Monday, September 14, 2009

Bikes & Rules of Recognition

Apparently there is a big split among bike commuting advocates about traffic laws. While everyone agrees that the current rules of the road in most cities are designed to benefit drivers at everyone else's expense, one group claims bikers should follow the current rules while another holds that to do that adds up to treason against the entire bicycle community.

The dissenters' argument boils down to this: bikes are different than cars and need their own, bike-specific traffic laws; since they don't have those, the current laws are invalid; since the current laws are invalid, cyclists shouldn't follow them. Well, that sounds fine at first - especially because it rips off some old fashioned American political rhetoric - but there's a big difference between "invalid" laws that are unjust (e.g. segregation) and those that are invalid merely because they could be better.

The really bad principle behind the argument that bikers shouldn't follow the traffic laws is that only cyclists are considered capable of determining whether traffic laws are valid. No dice, friends. If you don't like the current rules, agitate to change them - but I missed the memo giving Critical Mass a veto over traffic laws.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Real Americans

Frank Rich's editorial in the Sunday Times was one of the better bits so far about the recent torrent of race baiting from GOP barkers. The upshot of Rich's thinking is that righty-whitey accusations and rants indicate deep anxiety about their soon-to-be minority status.

There's a lot more to it than that, of course. Sure, some people are surely struggling with Big Questions about What Their Country Means; experiences other than Mayberry-certified stories now carry the President's and the Supreme Court's stamp of authority. But some of the vitriol seems motivated by a pure instinct that white folk must not cede their place at the top of the pack.

In Other News

Japan is starting jury trials. More accurately, a current case is the first jury trial in Japan in over sixty years but they are conducting mock trials to work the system out. The usual warring theories abound: jurors can't make good decisions, judge only courts lack transparency, etc.

The current system involves three judge panels. This first jury case involves both six jurors and three judges. Curiously (at least from a UK/US point of view) at least one of the judges has to agree with the jury's verdict.

The article mentions a few other interesting details. First, Japan boasts a 99% conviction rate. I have a hunch that the Japanese police are not 99% good. Second, Japan had a jury system from the mid-1920s until 1943. It seems like an odd exception to the US-designed political overhaul after the War to leave out a jury system.

As an added historical tid-bit: Japan actually adopted the German Civil Code not longer after the Buergerliches Gesetz Buch was adopted, during the Meiji period when Japan was busily modernizing everything.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Cobbles are for Suckers

If there is one word for biking around Munich, it is "civilized." This works on a couple levels. First, there's no antagonism between bikes and cars - they actually give you the right of way and pay attention - making it a lot safer (hardly anyone wears a helmet). Which means, second, that there's no dumb bike culture. Which means, third, you can ride grandad bikes without feeling like a middle-aged guy whose mom packs his lunch.

These are the only bikes you can actually ride while wearing a suit and there aren't many things to make you feel more civilized than biking in a suit. Until you reach the cobble stones. They are uncivilized. They are dumb. It was fine when they were the only sensible alternative to mud and dung but they are officially well past their sell-by date. Hours after a long ride today and my ass still hurts.

There's a batch of urban planners that advocate for reviving cobble stones in the States, claiming they do everything from reduce pedestrian injuries (slower car speeds) to emanate somethingorother that will magically undo all the real and imagined damages the car has wreaked on American community. These people are charlatans.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson, Iran, and Anticipation

I know it's a big deal that Michael Jackson died, and it's a big deal in Germany too (they love him here), and that Iran is holding the world on edge, but I only care about one thing right now.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Counting the Days

Sunday is almsot here . . .

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Public Service Announcement

  1. Americans do not watch class action suits like they are the Roman games.
  2. That woman burned by the McDonald's coffee? She was disfigured for life in some very sad, personal ways, and this had happened to more than McD's customer before. The jury smacked McDonald's because McDonald's was negligent and callous and disregarded basic standards of human decency.
  3. We have a more or less non-existent social welfare system. When we get hurt and lose our jobs, we don't still get to take our two week national naptime (I'm looking at you, Holland).
  4. Some of us have actually heard of your country and do know where to find it on the map.
  5. You need immigrants, you idiots. Shut up and let them make money.
  6. Seriously, guy - I know more about your country than you know about mine. Cut me some slack. I really like it here. I happily disfigure your language all the time. I even made a joke in German today. That's the second this week. Yes, dammit - I play soccer all the time . . . and, yes, I understand offsides.

German Legal Term of the Day

"Quotenkonsolidierungsverfahren" = pro rata consolidation procedure.

This is a very specific phrase/word having to do with consolidation of interests in banking. (Here's an old report discussing different views on the subject . . . if you're really that interested, the mention of pro-rata is at the very end.) In some ways, like with some of the other words I've shared, it's no different than shoving an entire English phrase into a single word. But in other ways, it sums up the German approach in one ten-syllable shot.

Despite the fact that German attorneys have all these long words, they use American nicknames for corporate take-overs. And they like them because they make it sound cool; poison pill, saturday night special, white night, black night, green mail, squeeze-out, etc. They make long words, we try and sound like gangsters.

Photo Album Updated

I fixed the problem with the photo links to the right. They're updated now with a lot more shots.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Feed the Birds

Went to London for the weekend. Three observations. First, Frankfurt-Hahn Airport is really a bus station with planes.

Second, if the coffee costs only 70p - don't buy it.

Third, when I woke up in the bus on the way back into town yesterday I actually saw the skyline and thought, "nice to be home."

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The European Disunion

I haven't written about the recent EU elections yet (which wrapped up on Sunday after four days of voting) because, frankly, nobody was talking about it. There were articles in the papers but they were stuffed by news of the iminent (and now effective) insolvency of Anachron, the Opel deal, and the Air France search. Last week, one of the Frankfurt papers ran a double-spread about the European Parliament but it's tone was almost like a travelogue, a peek into a far-off alien world.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Hearings That Weren't

If you haven't heard any of This American Life's coverage of the financial crisis, check it out. Teaming up with the folks from Planet Money, TAL does a great job. Their most recent broadcast deals with the government regulators and the credit rating companies. Both function - or are supposed to function - as gatekeepers. During the last decade or so, they did anything but.

If the latest episode doesn't clarify why some level of legal literacy is important in a democracy, I don't know what will. For years, under Democratic and Republican administrations and Congresses, American kept saying they wanted less regulation. Based on their anger these days, it doesn't seem like they knew what they were asking for. But they got it, in spades.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

German Legal Term of the Day

Hypothekenschuldverschreibung = "collateral mortgage bond"

I share my office with two other "trainees," Daniel and Nafissatou. Daniel is German and Nafissatou is Nigerien by way of France (that's Nigerien, not Nigerian - from Niger). Nafissa doesn't share my love of long German legal terms. She just shakes her head at them. Daniel is amused. As proud of the Bundesgesetz as German lawyers are, they have a very good sense of humor about some of its tics.

My boss once said he thought the only [European] language with longer words was Finnish. But then "you have no vowells." It's the tiny victories.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Sounds of Frankfurt

Also: more photos of Mainz and Frankfurt (including new graf) in the slide show on the right.

Me, Mainz, and I

Mainz is a small city not far west of Frankfurt, sitting at the point where the River Main flows into the Rhein.  The Rhein is one of Europe's major rivers, and always has been, so Mainz has hosted some illustrious guests; the Romans, Seubi, Alans, Belgae, Attila the Hun, Charlemagne, every Holy Roman Emperor, Guttenburg, Napolean, Nazis, Patton, and Patrick.
I took the trian over to Mainz on Saturday.  It was raining, and cold, and majestic in its own way.  The cathedral is a towering heap of red stone hulking the middle of another recreated Altstadt.  It is not a charming building.  It is enormous and dark and full of great tombstones erected by the important that are covered with dancing skeletons.  But the other buildings run right up into it, right against the outside walls so that the entire place feels crowded in and it would seem perfectly reasonable if some 18th century prince turned the corner and looked down his inbred nose at you.

Up on the hill, above the cathedral is a citadel built during the mid-1600s.  It sits above the ruins of a Roman amphitheater, once the largest north of the alps (no, I have no idea if that's impressive - it looked small).  The entire citadel is preserved and you're free to wander the ramparts and look down at the Rhein, keeping an eye out for the Hessians (you could also walk over to the other side and watch out for Bonnie).

All this was great, despite the rain, but the actual reason I was there was the Roman fort.  There was - supposedly - a tower built by the Romans in the first century.  I walked around Mainz for three hours in the rain, asking docents and strangers and any one else if they knew where the Roman tower was.  No one knew.  Mainz has some great parks, by the way.

And there is a Roman tower, part of a fort built in the first century.  It is inside the citadel, in the southwest corner behind the old canteen.  The Romans built it as part of their attempt to link the Rhein and the Danube and keep all the Germans out of Gaul.  They weren't succesful.

You can keep your Franks, Carolingians, and all the rest.  Just trying to keep the tribes straight (why were the Belgae so far south, anyway?) is impossible.  Their names all sound familiar but none of the history makes any sense with everyone running back and forth across the river and moving from Poland to Spain and back again.  And here is this little tower, not much to look at, but still standing almost intact after two thousand years.  Good builders, the Romans.

I Miss You

Thursday, June 4, 2009

School Daze

I was talking to some co-workers about the different European law school systems this afternoon, and after getting a handle on how the schools work (in France you declare a "major" in high school), I thought to ask how hard it is to get into law school.  They looked at me like that was a strange question.

Heidelberg, one of the world's oldest universities, is apparently pretty tough to get into because it's famous.  But my co-worker couldn't honestly tell me if it's a very good law school or not.  What's the best law school in Germany?  No real answer.  In France?  Doesn't really matter where you go, so long as it's in Paris.

Ask any US law student what the best law school in the country is and they know.  They know the top 5, top 10 and probably top 14 off the top of their head.  We know, and never stop talking about, how this affects hiring later on, market-rate first year salaries in the top five markets, your chances of being on the Supreme Court or teaching, etc.  It drives our friends and family nuts.

Of course, when you're spending/borrowing a small fortune to do something, you tend to get well acquainted with it.  But French law students also recently got pretty upset about their tuition, too.  Not long ago, final year's tuition shot up to 900 Euros.

German Legal Term of the Day

"Steuerhinterziebungsbekampfungsgesetz" = Act to Combat Tax Evasion

This is the name of an actual German law - very well known to tax attorneys here - designed to limit off-shore tax shelters such as Jersey or Malta. Not only is the word seriously impressive when spit out quickly by a co-worker, along with a "you don't know this?" tone, you have to hand it to the German Parliament for sticking to a simple, if long, name. If this were the product of our Washington Lovlies, it would have been named the Federal Defense of Apple Pie Freedom and Baseball Freedom Liberty Defense Act.

Or, to put it another way . . . "Bundeswacheäpfelkuchefreiheitundbaseballfreiheitunamhängingkeitwachegesetz."

Monday, June 1, 2009

Any Day Now

Any day now, Baby G, you're going to have a new baby brother!  You and your mom will both be big sisters.  I can't wait to meet the little guy when I see you again.  Your godfather misses you every day, Gabs.  I love you, your mom and dad and your little brother.

Uncle Patrick

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Happy Birthday Zahra!

Happy Birthday, Zahra!  I miss you very much and hope you have an amazing day!  Give your Mom, Dad, Natasha and Saif big hugs for me.  

Love, Uncle Patrick

Bi-Lingual Credit Agreements

Friday was the first big translation exercise of my summer.  A US corporation is purchasing a German company and we're handling the credit side of things with the foreign bank.  Because the subsidiary, and a bunch of other holding companies are all registered in Germany, German corporate law applies.  But US law also applies to all the contracts.  So the credit agreement and all its parts have to be in step in two jurisdictions at once.

The hard thing about this is that you can't simply translate the documents.  In this case, I was translating from German to English.  The translation had to be effective in the US and also Germany.  So all the key legal concepts had to be recognizable to a German regulator and an American lawyer.

This is a lot easier said than done.  I thought it would take about an hour.  It took four.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Botanical Gardens

German Legal Term of the Day

"Akkreditivwaehrungsdeckungskonto" = foreign currency credit cover account.

I think the printers used a small size font to keep this one on a single line.  Again, there's not really any shorter way to say this in English - not an official term, anyway.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Dear Germany . . .

Screens would keep the moths out of my room at night.  The moths are very large and aggressive.  Screens are also very cheap.  You are a wealthy nation capable of building electronic signs that tell me exactly how many available parking spots exist in multiple parking garages at once.  Screens, Germany.  Window screens.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The German Legacy

A little background's in order.  You may have heard the phrases "civil law" and "common law."  The UK, much of the Commonwealth, and the US are common law jurisdictions.  Continental Europe and the rest of the world?  They're civil law systems.  What's the difference?

Without getting into a ton of historical detail, the big difference is that civil law systems don't care about precedent.  In the US and the UK, precedent is huge.  The bulk of American law isn't what a statute says you can or can't do, it's in judicial decisions that build on previous decisions that build on previous decisions that build on previous decisions.  Most of your first year in law school is really spent just trying to learn how to focus on the legal conclusion (the "holding") and ignoring the rest (dicta).  Then you spend a lot more time figuring out when the nonsense isn't nonsense and when the official decision isn't really the official decision.  This is also the perpetual employment system for law professors.

In the rest of the world, the law in the statute book is actually the law.  When a judge hears a case, she doesn't care what Buzzy, J. said the week before or anything else.  What she cares about is the words in the code.  If a code isn't very applicable, it can be amended or tossed out, but the judges (in theory) just apply it regardless.

There are pros and cons to both systems, but at the heart is a very different idea of the law.  The civil code imagines the law as the idealized product of rational analysis before the fact.  Germans, no surprise here, really like this idea.  It's very thorough and exacting.  So when they published their Bunderliches Gesetzbuch (Civil Code) in 1896, it was the most modern legal document in the world.  It became the model for legal reform around the world.  Japan adopted the code almost whole-hog during the Meiji, and this is still the basis for Japanese law today.

Even the US felt and feels the influence of Germany's civil code.  A progressive minded guy in New York campaigned for a civil code in the Empire State and almost suceeded.  His brother, also enamored by the code, took a copy with him when he went west to California.  Where his brother failed, the man who went west suceeded.  California adopted a German-style civil code that remains in place today.  But a California legal scholar was not entirely sold on the civil approach and wrote an influential treatise about how interpret the new law.  Yes, it was a code but judges and lawyers should interpret it in a common-law style.  This guy's name was Hastings, my law school's namesake.

There's one more enormous German influence on US law.  The bulk of modern commercial law, especially the UCC, was stolen from Germany by a Columbia law professor named Llewellyn.

German Legal Term of the Day

Einlagsmeldungschwelle: earnings report threshold - the percentage of total shares in a company requiring reporting to the German securities regulator.

Yes, German legal terms are very long.  For those of you keeping score at home, the English phrase is 23 letters to the German's 22.  In theory, it makes no difference whether twenty-odd letters are slammed together or spaced out but, in reality, that solid block of consonants is like reading bricks.  Your eyes just stop and all you see is letters, not words.

Most of the project I'm working on right now is in English, but many of the notes are written in German, so I keep three books at my elbow - a two volume German-English/English-German financial dictionary and a GE/EG bank law dictionary.  I'm on the hunt for a German word that actually takes up more than one line.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Expat Whiplash

Succesfully navigate local German bureaucracy without a word of English spoken?  Feel on top of the world.  Then you head back to work . . . 

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Flying Solo

I definitely prefer travelling with others but flying solo has its benefits.  Your schedule is yours to make, if you dislike a place there's no chance you'll need to stick around, and there is never any debate about seeing anything.  Those are the good parts.  The bad part is that you are alone, forced to initiate every conversation you want to have with anyone other than a waiter or store clerk.

This never bothered me much when I was younger.  And it hasn't bothered me too much this time around except for last night, at about 10:45 when I walked into a bar in Sachsenhausen for soul night, found it empty, and sat by myself in the corner for twenty minutes while I finished my beer.

Normally, I would have gone over and talked to the DJ, but I was already in a state.  Sachsenhausen is a big neighborhood on the south side of Frankfurt's river.  Along its main drag, the Schweizerstrasse, are big Apfelwein halls.  Apfelwein is a type of hard apple cider.  People drink it in groups, getting very loud and singing.  Looks like a great time.  Since the bar hosting the soul night was in the neighborhood, it seemed like a perfect time to try some apfelwein.

I realize that I could have worked my way into some group of Germans singing soccer songs - which I don't know and couldn't understand through their slurring - but it was the type of night when I didn't want to be with strangers.  I missed my wife.

So I went from apfelwein hall to apfelwein hall, looking for some open-looking group of people.  None to be found.  I decided to skip it and head to the bar for soul night.

Turns out that the bar was right next to part of Sachsenhausen called the Apfelwein Viertel (Applewine Quarter).  This is noted on my map by an odd-shaped orange area but the name is so small I didn't see it till I was on my way home.  The Viertel is a pedestrian zone, about five or six small blocks packed with people drinking and singing and busting the myth of uptight Germans.

Sometimes you're up for the introductory conversations - "where are you from?"; "yes, we can speak German," etc. - and sometimes you're not.  I was not in the mood for it last night.

That's when I reached the bar.  I'd expected a bar full of young people dancing but found a room with quiet speakers and one other guy who left two minutes after I got there.  I felt sorry for the DJ - you'd have no idea there was any kind of music in that bar if you didn't walk in and look around.  But after wandering around among happy, soccer song-singing Germans for an hour, I couldn't deal with it anymore.

Work starts tomorrow.  Finally.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Every Expat an Ambassador

God and the U-Bahn

On my way into the city right after landing, I asked this guy if I had the right ticket for the subway.  He told me I did, then went on to ask me about God.  Who says Europeans aren't religious anymore?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Some Frankfurt Street Art

Found this ghost on my way from Nordend to Bornheim.

Code of the Streets

That's a piece of an Olde-E box underneath the shorts (click to enlarge).  There are also a few Welch's cans and A&W, Canada Dry, Chips Ahoy, Arizona Ice-T and Ben & Jerry's.  The name of the store is "Roots."  I'm not kidding.

Underneath the tank-top is an ad for the coffee that's on display in the lower right-hand corner.  It's named Gorrilla.  Again, not kidding.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

More Photos

Here are some more photos from my first day.

The First Day

The terminal buildings at Frankfurt airport feature huge signs in multiple languages saying, "Hesse - You can't go around it."  Hesse is the name of Frankfurt's state and while I understand that Frankfurt is a huge transportation hub on the continent and beyond it seems a bit belligerant for a regional motto.

My flat is in a neighborhood called Nordend - North End - just north of the old city center.  That old city center was bombed flat in World War II.  The current buildings are almost entirely post-war.  The olde tyme buildings in the photo above are post-war reconstructions, part of a city effort to rebuild a small portion of its old center.  The reconstructed area is pretty small and would never trick you into thinking it is anything but an ersatz Old Town but it does make the rest of the center's decidedly mid-century bent even more striking.

My neighborhood, on the other hand, is mostly older buildings on tree lined streets with a lot of little shops, cafes and bars.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Final Countdown

The last exam is always hard to concentrate on.  This year is even worse.  Not only did I have five finals, but my flight to Germany leaves next Wednesday.  Only five days between my last exam and Deutschland.  Normally during finals, my mind wanders to the usual things - my wife, friends, and evenings with no law reading or studying.  This semester, it wanders to figuring out how to fit all those things into only five days.