Sunday, September 16, 2007

Which iPod Sounds the best? (or: Audiophiles with iPods)

iPod impulse response from Hifi VoiceWhich iPod sounds the best? It seems some folks take this question very seriously: Mark Heijlingers recently compared the frequency and impulse responses of two iPods using a pretty minimal setup of his mac's built-in line in and Fuzz Measure. Looking at the curves, I can only say I'd be shocked if someone using the included earbuds could hear the difference -- both are quite similar -- but he certainly makes the case for an audible difference in sound quality when using, say, a nice pair of headphones.

Vacuum tubes for the ipod: Music Cocoon MC4 by Roth AudioWhile I am glad there is interest in improving sound-quality, I doubt most consumers care that much. Truth be told, I don't care that much because when I'm using my iPod, it's usually in noisy environments anyway. But if it weren't for people who cared a lot, the sound quality would probably be a lot worse than it is now, so I certainly applaud the effort. Not to mention the fact that without audiophiles with iPods there would be no place on the market for wacky products like the vacuum-tube-based Music Cocoon MC4 by Roth Audio.

Thanks to Chris Pepper for bringing this to my attention.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Jurors: Democracy's Suckers

Jury DutyA few months ago I was called for jury duty and had to serve for a few days. No one like jury duty as far as I know, but it's as inevitable as taxes and a bit more interesting. I kept a journal when I could and filled in the rest later. I'm not sure how good a story this makes, but it's my story, so now it's in my blog...

Thursday, May 31st. 8:45 am. We're all waiting in a big room at the courthouse waiting. A nice man came out to tell us how we are the cornerstone of democracy and he knows it sucks that we have to be here. It seemed heartfelt, but then he ranted a bit about how we should not talk on the phone and drive at the same time and for God's sake ease off the gas a little. That really ruined the heartfelt part.

They gave us each jury stickers which is supposedly to prevent people from talking to us. How nice.

Thursday, May 31st. 9:15 am. I always freak out when people start calling out names. How is my name going to be butchered today? Here in the south, almost noone gets it right (except one time a waitress casually returned my credit card and receipt and said "here you go, Bjorn", which left me in a state of shock). After today, I think I will officially change the prononciation to the southern "buh-jorn".

Oops. Video time, gotta go.

[a few minutes later] Well, that was inspiring! I am an integral part of US democracy! Woot. Now waiting for my name to be called again and off to the trial room where I have to answer questions about my knowledge of mold, leaky pipes, my past landlords and.... Rush Limbah. Apparently this is crucial to the trial. In particular I had to give a history of leaks and mold in my building (which was not insignificant). And then the big one:

"Given your history, do you think you can be fair and impartial in this trial?"

"[smiling] Well, we all have our biases..."

"[laughs] yes, but what about in this case?"

"It depends on the facts: my pet peeve is when people in authority have a responsibility and don't meet it."

"But does a tenant have responsibilities as well?"

"Absolutely: if they see a problem and don't say anything, the landlord can't be held responsible for not fixing it."

I got picked to be part of the jury. I ended up against the client of the lawyer who asked all those questions.

The judge is a stereotype of southern conservativeism. An old white man with a strong, charming, aristocratic southern accent. I was a bit surprised, then, when he turned out to be quite laid back:

Judge: "Alright, I think it's time for a recess."

Defense Attorney: "Judge, how long will the recess be?"

Judge: "You got somewhere you need to be?"

Everyone laughed at this, and I felt a collective relaxing of the shoulders.

He took a few moments to personally thank the jurors for being there. It was a speech not unlike the one we had earlier, but he really meant it, and that made me feel valued. He really thought this was what government by the people was all about and he really thought our presence mattered. This small gesture made the whole experience much better for me.

Thursday, March 31st, 12 pm. It's lunch time. I was lucky my wife was in the neighborhood and I could meet her, especially considering all the jurors were still awkward, shy and untalkative around each other, like we were all still getting used to each other's smell. It's peculiar how people's social inhibitions can go up so much in an unfamiliar setting. After lunch they filed us into a room and the awkward chit-chat with strangers started, though mostly there were long pauses. Then someone told a story about when she was on a jury for a murder trial. Apparently she knew five of the people involved in the case, including, I believe, the deceased and the accused, but she was picked anyway and then halfway through the trial she got dropped. The whole story was so engaging it got everyone talking. I wish I had an ice-breaker like that (without the having-your-acquaintances-murdering-each-other part).

Thursday, March 31st, 1:30 pm. Back in the trial room, we saw opening arguments and heard from some witnesses. The judge kept fiddling with stuff on his desk because he was so bored. He got some amusement later, though -- he had a good chuckle when one of the jurors fell asleep. I'm not sure how aware that the microphone on his desk amplified the impact of his chuckle.

Thursday March 31st, 3:15 pm. Back in the waiting room we laughed about how boring the trial was, though we were not yet allowed to talk about specifics. Several people commented about the complexity of the trial. I didn't find it especially complex, but there were a lot of details and neither lawyer told a good narrative in their opening arguments. I was surprised by this, and would have thought the opening arguments to be a chance for each lawyer to present a story, and for us to then see who's story fit's better with the facts we hear.

One of the lawyers had remarked in his opening arguments: "I think you'll see that this is a simple case." Big mistake, buddy: you just told 12 people that something they think is complex is simple and then you want them to decide in your favor! (well, he won anyway...)

Then we complained about Bush until they brought us coffee. Mmmmmmmmm, coffee.....

Thursday March 31st, 4:00 pm. We heard from our first witnesses. I admit that at this point I'm started to feel a bit confused myself. They keep jumping around in the timeline and ask question after question about things that don't immediately seem important. I can't help but speculate as to why they might be important and I wonder if this speculation is going to affect my final judgement.

Friday, July 1st, 8:35 am. I arrived a little late, but fortunately it didn't seem to slow things down. Other jurors were waiting in the jury room sipping on coffee. The coffee smelled really spectacular and a few people commented on how good it was.

Friday, July 1st, 10:00 am. The trial is really going now! It feels surprising like one of those silly lawyer shows on TV: objections, emotional witnesses, and even the occasional "may we approach the bench your honor"s. The big difference is that on TV they cut out the irrelevant bits so what's left is actually interesting and exciting, but in this case, things were still boring in between outbursts.

One thing that did strike me was how charismatic both lawyers were. The defense lawyer seemed immediately likable. Even if he had a certain lawyerly sliminess, he had a quality that makes you want to please him, like the teacher you really admired in high-school. The prosecution's lawyer was not immediately striking. He was less self confidant, but you got the feeling that, in the end, he believed he was working towards the right end, even if you weren't sure he was going use ethical techniques to get to that end. I really believed that he believed he was right, and that made him very compelling.

Friday July 1st, 12:00 pm. The judge gave us an hour and ten minutes for lunch. Over half of us ate together which shows how much more bonded we are as a group than just yesterday. After lunch was over we were subjected to some long and boring testimony. One particular series of questions went on for about fifteen minutes simply to establish how much money was owed on a particular day. At the end of this, you could faintly hear the judge (who still did not entirely understand the sensitivity of his microphone) say "Mercy!"

Friday July 1st, 4:00 pm. We were let out early because the lawyers and judge had some business to attend to without us. Despite the fact that we were done hearing evidence, the judge assured us that there was no way we'd be able to finish that day.

Monday June 4th, 8:30 am. One of the juror's was late, so there was an air of tension in the room as we settled in, but finally we went in and the judge asked us not to be mad at the juror: "It always astounds me that we can send people into space and arrive on time to the second, but we can't drive down the street and get there on time because we never know what traffic is going to be like."

Monday June 4th, 10:30 am. Closing arguments convinced me who was right and who was wrong, but I wasn't convinced about if the law or contracts were actually broken. I probably assigned too much emotional weight to these arguments, actually, since nothing the lawyers say is evidence and their allowed to lie as much as they want, but it's hard not to be drawn in by the arguments. Before deciding, I would have to remind myself to think about the law, not my emotions.

Monday June 4th, 12:30 pm. Lunch with a few jurors again. It was nice to have a little break, but I think a lot of us just wanted to go back and get the job done.

Monday June 4th, 1:30 pm. The judge read us the relevant real estate law and charged us with picking a jury foreperson and coming to a decision. The law was really boring and I admit I didn't quite catch the important parts.

Monday June 4th, 2:00 pm. Back in the Jury room we were finally allowed to talk about the case. No one else wanted to be foreman so I volunteered. I had planned to do this -- no one else seemed like a leader and I thought I would be pretty good at separating emotion from fact, logic and so on. I had emotions about the case, but I thought I would do a good job facilitating coming to a the right decision quickly and efficiently and I said so. Everyone seemed to like this since they wanted to get home, but they also wanted us to do the right thing.

Someone suggested we start by going around the room and letting everyone speak. This was a great idea because after that everyone felt comfortable voicing their opinion and knowing that everyone else cared what they had to say. It also gave everyone a chance to vent and finally say what they'd been wanting to say but weren't allowed. It was a bit gossipy, more than a discussion of evidence or case specifics, but I think that's what everyone needed.

Many people expressed their dislike of the defendant, a feeling I shared, but I also mentioned that I was worried this would cloud my judgement. In fact, in retrospect, I think it did when it came time to awarding a cash settlement.

Then we debated the case, which was essentially this: the defendant was a landlord who rented a house to the plaintiff. The plaintiff's children were allergic to mold and the house had mold, which, it was claimed, made the kids sick. The plaintiff also claimed to have lost a lot of her personal possessions because of the mold, and to have been very inconvenienced (to put it mildly).

In his closing arguments, the defense had pointed out that the prosecution had to prove three things:

* That the house was unsafe
* That the defendant knew the house was unsafe
* That the defendant did not correct the problem

In the deliberating room, we were really stuck on this first one, and I must say I am not sure how close we came to issuing a very different verdict. Someone suggested asking for a written copy of the relevant law again to tell us exactly what was meant by unsafe. So we made a list of questions for the judge and returned to the courtroom. Good thing: the law he re-read us (for some reason, a written copy could not be provided) said nothing about "unsafe" -- it just talked about "defects". The defense had planted the whole concept of safety into all of our heads and we hadn't even noticed! In retrospect, he had probably been using that word all along, starting with his opening arguments.

Back in the deliberating room, this simple fact made our jobs easy: we all agreed there was a defect, that the defendant knew it (we disagreed about when, but we agreed she knew in time to do something), and that she did not take sufficient action. I took a quick vote on each point and on the conclusion: we all agreed that the law was clearly on the plaintiff's side.

That was the easy part. The next question was how much to award the the plaintiff. In addition to medical bills, the Plaintiff was also claiming "general damages", which is sometimes called "pain and suffering", though that's not really accurate. The idea is not just to compensate for intangible feelings and inconvenience, but also the lost time, the difficulty and expense of bringing a case to trial, the loss of articles who's value is difficult to document and so on.

The plaintiff's lawyer, in his closing arguments, said something like "Now I don't like to ask for a specific dollar amount for general damages, though some lawyers say you should ask for three times the specific damages...." The jurors all agreed that although that was a slimy way of asking for three times the specific damages, it was the only guidance we had (The defendant's lawyer gave us no guidance). One specific part of this claim was the articles the Plaintiff had left behind when she moved, but when we asked for a record of her claims the judge had told us we had to use our memory. I found this frustrating considering the amount of effort that goes into record keeping, but I'm sure there's a good reason. Anyway, I never took those claims too seriously (one thing I remember was that she claimed to have lost a washer/dryer. I simply didn't believe that a washer/dryer would go bad due to mold.)

At this point, I realized it was going to be very tricky to agree on an amount. First, I broke the problem down: specific and general damages. The specific damages were easy, the Plaintiff had given us an amount, and all we had to do was vote. 12 hands went up and that problem was solved. Before tackling general damages, I let people debate openly for a while, knowing it would be like calming down a middle-school classroom afterwards (indeed, my throat was a little sore at the end of the day), while I thought. It was clear from listening to the arguments that people's opinions varied widely: from zero to 6 times the specific damages. I was unsure myself about how much I thought the plaintiff was entitled to, though I was comfortable with notion that it was an intangible value and some over- or under-estmation was bound to happen. I took a moment to myself to think it over and then gave a bit of a speech. It went something like this:

I don't think it's going to be possible to come up with a single dollar amount that everyone thinks is the best dollar amount to award, but I do think it's possible to come up with a single dollar amount that everyone is comfortable with, and I think that needs to be our goal.

People seemed satisfied with that, but I decided to do a vote anyway, and saw twelve hands. Phew, that was going to make it easier.

Coming up with the dollar amount was surprisingly fast after that: I let people continue debating, and when someone expressed an opinion about a specific dollar amount, I wrote that amount on the board. (A few people were confused by the fact that we had already voted on specific damages, so I had to make a table -- people were still confused, but got it in the end.) Occasionally, someone would tell me I could take an amount off the board, at which point I settled everyone down a bit and took a vote before I took it off to make sure it was really okay. People were passionate and a bit unruly, but I didn't think this was a case I could or should try to calm them -- people had to express themselves and if they didn't they wouldn't be satisfied with any number we put up.

After some loud arguing, I managed to calm folks down. One thing that was clearly bothering people was that they wanted to think in terms of how much the plaintiff should receive after her lawyer was paid, rather than a total amount. Some people suggested what a normal lawyer fee would be but others were unsure of the estimate. Finally someone suggested picking the amount to award the plaintiff and say "plus legal fees and court costs". I didn't know if it was allowed (turns out it was) but a I rewrote many of the existing numbers on the board in terms of this calculation, and it was immediately clear that we were approaching consensus. A lot more numbers came off the board, and in a few moments we were ready to announce our verdict, and we were out of there by 5:30 pm, which meant we didn't have to come back another day. Moreover, we all felt that justice was served.

I've heard it said that the US Justice system is victim-centric. I think that was clearly the case here: the plaintiff presented herself and her children as victims and easily won the case once we were convinced of that fact. Moreover, in deciding on general damages, no one was concerned with the burden of payment on the defendant -- instead they wanted to ensure that the plaintiff received the right amount of money, and once we figured out we could do the calculation that way -- in terms of the victim -- we completed our deliberations in no time. Of course, the payment was going to be a huge burden on he defendant, but she wasn't seen as a victim, so she did not enter into the calculation. She wasn't really seen as a villain, either. A bad person? Maybe. Neglectful? Definitely. But not a villain, and not evil, and yet her burden was completely ignored. I don't know if this is right or wrong, but in retrospect, I might have reduced the awarded damages a bit because of this.

Monday June 4th, 5:30 pm. I thought things were over, but both lawyers wanted to talk to the jurors, and me especially. I was confused by this at first, but I noticed that other jurors felt extremely uncomfortable by the idea, even of speaking with the lawyer who argued the case they sided with. I felt it a bit myself, but not like the others. I don't know what it was, but the idea of facing these folks was terrify to the jurors. The lawyers were powerful, charismatic people, and now we would have nothing over them. They didn't need anything from us now that the verdict was submitted, and we felt weak. But there was something else: maybe it was because the case had been charged by the breaking down of a previously close relationship or because so many people identified with the victims and therefore felt like victims themselves. Whatever it was, many jurors were cowering at the idea of facing the lawyers, and we were all going out the same way, so I decided to do one more thing as jury forman and go talk to the lawyers and give the jurors a chance to slip out, if that's what they wanted.

I couldn't be totally honest with the defense lawyer in front of his client, and it was clear in a moment's conversation with him that he was oblivious to this fact, but I told him what he wanted to know. He seemed so powerful and cold-hearted at that moment, ignoring the woman beside him who he had been defending. Specifically, he wanted to know how we reached the dollar amount, and how we decided that his client knew about the mold. He also wanted to know if our verdict would have changed if we knew she had been involved in other lawsuits. I dodged the answer because, frankly, I was caught a bit off guard by that. I think he simply genuinely wanted to know the answer but it felt to me that, even after the trial was over, he was still trying to make the plaintiff look bad, which I thought was pretty distasteful. (Another juror I ran into later reminded me that this had actually came out in the trial by accident and we were told to forget we had heard it. Go figure -- I actually had!)

When I went over to the plaintiff, she was crying and had little to say, but her lawyer was eager to talk and thank me. He, too, wanted to know about the dollar amount, and just wanted more of a feeling of the deliberations than details. It came up that there was a lot of disagreement at first and that there was even one person who stated that he felt the plaintiff was "just doing this for the money". The lawyer asked who that was, so he could be more careful picking jurors next time, and I told him, but I also said it would have been a mistake to leave him out, because he quickly came around and ended up being the most ardent supporter of a large award.

Some other jurors slinked by on their way out, avoiding even looking in the direction of the lawyer, but while avoiding the lawyer, many wanted to give the plaintiff a hug, because she seemed like she needed the support. I thought this looked a bit awkward, but she seemed to appreciate it, so I gave her a hug, too, (turned out it was awkward -- she didn't know us, after all!), and went home.

What the Case Was About

This is probably interesting to nobody, but this is what the case was about: the defendant was a landlord who owned some property that the plaintiff (who's name was confusingly similar to the defendant's) and her two young children had lived in when they all suffered some illness. It turns out there had been a major leak, and the plaintiff claimed that not enough was done to clean up after the leak, leaving the basement as a breeding ground for a mold which her children were allergic to. In addition, the plaintiff claimed that she had to leave a bunch of moldy stuff when she moved out because it was too infected. She was claiming a lot of money, and the defendant was countersuing for back rent and because she had to clean up the mess the plaintiff left behind. Both sides agreed on a surprising number of details about the case, so it was surprising to me that they were in court. There were not enough records kept, though, to make the plaintiff's case, or the counter-suit, crystal clear. A few facts were clear:

The plaintiff's children got sick more between the time of the leak and the time they left, and it racked up a considerable medical expense. It seems likely, but not definite that their illnesses were exacerbated by the mold. An environmental cleanup company came out and fond mold and sent the defendant a letter explaining the possible dangers of not cleaning up the mold, but the defendant did not share the report with the plaintiff. The defense did do a few things to try and reduce the moisture: they bought her a sub-par dehumidifier (which was pulling about a gallon per hour of humidity out of the air!), and a few other things, but they did not follow the advice of the environmental cleanup company and fully remediate the situation.

The leak was a critical point in the case. Thousands of gallons of water were involved and the basement, where the AC intake for the plaintiff's apartment was, was very moldy. There was some discussion, especially by the defense, of checking behind the walls for the mold, but that seems irrelevant in light of the construction of the AC.

The plaintiff also claimed that a number of expensive things were ruined due to the mold. Some of this seemed plausible enough, a sofa, children's toys and so on, but she also claimed a washer and dryer. I don't see how a washer and dryer could be damaged by mold. On the other hand, the defendant stated that the state of the materials she left was "junked but mold-free", and it seems like a washer-dryer would not be worthless.