Law and Conversation

March 9, 2011

Animal Rescue Site: Vote for Friends of Strays

Filed under: Uncategorized — Helen Gunnarsson @ 9:47 am
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I’m departing this week from my theme of storytelling through literature and other media from a lawyer’s perspective to ask a favor of all readers:  Please visit The Animal Rescue Site and vote for Friends Of Strays, a small animal shelter in Princeton, IL, as your favorite shelter.  It only takes a few clicks and typing in the name of an animal from a photo (to verify that you’re a real person and not a voting bot).  Costs nothing, you don’t have to register, and you won’t get a virus.  You can vote once a day, and you certainly don’t have to live in Illinois, or even the US, to vote for Friends of Strays (in Princeton, IL, remember). This tiny and VERY deserving shelter was #7 in the state yesterday on the Animal Rescue Site’s voting stats.  If just a few readers would vote daily, and tell friends to do the same, who knows what might happen–FOS might win a cash grant that would help it help more homeless pets!  Every animal shelter is deserving, of course, but if you don’t already have a “pet” shelter, please vote for Friends of Strays!

May 18, 2010

Big Brother monitors the Internet, and Kindle readers, too.

In my cover story in the April 2010 issue of the Illinois Bar Journal, “The Internet:  Your (Mostly Free) Private Investigator,” I wrote about lawful methods of finding out information about people over the Internet.  As usual, I had incredibly knowledgeable, interesting sources who also happen to be very nice people:  two Chicago litigators, Todd Flaming and Kent Sezer, and an Alton, IL police computer crime detective, Mike Bazzell, who also presents on computer crime and internet safety issues.  The article’s directed to lawyers who have a need for finding out everything they can about their opposing parties, witnesses, and, in some cases, their own clients, but I think anyone reading it would find the information in it useful and interesting.

Since my article was published, some new developments highlighting the lack of privacy and what you can find out about other people on the Internet have been reported. 

First, PCWorld magazine’s blog, like other publications, reports on the multiplicity of clicks and menus that you have to go through on Facebook if you want to lock down your privacy settings.  Anyone on FB who cares about privacy probably already knows what a time-consuming pain in the neck it is to make sure all of your settings are adjusted to your satisfaction, but the article also refers to a free tool I was unaware of at to verify what, if any, information from your Facebook account is available to anyone. 

Parenthetically, every time Facebook tweaks its information sharing policies, I think about deleting my own account.  I haven’t because I really like FB for making it easy and efficient to get back in touch and stay connected with friends, especially those I may not be able to see much, as well as for providing an avenue to get to know people better.  I resolve my feelings about the data-sharing issues by never posting anything that I wouldn’t be comfortable seeing on the front page of the Chicago Tribune tomorrow.  The Zesty tool is useful for double-checking whether you’ve got your settings properly adjusted.

Second, I recently learned of a new site that aggregates publicly available information about people:  I must say that it’s a pretty good site!  But I wonder where it gets some of its information.   Among the information about me on the site was that I love to read; I’ve put that information out there myself, and I’m perfectly happy for people to know that fact about me.  The site also reported that I’m not interested in politics and I have a high school education.  Where did the site get the former information, I wonder?  It’s not quite true, though, indeed, I don’t generally enjoy political discussions and don’t volunteer my political views (though when asked, I have been known to answer).  The latter information also isn’t accurate:  I certainly do have a high school education, but I didn’t stop there!  And I only wish the site’s vastly inflated estimate of the value of my home were correct. 

Though none of Spokeo’s information about me was exactly offensive, I found it disconcerting to have this (not entirely accurate) data compiled about me as a virtual dossier, so I removed it by clicking on the site’s Privacy link and filling out the form.  I realize, of course, that other aggregator sites will still maintain such dossiers and that there’s not much any of us can do about it.  If you want to know what Spokeo has on you, hie yourself over to the site, plug in your name, and take whatever action you wish after doing so.

Third, and most unsettling to me, was some news about the Kindle:   Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project learned that Amazon is looking over your shoulder as you use the device.  She writes “It turns out that Amazon keeps track every time someone highlights a passage from a book on a Kindle! Yes, if you’ve highlighted a sentence on your Kindle, Amazon knows.” 

I don’t own a Kindle or want one myself, but the people I know who have them love them.  I can understand why:  it’s light, fits in a handbag, and if you’re an expat in a country where bound books in your language aren’t readily or economically available, like one family I know, it’s the perfect solution.  It seems to me it would also be great for students to use instead of having to lug around heavy and costly textbooks, especially since the device enables highlighting.  But I’d hate to have a Big Brother logging my highlightings or annotations–it’s way too much like having someone peering into your very thoughts.  Also, I can remember some pretty callow comments I made in the margins of some of my college texts, and I wouldn’t want anyone reading them and thinking I’m still so naive!

Speaking of The Happiness Project, it’s a lovely site, written by another lawyer mom who wrestles with many of the same issues I do–do check it out!

October 30, 2009

Singular and plural

Filed under: Books and writing,legal writing,Uncategorized — Helen Gunnarsson @ 5:15 pm
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An AP article posted this week in the online edition of the Chicago Tribune at,0,5187017.story , “Facebook keeps profiles of people who have died, though removes some features,” disturbed and disappointed me.

 You’re right—the article’s header is awkward.  But what REALLY bothered me was in the text of the article. 

 Here it is:

 “… only the deceased person’s confirmed friends can find them in a search.”

 PLEASE!  Has the AP—or the Tribune—cast aside all grammatical standards?  The word “them” refers to “person.”  “Person” is singular.  “Them,” therefore, is incorrect.

 I know, I know.  You speak this way.  (Full disclosure:  so do I.)  Prose in newspapers and magazines, and even in some documents filed in court, has become increasingly informal, more like speech.  I use an informal, spoken style myself for the articles I write for the Illinois Bar Journal.  It makes articles easier to read for busy people who are short on time and, perhaps, attention span.  So why is it not OK to write this way, too, and use “them,” or “they,” or “their,”  to refer to one person?

 Because it’s just WRONG, dammit.

 This sentence should be revised to read

 “…only the deceased person’s confirmed friends can find HIM OR HER in a search.” 

 Granted, “him or her” is clunky, using three words when you’d prefer one.  So why didn’t the writer—or the editor—follow Rene J. Cappon’s suggestion in “The Word:  An Associated Press Guide to Good News Writing,” by revising the sentence to put the whole business into the plural, like this: 

 “…only the deceased persons’ confirmed friends can find them in a search.”

 Or the writer could have tightened it up even more by eliminating “persons’,” like this:

 “…only the deceased’s confirmed friends can find them in a search.”  (Note that the term “deceased,” when used as a noun, may refer either to a singular dead person or to a multitude of dead people.)

 I shudder when I see this mistake in print, not only in some of what are supposed to be the finest publications in the country but also in court filings.  (Facebook itself consistently uses plural pronouns to refer to its singular users.)  Why on earth would any editor let a construction like this go to print?  Didn’t the writer, or the editors through whose hands the original piece passed, know any better?

I’ve read that, far from being a novelty, recorded examples of this substandard construction go back to Chaucer.  I know it’s inevitable for language and accepted style to change.  I even agree that change is good—that’s how English as we know it not only came into existence but also became so colorful and expressive.  But this is one change to reject.

May 15, 2009

Friday funny

Filed under: Uncategorized — Helen Gunnarsson @ 8:22 am

Start your Friday off right by watching a two-minute video from The Onion: You can subscribe to the video podcast free either there or in the iTunes store.

May 14, 2009

Trash talking

Filed under: Law,legal writing,Uncategorized — Helen Gunnarsson @ 12:04 pm

St. Louis area lawyer Evan Schaeffer has a good post on his Trial Practice Tips Weblog (one of my favorites) at how snide or nasty remarks in briefs nearly always backfire, disposing the judge against you and your arguments (and, therefore, against your client as well) instead of helping the judge to see things your way. 

Schaeffer gives credit to Philadelphia lawyer Maxwell Kennerly, who writes the Litigation & Trial weblog, at for his post; Kennerly, in turn, looked up the brief in question after reading an article in the (subscribers only, alas) Legal Intelligencer and thoughtfully posted it here for all interested parties to read. 

Lawyers should take both Kennerly’s and Schaeffer’s conclusions to heart.  Says Kennerly:  “An opening brief filled with sarcasm will perturb a judge doing his or her best to reserve judgment until they’ve heard both sides just as much as an opening statement filled with indignity will repulse a jury doing their best to be fair and impartial until they’ve heard all of the evidence.”  For his part, Schaeffer comments “Kennerly’s post stands as a good reminder to all of us who write for judges–judges who are always more interested in the facts and the law than our own belly-aching about the other side.”

As an administrative law judge, I saw snide remarks in briefs and oral arguments more frequently than I would have liked, and can attest that Kennerly and Schaeffer are dead on in their conclusions.  I’d add that what’s true in court holds in the rest of life as well.

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