to sons. At its best, the novel makes us experience the horrors of slavery on an intimate, personal level; by its conclusion, the characters’ tales of loss and resilience have acquired an inexorable and cumulative emotional weight."

—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of poor, white Americans. The disintegration of this group, a process that has been slowly occurring now for over forty years, has been reported with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hanging around your neck."

“An exhaustively researched, vividly realized and above all, unignorable book—after Evicted, it will no longer be possible to have a serious discussion about poverty without having a serious discussion about housing.”

—Jennifer Senior, New York Times

"The Good Girls Revolt is as compelling as any novel, and also an accurate, intimate history of new women journalists invading the male journalistic world of the 1970s. Lynn Povich turns this epic revolt into a lesson on why and how we've just begun."

—Gloria Steinem

  • Tribe by Sebastian Junger

"I first read about this history several months ago in Sebastian Junger's excellent book, TRIBE. It has haunted me since. It raises the possibility that our culture is built on some fundamental error about what makes people happy and fulfilled."

―David Brooks, The New York Times

"Drawing on anecdotes from her adolescence and adult life, Adichie attempts to strike down stereotypes and unpack the baggage usually associated with the term. She argues that an emphasis on feminism is necessary because to focus only on the general "human rights" is "to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded."

—Shelley Diaz, School Library Journal

The author of the Saturday Essay noted, At the trial in which he would be sentenced to death, Socrates (as quoted by Plato) said that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. Reading is the best way I know to learn how to examine your life. By comparing what you’ve done to what others have done, and your thoughts and theories and feelings to those of others, you learn about yourself and the world around you.

Each of these books have given me the wonderful opportunity to examine this life and learn about myself and the world around me.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Law Librarians Teaching Research Skills for Hire

It appears that the legal industry is starting to understand how to parse through potential hires to find those with the best legal research skills. The Thomson Reuters Legal Solution Blog recently posted a series of tips for evaluating a potential hire's research skills. As noted, one of the key tasks that an attorney will be expected to complete throughout his or her career is legal research. When hiring or interviewing prospective candidates, a Partner will often want to ensure that the candidate has top notch legal research skills that can be put to use by the firm. 

These skills include:
  • Flexibility - knowing when to use natural language versus boolean searching
  • Creativity - using creativity to distinguish or analogize a case to a results list instead of searching for the "perfect case" that may not exist
  • Familiarity - looking beyond cases and statutes to other sources such as Trial Court Documents
  • Exhaustive - knowing when to stop researching
These skills are important skills that law students must learn from law librarians. There is inevitably a "back and forth" that goes on in legal research. Legal researchers must be able to find meaningful sources AND analyze results to understand what they still need to find. 

Law librarians must bridge the knowledge in action gap to ensure that law students can find familiar resources while maintaining flexibility. Students must also have the analytical skills to creatively find answers and know when to stop researching

If law librarians leave it up to legal writing professors to teach the analysis portion, we are doing the students a disservice by providing the steps to find resources without having them practice the difficult task of analysis and revising searches. The students must struggle through the entire process to truly absorb the skills necessary for effective and efficient legal research. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Gaming the Article Title

In past posts, I have highlighted the importance of a well-optimized article title and abstract for discoverability. Titles, in particular, are important because researchers often use keyword searching in the title field to find articles that are highly relevant to their research.

Not only is a title important for discoverability, it's also important to catch the attention of a potential reader and up article views and downloads for impact purposes.

Brian Leiter over at the Law Professor Blogs Network recently highlighted a story illustrating how to game the article title to increase downloads.

I have an article with the (admittedly extremely boring) title "Rethinking Assignor Estoppel" coming out in the Houston Law Review. It has been on SSRN for nine months. I have posted about it twice on Facebook and Twitter, and it has shown up in all the SSRN journals. In that nine months it has garnered 982 views and 172 SSRN downloads.

Late Friday afternoon, prompted by some friends teasing me for the boring headline, I posted the exact same article, with the exact same abstract, but with a new, click-baity title: "Inventor Sued for Infringing His Own Patent. You Won't Believe What Happened Next." I did this in part as a joke, and in part as an unscientific test to see how susceptible law professors were to clickbait.

The answer is, quite susceptible indeed. In less than two hours on a Friday night the number of views for this "new" article surpassed the old one. In 26 hours, by late Saturday, more people had downloaded the new article than the old one, even though before downloading you are exposed to the same old boring abstract. And by the end of the weekend, the article had been viewed nearly six times as often as the original and downloaded three times as often as the original.

The article will soon appear in the Houston Law Review under its old, boring title. But it sure looks like titles matter.

Authors would do well to keep this in mind when naming an article. This, coupled with a long, jargon-filled abstract, may just be the key to article impact success.

Monday, December 5, 2016

How the Librarians Saved History: Harvesting Government Information

The NYTimes recently highlighted the work of the End of Term Presidential Harvest 2016 -- a volunteer, collaborative effort by a small group of university, government and nonprofit libraries to find and save valuable pages now on federal websites.

With the arrival of any new president, vast troves of information on government websites are at risk of vanishing within days. The fragility of digital federal records, reports and research is astounding. 

Currently, no law protects much of it, no automated machine records it for history, and the National Archives and Records Administration announced in 2008 that it would not take on the job. “Large portions of dot-gov have no mandate to be taken care of,” said Mark Phillips, a library dean at the University of North Texas, referring to government websites. “Nobody is really responsible for doing this.”

Enter the End of Term Presidential Harvest 2016. The project began before the 2008 elections, when George W. Bush was serving his second term, and returned in 2012.

The ritual has taken on greater urgency this year, Mr. Phillips said, out of concern that certain pages may be more vulnerable than usual because they contain scientific data for which Mr. Trump and some of his allies have expressed hostility or contempt.

And this small group can use all of the help it can get. People can contribute to the effort by proposing a web page for preservation by the archives. Proposed pages should be on federal websites, since many states also use .gov in their addresses. A simple tool for nominating a page is at

As the article author notes, for the 10 people working on laptops at the academy, hunting for important federal records, another title might serve: How the Librarians Saved History.

Friday, December 2, 2016

AI as Premature Law Librarian Disruptor

Law librarians do similarly creative work as lawyers, so a computer program like ROSS won’t be able to replace us in the near future. That being said, there may be a time in the future when computer programs will be more adept at many of our tasks.

Artificial intelligence relies on machine learning, which is highly dependent on natural language processing.

There are three main levels of natural language processing:
  • Syntactic (sentence structure/grammar)
  • Semantic (understanding phrases)
  • Pragmatic (understanding context)

Computer science experts and philosophers have estimated a processing curve based on where computers are now and when computers will master pragmatic natural language processing.

Based on the curve, we see that computer programs are currently at the end of the syntactics curve and are just beginning the semantics curve (think Siri). We still have a long way to go before computers do the high level pragmatic natural language processing, with estimates being close to year 2100 and beyond.

Even when a computer program starts to do pragmatic-level natural language processing, it will still take time for it to master and emulate what the human brain can do on the pragmatic front. The more low-level tasks of lawyers and law librarians will go quickly (think finding a case by citation or party name).

But the high level, context driven, creative tasks will take much more time for computers to master. We may inevitably need fewer lawyers and law librarians over time, but AI will mostly work to augment our human brains. Personally, I would love them help.

What we all must be cognizant of is the notion of "premature disruption" – losing valuable players (lawyers and librarians) before the technology is truly ready to replace them. ROSS, for example, is really good at PR, but stakeholders must be careful to avoid premature disruption. ROSS is a great tool that will augment lawyers and librarians, but it will not replace us. And it won't replace us for the foreseeable future.

It's important that we all arm ourselves with this information so that the various stakeholders understand AI's current capabilities. I will spend December & January finalizing a full-length piece on this topic. More to come...