October, 2013

French grammar books: unparalleled patriotism or right-wing conspiracy?

French grammar texts are obsessed with the French flag.

French grammar texts are obsessed with the French flag.

No one loves the French flag more than designers of French grammar books. No one…except, perhaps….

Far right propaganda (or maybe a Tide commercial)

Far right propaganda (or maybe a Tide commercial)

the Front National! Hmm….Could there be a connection? Could the xenophobic right-wing French political party be conspiring with designers of French grammar books to co-opt not only the French flag, but also the entire French language?

Well, no, actually. That would be insane.

But now that I’ve got your attention, allow me to rant about the laziest design decision of virtually every French language textbook on the market: tricolor flags and Eiffel Towers.

I contend that nothing could be less French than a book all tarted up in the tricolore. Now, if we were talking about a book of American Grammar, I would say, Go for it! Slap American flags all over that baby! We Americans are all about ostentatious displays of patriotism:

dudeinflagshirtandhat dudeinflagpants dudeinflagshirt


Don’t even think about denying us our right to plaster our flag all over our bodies (look how much trouble Roger Ebert got into in 2010 when he “made the mistake of using irony and wit” in a post about kids wearing flag shirt at school).

But the French don’t like to wear their patriotism on the sleeves. Sporting events (but even then, it’s jerseys) and political rallies excepted, you won’t see a lot of flags on French people. Take this look:



It says, “Hello. I am a tourist.” Or “I am in French club” (which is great. we <3 you. we want you to buy our book and perhaps one day a much cooler t-shirt) But it does NOT say “Bonjour. Je suis français(e).”

I confess. I once owned a Ralph Lauren jeans jacket with an American flag on the back and wore it in Paris. I went to get my hair cut and the stylist said, “You Americans love to wear your flag. We just don’t do that…[then, perhaps, trying to make sure he still got a tip…] Of course, your flag is a lot more interesting than ours.”  —Damn straight, french fry!, I responded, y’all are just a bunch of surrender monkeys.

Kidding. I actually realized that it must seem strange that a foreigner living in your country would label themselves with their flag. I mean, what is that? Sartorial imperialism? A handy time-saver for pickpockets?

For me, seeing a French flag on the cover of a French grammar book means one or more of the following:

  1. The designer thinks you’re stupid. (How will they know it’s French without the flag?)
  2. The designer has assumed that all countries are as in love with their flag as America.
  3. The designer is lazy.
  4. The designer is trying to assuage the fears of right-wing extremists who don’t want foreigners learning their language by telling them that we, too, can adopt their veneration for their flag.
  5. The publishing house has out-sourced all cover design to the youth movement of the Front national.

End of rant.*

*This rant brought to you by the committee for more original textbook design (currently, 2 members).

What The French?! now works on your Mac desktop computer!

What The French?! Works on OS Mavericks

What The French?! Works on OS Mavericks

The new Mac OS Mavericks, available as a free upgrade from Apple lets you view (and sync)  all iBooks right on your desktop. This means that if you have a Mac, but not an iPad, you can still buy What The French?! and enjoy it in all its interactive splendor even if you don’t have an iPad.

What The French?! on the iBookstore

What The French?! on the iBookstore

The iBookstore still has a little warning that iBooks made for iPad might not have the same functionality on a desktop, but I tested What The French?! on my desktop and it worked perfectly. I used the arrow keys to scroll through the pages, and the mouse to click the right answers on the review quizzes. Flawless.

Screenshot 2013-10-23 15.14.00

What The French?! on the iBookstore (don’t let the little warning about functionality worry you. It works great on a desktop!)


Now, all Mac users can buy What The French?! and help us move one step closer to total world domination. [maniacal laugh. maniacal laugh.]

So if you have an Apple desktop or an iPad (including mini), you can now get our book. Doesn’t look like it works on iPhones yet. We’ll keep you posted.

Don’t have Apple stuff? Hate smug Apple users and their zealotry? Well, as Andrew wrote in his last post, he has been slaving away converting What The French?! to epub format for kindle users. It won’t have the same degree of interactivity, sadly (i.e. you’ll have to look at an answer key for the quizzes), because we’re not computer programmers, but it will still have all of the same content.

What’s $10 worth?

What The French?! is a comprehensive textbook of French grammar for beginning or continuing students. It’s full of examples and exercises for your learning pleasure. It costs $9.99 (so basically $10…we know we’re not fooling anyone with that penny).

So aside from a copy of What The French?!, what can you get for $10? What’s ten bucks worth?

For $10…

  • You could go to a live music venue and get the pretentious new album of a local band who thinks their music is worth $10.
Married To The Sea comic: printing our music on sheets * Text: We are conducting this Kickstarter for funds to print our music on sheets, for it is Expensive, but if you donate enough. I will give you my hat, and also the sheet music, and also my hat will smell like hair

(click to go to source)

  • You could have two $5 footlongs, not counting tax.


  • You could get 10 things at a dollar store, most of which you’ll regret immediately.

(Except for the googly eyes. You’ll never regret the googly eyes.)

  • You could buy about a couple hundred loose screws at a hardware store.

Let’s play “Who can fit the most screws in their mouth without crying”!

You’d have to work a little over an hour and fifteen minutes if you were working at the federal minimum wage.

How many copies of What The French?! could you get with…

  • the price of the 2013 US government shutdown? At an estimated $24 billion, you could buy 2,400,000,000 copies of the book…enough for most of the people in India and China combined.

  • the inflation-adjusted value of the Mona Lisa? That’s a solid 76,000,000 copies you could get…and who even actually wants to see that old painting, anyway?
See adjacent text.

Trade for millions of ebooks. It’s what Leonardo would have wanted.

I can’t tell you what to do (yet), but hopefully this quick look at the real value of $10 will have you convinced of what a great deal What The French?! is. If you already knew that and you’re just waiting for it to come out on non-Apple devices, great news: the formatting is almost done, and the conversion to other formats should be done very soon.

Crazy French Ideas: Creating an inland sea

The 1800s were kind of a big deal for France. The country burned through governments like a chain smoker through cigarettes. France was a colonial power to be reckoned with, and new means of transportation meant the colonies were much better connected to la patrie. To many of the thinkers and doers of the time, it seemed as though France could accomplish whatever it set its mind to.

Take Ferdinand de Lesseps.

Ferdinand de Lesseps.jpg

This is the guy who brought the world the Suez Canal, allowing ships to travel from the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea (saving ships the trouble of going around all of Africa to get from Europe to Asia). This was a huge project; when first completed, the canal was “164 km (102 mi) long and 8 m (26 ft) deep” (Source), all done without the benefit of modern machinery (but with the benefit of forced labor, which France was totally into at the time).

“It’s like playing in a sandbox, but if you stop, they shoot you.”

With this impressive point on his résumé, de Lesseps felt more than up to the task of what is today the Panama Canal. Unfortunately for him, the climate there did not cooperate. Malaria and yellow fever were problematic for workers, and then there was the (not unheard of in French circles) problem of corruption. It wasn’t until the US bought the project that it was completed, partially thanks to Theodore “Skullcrusher” Roosevelt throwing a stern look in Panama’s direction.

T Roosevelt.jpg

“Try and stop me, Panama. I dare you. I double dare you.”

OK, but the real kicker is that the Panama Canal was not even close to the craziest project de Lesseps had his eye on. That distinction belongs to the idea, originally from Élie Roudaire (also French, if you hadn’t guessed) that part of the Sahara could become an inland sea, with a little help from France.

inlandsea1The idea was that Algeria and Tunisia had large areas that were well below sea level, and all it would really take to fill them up would be to build some short canals from the Mediterranean and then let the water do its thing. Not too hard, right? Well, not really. The problem was in convincing people that it should be done, not that it could. At the time, that meant asking the question, “What would that do for France?”

Some of the arguments for the project were that it would change the desert climate to something more hospitable (and, according to the thinking of the day, improve the chances of “civilizing” the natives) and make it easier for France to exercise control over the area. Probably the most appealing reason to people like Roudaire and de Lesseps, though, was that changing the world was just what French people did.

Ultimately, the expeditions sent to figure out the feasibility of the project ran into trouble, and the money to begin the project never came through.

Personally, though, I think that’s what the Sheikhs should do with all their oil money. Transform the Sahara into a mini-Mediterranean, and show the French just what they were missing out on.

Paris Street Art + Quote


Impossible is very French, but failure is not an option

Whenever I hear someone say “Impossible n’est pas français!” I want Dwight to come to my defense:



Not only is “impossible” a French word (via Latin, of course), but it is one of the French people’s favorite words.

In the negation chapter of What The French?!  I speculate the Napoleon coined the expression simply to be contrarian. If there’s one thing the French like as much as negating sentences, it’s asserting that things are pas possible. 

Customer service in France can be summed up like this: Non! Ce n’est pas possible. C’est impossible. Impossible. Non. (insert a squirrel-like clicking noise signifying “no” here for complete authenticity.)

English translation of an actual conversation at the shop of famed ice cream maker Berthillon:

Customer: Could we get that in a cup instead of a cone?

Berthillon employee: No.

Customer: But you have cups right there.

Berthillon: No. It’s impossible.

Customer: It’s for our child. He’s only 18 months old. He can’t hold a cone without dropping it.

Berthillon: Sorry, but it’s not possible.

Customer: We can pay for the cup.

Berthillon: Next.

To be fair, there are situations in which the chief reason that French people like to tell you that something is “impossible”is so that they can demonstrate their power to overcome the impossible (the Berthillon incident was not one of those times). In other words, “impossible” is the perfect straw man for the bureaucrat with a God-complex. Nothing is more French than creating impossibilities for the sole purpose of overcoming them.

Impossible, therefore, no matter what Napoleon thought, is decidedly French. Failure, however, is not an option.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of having dinner with designer, Adrien Gardère. Earlier in the day he had given a presentation about some his projects such as his design for the interior displays of the impressive Musée du Louvre-Lens, his work for the Cairo Museum of Islamic Art, his successful lighting and furniture design, and, well, so many amazing projects, that during the Q&A, someone in the packed museum asked him if he could talk about one of his failures. He was stunned—not because he would have been unwilling to talk about failure, but because no one had ever asked the question before. “Only in America,” he said, “is value placed on failure.” In America, people like to talk about how many times you must fail in order to succeed. In France, people don’t talk about failure (at least not their own). In short, failure is not an option. And if it occurs, you certainly don’t celebrate it as part of your narrative of success. The fact that this curious cultural difference was still on his mind five hours later at dinner shows you just how stunning the thought of even asking that question is to a French person. It stunned me as well. I had honestly never thought of the different value that France and America place on the idea of failure.

In America, we can be like Thomas Edison, failing 3,000 times or so before inventing the next big thing, making failure part of the eventual success. In France, instead, you have Napoleon’s famous dictum: Impossible n’est pas français—the perfect example of a mentality that refuses to value failure.

What the formatting?! or, I have no idea what I’m doing

Don’t worry, French fans, I have a very good idea of what I’m doing when it comes to French grammar. Where I’m completely lost, though, is the world of ebook formats.

We wrote What The French?! inside of iBooks Author, a piece of software provided by Apple for free in the hopes that authors will use it to make Apple money. It’s like a lot of Apple stuff: sometimes beautifully intuitive, sometimes utterly rage-inducing. Consistency in formatting was a bit of a nightmare, but I’m happy (and a little sheepish) to say that I got off easy on that count, since I was busy doing the illustrations. So why did we choose iBooks Author in the first place?

It was really a matter of how easy the program made it for us to include interactive exercises within the text of the book. Instead of the old-school method of lists of questions with answer keys, our book in the iBooks format lets you answer the questions and find out if you’re right. It also removes the possibility of peeking at the answers before actually trying.

iba demo

The problem is…well, the main problem is, a lot of people aren’t citizens of the Apple Kingdom. So even with the upcoming OSX Mavericks update (which will finally allow users to read the book on OSX-running desktops and phones), we’re still withholding this wonderful book from anyone running Windows, Linux, Android or any of the many flavors thereof.

Because we want those people’s money, I’m about to immerse myself in the confusing, upsetting world of ebook formats in an effort to get What The French?! to the good people of all operating systems and devices, and (if I’m going to be totally honest) to get their money into my hands.

To give you an idea of what that means, though, check out this table of contents on the Wikipedia article “Comparison of e-book formats”:

ebook formats

So there are a lot of them. No big deal, right? And my answer is, I honestly have no idea. I’m pretty intimidated by the prospect, but I plan to dive on in anyway. The things to figure out are:

  • Which formats do I need to put it into? (For now, that looks like it’ll be at least the ePub and the Kindle-specific KF8. I need to research it more, though.)
  • Where can we sell the ebook (which online stores) for the royalty rate we’re currently getting (70%)? Amazon is the only one I know of right now.
  • What are my options for interactivity? If it’s too hard, what other solutions are there? (Hint: if all else fails, lists of questions and an answer key are what it’s going to have to be).

Feel free to use the “contact us” form if you have any input on this.

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