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Silicon Valley is full of entrepreneurs — and some of them are native French speakers

Jean-Louis Gassée, a former colleague of Steve Jobs at Apple. Gassée is now a venture capitalist based in Silicon Valley. (Photo: Alison van Diggelen/Fresh Dialogues)

Jean-Louis Gassée, a former colleague of Steve Jobs at Apple. Gassée is now a venture capitalist based in Silicon Valley. (Photo: Alison van Diggelen/Fresh Dialogues)

Here’s a guest post from Silicon Valley-based reporter Alison van Diggelen

Steve Jobs has inspired many entrepreneurs in the U.S. and around the world. Today, some French tech innovators in Silicon Valley think of Jobs as an honorary Frenchman. The perception is that he was more focused on beauty and elegance, and less on money.

But although many French admired him, they didn’t copy him. And, at least until recently, they haven’t created the conditions that would allow tech innovators to thrive.

The French, of course, are known for their style. But some are asking: Why is it so hard to be an entrepreneur in France and much easier for a French entrepreneur to succeed in the United States?

Here in Silicon Valley, the French are certainly leaving their mark. There’s Pierre Omidyar of eBay fame, semiconductor pioneer Pierre Lamond and serial entrepreneur Philippe Kahn.

Jean-Louis Gassée is a Silicon Valley venture capitalist. In the 1980s, Gassée was the head of Apple in France and worked with Steve Jobs. He believes true innovators are often a bit mad, but in France they need to be even more than that.

“To be an entrepreneur in France you need an additional dose of madness … the rules are so onerous,” says Gassée.

He’s talking about heavy government regulation and taxes of up to 75%. These, he says, force French entrepreneurs to be tenacious and to find loopholes. Legal loopholes, of course.

“In France, breaking the law is a sport, it’s an honor, it’s a badge to find ways to cheat the rules,” says Gassée.

When he established Apple in France, Gassée had to be creative since the government put up roadblocks to foreign competition. What’s more, Silicon Valley’s extravagant language was abhorrent to French ears.

“When our dearly departed Steve Jobs came to France to make his usual brand of hyperbolic statements, people were taken aback, resentful,” says Gassée. “People rolled their eyes. They called him fou (mad), méprisant (contemptuous ), houtant (haughty), … arrogante (arrogant). … All this was part of his genius.”

Today, that genius has made Steve Jobs a hero to many younger French entrepreneurs.

I went to a gathering of DBF, a networking group for Francophones in Silicon Valley, where I chatted with John Forge, a French entrepreneur.

“We should make Steve Jobs an honorary Frenchman,” he laughed, praising Jobs’ style and detail-oriented approach.

“Steve Jobs was very French in his approach. He was seeing technology through the eyes of somebody who studied fonts, characters, writing … on the detail, it had to be perfect.”

Forge argues that the French obsession with elegance is very “Jobsian.”

“It has to be beautiful; there’s an entire way of thinking,” says Forge. “Quelque chose qui vous parle … it speaks to you effectively.”

But Forge says that even among the open-minded French entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, there’s still some insularity.

“Where the French gather … they call that ‘The Frog Pond.’ There’s a little too much of that … ‘I want every day to have my steak pomme frites’ … to live like the French live,” he explains.

Not surprisingly, Silicon Valley has dozens of French eateries. I met with Susan Lucas-Conwell at the Douce France Café in Palo Alto. She currently leads SVForum, an education network for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

The Douce France Café in Palo Alto Lucas-Conwell is married to a Frenchman and says the French view business failure differently than in California. In Silicon Valley, it’s a badge of honor. In France, Lucas-Conwell explains, failure is one of the non-dit, the things that you never talk about.

The Douce France Café in Palo Alto (Photo: Alison van Diggelen/Fresh Dialogues)

The Douce France Café in Palo Alto (Photo: Alison van Diggelen/Fresh Dialogues)

To make matters worse, according to Lucas-Conwell, French government officials are expert at the business put-down.

“You will hear the administration calling entrepreneurs ‘les patrons voyous.’ Voyou is a thug,” says Lucas-Conwell.

That’s pretty strong language — another manifestation of the anti-entrepreneurial culture in France. And just think, the word ‘entrepreneur’ is French.

So while French innovators struggle Sisyphus-like up a steep mountain, the lucky ones can move here to Silicon Valley and feel an optimistic wind at their back.

“We Silicon Valley people tend to think that we run the world, you understand, and there is some truth in that,” says Jean-Louis Gassée. “Je tweet, tu tweet, nous tweetons, vous tweetez, ils tweetent … It’s an -er verb. Usage trumps rules in any language.”

“It is a wonderful thing … we are the melting pot’s melting pot,” he adds.

Sophie Woodville Ducom, another French transplant with the French American Chamber of Commerce, calls Silicon Valley “The Mecca” — a place where entrepreneurs can thrive, even if they first fail. And, if they’re really lucky, they get to push that rock to the top of the mountain and enjoy the glory. That’s the promise of Silicon Valley, anyway.

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Damon Albarn’s Soundscape Gives the BBC Something to Celebrate

Damon Albarn (Screen shot of BBC interview)

These past few weeks have difficult for the people who run the BBC (which of course is one of the co-producers of The World).

No-one at the Beeb feels like celebrating a birthday. But the BBC is 90 years old. And, awkward or not, it’s marking the day—November 14, 1922—when it made its first broadcast.

At exactly 5:33pm London time on November 14, 2012, scores of BBC stations in the UK and around the world dropped their regular programming. Instead, listeners heard the chimes of Big Ben, followed by a scratchy old recording of an announcer: “This is 2LO calling…” 2LO was the name of the BBC’s first transmitter from 1922.

After that, an old tune—a hit from 1922. Mixed into it was rhythmic birdsong. And then a child’s voice: “Hello future,” the child said. “I hope music still matters because music is everything. Without it there’s nothing; just silence.”

And then there was silence, before the program restarted with a mishmash of more sounds—some eerie, some sweet. All made you listen on.

The BBC commissioned musician Damon Albarn to put this audio collage together. Albarn’s resume is itself a bit of a collage. He’s the front man of the bands Blur and Gorillaz. He’s also recorded songs with African musicians, and he’s written an opera that was staged by the English National Opera in 2011. The BBC asked Albarn to create something that would convey a sense of not just the past 90 years, but also the next 90 years.

And through its various radio outlets – talk stations, music stations, foreign language stations – the BBC solicited responses to this question: “What message would you give to somebody listening in 90 years time?” Albarn said he was overwhelmed by the responses.

“It varied from the very old and wise who tended not to imagine the future but were interested in providing a piece of hard-earned wisdom,” said Albarn.

Middle-aged people tended to be “quite downbeat,” said Albarn. But the young were different. “They in a way were the most interesting because they were very free—in a sense, the only people will have the only connection with 90 years.”

In the soundscape, one child says: “I think there will be more people and because there’ll be more people I will tell them to be careful not to get lost because it might be like really, really busy.”

Not all the messages are delivered with the human voice. Philosopher Bertrand Russell’s famous quote, “Love is wise, hatred is foolish,” is rendered in Morse code. There’s also the sound of what Albarn calls a “scary” Cold war spy station.

At the end, there are the BBC’s “pips” which—like Big Ben—usually mark the top of the hour. Albarn weaves the pips in and out of a piano tune.

And then, after three minutes, BBC programming returns to its regular schedule.



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The BBC and the Language of Responsibility

Here’s a story I did for the Big Show on the troubles engulfing the BBC. There are some specific language issues here. I’ll let the audio file above do the talking.



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The Words that Armed Anders Breivik

How much we should blame extreme political rhetoric for the actions of Anders Breivik? Did words help pull the trigger so many times? Is it accurate to describe him as a lone madman, existing outside Norway’s civilized society?

What of Glen Beck who likened Breivik’s victims at a political summer camp to the Hitler Youth? And what might the late Stieg Larsson have thought about this?

This week’s pod attempts to answer some of these questions with a series of reports and interviews culled from the BBC and the Big Show.

Among those featured:  Nottingham University’s, Matthew Goodwin who studies fascist groups;  former Norwegian diplomat Jan Egeland;   Andrew Silke who advises the United Nations on terrorism and has written The Psychology of Counter-terrorismNick Fraser who edits the BBC’s Storyville series of international documentaries and wrote The Voice of Modern Hatred, a book about the far right in Europe.

And two more people, each with interesting back stories: Maajid Nawaz, who co-founded the UK-based think tank Quilliam which studies Islamic extremism. Nawaz himself was a self-confessed Islamic extremist: for 13 years, he was a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir.  Hizb ut-Tahrir is a global group dedicated to uniting Muslim countries in a caliphate governed by Islamic law.

Lastly, there is Lars Gule of Oslo University College. In the wake of the Norwegian atrocity, he was interviewed by many news organizations including the BBC piece that’s in the podcast.  Gule tracks right wing extremists in Scandinavia, and believes that he was in communication via web chat with Anders Breivik. The Big Show also interviewed Gule, but decided against broadcasting the interview because of concerns about Gule’s own past.

In the 1970s, Gule spent several months in a Lebanese prison after being convicted of illegal possession of weapons. The weapons were explosives. Gule was carrying them on behalf of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The intended targets were Israelis.

When asked, Gule was happy confirm these details with us; he’s not trying to hide anything. But it seemed awkward and distracting to have him analyze violent extremism in his own country when he himself had been convicted in part because of his own link to violent extremism in another country.  A counter argument might be that Gule, like Maajid Nawaz, has a special insight into such activities. With that in mind,  I decided to run the BBC’s interview with Gule. It’s a pity that the interview itself doesn’t make note of Gule’s past.

To round things off,  we have a profile of New York-based Ghanaian rapper Blitz the Ambassador. When he moved to the US, Blitz didn’t need to learn English; it’s widely spoken in Ghana. But he says he did have to “learn the lingo of rap.” Which makes Blitz a linguistic as well as a musical ambassador.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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Hiroshima, Nagasaki and self-censorship


(Updated) I originally wrote this post around the 65th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. The recent earthquake in Japan seems to echo those incidents in certain ways: a calamitous event, followed by massive destruction and huge loss of life; entire communties wiped out; high levels of radiation in the atmosphere; unpredictability; fear.

Some foreign media organizations have made the comparisons (for example, here and here). Also implicitly making the connection was Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who has called the quake and its aftermath Japan’s worst crisis since World War Two. A further sign of the historical significance of the moment, and of the country’s plight: Japanese Emperor Akihito made the first television address of his reign.

That said, there are significant differences between the 1945 bombings and the earthquake. The most obvious is that the 1945 events were military attacks (though the vast majority of victims were civilians). The destruction of two cities and the radiation released was fully intended by Japan’s wartime enemy, the United States. Also, radiation levels today are nowhere near as high as in the aftermath of the bombings. Nor, so far, is the loss of life, as shockingly high as it is.

I checked in with a couple of  Japanese friends (one is a Hiroshima-based journalist; the other, a professor who has interviewed many A-bomb victims.) Their reponses were similar: for whatever reason, the Japanese media and public are not making a strong connection between Japan’s current crisis and the A-bombs. One connection, though,  has made, as reported in the New York Times: the earthquake and tsunami have rekindled memories of conventional World War Two air raids among elderly survivors of those bombing campaigns.

In the podcast I put together for the 65th anniversary of the dropping of the Atomic bombs, there are two takes on self-censorship. A child survivor of Hiroshima explains why she kept quiet about her experiences for so long, through the pain and guilt of survival. She was seven when the the bomb fell, killing her parents and siblings but inexplicably sparing her. Late in life, Sueko Hada tells her story, in the presence of her daughter and granddaughters. They’ve heard some of it before, but she includes many new details this time.  I snapped this picture of the family on the day I interviewed Mrs Hada in 2005. My report originally aired on The World as part of a series on the mental health of Atomic Bomb survivors, known in Japan as hibakusha.

Before I met Mrs Hada, I don’t think I fully understood why people with painful pasts remain silent, essentially censoring their own histories. But if you grew up in post-war Japan, surrounded by people who believed that radiation sickness was contagious and hereditary, you too might keep quiet about your past.

The legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is hard to gauge. Japanese children still visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (above). But these days, Tokyo Disneyland is a far more popular destination for school groups.

For many Americans, the use of the bomb remains a hugely sensitive issue.  Views both pro and con seem entrenched, dialogue virtually impossible. The debate — such as it is — hasn’t progressed much since the 1995 controversy over The Smithsonian’s Enola Gay exhibition.  But there has been new research about some of the earliest news reporting of the bombs. That began in 2005, when several dispatches written by Chicago Daily News reporter George Weller were published first time by the Tokyo newspaper Mainichi Shimbun.  That was followed by publication in English of those and other reports in First into Nagasaki, a book put together by Weller’s son, Anthony.

Weller blamed U.S. military censorship for the previous non-publication of his reports.  But Japanese freelance reporter Atsuko Shigesawa disputes that in a new book. (Japanese links here and here.) At the Library of Congress, she came across a statement from Gilbert Harrison, who was a sergeant in the US Army Air Forces and went to Nagasaki with Weller. Harrison went on to become editor of  the New Republic. In his statement, he describes how he delivered Weller’s reports to a Chicago Daily News employee in Tokyo. As far as he knows, he says, the reports were filed there and then and were not subject to military vetting. He says he “doesn’t know why”  the New York Times and the Arizona Republic reported in 2005 that “our reports were censored and not printed for 60 years.”

Atsuko Shigesawa believes that the true acts of censorship in reporting on the A-bombs were self-imposed, sometimes by reporters, sometimes by their editors. In Weller’s case, she believes his editors at the Chicago Daily News killed many of his stories. And when it came to other reporters filing stories from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Shigesawa found that newspapers routinely cut the segments dealing with radiation sickness and other after-effects of the bombs on the human body.  (The photo above was taken at a hospital in Tokyo. The original caption reads: “The patient’s skin is burned in a pattern corresponding to the dark portions of a kimono worn at the time of the explosion.”) In addition to these editorial cuts, at least one correspondent chose not to report on his hospital visits, believing that they were part of a plot to hoodwink him. William Lawrence of the New York Times wrote that American reporters were being subjected to “a Japanese propaganda campaign calculated to shame Americans for using such a devastating weapon of war”. He continued: “I am convinced that, horrible as the bomb undoubtedly is, the Japanese are exaggerating its effects in an effort to win sympathy for themselves in an attempt to make the American people forget the long record of cold-blooded Japanese bestiality.” For those reasons, Lawrence did not write about his hospital visits and the cases of radiation sickness he witnessed until 1972, in his memoir.

We don’t — and probably never will — have the full story of what influenced those initial reports of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But there’s enough to suggest that self-censorship played a prominent role.

For another take on the meaning of Hiroshima and memory, check out Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s memoir Hiroshima in the Morning. It was a 2010 finalist in the autobiography category of the National Book Critics’ Circle Award.

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The staying power of English, and Shakespeare in Shona

Top five language stories this month with Patrick and cartoon queen Carol Hills:

5. Multi-lingual Shakespeare. All of Shakespeare’s 38 plays will be performed next year in London, each in a different language. Hosting this 6-week season — part of London’s 2012 Cultural Olympiad —  is the reconstructed Globe Theater. The environs may be authentically Elizabethan, but no-one back in the 16th century would have seen Titus Andronicus in Cantonese, The Tempest in Arabic, Love’s Labour’s Lost in British Sign Language, or The Taming of the Shrew in Urdu.

Given the diversity of languages and, presumably, styles of stagecraft, it’s surprising the Globe isn’t presenting these plays at a diversity of venues. Putting on plays at the Globe is all about conjuring up a specific time and place in English history. This season of plays seems designed to do the opposite. Think of all Shakespeare-inspired foreign language movies, like Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood — based on Macbeth — that transport you worlds away. That’s when you get a sense of the universality of Shakespeare. I’m not sure if the setting of Globe for all these plays will convey that.

4. Texting surprises. Two new studies on texting are out. The first focusses on literacy acquisition, and the scond on the texting habits of Australians. In the first, a group of children in the UK were given mobile phones to text to their hearts’ content. Their literacy acquisition skills — reading and spelling — did not suffer as a result. In the second,  Austalians, and men in particular, expressed disatisfaction with texting shorthand (even the Aussie-specific stuff like totes (totally) and redic (ridiculous). Also — this is really surprising — more than 75% of  Australians age 65 years and older send at least one text a day. Those elderly Australians are totes techno. Redic!

3. Eliminating an unwanted language. In these times of language disappearance,  it’s not often you hear of an effort to willfully eliminate a language. That, though, it what’s happening in South African. The language in question is more like pidgin. It’s called Fanagalo, and it’s like a simplified version of Zulu, with some Xhosa, Afrikaans and English thrown in.  During colonial times, it was used as a language of instruction in the mines. Colonial bosses would issue orders to workers in Fanagalo. Over the years, it acquired quite a few technical mining phrases and so it is still used today. Now, there’s a debate in South Africa over its usefulness, even as there’s widely-held distaste for the way in which it came into being. The National Union of Mineworkers is pushing to have Fanagalo abolished — which has set South Africa’s Chamber of Mines thinking about how exactly to do that.

2. Keeping Russian and Chinese pure. Efforts are underway to keep Russian and Chinese free of English words and acronyms. Here are two languages that developed largely in isolation during large parts of the 20th century.  Now that Russia and China are more connected,  Russian and Chinese are having trouble incorporating (or resisting) Anglicisms. Some new Russian words include steyk-kholdery (stakeholders), autsorsing (outsourcing), riteyl (retail) and franchayz (franchise). New Chinese words often derive from English-language acronyms: NBA, CPI, WTO, GDP.

Both countries are taking ham-fisted approaches: Russia’s anti-monopoly service penalized a Japanese sushi chain which displayed a billboard saying Happy New Menu. It also took action against a sportswear store  using the expression new collection. China’s General Administration of Press and Publication issued an edict barring Chinese newspapers, books and websites from using English words and phrases. Neither approach seems likely to work.

1. New book sparks a debate about the staying power of English. Nicholas Ostler’s The Last Lingua Franca makes the argument that one day in the distant future English will cease to be a global language, that most English speakers will be native speakers (right now, an estimated 30% of English speakers are native speakers).  Not only that, but it won’t be replaced by any other lingua francas. The world won’t need a common tongue, says Ostler, because we’ll all be able to speak in our own native tongues, and communicate via translation devices. Not surprisingly, Ostler’s theory/prediction has been roundly criticized, by champions of English as well as by techno-skeptics. Still, one of Ostler’s main points, that history has not stopped, and that language evolution has not played itself out, is well taken. And just look at Aramaic, Greek and Latin, all in their days lingua francas.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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At the BBC, fewer languages and less influence

Like millions of others, I grew up with the BBC. Today I work for a BBC co-production. I’m not a BBC employee, but I’m close to this story. And, um, that’s not me in the picture. I use a smaller microphone.

The cuts:   five BBC language services will close (Serbian, Albanian, Macedonian, Portuguese for Africa and English for the Caribbean). Seven more language services, including Mandarin Chinese and Hindi, will be cut back from radio to internet only. A further six services will stop transmitting on short wave.

It means an estimated 30 million fewer BBC listeners worldwide. Will people migrate to the web and to English language news, or will the BBC – and its news values – become less influential?

There was a huge amount of coverage of this story. Most people were critical of the cuts with the British government — rather than the BBC —  receiving the blame (here and here for example). But in Britain there is a BBC-despising minority which offered its own spin.

For the pod, I picked some of the best pieces of the BBC’s own coverage: interviews with the director of BBC global news Peter Horrocks,  former World Service director John Tusa, and British foreign minister William Hague. Hague heads the Foreign Office, which has presided over the BBC World Service.

I also interviewed Debbie Ransome, head of the axed Caribbean Service. The Caribbean Service could be seen as some broadcast throwback to the days when the World Service was known as the BBC Empire Service. But Ransome says the service is unique in that it is regional, and so rises above  the interests of any single country. She says the other broadcast media in the region either take political sides, or play a lot of music and not much else.

So which global radio services will move in to replace the BBC?  The pod’s last interview is with journalism professor George Brock. He says that services run by the Chinese and Russian governments are likely to benefit, especially in Africa and Asia. And they don’t have the same news values as the BBC. Where the Beeb is remarkably successful at maintaining its editorial independence, Brock says the Russian and Chinese operations  are mainly mouthpieces of their respective governments.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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