Sunday, March 25, 2012

Russian Facebookers

Russian Facebookers


At last, one can read spoken Russian in print.

For all my reservations about social media as a means of significant human communication, there is an exceptional development on Facebook: free-speaking Russians communicating in their spoken Russian language of today via the Internet.

Yes, a kind of Russian linguistic spring, expressing itself in a language that is not Sovietese, Putinese -- or "official" Pushkinese (the government-sanctioned version of the great Russian poet's works).

Russia is the country in Europe that has the most internet users (granted, as I understand it, not as a percentage of the total population).

During my many years as a student/admirer of Russia and her culture and, as a US Foreign Service officer privileged to have served in that unique country trying, as best I could, to master her language ("You want to learn Russian: the first twenty years are the easiest," so goes the quip), I all too often unsuccessfully tried to learn (of course, I take full responsibility for this failure) the tongue of this land by submitting myself to the following three forms of mental torture (I of course simplify):

--One, anti-communist emigres in the past century insisted on American students learning "classical" Russian, e.g., reading word-for-word Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and thereby inculcating US dumb barbarian undergraduate "Merikans" (and their perhaps one-sided judgment about their students was not totally incorrect) with the "true," classical language of Rossiia (but if you asked these cultivated persons for an explanation of what the instrumental case in the Russian language "worked" grammatically, forget about a clear answer).

--Two, culturally-blind non-Russian native speaking linguists, who sought to "explain" to you in arcane ways what was, indeed, the essence of the instrumental but who themselves couldn't speak fluent Russian and had noticeable American accents (We Americans refuse to realize our accent can rub foreigners the wrong way when we try to speak their language).

--Three, Sovietese, taught under the auspices of exchange programs during the Cold War for Americans interested going to the Soviet Union to learn the language at communist government educational institutes with the blessing of US-USSR cultural "agreements."

--As a footnote: I learned little, linguistically or historically, from most  members of US academia teaching poli-sci Soviet Studies from a theoretical point of view in US learneries; all too many of these "Soviet experts" could hardly utter a word in Russian, the language of the country they supposedly were specialists about.  (I was, however, privileged to have advisors  of  a humanistic bent in graduate school who spoke elegant Russian).

Much -- and I mean much -- adding to all these obstacles to learning Russian for foreigners is a unwillingness of Russian themselves to communicate with foreigners in their own mother tongue, attributable in part to Russians' desire to expand their linguistic skills without listening to foreigners butcher their own language-- in other words a parochial view, on their part, that "no one can speak Russian except us Russians," at odds with the American nice-guy perspective that if you can order a hot dog in English, you're ok (although, as we know here in the USA, if you don't speak English fluently there's something not quite right with you; but  if  a foreigners tries to speak with us in English, we're happy to oblige without cringing).

In such linguistic situations, Russians remind me of the French, or at least of the French of earlier generations. Their faces would contort  when an amerlac would say "Je parle francais." I still share some of this French linguistic snobbery, given that French is my native language.  When I hear a US fellow-citizen trying to pronounce a French "reh" only to utter the American "ruh," I cringe too.

I know a splendid, charming Russian interpreter of English who will never allow me to speak Russian before her, despite my years dedicated to the study of her native language. Well, my fondness for her is still unlimited, even if she will never allow me to share her language with me.

And now, to get seriously back to Russia, we have Putinese, what some Western "Russia-experts" read/see/listen to on the government-controlled media to earn their daily bread. Putinese, almost as repulsive as Sovietese, is the new Russian "official" language. (When I look at this sinister former ex-KGB official, a control freak in a century that is no time to be a control freak, I cannot but associate his name with the French word for "whore.") In all fairness to him, however, he is known to use swear words, which suggests that the language he uses is not completely dead.

But lo and behold on Facebook in recent months -- and, to anyone interested in the Third Rome --- one can, so far as I can tell, real spoken Russian -- granted, communicated among a small segment of the population, the Internet-savvy (mostly Moscow, it appears) intelligentsia, which is quite mentally/socially distant from the insular Putin-crowd and its hoped-for reliance on government propaganda and the silence of the xenophobic, silent  narod ("ordinary people") to maintain, Ivan-the-Terrible tsar style, their muscle-boy gun-lover's power forever through Putinese, among other tools of social control.

The Russian Facebook linguistic explosion reminds me of the aristocratic kruzhki (circles) of early 19th century Russia, when Western-oriented, close but often acrimonious friends would meet to discuss artistic and political issues. Such contacts resulted, arguably, in the 1825 Decembrist revolt against the tsarist regime, the first modern Russian revolution (and a very limited, failed one at that). Some Decembrists ended up in Siberia.

Such early 19th-century linguistic contacts in urban salon atmosphere contributed to the creation of the sublime classical Russian language, as represented by Puskin's poetry -- and I am not referring to "Pushkinese," Pushkinese being the poet's works vulgarized ("edited/selected")  by tsarist and Soviet authorities. Rather, I am evoking all of Pushkin's works, which linguistically show an infinite variety not all foreigners (including myself) can grasp.

Meanwhile, in cyberspace, the "great divide" between the articulate "let's-go-Western" intelligentsia and the silent-majority narod, a constant theme in Russian history, continues -- as seen from the arguably smarty-pants, snarky Muscovite Facebook entries, which show much linguistic/artistic genius but little mercy for the Russian masses or the reactionary Russian Orthodox Church (not so speak of the Putin government). Many reactions on Facebook, by the way, to a young African (evidently a student from that continent) holding a Russian-language pro-Putin sign were negative, and showed a non-politically correct covert racism that so-called "color-blind" Westerners would condemn.

I do hope a diligent archivist at the Hoover Institution, a right-leaning and efficient treasure-collecting organization of data on totalitarism (as it interprets it), is making sure the Facebook messages of the Russian linguistic spring will not vanish in cyberspace (or in Facebook/FSB data banks).

Some might, rightfully, object to the reactionary Hoover Institution (too unfair an adjective to describe a scholarly institution?) undertaking such a Facebook conversation preservation project, given its political outlook and affiliations. But how is the linguistic creation of  this internet-expressed Russian language going to be preserved, except by a well-funded US anti-totalitarian organization -- and (ironically) the Russian FSB. Maybe the two could cooperate.

Further on this subject, for anyone who was in the USSR during Cold War, of which the creepy Mr. Putin is an antiquated promulgation: Russian "secret services" are doubtless immensely grateful that Facebook and other Western social networks are providing them with the kind of instant information "they need" about "troublemakers." Can the services keep up with the flood of cyberspace info? I would not underestimate them.

I, reflecting my Cold-War days as a US diplomat and perhaps attributing too much power to Putin and company, and on my part assuming that dissidents' every inspiring/ironic words will be captured by the authorities, am amazed by how "self-sacrificial" savvy Russian Facebook users are -- Russian cyberspace versions of Tibetan monks immolating themselves -- somehow not taking it for granted (or, maybe, in fact fully realizing, in a typical Dostoevsky stradanie [suffering]  fashion)  that their every word will be captured by the authorities so that they can ultimately be liberated by being imprisoned/exiled/shot. (Of course, not in a Gulag, but a cyberspace equivalent of it.)

But thank God times have changed, and maybe ePutiners and erefuseniks will be "feel groovy" exchanging messages on Facebook without real/virtual-world fear of recriminations.

Meanwhile, here, in  the USA, we have the Orwellian "Department of Homeland Security" watching over us to keep us "secure" from "terrorists" and we're dropping presidentially-sanctioned deadly drones on "enemies" via computer-directed military staff at bases near Las Vegas ("sin/entertainment city") and we wonder how the personal information we so readily, and so naively, provide on (I should say to) Facebook will be/is being used by secretive corporations/the Government, organizations all pretending to be "transparent" so opposed, those in power say, to the mean, anti-American regimes/groups outside the USA Promised Land.

Russians Facebookers, with all their illusions about the purity of Western democracy (their invented alternative to their own bankrupt political system), seem to have no concern that "freely" expressing themselves on Facebook is actually a two-way mirror for those providing them with a "free" communication service. Actually, it is a means  -- pardon my paranoia -- of tracking the users of such a "service" (in all countries, including the U.S. and Russia) with the cut-the-crap, good-for-profit-of-business aim of selling targeted consumers "products." I hope I am wrong in this evaluation of the social media about which I have such doubts.

It's just that I believe that face-to-face is far more important than facebook-to-facebook, although (presumably fb2fb can bring people together in the non-virtual world).

I guess some paranoia does bring Americans and Russians together ...  No wonder some said, during the Cold War, that the U.S. and the USSR would "converge."

With these concerns in mind, I am still in awe of the Russian linguistic spring on Facebook. As the twitter on cyberspace, "awesome"!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

An Exchange with a Facebook Friend re the film Borat

I've always thought the fillm Borat was more about the U.S. -- or, rather, how a foreigner views the USA -- than about Kazakhstan. Indeed, Borat is Sasha Cohen trying to make sense (through his wonderfully vulgar humor) of the United States, which is depicted in his film as a wild and crazy place, perhaps more so than where Borat is actually from. In his younger days, at Cambridge University [UK], Cohen wrote his dissertation (which I have not read) on Jewish involvement in the American Civil Rights movement. Could this scholarly work on his part have been penned because he could not figure out how America can call itself a democracy while depriving its citizens of the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"?

(Exchange slightly edited)

Who Says "Dysfunctional" Families Don't Produce Interesting Offsprings?

Comment: What would the USA do without grandparents? They indeed deserve their social security checks.

David Maraniss. "Clinton and Obama: Presidential parallels," Washington Post.

--Image from

"William Jefferson Blythe III and Barack Hussein Obama II were the namesakes of fathers they did not know. Billy’s dad, a traveling salesman from Texas, was killed in a car crash before his son was born. Barry’s old man, a traveling student from western Kenya, also died in a car crash. His son was 21 then but had never lived with his father. Both boys’ mothers created myths about their fathers to ease the pain; in truth, the sons were almost certainly better off without them.

There was enough turmoil in the lives of young Billy and Barry without their philandering, unpredictable fathers around. They both had strong, supportive mothers who nonetheless were gone for years at a time, pursuing careers. Billy’s mother, Virginia, went away when he was 3 and 4 so that she could study advanced nursing in Louisiana. Barry’s mother, Stanley Ann, left him behind in Hawaii, starting when he was in fifth grade, so that she could pursue anthropological work in Indonesia. In both cases, the boys stayed with grandparents who were doting but carried their own burdens. Clinton’s mammaw, also a nurse, was addicted to morphine. Obama’s tutu, a bank official, was dependable and pragmatic but a closet alcoholic. Clinton also had to deal with an alcoholic stepfather (from whom he took his last name). Obama had an Indonesian stepfather who was less volatile but no male role model."

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Более 2/3 женщин предпочтут шоколад, а не секс.

"14. Более 2/3 женщин предпочтут шоколад, а не секс." ("More than 2/3 of women prefer chocolate, not sex.")

----Любовь Воропаева on Facebook

Question: Yes, which but which kind of chocolate?

The Trouble with Awareness

From Kony 2012 and Jason Russell to George Clooney to Mike Daisey, the trouble with awareness
By Alexandra Petri, PostWashington

We see you. “The real root of all evil,” wrote Mark Vonnegut, “is how hard it is to do good.”

Hence the popularity of awareness-raising.

Awareness-raising is like doing good. Almost. And you get a bracelet.

What has not happened in the name of awareness!

George Clooney gets arrested to raise awareness of conflict in the Sudan.

Jason Russell of Kony 2012 makes a personal and elaborate 27-minute video, thousands of T-shirts and bracelets and posters.

Mike Daisey invents some new truths about Apple’s suppliers.

But it’s okay. They were raising awareness.

What is this awareness thing?

There’s helping. And then there’s raising awareness. Some would argue that they are so far from synonyms as to approach being antonyms. But those people have never read an essay by Jessica Alba on telling you why you must pass the Safe Chemicals Act.

It’s part of the increasingly prevalent notion that the cure for everything is celebrity. Have a disease? Call a celebrity. Getting bullied? Call a celebrity. Worried about genocide? Call a celebrity.

I wish this were in some way a parody or exaggeration of the situation, but it isn’t.

At one point in the Kony 2012 video, those 27 minutes of our collective lives that we will not get back, George Clooney appears to note that, “I want, I'd like indicted war criminals to enjoy the same level of celebrity as me. That seems fair. That’s our objective is . . . to just shine a light on it.” This is how we do things now.

Kony 2012, from first to last, has puzzled me. It’s a video about a cause that is sort of about the cause, but mostly it is a 27-minute exercise in self-indulgence and telling people how Important You Social Media Users Can Make Yourselves And Also Rihanna.

I am not saying that awareness, per se, is necessarily bad. But it is certainly easier than doing anything. If my foot is on fire, I would appreciate a campaign to raise my awareness that my foot is on fire. But there’s a difference between shouting, “Your foot is on fire!” and putting the fire out.

And most causes are not that simple.

Getting a message to millions of people is no mean feat. But, as in most games of telephone, it is impossible to transmit a message of any complexity through thousands of whispers.

And that can result in arrogant oversimplification, where a major bullet point of your cause is, “Get George Clooney involved.”

Much as it pains me to say so, there are few situations in this earth that actually require the involvement of George Clooney. Yet he’s everywhere. Like kudzu. Attractive kudzu, no doubt, but — what are we really accomplishing here?

I am the last person to talk about making real change. The extent of my involvement in Righting The World’s Wrongs is that I once bought a water bottle that inadvertently benefited tree frogs, I think, but only because I liked the color. So I am in no position to criticize people who are at least trying to make a difference. But I've always been suspicious of causes that require you to wear an armband, unless the cause is Supporting America’s Armband Manufacturers.

Contribute to a fund to buy more megaphones! All right. We’ll get the message loud and clear. But what does all this awareness amount to?

The goal of the campaign is to publicize the campaign, to loom in the skyline and be Much Talked About.

But then what?

Many point out in the wake of the Kony campaign’s viral success that by the time it took us to become aware of what he was doing, Kony had, well, if not stopped, then certainly diminished his efforts and moved to another country, and other, more pressing problems had taken his place.

And there’s a flip side.

This weekend, everyone was rocked by the news of another, shorter video of Kony 2012’s co-founder, Jason Russell, suffering a truly sad and mortifying nervous break.

We might have seen this coming. If your Web site uses the word “grand” anywhere in your biography (“grand storyteller and dreamer,” Mr. Russell?) you are doing something wrong. If you have so over-personalized the story your charity is trying to tell that it sinks or swims based on whether you succumb to “exhaustion,” you are doing something wrong.

Mike Daisey didn’t get arrested for his exaggerations, but he got redacted, which might be worse.

And both of their causes are suffering. That’s the trouble with making everyone aware of you. They stay aware. That big spotlight you all purchased together turns its withering beam back on you.

Awareness is the snake that eats itself.

There comes a point when you are not actually raising awareness of anything but your awareness campaign. Then woe to you when the trouble comes.

But it’s so hard to do good. And bracelets are so fetching.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Help your trillion-dollar clients or quit!

Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs - Greg Smith, New York Times:

"Over the course of my career I have had the privilege of advising two of the largest hedge funds on the planet, five of the largest asset managers in the United States, and three of the most prominent sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East and Asia. My clients have a total asset base of more than a trillion dollars. I have always taken a lot of pride in advising my clients to do what I believe is right for them, even if it means less money for the firm. This view is becoming increasingly unpopular at Goldman Sachs. Another sign that it was time to leave. ...

I attend derivatives sales meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help clients. It’s purely about how we can make the most possible money off of them. If you were an alien from Mars and sat in on one of these meetings, you would believe that a client’s success or progress was not part of the thought process at all."


With clients to "help" like these ... what kind of person is doing the "helping"?

My read about this much-talked about piece: This is a frustrated guy who feels he didn't get his share of the cooperate pie and so is "exposing" his decade-long masters -- doubtless because he feels they weren't paying/promoting him enough, so that he could, sooner than later, be their Wall Street master, clearly his no. 1 ambition. No need to read between the lines.

Pretending to be a ping-pong playing idealist (as he describes himself in his article, "modestly" citing one of his many resume-worthy achievements) who wants to "help" loaded investors -- after more than ten years Working for the Man -- is no way to be persuasive about one's intentions/honesty, especially when Americans are struggling to pay for mortgage/grocery/high gas/medical bills at awful time economically, marked by the disparity between the Wall-Street rich and other Americans.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

"Korny 2012" -- What it really is: a Facebook ad

Given the multitude of comments on the "Kony 2012" video, I don't have much to add to this debate, except to note that this corny, slick, superficial, dumbing-down visual piece of simplification appears to be essentially an advertisement for Facebook. References in the film to Facebook's powers of agitprop abound, and include an image of Fakebook's founder, the mean, odious Mr. Zuckerberg, evidently meant to be a hero in the struggle against evil in our social-media interconnected world.

So, on a most elementary level, what the YouTube sensation is really "communicating," in certainly not a subtle or particularly subliminal way, is twofold:

(a) To "fb friends," especially young ones: Facebook is an groovy, easy-to-use tool to fix problems you need to know little about; it makes you feel good as you click away on your computer, safely absconded from the "real world" you're trying to save. Well, ok, in your solidarity with the Korny Movement, it may ask you to stand outside of a government building with a banner. Far easier than being beaten up by the police in Cairo.

(b) Far most important, to the real-power guys who really count in this world (I wish I were just kidding), among them advertisers, the veritable, so-called really "visible" message of "Kony Invisible Children" is that  Facebook can mobilize at a moment's notice millions of potential consumers (suckers?) globally; there's no better place anywhere, physical or virtual, to get big, big bangs for your ad bucks by manipulating -- through fancy graphics, instant communications, putative cyberspace "interconnectivity."  Through these means, it appeal to a vaguely defined "good" cause -- millions of the well-meaning uninformed worldwide so that they will buy what you want to sell.

Substitute "invisible children" with "things go better with Coke" (what's the real difference between these two activities, from a marketing "strategic planning" point of view) -- and the Korny 2012 marketing message becomes crystal clear: buy/use Facebook.

Image from

Friday, March 9, 2012

Zombies chase down couch potatoes and the unprepared

Zombies chase down couch potatoes and the unprepared  - Kim Painter, USA TODAY 3/8/2012 4:41 PM 

How did zombies become the go-to mascots for health, safety and emergency preparedness? Blame the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ever since the CDC started its tongue-through-cheek "zombie preparedness" campaign a few months back (because if you can prepare for a zombie apocalypse, you can also prepare for a hurricane, earthquake or pandemic), it seems everyone wants a piece of the undead. The latest:

 --A new smartphone app called "Zombies, RUN!" prompts runners to run faster to escape rotting, brain-hungry invaders. The running game is designed for experienced joggers who need an extra adrenaline rush or for novices who just need a push off the couch. "We have all the built-in instincts in our brains to run away from predators," says one of the developers.

 --Michigan State University is offering a new online course entitled: "Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse -- Catastrophes and Human Behavior." Mostly, it's about how people get through plagues, meteor strikes and such. But students also will form survivor groups to deal with a simulated "zombie pandemic," because, as instructor Glenn Stutzky says, "zombies make everything more interesting." (At least Stutzky was the instructor: A zombie appears to eat his brain in a rather graphic promotional video for the class).

Meanwhile, the folks at CDC continue to enjoy the company of zombies -- despite the fact that a fictional version of their Atlanta headquarters was destroyed during a zombie pandemic on AMC's The Walking Dead. Ali S. Khan, director of the CDC's public health preparedness office, reports that he was one of about 2,500 people who ran from a muddy zombie mob just a few days ago. The event was a 5K fundraiser. Khan writes at his blog: "What better way to improve your race time than to be chased by zombies?"

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Notes from the Underground: Mortuary Science

Notes from the Underground:

 As a near-daily shopper at the Giant store in the North-West section of the District of Columbia (a twenty-minute drive from the heart of the Imperial Capital, Washington, time-of-drive depending on traffic conditions), I am struck not only by the extravagant prices of this Dutch-owned Giant establishment (in the Maryland/Virginia 'burbs you pay far more less for food) -- but also by the fact that "mortuary science" seems, at the risk my exaggerating, to have gone virtual with this DC supermarket's employees.

A charming lady in charge of flowers at this store left her job (I was told by one of her colleagues) to work at a funeral home. And today, while buying "discounted" avocados, an equally sociable check-out employee (with wonderful fake eyelashes) told me that she was studying "mortuary science" at a local learnery, not mentioning (as I assumed; her supervisors were nearby), that she would leave her current job.

I could not help but wonder: I should follow eye-lashes' example. Death management is the ultimate safety in these hard Great Recession times, as our extinction, no matter what, happens.

Forget social security checks. Work for a funeral home.

well written or well-written?