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Resource Economics
Stockbridge 217, UMass
Amherst

Dr Linus Nyiwul’s dissertation defense was conducted almost exclusively in the language of math, with very little generic English explanation for the non-resource management layperson. So I cannot write very much about it, except that it was obvious that his faculty members are excited about the potential of this framework Dr Nyiwul has created for government regulators to exploit market mechanisms by leveraging emissions standards against the needs of firms to attract investors.
There are a couple of premises that Dr Nyiwul builds upon, including a perception that investors would prefer to put their money into “green” companies, and evidence that companies who improve their own environmental management systems experience increases in stock value (e.g., Feldman 1996). Dr Nyiwul described a whole lot of complicated stuff that needs to be properly balanced:

  • setting a standard,
  • needing to monitor to ensure companies are meeting the standard,
  • keeping the cost of monitoring low enough to be reasonable (for government) while
  • making the threat of monitoring real enough that companies prefer to comply rather than risk being caught and having to pay the penalty.

LinusGRAPH.jpgSomehow all those things get crunched through some equations that calculate

  1. “marginal damage” (whatever this means! it apparently refers wholistically to “society”) and
  2. monitoring costs (to the government) and
  3. costs of compliance (for the firms)

…. now, where it gets real interesting is when the government establishes two emissions standards: a regular standard (the minimum to be deemed “in compliance” and avoid penalties) and an overcompliance standard – which would earn a special certification proving uber-greenness (or something en route to such glorified status). There is pilot project currently underway, the National Environmental Performance Track (NEPT), which has weaknesses but whose results – plugged into Dr Nyiwul’s equations – demonstrates that TWO STANDARDS IS GOOD POLICY! Not to mention that firms which earn the overcompliance certification have a special marketing asset to appeal to investors. (They have to meet the minimum “regular” standard first, then apply and demonstrate accomplishment of the overcompliance standard.)

There was some fancy problem-framing, as Linus described one finding, saying that it came about in one way if you set the problem up this way, and comes about in another way if you set the problem up that way. (I love the fact that subjectivity can be found in math!) There are some issues with firms getting to self-report emissions (apparently without verification, unless the regulator goes to conduct the actual monitoring?) And there was quite a discussion about looking at the problem endogamously: with free entry into and out of the market. And output and size effects really matter (but cannot be reversed) in terms of the direct and indirect effects of enforcement costs. Yea, I don’t really know what those sentences mean in “real” economic terms, but there may be other things in play at times which can lead to inconclusive results.
but…. drumroll please! Dr Linus Nyiwul concludes, and his faculty agree:

“An optimal tax rate is smaller than the social marginal damage for a fixed n and no market imperfections.”

The challenges that issue forth from Dr Nyiwul’s work include (in no particular order):

signature.jpg

  1. identifying which are the important uncertainties (given that anything could be uncertain except for whatever is under direct regulatory monitoring)
  2. defining clearly what “overcompliance” means (if “compliance” means paying the right tax, i.e., reducing emissions in order to minimize tax…. does overcompliance move a firm into a “credit” situation?)
  3. how to extend the framework from a single firm to an industry
  4. identifying how the framework as it is fits within known policy issues and concerns, and
  5. extending the frame beyond emissions to look at a lot of other policy issues.
Resource Economics
UMass, Amherst

For her final oral examination for a Ph.D in Resource Economics, Siny Joseph presented an analysis of Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) for seafood. I echo the words of the external member of her committee, who said,

“After reading this paper, I pay more attention to my seafood.”

Dr Siny Joseph’s field is I.O. Economics – a term that I had to Google after the defense! My complete ignorance of the jargon in this field should alert you to the high probability that I have misconstrued or misunderstood major elements of her work. I will do my best to summarize and hope for correcting comments as needed.

Extrapolating from the wikipedia entry and my limited exposure to other disciplines, Industrial Organization explores the economic interaction between two dynamic forces:

  1. the strategic behavior of firms (which I believe is the purview of my friends specializing in strategic management) and
  2. the structures of markets (statistical analysis like I’ve never seen!)

Given my lowest-score-in-the-cohort competence in all things math, most of the substance of Siny’s analysis and discussion with her Committee Members occurred in a language I cannot even pretend to understand: replete with “k-bars,” and K’s with subscript L’s and H’s, “thetas” and fixed parameter values composing profit maximization formulas… Go grrl go! Her findings, however, were described in comprehensible English – and they are fascinating.
Siny answering a question.jpg
Seventy percent of seafood purchased by consumers in the U.S. is imported; of these imports, 80% comes from less developed countries. COOL (Country of Origin Labeling) is legislation introduced in the 2002 Farm Bill, and implemented with seafood in 2005, with the idea that food quality and food safety are linked with where the food originates. Coincidentally, COOL is being extended to more foods this year with continuing debate over exemptions and on-going criticism of delays, making Dr Joseph’s research findings immediately relevant. Regarding seafood, huge sectors are exempt: restaurants and other food service providers, specifically, and products deemed to be “processed.” In general, then, COOL applies to the seafood you buy in a grocery store or market to cook at home.
It seems the first major task in an I.O. economic analysis is to define the boundary between what is included and what is excluded from the study. Siny focused on the US market, presumably because the boundaries could be readily established. (In a case study on shrimp, she explained the distinction between a “covered” and “uncovered” market, explaining she’d had to go with the former – specifically an undifferentiated market – because the mathematical expressions for the latter were unmanageable. Basically (I think!) this means using idealized equations rather than ones more representative of real life.) Generally, Americans will assume that seafood of domestic origin is of higher quality than seafood of foreign origin, and consumers are most willing to pay the costs of labeling during and immediately after food scares – so that they (we, smile) can make (at least) this basic differentiation.
But (I kept thinking to myself) – labeling after a scare doesn’t do much to protect consumers during the scare and of course has no contribution to risk prevention whatsoever. So why isn’t labeling just done, as a matter of business habit? “Because,” Dr Joseph explained, “firms can masquerade low quality seafood as high quality when consumers don’t have all the information, and that’s where the profit comes from.” She and her committee members debated nuances of the statistical measurements, recommending and justifying choices of particular statistical tools, but did not question Siny’s basic finding that (now, with only three years of info available) the greatest profit comes under what’s called “voluntary COOL” (which does occur with some seafood products), followed by partial implementation of COOL (the status quo), and drops the lowest under “total COOL” – an ideal she recommends because “real consumption is greatest when there is full implementation of COOL.”
The rub for me during the whole presentation is the use of this indicator called WTP: Willingness to Pay. What I’d like to see is a complementary WTP2 (squared) equation: Willingness to Profit. Somehow the whole debate seems framed with WTP2 as an unquestionable given – companies have the inalienable right to maximize profit and consumers have to pay for safety. It just strikes me as wrong; at least out-of-balance. Firms can afford to pay much more than any individual can! Anyway, Siny’s Committee engaged vigorously with her findings: “I like the story you’re trying to tell,” said a professor by speakerphone, wondering about pursuing the angle of diversion, and all of them wondering about policy recommendations based on these findings.
There was a measure of “Total Welfare” that supposedly mixes the best consumer outcome with the best business outcome…. and Dr Joseph did present some evidence that companies would label voluntarily under certain/specific conditions (of known/demonstrated consumer demand?), but for the most part companies are trying to duck this completely. For instance, shrimp traders are required to label unprocessed shrimp, so they would rather do something that qualifies as “processing” in order to avoid labeling. Doesn’t it cost to do that, too? Honest – I get very confused! Why is one type of cost preferable to another? I think someone needs to institute an equation such that consumer WTP cannot exceed 1/2 the square root of the actual incurred cost apportioned over the entire volume in order to somehow link a decrease in the firm’s WTP2 (willingness to profit) with the increase consumers are willing to pay. (Which is probably why I’m not an economist.)
Siny's graph.jpg
Nonetheless, even if the current data is not totally amenable to a single clear and concise argumentative point, I definitely agree with Siny’s committee member: “I like your plan of attack.” I want to be able to argue convincingly that the government (through legislation) should be on the consumer’s side – not only in the grocery store, but I would also like to be able to confirm the quality of seafood purchased in restaurants.
Keep it up, Dr Siny Joseph!

References/Resources:
Industrial Organization, Wikipedia
Market coverage strategy, answers.com
Diversion, BusinessDictionary.com
Amherst, MA

Triple Points for anyone not present – and an equitable consolation prize!

quiz time.jpg
Only four sets of feet open this quiz…it was not a twelve pillow night, although there were more than a few direct hits!
The Innocent One displayed her growth by leaps and bounds. The (nearly always) Late One had his first shock when he saw that the jar was empty: no driving until that sucker was caught! (Not to be confused with the fictional movie, Man in a Car, although a conflation of Man&Snake in a Car might make decent competition with Snakes on a Plane.)
Warning: tea sharing customs vary, bhel.jpgas does etiquette for surprise birthday parties. Age protects one not from the practical joke, but it sure helps the food preparation!

something special.jpg

“Everything vibrates at really low frequencies.” Huh?

Personal favorite: “Someone called the lab and asked for my partner and I said he wasn’t here. ‘There’s another guy,’ he said, ‘but I can’t pronounce his name.‘” (Me either.)

“Let’s not talk about ‘we’ at this point.”

Rules:

  • Five points each to the first person who correctly identifies all four sets of feet, and both pictured dishes, in order.
  • One point each to the first person who answers the following questions.
  • Five points for each speaker identified in any/all included references.
  • Five points for each explanation of context for any/all included references.
  • All responses must be posted as ‘comments’ to this post.
  • No responses will be revealed for at least 24 hours from email notification.
  • Points will be tallied and posted as a comment within 48 hours from the original email notification.
  • The winner(s) will receive a home-cooked meal from yours truly.

Ready, Set, Go!

  1. Who was even later than me and my erstwhile hosts to the famed Mumbai wedding?
  2. Who’s snores might bring down the house?
  3. Which First Lady is shopping for a dog as spouse of the President of the Indian Student Association?
  4. Whose birthday was it?
  5. Who and what was the issue with that shirt’s cut in the back?
  6. Does someone really eat like a camel?
  7. Who is the perfect stand-in for a working-class driver (in any country)?
  8. Visa? Who needs a visa?
References/Resources:
Underwater handshakes, Reflexivity
Human Performance Laboratory
Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering
E-Lab II
University of Massachusetts
Amherst

46 glance points.jpg

The forty-six “glance points” represented in this graph illustrate eye gaze tracking during driving. (Now!) Dr Anuj Pradhan has been crucial in co-developing the RAPT novice driver training in risk perception over the course of a six-year doctorate degree and four experiments. Risk Perception and Awareness Training combines simulation and field techniques for assessing new drivers’ scope and skill in anticipating potential risks while driving.
Did you know?

  • Car accidents are the leading cause of death for teens in US
  • Teenagers, during the first six months of driving, have an eightfold increase in the risk of dying in a car crash
  • Teenagers, in general, are four times more likely than older drivers to die in a car crash
  • In numbers: teenagers are involved in 4.7% of the six million crashes annually in the US but compose 13% of the fatalities

Previous research has identified three main causes of teenage accidents, including failure to adjust speed appropriately to conditions (20.8%), failure to maintain attention to the task (23%), and – the biggest – failure to conduct an appropriate search of the driving environment (42.7%).
Anuj.jpg
After his presentation, Dr Pradhan’s Dissertation Committee gave him some grief about the distinction he wants to draw between “tactical scanning” and “strategic scanning.” (They also asked him, right at the beginning, to take off his suit jacket and relax. This may have been the signal that they planned to heat up the room…!) The first question, however, came from one of the faculty during the presentation, and it involved clarifying the dependent variable of eye movement. Dr. Pradhan’s first experiment established a correlation between the recognition of risk (seeing it) and the knowledge that risks may be present (use of eye gaze to scan in order to identify (i.e. see) them if they are present).
Two more experiments refined the technique for linking eye movement with perception and recognition of risk. Results from the three experiments indicate improvements in visual search behavior in all driving situations, from the benign – when no risks are present, to situations with a minimal possibility of risk, and on up to situations with obvious dangers.
In other words, the students and volunteer test subjects who participated in these experiments learned about the strategic need for constant maintenance of visual attention across the broad driving environment which might require the driver (i.e., me – or you!) to engage in specific tactical behaviors in order to reduce risk – or be able to implement evasive action should a risk materialize because one has seen it in time! My contribution came with the fourth experiment, I got to test out the version in development – my experience (as an “older driver,” grin) may or may not have aided in refining the program, but it certainly reinforced for me that there is a purpose to where, when, and why I look and watch in the ways that I do while driving. (I learned that I could still do better!)
The need for this kind of training tool in driver’s education programs everywhere is immediately and obviously apparent. I was also fascinated by the application of temporal and spatial algorithms to the eye movements captured by the Mobile Eye movement tracker. Time and space coordinates for every eye movement had to be combined and crossreferenced in a Fixation Identification Algorithm with prior and subsequent eye movements in order to define a glance. These glances are then superimposed on the objects in the driver’s visual range, and categorized as on-road or off-road. In this way, the Mobile Eye Tracker pinpoints whether the driver’s eye looked directly at the truck parked on the side of the road in front of a passenger crosswalk, when (from near or far), and for how long. Does the gaze return or simply pass on to other objects?
In other words, the direction of eye gaze can indicate the driver’s perception of risk – or lack of it. Once a driver is informed of their own eye movement behavior, then their awareness of risk is enhanced (or should be, I think the larger research program of the Human Performance Lab is lacking a necessary qualitative element). In fact, after training in the tactics of using visual scanning to perceive the possibility of risk, Dr. Pradhan shows that drivers improve risk awareness in four significant ways:

  1. Trained drivers maintain a wider horizontal range of vision
  2. Trained drivers shift half their glances offroad, more trained looking to right – where more risks presumedly originate (compared with the untrained who look left & right more-or-less evenly)
  3. Trained drivers glance off-road for slightly longer times (presumedly considering the extent to which the conditions in sight compose/obscure a risk or not)
  4. Trained drivers learn not only to transfer recognition of risk types between similar scenarios, but also transfer the skill of tactical scanning to different scenarios than those they were exposed to during training

Throughout the presentation, I kept thinking, “if only” – if only I had had this knowledge five years ago — the language of “visual scanning,” “risk perception,” and “risk awareness” — then Hunju’s driving practice might have gone more smoothly for both of us!
Anyway, Anuj’s defense rolled along. Dr Krishnamurty pressed him on the relevance or distinction between top-down and perspective views, which Dr. Pradhan handled with aplomb: “I got you, excellent answer.” No wonder Jeff calls Anuj, “my Yoda.” The (self-named) Curmudgeon wouldn’t let go of the tactical/strategic distinction but I wager this is merely ground for the next stage of hypothesis testing and theory building. The Committee Chair, Dr Fisher, supported Anuj throughout. They grilled him for a mere quarter of an hour after kicking out us observers (selected members of the fan club). And then they only made him wait for about that much longer (or less) before Dr Fisher came out and ushered him back in with a handshake and announcement:

“Congratulations!
You’re done!”

signatures!.jpg

References/Resources:
The Younger Driver: Risk Awareness and Perception Training, Human Performance Laboratory, UMASS Amherst
Using Eye Movements To Evaluate Effects of Driver Age on
Risk Perception in a Driving Simulator
by Anuj Kumar Pradhan and five others
glance, Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
Fixation-identification in dynamic scenes: comparing an automated algorithm to manual coding, Proceedings of the 5th symposium on Applied perception in graphics and visualization
Driver’s License, Reflexivity
Antwerpen
Conference: Aptitude for Interpreting

Imagine my surprise upon entering the lobby at Lessius University and witnessing a conversation in American Sign Language! My brain has been so otherwise-occupied that it never once crossed my mind that

    a) anyone other than European spoken language trainers/researchers would attend or that

    b) I might actually know people!

It was absolutely delightful to re-encounter respected colleagues, meet some of the luminaries whose work is required reading, and make new friends (although one always wonders whether they’ll claim me, and/or for how long!) ;-)

We started quite seriously, with the keynoter, Mariachiara, setting the context with a superb history of the tension between innate talent and built skill. Are interpreters born or made? Perhaps it is a both/and kind of question, with challenges of re-molding/re-training those with “the aptitude to perform” and fresh cultivation of those with “the aptitude to learn.”

At the end of the day, Miriam reflected that we (interpreter researchers) have learned that we’re asking the right questions, but we don’t seem any closer to clear answers! One needs only hark back to the presentations of Her Majesty of No Results and the Princess of No Significance to find evidence supporting Miriam’s perception. Are we guilty of trying to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse?

“You’re argumentative!” one of my dinnermates proclaimed, as I sought to champion a shadowing task based on the persuasive argumentation of the aforementioned Queen.

Ignore that interpreter in the corner!

I don’t want to be accused of breaking the pinkie pact (especially since I wasn’t at the presenter’s dinner the night before when they apparently made a rule not to ask each other hard questions), but . . . aren’t the hard questions the ones that most need to be asked?!

“You’re against essentialism in all forms!” Miriam bought me a coffee. :-)
(I think this means we are now bonded for life.) Franz invited me to come after him hard….which I did but it wasn’t easy going. First he thought I was arguing that “everything is cognition,” which he agreed is a way that knowledge in the field can be understood. It took some fancy footwork to get across the idea that what I am critiquing is the way that we (interpreters, interpreter trainers, interpreting researchers) collude in assuming that everything in the field can be broken down into nice, neat, discrete boxes. Miriam rephrased this as the human propensity to put everything in categories.
“It’s interesting, but I don’t agree with half of it!” (Shhhsh that interpreter in the corner!)

“Why does your badge say ‘Belgium’ but you are speaking English?” Heidi was trying to process where I was from and why I was delinquent in signing up for the conference dinner. Really, I’m here under cover . . . just as there are “slides no wants to see” (recall the pinkie promise), there are also “some matters untouched” (Cronbach and Snow 1977:6).
“Is this rubbish?” (Get ready, I’m gonna be asking you, Chris!) Meanwhile, Amalija has two weeks to devise the perfect comprehensive provable aptitude test for her incoming screening. She has the power! As Sarka explained,

“some of these people want to be translating Shakespeare’s sonnets, they don’t want anything to do with other people!”

One of the huge dilemmas in interpreter training is predicting when a potential interpreting student might succeed against the evidence that convinces us they won’t, and how to justify the investment of resources when even those students with all the promising signs turn out unable in the end.

There are no future facts.” (Robert S Brumbaugh, 1966)

What can we learn from the ones who had it made?

It is as if we all contain a multitude of characters and patterns of behavior, and these characters and patterns are bidden by cues we don’t even hear. They take center stage in consciousness and decision-making in ways we can’t even fathom.

The East-West debate came up: does one interpret only into one’s mother tongue, or from a mother tongue into another fluent language? Why, I wonder, are people so invested in this directionality? Meanwhile, the non-sign repetition task of nonsense biological motion that Chris reported seems an awful lot like shadowing to me…. and can I just mention how cool it is to attend a conference with five active languages, three of which are signed?! I am not able to articulate the significance of increases in visual memory, but it caught my attention…advanced interpreters can apparently correctly select geometric shapes after a delay more rapidly than beginning interpreters. Perhaps this is related to what I’ve noticed in my own neural net, specifically the new capacity to learn math after twenty years of signing.
Brooke had the two best slides so far, understating the case for the performance of simultaneous interpretation: “we have a lot to do.” (Can I get copies? Beg beg beg!) I’m especially intrigued by the risk/avoidance measures….just a few days ago I came up with the title for my next conference proposal: “Risk, Resignation, and Loss: Interlocutors on Interpretation in the European Parliament.” (Next week I present some of the results at a conference on Mikhail Bakhtin in Stockholm).
I love the metaphor of the airplane and its engines. Sarka and Heidi get credit for this one together, right? There are the pair (or more) of wing engines that are all about cruising, and then there’s the solo job in the tail, which is all about getting up to altitude. Sherry might win the prize for getting the earliest start, although there is a four year discrepancy concerning the age at which she began interpreting: four? Eight? Then you’ve got peeps like me who didn’t even start learning a second language until 28! Anyway, I am pleased to go along with the decisions that “all of us made” in Sherry’s “we”, particularly the one about merging modalities. The two tests she shared intrigue me: the CNS Vital Signs and the Achievement Motivation Inventory.
I hope no one throws a wobbly because of anything I’ve written here. I was duly warned that someone would have my guts for garters if I transgressed too far. Might I ask, instead, for a soft word on the side and the chance to edit? :-)

online discussion forum

Language is a force.
Language names, and by naming, it calls into being. This is how social reality is constructed and maintained. I think it is an effect of quantum mechanics, but smarter minds than mine are needed to make the connections in a compelling scientific manner.
Last fall I wrote a post on some dynamics of dialogue and discourse, in which I engaged with ideas of a discursive psychologist, Michel Billig.

The core of the argument laid out by Michael Billig (in the articles from Discourse and Society 2008, Vol. 19, Issue 6) is that we who think in terms of critical discourse analysis (CDA) need to be acutely aware of our own uses of language, lest we repeat some of the very elements of language use that we critique in others. Billig’s concern is with social scientific language in general; he selects CDA for heuristic and practical purposes: “It should be a major issue for analysts who stress the pivotal role of language in the reproduction of ideology, inequality and power” (p. 784).

In particular, Billig goes after the academic/theoretical use of nominalization, which is a shorthand way of condensing a particular dynamical concept (something with a lot of parts) into a single term. Debate over costs and benefits of using nominalization seem to swing on the temporal grounding of interlocutors. I’m thinking at the mundane level as well as at level of ideological reproduction. For instance, does saying something about (i.e., naming) tensions in a friendship necessarily make them worse or can it provide a means to shift footings? At the precise moment of making the utterance, there may be a spike in bad feelings – all that tension concentrated and released in the acts of speaking and hearing. But I think that it is what comes next (at least, so I hope) that becomes determinative for the subsequent unfolding. When nominalization is at play, Billig argues there is a tendency to depersonalize behavior or action such that individual contributions to whatever unfolds are lost to perception. So the pattern of tensions enacted when one or another party to the tension actually says something directly about the presence or evidence of tension becomes bigger than the minute social interactions that compose it. The pattern itself becomes “the thing”, and individuals are simply swept up in it, all agency erased.
The question is, when things are not going the way one wishes, what next? I watched an interesting video on the synthesis of happiness this morning (20 minutes long) which argues that if we assume irretrievability, then we enhance our capacity to choose happiness. I’m wondering if this basic precept – that’s what done is done and can’t be changed – could guide many other choices, including the ways we respond when we find ourselves seemingly trapped in a discourse that we don’t necessarily want. I believe it is the element of acknowledgment that I am finding most attractive. Perhaps my general communicative strategy is to reduce uncertainty (see What You Don’t Know Makes You Nervous) in order to make choices clear.
Perhaps.

“Are you speaking English?” asked the marine biologist. (I get that a lot.) NGO told me about dynamic semiotics while The Woman from Ghent provided commentary on the group’s unique social interaction – not to mention demonstrating the lesbian walk. Several times! Meanwhile, Irish informed me she’s “not really a tight bitch.” (I didn’t know that I was wondering!) ;-)
The length of my stay, age, and relationship status was determined (and double-checked), not to mention how I knew who. I was spared “change the subject” moments since none of my ex’s are known to this community. :-) The night was divided quite evenly between laughter and dancing.
Yes, the work switch was definitely turned off – how else could I have arrived to my hosts’ place at 4:15 thinking it was just a bit past midnight?!

Duerne

The park is magical. As are all the public, cultivated spaces here: I’m given the sense of a holodeck – programmed to appear wild but the evidence of human design remains.

06 lamppost.jpg
Doesn’t that remind you of the lamppost on the other side of the wardrobe in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe? (I have refrained from watching the movie, so this is my imaginary correspondence from a reading many years ago.)
We picnicked and talked about the seasons. Liesbet looked at me with incredulity when I said it is a fairly recent phenomena for me to actually consciously register the duration of seasons. (She thinks I’m a treehugger!) I mean, yea, of course I always knew the seasons change, but to have that deep embodied awareness that one season follows the next . . .

and each lasts about so long . . .

Yea, that’s a perceptual kind of awareness I’ve been growing only since the last five years or so. I’m always pleased when spring arrives, but I never trusted the end of summer. Fall, for nearly all my life, seemed to hurtle into winter. When autumn started slowing down – meaning, when I realized there would be some months of fall between the first cold night and the onslaught of snow – is when the reality of the seasons as a cycle dawned.
I know. How is it possible to have been so clueless for so long?
I was raised among people who weren’t noticing those things. Or, if they were, it was a private matter, not discussed. Education was abstracted, even hands-on activities. (Not that I recall very many – which isn’t saying so much, as I don’t remember much of the first half of my life…) Reading Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, Fun Home, sheds a certain kind of strange light on my own childhood. I realize that there was a singular focus that bounded most of my family’s doings… no wonder I still struggle to spread perceptual awareness as broadly as necessary, and so often get lost in the resulting complexity!
03 shoes.jpg
Anyway, we took off our shoes and spread our toes in the cool grass, comparing seasons in Egypt, Belgium, and various climes in the U.S. 001 synchrony.jpg There is no twilight in Egypt, for instance, only a day/night transition lasting less than half-an-hour. You feel the seasons there by the temperature. Here in Belgium, as in the US, I tend to smell the season first. There is also a quality of air – probably a function of humidity? – but it seems secondary to me, whereas in Egypt (so says Mahmoud) the feel of the air comes before the nose detects a difference.
There are American sayings about the seasons….I have a vague recollection…”April showers bring May flowers” is the only one that comes to mind. Appropriate! In Dutch there is a saying about the moodiness of the weather, apparently Arabic has one as well, but for a different month… correspondence, but not an exact alignment: synchronicity is variable, huh? :-)

Hoboken (Anvers), Belgium
regarding “Paris”

Luiza could not believe her ears. “We’re on the grounds of Fontainebleau!”

the grounds.jpg

“What now” is a question I borrow from curricular design, social justice style. First cover the what, then the so what, and finally now what. What is the subject matter? Why should we care about it? How are we going to use this knowledge?
window latch at Fountainbleau.jpg

I was ready for three days in France, away from the halls of the European Parliament and the concentration of stimulation. “Scientists,” Luiza quoted the director of her thesis, “throw away the most interesting stuff!” I needed the change in place for perspective, knowing that whatever I encounter has the potential to enhance or distract my focus from the essential elements and determinative dynamics of the system of simultaneous interpretation in such a concentrated center of global influence. “What do you think of France?” she asks me. I cannot give a discrete answer: I am treading water, immersed in a sea of history, currents of contemporary discourse, and Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods. The evidence, I think, displays a need to worship and the desire for control.
This is not unique to France, of course – it is the story of Europe, perhaps of homo sapiens.

“How do you measure the return on your investment?”
The night before I left for Paris, Geoff offered one anecdote after
another, generously spiced with his finely-honed business acumen.

“What is the value added?” Intuition, I know, is not enough. Will I
find the language of articulation?

Upon return to Luiza’s mod flat, I retreated from the day-trip’s high-speed (time)travel to recharge my introvert self. I soaked up the smell of melting then baking chocolate, absorbed the sounds of Dvorak’s cello concerto and Yann Tiersen’s juxtaposition of strings and piano (Sur le fil), wondered at the juxtaposition of Flemish musical history with Romania’s inability to develop (so-called) high culture (“we were too busy being invaded”), and read:

‘Is it to be believed . . . that an island abundant in all things necessary has been leveled to this wasteland through the making of a Stone God and then by his destruction?’ (2007, p. 133)

Who builds in stone wants to be remembered; no other monument lasts so long or so well. Yet people (governments, organizations, groups of all kinds) also try to fix social reality – relationships, communication itself – as if hardening the rules will determine outcomes, enabling the assertion of final control by banishing all possible space for anarchy.
We hash over linguistics while we eat: attempting to digest the cognitivists, distributionalists, generativists, structuralists, psycholinguists, and sociolinguists all at one go. We sleep. (No one reports dreaming.)
The Islamic Arts Department of the Louvre is closed, so I opt for Near Eastern Antiquities. I learn about the land “between rivers” (Mesopotamia), known to us through the “archeological fortune” of remains from Girsu/Telloh and Mari and (particularly) the reign of Gudea, who poses in all statues with hands piously held across his heart. In one statue, Gudea holds a “gushing vase” from whence stream fish, invoking Geshtinanna, “the goddess of the reviving water.”
streams of fish.jpg

I note references to Ishtar and Inanna, figurines of women, and circles. I am fascinated by the “oscillation tendency” of the city of Susa to be both “the eastern extension of Mesopotamia” and “the western expression of Iranian mountain civilization.” I am as repulsed by the ancient rite of hierogamy as Luiza was by the relatively recent public birthing of royalty. The art of engraving stones, by the way, is called glyptic.
women in the Tuleiry.jpg

Then, we tiptoed through the Tuileries, sauntered the length of the Avenue de Champs-Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe, past Place de la Concorde, La Madeleine, Napoleon’s burial site at the Dome des Invalides, and Grand Palais. We failed to find socks but did stop for sweets at Paul, before heading to The Lab.
Paul.jpg

Winterson writes an interpreter into The Stone Gods, although he
appears first as a tour guide, “explaining something to them in Japanese,
and gesturing . . .”
(p. 183). Interaction commences between Friday, a wise barman on The Front, and the
International Peace Delegation wishing to bring
Aid and Sanitation to War Refugees (i.e., people
living in The Back). “The tour guide, or interpreter, or whatever he was,
went on smiling. Then he bowed.”
Politeness is a
puzzling feature of interaction: what is polite and proper to you may strike me as
optional or unnecessary, possibly even downright
rude pending the assumptions that elicit its display (and vice-versa, unfortunately).
“‘Terrible conditions,’ said the interpreter.
‘I take that badly,’ said the barman.
‘We will come in and inspect,’ said the interpreter.”

Who is in charge of this communication?
Who is speaking, and on what authority?

“Community” interpreters (those of us who interpret for
people using different languages in their daily, nonpolitical lives)
wrestle with these questions constantly. We are
challenged by interlocutors about the
integrity of our interpretations and the
motivations for managing the interaction so that we can interpret
effectively. “Conference” interpreters are
insulated from this scrutiny by
technology that separates language use from human relationships.

ondes martenot.jpg

The Lab is a treat. Jose dives into musical history, demonstrating how each of the old instruments work and explaining the way scores were written. We even get to see one of the earliest precursors of today’s synthesizer. Then we walk through a quiet residential area, hearing birdsong en route to the Eiffel Tower – another impressive artifact of manmade worship. From viewing angles underneath, it looks like a spaceship. How many wonders can a single day hold?
eiffel tower.jpg

We passed the Pantheon (smart dead people buried here) on the way to dinner (which was absolutely scrumptious), and afterwards the fountain at Place Saint Michel and Notre Dame. Charlemagne looks like the WitchKing of Angmar; there were many times these past few days when I felt as if the statues atop eaves looked down on us mere mortals with bloody demand. How does it come to be that a quote by Napolean accompanies Barack Obama on the cover of Vanity Fair? Riding the Thalys back midday, I read:

the regrettable acts of war . . . to the broken and the dead, the wounded and maimed, to the exploded and shrapnel-shattered, to minds gone dark, to eyes that have seen agony no tears can wash away, it hardly matters that the dead language of war repeats itself through time. The bodies that can say nothing have the last word” (p. 233-234).

I wondered where we were, as the train hurtled at top speed across a plain toward France’s border with Belgium. What “regrettable acts of war” had occurred here, and what can be done to ensure that such “regret” becomes a thing of the past rather than a recurring motif of human history? I know the notion is counterintuitive, but interpreters – professionally trained, ‘conference’ and ‘community,’ of any and every language combination – are poised at a liminal opening to societal self-organization that structures difference and equality within the most basic component structure: that of language-based interaction between human beings.
holding a ring.jpg
Continuing to gaze out the train window I see the first fresh hints of spring; the trees tinged bright green appear aglow. Earlier, Jose had noticed that the conductor addressed passengers in the language of their destination. The only way to avoid war will be to intertwine economies and social relations so densely that no class interest can benefit from disruption. To keep the system vibrant, differánce must be celebrated in core institutional processes.

Antwerpen

“Are you blogging?!”
Patricia busted me right in the middle of Nederlands 1.2; I was taking notes on the confusion, even in the official language course, between languages. We are not being taught the local Flemish dialect, although Flemish versions sometimes appear in the midst of the officially-sanctioned Dutch. A French word had appeared on a worksheet instead of the Dutch term and the teacher drew our attention to it: this has happened before – not too often, but occasionally. I imagine that this is exactly how the languages are mixed in everyday use outside of the classroom.
Five of us from Cursus Nederlands 1.1 survived to 1.2 in the same classroom, same schedule, with the same stellar teacher. Six if Amin gets his act together and registers! Mahmoud got a job, Bouchra and Tolu have left us for higher levels – following Marse who is so far beyond us now we are lucky to get glimpses of her in the school cafeteria. :-) I am still celebrating the small miracle of passing the level one test!
My struggle with learning Dutch (“very hard for Americans,” says virtually everyone) is somewhat similar to the experience of being on the outside of a conversation in a language I don’t know, as occurred several times last week in Strasbourg. Usually the other language was French – and I am reminded of the strategic decision last summer to start learning French, and then the practical choice of choosing Dutch because my residence in Antwerp enabled me less-expensive access to high quality intensive lessons. Not that I’ve been able to take full advantage of the lessons – I may be lucky to consistently attend 1/3 sessions per week this term. During pessimistic moods, I wonder if I was wrong to have prioritized the lessons over tramping the halls of Parliament last fall.
The social (and socializing) function of being with my fellow students in the cursus Nederlands, however, is vital for my sanity. Some of it is pure silliness, such as learning that Topi wears insulated socks (!), and some is wonder at the diversity of human experiences represented by our particular biographies. Marinella, for instance, saw the world as a youngster doing competitive sportshooting before moving from Bulgaria to South Africa for 19 years prior to her arrival here in Belgium.
I also admire the curriculum, and the ways Anne delivers it. Level 1.2 zeros in on two crucial skills: listening and grammar. I was annoyed and grudgingly impressed by the audiotrack we listened to (for answers to fill-in-the-blank questions on a handout) for including a low-level music background track. It was totally distracting – which forces you to concentrate while mimicking life in the real world, where there is always background noise of one form or another. As for the grammar, well, Topi was elegant as usual: “Dat is speciaal.” Patricia agreed, “Moelijk!” The entire array of language-learning services is impressive. Amin was very excited about all the resources he had learned about from Atlas, a social service organization whose mandate is to facilitate the acculturation of immigrants into Belgian society. (He enjoyed his appointment with Natalie, especially her enthusiasm.)
In terms of the research project that brings me to Belgium, having one foot in the community of everyday people and the other in the elite reaches of European governance helps me maintain a holistic perspective on the research objectives. How do attitudes and experiences with simultaneous interpretation serve as a lens for comprehending the role of language in Europe today? Is it possible to locate and describe how present-day policies and practices may play out over time? I believe it is possible to make some predictions, because the information about how current policies are affecting current practices are readily available – if we choose to recognize them.
Or are perceptually attuned to recognize them – which is the first matter of concern. Not only am I experiencing the limitations of my own mind to take in and process new information, but I am also observing non-verbal and discursive evidence of other people’s inability to either perceive or process new information. For instance, as I talk with Members (of the European Parliament), I am struck by how few of them have ever considered the system of simultaneous interpretation beyond echoing the usual litany of complaints and de rigueur compliments. It is not that they are un-thoughtful, far from it! Their responses when I question the practical realism of the expectations that inspire complaining are quite insightful. But some of the ideas I pose are outside their areas of knowledge – most of them simply admit this (a candor I find appealing and hopeful), some smaller percentage gamely go on along a path I find minor or tangential to my primary point (but nearly always in sync with a concern the Member had previously expressed), and a very few carry on in a way that leads me to suspect they are unaware that another way of thinking is possible.
I do not believe this is a matter of intelligence, at least not in most cases. I think it is a function of (lack of) exposure to different discourses. There seems to be only way to talk about simultaneous interpreting in the European Parliament; other ways of talking elicit responses ranging from curiosity to dismissal, from intrigue to risk – as if talking about interpreting is, in-and-of-itself, a threat.
Anyway, as other friends and I discussed last night, I have neither a magic blue diamond nor a genie to wish worries of “bad karma” away, only the goodwill of friends and those who do sense some value in the knowledge I seek to construct, even if my manner is clumsy as hell.

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