On a clear day, I can see right through you

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When the Chinese government announced its decision to revalue its currency recently, the headline on The New York Times website the next day was "China Adopts Opaque Currency Policy."

As the story explained:

"China has abandoned one of the world's clearest currency policies, a tightly managed peg of the yuan to the dollar that had endured since 1997. China has chosen instead to adopt one of the world's most opaque currency policies, with a secret mechanism to reset the yuan's value each night."

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"Opacity" in this sense has nothing to do with watercolor or other pigments; rather, it's being used to contrast with its good twin, "transparency."

Transparency - both the word itself and the concept it represents - is an important new offering in the global marketplace of policy ideas. As your broker might tell you, it's a "buy and hold."

In its newer meaning, transparency refers to that which is open to public scrutiny, including the international public; that which is not corrupt. Some observers point to transparency in this sense as the next big thing in human rights. Transparency International, based in Berlin, is a major player in this movement. The folks there know a thing or two about opacity, too, even "sudden opacity," which it inveighed against when Nigeria repealed its anticorruption law a couple of years ago.

Other recent transparencies:

Germany's constitutional court has just ordered the country's life insurance companies to make their system for calculating policy payouts more "transparent," for instance.

The headline of a recent Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial on mad-cow disease called for "transparent cows," which I should think would be hard to round up for milking.

Our language is full of words whose original meaning is extended or even overtaken by a metaphorical one. Transparent has come full circle. Its metaphorical meaning has been made concrete again - literally, that is, rendered in concrete and glass as architects have designed public buildings for institutions wanting to communicate openness to the public. Such buildings are, in effect, elaborate visual puns.

A particularly well-known example of this phenomenon is the Lloyds Building in London (home of the famous insurance exchange), designed by Sir Richard Rogers. Another is the Reichstag dome in Berlin, whose glass cupola, designed by his friend, Sir Norman Foster, is similarly intended to let the sunshine into the German legislative process - never mind Bismarck's famous comment about sausagemaking.

Not so long ago, being transparent was not necessarily anything to be proud of: "In a transparent attempt to divert attention from the unfolding scandal, the administration announced an urgent humanitarian intervention in Outer Bazookistan. The ruse was effective until several of the White House press corps, trying frantically to locate the helpless country with the GPS function of their cellphones, realized there was no such place."

Sometimes there can be too much transparency. The official Watchdog for Privacy in Rome has just determined that the Eternal City's requirements for transparent trash bags - to ensure trash is being properly sorted for recycling, apparently - pose a threat to personal privacy. Identity thieves and other sidewalk snoops could scope out bank statements, medical records, and the like before the big city garbage truck rumbles up to the curb, it's thought. Sometimes a little opacity is not a bad thing.

This appears with links at: http://weblogs.csmonitor.com /verbal_energy

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