Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Things That Make You Go "Hmm..."

NYU Law School.


Sunday, January 29, 2006


Out of control, yes, but I had no idea things were this far out of control.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Nonplussed No More

When I first heard about the now-notorious James Frey and his now-notorious lie, "A Million Little Pieces," I will admit I was nonplussed. So a memoirist lied, and a bunch of people bought his book as a result. Big deal. Literary hoaxes have a long and noble history, right? I mean, I guess people who bought his book as an alternative to the therapy they so desperately required might have legitimate grounds to be pissed off, but...

However, now that I've read the first two pages of the book, I understand the outrage. And it has nothing to do with alternatives to therapy, and everything to do with why I couldn't read past the first two pages.

I think people are righteously pissed off about Frey's book because they were fooled. Not misled; not lied to; not even bamboozled: they were fooled. Made fools of. Because if, on reading just the opening couple of paragraphs of "A Million Little Pieces," you had actually been made to believe that such a transparently fabricated story could ever actually possibly have occurred anywhere in this world... then you would naturally feel badly used, not to say humiliated, when you belatedly discovered the obvious truth.

I mean, the book opens as its narrator wakes up alone, covered with blood and snot, with a hole in his cheek, in the middle of a commercial airline flight, for God's sake, with no idea how he got there or where he's bound; and the flight attendant doesn't bat an eye when he questions her, or when he nearly passes out trying to exit the plane. Come on. That's absurd on its face. And it just gets worse... for the two pages I read. I can only imagine what's to come.

I vividly remember the feeling of outrage I experienced on the day I suddenly realized - Wait a minute - BEARS CAN'T TALK! and that the author of the Paddington books had been fooling me all along! It was awful: I felt humiliated and foolish. So I can sympathize.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Another Suitor Calls

University of Iowa said Yes! Via email. It's in the middle of nowhere, but I think that might be more a plus than a minus for me. Iowa City's sort of like where I grew up - a smallish university town in the middle of farmland - and I miss the seasons, and I have maybe a sort of romantic idea of the kind of town where kids ought to grow up - a place with snow in winter, and leaves in autumn, where you can ride your bike around the neighborhood and see fireflies in summer, and with an excellent law school...

Well, anyway.

Tag-Along Me

And here I thought I was being so original. Turns out a lot of people have been noising about their various ideas for a genuine U.S. Constitutional Amendment guaranteeing a right to privacy.

I think I like it.

School Vouchers

Vouchers, as a matter of public policy, seem to me to be primarily a reactionary ploy aimed at gutting the public school system.

As to whether they are a good idea in themselves, I tend to think they're not: it seems to me that school vouchers just provide subsidies for private schools and do little to foster competition or allow parents meaningful choices. Vouchers allow beneficent free market forces to operate? I'm with Jonathan Kozol, who said:
I've never in my entire life seen any evidence that the competitive free market, unrestricted, without a strong counterpoise within the public sector, will ever dispense decent medical care, sanitation, transportation, or education to the people. It's as simple as that.
Maybe I would support school vouchers if they would provide every student the means to attend Exeter or Andover. Otherwise they're just another happy economic model that doesn't cross over into the real world.

More on Homeschooling

I’ve met some fundamentalist homeschoolers and… well, I didn’t notice that their kids were particularly screwed up, other than that they were extremely well behaved. (I myself tend to consider that a problem; thousands wouldn’t.) On the other hand, the sort of people who might really screw up their kids tend to be untrusting of documentary crews, so I haven’t personally encountered many bad results from homeschooling, though I'm sure they're out there.

Zuska notes that:
…kids are dependent on their parents' good will for so many things, and that is FINE with the state…
Which is true. But. (As I am fond of saying.)

If the parents screw up badly enough on some of those things for which their kids depend on them, then the state reserves the right to intervene. If you don’t feed your kids, if you don’t clothe your kids, if you don’t… extreme examples, admittedly; nevertheless they do occur, and that is NOT all right with the state. (Where does education fit in here? Well, certainly "harm" in this case is a particularly nebulous concept, and I would hate to have it defined in terms that, say, a state board of education would propose. Let's just say that parents can fairly easily do their children a huge disservice, and leave it at that.)

I guess, instead of framing it in terms of “goodwill,” my question should have been something more like this: why would we, as a society, assume that parents have the ability, resources, foresight… to provide their kids with a meaningful education? After all, history shows us that lots of people will just put their kids to work, in the fields or the factories. (Not that there are many of those jobs left...) Some people will just let their kids play for years on end – and while that may be educationally defensible, especially considering the rather dismal prospects offered by some public schools, is it really a good idea? (I’ll say, based on my own observation: for some kids it may actually be the best choice; for others, more or less disastrous.)

Please note I’m not arguing against parents making educational decisions for their kids. Far from it. I agree wholeheartedly with Zuska that parents' involvement is critical to their kids’ education. I’m arguing against the argument against public schools – in other words, do we really want to make parental competence the sine qua non of their children’s education?

Or, in still other words, aren’t the public schools necessary as at least a safety net?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

More Libertarianism?

It seems to me that libertarianism is the right's anarchy... or else that anarchy is the left's libertarianism. As the cosmologists teach us, if you go far enough in one direction, you end up coming back from the other direction...

So anyway, back to homeschooling. This is a subject dear to my heart, mainly because I've invested so much time making a movie about it. (Still in postproduction, wait for it...) It seems to me that what's-his-name's article about how silly it is to have so-called "government" schools instead of leaving education to the private sector (along, presumably, with everything else) fails on a few grounds. First of all, it seems to me fairly obvious that if public education is abandoned, then lots of kids will be abandoned with it; and abandoned kids are not prone to work toward social goods. They tend to work instead toward various forms of bad behavior, many of which will, I promise you, be bad for lots of people besides themselves.

It is not a valid response to this concern to point out that public schools often do a poor job or that they abandon kids, too. A system that isn't working well is still a system, and can often be fixed or gamed or used regardless. But if there's no system... who you gonna call?

I also find it unpersuasive to argue that "historically" education proceeded in thus and such a way, without public schools. Historically, people sent their children to work in factories at a young age; historically, inequalities in resources ensured inequalities in education, which in turn ensured that it was almost impossible to escape one's (lower) class.

Finally (for now), while it is true that almost anyone who really, really wants to, is intellectually capable of homeschooling their children, or else of seeking out an optimal education for them (assuming they are able to pay for such a thing)... why should children be made dependent on the goodwill of their parents to receive an education? What basis is there for equating the "good" (read, economic benefit) of the parents with the "good" of their offspring? Again, it comes down to the preposterous assumption that people are rational actors, possessing good information, and in agreement with the author of the paper about what constitutes a "good."

I would argue that in making "receiving a free education" the default situation for children, the state has done a lot of good (yes, including economic good) for a lot of people. An awful lot of people, including those who don't own the children in question. You can call it welfare and wish you didn't have to pay those taxes, but what is that to me?

So in Other Words...

The administration isn't saying it didn't break the law, they're saying that it's okay that they broke the law.

I'm hoping that pretty soon someone from the White House is going to call and offer to buy my blog title from me.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

'night, All

Goodnight, Veronica. Goodnight, Keith. Goodnight, Weevil. Goodnight, all you minor characters.

Goodnight. Goodnight.

If you were a philosophy of legal interpretation...

Me, the law:

You are the Plain Meaning Rule! You interpret statutes according to what an ordinary speaker of English would understand from the text. You're upfront and direct. You claim that you're just following the rules, but often find a clever technicality to interpret the rules however you want.


It's just another ism, aint' it?

Okay, here's what I think, this morning, before I've had my coffee. I think libertarianism takes to its logical conclusion the conservative fallacy that people are rational. Pace John Von Neumann, people are obviously not rational actors, and any worldview that assume they are, or should be, is on shaky ground from the outset. Standard economic arguments always seem to take rationality as one of their axioms - is it any wonder the standard economic arguments so often seem to make no sense? Particularly because economists tend to then turn their models around, hold them up as Truth, and then blame people for not conforming to their models. "Golly, people don't behave so as to optimize this abstract notion of their own best interest. I wonder what's wrong with them?"

I'm cranky because I just looked at this argument against publicly funded schooling. I am in sympathy with some of the author's points, I even agree with some of his arguments, and he's obviously a smart guy... after all, he's teaching economics at a law school without having a degree in either economics or law - now that's smart; but I find his tone, in this article, at least, to be so self-assured (bordering on smug) and so dismissive of counterarguments, and his argumentation to be so abstract, basing policy conclusions on what seems to me simplistically rationalist economic reasoning while ignoring social and historical realities... that not only do I disagree with most of his main conclusions, but he actually succeeded in annoying me into the bargain.

On the other hand, he is a law prof who's interested in anarchy...

Monday, January 23, 2006

Another School Checks In

Saturday I got my admit letter from UC Hastings... addressed from their financial aid department. Is that odd? I dunno.

Today a slim envelope arrived from the University of Michigan, informing me... that my application is now complete. Excuse me? Complete? I want news, dammit. I've got boxes to pack, people; I've got kindergartens to apply to and daycare to find, or homeschooling groups to hook up with, or something. Let's get on with it, can't we?

Inquiry into Anarchy

There are anarchistic lifestyles (certain types of communes, cooperative living situations, and intentional communities, for starters), and there are anarchistic organizations (such as Earth First! and ActUp), and they have different problems and face different issues. The tyranny of concensus looms large over leftist/anarchist organizations, but perhaps is less an issue when it comes to anarchistic lifestyles?

One danger of anarchy is chaos; another, countervailing, is that order is maintained through a sort of reflexive groupthink or through a tyranny of the majority. There's been some interesting research on mobbing, which, though its focus is on the individual in the workplace, may illuminate some of the pathologies of groups, to which anarchical groups, with their distrust of formal structures and leadership, may be particularly susceptible.

What does all this have to do with the law? Nothing, maybe, except insofar as I'm interested in it, and I'm going to law school.

Sunday, January 22, 2006


Boy learned how to print from the browser. Now we have a score of full-page pictures of cute kittens, and no colored ink left in the printer. Nobody said learning was painless.

P.S. The doll/treehouse went back in its box this afternoon. It has yet to be missed. Further updates as they are warranted.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Why review a movie you haven't seen?

Why not?
I will not see Neil Jordan's latest film because I know that if you were actually to have breakfast on Pluto, your coffee would be a superconducting solid, you wouldn't be able to read the paper because the sun would be too far away, and you would die.
I'm invited to do tv reviews ...

Law School Acquisition, part n+1

This is me, trying to figure out what it is I'm really interested in before I go to law school. Though I suppose I'll figure it out eventually, anyway...

So, first of all, I'm interested in intellectual property law. Because it's important to me, because I find it interesting, because I have a background conducive to that specialization, because it's a huge mess right now and that fascinates me.

Also... I am interested in systems of law. Part of this is that I have a keen sense of the arbitrariness of the way things are (brief pause to permit parlor psychoanalysis...), and so I am often confused as to why things are one way and not another. My previous post on economics and the law was in the nature of a note to myself about this area of interest.

Here is a course I'd like to take, not that it's probably offered anywhere: Anarchy and the Law. Despite what most self-described, so-called anarchists seem to think, anarchy doesn't mean "no law," it means "no leaders." "Anarchy," said Edward Abbey, "is democracy taken seriously." So, how do anarchies function? (Do they function? Or do they necessarily collapse, once they've reached a certain size? And what size might that be?) It seems to me that certain groups with anarchist tendencies - Earth First! or Act Up, say - would be interesting case studies. How do anarchical groups avoid or work around the tragically flawed notion of concensus that has afflicted so many leftist groups? (Not that the left/right paradigm is necessarily very useful, either, in describing the politics of radical groups...)

I suppose this would fall into comparative law, history, and philosophy of law.

I'm interested, too, in religious and faith-based legal systems such as so-called "natural law" and the Catholic Church's legal system.

Religion and Politics

Larry Mantle's excellent Air Talk today featured evangelical theologians from a couple of southern California schools & churches, forthrightly answering probing questions about evangelism and politics. Fascinating stuff, about which I know little - mainly because there is almost no access to evangelical thought for those who are not already true believers.

One of his guests pointed out the irony of conservative evangelicals raising such a ruckus about teaching evolutionary theory in schools, then turning around and espousing a version of so-called "social Darwinism," positing that the poor deserve to be poor, that it's their own fault.

(I suspect they like to refer to "Darwinism" rather than "the theory of natural selection" because calling it "natural selection" might lead people to give some thought to what that meant, and conclude that it was actually quite reasonable. A book called "The Beak of the Finch" contains an anecdote about an evolutionary biologist who does field work in evolution [yes, that's what I said] who found himself on a plane flight telling an evangelical Christian about his work; the eC got very excited about it, thought it was just about the coolest thing ever... till, at the very end, the biologist told him that he was actually talking about evolution.)

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Something Good, Good God

A few nights ago we watched Kung Fu Hustle, and it was so funny I almost died. No, not really. But it reminded me of almost dying, because the last time I laughed that hard, at a movie anyway, I almost did die, because I was on morphine and had a ten-inch incision in my abdomen that was being held together, not with stitches or staples, but with tape. We didn't actually have to call for the nurse, but we did have to turn off the movie. (It was Raising Arizona, and I haven't watched it since, but I suspect the morphine had something to do with how funny I found it.)

Shaolin Soccer, which we watched the next day, is also very very funny. It didn't make me remember almost dying, though.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Boy Wants Ice Cream

... actually, Boy wanted ice cream this morning, on the way to school. When we wouldn't get it for him, he got nearly hysterical, and when he regained enough control to form sentences, demanded to know why he couldn't have ice cream in the morning? "You'll have to check with the culture," we said; "There is no culture!" he screamed. "How can I check with the culture when I don't know what it looks like!"

Law & Economics (Response to Murky Thoughts)

Murky Thoughts responds to my original post; his response reproduced so I can refer to it more easily:
Fed judge Richard Posner is famous for rationalizing and making law on the basis of economic analysis. A treatise he wrote in (I think) '72 gets lots of citing. But this is just one school. Traditional judging I suppose might be called humanist or moralist. I don't know what it's actually called, but it's not hard to imagine how a judge might opine without recourse to economics. "That behavior is wrong. Beautiful, righteous behavior is just like that English court in 1522 said. You lose. Next!" It's moral turtles all the way down in law.
My own response, such as it is:

Yes, but... are there not several fundamental areas of law where economic analysis is basic to policy, or at least current interpretations of the law? Property law, for instance, and its cousin-in-nomenclature, intellectual property law, are lousy with economic analysis. (Much is made in property law of the notion of the so-called "Tragedy of the Commons," whose problem and solutions are couched in economic terms.) Not that justifying the legal framework on an economic basis is wrong, per se, but it seems to me that it might be unnecessarily limiting.

Stanford law professor Mark Lemley touches on the false but pervasive (and therefore fast becoming true) analogy to of intellectual property to real propery in his recent article on "Property, Intellectual Property, and Free Riding" in the March 2005 Texas Law Review (abbreviated version here ).

There is also the legal notion of having "standing to sue," that is to say, being an injured party, without which no suit can be brought; as I understand it (remember, I haven't taken the classes yet), in tort law, for instance, and probably in much broader classes of civil law, the damage necessary to obtain "standing" is generally (explicitly?) presumed be of an economic nature. Again, it's not that there's anything wrong with this - but it is a pervasive, and an interestingly limited, framework. And, of course, it needn't be that way - presumably there are legal frameworks where it is not that way, or where it hasn't been that way in the past. (I'd be interested to find out if there are analogies, parallel cases, or insights that could be gleaned from, say, canon law...)

Sounds like I might be in for some comparative law and legal history classes if I can remain interested in this through 1L...

UPON FURTHER REFLECTION: Hell, it looks like I might have to read Posner. Thanks a lot, Murky Thoughts.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Terry Schiavo, yes, again...

It seems to me that the religious right - the dog-wagging tail of the so-called "conservative" movement - made a terrible mistake flogging poor Terry Schiavo's case, because they ended up squandering their credibility and losing the moral high ground, mainly by behaving incredibly badly. The latest result of that overreaching was that the Supreme Court's decision on the Oregon assisted suicide law will not, I think, spark much in the way of outrage or even interest. I predict that, because the Terry Schiavo spectacle so horrified and disgusted so many people, the Court's decision will be widely viewed as a necessary corrective to the increasingly desperate attempts by religious conservatives to meddle in what have been, and should remain, people's private decisions.

In the Schiavo case, a lot of very high-profile political conservatives betrayed their political principals (does anybody remember the "get government off our backs" slogan?) and, in attempting to make mandatory the religious beliefs of their power base, demonstrated a truly apalling willingness to flout the law to get what they want. It wouldn't have been so bad, politically speaking, if what they wanted had been what most people wanted, but it was in fact the opposite of what most people wanted. As it was, the legal shenanigans, venue-shopping, overheated rhetoric, and embarrasingly futile attempts to find an activist judge (they were supposed to be simply everywhere), effectively poisoned the well of public opinion.

Several media outlets, in commenting about Gonzales v. Oregon, note the interesting inversion of the Justices' usual positions, with Scalia, Thomas and Roberts coming out strongly against states' rights, the more liberal justices defending them. It seems that empathy often trumps policy. (It also seems that Scalia, with whom I disagree about most things, tends to become not only disagreeable but nearly incomprehensible when his morals force him into positions incompatible with his strongly-defended political biases. One line that jumped out at me was his comparison of physician-assisted suicide with "polygamy or eugenic infanticide." [p.23 of his dissenting opinion] A little worked up, are we, Judge?)

Another Showtime Update

Yes, it's true. The L Word bores me. I checked.

Does this mean I'm simply hopeless? Is there nothing in episodic television that will please me?

Law School Acquisition, part n

So I'm reading all this legal, scholarly, and legal-scholarly argumentation about so-called Intellectual Property, a phrase I'm beginning to dislike, and I'm starting to think I should have studied economics, because every single argument is couched in economic terms, and I have a hard time following. First of all, because I'm not familiar with the jargon, but secondly because I have a hard time believing that economics is the best (let alone the only) framework for considering much of anything - it's an interesting way of looking at lots of things, but as Fredric Brown said, "One may look at anything as anything else, and what does it get you but a headache."

One problem may be that economics, which should be descriptive, has become largely prescriptive. In other words, people who should really know better are framing theories based on intuition and wishful thinking, in hopes that their theories will become the basis of policy. Imagine if a physicist were to say, for instance,
The most desirable outcome would be for water to flow up-hill, and under this theoretical framework, that will occur. Therefore society should adopt this theoretical framework.
Imagine further that society did adopt that theoretical framework. We might, eventually, run into trouble... depending on how tenaciously we clung to our theories. (The federal deficit is currently at... how much?)

But policy and politics aside, the problem I am finding with the abstract scholarly arguments may be their exclusive reliance on economic analysis per se. Absent any other framework, I suppose economics usefully fills a void; but really, are there not other frameworks that can supply the rigor that the law requires?

I think that is the crux of the problem: if you are telling a story, you must have a language that allows you to make coherent statements. Anything else is just opinion. Economics is a self-referential framework, the use of which forces conclusions too often antithetical to human values and sustainable systems. (As Edward Abbey famously observed, apropos one of the fundamental and all-but-unexamined tenets of the economics-based view of society, "Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell.")

So what else do we have, people?

Monday, January 16, 2006

Showtime Update

So sposa watched all 6 available episodes of "Huff" and reports back: don't waste my time. Downward spirals all around, yawn.

We both watched 4 episodes of "Weeds" back to back last night, and I regret to report: boring stuff. I mean dull as listening to someone you don't know, tell you all their troubles. No forward motion. Also I'm bitter because I stayed up till midnight and had to get up early this morning. This is the sort of thing that could influence my Emmy voting... if there were a close contest, which there isn't going to be. Best Drama, "Weeds"? I don't think so.

Can I stand to watch any of "The L Word"? I don't think so, I tried that last season. Best, perhaps, to wait for Showtime's movies/specials/documentaries package, which usually has a couple of good things. Or else wait for HBO's screeners (though I personally think that "Deadwood" is one of the most aptly-named series on television).

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Language Acquisition 2

Girl is intent on labeling, as her brother was at her age, but she approaches it differently. Whereas Boy would go through picture books and demand to be told what word labeled the pictures - Girl points to her doll, or the plastic duck that covers the faucet in the bathtub, and labels the parts: "eye!" and "hat!" (yes, the duck is wearing a hat); the words she can't come close to pronouncing yet, such as "brush" and "beak" and so on, she points to imperiously, by way of demanding that I say the words for her; and when I do, she says "yeah!" in a tone of pure satisfaction.

So is Girl's thinking, or her approach anyway, in some way less abstract than Boy's, or more oriented toward human (or anyway human-like) features, or toward learning to "read," for example, facial expressions or emotions? That's one possible explanation, I guess. She does particularly enjoy playing a game with facial expressions, often catching my eye and "pulling a face" (a scowl, or a suspicious glare, or an exaggerated hauteur) and then riffing off the expression I make in response.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Mystery of Boy's Hair - Solved!

So I was washing Boy's hair - miracle enough that he was letting me - and I told him that he had very thick hair, which he does, and I was acting like that was a good thing, although it's mostly because he hates haircuts so at this point he looks a bit like he's wearing a mop. Anyway, he explained that his hair was thick because he had so many friends - and that he was stealing their hair for his own.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Let the Cartoons Begin!

Emmy season is yet far away, but today comes Showtime's screener package of series tv - they're trying to get a jump on the competition, playing Iowa to HBO's New Hampshire. And there was even a note inside the box, apologizing for not giving me the entire series - only the first six episodes - of Huff and The L Word. The rest of the shows probably haven't been posted yet. Good Lord, they don't pull any punches. Anyway, mia sposa is now working her way through episode 3 of Huff. I'll rely on her to tell me what's worth watching, if anything - after editing tv sound all day all week, I really can hardly stand to watch any video - let alone any episodic television - at home.

Today also came UCLA's paper admission package, and a fat envelope from Pacific/McGeorge informing me that not only have I been admitted, but I've been admitted "with honors at entrance," apparently a fancy way of saying they'll give me all my first-year books for free - an offer not to be sneezed at.

Three for three, and I'm no longer on tenterhooks. I'm going to law school, for reals (as they say at Play Mountain Place). But will Our Hero get into Harvard, Yale, Stanford? Stay tuned.

Berkeley Comes a'Courtin'

Yesterday there was a phone call from the director of admissions, dean of admissions, whatever, I'm in at Boalt, hooray! I was properly enthusiastic but it didn't really sink in until he informed me that they'd have money available to fly me in for Boalt's mid-April admitted students shindig. My God - they fly people in? People like me? Little old me? You know what, screw film school - law school is sounding good.

La mia sposa explained to Boy that this was a big deal, as if there were hundreds of kids who all wanted the same two Transformers (... more than meets the eye...), and I was the one who got a Transformer. Boy nodded, seemingly not very impressed, and marched into the bedroom and shut the door behind him. Then a moment later my cell phone rang: it was Boy, calling from the bedroom. (He's learned our cell phone numbers and it tickles him to call us.) "Are you at home?" I asked; no, he informed me, he was in the car. Driving to Berkeley.

Tonight we went out for a brief walk, and he told me he wanted me to go to Berkeley, but "Berkeley in this town." I didn't ask what he thought about Harvard...

AA Tempests

Uncovering a bit of nastiness at the Law School Numbers site, namecalling and snottiness about affirmative action and "self-identified under-represented minority status." What is the big deal, I wonder? Besides the fact that it's a hard life, being an anxious white underachiever who tests well. Hey, I know that, if anyone does.

According to a friend who used to work in law school admissions, that sort of thing gets really vicious once people start being rejected from their schools of choice. Yeah, it's sad - I mean, I can just picture some sad white boy with a 173 LSAT, standing in the rain, nose pressed against the glass, watching a Harvard law professor hold forth to a bunch of ... well, mostly other white boys, probably - okay, actually, white boys and girls - hmm, actually, I think it might be more girls than boys... well, you get the idea.

So can we stop calling it "affirmative action"? How about if we call it, instead, "recruiting a reasonably diverse class so as better to serve society by turning out well-rounded lawyers who have been exposed to a number of types of people and points of view, while still making sure we admit students who will excel"?

Catchy, no?

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Language Acquisition

In linguistic scholarship, theorizing about the origins of language has been the object of some disdain, mainly because it is largely absurd (see the article in Wikipedia - which has itself been the object of some disdain, for the same reason). Some of the more common theories go by names like the "bow-wow theory," the "pooh-pooh theory," the "yo-he-ho theory."

So of course I'm thinking of weighing in. This would be my theoretically indefensible but intuitively persuasive approach (every theory, especially those propounded via the Internet, needs something like this): that the origins of linguistic ability in the individual may shed light on the historical origins of language. Or, as the biologists used to say, "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." (This phrase is simultaneously catchy and virtually incomprehensible.) Probably some version of this theory has already been fleshed out, widely disseminated, and debunked, but what the hell.

Here's the thing: Girl (at 20 months +) is finally (perhaps somewhat belatedly, I'm not really sure, but anyway well within the bounds of normal development) jumping into sentence structure - and sentences, not words, are what language is all about. Words are great, don't get me wrong, but chimps can use words. They can even string words together so as to create meaning, particularly in the minds of credulous human observors. What chimps can't do, in any meaningful way, is generate syntactic strucures that rise to the level of even rudimentary human language. So, in short, I'm with Chomsky and the mathematical formalists here, I'm more or less taking semantic content as read (i.e., too complex to bother with), and going with the syntax = language formulation.

Anyway, now that Girl is starting to string together three-word sentences, I can start to get some idea of her cognitive processes through her language skills, and it's fascinating. Her first three-word sentence: "Emma, dadda, Ah!" - or, if I may translate: "Emma's daddy [is] Al." (You'll have to trust me on this.) She says it with a vehemence that is touching, bordering on frightening, so intent is she on nailing down that particular facet of the world she inhabits. (She says it a lot, too, and not only because my wife and I are constantly asking her, "G, who's Emma's dad?")

Boy's early acquisition of language was rather different from Girl's. I have video of Boy, at roughly Girl's age, picking up his favorite board book, a picture/word book, standing at a chair and turning the pages and pointing at each picture, demanding "s'aman?" ("S'aman" was apparently his version of "Como se llama?" which he knew because his babysitter spoke mostly Spanish.) Boy was very intent on picking up words, naming his world, establishing labels for things. Girl seems much more interested in establishing relationships between people and things. Part of this is doubtless due to her status as younger sibling - it is more an issue with her whether "baby" (doll) is "mine" or Boy's; whether those shoes belong to "mama!" or "dad!"; that "Emma's dada [is] Al." Part of it is probably due to her being a girl, and being interested in people in a different way than Boy was at that time of life.

I remember Boy's first three-word sentence, or at least the first one he thought important enough to repeat often: "Robin, bang - flew!" He was recounting the story of a robin that had flown (with a startling BANG!) into the picture window of the cabin where we were staying - fallen stunned to the deck - then recovered and flown away.

So here's my nascent theory: language is an innate talent in humans, but its development is driven by some of the same mental processes that develop social and emotional skills. That is, language development is simultanously a byproduct of, a key component of, and a motivating force behind, the human brain's attempts to structure and explain to itself the nature of the world in which it has found itself. In other words, whatever its basis in innate human cognitive or physiological brain structures, language development is driven by the storytelling impulse.

Is this old news? I spent nearly all my time at Stanford studying formal linguistics, mathematical models of syntax, and computer science; precious little time delving into semantics; and no time at all on sociolinguistics or language development in children. But it seems to me, as I grow up (or at least, grow old) that storytelling underlies nearly all of what we do, how we think, how we live and how our culture has evolved.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Good God...

I can't remember getting to work this morning.

How did I get here?

Monday, January 09, 2006

A Reflection

The refusal to continue doing Sudoku puzzles is the beginning of wisdom.

Rah Rah

Boy's still up, waiting a chocolate chip cookie; Girl's sprawled in her crib, asleep; and me, I just got an email from UCLA law informing me I've been admitted. Class of 2009! Go Bruins!

My first acceptance. Here's hoping tough choices await...

Yale 250 Word Essay

Yale Law School requires, and I quote, "an essay of not more than 250 words about a subject of your choice," in order that interested parties may judge my "writing, thinking, and editing skills, as well as... learn more about the applicant’s intellectual concerns or passions, sense of humor, and ability to think across disciplines." All that in 250 words? Gadzooks!

As if that weren't daunting enough, applicants are further warned that "the choice of topic itself may be informative to the readers."

So here's the essay I didn't use:

If I were a tree, I would be an apple tree, only I would bear fruit only every couple of years, or when I thought fruit was especially called for. I would not be an exotic variety that required grafting or pruning, other than the sort of self-pruning a tree might do if, for example, it were to drop an overgrown branch on some passerby who deserved a good scare or a mild concussion.

I would be well aware that trees have a hard lot, that they often get the short end of the stick, as it were; and I would not be shy about rallying the other trees to stand up for their rights. There are all sorts of things trees could do for themselves. I would probably tend to favor civil disobedience, or in extreme cases, fighting and running away. (That sort of unexpected behavior, from a bunch of trees, would be an especially effective tactic.)

But I would also be a good neighbor. Kids would climb on me and lie in my shade, and I would listen to their parents talking to each other; though I would often end up thinking, “Wow, life must be good if those are the only problems you have.”

And when I did finally fall, I hope it would be in a wild storm: and that there would, in the event, be someone nearby to hear it, and that she would be recording sound for a movie. A movie about trees.
Well, I'd let me in.

Traffic metaphors, part 2

Another traffic-based metaphor:

On the way to work this morning the interchange lane was moving slowly as I tried to get onto the 405 freeway. Turned out there was a car stalled just at the spot where the road went down from two lanes to one. On the car's bumper, a sticker that said "War Is Not the Answer."

So was she the one clogging up traffic? Of course not. After we got past "War Is Not the Answer"... traffic was still just as messed up as before.

Friday, January 06, 2006


Who told Jack Abramoff it would be a good idea to dress like a mafioso for his federal court appearance? I can't tell from the pictures, but is he carrying a violin case?

Bedtime story

Last night I got to solo dinner and bedtime. What to do, what to do? I don't remember it all very clearly, but it went something like this: Girl ate fishsticks and handed me her broccoli, while Boy drew and didn't eat. Then they both ran around for a while as I tried to think of what to do. Eventually I got out the Megablocks and helped Girl build some weird postmodern structure, while Boy made his robot dinosaur walk repeatedly off the kitchen chair.

Girl and I put together a track for the little electric car, at which point Boy came over and snagged it from her, insisting that it was Too Special! to share.

While looking for the other little electric car, I found Boy's flashlight, then grabbed a couple more flashlights, turned out all the lights, and - jackpot! Exploring the house with flashlights killed about 45 minutes, then it was bedtime, at which point Boy discovered that he was hungry. This is business as usual, so I gave him his fishsticks again, and a glass of milk...

Rather than put Girl in her crib, I decided to let them hear a story together, in Boy's bunkbed - I tried to read "Hercules" (the lame Disney storybook version) but they were playing a hilarious game involving bubble wrap and a low ceiling on which Girl kept bumping her head, so I ended up putting away the book and telling a version of "Runaway Bunny" by heart. It went something like this:
Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away. So he said to his mother, "I am running away."

"If you run away," said his mother, "I will send a seven-headed Hydra with razor-sharp teeth to kill you and bring you back. For you are my little bunny."

"If you send a Hydra to kill me," said the little bunny, "I will cut off its heads and sear them with a torch so they can't grow back."

"If you kill the Hydra," said his mother, "I will send a fierce lion to snap you in half with its jaws. For you are my little bunny."
... and so on. It was all about meeting challenges successfully. Jeopardy and recovery. Very edifying for young minds.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Making Stupid Patent Laws Work for Me

When I’m a lawyer, I plan to drive to work by a different route every day, then apply for a patent on my route. I’ll work at a lot of different locations, so that anyone else who wants to get to work will, at the very least, have to do a patent search to see if they are infringing. And who better to hire than the person who invented the route patent?

There’s good money to be made that way, it seems.

Or maybe I’ll patent my business plan of amassing absurd patents and using them to extort money from innocent businessmen. There are all kinds of companies out there that will have to pay me every time they send out a demand letter – and a premium if their demand is successful…

Magic, Indeed

Magic Cookie has posted her reading list for early 2006.

I say, Good God. Magic Cookie, you are my hero. I'm still trying to muster the energy to finish reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and waiting for my wife to finish reading her Christmas present, Under the Banner of Heaven, so I can tackle it.

Girl wants to read Runaway Bunny about every night, but she only wants to skip to the page where the little bunny is sitting by the fireside in mommy bunny's lap. Then she points insistently at the little bunny and says "Baby!" over and over again; points at the mommy bunny and says "Mama" a few times, till she has elicited sufficiently enthusiasic agreement from me; then points at the picture on the bunnies' wall (the cow jumping over the moon), and when I say "Cow?" she says, in her satisfied way, "Yeah."

And then she closes the book; and then, more often than not, starts the whole process again.

So that's my reading list.

Oh, and I did just read Scott Turow's "One-L," which I found rather tediously self-involved. Nevertheless I finished it, so it must have been pretty good, right?

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Oh, what the hell

I opened my email this afternoon to find a note from Harvard Law school. Yes, the Harvard Law School. So, what the hell, I decided to apply. Took me half an hour and $87, and when I was done I felt a strange sense of uplift, which neither the Yale nor the Stanford application had given me. "Yes," I felt, "yes, I am that person!"

What person, I have no idea. That person who pays through the nose for a prestige degree and a $200,000 loan load, I guess. Or the person who's ready take his place in a wiser world of bigger motorcars. Or the person who thinks maybe he can get in, why not?

Harmless Role-Playing

Boy has been having his dinosaurs and his sharks rampage through the new dollhouse. Yesterday he informed me that his T. Rex had killed one of the resident dolls by biting off her foot. (This was shortly after two of the T. Rex had ganged up on another and killed it.)

The Big Bedroom was briefly off limits this morning, as the sharks were having a meeting. I shudder to think what was on the agenda.

The latest attempt on my life, or a metaphor for American hegemony

As I was driving to work, I was nearly broadsided by a man driving an SUV, who hadn't been paying attention to what lane he wanted to be in until the last minute. When I backed off to let him in, I noticed his car was sporting a "United We Stand" bumper sticker. He was, of course, alone in his gas-guzzling vehicle. (I was alone in my gas-guzzling vehicle, too, but this isn't about me.)

Did I mention he was driving a Toyota?