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Aug 16, 2014

Post-slavery bondage and poverty

Following the news recently, I read with some interest a number of stories involving the latest innovations in the modern chattel labor market. Some corporations now control their labor costs with the use of innovative software which optimizes the labor force to meet the ebb and flow of spot demand at retail locations. What that means is that worker's schedules are adjusted, sometimes on as little as an hour's notice, and after working the night shift, getting off for an hour or two or three to sleep and shower before opening the shop early the next day, these desperate low-wage workers may find that they are sent home after just a few hours of work that morning because not enough customers have showed up.

The effect of this on families and relationships or the complications - the impossibility - of serving multiple massahs should one be unfortunate enough to have two such optimized part-time positions to make ends meet.

"Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be broken" a youth pastor in my church used to say many years ago. But that was in an era where such things were unheard of, where the expectation of a job was that one could meet life's expenses with it, not be an underutilized but optimized cog in the profit gears that grind out their soylent bulk feed for the global corporate trough. A body just can't bend enough to meet some of today's unreasonable demands by the merchants of greed.


Some of this may sound very familiar to many translators, especially those stuck in the bulk market bog where tools like Across or GeoWorkZ is used with or without the Babeled output of machines to grind and season wordworkers in linguistic sausage production. "Ah!" – you may protest – "But slavelance translators can do their work at home!" as if the digitally sharecropped fields where one need not even be exposed to sunlight on the way to work all day for the sugar in yer tay were any greener....


Historically in oppressed labor markets, companies and those who supported the interests of exploiters at the expense of social stability and healthy markets made good use of "divide and conquer" tactics to pit one group against another and drive wages into the dust on which the desperate choked in an attempt to eat it when bread was too dear. Living in Portugal and having just left a neighborhood with a degree of social misery through economic disadvantage which I simply cannot describe in public with polite language, I have seen some modern variations on this there with skilled college graduates willing to go to extremes for the typical monthly wage of a bit over €400 (with skilled engineers earning a lordly €1500 a month or so, enabling one I know to pass up the opportunity to work for three years in Germany as an indentured servant of Siemens for €800 a month and share a flat with other chattel). I see the stress cracks in spirits pounded relentlessly by those much-loved laws of "supply and demand" and wonder how it is that most have forgotten history and are now doomed to repeat it.

In a recent Twitter dust-up, a number of colleagues who position themselves in well-compensated parts of the translation markets, where there is a continued demand for the kind of quality and service that Linguistic Sausage Producers are unable to deliver or even really comprehend in most cases (and which, alas, too few are able to deliver, though the Dunning-Kruger effect often leads them to think otherwise), argued with a prominent figure in the language service world known for his role as a consultant to commoditizers, as a co-founder of the Common (Non)sense Advisory and more. I found it interesting and disturbing that a man involved with marketing and market development for a bulk processing word shop would make a divisive statement claiming that his partners in the conversation "despise" those with lower rates. Those receiving the slave wages are very conscious of the difficulties of their lives and are often rightly resentful of the arrogant and dismissive way in which some colleagues do go on about the "price dumpers", but in this particular discussion the point was being made that there is more room in the "premium markets" for those with the skills and the business savvy to work them.

I'm not taking a side in that particular argument, nor will I add my voice to the occasional chorus that condemns Renato, who may well have responded too sharply in this case because of the many unwarranted personal attacks directed against him by people who too often fail to understand his world as he appears to fail in understanding theirs. But I have been fortunate to have a few exchanges with him in person and through various online media, and while I disagree on a number of points (possibly a great number, but I really don't know, because we haven't talked enough), I have found him to be one of the most insightful persons with whom I have discussed marketing in my many careers, and the fact that his focus is on linguistic sausage shops and their bulk word paste and redefined "quality" criteria doesn't detract in the least from the many good lessons I have learned from advice he has generously shared in public and private.

On the other hand, I am taking a side on a number of other matters, because I feel it is necessary for the good and profit of all parties who deserve to continue in productive participation in our societies. I think that we need to resist the temptation to suck the black, infected milk of lies from the "free market" advocates of markets which are far less free than claimed and recognize that all boats will not rise with the wave of prosperity unless we do something about patching the holes in many of them. Rather than waste its time canonizing popers who protected child molesters for decades, perhaps the Catholic Church should think about making Henry Ford a saint. Certainly he qualifies better than some of the disreputable characters in the roll of holies.

Mr. Ford is often noted as an innovator of sorts with assembly lines. He came rather late to the game of automobile manufacture, but it's probably fair to say that the automobile industry as we know it today and the prosperity it helped to create for generations is due to this great man and innovator. But what, in fact, was his greatest innovation. His assembly lines produced cars at a lower cost than ever before! Surely that, and in school I think this is what I was told. But I think that is not it. Mr. Ford had the radical idea that the workers in his factory should be able to buy the cars they produce. And they bought them not because the cars were suddenly cheap enough that a worker in an automobile factory could afford them. They were not. Unless that worker happened to be building cars in Mr. Ford's factory. The rest is history as they say.

Today the largest retailer in the world, Walmart, has many of its (low wage) workers subsidized by public benefits to be able to afford to shop for the cheap goods in their stores. McDonalds I'm told even has a hotline to advise its workers on how to get food stamps and other necessaries to support lives that are not sustainable through their employment. And at Lionbridge, TransPerfect, thebigword, Moravia, Kern and others....

Yes, there is a premium market of which many of the linguistic sausage pundits in the MpT world are often largely unaware, though, as colleague Kevin Hendzel has pointed out for years, it comprises many billions of dollars, euros, zlotys, etc. of business ripe for the taking by those who can meet the market criteria. All the disputes and denials on that subject are either deliberate deceptions on the part of corporate-side exploiters or simple lack of insight or of information by others. But in parallel there is that other universe of "commodity" language service which some are best suited to serve. There is no shame in that, because these words are often needed just as much or more than those in the world of high-end language service, and the waters are indeed rising swiftly with globalization there for all The Big Wave itself might have failed. But those hoping to profit from what the profiteers often refer to as the tsunami of information would do well to remember the example of Henry Ford if they want to escape being left broken on the beach one day when the tide recedes. Fairness pays and bread cast upon the waters is indeed found again, multiplied.

Jul 21, 2014

Even more cookies for the Portuguese

Diabetes seems to be a rather common affliction in Portugal, which is no great wonder given the sweet tooth so many people here have. This is expressed in a great variety of cookies one finds offered in markets of every kind, most of which are quite different from the cookies familiar to me in the American and German baking traditions. As I have made batch after batch of American cookies for my friends and neighbors in Portugal, I've had a little nagging sense of guilt at what damage I might be doing contributing to their diabetic state, but the thought that cutting down their consumption of cerveja to, perhaps, a dozen bottles a day might also help with the diabetes does assuage my guilt somewhat so I can keep the grandchildren in my neighborhood supplied with a better fix than some offer in Bairro da Câmara.

Sourcing ingredients is often difficult here, partly because I'm still learning the local names of things but also because many things are simply not available. Take sheep butter, for example. As far as I know, it's only found around here at Intermarche, and the other day it was sold out, so I had to settle for goat butter. Life can be rough. If you want something really exotic like chocolate chips or cream of tartar, you just have to substitute creatively. I do a lot of that. And because I'm in Portugal, it never hurts to add garlic. It adds a new dimension to Spätzle, Portuguese-style for example.

It's actually hard to get the sugars I want here in the heart of the country. White granulated sugar? No problem, though I prefer its common yellow cousin here. But the darker stuff, açúcar moreno, isn't so easy, particularly if you like it really dark. So when I discovered a bag of deep brown sugar with a satisfying molasses whiff to it, I was delighted and snatched it up for the next batch of cookies. These were good, but turned out to be a little strange.


Not that sweet, really. Since I had tweaked other things in what was once a chocolate chip cookie recipe (goat butter, whole wheat flour, Toblerone dark chocolate bars with almond nougat), I dumbed down the other stuff and just tweaked the sugar. These cookies were even better, but still not overpoweringly sweet, then I noticed that the package bore the words "brown rice sugar". For real. I thought it was a translation error, but there really is a sugar substitute made from brown rice. And it's not bad. So I offer you this variation on the new trending cookie of Évora, chipped chocolate:
100 g brown rice sugar
125 g (
½ cup) butter (cow, goat, sheep - do what thou wilt)
Cream these together, then add
1 egg
1 tablespoon amèndoa amarga (I was out of vanilla extract)
2 teaspoons orange zest (this is the killer cookie ingredient)
Whip it some more, then add
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
225 grams flour (usually wheat of some kind, but if the spirit moves you, substitute rye, corn or oat flour as much as you like)
Mix until all the flour is evenly distributed in the wet dough, then add  
 200 g chipped baking chocolate (dark)
Drop on parchment and bake at 175°C (350°F) for something like 10 minutes.

I told my friend with diabetes that these were better for her. That might not be true, but given the response I think I'll keep lying.

And now for something completely different. I decided it was time to introduce the local Catholics to some good Chanukah tradition: sweet potato latkes served with Greek yogurt and pureed mangos. That seems to be a hit as well (with extra portions set aside for grandchildren), but afterward I was faced with the problem of half a bowl of mango puree and no idea what to do with it. So I did a little research and improvised these mango cookies, which are perhaps the best thing I've made this month:

½ cup butter
1 cup yellow sugar
¼ cup brown rice sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
1 ½ tsp cinnamon
2/3 cup mango puree
1 tsp baking soda
1.5 cups wheat flour
1.5 cups corn flour
½ cup of milk
Cream the butter and sugars, then add egg, mango and vanilla. After the mixture is creamed, add 2 cups of flour, the baking soda and cinnamon
Bake in a preheated 375°F oven for about 10 minutes or until golden brown.
I suppose you can mess around with the sugars any way you like; I like substituting corn flours for wheat in recipes where gluten isn't needed, and I think it usually improves the character of a cookie. I may try a batch of these using just corn flour. And maybe drop the milk and use more mango puree. And a bunch of other little adjustments, because while lazy translators may crave repetitions, I find that boring in recipes, which I consider to be like German laws: there to be flouted as long as it's a victimless crime. I only make an exception with phenolphthaelin as an additive on special occasions for those on the run.

In the batch I made, it seems that the brown rice sugar was not perfectly mixed in and formed interesting little pockets, which produced a surprising effect when baked. I can't describe it; it needs to be experienced. And it is a delight!

Jul 17, 2014

The Bookshelf: a London-style hangout in the heart of Alentejo

I knew I was in the right place when, as I described the farm to which I would be moving and my satisfaction over the many rosebushes there, which would enable me to make rosewater for my mint tea, my conversation partner said "Oh, you need rosewater? I have some extra!", then fumbled around in his inventory and sent me off with half a bottle of good Algerian rosewater brought from London. I had given up on finding anything like that in the Alentejo. But then I knew it was the right place long before, with the many delicious herb teas, coffees and good food, sometimes vegetarian, offered at this very metropolitan hangout in my sleepy Portuguese university town. The couple who own and operate the business, a local woman and her Kosovar husband, lived for a few decades in London and brought some of that city's style with them to this unique café in Évora.

So when I need a quiet, air-conditioned retreat to enjoy a book, brandy and coffee or perhaps a good curry, I know where to go. And it's great to have a good chat in English about common interests in cuisine and beverages and share the latest delicious infusions of Aswan hibiscus, doum palm fruit and mint from herbs kindly provided by a colleague in Egypt. And who knows? Perhaps some of those cookies for the Portuguese will make an appearance there.