Thursday, April 23, 2015

Bricolage or Ignorance

This year's American Chamber of Commerce Ball (a charity fundraising event) has the theme "La Carousel Amercano." There is something about this "name" that I find annoying, even offensive. I do not insist that "Mexico" should be pronounced in Spanish, as "MEH-hee-ko," but this is too much.

First of all, what language is this supposed to be? At first I thought it might be French, but carousel is spelled "carrousel" in French. Plus, it is "le carrousel" no "la." But of course, "Americano" is not French (that would be américain), so perhaps it is Italian? (no: il carosello) Or Spanish? (no: el carrusel). Even if it is a fake Romance language, the article should agree with the adjective (i.e. la ... americana or le ... americano). There are so many mistakes in these three words that they almost had to do it be design!

So when is it OK to just be creative, hybridize and do some bricolage? Maybe if no one knows better, it does not matter. But anyone with even just a first year level of any Romance language should be annoyed by this mixing. It does not come off as creative, but as a sign of ignorance, even a lack of respect for other cultures.  English speakers laugh at others when they make mistakes in translations (see here, and here and here). I admit some mistakes are very funny, but I laugh uncomfortably because they are mostly in attempts by foreigners to communicate using what to them is a foreign language, and we should respect that and give them some slack. But this theme is just an attempt to be, what, exotic? "European"?  Why not get a proper translation? Even Google translate would not make this gross mistake.

I can predict many people to whom I will mention this "translation fail" will accuse me of being too much of a purist. But no one likes to see their language teased like this. And it makes Americans look bad to all who do know Romance languages. And if you say it is no big deal, you are saying it is OK to show your ignorance.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Divination and Economics

Today's NPR Planet Money podcast (listen here or transcript here) combines two of my favorite topics: magic (specifically divination) and economics. Essentially they show that the consumer sentiment index does not really seem to predict anything, but some people like to use it because it is so difficult to foresee the future that they'll latch on to anything. It was developed in the 1940s, after WWII, and was ignored until the 1970s, when people worried about--and could not explain--the economy. So as the podcasts illustrates, by beginning with a psychic, people turned to an index that has little or no support, though it has its believers (hmm, where have I heard that pattern before?)

Also amusing to an anthropologist is that the creator of the consumer sentiment index was only able to convince the Fed to ask the questions for his index by telling them they had to ask some polite, "How are you?" type of questions at the start of the survey to build rapport, before the interviewers would go on to ask "How much money do you have?"  So he asked four questions:

  1. Are you better or worse off financially than you were a year ago?
  2. Do you think the economy will be better off a year from now? 
  3. What about five years from now? 
  4. Is this a good time to make a big purchase?

He combined these into an index, and voila, an index that we use to this day.  I'm not sure these questions really build rapport, at least in the sense anthropologists understand the concept. I also wonder how much people lie in answering the economic questions. But like all indices, they may ask a silly question but if you ask it every month for many years, it gives a pattern that can be meaningful.  It's just that in this case, no one can decide what it means, though it does help businessmen make decisions. Just like psychics.