Feb 282013

I’m visiting France for the first time in 10 years, struggling to get my French skills back up to the moderate fluency I’d had before. In thinking about foreign languages I wanted to repost something I’d first blogged when I was still a law student at the end of my semester studying in Germany.

I recently read a cute blog post written by a law student whose toddler son just uttered his first sentence.

“I am struck, as I march wearily through Evidence, at how effortlessly Nathaniel learns. We adults, we must choose to learn something new. We dedicate ourselves to learning consciously. If we didn’t want to learn anything new for the rest of our lives, we could. Plenty of people drift unresisting along that route through life.”

Certainly there is something marvelous, as she goes on to describe, about how children are so inexorably drawn to learning new things, and how they do it so easily. But for grown-ups, maybe it’s not that we’re any less adept at learning but that what’s left for us to learn is things like Evidence. Something that’s learned in a much more mechanical, deliberate, and less-rewarding fashion than the really cool, substantive stuff like walking and talking.

The other day I went back to the bike shop I’ve visited several times since I’ve been in Germany, including in the first few weeks when I had almost no German skills whatsoever. Back then I had to make the staff speak to me in English, since there was no way anything would get communicated otherwise. But on this day I strode in confidently. I asked my German friend for just one word, the particular one for the part I needed. “Why don’t you just ask them for it in English?” he asked. But I couldn’t do that. Not here, anyway. I needed to do this in German. It was a matter of pride.

So armed with my word I went up to the counter and asked for what I needed. The whole conversation only consisted of a few sentences back and forth, but it was indeed back and forth. I asked for what I wanted, the clerk responded with a question, I answered it, and then he provided the information I needed. By the end of it we both understood each other perfectly.

Outside my friend marveled at how quickly I’d learned to speak that well. Now, let’s not kid anyone: I’m only barely functional in German, and my conversational ability is strongly limited by my tiny vocabulary. And what I can say I may not always say quite right, or quite smoothly. But I can communicate in this language, that is clear. And maybe my friend is right to be impressed.

The thing is, it was easy to learn. Surprisingly easy. And much easier than learning things like Evidence. Because unlike rote, mechanical things like Evidence, learning a language is a dynamic process full of reinforcing affirmations. It wasn’t something I learned abstractly and then took a test for, after which I needed to wait days or even weeks for feedback on whether I’d learned anything at all. Learning German in Germany meant that I got feedback immediately, on the spot, with every word I uttered. That dawning look of understanding on the other person’s face, it helped to immediately cement in my brain everything new I’d absorbed.

It does matter, of course, tremendously, that I learned German in a German-speaking place. Learning a language in a rote form, far removed from anyone you could connect to with it, is much like learning Evidence. I gave up Latin in high school for that very reason — it always felt like learning algebra, something with memorizable formulas but no spark of life. But I switched to Spanish in an environment where, although it is a living language, I was so detached from anyone who lived in that language that the educational experience was just like learning Evidence too: a discrete set of material to be learned and memorized, but nothing more than that. And so while I can truthfully say I’ve learned Spanish – I studied it quite a bit over several years – it’s still not a language I can (so far) in any way say I truly know how to speak.

But in the right environment, somewhere where you can explore and decode language with each breath you take and be rewarded for your discovery almost immediately, language is amazingly easy to learn, no matter how old you are – whether you’re toddler in your parents’ arms or a grown-up in a new neighborhood.

Or at the very least, it’s much easier than Evidence.

Feb 272013

In walking through the Frankfurt Airport yesterday I was struck by how difficult it was to tell that I was in Germany. The only hallmarks seemed to be the volume of Lufthansa flights boarding and the proliferation of pretzels at various eating establishments. Otherwise there was very little to indicate it was a German airport. For instance, English was not only ubiquitous, but at times it was the default language (ie, the airport even refers to itself as the “Frankfurt Airport,” and not the Frankfurt “Flughafen,” and some advertisements lining its corridors were written entirely in English with no German whatsoever – like the one for Avis car rentals…). Meanwhile the currency is all the same as many of its neighbors, cell phones roam easily from one country’s carrier to another, and traveling between countries is a simple matter of walking on and off a quick flight and then right out the door.

I don’t describe all this as a complaint, per se, but it did prompt a “kids these days” sort of reaction as I recalled my own first serious backpacking trips traversing Europe. Back then (1995 and 1996) Europe had already just changed rather drastically in that the Iron Curtain had just fallen, which opened up areas and cultures that had previously been walled off (often literally) from the rest of the continent. But even in western Europe passports still needed to be shown at country borders, money changed in each one, and separate phrase books consulted. Each country seemed very far away from every other one, and each retained a very different language, culture, food, coinage, telephony, and general aesthetic from its neighbors. Half the point of a European travel adventure then was to have to get to and cope with each one throughout the journey.

Which, as one must now imagine, was often difficult. Pan-European travel is undeniably much easier today, and certainly MUCH easier than it has been for so much of history. And in many ways the new status quo is definitely a good thing. The more separate and distinct each European nation was, the more likely it was to war with its neighbors. Having a common sense of European community is tremendously important to the overall success and stability of the entire region.

But how much needed to be overcome in order to reach this point is an important lesson of history, and one that can so easily be forgotten as the challenges, and with them even some of the charms, of a more localized Europe fade so quickly into the past.

Feb 182013

I’ve always thought it sad somehow that people tend to groan at a pun. To be fair, a pun is a little hard to react to because it’s not humorous in an obvious, laugh-eliciting way. For a regular joke, or an obviously humorous situation, a laugh is an instinctive, immediate reaction to our recognition of an unexpected absurdity, some sort of ironic contrast between what was anticipated and what was observed. But a pun’s humor is often more subtle. It usually has to be thought about or processed somehow, thus evoking a slower reaction, and its humor is often less starkly obvious. As a result, I think people just don’t know how to react, because a laugh doesn’t just tumble out automatically after hearing one. And in that moment of awkwardness people likely groan in order to shift the embarrassment they feel from being confused as to how to react back onto the originator of the pun.

Still, while understandable, I think it’s disappointing that people do that. A pun, a quality pun, is a special thing that deserves appreciation. It’s your own limitation if you can’t do that; the originator hardly deserves your scorn. Unless, of course, it’s a stupid pun. The kind that’s so awkward and contrived that it needs to be followed by an elbow to the ribs and a “Get it? Get it?” Go ahead and groan at those, because they’re just stupid.

But a quality pun, an efficient package of wit, deserves a more positive reaction, like a genuine giggle upon fully appreciating what was said. It takes some sophistication on the part of the originator to be able to cull from a vocabulary of all possible words just the right verbiage appropriate for the situation that can then be lobbed like a stealth grenade into the listener’s brain, sneaking it into their consciousness where it can then explode in a glow of realized humor. When that realization happens, a giggle – at minimum – should be the natural articulation of the tickle that it makes.

And a particularly well-timed pun should be further admired as a thing of beauty on its own. These are the puns for whom it seems there is exactly one set of circumstances in which their humor could be fully actualized. Said at any other point their brilliance would have paled. It’s almost as if the pun was waiting for its moment, or that the moment was waiting for its pun, and, because it would have been so easy for that unification to have forever gone unrequited, when convergence is able to be achieved it’s really something to savor.

Originally posted on my old blog.

Feb 162013

The following is a post that I had originally written in 2004 when I was a law student for my old “Great Change” blog. Given that patent reform remains a salient, timely issue — ie, see President Obama’s comments from this past week — I thought it would be a good time to repost it.

Today I took my first trip to the Patent Office for a meeting. It’s in a newish building in Crystal City, Washington’s urban-planning answer to La Defense in Paris.

The meeting aside, I approached the building with a sense of reverence, in no small part because of this letter to the editor I found in the New York Times archives:

To the Editor of the New York Times:

To the majority of uninformed inventors and the hundreds of applicants for patents, the charges of an inventor that the ills of our patent system are concentrated in the United States Patent Office and its personnel should call for further investigation. Another avenue has been opened to undermine and shake the confidence of American business. Another governmental agency is charged with being corrupt and dishonest, favoring big business and destroying the initiative of the individual inventor.

With the exception of the few Presidential appointees, the entire staff of the Patent Office is under Civil Service. Promotions in the various grades of examiners are made as the result of rigid promotion examinations and length of service. The rulings of the examiners and even the Commissioner of Patents himself are subject to review of the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia. The personnel of the Patent Office is one of the highest in the field of scientific endeavor, and the honesty and integrity of the individual examiners has always been considered as being second to none. In all my experience, both inside and outside the Patent Office, not a single charge of irregularity imputed to an examiner or appointed Patent Office official has ever been sustained.

No system built up on court decisions and past rulings of former Commissioners by which a governmental agency or bureau is guided can be perfect. Time changes all things, even the Patent Office. There may be just cause of complaint that the system is too costly; that too long a time intervenes before a patent is granted, and that the interference procedure is so complicated that court rulings are often in conflict. This condition is not the fault of the Patent Office, because the examiners are governed by Congress and the courts. It is immaterial to the examiner whether one contestant or another is successful in a litigation in the Patent Office. As a matter of fact, it may be charged that the examiners are too lenient in the granting of patents, with the result that inventors are often misled as to their limited rights and subsequently become involved in litigation. The benefit of a doubt is invariably resolved in favor of the individual inventor, and the Patent Office attempts to encourage him to reduce his invention to practice.

For years the Patent Office has not had the requisite number of employes[sic] to conduct its work with dispatch. It is one of the very few self-supporting agencies of the Government, and yet many of its divisions are months behind in their work. The Patent Office building is a relic of Civil War days, and a part of the work is conducted in the old Land Office building. There are now over 70,000 pending applications — nearly 1,350 applications for each examiner. Congress and not the Patent Office is responsible to the inventor.

Aaron L. Applebaum, New York, December 19, 1927.

At the time he wrote this letter was a patent lawyer who had also worked in the Patent Office for many years. And so it seems I will not be the first IP attorney in the family: he was also my great-grandfather.