Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for February, 2007

Where are the journalist reorientation therapies?

Posted by metaphorical on 12 February 2007

It’s hard to know how much to condemn an article in today’s NY Times—either a lot, or just quite a bit. What’s wrong with the article is hidden by its title, “Some Tormented by Homosexuality Look to a Controversial Therapy.” If it were only about the poor deluded souls taken in by $240-a-session therapists, that would be one thing. But the article doesn’t get around to saying what bullshit these therapies are until the 7th or 8th paragraph, and then spends all to many subsequent paragraphs taking them seriously.

To be sure, the 8th paragraph is a TKO all by itself, or should be.

“There’s not a debate in the profession on this issue,” said Dr. Jack Drescher, a New York psychiatrist and former chairman of the Committee on Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Issues of the American Psychiatric Association. “This is like creationism. You create the impression to the public as if there was a debate in the profession, which there is not.”

It’s too bad its in the mouth of someone identified as, in effect, an advocate for homosexuality. That’s a tactic of a writer unwilling to write anything about a controversy that might look as if it takes one side or another. That’s just the wrong way to go when one side is 100% ideology and 0% science; even if the other side has some ideology as well, it also has 100% of the science going for it. I call it a tactic because it’s obviously deliberately done: it’s not as if it would have been hard to get an unaffiliated expert to similarly lift sexual reorientation therapy from the ever-replenishing pile of contemporary fad therapies and place it on the same dustbin of discarded psychological ideas as phrenology, Skinnerism, and hysteria.

Why do we need another 34 paragraphs to dismiss these therapies as a blend of religious wishful thinking and unadulterated nonsense—not that the writer ends up dismissing it at all, more’s the pity. Speaking of pity, the Times admirably looks the people desperate to put their psyches, their future happiness, and a not inconsiderable chunk of their wallets, into the hands of charlatans:

Despite the skepticism about whether ex-gay programs can work, there is no denying the struggle of those involved. Among them are evangelical Protestants, Orthodox Jews, Mormons, Roman Catholics and others often driven by deeply held religious beliefs that run counter to societal voices that encourage them to embrace being gay. It is unclear how many people participate in these programs, but a leading Christian organization in the movement, Exodus International, estimated in 2003 it had 11,000 in its affiliated ministries.

It’s a common tactic by the religious right to portray themselves as the oppressed minority, but it’s hard to remember the last time a Greenwich Village fundamentalist teenager was robbed, severely beaten, tied to a fence and left to die. Why the Times would buy into the 180-degree spin of reality suggested by the phrase “societal voices that encourage them to embrace being gay” is a question only its editors can answer.

Then there’s the term “ex-gay,” which is itself interesting in a troubling way. It’s introduced earlier, in this way:

Nevertheless, these efforts, commonly called the “ex-gay” movement, have become increasingly visible across the country, where the battle over gay marriage and sex scandals in the Roman Catholic Church have brought the divisive issue of homosexuality to the forefront in recent years.

The term presumes the conclusion that the therapists want and that science refutes: That a gay person can be made un-gay. Here, its usage is somewhat unassailable: these efforts are sometimes called by this name. Thus introduced, however, the writer is then enabled by some weird and difficult to articulate standard of contemporary mainstream journalism to freely use it to describe the therapies as if they merited the name. War is peace; freedom is slavery, and perpetual motion machines will solve the problem of global warming.

Naturally, the sexual reorienters have some pseudoscience to counter the overwhelming scientific evidence opposing them.

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Posted in journalism, language, Orwell, Times-watch | 3 Comments »

Anna Nicole Smith, by the numbers

Posted by metaphorical on 12 February 2007


was one of the headlines on the front page of the Daily News this morning. Even at 5:00 pm, it was still the #3 story on the paper’s website.

It’s impossible to comment on this, and almost impossible not to. Even when descrying the paparazzi, one is supporting it in some twisted, enabling way. (I guess this is a corollary of the “no news is bad news” rule and its obverse, “any news, however bad, is good news.”)

The Anna Nicole Smith story isn’t just a car wreck, it’s one of those I-80 150-car pile-ups in the middle of Iowa in the middle of winter where 2 tractor-trailers collide, suddenly blocking all 3 westbound lanes. Dozens of dozens of cars behind them start skidding and can’t stop.

In this case it’s 10 different kinds of pills, a 5-month-old baby who may or may not have come to full 9-month term, 2 breast surgeries since the child’s birth to maintain the 39-year-old’s 42-26-38 figure, and at least 3 different men contesting both paternity and 1 sprawling waterfront estate, if I understand the story correctly. Just wow. Jacqueline Suzanne, the inevitable conclusion of your life’s work is calling you.

Posted in journalism, the arts | 3 Comments »

Tuberculosis, mad cow disease, and a porcine plague

Posted by metaphorical on 12 February 2007

No news is bad news, and there’s lots of bad news regarding the health of animals raised to be food for humans. There’s also plenty of bad news in the no-news sense—the mainstream U.S. media resolutely refuses to write about this stuff.

I wrote the other day that overreporting bad news gives people a skewed impression of reality and risk. In this case, underreporting does the same thing, leaving people free to believe that the food supply is healthy and healthful, and that those who worry about this sort of thing are fringe cranks, the sort of people you see wearing hospital masks whenever they walk down a city street.

But first, the good news. “Kansas State study finds new vaccine effective against deadly viral disease affecting swine,” according to a press release from the school.

(PressZoom) – MANHATTAN, KAN. — Researchers from Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine have completed a study showing that a newly-developed vaccine is effective against a deadly viral disease that is affecting swine herds in Kansas.

The disease, most widely known as porcine circovirus associated disease, was first recognized in Kansas swine herds in November 2005. The disease complex is an immunosuppressive condition associated with porcine circovirus type 2 or PCV2.

That’s particularly good news, because it seems the same plague has made its way into Iowa pig herds, via Canada.

Circovirus takes hold in Iowa 

By Kristin Danley-Greiner, Farm News staff

DES MOINES — Pork producers learned at the Iowa Pork Congress last week that a common swine disease plaguing Canada since the 1990s has reared its head in Iowa herds.

That’s not the only animal disease coming down from Canada, there’s our old friend, mad cow disease, as the Canada Press reports.

EDMONTON (CP) – Canada has confirmed its ninth case of mad cow disease since 2003, in an Alberta bull.  

… Eight previous cases of BSE have been detected in Canadian cattle since May 2003, when the discovery of an Alberta cow with the disease caused the United States to slam the border shut to cattle exports entirely.

The border reopened for Canadian beef from younger cattle within months of the original ban. But live cattle have only been allowed to move across the border since July 2005.

Five new cases were discovered in Canada in 2006, including one in a cow born five years after safeguards were adopted to prevent the spread of the disease.

And (to use the same segue twice in a row) that’s not all that’s plaguing cattle these days, according to this Associated Press story:

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Posted in animal-rights, food, journalism, politics | 1 Comment »

Is listening to books on tape reading?

Posted by metaphorical on 11 February 2007

Here’s a question: Rachel listens to books on tape. She said today, “I read The Secret Life of Bees.” Should she? Or should she say, “I listened to The Secret Life of Bees”? Maybe “I heard The Secret Life of Bees”? They all sound bad. What should she say?

Posted in language, writing | 10 Comments »

How much is that snowstorm in the window?

Posted by metaphorical on 11 February 2007

Suburban Diner, Paramus, N.J.
A Sunday morning, seated at the counter

 So we’re going to get a big snowstorm Tuesday night?

Woman to my left:
 It may miss us.

 I saw where some place upstate… Parish? Had 110 inches of snow.


 Parish? Somewhere near Syracuse maybe? Up near the Canadian border, I guess.

 110 inches!

 That has to be for the whole year.

Man in booth behind us:
 Nope, the last 4 or 5 days.

 110 inches?!

 They had two and a half inches an hour, steady.

 That’s a lot of snow.

 Yeah. What is that, 7 or 8 feet?

I should be over it by now, but the innumeracy of people who were somehow awarded high school diplomas (and often college ones) can still stun me, over and over again.

This woman, presumably, knows what an inch is, in some sense, and what a foot is, but can she really be said to understand either of them if she doesn’t get the relationship between them? Maybe she could have worked it out on an SAT test, but shouldn’t some numerical relationships be understood without having to be worked out? How long would it have taken her to say how many quarters make four dollars?

We have so many crutches these days. In the same way that people in suburbia can drive from parking lot to parking lot, and never walk the way New Yorkers do, people don’t do enough math to keep those mental muscles strong and limber. Calculators, digital watches, cash registers that don’t use numbers. (I’ve seen people in restaurants use calculators to divide a check by 3, or to figure out a tip, even though doubling the tax is a very amiable 16.5%.)

So you can get by without having a feel for numbers, but I would think you miss out on a lot. Jane is 27 and her mother is 51. How old was she when Jane was born? The innumerate person would have to ask. If Jack is driving to a city 700 miles away, the innumerate person won’t get right away that it can be done in a long day, nor have any idea how much the gas for such a trip costs. They can’t bargain in a foreign currency, work out the calories in a meal, or figure out what time a movie will end. That can’t be fun.

Posted in education, language | 2 Comments »

“Why did the press fail in its pre-war reporting?”

Posted by metaphorical on 10 February 2007

Gilbert Cranberg asks all the right questions—11 of them, as it happens—concerning “why the press failed in its pre-war reporting” of the Iraq war.

Cranberg spent 33 years at The Des Moines Register, during its heyday as one of the best newspapers in the country. For a while he was in charge of its editorial pages; I think he had that gig during the three years I was at the University of Iowa. He also taught journalism at the university and is still there as an emeritus professor.

I’ve reproduced them all below, but his choice of a top question is particularly interesting:

Q. Why did the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau’s “against-the grain reporting” during the build-up to war receive such “disappointing play,” in the words of its former bureau chief?

Knight Ridder got top marks, in hindsight, for questioning the justifications for war before the fact. It calls to mind their excellent coverage of Katrina as well. It’s no surprise, then, but vastly disappointing, that in corporate media’s inexorable merging into fewer and fewer larger and larger corporations, K-N has been broken up like the Oakland A’s of the 1970s. Bits and pieces were swallowed up by other companies, other parts are floating around, unanchored, and their survival is in doubt. It’s impossible to believe that the individual pieces will retain the quality and integrity of the whole.

To see how extraordinary K-N’s coverage was, contrast it with some of Cranberg’s other questions, which ask about the guilliblity of the NY Times, the Washington Post, and, as it turns out, the Associated Press, about which Cranberg asks this:

Q. Why did the Associated Press wait six months, when the body count began to rise, to distribute a major piece by AP’s Charles Hanley challenging Powell’s evidence and why did Hanley say how frustrating it had been until then to break through the self-censorship imposed by his editors on negative news about Iraq?

I hadn’t known the AP had done that; indeed, Cranberg’s questions raise issues I wasn’t even aware of.

Here are all of them:

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“Friendly to corporations and profits”

Posted by metaphorical on 10 February 2007

Fox News is starting a business-oriented news channel because the existing one, CNBC, is, in the words of Rupert Murdoch, “often too negative and focused on financial scandals.”

Murdoch said Thursday at Media Summit New York that the channel will be “a little more business friendly.”

Because god knows the mainstream U.S. media is unfriendly to business.

Sure, sometimes news outlets do give the public an untrue impression of the world by accentuating the negative. If you report on muggings every night, as most news outlets in New York did during the 1980s and 1990s, you can make people afraid to walk around at night, even if, statistically speaking, it’s pretty darned safe. That’s hardly the problem here, though—business news outlets have covered scandals throughout the last decade and well into this one because businesses—Enron, Andersen, WorldCom, Global Crossing, Qwest, ImClone, Merrill Lynch, et al.—have behaved scandalously. According to the NY Times account, Fox doesn’t plan to ignore scandals entirely:

Asked whether that meant that Fox would go easy on its reporting of the type of corporate scandals like Enron and WorldCom that cost individual investors millions of dollars when those companies collapsed, [Fox chairman and CEO Roger] Ailes replied: “We will be as ruthless in our coverage of business scandals as we have always been.” He said that while thousands of companies have publicly traded securities, “only 9 or 10 are in trouble” at a given time.

That does suggest though, that Fox, hardly known today for its investigative journalism, won’t unearth scandals unless it trips over them, and can’t be counted on to air news of scandals until its rivals do. Instead, it will accentuate the positive.

In a separate interview, Mr. Ailes elaborated. “Many times I’ve seen things on CNBC where they are not as friendly to corporations and profits as they should be.”

Yet as it happens CNBC is at this very moment embroiled in a scandal of its own, for being overly friendly to corporations and profits.

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Web 2.0: Remixing the Web

Posted by metaphorical on 9 February 2007

A rather amazing video, illustrating the power of the Web and the potential of Web 2.0 (with something of an explanation of what Web 2.0 is!) is here.

Then, take a look at this page where the same video can be found, with an ability to comment on it using Web 2.0 tools, just as the video itself describes. In a world of hypertext, the one-eyed self-reference is king, or something like that.

If you love the music (“There’s Nothing Impossible” by Deus), as I do, note that it’s being used for free under a Creative Commons license. How very Web 2.0.

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Ken Kennedy’s H index vs Google ranking

Posted by metaphorical on 9 February 2007

I don’t want to make too much of this, but I was struck yesterday by the fact that two people came into my office to tell me that Anna Nicole Smith died. I barely knew who she was—the woman who married the rich old guy practically on his deathbed?

I also barely knew who Ken Kennedy was, but when the first person stopped in my doorway to tell me about Smith, I was reading an obit about him sent to a mailing list I’m on. Kennedy died at 61 of cancer on Wednesday. He was a University Professor at Rice University, having founded the school’s highly-regarded computer science program.

As a leading expert on high-performance computing, he wrote over 200 technical papers, earning him an “h index” for Computer Science of 54, putting him at a tie for 16th place. The h index is “a useful index to characterize the scientific output of a researcher.” In other words, it’s one way to try to see who the most productive computer science researchers are. By comparison, Donald Knuth, the algorithm guru, and Dave Patterson, the current president of the ACM, are in a group tied at 76th. Kennedy also wrote a book on compilers and supervised 38 Ph.D. dissertations.

I could write an entire page, a pretty boring one, listing all of Kennedy’s achievements and honors; here are just the highest of the highlights. He became a member of the National Academy of Engineering in 1990, a Fellow of the AAAS in 1994 and of the ACM and IEEE in 1995. His IEEE fellow award cited his “leadership in the field of parallel computing.” He also received the IEEE Computer Society’s 1995 W. W. McDowell Award, its highest research award.

Maybe the most impressive achievement is the 38 dissertations. He must have been quite an advisor, because Ph.D. students put a lot of thought into choosing one. You need help focusing your topic and staying on it for the two or five years it takes to finish. You want a nice guy who’s fun to meet with, but mainly one who drives you hard enough to keep you going, but not so hard hard you’re shut down. Grad students talk to one another, and after a few years, an advisor’s track record is an open book. Kennedy seems to have been one of the great ones: 38 is better than one per year, year in and year out, over three decades.

Kennedy started at the school he spent most of his life at, getting a B.A. in math from Rice in 1967. He got his master’s from NYU and then one of that school’s first doctorates in computer science in 1971. He had headed a bunch of parallel-computing projects, including the Center for High Performance Software Research (HiPerSoft), which is actually a kind of meta-project of multi-institutional research projects.

Grid computing does for a network what multiple processors does inside a single computer. It’s obviously a big part of the way we’re going to make computers more powerful and productive in the next decades. I’m sure Anna Nicole Smith has contributed to society in her own way, and by accounts she was a pretty sweet person, but there seems to be something a bit unfair and warped in the fact that this morning there was only a single, lonely Google News hit for Kennedy and 3,386 for Smith.

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Share your Wi-Fi, go to jail

Posted by metaphorical on 8 February 2007

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. You’ll pay a fine, not go to jail.

Westchester County has a law against owning an open Wi-Fi hotspot. While it’s great that it doesn’t have a law against using an open hotspot, this law nonetheless seems out of line.

Last month Network World reported on this and a similar law in California.

Mounting worries about the dangers of too-easy access to wireless LANs have prompted government officials in New York and California to put new laws on the books aimed at preventing network “piggybacking” and exposure of sensitive data in both businesses and homes.

Last October, the local government in Westchester County, N.Y., began enforcing a countywide law requiring all commercial businesses to secure their WLAN access or face fines.

The law, which has the Westchester IT department periodically driving about the county with WLAN probes to test whether businesses have failed to adequately secure their WLANs, was enacted because “we saw piggybacking on Wi-Fi nets,” says county CIO Norm Jacknis. “On these networks, there’s unfettered access to confidential data, and we have a problem with that.”

I don’t know which is more outrageous, that Westchester County would have such a law, or that Network World lets such statements through, apparently unchallenged.

I heard tonight that South African history doesn’t include personal narratives of their slavery era the way the U.S. has because at the time, there was only one printing press in the whole country, and it was thoroughly in the control of the head of state. Westchester’s absurd (and hopefully unconstitutional) law seems like a heavy-handed attempt to ever so slightly diminish our access to the universal printing press of our time.

I sent the following letter today:

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Running for the presidency with art, style, and grammar

Posted by metaphorical on 8 February 2007

In one sentence, with no more than two dependent clauses, tell me why you would make a great president. —Maureen Dowd, to Joe Biden

Maureen Dowd gave Biden a gentle tweaking yesterday, letting him off the hook, at least for one interview, on the Obama business (see this blog’s prior discussion of it here, and a nice job by Jupiter9 here).

What she gently gets at, though, is another important question: how much do we we want to hear from a presidential candidate on the great issues of the day, and how should it be expressed?

Biden is known for being prolix; he further has a difficulty keeping his answers from slipping into the reliably soporific dialect of English known as Beltway-speak. It was this latter problem that got him into trouble on the Obama matter; he was analyzing his opponent in much the same way a campaign media advisor would. That’s just not how you want to talk to national journalists who are going to be quoting you in general-circulation publications.

But the first problem is worth considering as well.

“We’re in a political culture where everything is reduced to bumper stickers and sound bites, and it’s a lot more complicated than that,” Biden told Dowd. That’s when Dowd wittily tried to restrict the number of dependent clauses in his answer to the question of what would make him a great president.

“I really believe the American people get the fact that with the next president there’s no margin for error. He’s going to inherit a world and a nation where this guy is going to leave him in a deep hole. The next president should get us out of Iraq without ruining the Middle East, so Americans should be looking for the person with the most experience.

Biden failed the test of answering in one sentence, and that’s a problem. Politics isn’t so different from literature, where it’s important to be able to express the one thing a work is most centrally about. This was effectively satirized by Woody Allen when he joked, “I took a course in speed reading and was able to read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It’s about Russia.”

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Posted in language, politics, the arts, writing | 2 Comments »

Separating the animal-rights activists from the spiritualists

Posted by metaphorical on 7 February 2007

What if we could create meat without raising and killing animals?

Most vegetarians have more than one reason for not eating meat. Two of them concern the rights of animals: killing animals is morally wrong, and the ways animals are reared are unjustifiably cruel. Other reasons aren’t about the animals so much as us; concerns range from health (meat is bad for you) to the environment (factory farming ruins land and water, it emits greenhouse gases, and by using 10 pounds of grain to make one pound of meat, it wastes resources). Vegetarians may have other reasons as well, but they usually aren’t articulated.

Whenever a bunch of contingent concerns coalesce in one conclusion (“don’t eat meat”), there’s the possibility of new events or technologies to bifurcate them, forcing us to decide what’s really important. If scientists figure out a way to grow a slab of meat the way we grow a plant in a hothouse—without, that is, a sentient animal being involved, would any vegetarians eat it?

Popular Mechanics is reporting that scientists are not only chasing that goal, they’re getting much closer to creating “giant sheets of grayish meat grown on factory racks for human consumption.”

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Posted in animal-rights, food, language, philosophy, politics | 24 Comments »

Is Mitt Romney’s religion fair game?

Posted by metaphorical on 6 February 2007

According to Tim Rutten of the LA Times:

Romney comes from a political family. His father, George, was a liberal Republican, a supporter of civil rights and an opponent of the war in Vietnam. When Mitt Romney, a one-time independent, ran as a Republican against Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1994, he was pro-choice and opposed discrimination against homosexuals by the Boy Scouts. Since then, his adherence to the values of so-called social conservatism has increased along with his national political ambitions.

Well, pandering to the right is certainly fair game. But what about his Mormonism?

Rutter takes to task Jacob Weisberg, who says it is.

A few weeks ago, Jacob Weisberg, editor of the influential online journal Slate, posted a piece that began, “Someone who refuses to consider voting for a woman as president is rightly deemed a sexist. Someone who’d never vote for a black person is a racist. But are you a religious bigot if you wouldn’t cast a ballot for a believing Mormon?” According to Weisberg, no. “If he gets anywhere in the primaries, Romney’s religion will become an issue with moderate and secular voters — and rightly so. Objecting to someone because of his religious beliefs is not the same thing as prejudice based on religious heritage, race or gender. Not applying a religious test for public office means that people of all faiths are allowed to run—not that views about God, creation and the moral order are inadmissible for political debate…. Nor is it chauvinistic to say that certain religious views are deal-breakers in and of themselves … I wouldn’t vote for someone who truly believed in the founding whoppers of Mormonism … [which] is based on such a transparent and recent fraud.”

So long as Weisberg feels the same way about the founding whoppers of Christianity, it’s hard not agree with him. On a scale of weird, impossible-to-believe ideas, there’s no real difference between fundamentalist religions, whether it’s Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, or shellfish-is-an-abomination Judaism. (Or, as Richard Dawkins puts it, “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”) If Weisberg is singling out Mormonism, of course, that’s a fair complaint.

Rutten definitely goes too far, though, when he says:

Worse, Romney “has never publicly indicated any distance from church doctrine.” Thank God Weisberg’s antipathy to Romney isn’t based on religious bigotry.

We’re talking about Romney’s beliefs. Why are some of them off limits? If he’s opposed to gay marriage because of some personal bigotry, that’s a matter of legitimate public interest, but if it’s not even personally based, but grounded in religion, then it’s not?

These “personal beliefs” have public consequences. When someone runs for public office, we need to know what they are. I don’t happen to need to know where he stands on polygamy, because it’s not one of the key issues I care about, but I can see where it’s important to others. For my own part, I don’t want to vote for anyone who denies science’s privileged position on empirical matters, such as evolution. That’s not bigotry, that’s responsible voting.

And when someone like Romney benefits from religious pandering, it’s important they’re punished for it as well. These people have gotten a free ride for long enough, reaping the benefits of irrationality without paying any price. Certainly among my circle of atheistic and agnostic friends, I don’t think we would be so vociferous in our disbelief (e.g., here) if it were not for the rise over the last decade or so in vociferous lunacy coming from the fundamentalist wings of various religions.

And I do mean lunacy, for example the “proof” that the Christian god exists by Samuel J Hunt, a self-described “Pre-Physical Therapy and Dietetics student,” at Western Kentucky University.

As a press release sent to a colleague of mine (which doesn’t seem to be on-line yet) says:

According to the author, the Scientific Method has been subtly proving the Genesis cosmology in every classroom around the world for more than 450 years.

Hunt apparently bases his theory on what he’s learned in his Chemistry 120 and Physics 233 classes. While apparently you have to buy the book to get the whole theory, much of it seems to be reproduced here, including these choice passages:

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Posted in journalism, language, politics, religion | 2 Comments »

Pilotless drone

Posted by metaphorical on 5 February 2007

An angry reader calls the SF Chronicle to complain about a photo caption, and the paper puts it up as a podcast, with no apologies or explanations. Pretty classy, and hilarious.

Posted in journalism, language, technology | 2 Comments »

Was there a massacre of innocents in Najaf?

Posted by metaphorical on 5 February 2007

Journalists can handle ambiguity, but we don’t do well with uncertainty and vagueness. Case in point: we don’t know what happened in Najaf the other day, so we’re just not writing about it very much in the U.S., and when we do, we’re not doing so very thoughtfully.

The Asia Times is reporting a “massacre”:

Pilgrims massacred in the ‘battle’ of Najaf

By Dahr Jamail and Ali al-Fadhily

NAJAF, Iraq – Iraqi government statements over the killing of hundreds of Shi’ites in an attack on Sunday stand exposed by independent investigations carried out by Inter Press Service (IPS).

Conflicting reports had arisen on how and why a huge battle broke out around the small village of Zarqa, just a few kilometers northeast of the Shi’ite holy city Najaf, which is 90km south of Baghdad.

One thing certain is that when the smoke cleared, more than 200 people lay dead after more than half a day of fighting on Sunday. A US helicopter was shot down, killing two soldiers. Twenty-five members of the Iraqi security forces were also killed.

Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now coverage uses the “massacre” word, but with a question mark: “Battle in Najaf: Is US-Iraqi Claim of Gunfight with Messianic Cult Cover-up for a Massacre?” The show did an extended report last week, which you can take in via video, audio, or transcript, but it doesn’t have anything much more conclusive than the lede:

There are new doubts about the US and Iraqi claim that the hundreds of people killed in a battle in Najaf over the weekend were members of a messianic cult. Journalist Patrick Cockburn of the London Independent reports the official story might actually be a cover-up for a massacre.

The general idea is this: the official story is that a religous cult attacked an Army checkpoint, and the Army fought back.

Cockburn says the “cult” was a group of pilgrims and may have gotten itself involved by accident:

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Arise, ye cattle, anoint the shield

Posted by metaphorical on 4 February 2007

It’s tempting to think that the answer to the oppressively cruel cattle culture is for the cows to kill their owners—at least it’s easy to think that when it happens on two farms thousands of miles apart, on successive days, in Ohio (“Farmer killed by cow”), and New South Wales (“Woman dies after cow rams gate”).

The fact is, though, that these were probably the Little-House-On-The-Prairie type farms that are the least objectionable. Factory farms are run like concentration camps and there’s little opportunity for the tattoo’d prisoners to rise up against the guards. Up-close-and-personal family farms, on the other hand, where cows lead generally happy lives between occasional moments of terror and cruelty, are rife with opportunities for insurrection. That it doesn’t happen more seems proof that life there is generally good for both man and beast.

I feel badly for these families, who surely care for the animals in their charge, even as they separate parents from young.

My thanks to the Notmilkman for the links, even as we draw opposite conclusions from them.

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What would you do if you won the Iraq lottery?

Posted by metaphorical on 4 February 2007

It’s fun to imagine winning the lottery. What would you spend it on? The Iraq lottery is the money you would “win” if we weren’t spending billions on the deaths of thousands of U.S. soldiers and unknown thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians.

The first question in any lottery fantasy is, how much?

Back in September the Congressional Budget Office said we’re spending about $8 billion a month in Iraq. In January, it estimated we’ve spent $350 billion so far. And neither of those figures takes into account the 21,500 combat troops that are going over there on the Bush “surge” plan.

The CBO says that will cost $20-$27 billion for a year. Why so much? Well, don’t forget, as the president conveniently seems to whenever he talks about it, the 15,000 to 28,000 support troops needed as well, as MediaMatters notes. (That page also notes that for some reason the NY Times chose to use only the low end of that estimate.)

The Nobel-prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and a colleague, Linda Bilmes, recently estimated the costs will be somewhere between $1 trillion (the “conservative” estimate) and $2 trillion dollars (the “moderate” estimate) for the National Bureau of Research.

So it’s not unreasonable to just ask, in very very very round numbers, what we could have done with half a trillion dollars if we didn’t spend our money on killing three thousand American soldiers and some much greater number of Iraqis?

Back in January, David Shuster was on Hardball discussing just that. Here are his thoughts:

To put the financial cost of the Iraq war into perspective, consider this—Congress is squabbling over whether to spend a billion dollars a year to screen all cargo in passenger airports. For the Iraq war, the U.S. government is spending a billion dollars every four days.

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Divvying up the Middle East

Posted by metaphorical on 3 February 2007

In November 1915, diplomats François Georges-Picot (for France) and Mark Sykes (for Britain) negotiated an ‘understanding’ about how to divide the Middle East into spheres of influence for their respective countries. At the time, the area was still under control of the Ottoman Empire, linked to the Central Powers (Germany and Austro-Hungary) and therefore an opponent of the British, French and other Allies in World War I.

The Sykes-Picot Plan was secretly agreed to by the British and French governments on May 16, 1916. The outlines of the combined zones of influence have partially determined the borders of Syria, Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia as they still stand today. Internally, the zones do not correspond to the present border situation.


To this day, Arabs and Westerners alike are paying the price for British and French hubris in the Middle East. (Not that they did a bang-up job in India or Indochina.) Strange Maps shows the Sykes-Picot map and describes the zones here.

Of course, the days of hubris in the Middle East are not over.

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Advertising paraphernalia: threat or menace?

Posted by metaphorical on 3 February 2007

For those who responded to it, professionals, it had a very sinister appearance. It had a battery behind it and wires. — Massachussetts Attorney General Martha Coakley

The winner this week of the award for Best Hyperbole In An Orwellian Language is Massachussetts Attorney General Martha Coakley. In calling the advertising paraphernalia that was hung around Boston “hoax devices” she presumes most of the case she needs to make before a jury. Because let’s be clear about this: if the fellows in question did anything illegal, it was on the order of hanging up signs on lampposts asking if anyone had seen their missing cat.

If you somehow missed the sight this week of the Boston police department doing a citywide imitation of the Keystone Kops, as they frantically looked for terrifying ad-campaign devices even after they were known to be harmless, the basic facts can be found in any wire service version of the story.

Boston — Several illuminated electronic devices planted at bridges and other spots in Boston threw a scare into the city Wednesday in what turned out to be a publicity campaign for a late-night cable cartoon. Most if not all of the devices depict a character giving the finger. 

Peter Berdovsky, 29, of Arlington, was arrested on one felony charge of placing a hoax device and one charge of disorderly conduct, state Attorney General Martha Coakley said later Wednesday. He had been hired to place the devices, she said.

A second man has since been charged as well.

Others can debate the level of irresponsibility on the part of Turner Broadcasting, the advertising firm, and the freelance contractors who actually placed the signs. What’s important to watch is the way language is being twisted to suit the aims of the mayor, the police, and the attorney general, who themselves have quite a bit to answer for, as it was their overreaction, not the placing of the devices, that virtually shut down a major city this week.

By using the phrase “placing a hoax device,” Coakley imports to the case the idea that those involved intended to place devices that would look like bombs, and, presumably, therefore intended to create the chaos that ensued.

That’s in fact exactly what they didn’t do. They hung the same device in a number of locations in 10 cities around the U.S. “Only Beantown went berserk,” to quote a blog in the online Cape Cod Today.

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Obama and the language of race

Posted by metaphorical on 2 February 2007

When black Americans refer to Obama as ‘one of us,’ I do not know what they are talking about. —Stanley Crouch

The Obama story just keeps getting better and better, at least for anyone interested in the intersection of language and politics.

The NY Times has a story today with the headline, “So far, Obama can’t take black vote for granted.”

The black author and essayist Debra J. Dickerson recently declared that “Obama isn’t black” in an American racial context. Some polls suggest that Mr. Obama trails one of his rivals for the Democratic nomination, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, in the battle for African-American support.

The phrase ” ‘Obama isn’t black’ in an American racial context” is cryptic at best. What the Times has in mind is better expressed by another person interviewed.

“When you think of a president, you think of an American,” said Mr. Lanier, a 58-year-old barber who is still considering whether to support Mr. Obama. “We’ve been taught that a president should come from right here, born, raised, bred, fed in America. To go outside and bring somebody in from another nationality, now that doesn’t feel right to some people.”

It’s hard not to see this as a rather complete breakdown of the inadequate language we use to enforce rather meaningless distinctions. The term “African-American” is a made-up term of recent coinage, intended to be on a par with “Italian-American” and “Irish-American.” But Africa isn’t the same sort of place as Italy or Ireland, and one of the reasons the African diaspora experience is different from that of European immigrants and their descendents is that they are usually cut off from even the most basic details of their ancestry. Certainly the term ‘black’ is problematic, but if ‘African-American’ is supposed to be a synonym for it, it’s a poor one given that it on the face of it includes white supremacists from South Africa.

Obama’s father was born in Kenya; of what used to be called the Negro race. His mother, who surely checks off the box ‘Caucasian’ on the census, was born in the American “heartland” state of Kansas. If anyone can claim to be African-American, this is the man. And yet, he’s not African-American in the way that the people for whom the term was invented are.

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