Sunday, June 11, 2006

OK, I have to ask this. One of the leading British football/soccer teams is called Arsenal. (This was the team of which the main character was a fanatic supporter in Nick Hornby's book "Fever Pitch", and the 1997 movie closely based on it, though not, of course, in the 2005 U.S. remake.) Now, I think I can still keep this blog rated PG as I ask: given what "arse" means in British English, doesn't this set the team up for a lot of mockery? Or maybe it never occurs to anyone. (Or maybe anyone to whom it does occur is too afraid of being beaten to a pulp by hooliganish fans of the team.) After all, though I'm not much of a follower of sports news and talk, I've never heard anyone make the equivalent joke about the Houston Astros.

And the coach of Arsenal is a Frenchman named Arsene. Did they hire him just for that?

So many book advertisements, and covers, bear the legend "New York Times bestseller", even with the name of the paper in the Gothic typeface used on front page, just so we're sure. It's as if appearing on the bestseller list (or lists, for there are several) somehow connotes approval of the book by America's highbrow newspaper of record, as if it were some kind of "15 best" list, akin to the top-ten lists compiled by many film critics at the end of the year, rather than the gross revenue figures released by the studios and distributors each week. Although some argue with the Times's counting methodology, bestseller status is basically an objective measure, not a subjective judgment. So why should we be impressed by the name "New York Times"? Or is it just that if it is going to claim bestseller status for one of its books, a publisher has to give an attribution, noting who says it's a bestseller?

Isn't it funny how in an economic context, the word "liberal" still has its 18th century meaning, so that the folks pushing "neoliberal" economic and trade policies tend to be political conservatives? You'd think that with "liberal" being such a dirty word to them, they would have found another term by now.

Monday, June 05, 2006

In a tasteful move, President George W. Bush gave a speech reiterating his opposition to same-sex marriage on a day when the world, and in particular the gay community, was marking 25 years of the AIDS epidemic. I'm sure that was carefully coordinated with his "base". Meanwhile, a Constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman was introduced in the Senate. I hate it when the issue is phrased that way. If they want to ban gay marriage, the amendment should read, "There shall be no gay marriage in the U.S." Just be honest, OK?

Here in California, we're having a primary election tomorrow. In the race for the Democratic nomination for Governor to challenge Arnold Schwarzenegger, the two main candidates are Phil Angelides, who made a lot of money in real estate and now serves as one of the top state fiscal officials (treasurer), and Steve Westly, who made a lot of money as an executive at eBay and now serves as one of the top state fiscal officials (comptroller). I'm not sure exactly who does what; I should look it up in the state constitution. Maybe one keeps an eye on the other. The two have even more in common: they have been campaigning mainly by running nasty negative ads against each other, and neither has the support of more than about 35 percent of voters in polls. (An almost equal number are still undecided, like Your Humble Commando Etymologist.) About the only difference is that Angelides is a little geekier looking (in fact, he looks a little like YHCE.) And he went to Harvard. Westly went to Harvard wannabe Stanford. But he's from the Bay Area. Oh, and Westly's website is a lot higher tech; I guess he learned something at eBay.

I've heard, though, that in order to get a take advantage of recent news to get a last-minute edge, the Treasurer has decided to "rebrand" himself as "Angelides Jolie".

Blond, chiseled-faced Westly has responded by noting his own resemblance to a blond, chiseled-faced actor, so that now the whole election has been rebranded, or "reBranned", as "Brangelides", with the degree of nastiness likened to that shown in "Mr. & Mrs. Smith". ("Brangelina", actually, sounds to me more like a high-fiber natural cereal than a couple.)

Personally, I think that, given that there's no real difference between them (oops, spoiler?), if Westly wants to be Brad Pitt, Angelides should be Edward Norton, and the election modeled on "Fight Club".

I mean, considering that one of them will be going up against Arnold Schwarzenegger, they'd better start working on becoming movie action heroes. (Although I watched "Terminator 3" the other day, and it was awful. Well, it was awful even if you liked the first two in the series. It had none of their originality; everything in it had been done in the first two, and it didn't even make sense on its own terms. I'm almost glad that Schwarzenegger has gone into politics, if it will keep him from making movies like this. By the way, I refuse to call him, or any other politician, by his first name, no matter how many campaign signs they put out bearing it in bigger letters than the surname, or how difficult that surname is to pronounce.)

By the way, note that I use "Democratic" as the adjectival form of "Democrat" : "Democratic Party", "Democratic nomination", etc. Ever notice how many Republicans refuse to do this? They speak of "Democrat plans" or the "Democrat Party". (The latter of which is just wrong, since "Democratic" is part of the party's official name, not a descriptive term.) To them, I guess, "Democratic" is too evocative of its small-d version. (So one could argue that the party is unfairly trying to take advantage of this connotation, and so the Republicans are under no obligation to use the non-neutral term, any more than the Democrats would call their rivals the value-loaded "Grand Old Party".) "Republican", of course, is both noun and adjective (maybe the Republicans would argue that if *they* have to use the same word, so should the Democrats. It's interesting how when the Democrats started out under Jefferson, they were called "Democratic-Republicans"; "democratic" had a negative connotation to the Founding Fathers as suggesting mob rule, while "republican" (small r, of course), described the form of government guaranteed to all the states in the Constitution (Article IV, Section 4). Today, "democratic" is always used positively, at least in this country, to describe the sort of government we want to bring to the world (whether it wants it or not), and "republican", almost never in any context. Is it better to have a term unique to you, or to have a name with other meanings, and hope they will be positive?

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Have you ever noticed that in almost every New York Times article about an actress, she is described as coming to meet the reporter for an interview wearing "not a trace of makeup"? (It shows that despite all the hype about how beautiful and glamorous she is, the actress is really a simple, down to earth, girl-next-door who just runs on talent.) I'm always amazed when the exact same expression is used over and over, like a formula in an oral epic (the way, for instance, in the Iliad, Dawn is always "rosy-fingered" and Zeus is often "cloud-gathering".) Did an order go out from the editor in chief? Is it just the reporters imitating each other? Or has word gotten around the acting community never to wear makeup to a New York Times interview?

OK, I'm confused about the name of the Burmese dissident leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. My impression was that those four syllables constitute her surname, not her personal name. That's "Daw". So if you want to refer to her formally, you say "Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi", or "Aung San Suu Kyi" (depending on whether your stylebook says to refer to John Smith as "Mr. Smith" or just "Smith" on second reference.) But I've also seen/heard her referred to as "Suu Kyi". Even on her website, . So what gives? I know her father was the general Aung San. I know plenty of Burmese only have one name, such as Thant, the diplomat and U.N. Secretary General. ("U" was an honorific, like "Mr.") I actually think it's kind of cool how in several countries in the news, such as Afghanistan and Indonesia, people use only one name. I love how at some point in every New York Times article on Indonesia, at some point, some man in the street is quoted, and in the attribution comes the explanatory "who like many Indonesians uses only one name", just so readers don't think the reporter forget to get full information (or was trying to protect a source's identity.) I always wondered what 80's Afghani leader Najibullah's first name was, only to find he didn't have one. This is an interesting issue that comes up in library cataloging, which, I guess I might as well mention, it what I do for a living. (Well, not really for a living. For an internship though that takes up a lot of my time and gives me some spending money while I finish off my Master's degree in Library and Information Science.) What is the correct form of the name? What should we file it under? In the UC Berkeley catalogs, which is what I work on, which goes by surname first, everything by her is under "Aung San Suu Kyi", not "Aung San Suu Kyi, Daw" or "Suu Kyi, Aung San".

I love hearing reports about Iran's nuclear program, because the words "Iranian" and "uranium" go so well together. Say it three times fast, "Iranian uranium Iranian uranium Iranian uranium ... ." Of course, you have to pronounce it the "American" way, "eye-rain-ee-an", not the more correct "ee-rahn-ee-an".) Also, I'm waiting for someone to say, about the equipment used to enrich uranium and the Iranians' tricks for obtaining it, "We're as worried about their subterfuges as about their centrifuges." Please, Condi, say this. You don't have to credit me.

By the way, whenever there is talk about military attacks to take out the Iranian nuclear installations, the expert being interviewed points out that the installations are underground (physically, not just in the sense of "secret") and thus protected from all but the largest bombs. But it seems to me there is a way to turn this strength into a weakness (as there always is. Isn't that judo?) After all, though the facilities may be deep underground, not everyone who works there, nor all the materials they use, are underground, and if indeed they are making bombs down there, in order to use them, they'll have to take them out from underground. This is just an exagerratedly logical way of proving that these underground facilities must have entrances, tunnels that connect them with the surface. And these have to go to the surface. Where they can easily be bombed. The point is, maybe whoever wants to stop Iran's nuclear program doesn't need to destroy its facilities, just render them inaccessible by destroying the tunnels to them. Just the mention of this might make some of those who work there much more reluctant to, for fear of being trapped (which is probably a worse way to go than just being blown up.) Anyway, if she wants it, Condi can have that one too.

If you're a "suspicious" person, does that mean you suspect others, or others suspect you? Just wondered.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Two interesting NPR stories on Iran and its President this week. In one, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was heard commenting about the Holocaust, dismissing the fact that Jews were placed in crematoria as a reason for a Jewish state. I've often heard references to people being "put in ovens" during the Holocaust (for instance, from Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan), and I'm mystified. I don't think anyone has ever claimed that the Nazis used ovens for mass killings (though I'm sure that, as in the movie "The Grey Zone", a certain number of apparently dead gas chamber victims may have been burned alive.) But it was the gas chamber that was the main instrument of mass murder at concentration camps such as Auschwitz (that and disease.) Referring to the "ovens" just confuses the matter; they were just for disposing of the bodies. It's gruesome, but it's not the main crime. It's true that in both Jewish and Islamic law, cremation is taboo, a dishonor to the dead, but I don't think that's what the Iranian President was referring to.

Another story discussed the Shiite Muslim belief in the sort-of Messianic "12th [or 'hidden'] Imam", who will return to establish a worldwide Muslim kingdom of justice and piety. The question is whether Iranian leaders, including the President, believe this will happen soon, and if this belief guides their policies. This would bring them close in thinking to some of the fundamentalist Christians who influence President Bush (and probably Bush himself) who believe we are living in the "End Times", with Jesus due to return soon and end the world as we know it. Great - so both sides in the nuclear standoff are psyched for the world to end!

Follow-up on the FBI search of a Congressional office: seeing how little in the way of results came from another FBI search, of a farm in Michigan, yet how much time and money they were able to get away with spending on it, maybe the Bureau should claim that it searched Rep. Jefferson's office to find the body of Jimmy Hoffa!

I'm always amused when I hear of the publication of "graphic images of violence", say, from Abu Ghraib prison, using "graphic" in the sense of "detailed, realistic, unsparing". Aren't all images graphic? The speakers are taking an expression, "graphic description" (i.e., a verbal description so realistic, detailed, and unsparing, that it's like looking at a picture) and analogizing it to images. But such analogizing is not always appropriate. You can't forget the original meaning of the word....

OK, here's something that doesn't make sense to me. Scientists, especially evolutionary biologists, who assert that evolution and religion are not incompatible, claiming they believe in God themselves. But if God just set evolution in motion and then butted out, at what point did early humans acquire souls? Did Neanderthals have them? Australopithecines? Or did God stick them into homo sapiens once the species was capable of appreciating God?

Saturday, May 27, 2006

And of course, when I heard that someone thought he had heard shots fired at the Capitol, all I could think was, "Uh oh, Cynthia McKinney's at it again!"

Actually, when I first heard about the events at the Rayburn Building, I was at the gym. It happened that as the news flashed on the TV tuned to CNN, I was listening to R.E.M.'s "Ignoreland": "They marched into the Capitol..." OK, that's obscure, even weak, but then, truth is triangular: any statement of relationship (x is like y, for instance), really means, from the observer's point of view, x and y seem to line up, the way stars that are really very distant from each other seem, to an observer on Earth, to be in the same constellation.

OK, a foray into politics: the scandal involving a Louisiana Congressman and the investigations of him. Whenever I hear "accusations against William Jefferson", I expect it to be followed by "Clinton". I wonder if the FBI investigators are similarly confused, or motivated: they automatically go after anyone with that name, thinking they're still doing Ken Starr's work. Guilty as Jefferson seems (or am I just a mainstream media victim?) I wonder if someone high up and politically motivated suggested going after a Democrat to take the heat off the Republicans for their ethics problems, to provide "balance". Meanwhile, yesterday's search and evacuation of the Rayburn building - yes, the same building where Jefferson has his office -- would seem to be a great opportunity to rifle through more offices.

When I let my thoughts wander, I imagine the executive branch, scared that the Democrats might actually take over Congress this fall, are practicing to see if they can use the FBI to increase its leverage over the legislature. Isn't that how dictatorships always develop?

I guess just labeling enemies as "unpatriotic" or "America-hating" wasn't working well enough; they have to actually threaten prosecution. In another move towards dictatorship, Attorney General Gonzales is already talking about going after the press for unauthorized publication, even possession, of secret information. Though I'm not totally sure I believe in journalistic privilege, and that journalists should be protected by "shield laws". First of all, there is the question of who is a journalist - am I one, now? (Gee, my dad, a longtime writer for Time magazine, would be so proud.) But more important, what's the point of classifying information, if people are going to publish it with impunity? We can argue that the documents should not be secret in the first place, should not be withheld from the public. But then, are journalists really more qualified to make that judgment than government officials? Sure, officials may have something to hide, a power motive, but journalists have papers to sell, a profit motive. Maybe if journalists really feel strongly that they have a duty to the public to bring information to light, they should be ready to sacrifice for it, to go to jail. That I would really respect. It's like the way the non-violent resisters of the 50's and 60's were ready to go to jail for breaking the law, unjust as they believed it to be, even sustain physical harm. (Today, it seems as if demonstrators feel they have a right to disrupt for what they see as the right cause, and are suprised when they are treated as lawbreakers. How do they expect their cause to be taken seriously if they won't sacrifice for it? I have to try to find this great quote from a student arrested during the takeover of a building at UC Berkeley a few years ago, that really encapsulated this sense of "we're right, so how can they arrest us?")

One last, related point: I have often questioned the logical base of the exclusionary rule, by which evidence gained by a search or interrogation not performed in accordance with Constitutional rules, cannot be used in court (or juries are told to disregard it, which seems even more illogical. How can you make yourself forget something?) After all, if it's true information, it's true; the fact that it was seized illegally does not mean it was fabricated. No, we don't want the police searching whomever they want, but telling them that the evidence they have acquired cannot be used might make them frustrated, but doesn't seem like much of a punishment. Which is why I think that the evidence should be used (or at least, judged on its merits), but there should be strong penalties for police who conduct illegal searches. That would deter cops from shaking down whomever they want, but allow them, if they really felt they needed to take someone down, to sacrifice themselves for it. If the evidence did lead to a significant conviction of a dangerous person, the judge might go easier on the officer; if the case against the accused turned out to be meritless, and the officer just harassing an innocent person, he would get the book thrown at him. I just think that if something is true, it should be recognized as true; punishing abusive ways of finding it out is a separate issue.

So the fact remains that William Jefferson is probably pretty corrupt and maybe should go to jail, but Attorney General Gonzales should probably go with him....

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Here's an expression that really bothers me: "focus like a laser". (By the way, I know there is continuing controversy over whether to put a period, or other punctuation, inside or outside quotes. In my copy-editing class in 2000, we learned that the American habit it to put it inside, while the British tend to put it outside. My rule is: if the thing in quotes is just an object, a thing I am talking about, such as a word or phrase whose meaning I'm overanalyzing, the period goes outside. If the phrase actually forms part of the sentence grammatically, as in: Ross Perot said that when it came to the economy, he would "focus like a laser.") So yes, I first heard the expression from Perot in 1992. I suppose I could use Lexis-Nexis to find an earlier cite. I'll start doing things like that eventually; right now, I'm just writing from my head. Anyway, now everyone seems to say it. There's just one problem: lasers don't really focus. People seem to think the reason that lasers can burn holes in steel is that they are highly focused. But they are getting confused with using light to, say, set paper on fire, using a magnifying glass or Piggy's glasses in "Lord of the Flies". When light is focused, it is bent by a (convex) lens, so that the rays travel at an angle to converge at a certain point. If you put something at that point, the energy of the rays will be concentrated on it. But lasers basically travel in straight lines. They concentrate lots of energy on one point because the light is coherent, meaning the waveforms are all in step, and because a lot of energy is being pumped into the laser. I mean, yes, you can send a laser through a lens, but lasers by themselves aren't focused. So, let's focus like rays through a magnifying glass on getting this right.

So, there's this guy I keep hearing interviewed as an expert on China, named "Bates Gill". Really. I wonder if he's ever met Bill Gates. Remember a few weeks ago, when the President of China was visiting the U.S., and the Microsoft founder held a dinner in his honor? Maybe he invited Gill!

And I wonder if there was a "Gil Bates" there too...

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Whenever I call my bank, or my credit card company, or my health insurer, or any other company that has privacy protections on my account, they ask me to "verify" my birthdate, or my Social Security number, or other personal information, so that they know it is really I. (That sounds awkward, but it's correct.) In response, I say, "OK", then wait. After a moment, the operator usually repeats him- or herself, and then I say, "Sure, go ahead. Tell me what you have on file for me and I'll 'verify' it." Then, the operator starts explaining, and I say, "Oh, you want me to tell you my birthdate. See, that's not what 'verify' means. 'Verify' means to check information you've been given. You can 'verify' what I tell you, but I can't 'verify' until you've told me something. So I will tell you my birthdate, and you can 'verify' it against your records." See why I'm so popular with operators. Hey, they make me wait long enough, and go through enough "for x, press y" menus just to talk to them. Wait 'til you hear how I treat telemarketers!

[Remember how Ronald Reagan used to quote what he claimed was a Russian proverb, "doveryai, no proveryai": "trust, but verify"? In other words, give the Soviets the benefit of the doubt when they say they are eliminating a whole category of nuclear-armed missiles, but check with inspections and spy satellites. Remember when Gorbachev reponded to one repetition of the quote, "V kazhdom vstreche, vy boltaietye eto": "At every meeting, you blather that"? Man, Gorbachev rocked.]

Sort of along the same lines: it used to be that you would "check" your bag or coat at restaurants, clubs, even stores. Now, the loss-prevention people at the entrance to the record store say, "Can I check your bag?" That, to me, means "Can I look inside to make sure you aren't stealing?" which should be asked on the way out, as it was by a Dickensian drudge on a stool at the exit to my college library. On the way in, they should ask, "Would you check your bag, please?" But then, lots of verbs have switched agents. If you are "interviewing" for a job, are you the prospective employee, or the prospective employer?

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