São Paulo Diary: Terrifying Explosions on the Avenue of the Owls!

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The guy came yesterday and delivered our new bed, which, unlike the old bed, which was something of a torture device, is big and soft and ergonomic and orthopedic.

I return home from doing a few hours of work on a project for a consulting client, followed by a couple of hours of boteco conversation with the usual motley crew.

A gentle rain is falling.

We are watching a documentary about Juscelino “The Bossa Nova President” Kubitschek and the (apparently clinically insane) Jânio “The Broom of Moral Reform” Quadros on TV Brasil.

There is extremely loud explosion, with a flash so bright one immediately thinks of atomic testing in the Nevada desert in old newsreels.

Just another AES Eletropaulo electrical transformer exploding on the Avenue of the Owls.

My wife swings into action, unplugging every electrical appliance in the house, because, as she says, it is to be expected that the explosions will repeat themselves every time the operator tries to bring the neighborhood back online.

This was our experience a couple of weeks ago, when a tree branch fell on a transmission line in the nearby park, and the night was lit up by a series of at least six such explosions. FRIGHTENING EXPLOSION. Power goes out. Power comes back on. FRIGHTENING EXPLOSION. Repeat at 30-second intervals.

Sleepy-eyed neighbors gathered at the little bridge over the creek — there at the corner by the home of those nice people who raise chickens and probably do not own legal title to the property they live on — arms folded, wondering if maybe the Rapture had not arrived.

We have surge protectors, but my wife is not confident in their ability to protect against insurgent surges.

I go out into the street in my bathrobe and ask the molecada — the neighborhood Spankys and Alfalfas — if they saw what happened.

They did not, but they use language their mothers would probably yank them by the ear for using, with reference to the local electric company.

It is hard not to conclude that AES Eletropaulo is not exactly a poster child for the virtuous effects of and superior efficiencies promoted by crash privatization programs for public utilities.

This is an entirely subjective judgment, of course.

It could well be that AES Eletropaulo can show improvement in its maintenance program, and decent levels of investment in infrastructure improvement, over the last whatever period.

You would have to research that question. You might start by consulting PROCON, the local consumer advocate, and read some annual reports and independent technical assessments and the like.

But of course, from where we are sitting, from the consumer’s point of view, this would be small consolation, if true.

It still really seems to a lot of our neighbors like AES Eletropaulo is out to freaking kill us. Images of the Shock and Awe bombardment of Baghdad come immediately to mind.

There is a less in public relations to be learned here, I think. Not sure what it is, but I have this intuition.

“Delivering a good service or product is the best advertising?”

You see these solicitous AES Eletropaulo posters all around town, for example, advising people on electrical safety.

The public-education campaign is very well done, attractively designed, well written, and certainly not unwelcome. It is a valuable message, there is no denying.

But the LOUD FUCKING EXPLOSIONS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT still tend to register a little more vividly, and leave you with a certain sense of ironic distance between the marketing for the product or service and the actual product or service delivered.

Besides the seasonal recurrence of LOUD FUCKING EXPLOSIONS that remind you of nuclear tests in old newsreels, there is, for example, the matter of trying to understand your monthly bill.

And the philosophical question of why you are even paying for electricity at all, when some forty percent of grid users — if memory serves — simply expropriate power as needed by, as they say here, “yanking a cat” (hooking on unofficially).

And really, in a way, who can blame them?

See also

The Barbershop Gazette

Earlier in the day, I go to have my hair cut at the local barbershop. There are two competing barber shops on the same block, but they are owned by brothers, and tend to exchange personnel freely.

I always enjoy barber-shop conversation. Barbering is a deadly dull job. There is nothing better to do than listen to the radio or watch the boob tube and pass the time by chewing the fat.

In this case, one client asks the barbers, “So, what do you guys think of this Obama guy?”

The blanket coverage of the U.S. primaries in the local media here is a notable media trend. The world really seems anxious to know if our next maximum leader is going to be less insane than our last one.

Responds one of the barbers, on the Obama question: “Well, the guy is kind of a baiano, isn’t he?”

Baiano literally means “someone from the northern state of Bahia,” but by metaphorical extension in casual conversation of a certain kind denotes a variety of negative qualities related to vulgarity, dishonesty, laziness, slack diction, dusky skin tone, and the like.

In this context, then, I think you can probably infer that the barber is expressing mild surprise that we gringos are actually thinking seriously about voting for some n—er.

A gentleman sitting there waiting for a haircut immediately launches into a passionate oratorical defense of Bahian civilization, overflowing with colorful commonplaces and history lessons.

Then leaves without getting a haircut.

The world-famous Brazilian “racial democracy” is something of a myth in many cases.

(There is a story, possibly apocryphal, that when Dubya met for the first time with President Cardoso, he innocently asked FHC, “So, do you guys have black people in Brazil?”)

While I am waiting for my standard máquina dois treatment, I pick up a copy of the Folha de S. Paulo.

I am normally more of an Estadão reader, though these days I spend more time reading Valor .

On Page 3, however, the Folha is running a pretty darn good basic debate on the question, “Would an Oi-Brasil Telecom merger be good for the Brazilian consumer?”

Both the “yes” and the “no” op-eds are quite well argued. Fairly complete disclosure of the institutional ties of the authors is provided, so you can “consider the source.”

I learn a few things.

I have not formed an opinion on the subject yet, myself, but it is certainly a fascinating question, and a fascinating new chapter in the fascinating saga of the dirty, filthy “armed Latin American telecom monopoly” wars.

Train in Vain

Having cropped my mop, I jump in a taxi to go pick up a prescription at my doctor’s home in the Vila Madalena, then continue on to the CPTM (light commuter rail) station.

I have a couple of things to do at the office building of a New York-based client whose Brazilian subsidiary I am trying to advise on how to implement a copydesk and a terminology management program for translation of New World Lusophone investor relations publications into passable Wall Street Journalese.

It is actually really pleasant to take the CPTM on a weekend, when it is not insanely crowded. They say the service has gotten much, much better in recent years. We took an excursion to the Barra Funda connection the other week that was a lot of fun.

But the line I take has reduced the frequency of service for the month of February because of upstream track repairs.

So on Fridays at around 6 p.m., there is often a queue just to get through the catracas — turnstiles — to the platform in order to queue for the train. A queue that starts to remind you of the interminable queue for a Disneyland E-ticket thrill ride.

The CPTM seems to have difficulty keeping more than a couple of catracas operational at a given time, or converting exit catracas into entrance catracas to fit the traffic flow at a given hour.

If ten times as many people are likely to be entering the station as exiting it at a given hour, ideally, you would think there would be ten times as many catracas operating in entrance mode as in exit mode.

It has the technical capability to do it, as far as I can see.

It just doesn’t do it.

One could also do what other transportation systems do: Have all your catracas operating in dual mode, and have an employee standing there directing traffic as necessary.

“If you are exiting, please use the far-left catraca. Please keep the far-left catraca open for exiting passengers. Thank you!”

I returned home by grabbing the bus to the Largo da Batata on the Av. Berrini. It was not as hard as I had feared. Have they overhauled the shocks on that bus lately, though, I wonder?

Low Standards and Malpractices

Anyway, I have almost concluded that this client of mine does not understand a word I am telling them, and that I am probably wasting my breath.

The other night, I IMed a friend of mine who works in PR and corporate communications in San Francisco — she currently works for a big ERP or BPM or whatever they call it these days software company that has a Brazilian subsidiary, so she knows a bit about the sort of thing I mean, firsthand — just to run the basic pitch by her and ask, “Am I insane?”

She reassured me that I was not insane.

This is what friends are for.

I felt better.

I still think I am probably wasting my time.

It could be that I am explaining things in too complicated a way, however.

I have been sweating blood over trying to boil it all down to words of one syllable that fit on a PowerPoint slide.

The key may be to boil it down to short words in the local brand of New World Lusophony.

An interpreter friend of mine was telling me the other day, for example, that a very prominent local business federation leader insists on not being seen in meetings wearing headphones that might indicate he does not understand English perfectly.

On the other hand, the fact is that he does not understand English perfectly. Which is nothing to be ashamed of, really. English is an absurdly weird, complicated, and illogical language to have to learn. Why can’t we just spell things the way they sound, for example?

Still, this is a not uncommon feature of the local interface between the Anglophone and Lusophone worlds. And it seems to be considered sort of rude to point it out.

At some point, maybe Brazil will be a hot enough economy that Brazilians will be able to command the same fervor for language-learning that Japan did back when it was hot. You want to do business with me? Learn my freaking language, gringo! Portuguese is not that hard to learn, actually. Compared with Japanese, especially. And it’s fun.

The Bloodthirsty Rituals of Tropical Cats

Woke up this morning to find that our tribe of tropical cats had committed a gruesome massacre of parakeets, and had deposited the gory, dismembered results at the entrance to our bedroom.

As some sort of sacrifice or offering, it almost seems like.

Our theory is that the tropical cats really, really want to be invited to sleep in the big, new, unbelievably comfortable bed, and to that end are trying to propitiate the two-legged gods who stock the magical, bottomless feed bowl.

Xuxú, mother of Alladin, has the peculiar habit, every evening around 9 p.m., of dragging leaves into the living room from outside and announcing the fact with frenetic yowling.

She seems to be telling us that we really, really need these leaves for some very urgent purpose.

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