Tuesday, May 21, 2013

No-Go Zones

I used to be Editor-in-Chief at Franklin Electronic Publishers.  We specialized in educational materials, especially dictionaries.   Under the invigorating if sometimes idiosyncratic leadership of its CEO  Mort David, the company undertook to revive the bankrupt Franklin Computer (which made Apple clones, and was slain by Apple in the courts, in a classic B-school case, bearing certain interesting parallels to the Stuxnet virus -- but that would lead us into deeper waters), debuted the “Spelling Ace”,  basically invented the E-book before the term was coined, and eventually hit the skids, in part owing to a sophisticated but overambitous and premature (“before its time”) project for a general handheld reader platform;  had it succeeded, we would all be saying “Bookman” instead of “Kindle” (or, if I had had my way at the christening, “Koala”:  interesting that Amazon eventually came to a similar conclusion, cf. Kindl, Austrian for ‘little child’ -- i.e., koala).  But in the meantime, the company undertook some quite innovative projects, never simply plunking an existing work onto a handheld electronic platform and allowing you to scroll, but bringing to the table a wide range of linguistic value-addeds, and occasionally even authoring a work, if such did not exist in print.

One such -- or rather, family of such -- involved the Oxford ESL dictionaries: the Oxford Students Dictionary, and the flagship OALD.   We began by licensing the former, and then targeted them to specific audiences by adding translations in Arabic, Persian, etc.  I oversaw some of these efforts.   The Arabic went smoothly and sold well.   The Persian … well, I don’t know Persian, so that was more difficult.   A Princeton resident myself, I wrote to a Princeton professor of Persian, asking for recommendations for local translators, and in reply received hate-mail:  IT’S NOT PERSIAN YOU IGNORAMUS IT’S FARSI.  (Or perhaps it was the other way around:  perhaps I called it “Farsi” and that pushed his brightred hotbutton, who knows or cares.)  So I had to wing it, hiring a Farsi-speaker -- educated and intelligent, but not a trained lexicographer -- and had him submit a sample.  Then, as quality-control, I hired a second such native-speaker to evaluate the efforts of the first;  and was informed that the first translator was an illiterate non compos mentis; she then submitted her own counter-sample.  Disheartened, I hired a third to evaluate both these efforts, and was told that their combined ignorance was like Pelion piled upon Ossa, or Ossa upon Pelion (I can never remember which).   As the proverb has it:  Two of a trade  do not agree.
Anyhow -- longstoryshort -- the project was eventually completed, but never turned into a product, because of the ban on trade with Iran.   There were certain exceptions, but we wound up not qualifying.   Now, this was bone-headed:  how could it possibly not be in our national interest to teach English (and, along with it, English cultural assumptions) to Iranians?  But so it fell out.

After that fiasco, I paid a bit more attention to the legal language surrounding our efforts.  And one odd bit that kept coming up was that our products, offers, etc., were valid pretty much throughout the known universe, with the exception of …. Hades; Planet X; and (my memory may be a bit off on those, but not on the memorable next one) “Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan”.

Wh- wh-  whhhhaaatt ???
-- Sic.  You were perfectly at liberty to sell our electronic reference products in Afghanistan, thus spreading far and wide the message of American free enterprise, and disseminating knowledge in the form of dictionaries, Bibles, and encyclopedias;  but before you could close the deal, you had to ask the headman of the particular village you were dealing with, “Um, who controls your hamlet?”  And if he replied:  “The Nazis”, or “The Illuminati” or “Giant Reptiles from Mars”, you were good to go.  But if he replied “The Taliban”, then no dice.
Now, at that time, there were many regimes on the globe, more evil than the Taliban -- the Taliban being, after all, sincere if extreme representatives of one of the major Abrahamic religions, and who  if nothing else  did keep the heroin production down -- yet these were singled out.  Why? 
I’ll hazard a guess -- subject to correction, but it is seldom you will see anyone comment upon this strange embargo, let alone explain it --  :  the Taliban had ticked off American feminists.    The issue was obscure enough that the Bryn Mawr lobby could have its way, unopposed and almost unnoticed.
That would all be but a footnote to farce, but for the circumstance that Usama bin Ladin subsequently pitched his tent on Afghan soil.   His band of carpet-baggers had never been sponsored by the Taliban, with whom they lived in uneasy coexistence (al-Qaeda tends to screw up any nation it enters), yet, when we (justly, and inevitably) retaliated for 9/11, instead of zooming in on al-Qaeda, the Bush administration allowed them to escape, and instead ousted the Taliban, thus eventually restoring Afghanistan to its coveted place as #1 supplier of opium to Europe:  as though Hillary, rather than Condaleeza (though perhaps her too) had been the éminence grise (or: éminence rose) behind this folly of a policy.


What prompted these musings and effusions  was actually this morning’s New Yorker, in their wonderful “Cartoon Caption Contest” section at the very end of the magazine (a tasty dessert, saving the best till last).   The cartoon, offered captionless in an earlier issue, was of Noah and his wife on the Ark -- which was filled to capacity with nothing but giraffes.  Clearly the best in the roster of proposed captions was one from  Ms. Mary Newell, of Gainesville, Florida:

“Mistakes were made.”

This naturally put me in mind of the sorry legacy of the Dubya administration.   But what really caught my eye  was a startling geographical restriction on entering or even voting in the contest:

“Any resident of the United States, Canada (except Quebec), Australia, the United Kingdom, or the Republic of Ireland…”

So, Quebec is to Canada what the Taliban-controlled regions were to Afghanistan.

But look more closely at this list.  Roughly, it corresponds to the Anglosphere.   But so, roughly -- and very politically -- does the territory known to the IC as “Five Eyes” (or at least, so I was told by a friend who heard it from a guy who thinks he maybe saw it on the Internet).   But with this difference:  the addition of the Republic of Ireland, and the exclusion of New Zealand. 
Excluding Ireland from your intel distro  sort of makes sense -- the place is overrun by excitable unreliable Irishmen.  But why play favorites in a frigging Cartoon Caption Contest?  There aren’t even any cash prizes, just boasting rights.    Moreover -- Would it really be so terrible if some Dane or Dutchman were to enter the contest?  Most of them speak better English than we do; but if, perchance, their entry were linguistically limping, it simply wouldn’t win:  no harm done.

Try as I might, I can conceive of no picturesquely sinister reason for The New Yorker’s oddly gerrymandered geographical limitations.    So the best I can do  -- if it’s dark conspiracy you desire, wheels within (wheels within) wheels --- is to point you to a vast tentacular plot, so clandestine that it has not a name, nor even a covername, but only an alias for a nickname for a nom de guerre of a coverterm:

Enter those who dare …

[Bonus tidbit]  A near-synonym of “no-go zone”, current in the IC, is:  denied territory.   Impress your friends!

1 comment:

  1. In my version of this story, I would emphasize how many of the people involved in the Persian/Farsi project had underage heart attacks during the development of this "doomed" project.

    The "eBookMan" was a much closer analogue to the Kindle, but doesn't fit into your "Mort David" time period. When Mr. David announced the BookMan, the Franklin stock shot up to $40/share! But reality couldn't match the hype.