I squared

February 3, 2017

A couple of years ago I published a post titled I, meaning not the subjective first-person singular pronoun but an abbreviation of “incompetence.” I focused on the California Department of Transportation, and mentioned in passing the CIA and FBI, where I interpreted the I in the abbreviations as just that.

My discussion in that post was based on observation, not personal experience. But since my mother died, two months ago, I have had the opportunity of experiencing institutional incompetence first-hand, and specifically with respect to institutions dealing with insurance of one kind or another. I’m therefore calling this post I2, for Insurance Incompetence.

There were three institutions that gave me this opportunity, one governmental and two private. The governmental one is, of course, the Social Security Administration (SSA), and this is the one I will discuss today.

On January 28 I received this letter, addressed to my mother:


Now, my mother died last December 3, and, since I was told by both her social worker and the funeral director that the mortuary would inform SSA of her death, I didn’t think that I needed to bother doing so, until, some time in early January, I noticed that a Social Security payment had been credited to her account. I immediately called SSA, and when I finally reached a representative, I was told that they had not been notified of her death, but that it would be registered right away. So, imagine my surprise at receiving the letter, sent about three weeks after that.

Since the letter gave me the direct line of Mrs. X, I called it as soon as I could. Of course I got her voicemail, and left a message to call me back (which the outgoing message promised to do “as soon as possible”). There was no callback, so I called again the next day, and this time I got her. When I identified myself there was no acknowledgment of my message, and, once again, I was told that there was no record of her death. Would I please fax a copy of her death certificate? After I did that I was assured that there would be no more payments, and that the surplus payment would be deducted by the Treasury.

Guess what? Today another payment appeared in my mother’s account.

Next time: private insurers.

Science fiction

January 9, 2017

Being a scientist, I have long been bothered by the use of “science fiction” to denote, in literature and film, improbable fantasies with no connection to science. If detective fiction (I dislike the term “mystery”) is about detective work, spy fiction is about espionage, historical fiction is about historical characters, why shouldn’t science fiction be about science — scientists and their work?

I have just finished reading a novel that’s a perfect example of what I mean, Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder (about which I posted a bit of ling-crit the other day). Most of the principal characters are scientists, and their work — in this case pharmacology and ethnobotany — is at the heart of the action. It’s fiction, of course — the drug that serves as the story’s MacGuffin is fictitious, as is the tribe in whose habitat it’s found — but it’s all plausible, with a fair amount of biomedical detail. While Ann Patchett did not study biology at university (as did, say, Diana Gabaldon and Barbara Kingsolver), she is married to a physician, a fact that I’m sure helped with the details.

If I come across another example of science fiction as I have redefined it here, I’ll write about it.

Patchett’s patchy Portuguese

January 6, 2017

It’s only in the last few years that I have expanded my reading of contemporary fiction beyond detective novels (and the occasional New Yorker  short story), thanks to a wonderful institution a few blocks from my house: the El Cerrito Recycling + Environmental Resource Center, and specifically its Exchange Zone, where thousands of used books can be found free for the taking. It was there that I discovered Barbara Kingsolver, Nick Hornby, Jonathan Franzen and their ilk — writers whose names I had heard of or read about, but not actually delved into. My latest such discovery is Ann Patchett, whose State of Wonder (2011) I am currently reading.

Despite the lovely writing – in free indirect style, entirely representing the protagonist, Marina Singh – I did not become absorbed in the book until Marina got to Manaus, in the Amazon region of Brazil. But then I was gripped by the vivid descriptions of the city’s air – beginning with “the musty wind of the tropical air-conditioning” at the airport —  and people.

And those of the people who are local and speak with one another do so in Portuguese. That’s where things get patchy, and I have to don my ling-crit mantle. The first sentence is, Negócio é negócio,.”  “business is business.” The second is, “Dr. Singh conhece o Dr. Swenson,” “Dr. Singh knows Dr. Swenson.”

I have long believed that writers should not use abbreviations, symbols or numerals in dialogue, only words as they are spoken. Initialisms or acronyms are okay,  if they are said as such, but the author needs to make it clear how they are said. I can make allowances for “Mr.” and “Mrs.”, because there is really only one way of saying them, but “Dr.” is read differently in different languages; in Portuguese it happns to be doutor.

But doutor, or o doutor with the definite article required when “doctor” is used as a title, is strictly masculine. And both Dr. Singh (the aforementioned Marina) and Dr. Swenson are women, so that of course they would be (a) doutora, or, if abbreviated, (a) Dra.

What seems to have happened is that Patchett used some kind of translation resource (electronic, written or personal) to translate “Dr. Singh knows Dr. Swenson” while neglecting to specify gender.

The rest of the Portuguese dialogue I have read so far seems similarly patched together.

Another linguistic weakness is one that Patchett seems to share with the late Ruth Rendell (I discussed it here) is the apparent belief that Indians necessarily speak Hindi. Marina, whose father is Indian, is reported to have, as a child, visited him in Calcutta, where she found herself swallowed up by a Hindi-speaking crowd. Hindi is in fact spoken in West Bengal — by about 7% of the population — but it’s hard to imagine a crowd in Calcutta speaking anything but Bengali.


December 25, 2016

About a decade ago I went on a binge of novel-writing, completing six books between 2005 and 2011. I did it for the sheer joy of challenging my creative imagination and experimenting with genres, and did not make any serious attempt at getting them published in the conventional way, since I didn’t relish the idea of having to deal with agents and editors. And so, when Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing became available, I jumped on it, especially enjoying the freedom that this platform gives me to revise my work at will. I have not done any promotion, and my sales have been less than modest, but, in all honesty, I didn’t do it for the money.

Of my six novels, three are free-standing. One is a historical novel about Manuel Godoy, inspired in part by the memoirs of the 19th-century Spanish writer Mesonero Romanos, Memrorias de un setentón (Memoirs of a his seventies), since I began writing the book as I was about to enter my seventies. The other two are more contemporary but also historical in the sense that they are set at a definite period in time, one in mid-eighties Hollywood and the other  (the only one written in the first person) in mid-twenty-oughts San Francisco.

The remaining three form a trilogy, with all the titles being single nouns ending in -ion, but they are quite different in form and style. The first tells a story of a man of my age whom I named Miki Wilner, like me a Polish Jew who was liberated at Bergen-Belsen, but otherwise having no resemblance to me; it is told, in alternating sections, over a twenty-day period in August of 1970 and a twenty-year period from 1950 to 1970 (a format I stole from the novel Blue by my friend Rosa Regàs). The other two are about his son and his daughter respectively. The latter is, essentially, a Bronx murder mystery, with a couple of NYPD detectives working with Betty Wilner. The former is a bildungsroman with a twist.

The twist is that Daniel Wilner, Miki’s Montreal-born son, goes on a quest to learn as much as he can about his father (who died when Daniel was two), and in the process finds out that his father was not who he had thought he was.

The coincidence alluded to in the title is that I recently saw two movies in which the protagonists undertake a search to find their fathers, and in each case learn that the father is not who they had thought. One was Incendies (2011), by the well-known Denis Villeneuve, who has lately become a big-time Hollywood director. The other was L’Origine des espèces (2016), by the first-timer Dominic Goyer. And both films are about French Canadians based in Montreal!

Of course, I saw both of them on an Air Canada flight to Montreal. But still…


December 23, 2016

Zsa Zsa Gabor died the other day, and in all the audio media that I’ve heard her surname has been pronounced with a stress on the last syllable. It’s actually pronounced, as Wikipedia puts it, GAH-bor ([ˈɡaːbor] in IPA) since it’s a Hungarian name, and in Hungarian all words are stressed on the first syllable.

It reminds me of László/Ladislav/Ladislao Kubala, the great soccer player of the mid-twentieth century. He was a Hungarian Slovak; that is, a citizen of Hungary but ethnically Slovak, not Magyar. The first-syllable stress is something that Hungarian shares with the otherwise unrelated Czech and Slovak, so that his name would be pronounced KOO-bah-lah ([‘kubala]) in Slovak and KOO-baw-law (North American aw, [‘kubɒlɒ]) in Hungarian.

But in Spain, where he spent most of his life (notably as the star of FC Barcelona in the 1950s), he was called [ku’βala], since the Spanish default stress for words ending in a vowel is on the penultimate. This is what can be heard in Joan Manuel Serrat’s song about him (which is in Catalan, so that the last [a] is somewhat reduced).

Kubala began to play soccer professionally as a teenager in Hungary during World War II. After the War, when the Communist regimes legitimized ethnic nationality according to the Soviet model, he decided to identify as a Slovak and moved to Slovakia (then a part of newly reunited — after being split by Nazi Germany — Czechoslovakia), where he played for Slovan Bratislava and the Czechoslovakian national team, and married a Slovak girl (his coach’s sister) with whom he promptly had a son named Branko.

For Eastern Europeans, one’s ethnic national identity often trumps the civic. When I was a child I thought that this was peculiar to Jews (I have always thought of myself as a Polish Jew, never as a Pole), but soon learned that it was common to most peoples east of the Seipel line. Some thirty years ago I met a woman in Mexico, a fellow tourist who at first told me that she was Yugoslavian; it turned out that she was a Slovene from Trieste — a citizen of Italy — but didn’t think of herself as Italian.

Kubala did, as a matter of fact, return to Hungary for a while, where he played for a local Hungarian club and the Hungarian national team, but soon defected to the West. He played for a makeshift team, coached by his brother-in-law, that was called Hungaria, named not for modern Hungary but the old polyethnic Hungarian kingdom. He was also signed by Torino, at the time considered the best team in Europe, and by sheer chance missed being on the plane, carrying the rest of the team, that crashed into the mountains.

As I mentioned above, he ended up in Spain, and was given Spanish citizenship by Franco himself, who used him for propaganda extolling the superiority of Francoism to Communism. And he played for Spain’s national team as well. No wonder he called himself a “cosmopolitan.”


December 2, 2016

I recently wrote about the French roots of most older (pre-Second-World-War) international organizations that have the word international (not world or universal) in their names, and hence I in their initialisms or acronyms. But in none of them is the Frenchness as pronounced as in the IPA.

IPA stands for both the International Phonetic Association and the International Phonetic Alphabet; the former is the body responsible for the latter. (Both are API in French.) It seems strange that an organization would knowingly — and, at least to some, confusingly — use the same abbreviated name for itself and for its product. The Ford Motor Company is, to be sure, known briefly as Ford, and one of its cars (if it comes from the Ford Division) is a Ford; while a specific one may be called the Ford (if, for example, a member of a multi-car family announces “I’m driving the Ford today”). But in French the company would be called la Ford, as would the car if a specific one is meant (both are feminine because both compagnie and voiture are feminine). French-speakers seem to be used to such ambiguities and find various ways to resolve them. For example, la Corse means both ‘Corsica’ and ‘the Corsican woman’; Balzac, in his story La Vendetta, refers to the Corsican woman at its center as l’Italienne.

Here I will  refer to the association (when necessary) as IPAss, and limit the use of IPA to the “alphabet.”  I have often toyed with calling it the FPA, because of its French bias and because it doesn’t really make sense to refer to phonetic characters as international — they have to do with languages, not nations. But it can also be questioned whether it’s really phonetic, or really an alphabet.

Let’s start with the last. To most people, an alphabet is a finite set of characters (called letters) that one learns in a specific order; hence the term alphabetic order. Whether modified letters (like á or ç) or digraphs (like æ or ch) constitute distinct entries is a matter decided by the individual language authorities. The IPA, however, is not finite — phoneticians create new characters as needed — and there is no alphabetic order. If it is anything, it’s a code, not an alphabet.

The IPA was first conceived by a French organization of modern-language teachers (L’Association Phonétique des Professeurs de Langues Vivantes) as a way of teaching pronunciation to children, not as a true representation of native pronunciation. This meant giving French approximations to, say, English sounds. Thus the character c (later replaced by ʃ) was proposed for both the French ch in chaud and the English sh in show. These are actually quite different sounds; in the English one the tongue is considerably farther back than in the French one. But when show is used in French as a loanword, it’s pronounced just like chaud; in fact, in IPA the pronunciations of show (as said by a Scot or a West Indian) and chaud would be written the same way: [ʃo], regardless of how different they actually sound.

The real problem with the IPA, for me, has always been the representation of affricates. as, for example, the English sounds represented by ch and j or ge in such words as judge, charge and change. Note that these words all come from  French, and at the time they were borrowed their pronunciation of these consonants in French (Old French, that is) was not that different from what it is in English. But French lost its affricates as it changed from Old to Middle, and when speakers of modern French borrow words from languages that have them, they pronounce these sounds as stop + fricative. That is, a French-speaker would approximate the English phrase ‘catch it’ as ‘cat shit’; one need only  listen to native francophones pronouncing  such words as tchèque, jazz, pizza or tsar. In IPA these are written as [tʃɛk], [dʒaz], [pidza] and [tsar].

But what happened was that the IPAss decided to keep these representations for all languages, even those in which a fricative is a single consonant (in my native language, Polish, there are six such sounds). It was only on the insistence of some non-French linguists that ligatures (such as ʦ, ʧ, ʤ) or over- or under-bows (such as t͡s or t͜s) were allowed “when necessary,” but they are still usually omitted from IPA charts. Many linguists resort to non-IPA symbols, such as č for the ch sound.

So much, then, for “international,” “phonetic” and “alphabet.”

Franzen’s “hacelo”

November 29, 2016

Jonathan Franzen writes long novels. At least some of their length is due to his deep delving into the minutiae of his characters’ occupations, be they business, politics, sports, music, cooking or whatever. This depth seems to be a result of meticulous ad hoc research, since in his appearances on Jeopardy! Franzen did not impress as a man with a breadth of knowledge at his fingertips. But the writing, as technical as it may get, is never didactic, it flows smoothly and is a pleasure to read.

When it comes to things German, as displayed in Purity, Franzen’s knowledge appears to be echt, since he studied German as an undergraduate and spent several years in Germany. What little German is actually quoted is impeccable, though the dialogue that is supposedly in German but written in English does not read as if it were translated from German. (In my novels in which dialogue written in English is meant to be spoken in another language, I made a point of thinking it first in Spanish, Hebrew or German before writing it down, but then I am not a professional writer.) There is, moreover, a tour de force in the form of a bilingual English-German poem, with the English part carrying a scandalous German acrostic that lands its author, a German named Andreas Wolf, in trouble. Franzen leaves it up to the reader to figure out that the acrostic reads something like “To your socialism I dedicate a splendid ejaculation.”

I have, in the last few years, developed a hobby (described here) of reviewing English-language novelists for their language lapses, especially relating to Spanish. Spanish appears only sporadically in Franzen’s writing, but I am pleased to report that when it does, it is invariably flawlessly idiomatic. (I have seen nothing in his biography indicating any profound exposure to Spanish.) One instance deserves special attention.

In Purity,  when a character is told (in Spanish) that someone is there to see him, he replies, Hacelo pasar,” meaning ‘let him in’ or, literally, ‘make him pass.’ Hacelo does, in fact, mean ‘make him,’ but not in standard Spanish; there it would be hazlo (with ) or hágalo (with usted) (or, in Spain, possibly hazle or hágale). The setting here, though, is eastern Bolivia, which happens to belong to that portion of Hispanic America where vos is used instead of , and hacelo is the form consistent with vos. Franzen’s familiarity with this form — which is almost never taught to Spanish-learners — is impressive.

But there is a problem. The person making the utterance is the aforementioned German, Andreas Wolf. We are not told how or where he learned Spanish. In Bolivia he lives at Los Volcanes, an isolated compound where English, not Spanish, is the prevailing language. In my case, I learned the vos forms when I lived in Costa Rica, because my friends and colleagues there used them with me. At Los Volcanes, the only local is the driver Pedro, and it’s in response to his announcement of a caller that Wolf says Hacelo pasarNow, what Pedro says is, “Hay un señor en la puerta que dice que es su amigo”  (‘There is a man at the door who says he’s your friend.’)   Su amigo, not tu amigo, indicating that Pedro addresses Wolf with usted. It’s a double mystery, then, that Wolf comes to use vos in return: first, it isn’t clear how he learned it; and, second, it seems out of character for him to be in a master-servant kind of asymmetric address relationship.

Perhaps Franzen’s meticulous research — this time into language use — carried him a bit too far.


November 25, 2016

That damned electoral college, again

November 11, 2016

Sixteen years ago, in the wake of one of the most contested presidential elections in American history (and one in which, as in the recent one, the winner of the popular vote lost the electoral one), I wrote an essay in which, among other things, I analyzed the effect of changing our electoral system without amending the Constitution, by having the electors in each state determined by proportional representation rather than by winner-take-all. The result was that, in that election, Gore and Bush would have received 263 votes each, and Nader 12. Under the Constitution, then, the election would have been decided — even more undemocratically — by the House of Representatives. But of course the different system would probably have produced different results in the vote, and, as I wrote then, “in a system in which ‘third-party’ candidates are potential recipients of electoral votes, the electors might regain some of the discretion that the framers of the Constitution had intended for them to have.” It was perfectly possible, I wrote further, “that the state Green Party organizations would operate on the lesser-evil principle and instruct their electors – ahead of time, of course, so that voters would know – to vote for Gore.”

I subjected the recent election to a similar analysis, and found an equivalent result: 265 for Clinton, 259 for Trump, 12 for Johnson, and one each for Stein and McMullen. If the scenario I just imagined were to occur, what would Johnson’s electors do?

I have always thought of self-styled Libertarians as Republicans who liked to smoke pot, and I believe that their electors would choose Trump over Clinton.

This is exactly what would happen in the impossible case of replacing the electoral college with direct elections. Neither major candidate having received a majority of the popular vote, a runoff would be required, and I suspect that most of the Johnson vote would go to Trump (he is, after all, if not exactly a libertarian, at least a libertine), giving him the victory.

Now all we need is for all fifty states to adopt the principle of proportional representation for presidential electors.

Charisma on the left

November 11, 2016

Let me quote from an article, purportedly written by a German journalist after John F. Kennedy’s Berlin speech in 1963.

[T]here is another term with which American journalists describe John F. Kennedy, and his speech justified the description. The term is charismatic.

We are used to thinking of charisma in Max Weber’s terms: as “an individual’s quality regarded as beyond the everyday (originally… as magically induced), by virtue of which he or she is treated as someone with powers or qualities that are supernatural or superhuman, or at least beyond the everyday and not accessible to just anyone, or as God-sent or as exemplary, and therefore as a ‘leader.’”

In politics, this is the form of charisma that we have seen in dictators. But we see a reflex of it in certain democratically elected leaders as well, leaders whom the people treat with a trust and a deference bordering on awe: Churchill, Eisenhower, De Gaulle, Adenauer. Note that these leaders were all in their sixties when they first attained their positions of power. Their charisma is that of what Freud called a “father figure.” Note also that all these figures are all, politically, on the right.

John F. Kennedy’s charisma is different; Freud might have called it that of a “brother figure.” It power resides in making the people believe that he is one of them, not above them à la Weber. And Kennedy’s German phrase, with the emphasis – perhaps unintentional – on ein, embodies that power.

I posit that it is this kind of charisma, which is already coming to be known as Kennedyesque (the President is said to share it with his younger brother, the Justice Minister Robert F. Kennedy), that is necessary for political victory by a leader on the left.

In a democratic state, a vote is an act that is directed toward the future, and the way one votes expresses the way one feels about the future.

And what are our feelings about the future? Typically, a mixture of fear and hope. If the predominant feeling is fear, then one’s vote represents a desire for the fear to be quelled, and it will go to the party that promises security and stability. That, normally, is a party of the right, whether it calls itself conservative, Christian, or a people’s party.

But if the predominant feeling is hope, then the vote will go to whoever can kindle hope with a promise of progress, and such a vote will typically go to the left. In the United States, this is the role of the Democratic Party, as typified by the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The difference is this: for the promise of stability, charisma is not necessary, except perhaps at times of crisis; an appearance of competence is normally sufficient. But to kindle hope one needs that special something that I call charisma on the left. It was possessed by Roosevelt and by Louis St. Laurent (whom the press called ‘Uncle Louis’), and it is what we find in John F. Kennedy, the embodiment of hope in present-day politics.

And who among us has, on the left, the ability to kindle hope? The man with the greatest potential, despite his loss two years ago (though with greatly improved results for his party), is still Willy Brandt, Kennedy’s friend, who stood with him in front of the Schöneberg City Hall during the speech. Those who wish the SPD well can only hope that it stays with Brandt until such time as hope wins out over fear in the hearts of West Germans.

But as a Hamburger – a relatively new one, but one baptized by last year’s storm tide – I would like to add that our own Helmut Schmidt is another man with the potential of inspiring hope, as he demonstrated by the way he led us out of that disaster.

The reason I wrote “purportedly” is that the German journalist is actually a fictional character in a novel of mine, written in 2009.  It was of course written in hindsight, with the knowledge that Brandt, and Schmidt after him, would be elected (and in Schmidt’s case reelected) as Chancellor. And now I can extend the list of politically successful left-of-center leaders who possessed that kind of charisma: Olof Palme; François Mitterrand; Felipe González; Tony Blair; Bill Clinton; Lula da Silva; Trudeau père (and potentially fils as well); Barack Obama.

The statement I put in boldface has to be qualified by recognizing that occasionally non-charismatic leaders on the left of center do make it to the top, but it’s almost always due to peculiar circumstances, as in the cases of Lyndon B. Johnson (the Kennedy assassination), Jimmy Carter (the scandals of the Nixon administration), José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (the Madrid bombings), Gordon Brown (Blair’s resignation), and most recently François Hollande (the unpopularity of Sarkozy). Johnson and Zapatero, somehow, managed to get reelected because of genuine accomplishments, but not Carter and Brown, and probably not Hollande.

Hillary Clinton, for all her virtues, is not charismatic. The 2016 US presidential election seemed to have provided one of those peculiar circumstances  — the candidacy of Donald Trump — that might have allowed her to win anyway. But Trump, apparently, projected enough of  that “appearance of competence” to enough people to give him the usual fear-driven right-wing victory.

For the Democratic Party to win in 2020, one of two things is necessary: a disastrous Trump administration, or a candidate endowed with charisma, Kennedyesque or otherwise (such as that shown by Bernie Sanders). Otherwise the party is doomed yet again.