Friday, July 14, 2017

Ron and Betsy Work It Out

A lot of people have been claiming that the meeting Donald Trump Jr. had with a Russian lawyer who was offering damaging information on Hillary Clinton provided by the Russian government is a “nothing-burger” because Junior didn’t actually get any such information. He just wanted to get it, and the fact that it didn’t work out, they would say, excuses him of any possible wrongdoing.

And this is so true. One way to look at it is to imagine an everyday family situation that we can all relate to. 

Just picture a comfortable, suburban living room where...

Ron, a 40-something man, is on the sofa watching TV, when his wife Betsy walks in, holding a piece of paper. She has a concerned look on her face. 

“Ron,” she says. “I found this e-mail on your computer. Would you care to explain this?” 

Ron looks surprised. “E-mail? What e-mail?” 

“From someone named Tiffany. She’s talking about meeting you for dinner.” 

Ron looks relieved. “Oh that. That was just someone that a buddy from work told me about. Said she was, well, you know, easy.” 


“Yeah, you know, kind of loose. I thought she might be good for a fling. Maybe a one-night stand.” 

“And you had dinner with this, this Tiffany?” 

“Sure. She sounded great, so I had to check it out. Anyone would have done the same.” 

Ron notices the shocked look on Betsy’s face, mutes the sound on the TV. “But, honey, trust me, nothing happened.” 

Betsy looks at him doubtfully. Ron stands up, takes her hand, gives her a sympathetic look. 

“Sweetheart, she just wasn’t as hot as my friend said. She would have been a lousy lay. Lousy. Yuck. So, I cut the dinner short. Told her ‘No thanks’.” 

Betsy smiles, her eyes misting a little. 

“She wasn’t hot enough for you?” 

“No. And it’s too bad. Trust me, I was really looking forward to it.” He squeezes Betsy’s hand, watches her face. “So, we’re all good? 

Betsy hesitates. Ron continues, "I could have cheated on you, but I didn’t. She just wasn’t hot enough.” 

There’s a twinkle in Betsy’s eye. She leans up and gives Ron a kiss on the cheek. 

“I couldn’t ask for a better husband. I’d better go finish the dishes.” 

As she scurries away, Ron picks up the remote, gazes at the TV with a satisfied smile on his face.

So children, as any good wife like Betsy will tell you, “intention” to cheat doesn’t matter. It's just a nothing-burger. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Japanese Characters

Something that greatly surprised me on our trip to Japan was how little knowledge of English there is the country. Now, I realize that makes me sound like the archetypal American lout expecting to be addressed in my native language wherever I go in the world. It’s easy enough to fall into that trap.

However, I did think that in Japan, which is maybe the most Western of any Asian country – they play baseball there, for goodness' sake! – English would be quite common.

Wrong. In Naha City, the capital of Okinawa, we struggled to find a restaurant with street-side menus in English. At our hotel in Tokyo, we struggled when asking the polite, but bewildered, clerk if there would be coffee available in the lobby when we left at 6:00 the next morning. He looked sympathetic, wanting so much to understand us, but remained clueless. (Okay, to be fair, we were staying at cheap hotels, maybe not often used by Western tourists, so the standards are no doubt different.)

In any case, it began to feel that the Sofia Coppola film “Lost in Translation” rings completely true.

Of course, Japan presents special challenges for English speakers. If you travel in countries that use an alphabet based on the Latin of ancient Rome (which, by my count, is about 80% of all countries) you can squint your eyes and almost make out how a word reads, no matter how foreign it may be. Or at least find it in a phrase book. Or make a comical attempt at pronouncing it to a hotel clerk.

Places like Japan are much different. Without knowledge of the language, it’s impossible to make out anything of signs, maps, menus, practically anything written in Japanese.

The only Japanese characters I had any clue about previously were 入口. I partially remember this from our trip to China some years ago, where I eventually grasped from signs in the Beijing metro that 入口 means “entrance”. Teasing out this bit of understanding was no great lift, however, since the Chinese word was accompanied with its English counterpart.

That was also the case in the Tokyo metro. Chinese characters are employed in the Japanese kanji writing system, and the word for “entrance” is written identically in both languages. It helps that these two characters are quite simple, made up of only a few lines, unlike many Japanese characters that are much more baroque. For example, the kanji for “bear” is , which, if you think of the little lines at the bottom as legs, you could almost imagine as a bear. Or maybe not.

Naturally, if you know the meaning of the two characters in 入口, it all makes sense. means “entering”, and  signifies “gate” or “mouth”, which is especially easy to visualize. Likewise, the word for “exit” 出口, is made up of (“out”) (“gate”).

That’s about the extent of my Japanese reading comprehension. I have no clue how “entrance” and “exit” would be pronounced in Japanese, or Chinese for that matter. Nothing to brag about really.

I did learn one additional word on this trip. We spent part of one day in the town to Takayama, which means “tall mountain”, and is written as 高山. I like the simplicity and obviousness of 山, the character for yama ("mountain"). If I ever got tattooed with a Japanese inscription, it would probably include .

Maybe something like 高熊山 ("tall bear mountain"?). It might be garbled Japanese in reality, but it does look impressive, doesn’t it? 

A sign in Takayama warning about bears, featuring three of the six kanji 
characters I can recognize. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Falling Drops Earth Moves

I recently made a trip to Japan with my wife and grown kids, the first time we have been on holiday together since a trip to Paris in 2010. The “kids”, after all, are all in their twenties, and prone to go off on their own unencumbered by their parents. Traveling as a fully family affair doesn’t often happen anymore.

We were, in fact, visiting one of my sons, who is spending a year in Japan studying folk music. Needless to say, we had an amazing ten days there. We experienced many of those things you would expect to experience in Japan. But not all of them. One experience I was especially hoping for, there on the Pacific Ring of Fire, was a small earthquake. Just a small one, mind you. Just strong enough to know the weird sensation of the ground, solid earth, suddenly moving under my feet without warning. That didn’t happen. Not as I imagined, anyway.

About half through our time in Japan we left the urban whirlwind of Tokyo to see some of the countryside. We departed by bus one night at 11 o’clock to travel overnight through the rainy Japanese Alps. It was a grueling ride, the bus’s seats far too cramped to allow any real sleep. Bleary-eyed and stiff, we were finally deposited at 4:40 A.M. at our destination, the misty town of Takayama.

Temple in Takayama.

We immediately set out in the breaking daylight to explore the town, its streets wet from the overnight rain and deserted at that hour. After a couple of hours strolling through the town, passing a Buddhist temple or two along the way, we found ourselves approaching Shiroyama, a nearly 700-meter-high hill and the site of a heavily forested park surrounding the ruins of a 16th-century castle.

At the base of Shiroyama, we paused as we crossed a stone bridge over a small pond that led to a Shinto shrine. Some of us were watching the fat carp lazily swimming under the bridge. I was checking out one of the blooming Japanese dogwood trees lining the pond. An old woman across the street was doing traditional Japanese exercises in front of her house.

Suddenly, we heard a disembodied voice. At first, I thought it emanated from a loudspeaker at the shrine, making some kind of announcement in Japanese. We quickly realized, however, that the unexpected sound came instead from my son’s and daughter's phones. My son understands Japanese well enough to explain we had just received an earthquake alert. More precisely, a warning that a quake had just occurred somewhere relatively nearby and that aftershocks could be expected.

(A side note: the alarm came automatically only to the iPhones in the family. Not to my blighted Windows phone.)

One of the paths on Shiroyama.

As it turns out, this high-tech warning was not the only indication that a quake had occurred, at least for family members observant enough to notice. As we excitedly discussed the warning, some of us remembered that just moments, literally moments, before the warning was broadcast something else occurred.

The nearby trees had all suddenly shed the rainwater hanging on their leaves. All at once. Instantly. For no apparent reason. There was no wind. The air was dead still. The water just dropped. 

Several of us had noticed the water dropping off the trees so abruptly, but hadn’t thought anything about it. I hadn’t noticed it at all. Clearly, the ground beneath our feet had moved imperceptively, enough to shake water off trees, but not enough for any of us to feel it ourselves. Rainwater dropping from dogwoods from an earthquake seems almost, well, Zen, to me.

Graveyard at the foot of Shiroyama. 
(Photo: Helena Korpelainen)
Watching TV later that evening we saw reports of damage from the quake. Broken roof tiles on a street in the town nearest the epicenter. An elderly woman showing an ornamental clock knocked off her wall. No one seriously hurt. Obviously, not a big quake. 

Googling the quake after returning to Helsinki, I learned that it was measured as a 5.2-magnitude quake according to the US Geological Survey, 5.6 according to the Japan Meteorological Agency. The epicenter was located only about 50 kilometers away from us, as a Japanese crane flies, just on the other side of Mount Ontake, the second highest volcano in Japan and the source of a deadly eruption as recently as 2014.

Of course, we didn’t know any of this as we stood in front of the Hidagokoku Shrine in Takayama and wondered at the marvel of a tectonic event that was revealed only through water falling off trees. 

A marvel that I, for one, missed completely. Maybe, that’s also Zen-like. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Trumpcare Obscenity

Last week occurred one of the most shameful episodes in US politics. Even more troubling than the precipitous firing of an FBI director in the midst of an investigation of people close to the president.

For seven years, Republicans have fumed and ranted over Obamacare, campaigning endlessly with the promise of repealing the groundbreaking health care law. The House of Representatives held some 60 meaningless votes to do just that (meaningless, since they knew that none of those attempts at repeal could survive a veto by President Obama).

Then, with a Republican president (so-called*) finally installed in the White House, GOP lawmakers had their chance. And they blew it. 

First of all, the GOP didn’t have a coherent plan of its own ready to go, even after seven years. At least not one they all agreed on. It’s understandable, of course. They were taken by surprise in November. No one expected Trump to win, and consequently no one expected the Republicans to be forced out of their comfortable role of the opposition party. They didn’t expect to have to step up and actually govern.

Secondly, the plan Paul Ryan, the GOP leader in the House, did slap together after Trump’s surprise win was rushed toward a vote only a month after Trump took office (and just over two weeks after the plan was unveiled). The aim was to pass the bill on the seventh anniversary of Obamacare’s launch. It was a schedule dictated by optics and symbolism, but it meant the plan was only half-baked.

(And compare this to the torturous process of passing Obamacare, which took a full year, dozens of public hearings and much political wrangling. It was a process that conservatives never tire of characterizing as “ramming” a rushed law down the throats of the American people. A year, compared to two weeks.)

Thirdly, the Trumpcare plan was instantly unpopular. A poll showed only 17% of Americans supported it. And for good reason. According the analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, the GOP’s “reform” would force some 24 million Americans off insurance. The White House’s own estimates pointed to even higher numbers of people losing their coverage.

No wonder not even House Republicans could agree on the Trumpcare plan, leaving severe doubts that it would pass, even in a House made up of a 44-seat majority of Republicans. Trump tried to force the issue by instructing a now-doubtful Paul Ryan to proceed with the vote regardless. In the end, Trump had to back down and seemingly stopped caring about the bill.

Win one for the Democrats! No vote was taken. The bill died. Except, Trump and the GOP couldn’t bear the publicity that came with the lost. And, needless to say, the bill hadn’t really died. It was only in a coma, an induced coma.

I suspect that Trumpcare was brought out of this coma because Trump started to chafe under the perception, happily foisted by the media, that things weren’t going well for him. The operation of his White House continued to be a farce, and his first 100 days had passed without any significant legislative accomplishments.

Sure, he has signed lots of documents, executive orders, some of which have real effects (for example, allowing the completion of the Dakota Access oil pipeline to proceed), while many of which just stated Trump’s intention of doing something (like repealing Obamacare or building a border wall) but didn't result in any real-world actions by themselves. And sure, he got a conservative added to the Supreme Court after the Republicans had kept the seat open for a full year.

But in terms of actual laws that move forward on some key campaign promises, such as actually building a border wall, the symbolic first 100 days surely had to be a big disappointment for Trump supporters -- if they were honest about it.

To make matters worse, the recent budget passed by the GOP-dominated house lacked many clear-cut victories for Trump, and yet was filled with concessions to Democrats, over which the Dems couldn’t help publicly gloating.

The Democratic gloating was so bad that Trump and the Republicans -- snowflakes that they are -- complained bitterly that the Democrats were “spiking the ball”. And this from the man who celebrated his narrow win in November with an endless series of victory rallies where he did nothing but gloat. What is good for the GOP goose is, apparently, not good for the Democratic gander.

So, perhaps to soothe Trump’s feelings over his lackluster first 100 days and the humiliation of his failed budget, the GOP took another stab at killing Obamacare.

By injecting some amendments to the comatose Trumpcare bill, Paul Ryan and company were able to win over the ultra-conservative “Freedom Caucus” of Republicans who had formed the biggest obstacle to the bill’s first incarnation.

It seems the Freedom Caucus’ biggest objection had been the fact that Trumpcare didn’t remove Obamacare’s requirement to cover certain “essential health benefits”. This has often been a talking point in conservative media, which argues, for example, that middle-age men, in no danger of getting pregnant themselves, shouldn’t have to pay the additional cost for maternity-care coverage. 

The new amendments essentially allow individual states to opt out of this and other provisions of Obamacare, thereby placating the Freedom Caucus, which apparently won’t rest until every person dying without health insurance can die happy in the sweet knowledge that at least they died free. And not a burden to their fellow, freedom-loving, more prosperous Americans. Amen.

With this sweetener added for the Freedom Caucus, the bill passed, but by only four votes. No Democrats voted for it, which makes me wonder about those fashionably cynical folks who love to claim that there are absolutely no differences between the two parties.

This second try at passage was also rushed, this time apparently in order to hold the vote before the House left town for a “spring break” vacation. It’s often claimed these “recesses” are an important chance for the hard-working legislators to spend time in their home districts getting in touch with “the people” and hearing their concerns. Oh boy, do I ever hope they are actually doing that this time. I’m sure those brave enough to hold town hall meetings are getting an earful. We already know that Congressman Raúl Labrador,  a Freedom Caucus member from Idaho, got lambasted by the people in one such town hall after he foolishly claimed "Nobody dies because they don't have access to health care". Obviously, he inhabits a different world than the rest of us. 

So, the House Republicans wasted no time. Pushing the vote through so quickly had the added benefit of not having to hold hearings or giving the CBO time to score the new version. It's much easier to ignore how much worse the bill will be for poor people if you conveniently vote before you find out something unpleasant like that.

And in some sense, it doesn’t matter. Every House Republican can take solace in the fact that the Senate will radically change the law. In fact, some key senators have already said they will write their own bill from scratch, potentially making the horrible House plan marginally less horrible. Even then, it’s far from certain that a kinder, gentler Trumpcare will be able to pass the Senate.

I doubt the House Republicans even care. It seems the important thing was to pass something, anything, giving voters the impression the House had finally done something, not to mention giving so-called* President Trump the appearance of a win. And he grabbed onto that appearance of a win with all the desperation and gusto that he might normally reserve for some random woman’s genitals.

After the vote, the entire GOP caucus was bused over to the White House to celebrate in the Rose Garden like a jubilant fraternity at a keg party. In light of the travesty they had just committed, putting the future of millions of sick Americans in doubt, that display of heartless self-congratulation was simply obscene. There is no other word for it. 

* A "so-called" president in my mind, since Trump applied that label to a sitting federal judge who should be granted at least as much legitimacy for the office he holds as any president who loses the popular vote by some three million.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Language Learning, Or Not So Much

I can’t say I have a head for learning languages. Not by a long shot. That’s unfortunate, since I ended up in a situation where being a fully functioning member of society requires speaking a tongue that is not my own. And to my great shame I still haven’t got the hang of it.

To make matters worse in some sense, I’m surrounded by people who fluently speak at least two languages, sometimes three or even more. It's not at all unusual here. Finland is clearly a polyglot place, very much unlike where I was born.

As a kid growing up in the mountains of rural North Georgia, I probably encountered very few foreign words -- except perhaps, when I think about it, the word ”parfait”. That was the name of an ice-cream treat at the local Dairy Queen. Whether it was actually perfect, I can’t recall. Probably not bad.

In those days, I might have also occasionally run across some non-English words on T.V., though the only example I can be sure of was “Jawohl!” barked out now and then on “Hogan’s Heroes” the 60s situation comedy set in a German prisoner of war camp during World War II. And I'm sure I sometimes watched Lucille Ball being on the receiving of some choice words from Desi Arnaz in Spanish.

However, my first real exposure to languages other than English probably came in my maternal grandmother’s house, where I spent a decent amount of time as a kid. Grandma Davis had been a school teacher, and most likely had more books than most folks of her generation in my rural county.

One of those books -- in fact, the only one I really remember -- was a specialized dictionary, the Britannica World Language Dictionary, which provided translations of English words in six languages.

The book’s format was simple. On the left side of the page was a column of English words, listed alphabetically. Running from the right of each English word was its equivalent in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, and Yiddish. At the time, I was puzzled by Yiddish. I’d never heard of such a language, though I could see it appeared somewhat similar to German.

I remember being fascinated by the dictionary, seeing how you could say something in other languages. I recall in particular encountering the German words weiss and wein and thinking it was cool that by combining them you get “white wine”. As a child, I probably didn’t have any inappropriate thirst for weisswein. Maybe it was just the alliteration that appealed to me.

Maybe because of this early brush with the language, I always somehow felt a desire to learn German. For a long time, it was an unfulfilled desire. I suspect not many American high schools offer classes in German even now, but certainly not in the 70s in the rural Appalachian Mountains.

In any case, the only foreign language taught at my high school was French, which was a recommended subject for students planning to go on to college.

It was an exotic notion to study French, and I was excited to start the class. Even today I can recite (more or less) the first bit of dialogue of Français that we learned.

«Papa, mangeons dans un restaurant ce soir.» «Oui, Papa. Dinons en ville.» «Excellente idée, mais demandez à Maman d'abord.» «Ah, non. Ne parlez pas du restaurants ce soir.» «Pourquoi pas, Maman.» «Le dîner est sur la table.»

“Papa, let’s eat in a restaurant tonight.” “Yes, Papa, let’s eat in town.” “Excellent idea, but ask Mama first.” “Ah, don’t talk about restaurants tonight.” “Why not, Mama?” “Dinner is on the table.”

Unfortunately, after a while, despite a really fine French teacher, my attention span fizzed and my enthusiasm waned. I believe I studied a full three quarters, but ended up not doing so well with the French I took.

I’ve put my high-school French to use only rarely and to doubtful effect. The first time was probably in 1983 when my future wife and checked into a mostly empty campground near the coast of Normandy. Unsure where we could pitch our tent, I inquired of the campground’s matron with a “Où?” She understood well enough to answer -- with a Gallic shrug – by pointing around in different directions. I didn't improve much on that over the years. When we hiked in the Alps a few years ago, my French was no use at all and we had to depend on one of our sons to parle with fellow trekkers.

Anyway, that was French. When I went to the University of Georgia, I finally got my chance to study German. As with French, the first bit of German text we learned persisted in my memory:

„Hallo und guten Tag! Mein Name ist Bill Becker, und ich bin ein Amerikaner aus Chicago. Aber ich bin jetzt in Deutschland. Wo in Deutschland? In Marburg. Ich studiere hier. Was studiere ich? Deutsche: die Sprache und die Kultur.“

“Hello and good day. My name is Bill Becker, and I am an American from Chicago. But now I am in Germany. Where in Germany? In Marburg. I study here. What do I study? German: the language and the culture.”

I used to amuse my kids by reciting that. At least, I thought they were amused.

In the end, I took four quarters of German at UGA (compare this to my wife, who took the pitkä kurssi in German, that is, seven years). One of my teachers was an American with an appearance and vibe creepily similar to the Gestapo agent Toht from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” You got the sense that he was drawn to the German language for the wrong reasons.

Another teacher, my favorite, was an East German with an iconic Teutonic name -- which I won’t reveal, since after googling him, I see he’s still teaching in the States. Let’s call him Otto. He was tall, with blond hair and sharp, angular features you find in the villainous German characters typecasted in almost every American war movie.

Since this was 1978, a decade before the Berlin Wall fell and his countrymen could easily travel abroad, I got the impression that Otto came from some privileged, highly placed East German family. He had a slightly imperious air about him. He would sometimes lecture us on the faults of capitalist, and once brought to class a handful of empty food packaging from McDonald’s -- visual aids to berate us with over the wastefulness of the American throw-away society (which, natürlich, was true).

Otto also had a second job teaching at a private school near Atlanta, some 80 miles (130 km) away, and he often complained of getting speeding tickets as he tried to shuttle between the two schools, apparently at Autobahn speeds.

He once taught us how to say, “Step on it, Goddammit” in Norwegian, which seemed slightly sinister to me. He was a character.

I’ve gotten a bit more mileage out of my German. In the past, I sometimes used it as a “secret language” with my wife if we wanted to keep the kids in the dark about what we were discussing. Otherwise, I’ve hardly ever used it with actual Germans, even though I once worked for a half-German company and made regular business trips to München.

At the Baltic port of Travemünde back in the early 80s, as my wife and I waited to get a flat tire repaired at a service station, a man said something to me which I naturally didn’t understand. In response, I said “Ich spreche kein Deutsch.” (“I speak no German.“)

He corrected me: “Nein, du sprichst schlecht Deutsch.” (“No, you speak bad German.”) Genau!

So, that was German. When I briefly went back to university to study journalism in the late 80s, I decided to take another stab at language learning, apparently just for the hell of it. In this case, it was Spanish. And it was for one quarter only, so no hablo mucho Español. Obviously.

Even from that single course in Spanish, I came away with one little language artifact. My teacher was a Spaniard, as in from Spain across the ocean -- and this in a hemisphere of almost 420 million native Spanish speakers. Because of her, I learned the Old World Spanish pronunciation of the letter “c” (before “i” or “e”), that is, the Castilian pronouncement. For this reason, I think of Barcelona as “Barthelona”.  

I’m bizarrely proud of this, though that doesn't speak well for my solidarity with my fellow New Worlders in Latin America. As it is, we don’t talk with each other that much anyway.

I’d like to think that if I had remained living in the States, I would have actually learned Spanish. It is, after all, America’s de facto second language.

And then there’s Finnish, which I’ve been struggling to learn for, well, for decades, despite dozens of books and courses and living fulltime in the country where people speak it constantly. I have no excuse other than, as I said, I don’t have a head for languages.

That’s five languages I’ve studied, and still haven’t come close to mastering any of them, except for English – and I may be regressing with that one.

But I'm not stopping, it seems. I’ve now gotten hooked on the online language-learning apt, Duolingo.

I can't be sure how effective Duolingo really is as a learning tool. But its game-like format (with positive reinforcement through "rewards” and triumphant sound effects, and your progress marked by reaching different "levels" and other metrics) makes it a “fun” approach to language study. If nothing else, it’s a decent way to spend time, educational, you might say. And, similar to crowd-sourced sites like Wikipedia, it’s available for free.

It currently offers English-speakers the chance to learn some 20 languages, mostly European, but also Vietnamese and Swahili. Other courses are under development (“hatching” in Duolingo parlance), including Japanese, Hindi, and...Klingon! Unfortunately, not Finnish. Not yet. Obviously, that’s harder to implement than Klingon.

I started doing occasional Duolingo lessons in German and French three or four years ago, just to brush up on those two. When the long-awaited Russian course was added in late 2015, I begun that one, too. And just recently I started studying the language of another neighboring country, namely Swedish.

It’s true that “studying” these four languages simultaneously may not be wise, especially when I've got much more Finnish still to learn. But that’s the way I do it, generally one lesson of each language every day. The lessons are short, so it usually takes about half-an-hour to do all four. In other words, it doesn’t eat up much of my day.

Am I learning anything? Well, according to Duolingo’s algorithm, I am now 42% fluent in French – my wife often chokes on her café au lait when I boast about this fact.

In German, my fluency is 33% and in Swedish it’s already 27%, although I started it only six months ago. It’s such a damn easy language. So far, Duolingo hasn’t given me a fluency score for Russian (which is NOT an easy language), but that course still seems to be very much a work in progress. It wouldn’t be an impressive score anyway. It’s fair to say I am struggling with Russian. 

But considering my track record with languages, that should come as no surprise.