Your Government: Powered by Google

Department Of Homeland Security LogoIn a recent short story, Cory Doctorow imagined a world in which Google powers the US border and immigration services. That world conjured up a new term: Scroogled. As nightmarish as the prospect of any fictitious world that can be conjured up by a bastardized compound of the words “Google”, “scrutinized”, “screwed”, it’s not quite as bad as the reality I came across over the last two weeks.

I recently realized I needed to fill out some paperwork to maintain my US permanent resident card. I found the form online, filled it out, and then realized I might actually need to still be in the US in order to submit the form. Something about the US government wanting my bodily fluids I think, and not in a good way.

I was pretty sure the US government already had every scrap of biometrics on me that it could possibly ever need, but rather than blindly submitting the form, I went to the US consulate in Vancouver to see if I could get a definitive answer. Except, apparently, customer service isn’t what a consulate provides, even if you are a legal US resident. The guards at the consulate gave me a 1-900 number to call for information.

Wait…the US government uses 1-900 numbers? Aren’t those those reserved for televangelists and phone sex lines?

Apparently not. For the low-low price of $1.89 a minute, the US government will answer your questions about the absurdly complicated world they created. Hooray! It’s like being stuck in the movie Brazil, but without a British accent to make those whole experience appear polite. But the results were just as comical:

Me: Hi, I’m trying to find out if I need to be in the US to file my I-131? Does that apply if I’ve already got a permanent resident card?

Customs: An I-131? What is that?

Me: It’s a re-entry permit.

Customs: Oh, sorry – we only handle visas on this phone number…

Me: I guess it’s a type of visa…it lets me get back into the country.

Customs: …yeah, we don’t handle that type of visa at this number. Have you tried the US consulate?

Me: Yes. They gave me your number.

Customs: Hmm…well, you know what you might try? Why don’t you Google it?

Google it? Two bucks a minute to be told the answer is on the Internet? What. The. Hell.

At least the guy gave me two other phone numbers to call – one at Vancouver Airport, and the other at the Niagara Falls border crossing. No one picked up the phone at Vancouver Airport, but at the Niagara Falls crossing, I had an eerily familiar experience:

Me: <same as above>

Customs: Hmm, I don’t really know about the I-131.

Me: Well, I’ve tried the US consulate, they gave me a number, and the guy there gave me your number. Any other ideas where I can find out about this I-131?

Customs: Well, why don’t you try the Interne–

Me: <click>

Last month, The Atlantic posed the question: is Google making us stupid? I think we have our answer. Rather than turning the US into a pseudo surveillance state as Cory Doctorow envisioned, perhaps the reality is worse: a government that is so inefficient and ill-informed that it relies on a search engine to provide its citizens with access to their own government.

Between Us French

In the midst of the seriousness of the results of the election, a drama comparable only in excitement to watching paint dry, I thought it might be fun to take a little detour into the world of Bush and language. But not just any language. Freedom, er, French!

There’s a quote that’s been floating around the Internet, a comment attributed to George W. Bush in a conversation with Tony Blair. According to Bush, the story goes, the problem with the French is they have no word for entrepreneurship. Any educated person with even the slightest knowledge of language immediately lapses into giggles over this story. “No French word for ‘entrepreneur’? It’s a French word, you dolt!” is the typical response.

Now, I’m a Canadian. I went to a private Catholic school in BC where, despite no native French-speaking population, we started learning French in kindergarten. It’s safe to say that I can speak a smidge of French. And when I started thinking about this quote, I got curious: does entrepreneur mean the same thing in French as I think it does? Part of this line of thinking was prompted by Ashley‘s comments on how one of the French guys at work insisted that he was an entrepreneur. According to him, in France, anyone who has been to university and works in a company qualifies to be called an entrepreneur.

Just what does “entrepreneur” mean in French?

In my mind, I rewound back to high school French class. “Entre”, I recalled, means “between”. But I was damned if “preneur” meant anything. A quick trip to my French-English dictionary revealed:

preneur: nm (acheteur) buyer; (locataire) lessee, taker, tenant.

Entrepreneur = “between buyer”? A go-between? I suppose that was an accurate description, at a rudimentary level, but it lacked the flair we associate with the word in English. Perhaps the combined word in French packed a little more punch. A quick flip through the dictionary revealed:

entrepreneur: nm contractor. ~ (en bâtiment) building contractor; ~ de transports haulage contractor (Brit) trucker (US); ~ de peinture painter (and decorator); ~ de pompes funèbres undertaker (Brit), funeral director (Brit), mortician (US).

That’s an entrepreneur? A contractor? A guy who hammers up drywall? It hardly conjures up the image of glamour that is associated with the word in English. On a whim, I checked the French-English translation of entrepreneur (i.e.: translating from the “English” version of “entrepreneur” to the “French” version). I know, it seems silly – after all, they should be the same, right?

entrepreneur: n entrepreneur m (chef d’enterprise).

Entrepreneur means…entrepreneur in French. Whoppee, no big surprise there. Except, the alternate meaning is “head of an enterprise”. So the translation from the “English” version of entrepreneur to “French” actually carried an additional meaning – someone in charge of a business, not merely a contractor.

I reeled at this revelation: could it be that in a moment of unrecognized lucidity, George W. Bush had uttered an insightful comment on the difference between the French and Americans? That the French, despite being the source of the original word, actually had no single word to convey the meaning that the word entrepreneur had gained in English? That entrepreneur in English no longer meant the same thing as it did in French?

My world views shaken, I numbly returned to watch the conclusion of the wall-to-wall election coverage, afraid for a future that could include a President George W. Bush who might not actually be a complete moron.

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