A reader writes:

Bartlett's point about reading bills being a waste of time is exactly right. As a computer programmer, reading that section of legislation felt EXACTLY like reading a "snippet" of code.  I worked until very recently at a bank that has a large (> 3000 headcount) IT department.  The idea of managers reading every line of code that goes into a release is absurd - in fact, many senior managers who grew up programming mainframes in COBOL are effectively illiterate in the VB, Java and .Net paradigm that's taken over.

The analogy between computer code and federal legislation isn't spurious, either.  The similarities run quite deep because both are formal languages.  They give precise and unambiguous instructions on how a program (whether the computer or government variety) should behave for any given scenario, whereas natural languages are more vague but less opaque in expressing intent.

In fact, the comparison between congressman and IT manager runs even deeper than at first blush.  The snippet is not merely a standalone piece of legislation, but an amendment to one that already exists.  That is akin to the situation quite common in IT where the behavior of a large, existing piece of software needs to be patched.  At a code level, that might entail injecting just a handful of blocks of code at various points in a 50,000 line code base.

Reading the text of the amendment without the context into which it was inserted would be not so much losing the forest for the trees as losing it for the molecules.

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