Sunday, August 7, 2011

Self worth and TEDcreds

To this day, I, Marine Putman, am “worth” an undisclosed number of dollars, a meager number of Euros, a large number of UEC (Undergrad European Credits), as well as 65 graduate credits (although some may argue that the 39 arts credits of my youth are not “worth” the same as my recently acquired 26 science credits). But here is the news, as of last month, and to my surprise, I am worth 16 “TED Creds” and that one deserves an explanation.

A few years back I became an avid viewer and an enthusiastic supporter of the TED conferences. I visited their website almost daily, recommended my favorite talks through my Facebook page, via e-mail and in person (yes, I am old-fashioned that way). A couple of years ago, I became a translator for TED, joined the Facebook group “I translate TED Talks”, got acquainted with a few fellow TED translators and happily volunteered my time because I believed –and still do- that I have the power to help spread “ideas worth spreading”. Last year, I got to join my inventor/PhD physicist/poet/musician husband on his trip to TED India. Although I did not attend the conference itself, I got to hang out with a fascinating group of “TEDsters.” TED does attract amazing people, most of them highly educated and many at the top of their respective fields. And so I lived happily in my TED bubble until I find out on my TED Profile that I am worth “16 TED creds”, which reflect [my] contribution to the TED community. Interestingly, this puts me somewhere in the internal TED hierarchy between Chris Anderson (744 TED creds as of today) and my dear husband who for some reason is “worth” 0 TED creds.

Now let me go on a linguistic digression –Don’t I always?- When I first came to the US and I heard the expression “How much is he worth?” I truly did not understand what it meant. Connecting a number value directly to a person did not humanly nor grammatically make any sense for a French speaker like me. Did they mean how tall he is? How much he weighs? But to my surprise, the expression was to be answered in a dollar amount. The French equivalent would be “How much does his fortune amounts to?” (“A combien s’élève sa fortune ?”) This may seem like a tiny linguistic detail but it is, I believe, a crucial one. If you tie the person to its ownership as in “How is he worth?”, what would be –literally- left of him if his fortune vanished? Nothing! On the other hand, if you do not tie the identity of the person to its belongings as in “How much does his fortune amounts to?”, what would be left after he suffered a reversal of fortune? Him! …still standing with his empty wallet. I don’t mean to say here that every English speaker is only considered for his or her assets and that French speakers all have identities that are free of venal considerations. Of course not. Languages, however, often influence the way we think and evaluate our surroundings. Or maybe it is that they are a reflection of our way of evaluating our surroundings. Which came first, the chicken or its golden egg?

All of this to say that I was not the most happy to find out that I had a “16 TED cred” score without being asked whether or not I wished to be “rated” in such a way. At least, Airlines companies and other merchants ask you to join their rewards programs. In this case, TED being a not-for-profit and my way of supporting them being volunteer work, I did not expect them to rate me. I did not wish to be rated. Although minimal for the TED institution itself, my support of them has been time-consuming, intellectually interesting but free and literally invaluable or –dare I say- priceless. I certainly will remain an active viewer of their talks and may eventually attend some sessions (unless I just offended Chris Anderson too badly?). I strongly believe however, that you should not start to assign a number value to your supporters, speakers or members without changing the whole tone of your institution. And THAT, is an “Idea worth spreading”.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Draw Serge!

I couldn't resist! A whole website dedicated to the great Serge Gainsbourg and its curator asking for artists to.. well, draw Serge! Inspiring character if there ever was one.
So there it is, my submission to Draw Serge, a lino cut print that was just posted. Thank you Jonathan Edwards for your great website. And cheers to Serge!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Kurt Godel

My last lino-cut print to date. A portrait of Kurt Godel for Matthew's new ballet about the scientist.
Overlapping prints on Japanese paper.
Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Skype me or I'll ping you! No pun intended.

It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, "A 60-year-old man walks into a conference room, sits down, listens to the first minute of a business meeting and realizes that he doesn't have any idea about what was just said." As it happens, the real-life man who had to suffer through this situation a couple of weeks ago, is witty and a quick-study. "For a second, he said, I thought you were speaking another language and then I remembered, Oh yeah, I have been retired for a year. You guys have had time to re-invent the English language!"

As I was told this story, I couldn't help but ask what was that crazy English sentence he didn't get. As it turns out the sentence was "Did you bring a deck for our counter-parties? I pinged you about it. We need a deck that'll show them they have skin in the game." After some explanations, the translation of this sentence into 2009 English (from 2010 English) is "Did you bring a powerpoint presentation for our potential clients? I sent you a message about this issue. We need to show them that working with us is in their interest."

How can a language as old as English evolve so dramatically in such a short period of time? I have been both baffled and amused by this topic in the past few years. Perhaps I am particularly sensitive to it because I have a background in linguistics ; perhaps it is because English is still a foreign language to me. I look at other people's linguistic choices the way I would look at fish in their bowl. I enjoy mentally tearing apart political, social and religious discourse:

-Funny this group would call themselves "pro-life" rather than "anti-abortion." I guess it is a way to imply their choice is a positive rather a negative one?

-Interesting that people who do not believe in evolution would rather call themselves "creation scientists" than "creationists." Do they feel that the word "scientist" legitimizes their beliefs?

-Do "intelligent design" supporters imply that anyone who doesn't believe in it is dumb?

-Why do most "single children" refer to themselves as "only children"? but other people refer to them as "single children"?

-Why is everyone suddenly adding the French word "boutique" in front of every new business they are starting? What does a "boutique venture-capital firm" really mean? or a "boutique hotel" or -my favourite to this day- a "boutique undergraduate program"? How would you feel about me switching "boutique" for "mom n' pop"?

-When is "Summer" a verb rather than a noun? When you "summer in the Hamptons"! Noone "summers in the Catskills" ; they "spend time in the Catskills during the summer" -as I do.

-How would Aimé Césaire feel about being called an "Afro-Martinican author" on his English language wikipedia page? He, the father of "négritude"! What about the fact that is French wiki page doesn't even mention his ethnic origins, but rather that he was "français de Martinique" ? He, the anti-colonialist! Monsieur Césaire, I wish you were still with us and that we could talk about the issue.

Lately, I have caught myself following the annoying trend of what I call "web-based etymology". Last week, to my own amazement I said: "I wonder what is happening to this neighborhood, real estate-wise. I guess I can just zillow it!" As soon as I pronounced the words and heard my own voice, I cringed. I "i-m" people, "skype" my friends on a regular basis, "google map" every new target location before leaving home, spend way too much time "facebooking" and "blogging". And no, I don't only DO those things, I SAY those things as well. Forgives me Noah Webster, it has been months since I have uttered proper English sentences.

Ultimately, I like to think that the natural selection of language will drop the useless lexicon and let the fittest survive. There must be an "app" for that!

As for the 60-year-old man -my father-in-law-, he now pings people and prepares decks for his counter-parties. He has skin in the game, and looks forward to what next year will bring.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The "sandbox effect"

I was recently told by a lady scientist I barely knew, "Your child is always your lab." This, after I had announced, “No really, I object to using my child in any kind of research I am doing. I find it inappropriate parenting, subjective data-collecting and plain unethical”. But after further thought, as much as I hate to say it, she was right. Raising a child is a scientific process onto itself. It involves trial and error, hypotheses and experiments, unexpected findings and –hopefully- eureka moments. As much as you try to separate your professional investigations from your personal life, you end up projecting them as a parent. Reading research shapes your behavior and orients your discourse in certain ways. Every child is their parents’ lab to some extent.
When my daughter was born 4 ½ years ago, we made sure, her father and I, to find a name for her that would work in most countries and sounded pretty much the same in French and English. I guess this was already me planning to raise her as a bilingual, bi-cultural child. It was, de facto, experiment number one. As a linguist and foreign language teacher, I had encountered many children of “international” families. Their names help them “fit” or make them seem “foreign.” I have found that the group they identify with is the most important factor for language learning –especially in the really early years, and then again in the teenage years. Juliette now spontaneously introduces herself as Juliette in French, Juliet in English, Yulieta in Russian, and Julietta in Spanish (with the Spanish “jota”). She even changes the way she pronounces our last name: Pootmahn or Puttman depending on the setting.
When I taught preschool, I tried to explain this important factor to my students’ parents and I called it the “Sandbox effect.” This does not only apply to the way children are called, but to any linguistic interaction they engage in. As toddlers from multi-cultural and/or multi-lingual families get out of their homes to socialize for the first time, they realize that the important language to master in the world is the one that is spoken in the sandbox. In other words, as much as parents speak their native language while interacting directly with their child, children will acquire more rapidly and seem to value more the language that is spoken in the sandbox, when it is different from the one spoken at home. From an evolutionary perspective, it is not difficult to understand why that would be. Parents are supposed to love you unconditionally and will therefore feed you and care for you regardless of the language you speak to them, regardless of the level at which you are mastering their language, and –quite often- regardless of the fact that you act like a brat. Preschool-age peers on the other hand, may try to interact with you a couple of times but if you don’t speak their language, they will just dump you right there, in the middle of the sandbox, for someone who does, possibly taking your bucket and shovel in the process. In addition, during the preschool years, the children defining the story lines during pretend play are usually the ones who have the most verbal fluency in the language spoken in the sandbox. They are the “moms”, “dads”, “kings” and “queens” of the story. If a child is a late talker, a foreign-language speaker, or simply a little shy, chances are he/she will end up being the pretend family dog, cat or baby. None of which are roles to be envied, trust me.
It is with that observation in mind, that I, I am shamefully admitting here, came up with my home experiment number two in bilingual education. Right after she was born, during my maternity leave, I started to reach out to other French-speaking parents in my neighborhood. Soon after, I had started an online group called “Bébés francophones” to facilitate meet ups and exchange ideas. Playdates, picnics, friendships, nanny-shares, and hand-me-downs followed. Although I was never very involved because I had returned to work full-time, I saw this group blossom up to over 70 families -a success considering all of them where French-speaking residents of a small area in one single borough in NYC. The idea behind this was multi-fold: I wanted to make new friends for myself; I was hoping those meet-ups would be beneficial to all –especially to new moms in need of moral support- ; and I wanted Juliette to meet other children like her, who were being raise bilingually in NYC. I was hoping she would never feel like and “oddity”, as one friend –who grew up speaking French in the Midwest- once described herself. I had witnessed many young children refusing to speak their parents’ native language from the moment they realized it was not as widely used as English in NYC, and I also knew that you can’t force a toddler to do –well- anything. In other words, I thought, I can’t control the sandbox effect so let me control the sandbox. Juliette and I formed friendships, had fun moments, and are still in touch with many of those families. Some of them are even involved in a French daycare/preschool project I am working on. Some of them have moved away and we sometimes try to locate them on a world map. Juliette’s world is a global sandbox now.
I will not keep going down the list of parenting experiments ; they happen every day and are not all interesting. But I will say one more thing about parent involvement and professional experimentation. Two years ago came a moment where I was offered a teaching position I would not take: being my own daughter’s head teacher. No other offer was made to me when I explained my concern, and this is where I drew the line and quit… I will always be my daughter’s biggest fan and will be thrilled when she wants to hear my suggestions and advice. And I am sure that I will often tell her things she doesn’t really want to hear. But ultimately, I think that children, like all individuals, need their own space to experiment without being watched. Being her teacher full-time would have prevented her from growing into her own independent person and would have put our relationship in danger. In addition, using her to collect data on dual-language acquisition would have been inappropriate and unethical. It would be like entering her bedroom without knocking, reading her diary if she ever writes one. Would my daughter’s sandbox be a great lab? Of course! Should it? No! Because in the end there is a time when, emotionally, linguistically and otherwise, for the sake of their children, parents just need to step out of that sandbox.

(For more on parents using their children as tests subjects in their research, read this great NY times article

Monday, August 31, 2009

Why French men dare to carry a purse.

A few months back, one of my American acquaintances stated that “French men are more feminine than American men”. I didn’t really understand this comment and asked for more explanations. Did he mean that there were more gay men in France than in the US? If so, I would doubt it, assuming that the percentage of gays is most likely the same in countries that have similar genetic, environmental and cultural backgrounds. But he did not, he insisted, “they have more feminine traits” I dismissed it to some extent, as I thought of both the French men in my life (father, brother, cousins, friends) and the American men in my life (husband, father-in-law, colleagues, friends). They seemed similar in my mind. Some were butch some weren’t; some were straight, some were gay and they seemed evenly distributed amongst the two countries.
As of today, I have been in France for two months, which is the longest uninterrupted time I have spent here in 12 years. The perception I have of my home country is both one of a native and a foreigner. For instance, as I looked at my uncles gathered in my parents’ garden a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but notice than these 3 retired men carried a purse. All three purses were natural leather color, with a metal clasp or a zipper, a long strap or a handle. These 3 men had gone to work carrying a purse every day of their lives. Another male family member of mine wore a pink bathing suit that day, another one a light blue t-shirt with flowers. All of these were items I would have never seen a straight older men wear in the US, unless they lived in a large costal city such a New York or San Francisco. So I started to think of what other “feminine” aspect the French men around me had, at least from an American point of view. It turns out that the French men I grew up surrounded by read poetry, enjoy watering flowers, speak softly, do not swear, are not particularly fond of sporting events, and would rather drink wine than beer. They pick their own clothes, purses and shoes. They like ballet. Then I started thinking of the American men in my life and realized that they, too, liked ballet, flowers and clothes but that you would not be able to know that if you encountered them in a social event or at work. So, why would they rather appear as beer-drinking football fans (no offense to beer or to football) than well-dressed ballet lovers? Would the American men in my life have been as “feminine” as the French ones, had they not been worried that they were going to be perceived as wimps by their peers?
A Swedish friend of mine told me once that she wanted to dress her young daughter in gender neutral clothes until she could decide for herself what she wanted to dress like. Although it would not have occurred to me, I understood where she came from and decided to pay more attention to this while dressing my own toddler girl. In vain… as I was looking through rows and rows of children clothes in American stores, I could not find anything that wasn’t strongly gender specific. My choices were basically to dress her like a shiny pink princess or a butch boy. No girl outfit came without flowers, hearts or stars. No boy outfit came without trucks or dinosaurs. In addition, the children clothes section was split into two and situated in different parts of the store. From the pink/purple aisles I could barely spot the navy blue/camouflage area were the boys got dressed. In France on the other hand, children clothes are traditionally organized by age in stores, not by gender, and they come in greens, yellow, orange, stripes and flowers. Little boys can be seen wearing shirts with embroideries and little girls with brown sweaters. And, I guess, the little boys grow into big boys who are not afraid to be seen in pink, water flowers and enjoy ballet if they want to. I wish the same to American men.
In the meantime, I will keep raising eyebrows when I go back to the US as my favorite color is blue, I enjoy barbecuing, watching the Olympics on TV and mowing the lawn. Will they say French women are masculine?