Saturday, September 23, 2017

Hazards of the trades

Too much knowledge can spoil the fun. Specifically, when a person has deep knowledge of a specific process or art, it becomes difficult to consider the element in its simplicity, as most people do. Instead, the connoisseur analyzes it, often to death.

One area you can see this is language. Most people are interested in the point of communication, not its form. By contrast, writers of all types are often more interested in the form and quite critical of it. For example, writers tend to judge text as much by how good it is written as what it is trying to day. Likewise, translators, including my wife and me, immediately notice over-literal translation and source text interference, especially in menus and signs. Musicians may not even notice the total sounds due to their focus on individual performances, good and bad.  Choreographers sometimes tear down complicated dances into their component parts, negating the effects of synergy. So, language experts insist on proper language, occasionally forgetting the ultimate purpose of communication.

In a world filled with visual information, certain experts immediately focus on a specific aspect. Barbers (or hair designers, as applicable) probably focus on the cut of the hair, with a bit of a critical note I imagine. In the same way, optometrists catch the form of the frame of the glasses, generally ignored by most people unless it is violently inappropriate. Since my wife is a knitter, I see how fast she checks out any knitted object and checks if it is machine or handmade, with a comment on the skill level if the latter. Potters do not see plates as objects on which you put food but instead as works of art, or lack thereof. Like flies and light, certain professionals are immediately attracted by certain visual clues.

This attention often enters the realm of judgment. After years of assessing damage, insurance assessors probably cannot pass a dented car without doing a calculation in their head of the cost to repair it. On my favorite cooking show, Les Carnets de Julie, I watched a baguette judge name the 16 tests, no less, of a proper French bread, of which only the last was taste. For this person, a baguette is not a loaf of bread by any other name. I pity dog breeders, who find it difficult to say “what a cute dog” without trying to figure out the breed(s) of the dog and how well it would do in a show.


There are many advantages of being an expert. However, sometimes, it would be nice to enjoy the world at its face value, without adding complexity or judgment. Unfortunately, once gained, knowledge is hard to lose. As Milton might say, it is paradise lost.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The price of (ex)patriatism

For some people, the grass is definitely greener on the other side. Such adventurers leave their place of birth and circle of family and friends to settle in some far off land. The motivations for such a move may include income, climate, culture or lifestyle. Whatever the cause, expatriates plant their roots far away from parents, but ultimately pay a price for their act of freedom.

Some costs are relatively temporary.  Difficulties involving language and cultural interaction decrease over time, depending on the level of integration chosen. Ex-patriots generally attain a reasonable standard of living by local standards even if the income numbers may not compare with those of their land of birth. If they arrive young enough, immigrants can start their own family and enjoy their grandchildren in their old age. All these issues are manageable and tolerable.

However, there is one cost of residing abroad that cannot be mitigated. As parents age, expatriates find themselves distant and unable to physically help. Of course, telephone and Skype provide affordable communication.  However, the simple acts that elderly people appreciate cannot be provided from a distance. They include trips to the doctors, help with computers, picking up heavy boxes and even sitting together and watching a football or baseball game on television. Isolation and physical weakness are companions of old age, especially in the American context and after the age of 90, as is the situation of my parents.


Having just returned from a bi-annual trip to my parents, I am much more cognizant than ever of this price. I do not regret my life choice nor do my parents reproach me for it but nothing in life is free. Yet, I have never been more aware of the price of the cost.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Of words and truth

Can a name of an object be true or false or does custom determine its virtue. I was surprised that in a Plato dialogue Cratylus, cited in translation to English by Anne Fremantle in her Primer of Linguistics (1974), the issue of the essence of words was discussed. Interestingly enough, words were described as an instrument just as a shuttle or an awn. In other words, any person can use these tools but only experts know how to use them correctly. A linguistic example is the use of the word basically. While it does have a specific and correct meaning, many people throw it in as a breath stop, without meaning.

Plato through Socrates in the dialogue argues that instruments should be defined by the wise, i.e. experts in their use. In regards to words, he specifies politicians but apparently they were a bit more educated in his days. Nobody would praise the precision and truth of the words that politicians use today. The closest current institutions are the various national language institutions, such as in France and Israel but not in the United States. They attempt to establish correct usage and meaning, with varying degrees of success.

The problem is that language, including the name for an essence, is almost always established by popular consensus, i.e., how people use it.  A modern example is the acceptance of blog for web blog. No academy proposed or approved it but it is the correct word. On the other hand, funnest is still incorrect (as far as I know) even if thousands of children say it.


In terms of the classic debate between Hamilton and Jefferson, the people always decide but the former would say that they don’t always do correctly while the latter would say that argue collective wisdom. In other words, can one million references in Google be wrong? Yes and no. The debate continues.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

A Place in the Sun

Festivals are very important for the life and identity of small towns. They provide exciting, around the clock life to quiet and staid villages for a few days, which is generally enough for most of the locals, and an important source of income for the area. More importantly, they create an identity for that place: X, home of the Y festival. It doesn’t make a difference how unusual the theme is. What counts is to have a fun event to attract outsiders and break the monotony of the summer. Some of my favorite ones are the Scandinavian Festival in Junction, California, where everybody turns into a Viking; the fire ant festival in Marshall, Texas, where virtue is made out of necessity; and the garlic festival in Gilroy, California, where everybody is welcome except for vampires, I suppose.

Karmiel, my home for the last almost 30 years, is a small town of some fifty thousand people.  It is a great place to raise a family but, alas, rather quiet after nine o’clock in the evening. Fortunately, for the last 30 years, for some three days in the summer, it is filled with several hundred thousand dancers and dance lovers enjoying numerous venues, big and small, to both dance and watch dancing. The major theme is Israeli folk dancing, with dancing around the clock, but also includes Balkan (my favorite), salsa, ballroom, hip hop, to name just a few. In terms of performances, all styles of dance are available starting with the top Israeli groups and branching out to foreign ballet troupes, Israeli and world modern dance troupes, national dance companies and unique styles, such as flamenco. This year, my wife and I saw a modern dance version of Carmen by a Hungarian group and a performance by the Georgian national company. For three days, there was music in the air and lots of happy feet. The organizers even got lucky with the weather, which was much more pleasant than in most of the country.  I imagine quite a few of the visitors were not looking forward to returning to the humidity of the Tel Aviv and surroundings. Then, it ended.


Karmiel has returned to being a nice, quiet place to live. Still, when I mention my home town, people generally say, “Oh, where the dance festival is. What a beautiful place!” So, as I wait for my aching leg muscles to recover and the tennis courts to be restored to their normal function after the dancing, I appreciate the beauty of a good festival for both visitors and locals.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Imitation and flattery revisited

All languages are not created equal as each has a different creator. The context here is neither the virtue nor beauty of languages but instead their structure.  Many translators in their loyalty to the form of the source language err by applying it to the target language. I will demonstrate by showing three differences between French and English form.

It is accepted use and quite logical in terms of logic to capitalize last names, places and company names in French.  For examples, in a French legal document, there may be a reference to M. Jacques COLON, residing in NICE working for the SONY company. This use of large letters makes it easy to identify key facts. By contrast, in English, capitalization of all letters in a word is the written equivalent of screaming, only to be used to accentuate in extreme cases. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME NOW? Therefore, applying French capitalization rules in English makes the text sound verbally violent. Mr Jacques Colon, residing in Nice, works for Sony. That is all.

Some punctuation rules are also not equivalent. The French, for reasons unclear to me, put a space between the word and the following colon, as in “les explications :” By contrast, in English the extra space is generally after the colon as in “the explanations:  fatigue…” Retention of the redundant space is generally the sign of an overzealous translator or non-English native speaker.

Finally, prepositions and articles must be restated before every noun in a series in French. Note the following sentence: Je suis protecteur de la liberté, de l’egalité et de la fraternité de chaque citoyen français.  By contrast, English tends not to repeat shared elements of parallel structure. The same sentence in translation would be: I am the protector of the liberty, equality and fraternity of each French citizen. Of and the are not repeated because they are redundant.


It may seems proper and even flattering to copy the exact formatting of the source language but it is neither correct nor professional to do so in all cases. As the French say, vive la difference!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Confrontational politics

As children, we are taught to tell the truth. As adults, we learn not to. Specifically, as we grow up, it becomes more and more evident that the price of being frank is often frankly high: losing friends, getting people angry and even social isolation.  In other words, most people either do not want to hear or are not ready for criticism and bad news.
Culture plays a major part in establishing acceptable behavior. Many societies highly value social cohesion, including Japan, main stream America and Britain and Arab countries. By contrast, “hotter” countries accept temporary unpleasantness, leading people to develop thick skin. The best examples are the Mediterranean and Latin American countries. There, people are allowed to yell and scream without serious social consequences. You get used to “rude” people or leave for more civil (civilized to some) places. Of course, the adjectives used by such locals are hot and genuine as compared to the cold and fake of more gentile countries. As the French say, chacun à son gout (to each his own). The challenge occurs when cultures meet.

I was at a conference when a woman from an Eastern European country gave a 25 minute presentation while sitting down behind a desk and reading into her paper. I don’t understand how the largely non-native speaker crowd understood anything as I found it difficult to catch any words. Not only that, it reminded me of the Yves Montand song, le telegramme (http://www.jukebox.fr/yves-montand/clip,le-telegramme,qvqu0p.html), in which an operator completes ruins the most romantic telegram by rendering it monotone. The method ruined the message. After some 10 minutes of suffering, I got up and left the room.

The problem arose at the next break when that same lecturer approached me and asked me why I had left early. I faced a cultural schizophrenic dilemma: my American side told me to mumble something about having to go the bathroom or the like while my Israeli psyche took the question literally. The latter prevailed. I told her the truth, trying to soften my words. However, she was not stupid and understood exactly what I meant. The end result was her getting quite upset and me becoming quite confused.


My issue was and is the best way to handle that situation in the future. Should I, as a colleague, defuse the tension by avoiding the issue or take the question at face value, i.e., if you want a critique, you will get one? For comparisons sakes, I had a similar situation a few hours previously but the person agreed with my criticism and thanked me. I tend to think that I will take the latter route as I live in a Mediterranean country where confrontation is a norm. Still, I recognize that discretion is sometimes the better part of valor.  Alas if knew which part.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Law of the Land, modern style

There is an Israeli play entitled I am here because of my wife.  In that manner, I was present this week at a lecture by Or Yohanon called 150 pay slips. The topic was mortgages and how to choose the correct one. I don’t regret attending it as I improved my knowledge of mortgages, relevant vocabulary in Hebrew and modern means of communications.

In terms of content, house financing in Israeli is vital and complex. I myself barely understood it until this lecture even thought I took out a mortgage only a few years ago. The basic reason is the relatively high cost of housing in terms of apartment prices and income. In simple terms, starter housing is out of reach for most young Israelis without significant help from parents. Furthermore, the majority of Israelis cannot keep a budget as proven by the extraordinariness of anyone not in overdraft. Delayed gratification in terms of spending is not a developed concept in Israel. Finally, Israel has suffered from inflation, leading to the indexing of certain types of mortgages. This has and can lead to the principle actually increasing over time and even the doubling of monthly payments. That is how the dream house turns into a nightmare.

Aside from the informational aspect, the sociological view of society was fascinating. First, the speaker himself represented the new generation. He referred to himself by his first name, wore a very faded tee shirt and jeans and used language filled with Hebrew slang and terms in English. He immediately admitted that he had no formal financial education and was an IT engineer in practice. That said, he appeared completely knowledgeable about the material and made it clear when he was not sure nor did he try to tell people which specific type of mortgage to offer. Yet, I find it hard to imagine some 20+ years ago, any financial adviser would have given a lecture to some 100 or more people looking, acting and speaking like a college student at UC Santa Cruz, my alma mater. People would not have taken such a person seriously, rightly or wrongly.

On the other hand, I could sense a bit of the Banana Slug (the UCSC mascot) spirit, albeit in a modern form. He viewed his effort to educate people about how to get a livable mortgage as a personal crusade against the banks and media, which choose not to prepare people for their most important financial decision of their life. While he lacked Marxist fervency, the speaker clearly had a personal agenda to prevent banks from overly enriching themselves at the expense of naïve young and not-so-young Israelis. On the other hand, his modus operandi was perfect for his audience, including through Facebook, an Internet site (150 pay slips) and forums. His technique is apparently successful as his lectures are generally booked a week in advance. He speaks of the language of his audience, both in terms of words and means.


So, even thought I was there for the ride to ensure marital bliss, I learned about mortgages and modern communication. I honestly wish Or success in his efforts to educate people about this topic.