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Language Arts for a New Millennium 

Learning Spanish (for your gardener), Thai (your hooker), Bureaucrat (your scientist friends), and Digital (your enemies)

Wednesday, Mar 7 2001
As the roaring lion of early March mellows into April's balmy lamb, it's time for S.F. gardeners to prepare for another spring planting season: putting in ageratum, cosmos, impatiens, lobelia, marigold, and petunia; piling wet newspapers around the roots of bare-root plants; squishing slugs and snails.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not suggesting that our upscale, garden-owning readers actually perform any of these tasks. I mean to say that it's time to sign up for the "Brush Up Your Spanish" course advertised in Strybing Arboretum & Botanical Gardens Classes, Workshops, Field Trips & Tours newsletter. There, under the "Gardening Classes," it says garden owners can "Develop a [Spanish] vocabulary for communicating simple gardening instructions. Grammar and verbs will be emphasized."

By April, one can presume, you'll be shouting, "Aplaste los caracoles, joven!"1

Intrigued that such a class might be offered at San Francisco taxpayers' own Golden Gate Park, I contacted Strybing class coordinator Kitty Fisher. "We're saying that, for those people who have Hispanics in their garden, this class will help them," Kitty says.

Mightn't people be offended that city facilities could be used to help landed swells order their Latino gardeners around? After all, Strybing offers no other language classes, and makes no other reference to speakers of Spanish.

"No. No. There's no racial overtone in the world," Fisher assures us. "That's the last thing we want to do. Today there are more and more Hispanics working in gardens. I travel in Marin, and I see more and more Hispanics in those gardens. If you're the head gardener, you need to communicate with them. We can't have any racial overtone in this article. Number one: We have a horticultural Spanish class. Number two: It's so people can be able to communicate better with workers and themselves. That's what we really have. OK, Love? Have we got it right?"

I think so: Can you say, "Kay say vayan a la cheengahdah, peenchays explowtahdowreys."2

If you're not much for gardening, yet are keen on exploiting the downtrodden, there's always Thai Language and Culture for Queer Travelers 101, offered this spring at the Harvey Milk Institute.

Thailand, of course, is notorious as the world's sex tourism capital, a place where streets crawl with toothless German plumbers clutching spandexed waifs, where restaurants offer sex as a menu item, and where the sex industry has been described as one of the cruelest vehicles of human suffering in the world. It's a place where indentured servitude, AIDS, and child sex labor are commonplace. Thailand is best known as a destination for straight prostitution aficionados. But a United Nations spokeswoman assures me Thailand is a full-service sex-tourism shop with ample options for customers both hetero and not.

"There seems to have been a queer travel burst to Thailand, and we've had great instructors," notes Kevin Schaub, executive director of the Institute.

But is this about, um, sex tourism?

"I'm sure it's part of it," Schaub says. "I don't think it's the central thing."

So, students, to review our text so far: The director of the Harvey Milk Institute openly acknowledges it's sponsoring a class attended -- at least in part -- by students hoping to solicit Thai hookers. Some readers may find this appalling; at SF Weekly Enterprises, we're more concerned about losing a potential line of business. Before anyone else horns in on the market, we're launching Thai Language and Culture for Heterosexual Travelers 101.

Lesson one: "Kuun ah yuu tahw rai?"3

Midterm: "Koon pen po chai ru poo ying ?"4

Final essay: "Paeng bpay."5

Currently under development: SF Weekly's Russian Language and Culture for the Marriage-Minded; Malaysian Language and Culture for Sweatshop Bosses; and Swahili for Diamond Mine Owners.

Speaking of travel and culture, those rocket scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories in Alameda County sure know how to get around. The Labs, apparently scornful of pedestrian travel since beginning work on the Hypersoar 6 jet, have spawned a nuclear explosion in automobiles. Nukemville leases 1,260 motor vehicles for use in shuttling its 7,300 employees around a one-square-mile campus. This is 363 more autos than the maximum number allowed by federal guidelines, according to a recent report by the Inspector General's Office of the U.S. Dept. of Energy. The cars are provided in addition to 800 shared bicycles available, free of charge, to employees, a free, on-demand taxi system, and a network of sidewalks and paved pathways where one can actually walk from building to building.

Bi-pedism and bike riding are legacy technologies, to be sure. But imagine the spiffy bomb parts one might buy if one wasn't spending $3.6 million per year leasing government automobiles, $690,000 in excess of what it costs to lease the maximum number of autos allowed under federal guidelines.

I called Lawrence Livermore spokesman David Schwoegler and floated the idea of getting rid of, at the very least, the extra 363 cars. In keeping with the spirit of an organization known for developing new nuclear weapons in possible defiance of international treaties7, Schwoegler wouldn't budge.

"We're using our vehicles appropriately. We have the appropriate number, based on the accounting our contract requires," Schwoegler says, referring to a space-age accounting technique that allows a single trip of slightly less than one mile to Walnut Creek to count as 77 trips. That way Nukemville brass can inflate reported vehicle use, then put in for even more vehicles based on government standards allowing one car for every 9.2 daily trips.

Talk about your rocket science.

In the manner of past crazes -- Ocean Pacific surf shorts and patio jacuzzis come to mind -- the venture-capitalized Web start-up fad has just hit the flyover states, long after it died in California. If cooking up a harebrained dot-com idea, shopping it to venture capitalists, and then making Internet millions by offering it to stock market suckers has fallen out of favor here, it appears to be just catching on elsewhere. At least, that's how it looked, looking at the crowd at last week's "Alley to Valley" conference at the Palace Hotel.

The concept, according to press releases issued by Alley Cat News, the New York-area tech magazine that sponsored the conference, was to put Western VCs in the same room with Eastern entrepreneurs, then let magic happen. The reality, according to the scene at the hotel, was that a couple of VC guys collected speaking fees, told the pretenders how silly their ideas were, then left the budding tech moguls to drink alone.

"I found the VC guys kind of arrogant," complains Julian Lombardi, Ph.D., a North Carolina biology professor-turned-Internet-entrepreneur who is nursing a cocktail and telling anyone who'll listen about VIOS, his World Wide Web start-up idea. (It has to do with 3D on the Web.) "They ask you if you're doing anything in wireless or fiber-optic switching, and when you say you're on the Web, they look at you like you crawled out from under a rock. I mean, come on! The Internet's not going to disappear."

A few paces away there's a table displaying free boxes of toy figurines, mostly characters from The Matrix movie and WWF wrestlers. The benefactor hopes to "bring the principles of Wall Street to toy collectibles on the Web." I take two of the figures. They have tiny full-color features, articulating joints, and painted-on clothes: They're beautiful, in their way. They're not exactly the high-rent tchotchkes found at last year's $400,000 launch parties, but they're better than nothing.

1 "Squish those snails, boy."

2 Phonetic spelling for "Que se vayan a la chingada, pinches explotadores."

3 How old are you?

4 Are you a man or a woman?

5 It's too expensive.

6 Ultrasonic aircraft designed to reach any point on the globe within two hours. SF-Tokyo, for instance, would take 72 minutes.


About The Author

Matt Smith


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