June 29, 2003
Getting It Right

Yesterday CalPundit Kevin Drum wrote that Tacitus is "wondering why the rest of the pro-war blogosphere isn't more concerned that three months after official hostilities ended the occupation appears to be close to melting down". That's not what Tacitus wrote, and far from the truth. As of this writing, there are fifty comments on Drum's post, and none has pointed out that Bush never said hostilities were over, he said "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended". In other words, operations in Iraq are no longer division-sized attacks involving fifteen or twenty thousand troops with dozens or hundreds of aircraft in support, they are occasional skirmishes involving platoons or squads or even single vehicles, with the occasional battalion- or brigade-level operation to clear out a Ba'athist stronghold. It's easy to depict Bush as a liar or a fool if you put words in his mouth.

And Bush announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq from the deck of the Abraham Lincoln on May 1st, which is not "three months" ago, but less than two. When a commentator has so much trouble getting the simple facts right, why should we trust his judgment on more nebulous matters such as what constitutes a 'quagmire' or 'meltdown'?

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 10:46 PM
Seaweed And Venom

Venomous Kate's Electric Venom reports that three Englishmen were hunted down, arrested, handcuffed, and jailed for gathering seaweed to feed some pet tortoises. This reminded me of two things:

  1. When I was in college, a classmate and friend was arrested with two other undergraduates early one Easter morning for stealing municipal flowers. They were cutting them from city flowerbeds for a sunrise service, using knives 'borrowed' from the college dining hall. Thirty years later, they are a priest, a professor, and (perhaps not quite so surprising) a lawyer. I wonder if they have to mention their arrests on job applications.
  2. The Roman satirist Juvenal mentions imperial seaweed inspectors, dispersi . . . algae inquisitores (4.48-49). It is unlikely that such persons existed: rather they "represent hyperbolically the pervasiveness of informing under Domitian . . ., while castigating the pettiness of such informers" (quoted from the commentary of S. M. Braund). It took almost 1900 years, but English life seems to have caught up with Roman imperial satire.

By the way, Venomous Kate's slogan is 'veni, vidi, venom . . . .'. That would be even more alliterative if it were all in Latin: veni, vidi, venenavi, "I came, I saw, I infected with venom". Since all the vowels are long except the first E in venenavi, the classical pronunciation would be WAY-nee, WEE-dee, weh-nay-NAH-wee. Once of these days I'll add sound to this site so readers can click on a button and hear me pronounce the words.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 09:42 PM
From The Archives

Dr. Frank's Blogs of War has a post about cigarette warning labels and "the dubious notion that such labeling ever does, ever has, or ever will deter even one person from smoking". That inspired me to dig out an unpublished letter to the editor from April 1998. Though some of the names are a bit dated, I believe the argument is still quite sound. Nominations for updated references may be placed in the comments. Anyway, here's the letter, which can now be published without the approval of any editor:

Last Friday's Washington Post reports that Al Gore, Donna Shalala, and the National Institutes of Health are deeply puzzled that more teens are smoking despite a massive government campaign to discourage the filthy habit. Both the politicians and the journalists who write about them seem remarkably ignorant of teen psychology. Has no one considered that more teens are smoking not despite but because of the increased government denunciations? With stuffed shirts like Al Gore and weenies like David Kessler leading the campaign against tobacco, is it any wonder that more teens smoke?

If this administration is serious about combating teenage smoking, they need to apply some reverse psychology. A good start would be for Al Gore to start smoking again, in public, preferably while dancing or giving speeches or doing one of the many other things he does so woodenly. Perhaps Tipper could smoke while denouncing Marilyn Manson and various gangsta rappers? An Eleanor-Roosevelt-style cigarette holder would be a nice touch: upholding Democratic traditions while looking totally uncool.

I don't know if Bob Bennett smokes, but his plump figure, pasty complexion, and weasely -- excuse me, I mean lawyerly -- speaking style combine to make him the perfect poster-boy for the campaign. If he were to punctuate his denunciations of Kenneth Starr by waving a big fat stogie, and interrupt them from time to time to suck greedily at it and then go into a coughing hacking wheezing fit, the effect on teen smoking would be immediate and devastating -- assuming any of them were watching, of course. If Newt Gingrich wants to make it a bipartisan effort -- and he often does -- he would make an excellent second, scoring very high in plumpness, paleness, and general uncoolness. (So do I, come to think of it, but that's neither here nor there.) If Newt's not available, the Bennett brothers, Robert and William, would make a good bipartisan team.

The proposed campaign would work best if the stars were backed up by a collection of anonymous government employees: dozens of pencil-necked geeks and pointy-headed bureaucrats with button-down white shirts, bow ties, and pocket protectors full of mechanical pencils, all sucking on cheap cigarettes as if their lives depended on them. Sample lines:

You don't know me, but I invented carpool lanes, and I smoke.

It was my idea to force all new houses and apartments to be fitted with smelly 1.6 gallon toilets, and I smoke.

I'm in charge of the campaign to ban sport-utility vehicles.

I wrote the regs on motorcycle helmets.

I invented the V-Chip.

Mixing in a few harmless nerds wouldn't hurt:

I'm the assistant copy editor at the Congressional Record, and I smoke.

I'm in charge of weights (but not measures) at the National Bureau of Standards.

I spent thirty years classifying the weevils at the Museum of Natural History, and I smoke.

Sure, maybe some of these people look like movie stars, but somehow I doubt it. You could always substitute actors. Is Don Knotts still alive? If so, he must be pretty wrinkly by now, which is all the better.

And bring back the Tobacco Institute. Allow them, encourage them, to defend smoking, as long as they chain-smoke while doing so. There's nothing more uncool than a bunch of lawyers in expensive suits testifying before congress. C-SPAN is not exactly MTV -- not that MTV is MTV, either, if you see what I mean.

Some parts of the entertainment world are already doing their part. Speaking of not-exactly-C-SPAN, the last time I saw a cigar on MTV, it was an unlit butt clenched between the teeth of a scuzzy moron who was sweeping the floor in a porno palace or peep show. I forget what the advertisement was for, but the image was remarkably unattractive. Actually, I think the advertisement was for MTV, which suggests that reverse psychology is not a simple concept. But surely the government has some psychologists who can come up with something subtler and more effective.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 06:26 PM
June 28, 2003
Swift On Criticism

Make that nine minutes.

A. C. Douglas trashes a couple of books he admits not having read. His reasons (scroll down to "Finally" about 3/4 of the way down) reminded me of a memorably nasty sentence by Jonathan Swift, in A Tale of a Tub, Section III, 'A Digression Concerning Critics':

By the word critic, at this day so frequent in all conversations, there have sometimes been distinguished three very different species of mortal men, according as I have read in ancient books and pamphlets. For first, by this term were understood such persons as invented or drew up rules for themselves and the world, by observing which a careful reader might be able to pronounce upon the productions of the learned, form his taste to a true relish of the sublime and the admirable, and divide every beauty of matter or of style from the corruption that apes it. In their common perusal of books, singling out the errors and defects, the nauseous, the fulsome, the dull, and the impertinent, with the caution of a man that walks through Edinburgh streets in a morning, who is indeed as careful as he can to watch diligently and spy out the filth in his way; not that he is curious to observe the colour and complexion of the ordure or take its dimensions, much less to be paddling in or tasting it, but only with a design to come out as cleanly as he may.

I warned you it was nasty. And it's also true: sometimes you don't have to read a book to know that it's utterly worthless. I don't know why Swift mentions Edinburgh rather than London or Dublin -- were its streets that much filthier? Of course, some electronic neighborhoods are very much like 18th-century Edinburgh: you never know what you're going to step in.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 06:41 PM
I'm Back

Not that I went anywhere, I just haven't felt like posting for a while. There will be several more posts tonight and tomorrow, the first in about five minutes.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 06:32 PM
June 22, 2003
'Gutting' The Budget

In a long and tedious thread on Daily Pundit, Tony Foresta claims that Republicans support

. . . bankrupting the nation with the largest government expenditures in the history of America, while gutting every support system and program benefiting the people to promote the myopic and elitist Pax Americana agenda of the Bush oligarchy.

When asked to explain, he expanded on this claim, again using the verb 'gut':

Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, Education, Welfare, aid to States, infrastructure investment, environmental programs and clean-up's, and the Arts are all gutted by Bush's starvation of the government in favor of funneling obscene fortunes into the off sheet accounts of a few rightwingideologues in the Bush oligarchy.

That seems to cover just about all non-defense spending, and he did write "every" in the first quotation.

Can it be true that all these are being "gutted" even as total spending increases? First we have to come up with a handy rule-of-thumb definition of the verb, which is not exactly precise. Just how much do you have to cut something to 'gut' it? I think we can agree that an increase that fails to keep up with inflation doesn't come close to 'gutting' something, at least when inflation is near zero, as it has been for several years. Even a 5% or 10% cut in real dollars, though unpleasant, can hardly be called 'gutting'. How about 25%? It's been a long time since I went fishing, but that seems a good estimate of the difference in weight between a gutted fish and a live one. It's also very close to the difference between my after-tax income three months ago and my unemployment checks since then, and I'm getting along OK. I could argue that nothing under 50% would really be gutting, but let's not be greedy here.

A look at the budget numbers on the OMB site (PDF file) shows that a 25% decrease in non-defense spending would allow us to double defense spending and still turn a large deficit into an even larger surplus. Of course, none of this has happened, or is going to happen.

Let's look at the 2003 numbers in Table S-2. The first interesting thing to note is that defense spending (368 billion) is only 17.3% of total expenditures (2,128 billion), in fact less than the sum of Medicare and Medicaid (231 + 159 = 390 billion) and much less than Social Security (472 billion).* Even after a substantial 6% increase for 2004, defense spending (390 billion) is still less than either Social Security (491) or Medicare/Medicaid (241+170=411).

Non-defense spending for 2003 totals 1,660 billion (2,128 - 368). If it were to be 'gutted' and decrease by 25%, it would go to 1,245 billion, a difference of 415 billion. Expected revenues for 2004 are listed as 2,189 billion. If we were to double defense spending for 2004 (376 x 2 = 752 billion) and add that to the 'gutted' non-defense spending (1245 billion) we would get total 2004 outlays of 1,997 billion, for a budget surplus of 192 billion. Sounds good to me, but it's not going to happen.

Since, as Democrats like to point out, the deficit doesn't seem to be going away, what's going on? Are we tripling the defense budget? Not hardly. As already noted, the increase from 2003 to 2004 is 6%, which is a lot more than the inflation rate, but far far less than doubling, much less tripling.

And non-defense spending is not decreasing at all. Again, the budget figures show an increase of 39 billion, just over 2.3% -- not much, but quite a bit more than the inflation rate. It may not be going up as fast as most Democrats and quite a few 'Republicans' would like, but it is still going up. My income has never gone up as fast as I would like, but other than a few periods of unemployment it's never been 'gutted' either.

Of course, some may wish to argue that the OMB numbers are inaccurate, especially for the future, and there may be some defense-related things listed outside the main defense category. However, the difference between my quick-and-dirty look at the official OMB numbers and anything that could plausibly be called 'gutting' the non-defense budget are so huge that I don't think this is going to help much. At worst, it would mean that cutting non-defense spending by 25% would allow for only an 80% or 90% increase in defense spending and a 100 billion surplus, which is a long long way from what Foresta has claimed. Any way you slice it, non-defense spending is not being gutted. If it were, we wouldn't have a deficit.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

*Lefties like to snicker about polls showing high numbers of Americans believing things that are not true about Iraq or the rest of the world. Has anyone asked a cross-section of voters what percentage of their taxes they think goes to the Pentagon? I suspect the average guess would be a lot more than 17.3%.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 11:58 AM
June 19, 2003

I have another job interview Friday morning in Long Island, so further posts are unlikely before Friday evening.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 12:36 AM
June 18, 2003
How Goes The Hunt?

I've updated the Ba'ath Poker file (white button in right column) to reflect the capture of the first Ace in custody. For those keeping track at home, this makes 31 of the 52 cards now in custody, and 32 of the List of 55. Either way, that's very close to 60% in the roughly 10 weeks since the statue fell. I have also kept charts cross-referencing rank against date of capture. What can we conclude from the data?

1. The pace of captures has definitely slowed. My chart shows that the captures tend to clump in three phases of roughly equal length: about 3 1/3 weeks or 23 days each. In the first third, we captured 17 cards, in the next third 10, and in the last third only 4 (plus #53 on the list of 55, who just missed the cutoff for a card).

2. Some slowing in the pace was inevitable. By the last week in May, two-thirds of the way across the chart, we had already picked up over half the deck, and nearly two-thirds of the lower orders (22 out of 36 of the Deuces through Tens). That obviously leaves a lot fewer to catch. Some of those not yet in custody may in fact be dead, and surely at least one or two managed to slip out of the country. (I would be glad to be wrong on the last point.)

3. What is interesting is that the pace of high-ranking captures has not slowed much if at all. If we look at the Top 20, Tens through Aces, we find that three (Q Q 10) were captured in the first clump, three more (J Q K) in the second, and three more in the third (10 10 A). To put it another way, it took six weeks to capture the first of the Kings, and ten weeks to capture the first of the Aces. Is the net tightening? Have we picked up most of the little fish and started to close in on the big fish? It certainly looks that way.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 10:10 PM
Selling Themselves Short

A hot dog place on Lake Ontario proudly displays this slogan:

Where Quality Predominates

I guess that means you're more likely than not to get a good dog there, which isn't saying much.

Of course, this now-common use of 'quality' is already a bit ambigous. Even worthless products can be called 'quality products' as long as the seller doesn't make any assertions about the particular kind of quality exhibited.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 09:42 PM
June 15, 2003
Today In History

I've been reading bits and pieces of The Oxford Companion to the Year, by Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens (1999). It's full of wonderfully detailed information about calendars, with many obscure but fascinating facts along the way. June 15th is important three different ways:

1. In ancient Rome, it was the Vestalia, "the day for cleansing the round temple of Vesta in the Forum; the filth was removed to the Tiber" (249). I did some Spring cleaning myself today, though I did not throw the filth in the Genesee River. Perhaps if I'm still up at 2:00 or so . . . .

2. For Christians it's the feast of St. Vitus, patron saint of Bohemia, who "was said to cause, or cure, the Tanzwut or dancing mania in which wild leaps and gyrations, often to music specially requested for the purpose, led to mass fainting especially among girls and young women; the phenomenon has been compared with proceedings at modern rock concerts. Its Italian counterpart was the tarantella, which particularly affected the garishly clad young; it is recalled by the 'tarantellas' of nineteenth- and twentieth-century music. This was unjustly blamed on the bite of the tarantula; no doubt the saint was as innocent as the spider, but the name 'St Vitus' dance' has not only remained in use but annexed the nervous disease technically known as 'Sydenham's chorea'. He is patron saint of dancers and by extension actors and comedians."

3. Finally, political scientists know this as the 788th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, which the authors assure us was quite unimportant at the time, since neither party intended to abide by it. They also quote an amusing story from Clarendon about a tax protestor who tried to claim his liberty in 1658 under the rights of habeas corpus granted by the Magna Carta: when the judges could find no legal answer to his plea, "Cromwell told them, with terms of contempt, and derision, 'their Magna Farta should not controle his Actions; which he knew were for the safety of the Common-wealth'."

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 11:38 PM
June 13, 2003
Ancient War Poetry

Natalie Solent asks about pro-war poets, and mentions Homer as one possibility. Some other archaic Greek poets may be even more appropriate. Tyrtaeus was a Spartan who wrote in the mid-7th century, three or four generations after Homer, and that is nearly all we know about him, except that his poems were still being recited by Spartan soldiers 300 years later. Here is Fragment 10, translated by M. L. West (Greek Lyric Poetry, Oxford World Classics series, 1999):

For it is fine to die in the front line,
    a brave man fighting for his fatherland,
and the most painful fate's to leave one’s town
    and fertile farmlands for a beggar's life,
roaming with mother dear and aged father,
    with little children and with wedded wife.
He'll not be welcome anywhere he goes,
    bowing to need and horrid poverty,
his line disgraced, his handsome face belied;
    every humiliation dogs his steps.
This is the truth: the vagrant is ignored
    and slighted, and his children after him.
So let us fight with spirit for our land,
    die for our sons, and spare our lives no more.
You young men, keep together, hold the line,
    do not start panic or disgraceful rout.
Keep grand and valiant spirits in your hearts,
    be not in love with life -- the fight's with men!
Do not desert your elders, men with legs
    no longer nimble, by recourse to flight:
it is disgraceful when an older man
    falls in the front line while the young hold back,
with head already white, and grizzled beard,
    gasping his valiant breath out in the dust
and clutching at his bloodied genitals,
    his nakedness exposed: a shameful sight
and scandalous. But for the young man, still
    in glorious prime, it is all beautiful:
alive, he draws men's eyes and women's hearts;
    felled in the front line, he is lovely yet.
Let every man then, feet set firm apart,
    bite on his lip and stand against the foe.

There's more where that came from, but it should be enough to give the flavor. Callinus of Ephesus was a near contemporary, and his one large fragment is equally martial. The Greek lyric, iambic, and elegiac poets are mostly forgotten today except for Sappho of Lesbos and perhaps Archilochus of Paros, soldier and poet, now remembered mostly for fragment 201:

The fox knows many tricks,
the hedgehog one big one.

One problem with these works is that they survive only in fragments, though some of these, like Tyrtaeus 10, are quite substantial. Others are just tantalizing scraps, or less-than-tantalizing bits and pieces. For instance, Simonides 519 consists of 166 tiny scraps of papyrus, some of which contain only a single readable letter: fragment 64 is a nu, 68 an omicron, and 67 a pi with a dot under it to show that the editor was not really sure that it was a pi. Despite the devastation of the ages, it's clear from what survives of Greek lyric that the poets took war for granted as an inevitable part of human life. Even Sappho, a woman and a love poet, begins a poem (16) with positive martial imagery:

Some think a fleet, a troop of horse
or soldiery the finest sight
in all the world; but I say, what one loves.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 12:53 AM
June 11, 2003
Fighting Fire With Fire

I wonder if the CIA has ever considered using tactics that take advantage of the fact that we are dealing with religious fanatics. What I mean is this. If I wanted to depress and disorient a fanatical Christian leader, I would see if I could arrange to have a giant disembodied hand appear while he was eating dinner with his henchmen and write MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN on the wall. (Precise text varies from one translation to another: I trust the CIA could find out which version would be most appropriate for the hypothetical leader's particular sect.) Surely Industrial Light and Magic could come up with the proper equipment for such a feat? Would there be a proper Koranic equivalent for such a thoroughly and certifiably bad omen?

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 09:51 PM
Will Sasha Light A Candle?

I mean Sasha Castel-Dodge. Today is Richard (not Leo or either Johann) Strauss' 139th birthday. Not one of my favorites, but I put his Oboe Concerto on the CD player just now and it's not half bad.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 09:42 PM
What Is Contiguity?

Last week Max Sawicky wrote something that's been bugging me ever since:

DOUBLE ENTENDRE. "Israel has got responsibilities," Mr. Bush said. "Israel must deal with the settlements. Israel must make sure there's a continuous territory that Palestinians call home." (The White House, which late in the day produced a transcript of Mr. Bush's remarks, put the word "contiguous" in parentheses after "continuous," to indicate that "contiguous" was what Mr. Bush had meant.) Shades of Arafat saying one thing in Arabic and another in English.

Interesting the difference one little letter makes, or is taken to make. Dictionary.Com says "contiguous" means "sharing an edge or boundary; touching; neighboring, adjacent." Of course, any Palestinian entity, down to a sandpit in the desert, would satisfy this definition. So the nature of the "state" is left completely to the imagination, as far as the corrected statement is concerned, allowing for Palestine as Bantustan -- a territory criss-crossed with Israeli-controlled roads, checkpoints, and settlements.

Sawicky's argument is simply false, in fact the opposite of the truth. Bush's language is clearly designed to exclude the possibility of a dismembered Palestine, divided into separate pieces like some American Indian reservations or the 'Bantustans' the apartheid government of South Africa once planned. The word 'contiguous' is a crucial part of Bush's meaning. The change from 'continuous' clarifies the meaning by excluding the intention that Sawicky falsely imputes to Bush.

Dictionaries, especially web-dictionaries, are treacherous things. In this case, as in so many, they give a wide range of meanings, and it is necessary to ask which one Bush was using. In this context, there is only one pertinent meaning of 'contiguous', the one that is used when borders are being redrawn. Carving out a country with entirely new boundaries is a rare occurrence: unlike Palestine, Slovenia and Croatia (to take two recent examples) were provinces before they became countries. However, the borders of legislative districts are redrawn every ten years in the U.S., and a Google search on "reapportionment + contiguous" gives 2,780 hits. A glance at any half a dozen of these will give the reader a very clear idea of what the word means when it refers to boundary-drawing. I haven't found one yet that defines 'contiguous', but the meaning is usually quite clear from the context, especially if you read more than one.

When a state law or constitution requires (as some do) "contiguous and compact" legislative districts, it means that the districts must be one-piece (contiguous) and not too weirdly shaped (compact). Whichever party controls the legislature cannot, for instance, combine two or three counties in widely-separated parts of the state and call them a district: it would not be contiguous. Nor can it make a district a hundred miles long and half a mile wide: it would not be compact. A proper redistricting results in districts that are roundish, squarish, blockish, ovalish, wedge-shaped (but not too narrowly so), or trapezoidoid (I've always wanted to write that word).

To take specific examples, a district that combined the Chinatowns of San Francisco and Los Angeles would make a lot of sense ethnographically and electorally, but it would be grossly noncontiguous. A plan to slice California up like a hunk of bologna, with each and every district running all the way from Oregon to Mexico and none of them more than a mile or two wide, would blatantly violate the compactness rule.

Digression 1:

Districts for the U.S. House of Representatives appear to be exempt from the compactness rule, at least in some states: here is North Carolina's 12th district after a recent (and legally-challenged) reapportionment:

and here is Louisana's 4th:

(These pictures are from a page called FraudFactor: Gerrymandering and Redistricting Fraud, which is, as it says, "suitable for both individual and classroom use". I hope they don't mind that I've parked copies here so as not to hog their bandwidth.) As you can see, whoever designed these two districts took great care to make them contiguous, while leaving them spectacularly uncompact.

Digression 2:

Obligatory classical content: The etymology of 'contiguous' is firmly established. It comes from the Latin adjective contiguus, with much the same meaning, which is compounded from CON = 'together', TIG = 'touching', with the adjectival ending UUS. (Despite the differences in spelling, TIG is related to English 'tangible', 'tangent', 'tactile', and 'contact', all of which refer to touching.)

- - - - - - - - - - (end digressions)

Turning back to Bush's statement, we need to ask why it was thought necessary to edit it and change 'continuous' to 'contiguous'. I see no reason (except Sawicky's unthinking and ill-grounded contempt for the man) to suppose that Bush was waffling -- quite the reverse: the change clarifies the statement. It is clear that 'contiguous' is the correct form of what he said, and 'continuous' wrong. For one thing, 'continuous' is ambiguous, since it could also refer to time, and is well worth avoiding. For another, readers and copyists often substitute common words for rarer words that resemble them in shape, particularly if they have vaguely similar meanings, as these two do. (Get a Ph.D. in Classics, and you'll find out all about this in your Palaeography classes. Practice the arcane art of textual criticism, and you can even use this knowledge to edit and emend ancient texts.)

One of two things must have happened. Either Bush actually said 'contiguous' and the transcriber substituted the similar, but much commoner, 'continuous', or Bush's prepared text (perhaps written for him by his staff) said 'contiguous' and he stumbled and turned it into 'continuous', substituting the more familiar word himself, only to have it corrected afterwards. It doesn't matter much, though Bush-haters will obviously prefer the latter. The point is that Bush has officially promised the Palestinians a contiguous state: not an archipelago of separate enclaves divided by Israeli-owned and -controlled roads, but an actual single state with all its parts connected together.

Of course, Bush didn't mention compactness, which leaves open the possibility that such a state could have quite sinuous borders. These would likely be necessary in any case to separate two peoples as intertwined as the Israelis and Palestinians. Let's just hope that a hypothetical independent Palestine doesn't end up looking like some American congressional districts.

To sum up in proper Sawickian style: Max tried, but his aim was wide. He tries to be snide, but the facts are not on his side. He can't hide: his brain has been fried by his rage to deride. It may hurt his pride to see me chide, but I won't let it slide. We report, you decide.

Don't like my rhymes? They're not much crappier than Sawicky's constantly repeated, stupid, and dishonest "Bush lied, people died".

Update: (12:30 PM)

I have struck out a word in the last sentence to answer Sawicky's objection in the third comment. That was not rhetorical exaggeration on my part but sloppy writing: the quoted words are in fact repeated by Sawicky, constantly repeated on the left fringe of the Blogosphere (38 hits on Google so far, including Pandagon, Daily Kos, and Yglesias), but not constantly repeated by Sawicky -- at least not yet. They are also both stupid and dishonest, as I wrote, since they imply that no one would have died in Iraq if Bush had never invaded, or more precisely, if he had never mentioned WMDs as a justification for invasion. Less than two weeks ago Sawicky wrote about the mass graves turning up in Iraq, and argued that we should not have invaded because "The people are already dead" (his italics). On Monday we learned that over 150 people were murdered at Salman Pak on April 4th. They were not "already dead". Perhaps if we had ignored the U.N. and invaded in September instead of March they would still be alive today. Since that was the toll for one day in one place, it seems likely that thousands or tens of thousands of other Iraqis were murdered while Max and his friends delayed the war. Iraq last fall was not, like Gorbachev's Soviet Union, a place in which horrible massacres had occurred in the past and gone unpunished, but were for the most part no longer happening. It was, like Stalin's Soviet Union, a place in which massacres, and ingenious tortures, and government-ordered gang-rapes, and other horrors, continued, until the U.S., U.K., Australia, and other allies put a stop to them.

By the way, I wonder why Sawicky feels entitled to post a comment here when he banned me from his site long ago: it seems more than a little rude. If I were to publicly tell an acquaintance, even for the best of reasons, that he would never be allowed in my house again, I would be ashamed to go over to his house, walk in, sit down, and put my feet up, even if he hadn't locked the door. Of course, one reason I didn't ban Sawicky when he banned me was that I was curious whether he would be arrogant enough to do this. Looks like I guessed right.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 01:02 AM
June 10, 2003
More Than Half Way There, But . . . .

I have updated my Ba'ath Poker list (button in the right column) to reflect the latest captures, and 'Boomshock' (Priorities & Frivolities) has updated his lists of the best Poker hands that can made from them (6/10, 3:31 PM if the link doesn't work).

If my calculations are correct, we now have 29 of the Deck of 52 and 30 of the List of 55 in custody. Not too bad for less than nine weeks work: that's roughly 55% either way you count them. On the other hand, the slackening pace of captures is worrisome. Obviously, Central Command has a lot more data about what is going on than they're likely to tell us, but surmises are possible. Here are mine:

  1. The remaining two dozen can't all be dead: if they were, we would expect to have at least a few corpses to prove it. (Then again, perhaps CentCom has some of them 'on ice' and for some reason doesn't want to reveal the fact.)
  2. Ironically, they may all be alive, given the demonstrated extreme reluctance of Iraqis at every level to lay down their lives for the Husseins if they can avoid it.
  3. So what are they doing now? They're probably not trying to lead a resistance movement: if they are, they don't have much to show for it. Yes, we have lost a few soldiers each week, but given that they are now the only effective police force in a huge area full of people who have never had any reason to respect policemen, such losses don't prove much.
  4. Though some may have escaped from Iraq, it's unlikely that all of them have. Rumors about high-ranking Iraqis holed up in Syrian resort hotels seem to have dried up.
  5. So what are they doing besides hiding? Do they have any long-range plans, or are they focused on evading capture from day to day? Are they waiting for a chance to leave Iraq, or making plans to rise up in revolt and restore the Ba'athist regime, or what?
  6. I think most of them are still trying to figure out how to get out of the country, and whether it's even safe to do so. (They can't assume that Syria and Iran would not bow to U.S. pressure and hand them over: that is reported to be how one or two have already been captured.) It's interesting that the three captured truckloads of gold have (as I recall) all been near the border. It seems that it's a lot easier to hide 40 tons of gold inside Iraq than it is to get it out of the country, and therefore that our border controls are more effective than our in-country searches. If the same applies to people, the remaining cards in the Iraqi deck may be hanging around in Iraq, afraid to risk a border-crossing.
  7. In the mean time, it certainly looks as if some of them are trying to get their loot out of the country so they can follow it. There might be some reluctance to leave without out, for fear that underlings would (e.g.) bury it and blame the loss on the Americans. And they'll likely need the money to help convince Syria or Iraq to let them stay.
  8. Another interesting question: were the truckloads of gold that have been captured sent by Saddam and his sons, or by smaller fry? I would have thought that the Husseins would have enough socked away in Swiss bank accounts not to have to worry about dumptrucks full of gold. Or are they that greedy? On the other hand, if any of the Husseins are still alive, would their subordinates dare run off with the Iraqi gold supply without permission?
  9. This brings us to another question: If they're still alive, are Saddam and his sons together? Do they have other henchmen with them? (None of the top seven on the CentCom list are in custody.) Are the fugitives gradually coagulating into larger groups? That would explain the slowdown in captures, but would also mean that we could eventually capture (or kill) a bunch of them together. Or are they splitting up, 'every man for himself'? In that case, the slowing pace would be an illustration of survival of the fittest: all the less competent fugitives have been picked up.

It's all very puzzling, and we will certainly know more eventually. If Saddam and his sons don't turn up either alive or dead, inside or outside of Iraq, we will eventually conclude that they are dead, just as most sensible people realize that Osama bin Laden has almost certainly been dead for many months now. I would certainly like to know what happened to him, but the thought that he most likely died a slow and painful death from gangrene and was buried in an unmarked grave is not entirely unpleasant.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 11:49 PM
Ahem . . . .

To a certain leftie blogger known (for some reason) for his elegant style:

It's spelled 'sibyl', dude, not 'sybil'.

For anyone else who has trouble with Is and Ys, it's also 'Libya', not 'Lybia'.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 06:50 PM
June 09, 2003
A Happy Anniversary

Today is the 1949th anniversary of the death of Nero. Suetonius' account in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars is well worth reading. It's too long to quote here, and is not available on the web (except in Latin), but highlights include:

  • The Delphic Oracle told Nero to "fear the 73rd year", which didn't worry him but should have. He was around 30 when he was overthrown and succeeded (though not for long) by the 73-year-old Galba.
  • "He was at Naples when he learned of the uprising of the Gallic provinces, on the anniversary of his mother's murder, and received the news with such calmness and indifference that he incurred the suspicion of actually rejoicing in it, because it gave him an excuse for pillaging those wealthy provinces according to the laws of war." (40.4)
  • The revolting governor of Gaul was named Vindex -- pronounced 'Windex', a fact that always amuses students. (Galba was governor of Spain and joined the revolt a bit later.)
  • When Nero should have been planning military operations, he spent his time writing satirical verses about Galba and Vindex, which were set to "licentious music", performed publicly, and written down for posterity, though they have not survived to our time.
  • Public opinion was hostile, partly because in the middle of a severe grain shortage a ship arrived from Alexandria (source of most of Rome's grain) full of sand for the court wrestlers. (45.1)
  • It was taken as a very bad omen that the last piece Nero sang in public was "Oedipus in Exile", and the last line of it was "Wife, father, mother drive me to my death". Nero had murdered all three, at least if we count Claudius as his father -- he was Nero's uncle by birth, stepfather by marriage, and father by adoption --, and he was widely rumored to have slept with his mother, too.

In the end, he cannot even find anyone to defend him, though his freedman Phaon does lend him his country house to hide in. Here's the last part of the long and sordid story (49.1-4, quoted from the Loeb facing text of J. C. Rolfe, as recently revised by Donna W. Hurley):

At last, while his companions one and all urged him to save himself as soon as possible from the indignities that threatened him he bade them dig a grave in his presence, proportioned to the size of his own person, collect any bits of marble that could be found, and at the same time bring water and wood for presently disposing of his body. As each of these things was done, he wept and said again and again: "What an artist the world is losing!" [Qualis artifex pereo!]

While he hesitated, a letter was brought to Phaon by one of his couriers. Nero snatching it from his hand read that he had been pronounced a public enemy by the senate, and that they were seeking him to punish him in the ancient fashion; and he asked what manner of punishment that was. When he learned that the criminal was stripped, fastened by the neck in a fork [= V-shaped wooden frame] and then beaten to death with rods, in mortal terror he seized two daggers which he had brought with him, and then, after trying the point of each, put them up again, pleading that the fated hour had not yet come. Now he would beg Sporus to begin to lament and wail, and now entreat someone to help him take his life by setting him the example; anon he reproached himself for his cowardice in such words as these: "To live is a scandal and shame -- this does not become Nero, does not become him -- one should be resolute at such times -- come, rouse thyself!" And now the horsemen were at hand who had orders to take him off alive. When he heard them, he quavered [a line from the Iliad]:

"Hark, now strikes on my ear the trampling of swift-footed coursers!"

and drove a dagger into his throat, aided by Epaphroditus, his private secretary. He was all but dead when a centurion rushed in, and as he placed a cloak to the wound, pretending that he had come to aid him, Nero merely gasped: "Too late!" and "This is fidelity!" With these words he was gone, with eyes so set and staring from their sockets that all who saw him shuddered with horror.

Sporus was his wife in a gay marriage. He also had a husband, Doryphorus, which means "spear-bearer": probably not his real name.

Some day when I have time to spare I'll quote Tacitus' account (Annals 14.3-9) of how Nero arranged to murder his mother with a specially-designed collapsible ship. Unfortunately, she ducked under the furniture when the lead-lined dining-room ceiling fell, and swam to shore when the ship suddenly tipped over on its side, so he had to have her stabbed to death in the usual way. He had wanted to make it look like an accident, since he had already used the old poisoned-mushroom trick on his stepfather (the emperor Claudius) and his cousin (Claudius' son Britannicus, his adoptive brother and the more directly legitimate heir).

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 09:07 PM
June 07, 2003
Is Journalism A Profession?

In a long and fascinating post, Matt Welch quotes Mark Steyn as saying that he doesn't think journalism is a profession. I don't know about Canada or the U.K., but it never will be a profession in the U.S., and that's a good thing.

Professions have enforceable standards. Bad doctors can have their medical licenses lifted, lawyers can be disbarred, priests can be defrocked, and so on. It seems to me that the First Amendment forbids the enforcement of journalistic standards. Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass may find it difficult or impossible ever again to find a paid position in journalism: I certainly hope so. But they could, either together or separately, start journals or newspapers of their own, and there's nothing anyone could do to stop them without violating the constitution. That means that the worst and most dishonest journalists cannot be prevented from practicing journalism unless they actually do something that puts them in jail, and many forms of gross journalistic malpractice are not illegal. Since journalism has no enforceable standards it is therefore not a profession.

At least so it seems to me: can anyone find a hole in my logic?

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 01:00 AM
June 06, 2003
Even Lileks Nods

James Lileks has more than once written things like "Screw 'em! Twice! With a rusty augur!" That's from the August 22, 2001 Bleat, but I know I've seen similar remarks much more recently, even if Google can't find them. If you're wondering, his words in that case were aimed at pretentious architects.

I think he meant to write auger, with an E -- like these, only rusty:

(There are more nifty tools at the Antiques of a Mechanical Nature site. I hope they don't mind my copying their picture: it seemed more polite than hogging their bandwidth by linking to it in situ.)

This is an augur, a Roman priest who predicted the future from bird signs:

I suppose a rusty augur would be one who had forgotten much of what he was supposed to know about augury, or screwing, or both. This picture is not just any augur, but Cicero, who once wrote that he couldn't see how two augurs could meet in the street without laughing out loud. There were sixteen of them, appointed for life, and by his time (1st century B.C.) the upper classes had lost faith in the idea that the number of vultures or other birds seen in a particular quarter of the sky from a particular vantage point at a particular time could tell them anything at all about the will of the gods.

Finally, here's an ancient image of an augur:

I lifted it from the site for a university "Introduction to Ancient Rome" course: there weren't any copyright notices, so the professor may well have borrowed some of his images without explicit permission. This one is labeled "Bronze statuette of an augur holding a lituus in both hands. From the votive hoard of Lapis Niger, Rome. ca. 550 B.C." The lituus is just a ceremonial staff, though this one looks dangerous. I don't know whether the face has worn away over the years or it never had one.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 12:57 AM
June 05, 2003
Historical Riddle

Question: Who said "Love me, love my dog" (Qui me amat, amet et canem meum)?

Hint: He was a saint.

Click on 'MORE...' to see the answer.

Answer: St. Bernard, of course, specifically St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

In looking for the Latin on the web, I found out a few things I didn't know:

  1. I had thought that St. Bernard was history's greatest Luxemburger, since Clairvaux is the town at the northern tip of the country where the first shots of the Battle of the Bulge were fired. But it turns out he was abbot at an entirely different Clairvaux in France.
  2. I also always assumed that the St. Bernard breed was named after Bernard of Clairvaux, what with the famous quotation and all. (And some may find them a little harder to love than smaller breeds.) However, they were developed in the neighborhood of the hospice of St. Bernard near what is now the St. Bernard Pass connecting Italy and Switzerland, and the names of hospice, pass, and dog apparently all go back to a completely different saint, Bernard of Menthon, who founded the hospice.

Too bad I checked the facts: now I'm ineligible to write for The New York Times or the Guardian.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 11:06 PM
Compare And Contrast

A week ago, Best of the Web quoted a London Telegraph story with good news from Iraq:

The Mesopotamian marshlands are returning to life as local people tear down earthworks and open flood gates allowing spring waters to surge on to land drained by Saddam Hussein.

Satellite pictures published yesterday by the United Nations Environment Programme on its website--www.grid.unep.ch--show that considerably more water has reached the wetlands this May than last and places that have been dry for five years are under water.

Yesterday, InstaPundit quoted a letter from reader John Kluge with more good news from the other end of Iraq:

The mountains here are bare and devoid of trees. They used be forested. Covered with trees. There used to be so many trees in Irbil that you couldn't see around corners. Now it looks like Kansas or really more like parts of Montana.

The reason is that Saddam cut down all of the trees in Kurdistan in 1988. He bulldozed 4000 of the 5000 villages in Kurdistan and the Kurds ran to the mountains for safety, so he cut down all of the trees on these mountains and killed all of the game, so that the Kurds would have no wood for fires and no food to eat. He was incredibly effective. The Kurds are now replanting the trees. You can see hundreds of tiny trees if you look closely at the mountains.

Someone may have said this before, but if so it's worth saying again: Everybody talks about saving the environment, but Bush actually did something about it. (More restoring than saving in this case, but the point remains.) If there is any equivalent of the Nobel Prize for Ecology and Helping the Environment, he should win it. Of course he won't even be nominated.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 12:56 AM
June 04, 2003
Dumb Puns

It's been thirty years since I read it, but I believe there's a character in The Magic Mountain (Clavdia Chauchat?) who thinks Beethoven wrote an 'Erotica' Symphony. I wonder how many people in the history of the world have thought the composer of Carmen was named 'Bidet'. More than one, I suspect.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 11:57 PM
June 03, 2003
Just Who Is John Edwards Trying To Fool?

'Edward Boyd' of Zonitics has an amusing entry about John Edwards: if the permalink doesn't work, scroll down to 'What a Weasel' (5/29, 9:41 PM). Apparently Edwards claims to be interested in NASCAR races and country music, and to have hunted and owned a gun as a boy, but can't or won't answer any specific questions about (e.g.) what kind of gun he owned.

Boyd thinks he doesn't want to offend gun-loathing Democrats. I may be wrong, but I had the opposite impression, that he's afraid to offend gun-owners, NASCAR fans, and country music fans by revealing how alien to them his own tastes are. Perhaps I'm influenced by the dweeby picture of Edwards I found on Mean Mr. Mustard, but to me Edwards comes across like Frasier or Niles Crane trying to fit in at a hoedown or a biker bar. I don't believe he's ever owned a gun, and I think he refused to answer questions about NASCAR and country music because he doesn't actually know anything about them. There's no shame in that: I'm more Niles than Martin myself, totally ignorant of NASCAR and everything about guns except their constitutionality, though quite knowledgeable about country music. But lying is certainly shameful -- and weasely.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 12:41 AM
Swords And Plowshares

While we're on the subject of the Hebrew Bible:

The motto of Sean Kirby, the Pundit ex Machina, is "Beating plowshares into swords since 2002". I thought that was a witty inversion of a Biblical saying, but it turns out to be a Biblical saying (Joel 3:9-11):

Proclaim ye this among the Gentiles;
Prepare war; wake up the mighty men,
Let all the men of war draw near; let them come up:
Beat your plowshares into swords,
And your pruninghooks into spears:
Let the weak say, I am strong.
Assemble yourselves, and come, all ye heathen,
And gather yourselves together round about.

There are twice as many passages for swords into plowshares, though: Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3. And Joel seems to be encouraging the heathen to make war so they can be slaughtered, so his preference for swords over plowshares is probably insincere.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 12:25 AM
Biblio-Bibliographic Question

Here's another question for the linguistically knowledgeable:

In editions of the Hebrew Bible with English-language translation and commentary, why do the columns go left to right while the pages go right to left? (I'm thinking of the Soncino and JPS series.) It makes sense that the pages go right to left, since the language does, too: the Hebrew words are naturally the most important part of the book, even if they are far outnumbered by the English words in the facing translation and commentary. But it's really awkward to read the notes in order: first you read the left column of the right page, then the right column of the right page, then you jump way over to the left column of the left page, finishing with the right column of the left page, before turning over to the next page, which is of course to the left. Wouldn't it be easier if the columns were arranged so they could be read from right to left, like the pages?

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 12:08 AM
June 02, 2003
Ignorance Of Foreign Countries

Michael Moynihan (The Politburo, scroll down to 5/29) mentions the common assertion that Americans are unusually ignorant of foreign countries, at least compared to Europeans. In so far as this is true, it is at least partly the inevitable side-effect of the difference in size between the U.S. and most European countries.

The average citizen of a western democracy tends to know a great deal about what's going on within 50 or 100 miles of home, quite a bit about things within 300 miles, and not much at all about things over 1000 miles away, unless they directly concern him. (An example of the last would be an Alaskan reading about tax changes decided in Washington.) Middle-schoolers here in Rochester don't know much about the world, but they've all been to Toronto and can listen to Toronto radio stations: it's only 3 hours away by car, and the border's only 1 1/2 hours. They know very little about Mexico, all of it from books or television. I assume residents of San Diego and El Paso would know very little about Canada and quite a bit about Mexico, or at least the parts of Mexico just across the border. Most Europeans are a lot closer to foreign countries, and often have more than one they can reach in an hour or two. Americans may live close to Canada or Mexico, but not both, and usually neither. I imagine Luxemburgers are particularly knowledgeable about foreign countries, since they're only an hour or so away from three different ones.

A related factor is that there's a lot more to know about larger and more populous countries. I strongly suspect that Russians are as ignorant of foreign countries as Americans, and for much the same reason: there's a lot more to know about a country the size of Russia (in area and in population) than about (e.g.) Slovenia or Iceland, not to mention Andorra or San Marino. As with the U.S., or India, or China, there is proportionately less to know about the rest of the world.

To put it another way, if the European Union ever becomes a single country (however defined), the average European's knowledge of foreign countries will instantly drop roughly in half, without any need for a lobotomy. It's not that Europeans will be more ignorant -- at least not until continent-wide educational standards set in Brussels start to work their magic -- but that the areas of the world defined as 'foreign' will be much smaller, while 'domestic' concerns will be that much larger.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 12:46 AM
You'll Have To Pry This Can Out Of My Cold, Dead Hand

Emily Jones (Give War a Chance) blogs about a California state senate bill to forbid public schools to serve soft drinks to students. I'm not sure she's entirely right in asking "Where do they get off telling kids they can't have soda?" Grade-schoolers are hardly old enough to decide these things for themselves, and parents aren't in a position to enforce their own rules from a distance. Still, I agree that it's hardly a state issue.

This is just one more area where private schools have the advantage. They can decide this on a school-by-school basis, and parents who care enough about it one way or the other can always send their kids to another school. In the last two years, I've either taught at or visited a dozen private schools in the northeast. All but one or two have a no-soda policy in the school cafeteria. (Most do not allow the students to leave campus for lunch.) The drink dispensers offer only water, milk, lemonade, and various juices and Koolaid-type drinks. I believe one school sold canned sodas, but only the sugar-free varieties. I assume most parents like it that way. Caffeine doesn't seem to be the problem, since I've never noticed any attempt to keep students -- even grade-schoolers -- away from the coffeepots and tea paraphernalia. Two schools seem to have come up with the same compromise independently: there's a vending machine full of Coke and other depraved delights, but you have to walk way across campus to find it hidden behind the gym. I generally brought a can of Classic Coke from home, and no one objected.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 12:16 AM
June 01, 2003
Impertinent Questions

Last Thursday, Kris and Helen Murray (The Edge of England's Sword) went strawberry picking. Unless they're concealing the less pleasant side of the venture, they were luckier than some friends of mine who went to a pick-your-own strawberry farm in Maryland a few years ago. They said the strawberries were inexpensive, easy to pick, and (eventually) delicious, but were also covered with tiny slugs. They couldn't pick them without crushing two or three slugs on each berry. The slugs washed off nicely, so it wasn't the taste that bothered them, just the slimy carnage required to get to the taste. Gloves didn't help. After that, they bought all their berries in stores.

By the way, is the "FROG jam" mentioned in the same post made from real frogs?

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 11:49 PM
Unclear On The Concept

Meryl Yourish seems to think that not making the BlogStreet Top 100 list makes her a 'bottom blogger', and even has a specially-designed button to prove it. She also seems to think that displaying a BlogStreet 'Top Blog' button like mine is somehow illegal or offensive or likely to annoy the BlogStreet people if you're not on their Top 100 list (scroll down to 'So Sue Me' if the link doesn't work).

In fact, the top 500 BlogStreet blogs are eligible to display the 'Top Blog' button, and Meryl makes the cut with ease: her current rank is 186, in a five-way tie with three different O'Reilly sites and a bizarre Brazilian blog, Paty's HoMe Page. Paty's page has to be seen to be believed: a revolving Hello Kitty, pink bubbles, rotating pink hearts, a teacup, a Raggedy Ann, a totally redundant "I love glitter", and more, it's every man's nightmare vision of (some instances of) the female mind. (Not to sound too nerdy, but it reminded me of Capt. Picard's advice to Cmdr. Riker: There are some things it's best not to know about the Klingon psyche. That's quoted from memory, because I'm not nerdy enough to look it up.) Among all the glitter there's a link labeled "Clique aqui e veja os melhores TESTES da internet". My Portuguese is rusty, but it looks like that means "Click here and see the best TESTES on the internet". I hope 'testes' is not the Latin word we still sometimes use in English and actually means 'texts' or something in Portugeuse. I was afraid to click there and check.

Anyway, to see the BlogStreet 101-200, 201-300, 301-400, and 401-500 lists, just substitute '200', '300', '400', or '500' for the '100' in the Top 100 URL. The current total number of blogs tracked by BlogStreet is 138,302, so 186th rank puts Meryl in the top 1/7 of 1%: not too shabby. If she thinks that makes her a 'bottom blog', she may want to seek professional help in dealing with her self-esteem issues.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 06:16 PM