Sep 052018

I’ll begin with a disclosure: I tend to vote blue.  I don’t like my fellow Americans going hungry, or having to choose between being ill or being bankrupt (or both), or not having control over their bodies (especially if they’re women).  And unfortunately the Democrats have been the only game in town to reliably share these values.

At the same time, while I lean blue, I’m not deaf to red.  I can hear the merit to many things Republicans have to say, particularly to the extent that they counsel government restraint and fiscal responsibility.  Even when I don’t agree with their full conclusions, I can still respect the value of their input.  And I have no problem with advocating for more reddish policies when I think they would ultimately be more effective in actually achieving liberal values than those that are more bluish, as often is the case.

Which is why, even though I was disappointed in the choices of Gorsuch and Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, I have not been panicked.  True, each of these judges have, at times, espoused ideas that gave me pause. And I worry that they lack enough empathy for others’ lived experience to understand how the law they define may or may not actually be just.  But at the same time, both are educated, intelligent, thoughtful jurists, before whom equally capable lawyers can advocate to bring about the judicial results that will best preserve liberty for all.

Which is also why I say the following: as a credible jurist, Judge Kavanaugh should withdraw his Supreme Court nomination.  The power of the president to award a life appointment in the nation’s highest court presumes that this power was derived from elections that were free and fair.  Yet today there is ample reason to doubt that the last presidential election met these criteria and that the exercise of this appointment power legitimate. Continue reading »

Sep 012018

I went to the American Museum of Natural History in NY the other day and was shocked at how bad it was.

As a kid I went all the time, and some of the bits I remembered fondly (the dinosaurs, the blue whale) are still there, looking impressive.  But now that I’m an adult and should be better able to appreciate a museum, I found myself unable to appreciate this one.

Part of the problem stems from how much was the same.  It may be no exaggeration to say I have not set foot in the place since the 1980s.  But it may also be no exaggeration to say that many of the exhibits look like they haven’t been touched since the 1980s either.  The older ones are not only looking ragged from age (lots of lights were out in the exhibits) but they are also extremely dated in their presentation.  It was often hard to figure out what we were looking at, and even when there were words, they were frustratingly unclear (“The bowl just above”?  Just above what?).

Worse, descriptions they had were often awkwardly paternalistic in tone.  Museum practices have evolved in the intervening thirty years or so, yet quite a few of the exhibits have not.  Particularly in the exhibits for the peoples of the world, they bordered on offensive, but even to the extent that they weren’t, they still were often jarringly over-simplistic.  Great swaths of land, myriad different peoples, and thousands of years of humanity were all lumped together in some of these rooms, and yet somehow we were supposed to learn something from these exhibits.  We could not figure out what.  The room on Central American peoples wasn’t quite as bad as some of the others (and appeared to have been a bit more recently done) but the African one was worse than useless.  On one wall we found an undated map (in fact most objects on display in the museum were undated) purporting to show where in Africa various tribes lived, but it was obviously incomplete, did not reflect the habit of people to travel into other tribes’ regions, and in fact was actually more a map of governed regions than actually a map of tribes, as it was labeled.  Given that genocidal acts have arisen over tribal tensions, the map (and many other aspects of the exhibit) seemed to constitute educational malpractice in its utter failure to provide actual illumination.

Of course, I’m actually not sure why, in a museum about natural history, it had even bothered to have exhibits on peoples when it would never have the space to do them justice.  But even in the exhibits on actual animals, which would seem to be in the museum’s wheelhouse, the incomplete nature of the exhibits was conspicuous.  True, there were a lot of oceanic specimens, all sort of hung on the wall in an overwhelming way.  But I was interested in African birds, having actually been to Africa and seen some rather spectacular birds there.  But these specimens were nowhere to be seen.  Surely the museum’s collections themselves are not so limited, but there was little rhyme or reason to many of the exhibits explaining why the limited number of items presented were important for us to see at all, let alone more important than all the many items we could not see.

Even some of the more recently redone exhibits, like the dinosaur ones, suffered similar problems.  Although they were generally much better, they still tended to leave visitors with more questions than answers.  In one room, for instance, there is a gigantic dinosaur, which is a quite recent discovery.  The curators made a point of saying that they were only able to find 84 actual fossils, and the rest of the dinosaur was constructed by making models of what they guessed was missing.  Great, but it would have been nice to know which were the 84 actual bones and which were the guesses.  (This dinosaur also had noticeably long vertebrae in the neck, but if there was any description explaining why anywhere in the room it was not equally noticeable.)

The museum was so bad that it got to the point that when we were looking at the map, trying to decide what to see next, the decision really became what to allow ourselves to be disappointed by next.  And every time we managed to learn an actual, insightful fact we pointedly celebrated the rare feat it represented.  To be fair, we didn’t have time to get to every exhibit.  But by the time we left, we had lost interest in trying to.

It’s always hard to visit beloved places from one’s childhood, because it’s always hard for reality to live up to a romanticized memory.  But this museum didn’t disappoint because it fell short of nostalgic expectation; it disappointed because it fell short of the educational standards we ought to be able to expect from our museums.  The American Museum of Natural History is supposed to be a world class museum.  But I’ve been to world class museums around the world, and this one isn’t.  It certainly charges admission prices as though it is, although – and I appreciated this – you can pay your own price, which certainly helps make the education a museum like this is supposed to provide more accessible.  But any price is too high when that educational value turns out to be so surprisingly illusory.  Especially with its add-on fees for special exhibits (maybe they were actually educational?) it seemed far more like a tourist trap instead of the institute for learning it is supposed to be.

Mar 082018

Law schools have increasingly been offering courses in alternative dispute resolution.  I had the privilege of taking such a course during my semester abroad in Germany, in a class with students from all over the world.

The reason law schools have been including such courses in their curriculum is because in certain circumstances an alternative form of dispute resolution can be more effective than a traditional courtroom action.  The question, though, is which circumstances,

I wrote the following for my ADR class during that semester abroad in an attempt to answer that question.

In thinking about the merits of alternative dispute resolution, I’m reminded of my own experience with it, an experience which exemplified some of the plusses and minuses of these extra-judicial conflict resolution techniques. Continue reading »

Nov 302017

All the revelations about inappropriate sexual behavior among so many of the country’s male entertainment and political figures got me thinking about how even as a swim teacher, where we necessarily had to wear next to nothing, we were still able to behave professionally.

And that reminded me of this post I wrote back in law school in response to a poorly-reasoned decision by Judge Kozinski, where he justified needlessly sexualized dresscodes, inequitably burdensome on women, with a throw-away line rooted in an incorrect assumption about what swim teachers wear.

As someone who taught swimming lessons for over twenty years, including up through law school and even a few years thereafter, I decided I was qualified to write the following post disabuse him, and anyone else, of such a view.

Strategic planning, empathy, tailoring one’s communication appropriately for one’s audience: these are all things that any swimming teacher and litigator must be able to do. Think convincing a jury is tough? Try getting a stubborn four year old to put his face in the water…

It also now seems that my alternate career has prepared me for significant constitutional inquiry as well. Note the question recently posed by Judge Kozinski in the en banc hearing of Jespersen v. Harrah’s:

“What if you employed swim [instructors] and you required they wear bathing suits? … I think it’s probably true that women’s bathing suits are more expensive.”

Well as it happens I can tell him a thing or two about that, having been a swimming teacher every summer (save three) since 1989. Continue reading »

Oct 122017

Robert Kagan had an op-ed in the Washington Post lamenting the state of the Republican party as the party of Trump. It was interesting and principled food for thought, which is also the opinion I drew when I heard him speak as a law student. He had come to speak at my German law school during my semester there, and what follows is a lightly-edited version of what I posted after hearing his comments. Originally posted November 19, 2005, and interesting little time capsule, especially in light of Brexit.

As part of a continuing series of “Transatlantic Lectures,” Bucerius invited Robert Kagan to speak last week. I admit, I was wary of his presentation going into it. He had been described to me as being a Neocon, and therefore someone whose world views I would often find quite frightening in their obstinate and isolationist arrogance.

But while I think his argument requires rebuttal, I don’t think it requires excoriation. He didn’t present himself as the kind of Neanderthal conservative who threatens allies with “either you’re with us or against us” admonitions, or rushes to rename foodstuffs in protest of those who would resist acquiescing to all of America’s wishes. Rather, Kagan impressed me as one of those all-too-rare Americans who understands there is a world out there beyond our borders and actually has made an effort to get to know it. Moreover, he recognized that Americans and Europeans are different, and that there are very good reasons – historical and cultural – for those differences. He didn’t therefore rabidly insist that Europeans do things the American way, but at the same time, his argument nonetheless recommended Europe be more like America in a key way: by becoming an equivalent military power. Continue reading »

Jul 172017

The following is the second part of the travelogue I wrote following a two-week trip to Israel and the Balkans 7/24/04-8/08/04.  Slightly edited a few times since.

After leaving Israel I landed in Frankfurt Saturday evening and had a few hours to catch my night train to Vienna. I dug out the reservation I had made the previous week and found the car with my berth. The compartment was empty, except for me. I made my bed and went to sleep.

Do I need to continue here? Or can you tell that something is about to go wrong?

The train stops in other major cities on the way to its destination. In Mannheim a family got on and came into my compartment. That was fine, there was room for five more people. Unfortunately there were 6 new people. And I was the one in the wrong place. Actually, not so much the wrong place as the wrong time. I was traveling on July 31, and apparently the reservation had been made for that exact spot – on August 31. Fortunately the extra person agreed to sleep elsewhere so I got to stay where I was. Just so much for best laid plans and all.

I only had an hour in Vienna to change trains, so after buying some food for the journey I got on board for the very long trip through the tip of Austria, into Hungary with a stop in Budapest (tourism officials boarded the train, handing out maps and making hotel reservations before arrival), before heading south into Serbia. Following what I think was the Danube the terrain was flat and unremarkable, although full of agriculture (and a lot of sunflowers). The train was on schedule when it hit the Serbian border but then went very slowly into Belgrade. I thought it was interesting that by the time we arrived, new cars had been added. Cars with destination signs saying “Moscow-Belgrade” and “Kiev-Belgrade.” I definitely wasn’t in Kansas anymore… Continue reading »

Jul 172017

I wrote the following after a trip to Israel, Germany, and the Balkans 7/24/04-8/08/04.

Everything is connected to everything else. On a plane the year before I’d met my friend Jon. He and I stayed in touch, and when earlier this summer he said to me, “My girlfriend and I are going to Israel, would you like to come?” I naturally said “Sure!”

It was yet another trip booked with frequent flier miles, 75,000 of them. The plan was to fly Lufthansa from Washington to Tel Aviv via Frankfurt. (The Star Alliance is indeed a handy thing.) The ticket permitted a stopover in the transfer city, so I booked a weeklong layover in Frankfurt on the return from Israel. I figured I could always find something to do in Europe for a week, even if it was just going to France and hanging out on the beach, practicing my French. Continue reading »

Jul 152017

This is the third installment describing my trip to Poland.  It was also originally posted in October 2005 as three separate posts, which have been edited down into this single one.

After leaving Suwalki I returned to Warsaw.  Happily I could easily find my hotel, which turned out to have its quirks.  It was basically fine and I’d stay there again (location, location, location) but the interiors of the rooms had some questionable aesthetics. Lots of brown… I felt like I’d stepped into someone’s den from the 1970s.

The room did have a TV, which I stayed up too late watching. There was a great musical cabaret show on a Polish channel, which featured a string quartet that reminded me of Canadian Brass (classical music expressed with a sense of humor). Then I watched a bit of Mad About You dubbed in German. Unfortunately it turns out that there’s a vast difference between Paul Reiser saying in his sarcastic New York accent, “Excuse me?” and a dubbed Germanic voice instead saying, “Entschuldigung?” Still, even poorly translated this show was better than the German sitcom that seemed to be one long stupid joke about the husband failing to have an erection. Meanwhile, on BBC World, the sky was still falling. OK, I know there are bad things in the world and it’s good that someone tells us about them, but, still, the BBC news coverage was a bit much. The most uplifting segment I saw them show during the whole two days I got to watch it was on advances in artificial limbs, which is only a happy subject if you don’t stop to consider why people actually need artificial limbs.

Then another Polish channel had a movie that was mostly in Polish but subtitled in English. It wasn’t very good. It was one of those morose European flicks full of melodramatic silences and a darkened city full of no one but the movie’s sinister characters. I wonder, though, if this is not because European filmmakers can’t afford the extras needed to make a place look populated? I’ve seen French films like this too, although they usually include some gloomy dialog where the protagonist waif explains how her parents had both killed themselves and that’s why she’s throwing herself into the clutches of an emotionally-scarred man three times her age. Or at least the one I watched while in Poland was like this…

Anyway, in the Polish movie at one point one bad guy suddenly started speaking to the other bad guy in English. I’m not sure why; they seemed to both be Polish. Maybe they thought it sounded tougher? They thought wrong. The older one, his accent was ok, but his pacing was off. Perhaps he couldn’t really speak English and he learned his lines phonetically, which would explain the erratic diction. I wouldn’t make fun of someone’s language limitations, but I think it’s perfectly legitimate to criticize the filmmaker who wrote his dreadful dialog and directed the performance. The “sit your ass down!” demand was delivered so out of sync from the way any English-speaking heavy would have actually said it that I was surprised the other bad guy didn’t start giggling. (I did.) Then he punctuated his threat with, “Dig it?” I get the sense that the filmmaker perhaps once stayed in my hotel and got confused about what decade it was…

The room also included breakfast, which was an elaborate buffet: cold cuts, all sorts of cheeses, hard boiled eggs, poached eggs, scrambled eggs, cereals, fruit, coffee cake, breads with butter and jams, sausage and some other hot meats, juice, tea, coffee… Sadly however I only had about 20 minutes to enjoy it in order to catch my next train to Krakow. Continue reading »

Jul 142017

The following post continues the description of my visit to Poland that I took during my time as a law student in Germany.  Originally written as multiple posts in October 2005 and is the portion that best explains why I was taking the trip.

I did it again: I picked a spot on the map, and then went to go see what it was like.

The place I went to see was Suwalki, a town in the very northeast of Poland. In fact, it’s so northeastern that it hasn’t always been part of Poland. Within the past two centuries it’s also been claimed by Russia and Lithuania.

It’s a bit off the beaten trail. My Lonely Planet Eastern Europe book didn’t even list it, and it takes at least 5 hours to get to by train. (However, that says more about the speed of the train than the distance… It goes pretty fast to Bialystok, which is about two-thirds the way there, then turns into a local train that goes much slower the rest of the way. Plus they have to change the engine at a certain point because the tracks are no longer electrified.) But I had a particular reason for being there. Continue reading »