out of context

whereever you go, there you are.


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The first year of law school, which, combined with my marriage, continued gaming/Netflix habit, and life in general, caused me to abandon this blog, is over. Hallelujah.

I worked two years as a paralegal before coming to law school. I survived partners, unreasonable clients, overtaxed coworkers and 70 hour weeks. I missed Nine Inch Nails’ only appearance in China because I had to edit some document so that a client could build a mammoth new manufacturing facility. Joy. Still, it wasn’t all bad, and I saw the impact that the transactions I was quasi-involved in had on the real world, and a number of the people I worked with are still my friends.

The first year law curriculum is nearly identical everywhere: Contracts, Civil Procedure, Property, Criminal Law, Constitutional Law, and Torts. One can never be over-prepared for exams, or for class, because the number of potential legal issues in any complex fact pattern is frustratingly endless. There’s two parts to the curriculum. What You Are Meant to Learn and What You Might Learn Along the Way. The first is fairly narrow. This case is known because it’s a good example of…specific performance, assumption of risk, premeditated murder, whatever. The second is infinite and anyone daring to delve into it during class is usually rewarded with a barrage of rolled eyes and exasperated professors. I should add that I think that law school has successfully proven that I am one of the worst ‘academic’ minds on earth. I’m interested in issues for about five minutes, until they cease to be coherent or apply to anything else I’m interested in. Economic theories of tort remedies? Tell me more. Wait, no, stop. That’s enough.

Next year I’ll be trying some new and more specific coursework, including tax, business law, real estate, and, as a random experiment, ‘Intellectual Property in China’. I cannot wait for my 2L tax courses. Either I will love them or hate them. I dabbled in international law this year but can’t see myself writing bench opinions on genocide or other crimes against humanity, even if they make fascinating and horrifying reading. I reviewed some opinions on the Rwandan genocide, and there’s simply no way that I could come close to comporting myself with the necessary impartiality and gravitas to handle trials like that, especially when the defendant is so, so, guilty. On the other hand, I’ll also be taking Immigration Law, which I have a personal stake in (my wife is Chinese) and may change my mind about doing something international. I’d also love to get involved with cross-border transactions and investment, because I have a feeling that before long, countries are going to be eager to invest in the US for manufacturing just as this past decade belonged to the Chinese. Perhaps they’ll learn from Japan and build more local manufacturing if they’re serious about selling us cars and other big ticket items. I’m typing this on a Lenovo, by the way…and my coffee cup was made in China, too…

My dream job is 10-15 years in a regional/national law firm involved in international business transactions/arbitration, and then a solo/small practice based on whatever I’ve enjoyed most to that point. I suspect the ‘dream job’ will change within 3-6 months, but who knows?

I learned a lot this year, including that I’ve declined in my ability to instantly absorb large quantities of information. You don’t really feel the loss until you’re under the gun and realize that you have no earthly idea, beyond what someone else has written, what the issues are in the case you’re dealing with. Much like my early paralegal experience, it has been a process of educated trial and error, except I have grades to memorialize the ‘error’ part. Am I better prepared to be a lawyer? Marginally so. But I’m actually less convinced, if that was even possible, that law school is a smart idea for very many people.

Even I, who had a pretty thorough look into the belly of the beast before coming here, was hesitant to actually go through with it. I envy people with the ability to dive right in to a life-changing, finance-destroying experience, but I was very nearly scared away by the awful employment numbers and prohibitive cost of opportunity. The JD is a great degree to have, and I’ll join the overeducated, overworked of America proudly, but I’m not sure that the inflation in the number of law students and the cost of education is justified. I’m certainly not going to land some plum position in NYC after graduation and live like a king, how could I justify dropping a quarter mil on school + living expenses? And yes, someone really spent more on living expenses than they did paying full price for law school. That must be one hell of a morning after…I did what? I owe them how much? Oh, Christ. At least I had a good time. Basically, if you don’t get a scholarship or participate in a public service/government LRAP (loan repayment/forgiveness program), you need to make around $65,000 a year to just hammer away at the debt accumulated by an average three year cost for law school. Tier 1 and Tier 2 Schools may report their ‘median’ salaries around 80-120k, but that’s just the people who actually answered the survey…you can bet the ones who didn’t answer aren’t making bank and drinking too many mojitos to bother checking the mail.

But there is reason to be guardedly optimistic, as well. Cleveland’s economy, long thought to be among the worst in the nation, is now outperforming many others. Unemployment has fallen by almost 2% since last year, and manufacturing, long the foundation of the region, is leading the recovery. The medical sector here remains abnormally strong and will soon be bolstered by the nation’s first dedicated ‘medical mart’ for product shows and exhibitions, the latest in a long parade of purported panaceas for the ills of downtown Cleveland.


Written by Michael

May 26, 2011 at 4:49 am

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It’s probably not much fun to be famous at times like this. I don’t envy Lebron James having to face the wrath of much of Northern Ohio. Given his attachment to the region, it will probably shock him a little how angry people are at his decision to play for Miami. While I’m disappointed Cleveland is losing the Lebron James economic stimulus package, as well as a great entertainer, he’s free to do as he wants and it’s clear he wants to play with his buddies and have someone he can rely on. Can’t blame him for that – Ricky Williams, Carlos Boozer, Drew Gooden, Mo Williams, Shaq, Antwan Jamison…it was a revolving door in here. Some stability on the court, where so much of his life is determined, is probably a godsend for him. Even Jordan had fairly stable teammates for much of his career.

If the terrible trio stays together and there’s no falling-out or severe injury to ruin things, they’ll probably get a ring together, but I don’t see them dominating the game. But what do I know?

Written by Michael

July 9, 2010 at 2:01 pm

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Sunpu Opto: DOA

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Sunpu-Opto in Cleveland is on the back burner for now, tabled and unlikely to return without a substantial change. Mayor Frank Jackson, likely seeking to avoid poisoning his future agenda if Sunpu went bad, and facing a hostile council barely willing to pass the related legislation (10 to 9), tabled the deal indefinitely and said he will explore other options. Many council members expressed relief and I agree with them. This was moving too fast with too little information.

I hope this isn’t the end of Cleveland’s efforts to bring Chinese business to the shores of Lake Erie. Cleveland needs a reboot in its thinking, but making a bad deal for the sake of making a deal isn’t the way to go after this. The thing is, will we ever really know if this was a bad or good deal? Sunpu didn’t even show up to the meeting where council debated the issue, nor has it sent anyone to Cleveland (to my knowledge) despite signing an MOU, and much of the Chinese-language material remained untranslated. Mayor Jackson, if you ever need someone to do some due diligence for you, look me up. Really. I’m happy to help.

Written by Michael

May 26, 2010 at 12:36 pm

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Who is Sunpu-Opto? / 宁波升谱光电半导体有限公司是谁啊?

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Cleveland is my hometown, my destination for law school, and a city in an economic tailspin. Beginning in the 1970’s, the decline of heavy manufacturing, white flight to the suburbs and demographic shifts to the American west and southwest combined to create a perfect storm of urban decay, throwing what was once the country’s third-most important city into third-tier has-been status. The past three decades have been a combination of abortive attempts to arrest the decline and to shift the city’s development in a new direction. As it stands, Cleveland has perhaps 400,000 residents in the borders of the city, a couple million in the ‘greater cleveland’ area, and no particular focus economically now that the LeBron James economic stimulus package has concluded.

Home sweet home.

The latest scheme to be hatched in hopes of bringing some innovation or at least some new jobs to Cleveland is Mayor Frank Jackson’s plan to award a 10-year no-bid contract for LED lighting to the Ningbo Shengpu Lighting Company, known in English as Sunpu-Opto. The reaction of most Clevelanders was predictable: “WHO? Why award an exclusive, no-bid, ten-year contract on a relatively new product to a relatively, no, completely unknown Chinese company, when General Electric has a lighting-focused industrial park with historic ties to the city, which, by the way, employs 1,200 people? You’re selling our city to the Chinese!”

I can understand the anti-China sentiment. This is a city that knows China chiefly as a destination for what may have once been their jobs or the jobs of their family and friends. There is only a small Asian population and I have no idea how active actual ties are between them and China. In the legal community, two of the major downtown law firms are heavily involved in China, and at least one of the smaller firms is as well, but blue-collar workers, which Cleveland has historically been built upon, have little love in their hearts for China, nor for seemingly ‘unfair’ foreign investment schemes that leave American companies out in the cold. Even given all that background, I think attracting foreign investment to Cleveland is an absolute imperative if the city is ever going to experience growth, let alone arrest its slow and steady decline. Cities in transition need shocks to their system.

However, is this move by the mayor and city council (which apparently supports the mayor, who is the former council president) the best way to advertise Cleveland as open for FDI? Jackson has said he’s advancing a new paradigm of city development: If you want Cleveland to make an investment in you, you need to make an investment in Cleveland. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, that’s not a bad idea. But no-bid contracts have a funny way of hurting people’s feelings, and Cleveland has had such a lovely history with hurt feelings and major benefactors packing their bags and leaving: Rockefeller (yes, 30 Rock could have been in Cleveland, but where would Liz Lemon have gone in the ‘Cleveland’ episode? Milwaukee?), Art Modell and the Browns, LeBron (not yet, but…)…do we want to add GE to that list? Is that even a real risk, or is GE just blowing smoke?

I wonder what Dan Gilbert thinks of this. Where will the HQ be located? Is there a master plan, a way to bring more business in, or are we really just grasping at any opportunity that presents itself? I really want to see more foreign business in Cleveland, and I’m not going to shy away from throwing some serious incentives at companies to invest in Cleveland, but how in the world is Sunpu-Opto suddenly the best or even the only option for this sort of agreement? Another company, Fawoo, has indicated it could relocate its US operations from Akron to Cleveland in Sunpu’s place. Cleveland’s government says they looked at Fawoo but weren’t satisfied. Company officials reject Cleveland’s reasons. Who’s telling the truth? Who stands to gain?

Written by Michael

May 18, 2010 at 4:13 pm

Looking Back, Moving Forward

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Mei banfa, which essentially means “Well, there’s nothing for it,” is one of the most commonly-heard expressions in China. Traffic is tied up again? Mei banfa, there are so many people! The government censored your blog/book/movie? Mei banfa, some things are not suitable for open discussion. You have to wait four hours at the hospital even though you have important things to do? Mei banfa, healthcare is always in demand. It can also be used as a lame excuse, a brush-off, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.

In my experience as a foreigner, foreigners adapt to the constant use of mei banfa in several stages. First, surprise. Really? There’s NOTHING you can do? Second, anger. Give me a break! If only you’d do such-and-such-and-such, this would be EASY! You’re not trying hard enough! Arrrgh! Third, begrudging acceptance. Alright, I’ll relax. This isn’t my country; things are different; deep breath; okay. Personally, I’m perpetually in a rage-filled limbo between stages two and three. On a good day, I’m happy to abide by the ways and mores of my host country. On a bad or merely average day, I’ll pay you any amount of money to give me your spot in line or suggest re-routing traffic through the Gates of Hell if it means I get to the office a few minutes faster. I do not suggest I am a tolerant individual. God willing, I will do better.

I envy the tolerance of Chinese people for frustrating situations. There are too many difficulties in life to face head-on; this is true everywhere. The tolerance that Chinese people exude in all aspects of life, towards politics, traffic congestion, pollution, or whatever – is exceptional. I firmly believe that down to the cellular level, Chinese people are better prepared to face any survival-level challenge than almost anyone on earth. Yes, China convulses with panic anytime someone sneezes and their snot is an interesting new color, fearing that this is the big one, the epidemic that will ravage their dense proto-metropolises, but I still don’t fear the plague. In this respect, I think China is probably helping the world more than it’s hurting it. All these people with their white cells constantly overworked, desperate to deal with new threats and, until the last few generations, starved of the nutrients necessary to mount an effective defense, are probably the ones who will remain after the bird flu kills the rest of us. They’ve had practice. The rest of us have built little bio-domes and lost our ability to deal with any damn thing, be it a new disease or a paperwork snafu.

A hope that I cling to, other than the futile hope that I may become a Zen master, is that in my years here in China I have picked up some of this ability to cope, rather than simply reinforcing my existing tendencies to be impatient and selfish. Certainly there is no shortage of the petty and mean here, but there is also a surprisingly abundance of tolerance and a sort of dogged determination to move forward that I identify with. There was a survey done not long ago by Gallup that essentially aggregated a large number of smaller polls done all around the world to determine which countries were the most optimistic. China ranked staggeringly low – falling below Iraq by several percentage points. Why? Surely China is developing so rapidly that some of its people must feel good about things. And yet this seeming discrepancy does not overly surprise me. Many Chinese have come to expect the worst while still striving for the best, and I like this mindset. Optimism and fatalism together. Yes, sometimes there’s simply nothing for it, but tomorrow will be better.

Written by Michael

May 5, 2010 at 11:42 pm

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Sharing is Caring

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Part of blogging regularly again is getting more engaged with what other people are writing or sharing. One of the few essential blog-readers to both escape the Chinese firewall and serve as a free and easy workaround is Google Reader. I do not spend enough time reading serious posts I am forwarded through Google Reader because there is simply a deluge of deserving content. I have tried paring back, but it always seems unfair to shortchange one interesting blog just because I’m too lazy. But there are simply too many posts for a non-professional blogger to read. My solution is simply to focus more on what people I know are sharing, and not feel obligated to ‘clean my plate’ of unread posts. This results in more posts read, and more posts forwarded on to others through the share function. If I’m not careful, though, I end up trying to follow anything any of my friends are, which leads me right back to the flood problem.

Reader’s has another useful feature: the ability to give full-text previews of blog posts hosted on domains or servers that are blocked by the Great Firewall. A multitude of useful and interesting sites, such as Danwei and China Digital Times are thus readable, if not accessible. It’s also a faster way of reading WordPress, which while not blocked, is terribly slow and unresponsive when I’m not using my VPN. Updating the blog is still a pain and will remain so until I return stateside this summer. If you’re not using Reader, give it a try.

Written by Michael

April 20, 2010 at 6:37 pm

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Law School and My Ballistic Impatience

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In personal news, I’ve accepted admission to Case Western Reserve Law School. I have worked in law firms for the past two years and have not been completely turned off of the idea of being a lawyer – in fact, I see some real upsides to practicing law, even if I choose to forsake the world of BigLaw for something that doesn’t pay as much more spiritually fulfilling. Chief among such advantages: a serious enhancement of my ability to be an unbearable smartass and a doubling of the amount of useless trivia stored in my mental memory banks. If life was nothing but an endless policy debate round with lunch breaks for games of Trivial Pursuit, I’d be all set.

One concern I have going into what is sure to be an intense academic experience is the persistent feeling that I’ve become mentally complacent and allowed my wits to dull. I don’t feel slow, but I feel slowed. Too many video games? Too many years juggling multiple languages? Who knows? In any case, I have begun to consider how I might clear my mind out a bit – spring cleaning for the soul, if you will. Ideas so far include more Chinese reading and more blogging, and a moratorium on gaming. I find games are easily the most insidious agent of change in mental function in my life. Not long ago, I read an article that made me wonder just how much a gaming habit can alter one’s thinking. In fact, the more I read, the more I began to worry that my meaningless little hobby was guilty of more than just discouraging me from blogging.

I sleep normal hours; I don’t take drugs. These are two key differences between me and Tom Bissell, the guy who found himself in a sideways spiral of coke-fueled gaming binges. Nor can I relate to the obsession with ‘sandbox’ games like Grand Theft Auto IV that have no particular focus and instead reward the random and pointless acts of – well, whatever. Not just violence. In some games, the reward mechanism is so well honed that doing almost anything gives you a little twinge of happiness. Oh, I blew up a truck? That’s kind of cool. Wait, what’s this I found over here? Does this do anything? No? What about this? And this? Ad infinitum. Literally. Games are now advanced enough that the permutations are far beyond the ability of most players to reach in a reasonable amount of time. More games are published than anyone can hope to play to completion. Sequels are fast-tracked by massive development studios working young programmers in near-constant ‘crunchtime‘ to minimize the distance between A – the moment the first game begins to lose its shine – and B, where a newly revamped, enhanced version of the game is made available to a prepared audience. There is never a lack of games, only a lack of time to play them all.

Bissell writes,

…the pleasures of literary connection seem leftover and familiar. Today the most consistently pleasurable pursuit in my life is playing video games. Unfortunately, the least useful and financially solvent pursuit in my life is also playing video games. For instance, I woke up this morning at 8am fully intending to write this article. Instead, I played Left 4 Dead until 5pm. The rest of the day went up in a blaze of intermittent catnaps. It is now 10pm and I have only just started to work. I know how I will spend the late, frayed moments before I go to sleep tonight, because they are how I spent last night and the night before that: walking the perimeter of my empty bed and carpet-bombing the equally empty bedroom with promises that tomorrow will not be squandered. I will fall asleep in a futureless, strangely peaceful panic, not really knowing what I will do the next morning and having no firm memory of who, or what, I once was.

This is the far extreme of the hardcore gamer’s consciousness. Even sharing a bit of Bissell’s experience with games (“…ocular spasms…fuse-blown reflexes…ballistic impatience to play…”) and reading his descriptions with a knowing dread, I have never managed to play for thirty hours straight, and if I did, I hope I would realize something was wrong. I tend to gravitate towards story-driven games such as RPGs, games that essentially reward a time investment with a story of some sort and possibly some challenging gameplay elements. More recently, I’ve started playing simpler games like tower defense, DOTA, or Settlers of Catan online. With the exception of Catan (where everyone is quite polite), online gaming is a cesspool. I try to ignore the half-literate insults carelessly hurled during such games, but given that I enjoy winning, and cannot always do so, I too become angry and find myself tempted to reply with similar vitriol. Pointless; destructive; stressful. Online hate: a huge emerging market! Perhaps it’s better to have such destructive urges channeled into the relatively harmless world of online gaming, but at what point do we cross over from distracting ourselves temporarily to distracting ourselves permanently?

Most games are about attacking a childlike world with an adult mind.

The adult world is already juvenile enough, I think. Bissell recollects and notes that entire chapters of his life have been devoured (pleasurably) by gaming. I recollect and my strongest memories have little or nothing to do with them. But I find that I cannot, in my wildest dreams, reconcile a gamer’s habit with the world of law school. No longer can I pretend to exist in a childlike world, even in my limited free time. Besides, my brain will soon be occupied juggling the details of the Rule in Shelley’s Case and other crucial issues…alas, gaming, our days are numbered.

The arrival of spring (if you can call the pathetic Beijing weather ‘spring’) usually lifts me a bit, and I am sure that once the hazy mixture of pollution, sand, fog and volcanic ash (maybe?) clears out of the Beijing sky, I’ll be closer to 100%. Of course, if I’m concerned with the weather, why did I decide to go to law school in Cleveland? Ah well. At least there is football to dull the pain.

Written by Michael

April 18, 2010 at 4:31 pm