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Archive for March 2008

Buenos Aires Waterspout (Water Tornado) Was No Surprise

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Earlier this month, two waterspouts were formed over the River Plate (Río de la Plata) discomfortingly close to the capital city of Argentina, Buenos Aires, in the suburban sprawl surrounding the capital known as Gran Buenos Aires. The storm which caused these tornado-like formations flooded large parts of the city. While this is the “rainy season”, this is one of many recent local weather anomalies, and anomalous extreme weather seems to be becoming commonplace worldwide.

 I’m originally from Kansas. If you’re from Kansas, you know that living in tornado alley means having to learn the basics on how they form and what warning signs to look for. I don’t know anyone from Kansas who doesn’t have their own colorful description of the tornado sky. A couple of years ago, no one in Buenos Aires could remember a hailstorm. Small, infrequent hailstorms seem to have happened in recorded history, but it was an extremely rare occurrence.

In July, 2006 I stood on my balcony and looked up at a familiar Kansas tornado sky. The sickly yellow-green glow and that strange feeling that’s hard to describe but has something to do with atmospheric pressure and feeling powerlessly small made me immediately start thinking where in the apartment building I could take cover. It was the kind of weather that forms tornadoes, as some newscasters were saying afterward. What followed was a hailstorm of unmatched proportions in this part of Argentina, causing millions of dollars of damage to the city and to cars, collapsing some roofs, and putting holes through my balcony furniture that I could pit my fist through.

 I strongly recommend that you turn down the volume on your speakers/headphones before watching this:

 The car which passes above IS on the sidewalk, trying to avoid hail damage by driving under balconies. The cameraman says, “They’re the size of baseballs!”

This storm opened the floodgates in some kind of proverbial sense; ever since then smaller hailstorms have been frequent. Hail is formed by the kind of circular wind movement which causes tornadoes, and often appears during or right before tornadoes. Freezing rain falls and is lifted up in the wind, where another layer of ice freezes on it, and it falls again. Once it is too heavy, it will fall; until then it continues to be lifted up and to gather layers of ice. So large hailstones are present in extremely severe storms, with strong, circular winds which represent a serious tornado threat.

 I’m not one to say I told you so, but I definitely saw this coming. Local weather patterns have obviously shown serious changes, with hotter summers, cold winters, and generally more extreme weather. I privately (and with no way to prove it) predicted that a tornado would hit Gran Buenos Aires in a matter of years, because I’m seeing storms that resemble those of my home state, and noticing that the people here are seeing a difference. There is a rainy season, but the storms have been less frequent and more severe.

 Apart from the fact that this is causing wide-spread flooding (which is largely due to a sewer system in desperate need of some basic upkeep) I believe there is a real danger that if trends continue, a tornado will hit an unprepared city with devastating consequences.

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The above picture shows a view of the waterspouts from Olivos, a suburban area just outside the capital. Imagine a tornado, regardless of its size, hitting an urban area where almost all buildings are like the apartment buildings you see here, one next to the other. Add to this the fact that the people here are not used to tornadoes and do not know how to properly protect themselves. The apartment I lived in during the hailstorm was a studio with a large glass door to the balcony. Anyone in such an apartment who doesn’t know to hide in the stairwell may find broken glass flying through their home. Building entryways are walled with gigantic mirrors in many buildings. The results of a tornado here, even if it doesn’t topple apartment buildings, could still cost many lives.

 Even worse would be a tornado impact in the villas de emergencia. These are extremely poor neighborhoods with homes built with scrap material, some of them several stories high and divided into apartments (where rent is paid and the cost is rising). These areas would be flattened by even a small tornado and the debris could be extremely deadly.

 The fact that weather patterns here are changing is obvious. This winter, it snowed in Buenos Aires for the first time in 89 years. I can’t say that this is the first time a waterspout has been seen in Buenos Aires, but I have been unable to find any source stating that it is or is not (if anyone can help me with this, let me know). It’s something we’re seeing all over the world, and not just because of increased media coverage. People are still rationalizing until they can convince themselves that a particularly cold or icy winter is proof that global warming does not exist, when it actually demonstrates the nature of the problem. Global climate change’s immediate effect on the weather is to cause more severe, unpredictable, and regionally abnormal weather which is already causing human lives to be endangered and lost, will continue to do so and get worse as time goes on. We have to do something to reverse the process, and the longer we wait to do it, the worse things will get before they stabilize.

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Written by Alex (Capitalocracy)

March 15, 2008 at 7:30 am

Posted in Gonzo Report

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Why Bother Learning English?

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I stumbled on a WordPress blog by a blogger from Sri Lanka containing a short article on the importance of learning English. It made me want to write about a subject I think about every once in awhile, the role of English as an international language and why people around the world feel so pressured to learn it.

It is true that English is useful because knowing English allows a traveler to communicate with people (at least people in the tourism and service industry) around the world. English isn’t a bad choice as a Western international language; its combination of Latin word origin and German usage makes it fairly easy to learn for people who speak various European languages. What’s interesting is that it’s also the international language pretty much everywhere in the world. It’s commonly used when a Chinese and a Japanese person wish to communicate. I saw a documentary featuring an Israeli and a Palestinian family meeting to talk about the Israel-Palestine conflict, and their children communicated using the English they were learning in school.

 In a way, it’s a good thing to have an international language. They tried it with Esperanto, but that obviously wasn’t going anywhere. The language of diplomacy was French in the past, and Spanish might make more sense, but the international language is now doubtlessly English. This is true despite the fact that the worst English speakers in the world are in the United States, where a lack of decent public education leaves many people barely able to speak, read, or write in their own language. American English and international English are very different.

 The reason for this has partly to do with outsourced customer service work, but also has to do with the fact that the U.S. now mostly exports ideas. Computers are programmed to work in various languages, but error messages pop up in English. No nation spends as much money developing media, movies, music, and television, and no nation exports these products like the U.S., spreading a sort of illusion, not only that the U.S. is a universally prosperous place, but that anybody who’s anybody speaks English. There’s also a stereotype, which may be true considering our lack of language education, that U.S. tourists are less willing to learn other languages, even just enough for vacationing, and demand that the places they go to spend their tourist dollars provide English-speaking service.

 The dark side to all this is that there’s kind of a misconception that learning English opens doors to all these amazing opportunities and will allow you to get great jobs and make a good living and travel and be able to communicate with anyone in the world and so on and so forth. This illusion is so strong that people consider it charitable work to teach English to poor people. But it’s just not as simple as that.

 Outsourced call centers which hire customer service representatives and telemarketers in foreign countries are not trying to do any kind of charity work. Politicians do endless favors to these businesses because they’re desperate to keep unemployment numbers down, and if you need an example of what final effect this has on the people and cities involved, just look at the rust belt. Here in Buenos Aires, which I can use as an anecdotal example because I live here, this is what happens with these businesses. They do not pay enough for people to live, but at the same time, they get this image of being a good place to work because they pay slightly more than other employers. In other sectors, knowing English becomes a prerequisite for employment whether the job really requires it or not. So rather than becoming an opportunity to excel, knowing English is a necessity to compete.

Outsourcers become the employment standard in places where they are common, and instead of other employers raising wages to compete with call centers, they lower their wages. The attitude is that if a wealthy, multinational corporation is only willing to pay a certain amount, a smaller business trying to make ends meet shouldn’t be expected to even come close. But the multinationals have come to Argentina in the first place precisely because they can take advantage of a populace with plenty of decent English speakers without having to pay a good wage. Buenos Aires is just as expensive to live in as any midsize city or large town in the U.S. and the cost of living is rising fast, but an English-speaking call center employee is unlikely to make more than $500 per month, with little possibility for advancement.

 So how can this continue? How can a person work who can’t afford to eat? Buenos Aires is a perfect candidate for call center exploitation because there is a remnant of the times of relative posperity following the international rise of the middle class which pays the expenses of the new generation of workers. For now, this is a perfect situation for the call centers. Some of these kids are noticing that they do not have a future in what they’re doing now, and are starting to realize that in this nation, they may never find a job which pays their cost of living. As a matter of fact, a lot of them are leaving, hoping things will be easier in Europe. But there remain enough workers who live with their parents or with their parents’ money, who are willing to work at call centers for midlength periods of time in order to pay for iPods, clothing, alcohol, and other recreational items to keep these call centers stocked until they drain the resources of their employees’ parents and move on to another nation.

 The illusion of the prosperity that can come with learning English, and the harsh reality that, with so many people learning it, knowing English is becoming a requirement for even the most basic jobs, is making English education a huge business here. But that doesn’t mean much help for the English-speaking population. Multinational English institutes are paying their teachers, whose skill is what makes their business viable, less than half a percent of what they charge and well below a living wage. When they send teachers to homes or businesses for private classes, they pay the taxi driver more for transporting them than they pay the teachers themselves.

 So why bother learning English?

Written by Alex (Capitalocracy)

March 10, 2008 at 3:08 am