I Am Invited to Join the Dark Side of the Force!


Formality and informality: The state treasury department in São Paulo (far left), just down the block from the Prestes Maia cortiço (right) — occupied at the time, at later abandoned by activists, notably, without tear gas or a gratuitous beatdown by the Shock Troop. Which I thought was actually a very notable and atypical nonevent, and hopeful sign.

Mas o malandro para valer, não espalha,
aposentou a navalha, tem mulher e filho e tralha e tal.
Dizem as más línguas que ele até trabalha,
Mora lá longe chacoalha, no trem da central
–Chico Buarque, “Homenagem ao Malandro”

Well, on a personal note, I have accepted that proposition from the Dark Side: helping a multinational, multilingual investor relations firm improve editorial quality-control in its translation operations.

Releases, earnings reports, annual reports, all that sort of boring, boring stuff. But I actually enjoy this kind of work a lot. You can learn a lot, and what the hell: It gives me a physical pain to see a company that communicates well in its native language sounding like Speedy Gonzales in translation. This is noise in the channel, and bad, in the final analysis, for the efficient operation of free, well-governed information markets.

So I give them my standard pitch: If you manage your intellectual capital (I lapse into consultant-speak at such moments) and codify your editorial standards and practices, then 95% of the daily problems you currently face can be resolved by telling your translators, “go read the manual first, then get back to me if something is unclear.”

Plus you can market your services as adhering very strictly to the standards of editorial quality your target audience is accustomed to. Here I trot out my grad-school spiel on the “phenomenology of reading,” “horizons of expectation,” yada yada. The “for dummies” version. Wayne Booth. That sort of thing.

I have seen it many times: An organziation comes to rely on what I tend to call “the human knowledge base” — the Prophet, the Oracle: some guy who knows everything but has never written it down — and then, when the Oracle goes insane after years of being peppered with inane, repetitious questions every fifteen seconds — “The comma goes inside the close-quote in American English,” he explained for the umpteenth time that day — you have no knowledge base at all.

Invent the wheel only once, then review periodically to see if upgrades are needed.

And it worked.

It is about time I got out of the house on a regular basis, rode the commuter train with all the other Zé Manés along the stinking Rio Pinheiros.

I have a lovely workspace at home, but after all, it kind of sucks working at home.

Your domestic life, your professional life, and your personal creative life: I find things work better when you can allocate a different physical space to each.

It will be nice to reserve my workspace at home for (1) learning to play bossa nova guitar and the viola caipira (I am currently studying the life and works of Tonico and Tinoco), (2) finishing that biography of Carmen Miranda and starting on my bulging shelf of history reading, and (3) writing cordel poetry and my trash novel, inspired by John D. MacDonald, about the adventures of a forensic beancounter.

I will also be nice to collaborate with humans in meatspace again.

I have really missed that.

This “future of work” jazz , with its “distributed virtual teams” and “flex-time” and spending all your time managing e-mails and answering IMs is not all it’s cracked up to be.

The part I have to be careful about here is not complicating my permanent visa process. We have a lawyer and an accountant to advise us, and it seems that my working for the New York subsidiary until my permanência comes through, and I am cleared to “pay taxes to Lula” — quite a bit less than the taxes I pay to George Bush, in fact, whose tax breaks did nothing at all for me — should work fine.

But I am a little nervous about it. Bureaucratic nightmares do seem to be slowly receding — getting my CPF (personal ID) number so that I could buy our house was, surprisingly, not that big a hassle, by New York City standards, for example. See

And personally, I have always had good experiences with the Federal Police here.

When I first started travelling back and forth a lot, for example, I naturally got pulled aside for a bag check at a certain point. I was very apprehensive, but the agent they left with me was extremely polite and professional. And you know what? They never pulled me aside again. They seem to have pegged me as legitimate gringo, entered it in their knowledge base,

When I overstayed my visa on the last trip here, last year, I got autuada — got a ticket, basically — that I had to pay when I came back into the country.

Those poor PF agents who work the airport apparently work very long hours, and can be short-tempered, but they were again, actually very nice about it, considering. I had to withdraw cash to pay the fine, but the ATM in the immigration area was shut down. (The payment had to be made by an ATM desposit). They called employees of TAM and the bank down and gave them a tongue-lashing, then let my wife go out and make the deposit outside the area.

They then gave me friendly advice on how to avoid paying this ridiculous fine the next time. Had I called ahead and explained my situation — I had had to rebook my flight on a date after my visa expired — I could have avoided the whole mess.

The trick: If you are polite and patient, you are more likely to get polite, patient treatment in return. Show some sympathy for the agents, who are generally bright, young, well-educated people who have gotten stuck with the shitty job of airport duty.

There was a celebrated incident, when the Brazilians implemented required fingerprinting and photography of U.S. citizens — after the U.S. implemented the same requirement for Tupis; one of those petty diplomatic tits-for-tat — in which an airline pilot gave the digital camera the finger and wound up spending some time cooling his heels.

Written up as a martyr to Brazilian authoritarianism, of course, while the Brazilian press jumped on him as an Ugly American.

You can be the Ugly American, if you like.

It is just not advisable to insist on your God-given right to act like one.

At any rate: Yes, it looks like I may be joining the Dark Side.

A former reporter of mine recently did the same thing, joining some sort of “innovation” PR shop that collapsed into murky bankruptcy shortly after she joined.

I felt awful for her, hearing the news, but I did try to warn her about these things. She is a very competent pro, however — came up the traditional way, working her way up from local police blotters to big city features, before doing J-school to specialize in business —  and should find something to do again soon.
In this case, though I am pretty confident that the shop I will be joining is highly Investor Relations 1.0: We transmit your good, carefully-worded Portuguese to Anglophone investors in good, carefully-worded English, minimizing the noise in the channel. Sounds simple, but just try cutting corners  — You might think you can just translate your carefully crafted message using Babelfish, but you would be sadly mistaken — and you will learn that you get exactly what you pay for.

A straightforward language factory, and dedicated to the Gospel of Usability According to Jakob Nielsen. This appeals to me.

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