Tag Archives: World in Words

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

How to make a living as a Spanish teacher in Guatemala. Hint: Skype

Marco Antonio Tabin Garcia, in Antigua, Guatemala, Skypes with a student in Chicago. (Photo: Laura Knotts)

Marco Antonio Tabin Garcia, in Antigua, Guatemala, Skypes with a student in Chicago. (Photo: Laura Knotts)

Here’s a guest post from reporter Emily Files.

When Marco Antonio Tabin Garcia was younger, he considered emigrating from Guatemala to the United States.

“Because I had heard in United States, there was gold,” he says.

He knew he’d need to travel illegally, crossing through Mexico, so he decided against the journey. Instead, he got a job teaching Spanish at a local language school, where he earned about $2 an hour. He continued teaching at local schools for more than 20 years.

Now 49, Tabin Garcia has found a way to make a much better living without leaving his own home. He teaches Spanish lessons on Skype, mostly to American and Canadian students. He makes $10 per hour, five times what he made at the local schools.

Erin O’Reilly, a veteran language teacher based in California, teaches in traditional classrooms and online. She’s seen online language lessons take off globally in the past three years. She says it co-incides with growing Internet access in developing countries.

“This is transformational for language learners who are trying to learn outside of a traditional classroom setting,” O’Reilly says.

But she doesn’t think classroom teaching will die out any time soon. She says language learners often need the structure and motivation that comes with in-person lessons.

Photo courtesy Laura Knotts

Photo courtesy Laura Knotts

For Tabin Garcia, Skype lessons have been so profitable that he quit his job at the language school last month. He’s been able to buy luxuries he and his wife could not previously afford, like a washing machine. His dog, Manchas, used to sleep on a cardboard box. Tabin Garcia recently bought him a cushy dog bed.

On a recent Thursday evening, Tabin Garcia had a one-hour Skype lesson with student Laura Knotts, who lives in Chicago. They made small talk about weather and their families and Tabin Garcia corrected her mistakes.

Knotts is one of a dozen students Tabin Garcia teaches each week. He’s brought his wife and sister into the business as well. The two women now have a few of their own students.

Tabin Garcia’s weekly income of about $150 to $200 supports not only himself and his wife, but his extended family. He says his 7-year-old niece used to be malnourished and became sick. Her parents didn’t have enough money to pay for a doctor.

“She would have died,” Tabin Garcia said. “Her condition was very, very bad.”

He used his Skype earnings to pay for her medicine and food. She’s doing better now.

There are some roadblocks to teaching via Skype. For one, an Internet connection is expensive, as is the laptop he uses. Some people don’t know how to use Skype. Tabin Garcia has trained a few friends and family. And, of course, there are always technical glitches. But Tabin Garcia has been able to keep his independent business going despite those problems.

Talking to students in different countries has made him more interested in traveling outside of Guatemala, something he’s never done before.

“I would like to visit the country where students live,” he said. “I would like to visit Chicago. I would like to visit Canada. Winter Canada, for seeing the snow.”


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Dementia and language loss: what we know and what we don’t know

Photo: Wi2-Photography/Flickr

Photo: Wi2-Photography/Flickr

Here’s a guest post from The Big Show’s Nina Porzucki.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re in London or Los Angeles, in rural India or in urban Japan — this disease steals lives, it wrecks families, it breaks hearts,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron this week at the G8 Dementia Summit.

This is the biggest international summit to address the issue of dementia.

While world leaders and thinkers pledged to identify a cure or a disease-modifying therapy for the disease by 2025, linguist Alison Wray has been thinking about how to address the social repercussions of the disease.

Wray is a professor of linguistics at the Center for Language and Communication at Cardiff University in Wales, where she’s been researching dementia through the prism of language.

One of the enormous challenges with the disease is language loss. Dementia patients forget words and phrases and it can often make communication difficult and strained between a patient and his or her family.

Her work involves looking at how that breakdown of language strains the communication between dementia patients and their caregivers, and how to develop ways to ease that strain.

One key to alleviate the breakdown in communcation, according to Wray, may be as simple as looking at how other cultures around the world deal with language loss and dementia.

“In Western society, we view our older people in certain ways and we are frightened of dementia,” said Wray. “In other cultures in the world, they don’t necessarily see dementia as such a huge problem. They don’t make it into some kind of monster which is very frightening. It’s simply something that you deal with.”

Wray said some studies show that being multilingual may slow down the symptoms of dementia.

“When you’re used to using more than one language, you have several ways to express the same idea, therefore it gives you more routes to get around an obstacle that might come up,” said Wray.

However, she also pointed to conflicting research that shows there is no difference between monolingual and bilingual dementia patients.

All this is to say that more research is needed and this G8 Dementia Summit is just the beginning.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

In Pakistan, No One Admits to Being a ‘Burger’

Where it all began: Mr. Burger in Karachi (Photo: Fahad Desmukh)

Where it all began: Mr. Burger in Karachi (Photo: Fahad Desmukh)


Here’s a guest post from Karachi-based reporter Fahad Desmukh, who often files stories for the Big Show

It may be hard to imagine, given the pervasiveness of McDonald’s these days, but hamburgers were virtually unknown in Pakistan before 1981.

Arshad Jawad is the manager of Mr. Burger, the first fast-food chain in Pakistan.

“Believe it or not, a lot of people didn’t know what cheese was. When we were putting a slice of cheese on the patty, they were looking at us asking like ‘Is is this plastic, is it rubber?’” Jawad said.

When Mr. Burger opened in Karachi, it initially got mixed reactions. It wasn’t a big deal for people who had visited the West. But many would-be customers didn’t know what hamburgers were, or how to eat them.

“After we made the burger people were asking, ‘How do you eat this? We need a spoon, we need a plate.’ So we had to educate them. We said ‘Look, this is a wrapper. Grab the wrapper, open it gingerly and use that,’” he said, chuckling.

Back then, going out for a hamburger was a big deal, and many people can still recall their first, clandestine, date at a Mr. Burger.

It was only a matter of time before the fad caught on, and Mr. Burger was hot.

For some.

Mr. Burger in Karachi (Photo: Fahad Desmukh)

Mr. Burger in Karachi (Photo: Fahad Desmukh)

For many years, the average working or middle class Pakistani was unable to afford Mr. Burger. So the word “burgers” came to describe young, westernized urban elite, who studied at expensive schools, spoke English rather than Urdu and preferred eating burgers rather than local cuisine. They were derided for being, out of touch with mainstream Pakistani society.

By some accounts, the term was first coined in a TV comedy called “Burger Family”, about a rich Westernized family in Pakistan.”

Today, there are lots of fast-food burger chains – local and international. But the word is still associated with the elite class in the local lingo.

And there’s a rap song called “The Burgers of Karachi” recently put out by local group “Young Stunners”.

They describe a typical Burger as someone who wears skinny jeans and Nikes, uses a smartphone, and holds a US Green Card.

One of the high school-age rappers, Talha Anjum, says a Burger is someone who wants to be someone they aren’t.

“If you listen to Burger-e-Karachi, we’re not making fun of people,” Anjum said. “It’s just a message that you should be real to yourself and real to the people around you. You shouldn’t judge someone if they don’t have a branded T-shirt.”

Burgers may be ridiculed for trying to be something that they are not, but they have mobilized recently.

A Typical Bun Kebab Shop in Karachi (Photo: Fahad Desmukh)

A Typical Bun Kebab Shop in Karachi (Photo: Fahad Desmukh)

The urban elite have generally shunned politics in the past. But in last month’s elections, they rallied around former cricket hero Imran Khan, using their access to wealth and the media to help his PTI party. It won the second highest number votes. Misbah Khalid, a member of the party’s campaign team, says its not such a bad thing to have “burgers” on their side.

“Because now they are taking ownership of the country. Now people in every class as you say own Karachi, own Pakistan. So I think that’s a great achievement, because you need people who have exposure to the outside world, who are maybe – what you say – the ‘intellectuals,’” she said.

The spread of the term “burger” has sparked a counter-term: the “bun kebabs.” Bun kebabs are cheap home-grown versions of hamburgers made with lentils. So a “bun kebabs” is a person who’s a bumpkin compared to a burger.

Burger e Karachi



1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.



1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Gangnam Wordplay and Tiananmen Poetry

In this pod, we get the lowdown from the Big Show’s Beijing correspondent Mary Kay Magistad on Ai Weiwei’s latest project—a punning re-take on Gangnam Style. Not surprisingly, Ai’s video has annoyed China’s authorities.

Also, a conversation with the Jeffrey Yang, translator of imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo’s poems about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.



1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

What’s in a Street Name? In Jerusalem, Plenty

Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, at a ceremony to unveil the newly named Umm Kulthum Street in the Arab neighborhood of Beit Hanina. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

Note from Patrick Cox: Here’s a guest post from The Big Show’s Jerusalem correspondent Matthew Bell.

Google maps is a handy tool for navigating the streets of West Jerusalem. The roads the city’s Jewish neighborhoods might be a bit confusing to newcomers, but even the most insignificant of hidden alleyways will have a name and appear on your smartphone. The Arab sections of East Jerusalem are a different story. Take a look at this map and notice how all street names suddenly vanish as you enter the Jabal Mukabbir neighborhood.

A convenience store owner who gave his name as Mahmoud told me he gives directions to places in Jabal Mukabbir by using landmarks. “It’s past the United Nations building, near the school, down the road from the cemetery,” he said. “If you pass the mosque, you’ve gone too far.”

A basic annoyance can turn into a tragedy though. “If you need to order the ambulance, [or] somebody [is] sick,” Mahmoud said, “it’s a big problem.”

Mahmoud told me he has seen more than one incident of people in his neighborhood having a heart attack and dying as paramedics struggled to find the victim’s house. The trouble is, ambulances are dispatched from the Jewish side of town.

View of the Old City from the Jabal Mukabbir neighborhood (Photo: Matthew Bell)

But this is something Jerusalem’s mayor said he wants to solve by starting to officially name hundreds of streets in Arab neighborhoods.

An Arab-Israeli singer serenaded Mayor Nir Barkat during a recent ceremony in the Beit Hanina neighborhood. Community leaders had proposed naming a one-block residential street there after Umm Kulthum, the famous Egyptian singer.

Barkat said naming streets in Arab East Jerusalem is a strategic step for the city.

“We’re going to cover all names, streets names and street numbers, to all the houses in East Jerusalem.”

Some Arab residents hear that and say, it’s about time. East Jerusalem has been under Israeli rule since 1967 and only now is the city starting put up street signs.

Akram Abadwan attended the ceremony with the mayor in Beit Hanina. When I asked him about the street naming initiative, he just shook his head, saying the Israelis are not really interested in improving Arab neighborhoods.

“Look what they’ve been doing all day, they’ve been fixing the roads,” Abadway said. “Just because the mayor’s coming.”

“I wish they had that same energy on a daily basis,” he said.

Instead of street names, Abadwan wanted to talk about the demolition of Arab homes and the Jewish groups settling in Arab sections of East Jerusalem. If the city puts a stop to those things, he said, then he will be less cynical.

An intersection of two unnamed streets (Photo: Matthew Bell)


Others are more pragmatic. Hossam Wattad is a community activist in East Jerusalem.

“We need basic services,” Wattad said. “Mail delivery, ambulance services, utilities. Just giving people simple directions to your house requires street names and building numbers. People pay taxes to the city,” he said. “Let’s get to work on improving the quality of life in East Jerusalem.”

Mayor Barkat conceded that some Jerusalem neighborhoods have been neglected by the city.

One of the biggest complaints from Arab residents over the years has been the difficulty in obtaining building permits. That means many newer buildings in Arab neighborhoods are considered illegal by the city. Barkat told me that dealing with the issue is all part of his program that begins with naming streets.

“We’re actually going through a process of re-zoning, [a] very liberal approach to re-zoning,” he said.

“The challenge is to enable a path of both upgrading and making the houses legal. Indeed, it’s part of the process and the strategy and the public policy that I have, accepted by all of the municipality.”

But many Palestinians would not accept Barkat’s vision for Jerusalem. They hope to make the city the capital of a future Palestinian state. And they are still wary of cooperating with what they see as the Israeli occupation, even on something as seemingly tame as putting up street signs.

This video was produced by the Israeli government:

Want to hear more on street naming? Here’s a podcast on provocative street-naming in Israel and the Occupied Territories.



Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized