Zen and the Art of Statutory Interpretation

Q: When is a document not a document?
A: When it’s a fish.

Tang Dynasty master answering a student’s question in 800 A.D.?


Supreme Court case being considered in 2014.

Avoid Clichés. And Avoid Avoiding Clichés.

Look, John Jeremiah Sullivan gets a lot of praise for his prose style, and he deserves it. His 2009 piece on Michael Jackson is excellent. He’s a great writer!

So I’m not just shooting aqueous creatures in a barrel when I call attention to this passage: Continue reading

The Dark Horse Rises

The boy was being kicked out of school. But that was okay: he could get a job of some kind. He was only 16 and had no real prospects, but he was able-bodied.

All he needed was a piece of paper. Something for the prospective employers. Something to say, hey, things didn’t work out for him academically, but he can probably learn how to fix cars, or weld, or drive a forklift. Maybe he could someday drive a bus like his dad.

That was all. A piece of paper from the headmaster. Hire him, keep him off the streets. Let him be a productive member of society; he’ll keep his nose clean. Live in an apartment, get married, have four or five kids. Maybe someday he’ll wind up surprising us all by saving up enough to buy a house.

That wasn’t what the boy got. He got this:

I can’t tell you what his work has been like because he hasn’t done any. [He] has taken part in no school activity whatsoever.

As his biographer, writing fifty years later, drily notes:

With this document [he] was meant to make his way in the world.

How’d the boy do? Well, within five years he – along with his mates John, Paul, and Ringo – was doing this: Continue reading

A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #4: The Sweater

My first few months at the University of Chicago were bliss. College! Great books! Stimulating conversations in the dorm cafeteria! At first it did not bother me that everyone around me was miserable. This, after all, was a place that welcomed misery. We thrived on it.

And if you were feeling down, you could open the campus newspaper and turn to the funnies:

Ha ha ha ha ha. See? Instant pick-me-up.

During my first year a magazine—I think it was Playboy—ran a survey of the Best Party Schools. We came in at number 300, dead last. #299 was West Point.

But hey, I tried to make the best of things.  I launched into this world with great seriousness and a masochistic redefinition of fun.

It worked for a while. Continue reading

At the Twilight’s Last Gleaming (Saying Farewell to a Dynasty)

Maybe it’s the fresh take on the space-time bending and head-blowing implications of Goodnight Moon, which has retroactively haunted my many thousands of readings of that book. Or maybe it’s just my usual interest in comparisons of Rome and America. In either case, I was struck by this passage:

The stagnation of the Roman Empire may carry important lessons for a more modern superpower: The United States. We too are a huge, rich, powerful nation that for much of our history has dominated the field of competitors. We too have a whole century of dominance – the 20th – under our belt. And if there’s one thing we don’t want to do, it’s turn into the Roman Empire.

What’s that, you say? You’ve heard enough of these theories about the demise of Rome and what it means for America today? Well…reader, I cheated! This isn’t about Rome at all, but about quite a different historical example. The undoctored quote is this:
Continue reading

Automatic for the Not-People

I used to work at a place where colleagues of mine were replaced, one by one, by algorithms. This was viewed as the inevitable march of progress that all good for-profit corporations undertake. So now we have a hypothesis that the corporation itself could be replaced by an algorithm:

I hypothesize that the management overhead which makes corporations grow sub-linearly is due to the limited information processing capability of individual humans. People at the top do not have local on-the-ground information: how are individual products performing, what are customers’ complaints etc. And the rank-and-file folks on the ground do not have the relevant high-level information: how does what I’m doing translate to the value that the corporation as a whole seeks to maximize? In fact, the the flow of value and information is so complex that employees have pretty much given up on determining that relationship, and know of it only at a macro P&L-center level.

In plainer English:
Continue reading

A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #3: The Blood Cake

We’re fast-forwarding now, past high school, past college, past the years in Chicago and Italy and Taiwan, which is when I had this exchange with my older cousin:

COUSIN: You know, when you were a kid, you were so freaking smart. We all thought you were a genius.
ME: Really? I’m flattered.
Long pause.
COUSIN: So what happened?
ME: [Silence.]

Past all that, and the years spent flailing away at one doomed scheme or another, the twenty-five countries I bounced through, the senator I worked for, and the time my father asked me what a writer does for health insurance:

ME: I’m living off my savings. See, here’s the plan. I’ve spent the past two years saving up money so I’ll have time to write. It’s my dream.
FATHER: What if you get sick?
ME: I’m hoping I don’t. It’s a calculated risk.
FATHER: Risk for who?
ME: Um.
FATHER: If something happens to you, you will sink our family.
ME: I guess you’re saying I should find a job with health insurance.
FATHER: I think that’s more than a guess.

It took me a while to find my footing. But I did find it. And by the time of this story, I had ended up in what I thought was a soft landing. A happy marriage, a child on the way, and a decent job with good people and a product I believed in. Health insurance! Oh, and I shared an office with Jerry Seinfeld. Continue reading