Monday, June 25, 2012


Much has been made in recent days of the publication by Microsoft Research of a paper detailing how and why Nigerian email scams work. The story went all over the news. It's not exactly groundbreaking work that provides unprecedented insight, but to those that had never looked at the issue from that angle, the conclusions were striking.

I had never looked at the issue from that angle. I had only ever found brief hilarity in these scams and then hit the delete button in my email client. I would have never been bothered to engage with the scammers in the hope of beating them at their own game and I've certainly never been tempted to take a word seriously of what was in these schematic emails. I was baffled that anyone could ever falls for these scams.

The sender is invariable Nigerian and tells, in broken or at least highly unorthodox English, an incredible story of betrayal, loss or legal injustice that magically transforms into a golden opportunity for the recipient of the email. Substantial financial assets are always involved – and need to be taken out of the country. The recipient is asked to facilitate the transaction, with the promise of a cut of the loot. Some minor financial outlay is demanded to get the process started.

There are alarm bells all over. The scams are instantly recognizable. According to the guys at Microsoft Research, they are supposed to be. Scamming is hard work. It takes time and the prospect of success is low. The straightforwardness and openness of the scam serves to filter out those that wouldn't be susceptible to it anyway. Only the gullible and the fools get sucked in, and no one should feel sorry for anyone falling for scams.

Scams are simply a tax on stupidity, more purely so than the lottery, which is frequently portrayed as the ultimate tax on stupidity. The story goes that it's a chance for those that don't know math to pay for their failure. But it's not as easy as that. Most people that play the lottery or engage in any kind of gambling are fully aware of the odds and that they're going to lose their money. They still do it, either because it's price worth paying for the dream of unimaginable riches or because it's entertaining.

I don't do the lottery and I've never gambled.Even when the jackpot stood at 50 million, I couldn't justify parting with my money. And when, on my first trip to Vegas, my dad suggested "losing twenty bucks on the roulette table" (his words), I told him I'd be happy for him to play but I wouldn't participate.

This is why it came as a surprise to me when I received a letter the other day that was from Euromilliones Loteria International, a multilingual affair that could easily be mistaken for Euro Millions, the transnational lottery famous for big jackpots. I had been one of 17 players who hit a 3rd category prize and could now claim my share of €15.5 million. €915,810 were waiting for me. All I had to do was call Señor Raúl Gómez in Spain.

The letter was unlike any scam I had encountered before. It didn't come as an email but in a believable looking envelope with name and address correctly printed on it. There was a stamp on it and a postmark from Granada.There were logos and tracking numbers and no spelling mistakes. I began to wonder. Maybe I had won after all.

It is curious how the human psyche works. For a few moments I was tempted to take a chance on the letter and act before the prize would fall to the Spanish Ministerio de Economía y Hacienda in a month's time. Then reason kicked in: The number to call was a cell phone. The return address didn't match the postmark. While the envelope was addressed to me, the letter itself was anonymous. The former Ministerio de Economía y Hacienda is now called Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad. Most importantly: I have never bought a lottery ticket.

The letter was bogus. If I had more time and less to do, if I were retired (and lucid) in a village in Wales for example, I'd call and find out more, see what it'd take to get the dosh, mostly to see how much I'd have pay upfront in "processing fees". But I don't. I have recycled the bizarre document and am left to contemplate how scammers choose their victims. Shouldn't I be exempt from taxes on stupidity?

Friday, June 22, 2012


I thought I could avoid the obvious this year. Two years ago, I spent post after post on a subject that's recurring with biannual regularity. This year: no time and no desire to go on about what everyone else goes on about. I'm talking about football.

For the last two weeks or so, the ball has been rolling in Ukraine and Poland, to the incomprehension and occasional derision of the western European commentariat. They've got fast trains in the Ukraine, apparently, but only if you take the ones they replaced as a reference. And Poland? Full of hooligans. It's been a feast for stereotyping and arrogance. Football has not lived up to anyone's expectations.

This being my blog, the only expectations that matter are the German ones. The Mannschaft made it into the knockout stages but the performances were mediocre. Three wins are respectable but there was nothing of the lightness and exuberance of the games against England and Argentina two years ago. It was almost dull to watch.

Tonight was the Germany's first knockout game. The opponent: Greece. If you were a football promoter, you couldn't make this up. The Euro crisis is often portrayed as a battle royal between the paymaster of Europe and the European champions of profligacy, Germany and Greece, and it's said if these two can't sort things out, the Euro mess won't be sorted out. You might not agree with this simplified view, but tonight, the main protagonists played out the crisis in small on a grassy field in Gdansk.

Germany dominated throughout, in exactly the way Germany, with its history, is not supposed to dominate. At some point, there was a goal, but for the most part the game flow forth (hardly ever back) and not much happened. Then Greece scored the equalizer. I was excited.

Not because I wanted to Germany to lose. These days are over. When I was in high school, it was considered extremely uncool to support the national team. This is how I saw myself supporting Denmark when they won Euro 1992. But when I left Germany in 1998 to pitch my tent in the US for six years, I discovered patriotism. With the World Cup in 2006, that sentiment became commonplace. People bought flags and replica shirt and started cheering at big screens as if it would make a difference.

I was in The Famous 3 Kings, a famous pub in West Kensington and cheered at the screen. Greece had just equalized and I knew what that meant. Germany would finally have to wake up and show a real effort. Fifteen minutes and three goals later, things were back to what they were in the first half. Only one team was playing and there was never a doubt about the result.

Before the start of Euro 2012, an Irish bookmaker with a finger on the pulse of the public and, controversially, its name on the underwear of a Danish striker had offered the following bet: Who's going to exit the Euro first, Greece the team or Greece the country? Tonight, we know the answer. Whether the country should follow it is a topic for debate. I can't see the benefit, and I'm hoping very much that a better solution will be found for the Euro crisis than the headline that has been making the rounds for a few days now: Germany kicks Greece out of the Euro.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

bells tolling

Among the European conflicts of the 20th century, the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath is probably the most neglected relative to the space it takes in history books. In 1936, a number of dissatisfied generals of the Spanish Republican Armed Forces conspired to turn their units, stationed in Spanish Morocco, against the recently elected national government, decidedly leftwing. Subsequently they consolidated a force of monarchists, religious conservatives and fascists, all hostile to the government. Three years of brutal fighting followed, ending with the complete defeat of the Republican forces. A fascist dictatorship was established, which emerged unblemished from World War II, having watched from the sidelines. It took the death of General Franco, the dictator and one of the original putschists, to bury fascism in Spain. Nearly forty years had passed.

It is fair to say that the Spanish Civil War foreshadowed World War II, though at the time few outside observers realized what was at stake. What's worse, two dozen leading nations agreed a non-intervention pact, probably in the vain hope that another world war could be avoided. This inaction all but sealed the fate of the Republic because fascist Italy and Germany were quick to circumvent the agreement and support the rebels with equipment and troops. Support for the government came from communist organizations that coordinated a drive to recruit volunteers to the other side of the divide. They came in large numbers, from all European countries but also the US, to fight in the International Brigades.

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway follows one such volunteer, the explosives expert Robert Jordan from Montana, on a mission behind enemy lines. Jordan is sent to liaise (1) with a guerilla band and destroy an important bit of infrastructure to facilitate a Republican offensive in the area. Knowing this much is unnecessary detail. Agostín, one of the guerrilleros, has the following understanding of what's about to happen: "That we blow up an obscene bridge and then have to obscenely well obscenity ourselves out of these mountains." This one sentence contains the entire novel, plot, language and all.

In a stunning example of literary density, not quite Ulysses but coming close, the five hundred pages of the novel cover three days of very little going-on. Jordan arrives at the guerrilla camp, talks with and befriends the guerrilleros, scouts the bridge and plots its destruction, has a few flashbacks, and hits it off with a girl rescued by the guerrilleros in an earlier raid. The novel ends after the attack when the getting out of the mountains that Agostín is worried about begins, but the action is of secondary nature. What define the novel are the depiction of guerilla warfare, the dialog, and the language.

The life of irregular fighters is wildly romanticized. There is always enough wine, tobacco and bread. The meals, cooked by the two women in the band, are delicious and anchor the days. The cave they camp in is comfortable enough, dry and warm even when it snows outside because of "a blanket that hung over the opening". People wash and sleep; there are no complaints. Conditions couldn't be much better in an expensive prep school's summer camp.

This pastoral symphony is glowing enough to drive any young idealist to join the fight for freedom in a jungle somewhere remote. Before leaving, that idealist should watch Guerrilla, Steven Soderbergh's second Che movie, which paints a much dourer picture, with heroes filthy and unshaven, stuck knee-deep in the mud with no place to go, suffering hunger and thirst, deprivation and betrayal, sustaining painful injuries and eventually unglorious deaths. That picture is miles from the bucolic idyll of the novel but all the more realistic for it.

Hemingway was in Spain during the Civil War, but he was a newspaper correspondent not a fighter, and he didn't go into hiding behind enemy lines. His lack of first-hand experience with guerilla fighting combined with his devotion to the Spanish Republic to create the idealized setting of the novel. He wanted to see fascism defeated and his loyalty shows. Friendship, passion, a sense of duty and the willingness to make sacrifices for freedom run supreme.

While most volunteers on the Republican side were communists, Hemingway wasn't. He accuses both sides of the divide of brutality and evil. Chapter 10, the second longest of the book after the culminating destruction of the bridge, describes in gory detail the massacre of suspected fascists after the liberation of a small town by Republican forces. One by one, the established townsfolk – the mayor, the feed store owner, the big landowners – are send down a narrow lane of peasants armed with sticks and flails and bludgeoned to death in a bloody frenzy. Then they're thrown off a cliff and into the river beyond the plaza.

Readers run the risk of not getting that far in the book, repulsed from the first page by the dialog, which is stiff, wooden, awkward and clunky – to an extent that cannot be exaggerated. To say that it takes the reader some getting used to doesn't do justice to just how atrocious it is. The conversations are often banal, there is no flow, and the choice of words appears inept. Archaisms abound; there are countless thee and thou and doest and art and hast, as if a neophyte Shakespeare impersonator had taken his blunt pen to the page. There is talk about milk. It is enough to drive the most eager reader to abandon the novel.

It would be a great loss to put the book down after a few dozen pages. With some effort, the realization comes that the bumpy dialog is meant to represent spoken Spanish as understood by Jordan. Some writers render accents in writing, which nearly always results in unreadable prose. Hemingway chose to directly approximate Spanish in English. The archaisms express the differentiation between the formal and friendly you ( and usted). The phrasing derives from the structure of the Spanish sentence. False friends abound: People that are bothered ask not to be "molested". Unusual things are said to be "most rare". One can see Hemingway sitting in his hotel room in Havana hanging on to a glass of rum and imagining how the characters would say in Spanish the things he wants them to say in English – and then literally translating this back into English. He must have had a blast.

The dialog is befouled with obscenities, quite literally, though every potentially offensive English word has been purged. Instead, in an example of self-censure that you might consider visionary or cowardly, Hemingway replaces all obscenities with words like "obscenity", "unprintable", "unnameable", and the like. I'm not quite sure what to make of this. It is certainly unique. But if Hemingway considered foul language necessary to define and differentiate his characters, why didn't he use it? Did he want to avoid causing offense? Did he have a Mormon publisher?

On the other hand, all swearing is in Spanish and, as described above, Spanish is rendered unconventionally throughout the novel. The outflanking, in true guerilla style, of the obscenities is just another aspect of that. It might be meant to suggest that English readers wouldn't get the details of the obscenities anyway. The milk mentioned earlier, for example, derives from a rather common Spanish curse (me cago en la leche) that translates to "I shit in the milk". English speakers would realize that buckets of invective are emptied but remain ignorant of the literal meaning and thus unoffended. This is what the dialog delivers with style.

Taken together, I don't think the dialog is brilliant but the approach is certainly brave. It's a highly creative way of dealing with the difficulty of making foreignness and distance palpable to the reader. The banality of most exchanges is probably reflective of the kind of people in the fight, average Spaniards, peasants, uneducated. There are only two problems. The dialog could flow more smoothly and there could be fewer repetitions. Why do shoes inevitably have to be specified as "rope-soled"? But overall, Hemingway's boldness with the language works and turns the novel into an extraordinary read

(1) To liase is a tremendously ugly word, but here it's rather fitting. Etymonline's Online Etyomology Dictionary entertains the possibility that the back formation from liaison was a coinage of British military men in World War I. It thus ticks the boxes for time and context.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

not in Paris

I popped over to Paris today. It is true, but I hate how blasé that sounds. One cannot take going to Paris lightly and mention it matter-of-factly. Paris is always special. For me, it will always be an occasion. So I should probably rephrase:

I hopped on the train this morning and had myself catapulted to the far side of the Channel and then an hour and a bit further. I got off the train I don't know where, just following directions. The directions had me descend into the tunnels and take a metro somewhere. I don't know where and it didn't matter. The place I went to had no geographic meaning. It was just an address, and I didn't look left or right.

A few weeks ago, I had been called for an exam to determine my suitability for a position in the French public service. You marvel on that sentence, on the implications, and make up your mind. I just tell you what happened, which is this: Four hours, the entire afternoon today, were reserved for a written exam on an unspecified subject. I had no idea what to expect.

The details don't matter. We all sat on individual desks in a large room. A matron facing us read out the gospel. Cheating is an offense. Don't de-anonymize your answer sheets. Don't keep anything but pens and the papers you'll receive on your desk. No mobile phones. No calculators. No good luck, or at least she didn't wish us any. At the strike of the clock, bulging yellow envelopes were cut open with government-issue scissors and stapled stacks of paper extracted and distributed, face down. A moment later, we were allowed to turn them over and get going.

I couldn't get going right away. The whole concept was too ridiculous. Here I was, about to hold forth in a language I don't properly speak, let alone write. It was preposterous of me to even participate. I couldn't take myself seriously. But they had asked me to come, so what was I to do? Laughing madly on the inside, I started to pontificate, missing accents left and right and never getting any grammar right on the first try, but the pages started to fill.

After three and a half hours, I was exhausted and brain-fried. I hadn't answered all the questions and wasn't completely satisfied with all the answers to those I had. Some questions I hadn't even understood, an unknown word here or there obscuring the meaning of what was asked. There was no point of continuing.

Behind the center where the examination was held was a canal. I didn't know Paris had canals, but there it was, rising above street level, a barge carrying gravel quietly floating past. There were walkways and bike paths to either side, as there should be. I commenced a stroll in what looked to me like a sensible direction. Some industrial buildings had been refurbished into offices, as happens everywhere; an old office building stood abandoned, covered in graffiti; a brutalist structure glowered defiantly; the extension of the tram 3 had just got a new bridge.

The canal was a ribbon of peace in a hectic city, equal measures of the past long dead and the future not yet there miraculously suspended out of time. Left and right rose the walls of the derelict and the up-and-coming. At every turn another point of interest floated nearer and tempted me to go on. It occurred to me that I had ventured deep into 93, the dodgiest neighborhood of Paris, but during the day that was probably fine.

I could have continued for hours, but with the time of departure of my train back to London coming dangerously close, I had to bail. I found a metro and was at the Gare du Nord a few minutes later and through check-in and security a little after that. As the train pushed out of the station and me into the seat, I realized that I hadn't seen the Eiffel Tower all day. As I said, I hadn't really been to Paris.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

en Français

Après pas moins de 640 billets en Anglais (et Allemand), c'est le premier en Français. Ne vous effrayez pas! Ça vas pas lancer une tradition. C'est seulement que je me sens Français aujourd'hui – côté langue au moins – et que je veux écrire en Français. Demain tout va revenir au normal.

Bon, peut-être pas demain. Mardi, je vais à Paris pour me présenter à une épreuve écrite qui fait partie d'un concours pour un poste dans le système de la recherche publique Française. Ça me fait pas mal de peur. J'ai jamais écrit en Français. Quand je travaillais à Grenoble, la recherche était conduite en Anglais et j'avais pas de relation avec l'administration Française. J'ai jamais écrit un seul mot un Français.

J'exagère. Une fois, j'ai écrit une lettre à la mairie de la ville de Claix pour me plaindre de l'incinération des feuilles dans un jardin de la ville pendant une grave inversion météorologique qui m'a pris du souffle quand j'ai fait du vélo. C'était la seule lettre et je recevais pas de réponse.

Je recommence parce que j'ai besoin de pratiquer, pour me donner des confidences pour mardi, pour mettre ma tête dans un état propice à l'épreuve. Alors j'écris, sans dictionnaire, faisant couler des mots sur la page comme ils condensent de mes pensées. Le contrôle orthographique fourni par le browser est le seul outil me donnant guidance. Ça fait pas trop de sens, mais c'est assez important pour moi.

C'est ça, c'est le début. Demain je vais continuer, probablement sur un sujet scientifique que j'attends comme sujet pour mardi – mais certainement pas dans le cadre de ce blog. S'exposer tellement une fois, ça suffit.

Alors, vous savez tout maintenant – si vous pouvez lire ce que j'ai écrit ou si vous savez comment faire traduire des textes en ligne. J'admets que je me suis servi d'un tel outil pour vérifier que j'ai pas fait des grosses bêtises. Bonne nuit!

Saturday, June 09, 2012


(The paragraphs that follow contain the first words inspired by last weekend's quick trip to Corsica. Four days were too few to do the island justice but too many to write something up in an afternoon without getting horribly lost and completely messed up. More will come, but it will take time. Let me for now emphasize an unusual aspect of the trip. I didn't fly.

This had nothing to do with my desire to save the planet or to pay homage to Paul Theroux. Instead, the Queen's Diamond Jubilee was used by all airlines as an excuse to price me out of tickets. I took the train instead. It's a journey of 760 miles to Marseille that Google estimates one can drive in about 13 hours. On the train, it took less than eight, including one to get to St. Pancras and check in and another one to transfer between stations in Paris. In Marseille, Flucha picked me up at the station and we went to the port. Off you go.)

Finding the boat in the far reaches of the Port of Marseille wasn't too difficult. The area had a name that was occasionally signposted and once inside Porte 4, there was a blue line on the tarmac that the gatekeeper told us to follow. A few minutes later, we stopped next to an enormous warehouse. Its doors had been pulled open, revealing the vastness of its interior. It stood abandoned and empty of economic function. Inside were four portable sanitation units and a soda pop vending machine. Right behind the warehouse, and visible in patches showing through pairs of doors, was the boat.

The boat was technically a ferry, a ship for the transport of passengers and vehicles, traveling on a scheduled route between two and more points. One of these points was our port of departure and the warehouse, with its scant amenities, was the terminal building, though official business was conducted outside. Seeing us approach, stewards in high-visibility vests waved us into one of the four parallel lanes of cars and camper vans, checked the ticket we had printed at home and stuck a sticker to our windshield. We were handed our cabin information and door code and the wait began.

It was a hot day, clear, bright and with more than a hint of summer in it. Most cars' trunks were open. Some people were sorting their luggage, others had stayed in their cars, apathetically reading the news or excitedly browsing guidebooks. Given that everyone was going on holiday, I had expected barbecues or picnics but the party hadn't begun. Then engines were started at the front of the lines and twenty minutes later we were aboard, the car tightly parked in a space nearly the size of the warehouse outside, and found our cabin.

A bunk bed filled most of the space. A small desk on the wall folded up to reveal a washbasin. The entire space was enclosed in molded plastic. There was no window. In the hallway near the shower hung the fetid smell of moist towels left on the hooks for too long. Deck 4 felt like a cheap youth hostel, an impression that continued higher up. Sure, there were nicer cabins and a proper restaurant, but we were in the oldest ferry in the fleet for that connection and it showed. The sheen was off; everything looked neglected and worn. The self-service appeared cheap and cheerful and the bar was positively low-key. Later in the night, people without cabins would camp down among the tables and chairs there. We quickly went outside again, just in time to witness the starting of the engines.

When the last truck had been loaded and the ramp closed, the boat started rumbling and then shaking from deep inside. Hectoliters of marine diesel flowed heavily into combustion chambers that needed some serious prodding to get going, even after only half a day of inactivity. Gray smoke exploded through two high chimneys and a burning smell of exhaust filled in the air, temporarily voiding all thoughts of a cruise of the seas. Then the pitch of the rumble changed and the shaking lulled. The smoke thickened and turned pitch black. A minute later the pistons had been blasted. Mighty propellers started churning the dregs of the dock and the boat slowly set in motion. The smoke changed to a light gray of the sustainable kind, and we were off.

As Marseille drifted towards the horizon and water spread all around, we turned a chest holding life jackets into an al fresco dining table. A fresh baguette, cherry tomatoes from the market and a Tortilla Española cooked the night before made for a delight way beyond anything on sale inside. After the meal, the last cup of Pinot Gris in hand, I leaned back and stared towards the disappearing sun. Flucha, sitting opposite me, marveled at the moon rising ahead. It was a magical moment. Above us, the evening jet into Figari drew sharp contrails into the darkening sky. We could have flown Ryanair, I mused. But why would we have?