Legal Research Blog

 

Making a difference: Shoe edition

At Fastcase, we really enjoy TED talks. They convey big ideas in small talks, and are good daily transitions between bigger tasks. Today we’re spotlighting a TED talk from Mark Bezos, a volunteer firefighter who talks about the importance of making a difference in small ways.

As Bezos points out, you don’t need to save someone’s life (or their dog’s life) to make a difference in their lives. We are confronted daily with the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of other people. No need to wait until we have achieved our life’s work, or until we can contribute vast sums of money. We can make a difference every day in smaller ways that count just as much.

For one small example, most people have seen footage of the devastating Tsunami in Japan, and the ensuing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.  These crises are enormous in scope, and it’s difficult to imagine how we might help in a large way.  However, many small contributions can make a huge difference.  In the face of a large-scale disaster, we each can make a contribution, such as donating to the relief efforts of the American Red Cross, or donate to the work of Telecom Sans Frontieres (Telecom Without Borders), which establishes ad hoc, emergency telecommunications infrastructure in disaster zones.

I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything; but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

– Edward Everett Hale

Hat tip to Bill Gross (@Bill_Gross) who shared this talk via Twitter.

IRS Bracketology

We’re all filling out our March Madness brackets here at Fastcase (Go Badgers). Over at TaxProf Blog, Robert G. Nassau of Syracuse University College of Law is encouraging fellow tax enthusiasts to complete his bracket of IRS sections – “pitting them against one another to determine the code’s “most useful” section (with the occasional upset or two along the way).”

The whole thing is so entertaining, we couldn’t help but pass it on:

“The selection committee (of one) had to make
tough calls regarding the many tournament-worthy
bubble teams that did not win their part or subpart
tournaments, and therefore had to rely on at-large
bids. Speaking with reporters from ESPN, I had this
to say: ‘‘The adoption expense credit was the last
section in; and group-term life insurance was the
last section out — but life insurance proceeds is in
with a number four seed, so life insurance is fairly
represented.’’ Charges that the selection committee
let its bias toward low-income taxpayers affect his
decisions (both child tax credit and additional child
tax credit made the cut) are totally without merit.”

To see his 64 nominees and download the bracket click here.

Why we love: OpenCongress.org

cc licensed image from OpenCongress

The better question is, “why wouldn’t we love OpenCongress.org?” This non-profit, non-partisan blog preaches the importance of openness in government and puts it into practice by making all kinds of legislative data available to the public. OpenCongress follows legislation in both the House and Senate in a clear, manageable format that includes a summary of the bill in laymen’s terms, prominent actors on the bill, along with details on action taken so far and outside news on the topic. Beyond allowing you to tag and track legislation as it moves through Congress, OpenCongress provides information on government actors, the function and actions of all committees as well as commentary on all of these items from their team of bloggers.

OpenCongress.org fits right in with our goal of democratizing the law so we couldn’t help but take a moment to give them a shout out. Check out OpenCongress.org and allow yourself to feel like an “insider” and be on the lookout for OpenGovernment.org in your neck of the woods. The branch of OpenCongress focusing on state and local government is growing rapidly, beginning with California, Texas, Louisiana, Wisconsin and Maryland.

Resistance is Futile

Fast evolving computer technology has been a defining feature of our lives. Right now you could be conducting legal research on our website, listening to one of thousands of songs on iTunes, while emailing a client on your phone. In a Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) talk hosted late last year Amber Case proposed that “technology is evolving us as we become a screen-staring, button-clicking new version of Homo sapiens.” The extended use of technology along with our increasing reliance on these devices, are essentially turning us into cyborgs.

In what is probably one of the greatest examples one could find for going into academia, being able to find and create your own niche in the discipline of your choice, Amber Case discusses what it is to be a cyborg anthropologist. Her studies are described as “the symbiotic interactions between humans and machines in which she considers how our values and culture are being shaped by living lives increasingly mediated by high technology.” Fieldwork involves “observing how people participate in digital networks, analyzing the various ways we project our personalities, communicate, work, play, share ideas and even form values” through the digital realm.

Working her way from the traditional definition of our understanding of what a is cyborg, she makes a terrific case of just how much of an impact our technology has on our daily lives whether it is the trauma of losing a cell phone or hard drive to the way social networking platforms has changed the way we communicate.  The incredible influence that these devices exert creates an interesting new opportunity for studying human culture and behavior. At the end of her talk she really speaks to the “oneness” people feel towards their devices: “The most successful technology gets out of the way and helps us live our lives. And really, it ends up being more human than technology.”

At Fastcase, we are proud of our ability to contribute meaningfully to the cyborganization of the human race. With Apple’s iPad 2 launching today and having just tripled our potential Fastcase iPhone app user base, we gleefully expect a dramatic rise in hunched over Homo sapiens tapping away at the little screen in front of them. Click the link below to watch the video of her talk:

Amber Case: We are all cyborgs now

What is Relevance? The Fastcase Algorithm.

Last week, Google announced that it was making major changes to its formula for ranking Web sites. One of the most interesting articles we read about this was less about Google and more about algorithms generally.

Computers are only as smart as their algorithms — man-made software recipes for calculation, the basic building blocks of computerized thought.
Google Schools Its Algorithm – New York Times, March 5, 2011

Fastcase uses its own sophisticated legal research algorithm to determine the relevance of every case when you do a search on Fastcase. The Fastcase relevance score is represented as a percentage. The most “relevant” case is 100% relevant and the subsequent cases receive percentage scores based on how relevant they are as compared to the most relevant case.

How does Fastcase know which cases are most relevant? The relevance score is calculated by measuring four properties of each document within the search results: