Here’s to the crazy ones – and to the creators of the campaign.

Recently I posted this image over at Facebook:

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At once I began to get pushback on the source, so I thought I’d do a bit of digging – and what I found was interesting.

One thing is certain – the quote was part of Apple’s “Think Different” campaign. There were two versions of the commercial, one voice-overed by Steve Jobs himself (this one never aired):

And the one that actually hit the airwaves, with Richard Dreyfuss as the narrator:

But who actually wrote the text?

Not Jack Kerouac: “Sometimes attributed to Kerouac on the internet, perhaps because it evokes his famous quote from On the Road: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!” ” (Wikiquote)

Not John Chapman, aka “Johnny Appleseed“: If you look closely at the Text Edit icon in Apple’s OS X, you’ll see the the quote there in the form of a letter to “Kate” from “John Appleseed.”

Text Edit

This has led some to attribute the quote to Chapman himself, which is just all wrong – the language is never something that the historical Johnny Appleseed would have used; on a side note of interest, this article at the Smithsonian suggests that Chapman was planting apples for hard liquor, not for eating.

“Apple cider provided those on the frontier with a safe, stable source of drink, and in a time and place where water could be full of dangerous bacteria, cider could be imbibed without worry.”

So who is the John Appleseed referred to in the icon, and who is Kate?

Not John Appleseed, the shadowy “Apple Insider:” This article at Techradar gives the background on who John Appleseed was – a Cupertino-based software developer who had developed Apple II software under his own name. When Apple’s CEO Mike Markkula (also a coder) developed some Apple II software under the pseudonym John Appleseed, the real Appleseed didn’t sue – he launched a campaign to meet Steve Jobs, as described in the article. Ultimately Appleseed’s image and name became the face of the iPhone and other products, although he was never really an “Apple Insider.”

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Unfortunately for him, Jobs died, Apple evolved, and his usefulness as a mascot came to an end. As for Kate? Best guess is that she’s an open source text editor in KDE in the linux operating system. It is possible that during his time of interfacing with Steve Jobs, some of Appleseed’s ideas may have insinuated them into Jobs’ consciousness to have an impact later.

Yes, it was John Siltanen and Lee Clow (and a few others): John Siltanen chronicled the real genesis of the campaign’s text in an article at Forbes (caution: Forbes now makes you whitelist their site if you have AdBlock Plus installed, which I happen to think is a scummy move – but there it is.) Siltanen and Lee Clow were employed by the TBWA/Chiat/Day advertising agency that were shooting to get Apple’s business for a new campaign. The whole article is a fascinating first-person look at how the campaign was designed, pitched, and won.

Some of the original thoughts behind the text in question came from these quotes from “Dead Poet’s Society,” among others:

“We must constantly look at things in a different way. Just when you think you know something, you must look at it in a different way. Even though it may seem silly or wrong, you must try. Dare to strike out and find new ground.”

“Despite what anyone might tell you, words and ideas can change the world.”

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Poetry, beauty, love, romance. These are what we stay alive for. The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

So even though the text was really a collaborative effort, at the end Lee Clow made sure that Steve Jobs’ name was included in the credits on the campaign. As a result, I’m going with “Correct Attribution by Association” on the authorship of the quote.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Philippe Kahn, Prophet

I was on site in 1986, the year Philippe Kahn, CEO of Borland, had the temerity to say in the midst of a crowd of Mac enthusiasts in San Francisco, that the Macintosh was a piece of shit.  That took a lot of gumption; I’m reminded of the scene in The Patriot where Mel Gibson walks into a bar and shouts, “God save the King,” exiting hastily in front of a cloud of knives and axes.

He was wrong then.

128k-macintosh

The 128K Mac was a thing of beauty and innovation (at least for folks who had not been inside the Palo Alto Research Center.) It introduced the world to the concept of a real graphical user interface, and made things possible in the world of graphics, sound, fonts, gaming, design, music, and artwork that would never have been possible in the IBM world – even by adding a dozen cards – more so as the machine morphed into faster and colorized versions. Dark Castle, HyperCard™, designable fonts, MIDI, user-accessible resources… they were all so fun!

The beautiful 1988 Battle Chess game by MacPlay riffed on the biggest disadvantage at the time – the price differential. “Pawn takes King” has the pawn whip out a Macintosh Price List, whereupon the king suffers a fatal coronary.

pawn-takes-king

Flop for flop, the Macintosh machines were about half again as costly as a comparable IBM device, and remain so to this day – but back then the “coolness” factor was enough to overcome that little annoyance. From 1984 until about 1990, I was a devotee.

But Kahn was just 30 years too early.

My wife has an iPod, and years ago one of her kids gave her an iTunes gift card for some music. So we had to set up an AppleID for her to be able to use it. Hold that thought.

Recently she acquired an iPad from her mother, and it was necessary to switch ownership of the pad to her account. Hold that thought.

For about six months last year, I worked for a cloud storage company as a tech support agent, and with remote tools I delved into a lot of Mac systems while I helped customers with their tech issues.

From the experiences I had trying to navigate the Apple environment to resolve what should have been the simplest of problems, I can safely go on record as saying that the Mac world is a place of overpriced, underpowered hardware, combined with a byzantine tangle of AppleIDs, iTunes (an abomination of desolation if ever I saw one, a heavy-handed store thinly disguised as an impossibly cumbersome media management tool), iCloud, Photo Library, and other bits and pieces which form a virtual nightmare to navigate. For Mogg’s sake, they even make you create an account to look at their help forums. And when you try to do that, you hit a brick wall.

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My Username is OK. I agreed to the Agreement. “Please check the form for details” shows virtually no additional information. Thanks, Apple.

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Add to this some recent technology decisions that seem difficult to fathom, including a plethora of dongles, the removal of a standard audio jack, and those easily-lost wireless earbuds, and it makes me wonder why anyone would go with Apple hardware any longer. For the longest time a relative imperviousness to viruses and malware was a big draw, but that era has ended, and there’s not much a Mac can do that a PC can’t, and for about 60% of the price. The “coolness” factor is just not there any longer.

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It’s been a long time since I’ve been religiously attached to any hardware or operating system. I’ve used so many, it’s basically “whatever gets the job done.” But for a brief period, the Mac was really a wonderful, dazzling, entertaining and useful new thing. Today, I’m pretty convinced that the company has lost its way and its vision when it comes to computers. I don’t hate Apple; I’m really hoping they can turn themselves around. If they don’t, it’s a sure bet that somewhere in the future, another Steve Jobs is waiting.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Make a Translator Mad in Four Words

From a recent Facebook post. Having worked as a freelance translator, these responses spoke to my soul. Yes, a few of them are more than four words, but they’re all good – and they’re all real. I have seen many of these myself.

For what it’s worth, I no longer do this sort of work. The reasons will become obvious. I’ve included a bit of commentary here and there.

Cheap bastards

Agencies make money by charging high rates to clients and paying low rates to translators, reviewers, and proofreaders. They’re always jockeying for a better deal. That’s the nature of business, but when you’re an independent contractor, and your standard rate (calculated to earn you a living) is always being undercut, it’s frightfully annoying. The global access of the Internet means that professional, trained, educated translators must now compete with millions of people in India, China, and elsewhere who “speak a little English” and who are willing to work for 1¢ per word or less.

  • Best lowest rate required.
  • What’s your best rate?
  • Make your best rate.
  • Make me (a) good price.
  • Send your best rate.
  • We pay in visibility. (Visibility and $7.95 will get you a coffee at Starbucks.)
  • Our budget is limited. (So I’m supposed to subsidize your profit, right?)
  • Special rates apply to this client. (He’s paying us less, so we’re going to pay you less.)
  • A discount for volume. (We’re paying less because there’s a lot of work).
  • It’s the market rate. (Take it or leave it.)
  • 5¢ is not bad. (5¢ per word is shit.)
  • The others charge less. (Good, feel free to use them.)
  • Someone charges way less.
  • Our budget is only …
  • National Agreement Rate Please.
  • Could you proofread instead? (Read: Your rate is too high).

Cheaper bastards

Machine translation used to be cumbersome, expensive, and not very effective. Now it’s quick, easy, free, and only a bit more effective. While statistical translation models have made some exciting progress, people who don’t understand the intricacies of language assume that online translation is both free and reliable. Similarly, your neighbor may speak a bit of German, but don’t expect your translation to do well in the commercial arena. In the translation world, you still get what you pay for, and if you go cheap, you’re likely to get crap.

  •  Google Translate is cheaper.
  • We will Google translate.
  • I’ll do it myself.
  • I can do it myself.
  • Neighbour can do it.
  • Will it cost anything?
  • Is it for free?
  • That much? No way!
  • The font was wrong. (Followed by “Will you accept 50%?”)
  • I could do it, but…
  • Could do it myself, but…
  • You’re overpaid.

Cheapest bastards

It’s not uncommon for an unethical agency to get a job, break it up into 20 segments, offer the job to 20 translators and have them each do part of the work as a “test,” then award the bid to nobody.

  • Please do this test.
  • Please complete test assignment.
  • We require (a) free test.
  • Test translation without charge.
  • Download the test translation.
  • It’s for a tender. (We need your free translation to make the bid.)

Scheduling headaches

Contractors spend a lot of time juggling their resources against customer needs. Agencies don’t care.

  • We’d like it for tomorrow.
  • Have you begun yet?
  • Great, don’t proceed yet.
  • Client brought deadlines forward.
  • The client sent changes.
  • The client made changes.
  • 6000 words for tomorrow.
  • 20,000 words of light postediting.
  • We need it yesterday.
  • Can you deliver early?
  • Sorry, client cancelled assignment.
  • End client just cancelled.
  • Please send your invoice (then we’re going to have minor changes).
  • File should arrive midnight. (Deadline in 8:00 AM, of course.)
  • We have a glossary (10 minutes before deadline).
  • That didn’t need translating… (After you’ve spent a day and a half on “that.”)
  • Please use US English. (Halfway through a huge project meant to be in UK English!).
  • Please deliver tomorrow morning.
  • Translate in real time! (What does this even mean?)
  • Client isn’t in a hurry (Followed, 2 months later, by “Client needs it ASAP”).
  • The project is cancelled (in the morning of due date!).

Your skills are worthless!

Anyone can translate. It’s just typing in another language.

  • (It doesn’t need to be translated,) just type this in Portuguese
  • Everyone can do it!
  • So you teach English?
  • You’re a translator? Then why don’t you give English courses?
  • What is your work?
  • Please do the shopping.
  • Go get the kids.
  • Don’t think, just translate!
  • What’s your real job?
  • Do you also teach?
  • You have done nothing.

Technical Headaches

“You need to use our tools, yours are garbage.”

  • Trados is a must.
  • TRANSIT is a must.
  • Across is a must.
  • [Insert CAT tool name of choice] is a must.
  • Use our online TM-tool.
  • We only use Excel. (Translating in Excel is a nightmare, if you were wondering.)
  • Please translate into Excel.
  • Your file doesn’t open.

Not only that, in the world of translation, these CAT (Computer-assisted translation tools) are de rigeur. They can be useful in speeding up translation and improving terminological consistency, but agencies routinely take advantage of this and pay less than the full rate for things that the software has translated for you. This ignores the fact that the translator is responsible for the coherence of the entire job and must read and evaluate every bit and piece of the work for accuracy. This alone is the major reason I stepped out of the freelance translation world. My rate per target word is X¢, period. Pay it or go somewhere else. Translators who survive in the industry pretty much have to suck it up, but I wasn’t willing.

  • We don’t pay repetitions.
  • Pro-rated for fuzzy match.
  • 100% matches for free.
  • Discount for fuzzies applied.
  • Fractional Payment for Repetitions.

Payment Headaches

In the US, standard terms are 30 days net. Around the world, it’s not uncommon for translation agencies to expect translators to wait 60, 90, or even up to 180 days for payment of invoices (they usually claim that they’re waiting for their clients to pay them.) This is unethical in the extreme, but not an uncommon strategy in the business world.

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There’s one more I can’t find, where the vendor says, “But if you pay us late we’ll go bankrupt, and then you won’t ever have to… pay… I’ve said too much, haven’t I?” The Pointy-Haired Boss just sits there with a sick grin on his face.

  • We forgot your payment.
  • Did you send your invoice? (Yes, I did, 60 days ago.)
  • Net forty-five days.
  • The payment will delay.
  • Thanks for your patience. (After payment was delayed for a month).
  • Check’s in the mail. (Yes, people still use this one.)
  • Our accountant on vacation.

We know better than you.

Never mind your skills, the next person is always smarter.

  • Reviewer says you failed.
  • Is “the” necessary here?
  • Let me correct that.
  • I speak two languages.
  • (S)he knows better.
  • (S)he is a [language] teacher.
  • Proofreader does not agree. (Proofreaders know bupkis about translation.)
  • Changes made by proofreader.
  • My secretary edited it.
  • This translation is bad.
  • But Google translate says…

Creepy Clients

There is always one.

  • What are you wearing?

General Lies

“I have read and agree to the terms of service”

  • It’s a straightforward text.
  • It’s a piece of cake.
  • It’s short and easy.
  • It is not technical.
  • It’s not very technical.
  • Help me, it’s quick.
  • It only needs editing.
  • Just a quick question.

Translation Requirements, and Stupid Questions

Things that don’t fall into easily-defined categories.

  • Do you translate books?
  • Is Brexit affecting business?
  • Source text is JPG. (This means you can’t use your CAT tools for the job.)
  • It’s a PDF – handwritten.
  • Translate in sticky notes.
  • It’s mainly doctors’ handwriting.
  • Please check additional references.
  • (We know you’re busy but) we’re really shorthanded.
  • Here’s an XBench report.
  • It was machine translated.
  • Added to our database. (Don’t call us, we’ll call you.)
  • Read 50 pages of instructions (for a 100-word job)
  • Keep the original format.
  • You have to cook.
  • It’s a doctor’s prescription.
  • Don’t go into details.
  • Thanks for sharing.
  • Are you still translating?
  • Complete our six forms.
  • There’s no source text. (When proofreading a translation, you need to see the original text. If it’s not there, you’re just basically making wild guesses in the dark.)

About 30 years ago, an ad appeared on the bulletin board of the translation software company I was working at. It probably came from one of the trade publications, and showed a boss ripping an employee a new one. The text read, “Because you had your brother-in-law do the translation, our  ad says that our new camera exposes itself automatically!”

I’ve dealt with the risks of translation on the cheap before, and in this one thing has not changed: If you want good translations for your business, use a professional and pay them well – otherwise your product may just bite the wax tadpole.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

“Boom?”

And therein lies a tale.

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The above photo, found at reddit, illustrates he beginning of the construction of the Empire State Building in 1930. The top half of the image shows steam shovels carving away a hole for the foundation. Since Manhattan’s bedrock, ideally suited for the foundations of large skyscrapers, is closer to the surface in midtown and by the Battery, blasting was used to move that rock out of the way. (Historical note: the theory that this bedrock depth was responsible for the clustering of skyscrapers in those areas is giving way to other economy-based theories).

The procedure for this blasting was to drill holes in the rock face, have steam shovels cover up the area to be cleared with huge blankets made of twisted steel cables at least 1″ in diameter, and let fly. The resounding “whump!” was audible for blocks. The blankets were then removed, and the rubble cleared away by Mike Mulligan, Mary Jane, and friends. I loved watching this process as a kid, and construction companies would put windows in the walls around the building site so that rubberneckers could enjoy the spectacle. I was grateful to see these photos, as clear pictures of the process are difficult to find.

Earlier in life, however, there was a downside.

When I was about two, my parents lived in an apartment on Madison in the 90s. My room was next to the kitchen. One day I remember wandering into the darkened kitchen and beginning to play (I’m sure I had been forbidden to touch!) with the gas stove. It was cool to turn the knobs and watch the flame come on, and then turn them off and watch the blue fire dance around the burners before going out.

Remember this was in the early 50s: the oven had no automatic lighter, but you had to turn it on and stick a match down a hole in front to ignite the burner. I, however, knew nothing of that – all I know is that I must have turned that central knob, and when nothing happened, go back to the other four. However, the oven was filling up with gas, and the next time I turned on a burner, the inevitable happened.

With a roar, the gas-filled oven exploded. I was saved from serious injury by the fact that the oven door was taller than I was… when it blew open, it hit me on the forehead and I lost the front of my hair and my eyebrows, gathering a significant cut in the process, but my face and body were protected from the flames by the door itself.

I’m sure my parents were scared spitless, and relieved that I handn’t been killed outright. But my mother reported to me later in life that for a long time thereafter, when one of those construction blasts went off, my eyes would get as big as saucers, and I’d look at her, and ask “Boom?”

To this day I still don’t respond well to loud noises or being startled. I wonder if there’s a residual effect going on there? The most accurate of all Sun Microsystems “fortune” lines, at least for me, is “You will be surprised by a loud noise.”

Works every time.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Do it yourself: Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

About 15 years ago I bought this Braun shaver, and it served me well for at least 15 years. The rechargeable batteries finally wore out, and I wondered if it would be worth trying to replace them myself rather than pay an appliance repairman ten prices for the privilege.

How to open it? I found a totally useless article on eHow (typical of all these crowdsourced answer sites like WikiHow, FixYa, Yahoo! Answers, and so many others – the blind leading the rutting blind) and then figured out how to get the thing open myself. Once you do, getting to the guts is pretty easy – and the little electronic board with the batteries pops right out. Nice German engineering.

I bought a couple of new NiMH rechargeables, and set about replacing them. The beggar was that those batteries were not soldered to the board, the were spot-welded at the contact points… but with some careful work I was able to get them out.

Popped the new batteries in, and the whole board started to smoke and melt.

Crap. I must have put the new batteries in backwards or something. I thought I was doing it right.

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RIP Braun – It’s the component in the front that really lit up – what looks like burning under the left battery is just residue from the original adhesive.

So this particular attempt at DIY didn’t work out so well… but that’s how I learn. Over the last half-century, I’ve assembled enough handyman skills to install a bathroom into a totally unfinished space, and all of that experience came from just jumping in and doing it. I made mistakes along the way, but these days most things go pretty smoothly.

So I had to run out and get a new Braun (I feel very loyal to that brand, I’ve been using good Braun shavers since 1974, the first one bought in Austria) and hopefully this one will last me at least 15 years, by which time I’ll get my grandkids to buy me a new one for Christmas, so I won’t have to try this particular experiment again.

I’m sure there will be others.

The Old Wolf has spoken.


PS: Ah, the luscious smell of burning silicon…

Avag Co Bepsig: These coins are Evil!

Note: Before you read the article below, please read the following disclaimer, made necessary by some of the comments this post has generated.


These coins are not evil. They are cheap bits of plastic from some manufacturer in China. They have no special qualities, no magic powers. There is no witch named “Avagnanian Coishousness of Bepsigosity” – that’s just nonsense from a writer of satire. He might as well have used “A Vague Consciousness of BepsiCola.” There are no witches in this world. A lot of people who want to be one, and pretend they are, but dark magic and fortune telling and bad luck and the evil eye are all products of people’s imaginations.


Well, let me backpedal a bit.

Somehow, I managed to come into possession of one of these little plastic gems:

Avag.jp

I’m certain it came to me from one of the fraud letters that my mother used to receive when she was alive (and continues to receive years after her death).

At any rate, here it is. Being a linguist by profession, I was curious about the inscription – whether it was sheer garbage or was based on anything real. I found a lovely description, completely tongue-in-cheek, at The Captain’s Blog:

This is a warning for aspiring pirates intent on purchasing a bag full of plastic novelty coins. Be aware that the brand of plastic coins bearing the legend “AVAG CO BEPSIG” are enchanted. That’s right, enchanted….

At our very first PiratePalooza I made the mistake of buying just such a bag of Avag Co Bepsig coins and made a fair show of giving them out whenever possible. Yet, when I returned to port I found that I still had a good many of the coins in me purse. Over the course of the year I continued to find more of the coins. Some in my bed, some in the settee, some in the stern of my autocarriage. Every time I found an Avag Co Bepsig coin I returned it to me leather coinpurse, full in the knowledge that I had them collected, each and every one.

And still I continued to find more, in places I thought I’d looked before. It’s fairly ridiculous how these things seem to breed in captivity, easily outstripping the population of coat hangers rutting in me washroom.

Without a doubt, my collection of these bewitched plastic coins outnumbers my original purchase and I am now consigned to the fact that some day in the future my ship will be awash in these devilish discs of dementia, certain to sink ‘neath their accursed weight and artificial shininess. For now I can only serve as example to those of you lucky enough yet to avoid these shiny promises from the heart of Avagnanian Coishousness of Bepsigosity, for that it what it turns out the name means.

Avagnanian Coishousness be a person… a Bane Witch of terrible antiquity and uncertain designs upon humanity, Cap’n Drew in particular. And even though I now know the source of me curse don’t expect me to take it all noble-like. No, no.

Know this, me hearties: I’ll take no pity upon any of you, so watch your backs. I’ll be certain to try slipping one of me famous cursed coins into your open pockets, purses, pouches and gaping glimpses of cleavage.

You’ve been warned.

Of course, this is all in fun. But the world is so full of a number of things, I suppose we should all be yanking our hair out in frustration if we knew the depth and breadth of human gullibility. Over at Ripoff Report, I found this letter from a dear soul who was so glad she was warned about the evil enchantment that lay on these coins, received in one of these fraudulent “prayer letter” scams:

You have sent me prayer letters. The one I recently opened on Oct. 16, 2011 although you sent it in May 2011. I just came across it . Although the letter was right on in what I was specifically praying for..you placed 2 coins in the letter to put one in my house that fiances will increase in my house & the other to place in my purse for financial increase. Once i did this & went to bed all night I could not sleep God woke me & told me to google the words on the coins they say “Avag Co Bepsig” I googled these words & discovered they are a WITCH”S name. You see I am a born again believer in Christ Jesus He Is My Lord & Savior..He Promises To Not Let His Children Walk In Darkness…I was at my dad’s house who is a Pastor & has won many to Christ. I was going to put one coin in his house but The Holy Spirit kept telling me NO!!! You see I am EXPOSING YOU !!! THis witch turned a man’s coins to plastic…if you people are really of Christ Jesus why would’nt God show you about these coins before you started sending them out??? God Promises Not To Let THose Who Truly Love Him Walk In Darkness…He EXPOSED you to me!!!

Now, in the interest of full disclosure I need to point out that I have a spiritual walk of my own, but I’ve always done my best to temper my faith with reason.[1] Not doing so leads to madness, or to the kind of attitude one sees above, where “if you read it in the Bible, or if you see it on the Internet, it has to be true.” In the end, it’s scary to think the kinds of world views upon which ordinary people, legislators, and national leaders can base their behavior.

In a recorded interview which once existed on YouTube, Richard Dawkins fielded a question from a Muslim who asked whether atheists could judge right from wrong in the absence of an absolute morality. Professor Dawkins proceeded to shred the question simply by making reference to things like the beating of women and punishment for apostasy, and summed up his analysis by saying that if these kinds of things are what absolute morality brings, he’d rather live without it; instead, he favors a morality that is developed and tested and tried and revised by the strength of reason and humanity. I’m put in mind of the four-way test of the Rotarians, used as a guide for business and personal relationships:

Of the things we think, say or do

  1. Is it the TRUTH?
  2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?
  3. Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
  4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

There’s a lot of wiggle-room in the first one, because among humans “truth” is hard to ferret out, except within the realm of pure science; but the last three ask the same question in different ways, to wit, “will it raise the human condition?”

Whatever we believe, we cannot afford to go through life not asking this question. Religion and humanism have as their ultimate goal to make their practitioners better people. If you’re still a jerk, it’s not working.

The Old Wolf has spoken.


[1] Now don’t jump down my throat about inconsistencies here… one of these days I’ll get my thoughts together in a more comprehensive essay about why I believe what I do, although a brief summary might be extrapolated from this entry. After that, feel free to shred my Weltanschauung if it brings you joy, but I’m pretty certain that the exercise will be entirely academic.

If you found a wallet, would you return it?

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Hottest buzz in the travel world: a human error caused United Airlines to offer tickets for $0 for a brief time. Some of the comments are telling.

One Houston woman booked a Christmas trip back to Washington to visit her parents for $5; the return leg was $220, but it was still a cheap ticket. But why wait? She decided to try booking a cheap flight to surprise her parents today. “It was $5 round-trip, no fees, nothing,” she says. “This is nuts.” She checked in right away and printed her boarding pass hoping to increase her chances of being able to use the ticket.

United, to their credit, decided to honor the fares.

One attorney – irony! – who got six tickets to LA for all of $60, said “They took the high road, said, ‘We made a mistake.’ It may cost them some money on the front end, but it saves them potential litigation and bad press.”

The bad behavior of corporations is always good for a public outrage fest or a media frenzy, and there’s no disputing the fact that many businesses, large and small, are out to get as much as they can from the public and their employees as the law will permit. It’s natural, then, that people should see a chance to get their own back when the opportunity presents itself as a well-deserved entitlement, but there’s something fundamentally wrong with this attitude. Taking advantage of an obvious error is no better than finding a wallet on the street, stuffed with cash, and keeping it.

Speaking of lost wallets, it appears that according to one study, honest people outnumber the dishonest by a margin of three to one – but from where I sit, a 25% failure rate is still a pretty dismal showing. You can say all you want about times being tough, but honesty is an absolute: you don’t take, nor do you have a right to, that which is not yours. An Ethiopian cab driver in Las Vegas understood this when he found $200,000 left in his cab and promptly returned it; the owner tipped him $2,000 for his honesty, but I was unsettled by some of the comments from his friends:

“That’s all? How about 10 percent, at least? That’s $20,000. How about 15 or 20 percent? That’s the going rate for tips in Vegas, after all.”

There is no greater reward for honesty than the knowledge in one’s heart that one has done the right thing. Even if the owner of the money had been a thermonuclear cheapskate – had he given the cabbie nothing at all, or $5.00, for example – the fact remains that the money was never the cabdriver’s in the first place, and he had no right to a penny of it; this concept was obviously lost on his friends, who saw an opportunity to profit from someone else’s mistake and were disappointed when it wasn’t as lucrative as they hoped.

So our lawyer friend, who had the good fortune of scoring six – count them, six – free tickets due to United’s error, was not only reveling in his good fortune, he was also dangling the litigation card by implying that if United had failed to honor their error, they would have been sued – and sadly, there’s no question that he is right. In fact, I’m sure he would have happily jumped on the bandwagon for a share of the settlement, or at the very least, the billable hours from his work on the case. United understood this, and decided quickly that it would be cheaper to eat the costs of their error than face a rash of lawsuits and bad publicity – none of which would have been possible without a universal sense (or at least, extrapolating from the wallet study, a 25% sense) that “finders keepers” trumps “thou shalt not steal.”

Justification for dishonesty takes many forms. Conversations with Nigerian scammers have shown that there is a country-wide sense that any money extorted from rich westerners is payback for decades of colonial rape (from the 419eater Ethics page):

  1. Nigeria was a happy and peaceful country until the west came along.
  2. Western companies, such as Halliburton and Shell, bribed their way into the country and proceeded to strip Nigeria of its assets leaving the inhabitants poverty stricken and struggling to survive.
  3. The West is responsible and now it is payback time.

One scammer wrote,

“Ok, I don’t really call it cheating, most times the smart person become victorious. Some body has to pay what we call retribution. From what Africa went through during the Slave trade era, the west took all our resources, manpower, and our cultural and traditional wares… Some body will pay some how what your lineage owed.”

On top of this, there is a culture in Nigeria that esteems those who can make money without working.

On the other hand, sometimes dishonesty is born of countrywide desperation – a perfect example of a society that functions more or less based on the Ferengi “Rules of Acquisition” is Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. An article in the September, 2013 issue of National Geographic paints a vivid picture of a society that is doing its best to survive plunder from within and without:

Despite its status as the capital city of the second largest country in all of Africa, Kinshasa is a marvel of dysfunction. Each of the government ministries has to be, as one U.S. official tactfully puts it, “basically self-financing”—meaning much of the money it has is generated by bribery and extortion. This is especially true of the police, who, says the aid adviser, “are one hundred percent on the take. Every one of them is an officer for one reason: to collect for himself.”

You would be right to expect anarchy from this collision of burgeoning poverty and state failure. But the West’s faith in institutions happens to be irrelevant in this slapdash confluence of metropolis and village. Nor is Kinshasa’s story the familiar African tale of woe, oppression, and no way out. Having first gained independence in 1960 from their Belgian colonizers, who left behind no governing capacity to speak of, and having then been deceived and plundered by the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, the Congolese have long since discarded expectations that their civil institutions and elected leaders will perform as promised. The miracle of Kinshasa is that it has not discarded hope along the way. On the contrary: This is a city of frenzied entrepreneurship, where everyone is a salesman of whatever merchandise comes along, an uncertified specialist—self-employed, self-styled—a creator amid chaos, an artist in a shed.

I’ve been to Kinshasa four times, and experienced this first hand.

  • I brought some computer equipment into the country on behalf of a gentleman who was providing it for his friends. $200.00 “duty” had to be paid before it would be released, and I’m certain that fee was determined arbitrarily by the customs agent on duty for that day, to be shared with my “escort” who facilitated all my dealings while in the country.
  • When leaving the airport, I was surrounded by people who demanded money for everything and nothing; the sleepy-eyed “official” lady at the gate who asked if I had any Congolese francs; when I said yes, she said, “Give them to me.” Now, there is a government requirement that no Congolese money can be taken out of the country, so she was justified in asking – but the fact that I produced a handful of currency worth only about 50¢ clearly annoyed her, and it was plain that the government would see little, if any, of what she collected. [1] Other people, none of whom I knew, simply asked directly: “Give me twenty dollars.”
  • My above-mentioned escort was a leading member of the Church community I was there interacting with. A rising star among the congregation, he was a trusted advisor to the mission president and a member of Church leadership. He ended up plundering the office safe and throwing away an astonishing opportunity to advance both in his country and in the world… all for a few dollars within easy reach that he thought he was entitled to because he could take them.
  • On the subject of missionaries, the Church in Congo was obliged to re-supply their missionary apartments after every transfer, because everything that had value was stripped by the departing missionaries, sold on the street, and the funds sent back to waiting families. At the time, the administration was instructed that there was to be no disciplinary action for such things, because this behavior was so deeply-rooted in the culture.

It gets sticky, doesn’t it? When your entire country is based on “catch as catch can,” there seems little hope for breaking out of the cycle. For what it’s worth, I love the Congolese people that I have known, and I wouldn’t presume to judge them; I can’t imagine living in such chaos, nor do I know what I would do in their shoes. But we live in a different society than Nigeria or the DRC; the poorest of the poor in our nation would be considered solidly middle-class by many African cultures.

United Airlines made a mistake, and stood by it; from a strictly ethical point of view they were not obliged to, but from a public-relations point of view they made the best choice possible. It gets them some positive karma (which they sorely need, after the “United Breaks Guitars” debacle) and ends up being cheaper in the long run. But the episode serves to point out that we have a serious breakdown of ethics in our own country, one which will surely cause our nation more collateral damage in the future.

The Old Wolf has spoken.


[1] I am reminded of the attitude of Praetor Garovirus in “Asterix in Switzerland”:

asterix