Adventures in language

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Chinese guardian, Tang Dynasty, c. 618-907 A.D., Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo

My work takes me places where I have to throw my unilingual American self at the mercy of the local language. Fortunately, we live in an age of wonder, so before I got on the plane to Brazil a week ago I downloaded the Portuguese language set into Google Translate, and pre-loaded my list of survival phrases:

Obrigado!

Sim, por favor

Qual portão?

Bom dia

And, the No. 1 phrase of my week: Desculpe, eu não falo português.

Mas vou tantar! I would quickly add — but I will try! — then would peck furiously at my phone to cobble together a few English words in the translate app.

“POSS-owe co-LOW-car EE-soe nah MEEN-hah TOKS-ah day KWAR-toe?” I would blurt, sounding like a sheepish robot thespian.

That was the mode I was in one evening at a Brasilia restaurant with several English-speaking colleagues, when the waiter approached.

“Do you have iced tea?” I spoke into the translation app, hoping it wouldn’t produce the Portuguese equivalent of your mistress emits strange odors.

Google wasn’t getting the “tea.” It was getting only so far as “Do you have ice?”

“Do you have iced TEA?” I pleaded with the phone. “TEA? TEA?”

“No, we don’t have iced tea,” the server said. My colleagues spit out their own beverages.

Because I am a glutton for humiliation, I picked this trip to a foreign country to arrange my first-ever Uber ride, after I flew from Brasilia to São Paulo. In my 8th-floor hotel room, I tapped uncertainly at the Uber app, setting up a ride to the Museu de Arte downtown. A message instantly came back: Driver will arrive in 1 min.

Procaria! Panicked, I barged out of my room, slapped at the elevator button, then imagined the Portuguese tongue-lashing I would get in the hotel driveway as the elevator lollygagged its way to a stop at every even-numbered floor on the way down to the lobby.

Sorte was with me, though, as a shiny black car rolled up to the curb just as I emerged from the hotel. The passenger window rolled down.

“Uber?” a cheerful voice called. “Sim!” I said and got in. My driver was a natty, jolly grandpa with a trim salt-and-pepper moustache, generously amused at my determination to speak local. Desculpe, eu não falo português. I showed him the maps app on my phone, which displayed the name of the museum. Confusion flickered across grandpa’s face. That’s when the phone rang.

Ugh. Not a phone call. Not now. And then I noticed that the Uber app had filled the screen. I pulled the phone back to my seat. There was a message, from a driver named Paulo.

Você está aqui?

Wrong car. I had jumped into someone else’s Uber ride.

So now it dawns on me that I am unable to communicate this unfolding emergency — namely, that I am in a car about to whisk me into the heart of this city of 20 million people, while the driver who actually was supposed to pick me up probably was, at that moment, wondering why the guy jumping into his car was telling him to go to the airport.

I could not Google fast enough. I simply thrust my phone into grandpa’s hand. He sorted it out immediately and swung the car around the block to the hotel, where my original ride was waiting.

Desculpe, desculpe, I said to grandpa as I slid over to Paulo’s car. I showed Paulo the map, he nodded in affirmation and wheeled onto the highway. With the app’s help, I explained the mixup. Paulo laughed.

We laughed a lot during the ride. Passing the phone back and forth, we let Google translate our talk about football, the traffic, the warm air, Colorado’s snow, and about the museum I was going to visit.

Which museum? He asked. I blinked. I had showed him the name, and the map, before. I showed it to him again: Museu de Arte de São Paulo.

Paulo was still putting it together. There are a lot of museums in that part of the city. “Museu de Arte?” he said. “Mass-pee?”

Mass-pee? I had no idea.

Americans call Los Angeles LA. São Paulinos call their city Sampa, and their signature cultural institution MASP. Mass-pee. No one calls it by its full, proper name.

It clicked. “Mass-pee. Sim!” I said.

I pulled up the translate app again. Imagine if we didn’t have this technology, I typed. “ee-MAH-jin say now tee-VAYsss-ee-mose es-TAH tek-no-LOGE-ee-ah.”

Paulo laughed. “Perfect,” he said.

The fun continued at mass-pee, when I had to exit the museum to meet a work colleague for lunch — a local who would be my companion and translator for the rest of the day. I loaded the app with my question, rehearsed a couple of times, and stepped up to a young woman in a security uniform.

“É permitade a readmissão?” Is re-admission permitted? (The Portuguese combination –ão is a particular challenge, sounding to my ear like a swallowed mix of the English sew and the –tion suffix. I botched it every time.)

“É permitade a readmissão?” I tried again. The museum woman gave me a puzzled look.

“Wait. Do you speak English?” she said, with the fluency of a Nebraskan.

Here’s the thing: My Portuguese ineptitude was humbling, but I never got the brush-off or so much as a condescending look from the people whose help or direction I needed. When, in my halting, American accent and robotic Google syntax, I explained to the host at the hotel front desk that my key didn’t seem to be working, he smiled and met me halfway with his English — which, by the way, is far better than my Portuguese.

Desculpe, eu não falo português, I said, from memory by now, in front of a room full of my colleagues at their office at the morning meeting. Mas vou tantar! They all applauded.

The dollar is pretty strong right now, but my most valuable currency when I’m overseas is humility and some tantar.

Just trust us

On March 18 the Independent Journal Review published an interview with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his Asia visit. It might have ranked as a rather ordinary check-in with America’s top diplomat, except for the fact that he refused to allow members of the press, aside from the IJR’s Erin McPike, to travel with him.

In so doing, and under McPike’s questioning, Tillerson revealed exactly the kind of backwards thinking about open government that is distressingly common, from the highest American offices down to City Hall. Here’s a snippet from the portion of the interview where McPike pressed the secretary to explain his refusal to allow the usual press contingent to tag along at their own expense:

IJR: Right so your answer is you don’t intend to change this model for your next trip.

Tillerson: It’s gonna be trip dependent. It doesn’t mean we won’t, but we’re gonna look at every trip in terms of what my needs are. Look my … First and foremost is what is my mission and why am I going? How can I best accomplish that mission? What’s the most effective way for me to do that? I’m not a big media press access person. I personally don’t need it. I understand it’s important to get the message of what we’re doing out, but I also think there’s only a purpose in getting the message out when there’s something to be done.

“I personally don’t need it.” The secretary has it precisely backwards. It’s not about him needing acess to the public. It’s about the public needing access to him. The press does not exist to be his megaphone. It exists to give his fellow countrymen the information they need to monitor the performance of their government.

Look, no one is making the case that the press should follow Tillerson into every meeting or eavesdrop on sensitive discussions. By definition, dipolomacy is an art practiced partly in public and largely behind closed doors.

Democracy is difficult and inconvenient, and blessedly so. The default setting is: It’s public unless the law compels it to be private. It can be a royal pain. It is supposed to be a royal pain to anyone with designs on tyranny. From Tillerson down to the dog catcher, however, government officials wrongly apply the inverse default: It’s private unless the law compels me to make it public. That’s more convenient, but our is not a government of convenience. It is supposed to be a government of the People.

Some perspective

A couple days ago, I blurted out a few reactions to “Clearing the Haze,” the Gazette “perspective series” on Colorado’s first year of regulating, or trying to regulate, recreational marijuana. My initial take on it was that it was a deceptive presentation, dressing up an extended piece of opinion writing as regular news reporting. I still hold that view, but now that I’ve digested more of the series and have reflected on it, the more the whole episode seems to me to be less nefarious than it is just plain odd.

Others have examined the series in the light of various codes of ethics, and I won’t rehash that here. Columbia Journalism Review got the much-clamored-for interview with Gazette publisher Dan Steever, who pretty much acknowledged the entire effort was meant to present the dark side of Colorado’s legalization scheme, out of frustration that it isn’t being covered by the news media (though, see this March 25 report by AP [note: link has expired]). Presumably, that indictment included his own newsroom.

Odd. He could have just asked his editors and reporters to check into it. Problem solved.

Strange, too, that the Gazette devoted 4 days and 18 extended editorials to the subject. No question that legalized pot is a big deal, but that’s a lot of newsprint to spend on making what amounted to a few not-very-profound points. For example, at gazette.com, Day 1 was announced with this teaser:

“Sunday’s stories suggest the net gain from taxes and fees related to marijuana sales will not be known for a while, as costs are not known or tracked well, and there are many other unknowns about pot’s effects on public health and safety.”

I voted against Amendment 64 in 2012, but even I am not feeling much righteous vindication at this revelation. Amendment 64 forced the state to draw up, overnight, an entire regulatory scheme for something never before legalized in America. Of course the net effects are not going to be known in the first 12 months. Far simpler things have taken far longer to smooth out. A multi-page spread in the Sunday paper to make this point is all a bit . . . odd.

A newsroom examination of that question — in contrast to an opinion-driven report with a pre-determined point to make — would have asked the same question: How are the tax revenues stacking up against projections? But it would have asked further questions: How long will it take before we know if this is really working out? Is there any other regulatory endeavor we can compare this to? Apparently, the mandate behind “Clearing the Haze” contained no directive to ask such questions. Odd.

Day 2, meanwhile, was devoted to health impacts on pot, primarily on youth. The surprising finding: Prominent segments of the medical community continue to frown on kids using marijuana, even after Colorado’s vote on Amendment 64. Some studies continue to conclude smoking weed is bad for you; other studies continue to reach different conclusions. It has ever been thus, and one wonders what part of this widely known reality the creators of “Clearing the Haze” expected they would change.

Those who plowed through editorial after editorial, page after page, day after day, found a few nuggets worthy of examination: The tiny segment of the prison population consisting of people busted only for pot-related crimes (a fact perhaps well-known to others, but it’s new information to me). Or the rising number of pot-related incidents in local schools. Or Colorado’s emergence as a primary supplier of illicit marijuana to the rest of the country.

These strike me as real concerns. They would have been just as real, but more potent, in a news report that examined those facts from the perspectives of legalization advocates and detractors alike. Steever, however, told CJR he wasn’t interested in a variety of perspectives. The editorial on the black market contained some arresting information that begged for some explanation, some answer, from the state. Not a word was to be found. These findings could have had real power, real impact, if they had been presented in a context of transparent news reporting. Instead, they were delivered like a dour sermon.

That’s a weird way for a newspaper to behave. It’s not unheard-of for newspapers to use their opinion departments to produce investigative work, but when they do, they publish it on their opinion pages, not on the front page. More often, however, they let the newsroom dig out the facts and ask the questions, and leave the opinion writers to use those facts to build their arguments in the editorials. In this case, the same people who reported and wrote “Clearing the Haze” also wrote the concluding Gazette editorial that argued for an overhaul of Colorado’s pot-regulation apparatus, if a complete repeal of Amendment 64 can’t be arranged. How very strange. Whether you agree with the Gazette’s editorial conclusions is not the point; the point is that the Gazette’s editorial team could have made those very same arguments had the newsroom done the reporting.

Stranger still is the way the series, for all its gravity, never really follows through on the potentially real and serious facts it serves up. A Day-3 entry in the series contains intriguing testimony from a local lab about a dramatic rise in the number of parents bringing in their kids to test them for marijuana use. So, how many of these kids are actually testing positive? A rookie news reporter would not have failed to ask that question, and if somehow she did, a newsroom editor would be sure to send her back to the lab to find out. “Clearing the Haze” did not ask the question. Or, if it did, it did not report the answer. How odd.

The lead item on Day 4 of the series announces “Medical marijuana business still growing in Colorado.” It reveals that the number of Coloradans on the state’s medical marijuana registry continues to grow, even after sales of recreational pot became legal. Of course, medicine is medicine, and recreation is recreation, and in theory, one shouldn’t have any effect on the other.

Unless, of course, A) significant numbers of patients are moving into Colorado, or B) the whole “medical marijuana” concept is a sham, nothing more than a way for folks with a taste for pot to get a joint legally, in revolving-door clinics where unscrupulous physicians hand out red cards like Halloween candy. In which case, legalization should draw non-medical users out of the clinics and into the bright sunshine of no-questions-asked pot purchasing.

And really, this is one point where no serious person has any argument with “Clearing the Haze.” It is patently obvious, even to the most earnest believer in cannabis medicine, that the vast bulk of medical-marijuana clientele have no medical reason to consume it. This nudge-and-a-wink arrangement is so obvious that even state lawmakers have noticed it, and have pledged new scrutiny upon the doctors who are too free with their prescription pads. On this matter, it hardly seems the “Clearing the Haze” series was even necessary.

Nor is it a revelation that, owing to the comparatively lower taxes on easy-to-get medical pot, sales of the recreational stuff are not hitting the projections that state revenue forecasters had anticipated. The Tax Foundation made the same observation in two brief paragraphs seven months ago. It’s not as if Colorado’s revenue officials are in a cave, unaware that the tax rates need to be recalibrated.

Taken as a whole, the article portrays medical marijuana as an anchor dragging down recreational pot sales, in turn holding tax revenues below the official prediction.

But here’s the odd part: Recreational pot tax revenues actually are skyrocketing, according to Colorado Department of Revenue sales-tax reports. Since the day recreational pot became legal, monthly sales taxes collected on the stuff have increased by 2 1/2 times. During the same period, the monthly take of sales taxes from medical marijuana has decreased somewhat — even as the number of card holders has increased. The current monthly take in sales taxes on recreational marijuana is nearly six times the monthly amount collected from medical marijuana.

Sales taxes

If you take into consideration all taxes levied on marijuana, including the 15 percent excise tax charged on wholesale purchases by recreational-marijuana retailers, then the total amount of tax money raised by recreational pot since January 2014 is five times the amount generated by medicinal marijuana during that time. If you add in license fees collected by the state, the money generated by the recreational-marijuana industry is nearly three times the amount generated by medical-marijuana operators. I’ve assembled the numbers here.

None of this invalidates the points about too-easy medical marijuana and out-of-kilter tax rates that create an incentive to purchase medical marijuana.

But it is a bit of perspective.

Today’s news from Oceana . . .

 . . . comes from David Cay Johnston at Newsweek, who reports on the decreasing willingness of federal agencies to give the public access to . . . wait for it . . . public information. Beyond the usual stonewalling of agencies that, for example, plead poverty yet insist on releasing stacks of records on paper instead of a free email, federal officials are now deciding whether they like the reason why you’re asking for information:

[Author and former LA Times reporter Dennis] McDougal wants Drug Enforcement Administration records of David Wheeler, a shadowy entertainment industry figure who died in 2001. Wheeler was known to hang out in the DEA’s San Diego office and make time with secretaries. McDougal (and others) believe he gave agents damaging information on his competitors and, in return, was allowed to run his criminal enterprise.

 

Such records seem to meet the legal standard of information “in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding” of government operations.

 

Sean R. O’Neill, chief of the Justice Department appeals staff, denied McDougal’s fee waiver request stating, “It appears that you seek the information to further your commercial interests.”

 

As far as I’m aware, the law doesn’t care whether a member of the public makes money from information that, by the way, taxpayers already paid to create in the first place.

Here’s an idea: How about the public gets to decide why it wants the information, and how it will be used. How about the government gets to pay attention only to the law and what it requires.

 

O’Neill told McDougal he had not shown how the records would “shed new light” on government operations, so he must pay $1,900 just to have 17 files searched with no promise that any documents would be released.

When the government gets to decide which information is in the public interest, and which information is not in the public interest, we have capped off an amazing come-from-ahead defeat, losing the Cold War we thought we had won.

Mohamed el Dahshan is a compelling blogger, living through the transformation of Egypt from a dictatorship to . . . something else. el Dahshan is capturing, with sharp insight and equally sharp writing, the anguish of young, liberal Egyptians as the new, democratically elected regime provides ever-more evidence that it wants to control Egypt with the same iron rule as the former, dictatorial regime.

His message about the power of transparency ought to resonate deeply in our own, supposedly open, societies. el Dahshan is fighting for a society that we take for granted.

Never take it for granted.

mohamed el dahshan. economist, writer, speaker, compulsive traveller.

 

In preparation for the World Economic Forum in Davos which I attended last week, I was asked to share some thoughts on transparency and growth. This is my blog post on the subject.

 

In the 1990s, Uganda suffered from a problem of corruption so severe that, for every 100 dollars the government would disburse to schools across the country, only 20 would reach the destination; 80 dollars would somehow disappear, siphoned along the way. So, the Ministry of Finance decided to try a novel approach: it informed the local media, and placed posters in schools detailing the sums to be released. This time, 90% of the money reached its destination.

There are two main lessons here. One, that the problem was not resolved by a top-down decision to outlaw the practice, but really by informing, thus empowering citizens. And two, that this could have gone unresolved if it…

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Not helping

Innocent Americans, and just about any Christian (because to the mob, Christian = western = American = evil) abroad now must run for their lives, thanks to some knothead who thinks the way to bring about justice in the world is to jam a red-hot poker into the eye of Muslims:

Anti-Islam filmmaker in hiding after protests

An honest examination of Islam, or any religion, is one thing. Overt provocation is another. Only the killers, and not the film, are responsible for causing the deaths of four Americans so far. But the fact that the filmmaker is currently in hiding is all the evidence you need to conclude that he, more than anyone, understands that free speech has consequences.

UPDATE: The film trailer has been avilable online for several weeks, raising the question: why did this happen Tuesday? Tuesday, as in: Sept. 11. American officials have begun to examine whether the mob attacks were sparked internally, by jihadist elements using the film as a handy trigger. It would change the facts of the argument, but not the conclusion: needless provocation helps enemies whip fanatics into a murderous froth.

. . . and now, The Atlantic reports on how the movie trailer may not be attached to a movie at all. And how the name of the person who took to hiding may not be a real name, and . . . basically, how this piece of You Tube hate could be a ham-handed ruse. The deadly effects, however, are anything but fake, and the mere existence of this lamentable example of free speech has played directly into the hands of those who would like to wipe us out.