Jul 132014

A few things happened today: Germany won the World Cup, and I ended up in several unsettling conversations about the current contretemps between Israel and Hamas, which somehow led to a German friend saying something to the extent that the Holocaust was 70 years ago and it was time for Jews to get over their sense of victimhood.

I won’t debate that point here right now (I’ve already railed in unconstructive astonishment on social media…) but I decided that the convergence of events today warranted republishing this post I wrote in law school, during the semester when I studied in Germany.

I’m really enjoying my time here in Germany. I’m learning a lot of interesting law, meeting lots of really nice people, learning the language… I’m really glad I came, and as an American student I’m being made to feel very welcome at the school, in the city, and in the country.

But I’m not just an American. I’m also Jewish, and it’s hard to think about being Jewish in Germany without stumbling upon the elephant in the room: what happened 60-70 years ago. It’s the history we’ve all inherited – but to what end? I know relatives and acquaintances who refuse to set foot in Germany, not out of any sense of personal fear (although there probably is some distrust that the virulent anti-Semitism is truly a thing of the past) but more out of a lingering anger for those horrible crimes perpetuated against so many people, and particularly against people like us.

I can’t dismiss their feelings: they are a reasonable reaction to an incomprehensibly horrible tragedy that I would not want to minimize, nor encourage others to minimize. But at the same time, it’s completely unintuitive to me to dig my heels in and continue to punish a nation of strangers. On the contrary, it seems that the complete opposite is called for. Hatred festers in the distrust unfamiliarity breeds. The thing to do, it has always seemed to me, is to take affirmative steps to not be strangers anymore. Continue reading »

May 252014

A few years ago, in response to the Susan G. Komen foundation pulling its support of Planned Parenthood, I tweeted in disgust, “Politicizing women’s health makes me sick.” This tweet then led to an interview with a writer for the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women for an article considering whether we were facing a “war on women.”

As part of that interview I called myself a “very reluctant feminist.” I’ve always thought that gender shouldn’t matter. People are people, and we all are just trying to do the best we can.

And yet, who are we kidding? The sua sponte spawning of the #YesAllWomen hashtag shows just how much a myth it is that women have an equal seat at the table of life.

I suppose I’ve always known this in some way, and after publishing my contribution to the #YesAllWomen tweetstream today I decided to repost something I blogged in law school considering this very issue. Continue reading below the jump.

Continue reading »

May 112014

Warren Agin’s blog post on the survivability of contracts during bankruptcy prompted me to resurrect this blog post I had written on my law school blog during my semester studying in Germany.

In my French class* yesterday:

Me (reading aloud): “La resolution de contrat, lorsque celui-ci est syn… synal… synallagmatique?”

Teacher (in French): “It’s the same word as in German.”

Me: [sigh]

Actually, the word exists in English too: “synallagmatic.” But it’s not a word I’ve ever encountered before, not even in law school. Although interestingly, Dictionary.com says it means “bilateral” in Louisiana civil law. I suspect, however, that it may mean “bilateral” in a distinctively civil law sense. In the common law system of contracts, when we mean bilateral we say “bilateral,” but then our whole perception of the directional dynamics of a contractual agreement may be significantly different from those in civil law systems.

Take German law, for instance. German contractual law includes the concept of separation. This means that in any transaction involving the transfer of ownership of some good, there are at least three separate agreements bound up in the transaction:

– A contract for the sale of the good
– A contract to transfer the ownership of the good, and
– A contract to transfer ownership of the money used to pay for the good

These agreements may be thought of as three strands twirled into one rope. And, by analogous extension, as we all understand ropes to work, cutting one strand will not necessarily cause the whole rope to be cut. (This separate strand-cutting is known as the principle of abstraction.) In other words, just because one contract fails does not mean the entire deal fails too.

To a common law American, this situation may seem strange. If one of those strands gets broken, how can the rest remain? We generally see each strand as a condition necessary for the contract to retain its overall enforceability. For instance, if the ownership of the bargained-for good has been transferred, but the money has not been paid, how can the party who received the good still keep it? Under American contract law, he couldn’t. But even under German law he likely couldn’t either, although via different legal reasoning than American law.
Continue reading »

Sep 082013

In light of the news of a proposal being floated to name the new span of the San Francisco Bay Bridge after former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, I thought I would repost what I wrote a few years ago about naming civic structures after politicians generally. Short answer: I’m against it, and I use another Bay Area bridge as an example of how civic structures should better be named. (Note also the post-script at the end.)

In the days where naming rights to every civic structure are routinely sold to the highest bidder, it’s nice to see things get named after a deserving and appropriate person.

California just completed a new suspension bridge (in the Bay Area, crossing the Carquinez Strait carrying eastbound I-80 traffic) and named it the Alfred Zampa Memorial Bridge. According to CNN (Update: link may no longer be active):

[The bridge] is named for an ironworker who fell from the Golden Gate Bridge during its construction in 1936 and survived to help build six more bridges in the Bay Area.

Zampa died in 2000 at 95, weeks after turning the first shovel of dirt for the bridge.

He sounds like a worthy recipient of the honor of having the bridge named after, and certainly much more worthy than others who’ve had civil engineering projects named after them like, say, Ronald Reagan. Someone wrote on the Internet somewhere (I forget where) that it was tremendously ironic to name an airport after the man who had fired all the air traffic controllers.

I think it would be advisable to make a rule (either codified, or simply as a hegemonically and tacitly socially agreed-upon tradition) not to name things after people until 50 years after their death. This would give us a chance to really reflect on these people’s contribution to society and decide if, on retrospect, we still feel highly enough about them to justify the honor. Also, particularly in the case of political figures, such a policy would prevent the naming of structures that everyone shares for people whose politics not everyone necessarily favored.

True, Zampa died only a few years ago, but it’s not like he was a political figure whose supporters called in political favors to have the structure named after him. And the story of his contributions to the Bay Area’s infrastructure makes naming a bridge after him seem very appropriate. Perhaps if it was a baseball stadium they wanted to name after him I would feel differently. But then again, if it would prevent another recurrence of an Enron Field…

The preceding was originally posted November 10, 2003. A few months later, on another post, came the following comment by Ronald Zampa:

I like your commentary regarding the naming of things. Alfred Zampa was my grandfather and a local legend. There never was a more down to earth individual. He started building bridges on the first Carquinez in 1926 and the rest is history. I wish more of the structures in America were named after the people that did the work to build this country.

Jul 142013

I wrote this originally on July 14, 2003, shortly after the US decided to invade Iraq.

It’s Bastille Day and a great time to comment on all things French.

On Friday the Sofitel Hotel in Redwood Shores hosted a party to celebrate an early Bastille Day. It wasn’t all that much fun – way too American! (The band should have played French music!) – but I got to catch up with my friend Valerie, an actual French person, and there were fireworks afterwards. We spoke French a little as well and I was happy to see I haven’t forgotten it all despite not having been in France since March. When I’m in France my French skills sort of warm up and I get more fluid with my speaking. But I don’t practice much when I’m in the US because it just doesn’t seem intuitive to describe life in the US in French. French fits France: the roads, the buildings, the people, the food, the life, the light, the French ambience in its entirety. But in the US, and maybe California in particular, the spaces are broader and, how shall I say it, differently colored? There is a rhythm to life which requires the English vocabulary and its broader phoenetic syllables to describe. Whereas IN France the opposite is true and English feels clunky and ineffectual.

Apparently last year for Bastille Day the Sofitel Hotel hung a gigantic French flag off of their building. This year I guess they’ve chosen to be more subdued. I think it’s an absolute shame that they think they need to. There was a recent article in the New York Times about how American families were refusing to host French foreign exchange students. Such behavior is absolutely appalling.

  • Even if we assume that the French have done something unforgivable, what sense does it make to penalize students?
  • Given the rift between our respective cultures, what sense does it make to deny ourselves the opportunities to build bridges between us that foreign exchanges afford?
  • Even if we accept the most cynical assessment of Chirac’s motivation for not agreeing with the US on Iraq, I don’t believe, from my experience meeting real live actual French people in France, that the French reluctance to invade Iraq was based on anything other than reasonable, rationale, and humane concerns.
  • If either country has behaved in a way that requires apologizing, it’s not France. All things considered I think the French have been tolerating tremendous American arrogance with astonishing equanimity. I’ve not heard of an example of the French being nearly as inhospitable to Americans as we are being to them.

Not to mention how foolish this attitude is if it turns out that the French were right about Iraq.

I just find it unfathomable that there are Americans who would tell me that to support my country I need to now hate the French. I didn’t go to all the trouble to learn their language just so I could lord myself over them in a misplaced sense of haughty patriotism. I think, rather, that it would be advisable for more Americans to go to the trouble to try to see things from the French perspective. And rather than continue to resent them for WWII, if we are determined to rely on history to justify our contemporary relationships, perhaps we would be better served by recalling the contributions of Lafayette, or perhaps the gift of the Statue of Liberty, or any other of a number unsung occasions of the French supporting Americans.

May 042013

Another repost from my old blog:

Last night I helped my dad clear the table. “Where do we put the trivet?” I asked.

Then I interrupted myself. “What a useless word, ‘trivet.’ In a way it’s nice that there’s such a precise word for this specific thing, but it’s sort of a waste of mental space to have to know a word that almost never gets used.”

To which my dad said, “Oh, I don’t know. I try to use it three to four times a day.”

And then, over the course of the rest of the evening, he did. Of course, not always in its original meaning, as a noun describing a portable flat surface upon which one sets hot dishes. Sometimes he used it as a verb or an adjective. Which necessarily involved adding some new meanings to its definition, as the context it was used in would dictate.

At first its meaning fluctuated somewhat randomly, but over the course of the evening it did seem to take on a consistent usage. As an adjective it sort of described a state of flummoxed confusion. In fact, in a way it described that particular condition better than any other actual English word did. So much so that I think the word “trivet” (or, in this case, “triveted”) should be adopted for common parlance.

I suspect it could be done so successfully, because at one point my sister had wandered into the room and overheard my dad inserting the word into conversation. It was perfectly clear to me what he was saying when he used it, but not so my sister who had never come across this word before (despite her rather expansive vocabulary). Completely trusting that it was an actual word in an actual dictionary, she asked my dad what it meant so she could add it to her repertoire. I think she genuinely expected that it would have some lengthy etymology, dating back perhaps all the way to Ancient Greece. As opposed to the backyard, an hour earlier.

 Posted by at 4:18 pm
Mar 262013

I wrote this when I was in law school. I always kind of liked it as a piece of writing. I also think it remains a perfectly sound theory…

BoingBoing has a post about an author of a book on parasites, which explains, among other things, that there is a parasite in cat feces that can affect humans – making women more friendly and men into jerks.

Perhaps that’s why my August 2000 turned out the way it did. I had been living, catlessly, with my boyfriend for 13 months. He really wanted to get a cat, but I resisted. It’s not that I object to the concept of a cat, but I am not comfortable with their logistical realities: smelly input and output, and the long-term commitment any house pet requires. How could we go places? How could we travel? Having a cat would seem to instill a burdensome complexity in our lives that I thought we were better off without.

Still, I wasn’t anti-cat, per se. Just like everyone else I thought the stray kitten we found frolicking at the bottom of the stairs of our garden apartment was incredibly cute and charming. To the point that I tossed and turned all night worrying about what would happen to it. It was not an idle concern: we discovered later that the cat had been living across the street — a four-lane street, which was hardly conducive to safe cat crossing! But she and her two brothers were all strays that a neighbor had been leaving some food out for. And that was about to end as her husband insisted that they be taken to the humane society. Word had it though that if they ended up there, after three days they’d all be put down. But this little calico seemed way too sweet and friendly to allow that to happen to.

So we brought her home — temporarily. Some friends of mine at my job worked with a cat rescue organization, and as a favor to me agreed to take her and get her adopted out. But they couldn’t do that right away so we took her in for a couple of days.

We named her Bovina because her calico spots made her look like a cow. She wasn’t too young — my boyfriend thought she was the equivalent of a teenager — but lots of things were new to her and she seemed to enjoy exploring our apartment. For this brief period I didn’t mind having a pet. She was very affectionate and nice to pet and I genuinely cared about what happened to her. But I knew I couldn’t commit to taking care of her, so instead I did what I could to find her a nice home elsewhere.

Soon my friends came to take the cat away and get her ready for adoption. Shortly thereafter, my boyfriend also moved out. We’d been having issues, but the move-out came as a surprise to me: I came home from work one day to find half the furniture gone! I was not thrilled with him, to say the least. But now I understand – perhaps this assholishness was caused by the parasite! He obviously couldn’t help himself — the cat made him do it!

It did seem bitterly ironic that within less than a month, I’d managed to lose both a cat and a partner. The apartment had rapidly gone from very crowded to very empty. But I do think it was all for the best. Look at my life now: I travel the world hither and yon, having all sorts of adventures. How could I do all that if I were tied down by a long-term commitment?

And what would I have done with the cat?

 Posted by at 8:50 am  Tagged with:
Mar 012013

As long as I’m reposting items from the blog I kept while I was a law student, I should include this one because there has been an important update.

For some context, I did a semester of my 3L year in Hamburg at Bucerius Law School. The first private law school in Germany, it funded itself in part through the sponsorship of large law firms.

The Clifford Chance Napping Room

The other day some German students were discussing how Bucerius really needs to build a “napping room,” perhaps with an LCD screen that should easily show new nappers which beds were available. In case of high demand, they could also be put on a timing mechanism, kind of like the showers in train stations. (I used one once in Copenhagen: you get 30 minutes for your shower, and when the time’s up, the door is going to open whether you’re ready or not…)

One student then suggested that perhaps Clifford Chance could sponsor the “napping room.” After all, other rooms in the school had been sponsored by leading law firms, like Linklaters and White and Case. But Clifford Chance does not (yet) have a room of its own, and the students thought this might provide the perfect sponsorship opportunity.

“Do you have napping rooms at your schools in the US?” the students asked me.

“Yeah, but we call them libraries.”

Anyway, the upshot is, apparently Bucerius does indeed now have a napping room. I’m not sure if Clifford Chance sponsored it, but if it would like the opportunity to, every law school everywhere could certainly use their own…

 Posted by at 6:15 am
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 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.