The Language Business

I looked at the grainy photo included in the ad. A plain-looking building made of earthen materials stood in the dead center of the frame. A tall man wearing a pristine white button down shirt smiled at the camera. Behind him was a small rag-tag army of schoolchildren. Most were smiling, some looked bored, and one was picking his nose with intense concentration. I sent a reply to the advertisement. I told him that I wanted to volunteer at his tiny, underfunded school. I’m technically not qualified to teach. I don’t have a degree in English. I don’t even have a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate—the piece of paper that says you were “professionally trained” in indoctrinating the English language upon your subjects—but I speak English and I speak it quite well when sober.

English is like the gold bar of languages: if you speak it, you can cash in your nouns, verbs, adjectives and “The cat kept clawing the car salesman from Kansas…remember, kids, you pronounce it kan-zuhs.”

The export of English is a multi-billion dollar industry. Japan alone employs more than 60,000 English teachers. There are platoons of English teachers being deployed overseas to train students in the language that will allow them to snag a good job; students like Raj in New Delhi—an IT specialist—who is getting ready to fly to Seattle to work for a software design firm. He tells me that he wouldn’t have landed the job if the recruiter didn’t have confidence in his English. Raj’s parents had hired a private English tutor for him when he was 16 . Six years later, he has almost mastered the language, although he’s still self-conscious about his accent.

Times are changing though. An American kid would probably benefit in learning Spanish and Mandarin just as an Indian student would benefit in learning English. The shifting of economic and, therefore, political tectonic plates is reshaping the landscape of international communication. Some schools in the U.S. are now teaching Mandarin along with Spanish, especially on the West Coast where there is a large and steadily-growing Asian population. It is both immigration trends and an expanding global market that is shaping the way we speak.

I asked my friend, a Spanish teacher at a local high school, if I have a better chance at finding a job as a Spanish instructor in the U.S. than landing a gig as an English teacher in South Korea. She told me that English is still the most desired language to be taught in schools abroad. It’s probably true.

I remember we were forced to speak only English at a particular private high school I had attended in the Philippines. The teachers were actually instructed to write up students caught speaking the native language, Tagalog. It was an advantage for me, but I rebelled against it, because I felt that it was a totalitarian approach to teaching English. If you want to foster a habit of speaking a lingua franca among students, you should do so in a holistic way, not through an enforcement-and-punishment system.

But like old empires, language trends are ephemeral in nature. During the height of the Roman Empire, Latin was considered the universal language. Even Arabic left its mark in the countries the Caliphate had covered, especially in North Africa and Central Asia where the people either still speak Arabic as their primary language or are fluent in it.

50 years from now, I wouldn’t be surprised if the global community winds up speaking a kind of mixed-language, like the ‘Singlish’ that has evolved in the linguistic lab that is Singapore. With the rise of Brazil in South America as a major economic player in the world stage, you might as well add Portuguese to your list of languages-I-want-to-learn-this-year-but-will-probably-only-end-up-learning-creepy-sexual-innuendos.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to Tanzania to trade in my nouns for some goat milk.

India Accuses Monsanto of “Biopiracy”

According to the news outlet France24, the Indian government had recently accused Monsanto, a multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation based in the U.S., of “biopiracy”. Officials claimed that Monsanto was stealing plants indigenous to India and re-engineering them to create modified versions. The products are then patented and sold under the Monsanto brand.

One of the plants that were specifically chosen to undergo bio-engineering treatment is a type of eggplant called brinjal, which is native to Indian soil and has about 2,500 different varieties. According to the report by France24, millions of Indian farmers grow this type of crop and that a modified version in competition with the original will threaten the livelihood of locals that depend on it. Monsanto has repeatedly tried to market its own version of brinjal under the name Bt brinjal. This, along with other questionable practices by Monsanto, motivated farmers and activists in the country to put pressure on the government to file a lawsuit against the company. The government agreed to do so. The case is pending at the moment.

Monsanto is not new to controversy. Monsanto’s bad track record in business ethics can be traced back to the 1960s when it paid contractors to dump toxic waste in the U.K., according to a Guardian report. A government agency stated that they found lingering effects of these toxic wastes even decades after they were discarded. In another report,  a Monsanto subsidiary had been accused of using child labor in the cotton fields of Andhra Pradesh, India. In 2005, Monsanto was fined $1.5 million for bribing officials in Indonesia. These are just a few examples from a pile of documented legal complaints against the company.

I contacted the office of a PR representative for Monsanto, but the secretary on the phone said that my request for an interview had been declined.


Alone Together

Dispatches from the Internet. How unique online communities are blooming in the age of global inter-connectivity.

A member describes her typical day: wake up; brush her teeth; yell at one of her eight cats for urinating on the couch; read three chapters from an Orson Scott Card novel; eat a bowl of salad; then spend nine hours silently cruising through forums and blogs on the Internet. She says she has no use, nor interest, for social networking sites.

Another member comments that his day is almost exactly the same, except his three perpetually-defecating parakeets in substitution for the cats, and that he only keeps a Facebook account to assure his family back in Oregon that he’s still alive.

New York City, 2008. Photo by Michael Mira.

They’re members of an online community where self-professed loners congregate and connect. In an age where overpopulation is a pressing issue, it would seem difficult to isolate yourself, limit the amount of your social interactions, yet the rise of the global population can actually play a role in motivating some people to withdraw themselves from society. Cities are becoming more dense. More people means more cars, more trash, and more voices spewing opinions (including my own) in different languages and accents. Mixed with the advertisements and media vying for your attention, all of this stimuli can be very overwhelming for individuals who are sensitive introverts.

Of course, this is just one of many reasons for being a loner. There are two types of loners: those who are loners by choice and those who are pariahs, or forced by society to live a solitary existence. Individuals who prefer to be loners have a variety of reasons for choosing to be lonesome. It ranges from misanthropy (those who are repelled by humanity) to those who simply enjoy being alone.

A classic example of those who withdraw from society is the religious hermit, shunning worldly pleasures to devote one’s self to a life of spiritual pursuits. On the other hand, there are those who are vanquished from their social position, such as former dictators who become outcasts, not only in the country that gave them the boot, but in most of the world. I heard it’s tough being a dictator these days. Just ask Qaddafi.

What I find interesting about these ‘loner clubs’ is that the members have a strong sense of community. When a member is depressed, others are quick to offer kind words and advice. Though they may be physically alone, huddled together on the Internet they form a kind of synthetic, virtual family. They are able to distance their actual selves from others by using screen names and avatars as proxies—Internet representatives. This allows for lower inhibition. Offline, these shy-types might not make great conversationalists, but when around like-minded people on forums they are articulate, witty and show great emotional depth.

The years between 2008 to 2011 have been a sort of renaissance period in the dark corners of the web. I have tallied at least 58 new websites catering to sub-cultures that might not be able to find a platform in more mainstream blogging or social networking sites. This recent crop of new web addresses range from the typical UFO enthusiast forum to the more personal ‘anorexia anonymous’ storyboard, complete with tragic confessionals that would make the most dedicated 90?s Grunge enthusiast seem like a member of the Mickey Mouse Club.

But it was the loner clubs that had attracted me, because I was a bit of a loner myself during my senior year of high school. I could relate with some of the members on the website, especially the military brats and the kids of expats who had a hard time fitting in with their environment due to living in a foreign country.

Most of the members on the website are self-professed voluntary loners, and when I asked one of the members what attracted her to these type of websites, she said, “Even though we’re confined in our dark, cramp little rooms, and even though we’re all alone–at least here we’re alone together.”


Busy Schedule Prevents Pacquiao from Taking the Lead

This is not the first time that the “Mexecutioner” and champion, Manny “Pacman” Pacquiao is coming face to face with Juan Manuel Marquez. But a lot of boxing critiques are a bit wary that the formers’ busy schedule, juggling between politics, countless product endorsements, together with his fatherly duties will possibly take a toll on his upcoming boxing stint.

While Marquez seems to be spending so much of his time at the gym with this trainer, Pacquiao on the other hand is crunching whatever time he has to be able to be at par with his competitor. Thus, reports have said that Pacquiao seems to be lacking focus in this up coming game and with the little time that he has left, should try and double his efforts.

To add even more insult to injury, Pacquiao seems to be at loss fighting with the now physically fit Marquez. He on the other hand is still struggling to meet the fight’s required weight. As a rule of thumb, both boxers need to weigh at around 144 lbs for the 144lb catch weight category.

However, even if this is the case, every boxing fan all over the world is rooting for their bet as early as now. It is a well known fact that every single time the two boxers come face to face on the ring, they always give a heated blow by blow punch to their viewers, whether live or on television.

The boxing competition between Pacquiao vs Marquez is set to take place on November 12 of this year and everyone is looking forward to what will be the outcome of their third fight against each other. Needless to say, both are preparing themselves well for the fight and are also looking forward to bringing home the glory that they and their countrymen deserve.

Casualties at Nevada Air Race Crash

According to a medical official, at least 56 people were injured and 3 died when an airplane crashed near the grandstand at the Reno Air Races, in Reno, Nevada. Some spectators were near the crash site, but details on casualties have yet to be determined. This was the latest tragedy from a string of air show crashes in the United States.

Last month, in Kansas City, an airplane had also crashed during a show. No spectators were reported to have been injured in that incident, but the pilot died upon impact. Another crash happened, also last month, at a show in Michigan in which a professional stuntman fell to his death while he was “wing walking” (walking on the wings of an aircraft).

Update: (Video embedding was disabled by the user.)


This was a mid-air collision at an air show in Radom, Poland (2007). Though not commonplace, a string of fatal crashes at air shows in recent years should motivate officials in re-evaluating safety regulations, for both the performers and the spectators, at such events.


Stuck in the Middle (East)

When protesters stormed into the Israel Embassy in Cairo last Friday, it became increasingly obvious to the Israeli government that the few allies they have left in the Middle East are dwindling. Egypt has had good relations with Israel since they signed The Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty on March 26, 1979. The treaty was a diplomatic band-aid after the Yom Kippur War. Egypt was the first Arab nation to extend a hand to Tel Aviv, which led to them being booted out of the Arab League. The late President Anwar Sadat and Prime Minister Menachem Begin were both given the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in establishing the treaty, but Sadat was later assassinated as a result. For all the oppression Hosni Mubarak has bestowed upon his own people, he had at least maintained the peaceful relations between his country and Israel. And now he’s out the picture.

Israelis are not only worried about post-Mubarak Egypt, but the “Arab Spring” in general. There are concerns, both in Israel and in the U.S., that anti-Israeli Islamic fundamentalists will swoop in to perch themselves on newly vacant thrones. I had read a comment on a forum about how Al Qaeda, or less extreme entities like the Muslim Brotherhood, wouldn’t dare hijack the Arab revolution and so far he’s been correct, but you cannot deny that there are racist elements within some of the Middle Eastern countries. Those who are viciously anti-Israeli may be in the minority, but as we all know it only takes a minority with a great strategy to “capture hearts and minds” to put their own agenda into effect.

Take Hitler’s Nazi Party, for example. Though there were anti-Semitic feelings in Germany at the time—mostly due to the pressures of job competition in a bad economy—no one ever thought of electing a leader who believed in systematically eradicating “the problem” (Jews) in order to elevate the nation back to its glory days. But that’s what happened—though it wasn’t much of an election but more of a gradual takeover through strong-arming and political assassinations.

I wouldn’t say that this sort of thing will repeat itself (fingers crossed), and disregarding the fact that Iran’s president fantasizes about wiping Israel off the map, which may or may not mean warfare, but if the protesters throughout the Spring have one thing in common, it’s that they’re inspired by a new sense of fierce nationality. Revolutions create an overwhelming sense of unity, because you suffered through the dictatorship together and, in the end, pushed the dictator out together. Storm the palace, wave the flag, hugs and kisses all around. The war-cry is, “For the people, by the people.” And what if the majority of the people suddenly want to cut ties with Israel, or even take on a more aggressive approach towards them?

Turkey, another Tel Aviv ally, has also recently began voicing discontent over its relations with Israel, downshifting diplomatic and economic ties with the country. This all stemmed from Israel’s refusal to apologize for raiding a flotilla last year, in which eight Turks were killed. The UN said that, though excessive in force, the armed raid was legal. Turkey doesn’t care about the legality, but just wants Israel to apologize. Replace the words ‘Turkey’ and ‘Israel’ with ‘Mister’ and ‘Missus’, and it’ll sound like a marriage rapidly falling apart.

Oh, and who can forget about the Palestinian issue? The Palestinian Authority is looking to get a vote from the U.N.’s General Assembly on the possibility of statehood, specifically comprising the areas of Gaza Strip, West Bank and parts of Jerusalem. If passed, and it looks like it might, this will not officially give Palestinians their own country, but it will legitimize their fight for independence and maybe pressure Israel in withdrawing from occupied territories. China and France stated they would support the proposal. This will certainly be a milestone for the Palestinians if granted. After intifadas; suicide bombings; bloody counter-attacks by Israel; and a long track-record of broken promises, we’ve come to this point in the current chapter of the Palestinian-Israeli saga.

Last, but not least, but may also be the last of Israel’s Arab allies: Jordan. King Abdullah had recently highlighted the fact that Israel is deep in the mud and that as Jordan and the Palestinians are on the rise, so are Israel’s problems.

How can Israel mend ties and take themselves out from a vulnerable spot? Prime Minister Netanyahu can try to alleviate the problem by being more open to options presented to him by the international community. I like that he’s malleable enough to at least consider a two-state solution, but he had set so many conditions in his proposal that it makes a book contract look like a piece of flash fiction. I get that he wants the Arab states, and especially the Palestinians, to recognize Israel as the Jewish state, but Israel has to see them as equals in the peace process negotiations. What happens when you instruct two architects with two different styles to design a house, but only give one of them the majority of the power in making decisions? Probably something Gaudi-esque, but with less pizzazz and eccentric charm.

Another thing that Israel can do is start fresh with the new government in Cairo and, in this case, Egypt has to show that it truly wants to maintain its peaceful relationship with its neighbor across the Sinai Peninsula, by securing the said peninsula and making sure extremists can’t operate there. The embassy break-in was a response to the inadvertent killing of three Egyptian security officers after a firefight between Israeli forces and the terrorists who initiated the whole thing by killing eight Israelis in an attack. Weapons trafficking and the smuggling of terrorists in the Sinai have also increased since Mubarak was ousted. It is Cairo’s responsiblity to keep this happening since the Sinai Peninsula is their territory. If not, they’ll expect a swift response from Israel militarily every time a terrorist attack was traced back to Egypt, which will only strain their relations even more.

In this long, winding road to harmonious relations between Israel and the Arab states, it’s safe to say that the Arab Spring is sowing landmines along the way, even if unintentionally, despite the good things that the wave of revolutions stand for.

The Red Market

Whenever I’m on a date, and the woman asks me to tell her something about myself, my answer is always this: I’m a science-fiction geek. The night either goes downhill from there, or we end up in her apartment debating about the correct pronunciation of Klingon words and how Solaris is, or isn’t, the best science-fiction film in the history of cinema.

Where does my unconditional love for sci-fi stem from? Maybe it began in third grade when I witnessed unidentifiable flying orbs dancing high up in the sky during recess. Perhaps it stems from going to a science magnet school that indoctrinated a lifelong love for anything related to science. Those are all valid answers, but I like to blame television.

I used to watch those old Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits episodes in the cavernous living room of our old Brooklyn duplex. The TV screen would flicker like an eccentric mosquito zapper, filling in all the dark crevices of the room with photons, then the eerie music would creep in. At that point, I was already hooked like a trout with an IQ of zero.

Television can take you places where you’ve never been before, and could never go. For an escapist, the bright screen is this doorway to another dimension, and sci-fi shows provided the setting and scenarios for my fantasies. I love all kinds of twisted, mind-bending plots that left its residue on your brain long after you finished watching it. But the storylines that had always sparked my increasingly grotesque imagination were the ones in which people were kidnapped by a diabolical, soulless criminal organization, and their body parts subsequently cut out, then meticulously organized like offal in a Moroccan outdoor market.

As a kid, my aunt used to warn me not to stay out too late. They told me, with a straight face, that there were bad men who kidnap kids like me, take them to a farm out in some secluded area, slice them open, then sell the fresh organs to wealthy people who don’t have the time to wait on the donor’s list.

For a short while I actually believed it and a rush of dread shot to my head whenever I found myself alone in the middle of the street as the sunlight dwindled and the street lamps casted its dull orange net over me. Can you blame me? The adults told me these stories as if they were a fact of life—the way the world worked. It wasn’t until later on that I realized this was just a campaign by adults to get me inside by dinner time and finally do my homework.

But is there any truth to such urban legends?

In December 2009, CNN published an article about the Israeli government admitting to harvesting organs in the 90s. Body parts, such as corneas and other organs, were taken from cadavers without permission from the families. This was supposedly done legally by the state, but even Dr. Yehuda Hiss, who was head of the state-run forensic institute that conducted the operations, himself acknowledged that such practices tiptoed on blurry legal boundaries.

At end of the Kosovo War, reports of kidnapping and organ theft circulated in the Balkans. Initially, a lot of these reports were denied by the accused—in this case, members of the Kosovo Liberation Army—and were considered propaganda, or simply rumors. Over a decade later, former members of the KLA who supposedly witnessed these acts finally gave detailed testimonies to U.N. investigators.

If you think this whole business is absurd, ask yourself this question: What’s my most valuable property? You might say your house, your car, your cell phone, laptop, or even your prized Darth Vader paper mache mask. Well, how about your heart, your brain, your eyes, your skin?

Poets and philosophers say that we are the sum of our memories. That’s great and all, but if you think about it, we’re really just the sum total of meat, bones, guts and a splash of blood. We see ourselves as a single entity, but we’re made up of various components, each one with its own important function. It’s only when these components work in synchronicity that we feel whole. Our body is our most valuable asset. It’s yours and yours to keep, or at least until someone takes your left kidney.

Organs aren’t the only parts of the body that are highly prized. The use of embryonic stem cells may be mired in controversy, but there have been cases that have shown its potential as a source of profit in the underground market.

From April 2009 through February 2010, Fredda Branyon of Scottsdale, Arizona, manufactured stem cell drugs unapproved by the Food and Drug Administration, then sold and delivered 183 vials of the stem cells to a buyer in Brownsville, Texas. The FBI found her manufacturing lab and was convicted for not possessing the license, nor the experience, to create the stem cell drugs. Her case is only one example, but I’m certain there are operations in other countries whose government doesn’t have such strict regulations when it comes to bio-engineering procedures.

How far will someone go to have a new organ, a new life? The person in Texas who bought those stem cell drugs may or may have not known that the drugs were effective, but why take the risk? In any case, this is something that should be monitored more, like human trafficking and the illegal arms trade. In this global economy’s current state, coupled with the increasing advancement of medical technology, the Red Market is something that could quickly evolve if not kept in check.

Yahoo Inc. Fired Carol Bartz Over The Phone

Yahoo Inc. is just talking it seriously. Overhauling the entire company is a must these days and it would include replacing the head. In short, firing CEO Carol Bartz is part of the picture. Not just merely firing her but immediately firing her over the phone. It must have been that urgent.

Bartz just sent a memo to her employees regarding what has happened. “I am very sad to tell you that I’ve just been fired over the phone by Yahoo’s Chairman of the Board. It has been my pleasure to work with all of you and I wish you only the best going forward,” she said.

Yahoo used to dominate the internet world years ago but was then left out by the even stronger and getting bigger Google Inc. In addition to that, Facebook Inc is also present in the picture lessening Yahoo’s market share in selling online graphical and video ads.

The company has enough reasons to erase Bartz in the picture. These would include a 33% drop in the number of minutes that U.S. website visitors spend on Yahoo sites per month and its stock price remained in a flat line.