September 27, 2004
Snake-Handlers In Ohio?

Relapsed Catholic wonders whether there are snake-handling churches in Ohio. Apparently there are. This rather scholarly-looking site places them “as far west as Columbus, Ohio and as far north as West Virginia”. That’s a bit confusing, since 99% of West Virginia is further south than Columbus – perhaps there are snake-handlers in the panhandle north of Wheeling. A friend in Ohio once offered to take me to visit a snake-handling church, or arrange a visit through intermediaries (I forget which) but she lived in the southern tip of the state, so the church she had in mind was most likely in or near Huntington, West Virginia, or possibly Ashland, Kentucky.

In my ignorance, I had thought that snake-handling was a southern thing, but it’s actually Appalachian. As I recall from living in Tuscaloosa in the 1990s, the three snake-handling churches in Alabama were all on Sand Mountain, in the far northeast corner of the state, much nearer to Chattanooga than to Birmingham or Montgomery. There had been four, but in 1991 a preacher with the delightful name of Glendel Buford Summerford got the brilliant idea of using his snakes to murder his wife. He wanted to marry his girlfriend, but members of the Church of Jesus with Signs tend to be hardliners about divorce. The Rev. Summerford forced his wife’s hands into his box of snakes so that she was bitten more than once, then took his time about calling an ambulance. The idea was that he would tell the police “I warned her not to play with the snakes when I wasn’t around! I told her her faith wasn’t strong enough to protect her!” Unfortunately for him, she didn’t die, and his girlfriend also testified against him. Amazon has an inexpensive book on the case, Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia. No doubt it would fill in the details.

I like to think of mystery novelists around the world slapping their foreheads when they read the story, saying “Damn! A new murder method! I wish I’d thought of that.” Unfortunately, it had one serious flaw. One of the few things I learned as a Boy Scout that I still remember is that pit vipers, which includes most American poisonous snakes – rattlesnakes, copperheads, and water moccasins – are not actually all that poisonous. If you are bitten by one of these snakes, you are unlikely to die even if you can’t get to a hospital, though you will certainly be in horrible pain for days, and you definitely want to use a tourniquette. Those who die of snakebite in the U.S. are usually infants, the very old, those who are already sick, or those who are bitten multiple times, or by very large snakes, or on the neck or chest, and especially those who fall into more than one of these categories. Also those who are drunk, since the venom of vipers attacks the blood, whereas the venom of cobras and many other tropical snakes, as well as coral snakes, attacks the nervous system: the anticoagulant effect of alcohol multiplies the effect of the venom. Of course, those who play incompetently with poisonous snakes outside of church are usually drunk, as in another news story from my time in Alabama: one guy died, and another almost did, playing catch [sic] with a rattlesnake they had found. Lesson: Rev. Summerford should have invested in a coral snake.

Except as linked, all this is ‘as I recall’, since I’m too lazy to do the necessary research to back it up.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 11:55 PM
September 26, 2004
Counting Combat Deaths

Some of the more knee-jerk leftie blogs display an updated scorecard of 'American Military Deaths in Iraq'. As of today, the numbers are 'Total: 1048' and 'In Combat: 800'. What I want to know is how many of those 800 were killed by enemy soldiers operating within the restrictions of the Geneva Convention. I suspect the number is less than 100. Donald Sensins of One Hand Clapping gives a convenient summary of the rules here:

To be categorized as a prisoner of war, POW, they must meet all four of these criteria:

(a) that of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;

(b) that of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance;

(c) that of carrying arms openly;

(d) that of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.

Combatants who do not qualify as prisoners of war when captured are not legitimate soldiers when still at large, and their actions have far more in common with terrorism than with honorable combat, even when their targets are American or allied soldiers. How many American troops in Iraq have been killed by those who follow all four rules? A few dozen is my best estimate. I'm pretty sure that even IEDs aimed at military vehicles violate rule (d) when used in areas likely to be full of civilians, such as city streets. If those who plant them are violating rules (a), (b), and (c), they do not qualify in any case. So, here's a stronger version of my question for anti-war bloggers: Have any American soldiers been killed since Bush announced the end of "major combat operations" by killers who followed even one of these four rules?

The restrictions listed above are hardly onerous. Specific ranks, serial numbers, and dog-tags or military ID cards are not required, just some kind of definite command structure (a). Those who lack the time or money to come up with matching uniforms can use any "fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance" (b). The Crips and the Bloods have figured out how to distinguish themselves from each other and from the general public with simple color-coded clothing, and the Iraqi 'insurgents' could easily do the same, if they wanted to.

A lot of lefties seem to think that the high rate of American casualties in Iraq proves Bush's incompetence. (That casualties are in fact quite low by the standards of Viet Nam, Korea, and dozens of other wars is worth noting, but irrelevant here.) What it actually proves is the enemy's utter contempt for even the most basic standards of civilized behavior, an attitude that makes it that much more important to defeat them, while making the job that much more difficult.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 01:10 PM
Bierce: Not Dead Yet

Last March I began three experimental literary blogs, publishing interesting authors in convenient daily or weekly slices. Gracián's Oráculo Manual turned out to be much too time-consuming, though I may relaunch it in January if I can get far enough ahead on the translating to maintain a reasonable schedule. I will be returning to M. R. James' Ghost Stories of an Antiquary before then, but not this week. However, the blogging of Ambrose Bierce's little book of prescriptive grammar, Write It Right, continues on a more-or-less daily basis: we are in the middle of the Ls. Do visit if you have the time and interest. Just to be perverse, I put the latest entries at the bottom of the page.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 10:40 AM
September 19, 2004
Old Media Screws Up Again

Allahpundit quotes a press release containing a story from the next issue of Time. This sentence struck me as odd:

Bush staff members rely on and, which track political blogs and websites to see what items in local papers, on websites or in blogs are getting the most hits.

I hope this is not what the story itself will say. Has the reporter even visited The Truth Laid Bear? The famous Ecosystem does not track the most-read ("getting the most hits") posts or stories or subjects, it tracks the most-linked blogs, which is not the same thing at all.* It would be completely useless for the purpose attributed to it by Time. I certainly hope "Bush staff members" are not wasting time trying to figure out which topics are hot from N. Z. Bear. Of course, like any other blogger, he posts his own thoughts on various timely topics, but is no more useful than any other low-volume blogger for tracking what is hot. (I originally wrote that he is "no more useless than any other low-value blogger", which is equally true, if less pertinent.)

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* I'm a "large mammal", ranked 477th out of 15,035. If anyone is wondering, number 15,035 is the "George Bush is a Liar" blog, which sounds about right -- the rank, I mean, not the assertion, which is both hopelessly banal and obviously false.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 10:16 PM
September 17, 2004
Can I Have Her Job?

Channel-surfing just now, I found someone named Morgan Felchner telling Bill O'Reilly her deep thoughts on the latest polls. This is from memory, but close to word-for-word:

A 13-point lead is incredible! And I don't think I believe it myself.

There was no hint that she was making an etymological pun. Apparently you can be an election commentator today without knowing the meaning of basic words like 'incredible'.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 11:13 PM
September 15, 2004
A Better Analogy?

Jonah Goldberg compares RatherGate to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.

In some ways it's more like the first time humans managed to catch a mammoth in a trap or pit and kill it with spears. Cooperation and new technology allowed a group of individually puny creatures to defeat a beast far more powerful than any (or all) of them could have faced without it. I suspect there were many unsuccessful hunts before the first successful one, and many more before the second. I also suspect that it took a lot longer to finish off the first trapped and wounded mammoth than they ever thought it would.

Update: (9/17, 4:15 PM)

Now I feel like an overconfident caveman. Though trapped in a deep muddy pit and mortally wounded days ago, the CBS mammoth is still stamping its feet, waving its trunk, and grunting incoherently. It's dull vacant gaze and continued copious bleeding portend a death that is way overdue, but it refuses to die. Time to get together and stab it again, guys?

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 11:51 PM
September 12, 2004
Dork Asshole Of The Week Month

Deep thoughts on the Killian forgeries from Max Sawicky (10:00 AM on September 11th):

Contrary to some, I do not assign zero probability to the possibility that if these are forgeries, they could have been meant to be debunked -- cooked up by Karl Rove as boob bait for the Democrats. The improbability of such an act being attributed to the GOP is an inducement for someone to do it. How nutty is that? I don't know. How nutty would it be for a political party with significant government influence to burn down its own parliament building, the better to blame it on the opposition?

Of course, the "improbability of such an act being attributed to the GOP" is in fact infinitesimal, or to put it more clearly, the probability is near 100%. We can count on the stupider and more dishonest members of the left to blame the GOP for things like this, no matter what the evidence shows or does not show.

By the way, nice Nazi comparison, Max asshole -- yet another thing we can always count on the left to provide. Of course, I am again referring only to stupider and more dishonest lefties.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 01:49 AM
A Classical Analogy

Suppose some scholar or pseudo-scholar announced that he had found an ancient manuscript containing a lost chapter of the Gallic Wars: that would be thrilling, at least for us pedants. But suppose the new chapter contained a sentence in which Caesar mentions drinking an orange soda in a tall glass with ice cubes while preparing his battle plans. Scholars would reject the soda as a blatant anachronism proving the passage a modern forgery.

Or perhaps some would not. There is nothing physically impossible in the idea that Caesar could drink an orange soda. It could theoretically have happened:

  1. In conquering Gaul, Caesar may well have visited the mineral springs of Perrier, where the water is naturally carbonated -- in effect, club soda bubbling up from the ground. While there, he may well have drunk some of the local specialty.
  2. Oranges might theoretically have been imported from China in Caesar's time, since we know that there was trade between China and Rome. The fact that oranges are not attested in Rome until much later (mid-4th century, according to this site) does not absolutely prove that a very few were not imported earlier. And if they were imported, it might have occurred to someone to squeeze some of the juice into a container full of Perrier water, perhaps with some honey to sweeten it. (Otherwise, it would more flavored seltzer than orange soda.)
  3. Glass vessels were far less common in Caesar's time than they would be a century or two later, after rapid advances in glass-making technology in the first century A.D., but it's conceivable that some local Gallic craftsman was ahead of the technological curve.
  4. A century or more after Caesar's time, wealthy Romans and members of the imperial family did have ice from the Alps to cool their drinks in the summer. I don't have the reference, since my books are in storage, but apparently a large enough block of ice, covered with blankets, can be transported from the Alps to Rome even on a horsedrawn wagon before all of it melts away -- we know this because the Romans sometimes did so in later years. Though he was almost certainly too busy conquering Gaul to worry about such things, it's conceivable that a wealthy and powerful politician like Caesar could have arranged similar shipments of ice to his headquarters in Gaul, and had them chopped by hand into well-matched conveniently-sized cubes by a skilled local craftsman to cool his hypothetical drink.

Of course, each of the necessary ingredients for a glass of orange soda with ice cubes, though not technically impossible, is so extremely unlikely in Caesar's time that the combination of all four is about a trillion times less likely than a simple hoax. Any passage such as I have imagined could in fact be dismissed as a forgery composed by some modern too ignorant to avoid even the grossest anachronisms.

Do I need to spell out the moral as if I were Aesop telling animal fables to little children?

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 01:38 AM
September 06, 2004
Hidden Bush Voters?

American Digest has a plausible argument that there are millions of voters who have made up their minds for Bush but aren't yet willing to say so in public. That would explain why the number who are willing to say that they think Bush is going to win is so much higher than the number who will admit to planning to vote for him. I posted a shorter version of this in his comments, but it seems worth expanding here:

The situation reminds me in some ways of 1980. I was working for a small company in San Francisco that measured air pollution. The owner and founder was a big fan of Jimmy Carter, perhaps partly because half our business was with the EPA. The gay employee was not so much pro-Carter as intensely anti-Reagan: he may have voted for Anderson, for all I know. I was the only open Reagan voter. What I found particularly interesting about that campaign is that every one of the other six or seven employees came up to me at some time or other in the last month or two before the election and said "don't tell [the boss] but I'm voting for Reagan, too". Right up to the end, the press was calling the election "too close to call", but I was confident that Reagan would win easily. I just wish I'd thought to make some bets on the outcome. I knew a U. Chicago professor who took several hundred dollars off his colleagues betting on Reagan that year. Adjusted for inflation, that would be well over a thousand dollars today.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 11:14 PM
A Subconscious Pun, I Hope

From the P.P.P.S. in today's Kausfiles:

The proposed new Clintonian Kerry campaign message--"If you want a new direction . . ."

I've always thought the name of New Directions Press was an obscene pun, since New Directions sounds exactly like Nude Erections in most dialects of English and they publish a lot of Henry Miller. I hope Kaus wasn't thinking along the same lines.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 08:17 PM
September 03, 2004
Dork Of The Week

I just checked the various news channels to see if there was any coverage of the schoolchild-hostages in Ossetia, and found Eric Alterman on C-Span talking about his new book, When Presidents Lie. As I tuned in, a caller was in the middle of one of those questions that are half-question, half-lecture, painstakingly explaining that in his opinion when a president lies under oath it is much worse than lying in the course of a news conference or speech. Alterman dismissed the questioner and his question by saying "I don't actually spend any time on Clinton in my book" or words to that effect. What kind of a dork writes an entire book on lying presidents without covering the most egregious example in American history, an example less than ten years old? I don't think "most egregious" is unfair: as the caller said, lying under oath in court is a particularly nasty and blatant form of lying. So why is Eric Alterman treated as someone worthy of airtime and respect?

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 08:33 AM
September 01, 2004
Blame D.C.

A couple of days ago, Jeff Jarvis of Buzz Machine blogged about the possibility that this year's presidential election could be thrown into the House of Representatives by a tie in the Electoral College. All it would take for a 269-269 tie is for Kerry to win all the states Gore won, plus West Virginia and New Hampshire.

Of course, we wouldn't have to worry so much about an Electoral College tie if it weren't for the 23rd Amendment, which gave residents of Washington, D.C. three electors, bringing the total to an evenly-divisible 538. For many decades before that, the total number of electoral votes had been odd, because the number of seats in the House of Representatives had also been odd, presumably to make tie votes on legislation less likely.* Since Senators, at two per state, are necessarily even in number, and the sum of an odd number and an even number is necessarily odd, that meant that an Electoral College tie was impossible, as long as all electors voted for one or the other of two candidates.

What Jarvis and his commenters do not mention is the even scarier possibility that the two candidates could split the states 269-269, and a single 'faithless elector' could then tip the election one way or the other. The pressure on all 538 would be enormous, and it would only take one. (Then again, if it looked like one was going to switch, maybe another would, and it would take two. The possibilities are endless, and quite repulsive.) He or she could claim to be saving the country the horror of a House-decided election, but no one would believe it. Everyone would assume that Swiss bank accounts were involved, or death threats to family members, or a judicious combination of the two. Let's all hope for a decisively lopsided electoral vote this time around.

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*The fact that the Senate has the Vice President to break ties, while the House has no such officer, suggests that the Founding Fathers planned to aim at an odd number of House members if possible. In fact, the House started with 65 members, and the first expansion was to 105, though there have been times when the total was even. The details are all in this Census Bureau PDF file. Of course, an organization with 400+ members can hardly expect all of them to show up on any given day, no matter how crucial the matter under discussion.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at 05:21 PM