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Sunday: February 26, 2006

Intellectual Recycling

Filed under: — site admin @ 10:41 AM GMT-0500

There are disadvantages in posting comments on other people’s sites instead of one’s own. Not only does it reduce the available quantity of home-grown fodder for the browsing herds, you never know when some rude person is going to slip in a comment just before yours that is 4,375 words long (actual count), many of them capitalized or bold-face or both. Whether right- or wrong-headed — I’ll never know, since I didn’t read it — such a comment will naturally cause a huge drop in the number of readers who go on to read yours.

The only solution is to repost the precious verbiage on one’s own site. The following paragraphs are quoted from my comment on this post at Protein Wisdom. They should be clear enough without the preceding context:

Since [troll-name omitted] keeps insisting on his benchmark, I’d like to note a serious problem with it. Here’s the supposedly damning WP quotation:

The number of Iraqi army battalions judged by their American trainers to be capable of fighting insurgents without U.S. help has fallen from one to none since September, Pentagon officials said yesterday.

And here’s the following sentence he carefully omitted (thanks, Jim in Chicago):

But the number of Iraqi battalions capable of leading the battle, with U.S. troops in a support role, has grown by nearly 50 percent. And the number of battalions engaged in combat has increased by 11 percent.

Am I the only one who realizes that these two developments are probably connected? If I were trying to build an effective army of 100+ battalions from scratch in the middle of a war or insurrection, here’s what I would do:

1. Put together one or two or three battalions of the best men I could find, put them into battle situations as soon as they look like they’re ready, and see how they do. No doubt some would do better than others.

2. In building dozens more new battalions from raw recruits, add a few seasoned veterans to each one to provide them with backbone, experience, and the high morale that comes from having proven winners in the unit. Where are these seasoned veterans to come from? The battle-hardened first-string battalions, of course. That will detract from their fighting ability in the short run as good men are taken away, but they can be ‘topped up’ with raw recruits and kept fighting until the latter get the hang of it.

I have no inside knowledge, or military experience, but it’s obvious to anyone who thinks about it that a single first-rate battle-hardened battalion may be more valuable as ‘seed corn’ and hands-on training academy than as a single unit. Lowering its effectiveness by sending many of its men to newer, rawer units may in fact be the best and fastest way to increase the effectiveness of the army as a whole. The only downside is that it confuses stupid journalists and blog commenters, and allows the less honest ones to make disingenuous arguments.

I suspect there are historical examples to the process I’ve outlined. It’s well-known that the British recruited a (Jewish, not Muslim) ‘Palestinian Brigade’ that fought (very well) in North Africa and Italy in World War II. Many of its members were later heroes of the Israeli fight for independence. Did the nascent nation of Israel keep all their combat veterans in a single unit in their fledgling army, or did they split them up and mix them in with masses of new recruits? I’m pretty sure they did the latter, since it’s the obvious thing to do.

To sum up, a dozen competent battalions are more useful than one superb one, and can also be turned into a dozen superb battalions a lot more quickly than one can, especially if there’s a large-scale war or insurrection going on in which they can all easily get combat experience.

Saturday: February 25, 2006

Movie: The Ruling Class

Filed under: — site admin @ 11:55 PM GMT-0500

Seen today: The Ruling Class (1972), starring Peter O’Toole as an insane duke who thinks he’s God until his depraved family succeeds in curing him, which turns out to be a big mistake. Worth seeing again? Yes. Worth buying? Maybe.

Desultory comments:

  1. It didn’t take much to get an X in 1972, at least in Britain: brief female nudity, occasional spurts of blasphemy and foul language, a brief closeup of a urinating fox, the occasional brutal stabbing — PG-13 by today’s U.S. standards.
  2. Lush scenery. I could definitely get used to living in Harlaxton Manor, as long as I didn’t have to share it with any of the aristocratic characters. Barring that, a wide-screen TV wouldn’t have hurt.
  3. There were plenty of surprises in the plot, both large and small — at least they surprised me. Lots of witty lines, too, and a few that were more than witty, for instance this one from Dr. Herder, the psychiatrist: “Don’t come to me for the truth, only explanations.”
  4. Most dated scene: Members of the House of Lords going on about coddling criminals and the need to bring back flogging and hanging. We are obviously expected to sneer at the ridiculous old farts, but changes in the crime-rate in Britain and elsewhere over the last three decades make that a bit more difficult. My main problem with the film was that the moral valuations were kneejerk. We were obviously expected to sneer at the fox hunt, as well, and the political discussions, and a lot of other things. I like brutal satire, but it works better if the targets are not confined to the landed aristocracy: it seems unsporting to aim at a target so impotent and decrepit.
  5. IMDb confirms that the Master in Lunacy (Truscott) was played by Graham Crowden, later the male lead (Tom Ballard) in the TV series Waiting for God. What I found interesting is that I did not recognize his face at all, even after I figured out who he was from one or two characteristic facial expressions.
  6. The mad duke invents (and explains) the word “insinuendo”. Does the Oxford English Dictionary list this as the first use? I won’t be able to check until tomorrow.

Now Playing

Filed under: — site admin @ 9:47 AM GMT-0500

Over the last year or two, various people have proposed ways of simply characterizing one’s iTunes collection. John Scalzi suggested hitting Shuffle and listing the first ten tunes that come up. More recently, VodkaPundit suggested that it would be more accurate to list the top ten on the Most Played list. That works tolerably well, and I posted my results in his comments, but what if you have a 16-way tie for 8th place, as I do? Only seven tunes have been played 8+ times (the maximum is 12), but 16 have been played 7 times, so selection of the last two in a Top-10 list is arbitrary.

A few months ago, someone (I forget who) suggested using the first song listed for each letter of the alphabet to make a list of 26. That is not a very accurate method, since punctuation marks sort before letters, which overrepresents titles that are spelled out or hyphenated or contracted. Examples from my iTunes library:

  • A-11 — Buck Owens
  • B-Flat Blues — Count Basie
  • D-I-V-O-R-C-E — Tammy Wynette
  • E’s Flat Ah’s Flat Too — Charles Mingus
  • G-I-R-L Spells Trouble — Ernest Tubb
  • P.S. I Love You — The Beatles
  • S’Crazy Pad — Herbie Nichols
  • ‘Taint What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It) — Fats Waller

The artists are fairly random, but the titles are not.

The method also grossly overrepresents Edith Piaf in my collection, giving her seven slots out of 26 (27%), which is well over ten times her actual share of my collection. The title beginning Va wins fair and square, but another uses the definite article (Un), and the other five take unfair advantage of the apostrophe, beginning with C’est, J’ai, L’, N’y, and Qu’as. (A Portuguese title beginning with the definite article, Villa Lobos’ O Polichinello, takes second place in the Os, but is edged out by Ralph Stanley’s O Death.)

A simple and rather obvious twist solves both problems. Find the 26 songs that come last under each letter. That gives quite a characteristic list, at least for me. I excluded Roman numerals (e.g. IX. Presto) except for the letter X, where all the cuts are classical and begin with Roman numerals. Here’s my list:

  • Azure — Duke Ellington (preceded by Cecil Taylor’s version)
  • Byrd’s Blues — Professor Longhair
  • Cut the Cornbread, Mama — The Osborne Brothers
  • Dying Ranger — Dock Boggs
  • Ezekiel Saw the Wheel — Dixie Hummingbirds
  • Fuzz Dixon — Don Walser
  • Gulf Coast Blues — Bessie Smith
  • Hymne à l’Amour — Edith Piaf
  • It’s Only Love — The Beatles
  • Just Wondering Why — Longview
  • Kozmic Blues — Janis Joplin
  • Lyin’ Eyes — The Eagles
  • Mystery Train Part II — Steve Earle
  • Nutopian International Anthem — John Lennon
  • Over Yonder in the Graveyard — Del McCoury & the Dixie Pals
  • Pyramid — Dave Bartholomew
  • Quits — Gary Stewart
  • Rusty Pail — Fats Waller
  • Synergy — The Holy Modal Rounders
  • Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right — Ernest Tubb
  • Used to Be — The Whites (preceded by two other versions)
  • Voodoo Cadillac — Southern Culture on the Skids
  • Wrong Side of His Heart — Rosie Flores
  • XXV. Postludium (Solenne, Largo — Arioso, Tranquillo) — Paul Hindemith (this is the last track of Ludus Tonalis, played by Olli Mustonen)
  • Yum, yum, yum — Johnny Temple
  • Zero to Love — The Del McCoury Band

I was tempted to delete the one or two embarrassments to make the list look better, but successfully resisted. Opinions may differ on just which cuts I should be embarrassed to own.

Books for Sale

Filed under: — site admin @ 12:41 AM GMT-0500

My other site includes a Books for Sale page with a couple of hundred titles in a wide range of fields, nearly all of them either worth reading or hard-to-find or both. Prices range from 20¢ (Iron John) to $1,400 (collected works of Bacon, in print at $2100+), and I’m willing to haggle to some extent. There are also a few CDs and videotapes and (I think) one DVD. All proceeds will be spent on books, CDs, and DVDs: it’s the cycle of . . . not life, exactly, but something or other.

Aphorism of the Day

Filed under: — site admin @ 12:27 AM GMT-0500

El tonto instruido tiene más ancho campo para practicar su tontería.

The educated fool has a wider field in which to practice his folly.

(Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Escolios a un Texto Implícito, 1.96)

That Didn’t Take Long

Filed under: — site admin @ 12:17 AM GMT-0500

For the last month or two, I’ve been intending to post a particular line of argument that had occurred to me, but I never found the time. It has suddenly become even more timely, so here it is.

It’s very simple. Suppose you believe, as many do, that pharmacists should be legally obligated to dispense birth control pills or ‘morning-after’ pills to anyone with a prescription, whatever their own personal religious beliefs, or that all hospitals, even the Catholic ones, should be legally obligated to provide abortions to those who ask for them. Do you also think that a pharmacist* who opposes the death penalty should be legally obligated to sell the state whatever drugs are needed to perform a court-mandated execution? If not, how do you distinguish the two cases?

I had thought that my argument was a mere thought-experiment. Now that a California judge has indefinitely delayed an execution because the state cannot find a licensed physician willing to participate, it (or something very like it) has become quite timely. If you think pharmacists can be ordered to dispense birth-control or ‘morning-after’ pills, do you also think that California doctors can be ordered to participate in an execution or lose their right to practice? If not, why not?

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

*I suppose the chemicals that make a lethal injection lethal may come not from a pharmacy but from the kind of company that supplies chemicals to chemists and chemistry teachers and manufacturers. If so, feel free to substitute “chemical supply company employee” for “pharmacist” above.

Friday: February 24, 2006

Aphorism of the Day

Filed under: — site admin @ 11:55 PM GMT-0500

La civilización es un campamento mal empalizado en medio de tribus insumisas.

Civilization is a poorly-fortified camp surrounded by unpacified tribes.

(Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Escolios a un Texto Implícito, 1.268)

Nomen Omen

Filed under: — site admin @ 9:29 PM GMT-0500

From MSNBC, via The Rat:


Bolivia’s foreign minister says coca leaves, the raw material for cocaine, are so nutritious they should be included on school breakfast menus.

‘Coca has more calcium than milk. It should be part of the school breakfast,’ Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca was quoted as saying in Friday’s edition of La Razon . . .

My title refers not to The Rat herself — her name is more of a lucus a non lucendo — but to Señor Choquehuanca. I can’t help noting that his last name is pronounced Choke-a-Wank-a. Of course it would be easier to restrain myself from noting this if he weren’t such an obvious cretin.

Pseudo-Troll vs. Genuine Oaf

Filed under: — site admin @ 7:27 PM GMT-0500

How hard is it to get a critical comment onto Juan Cole’s Informed Comment? Pretty hard, if this one (on this post) doesn’t pass muster:

Would you please stop writing things like “guerrillas set up a phony checkpoint and pulled 47 largely Shiite factory workers off a bus and summarily executed them”. Change “guerrillas” to “terrorists” and “summarily executed” to “murdered”, and your statement is unexceptionable. As written it is simply false.

Guerrilla is a legitimate occupation, protected by the Geneva Conventions, and these murderers may act as guerrillas on other days, attacking legitimate military targets, but in this instance they were acting as simple terrorists. (Lt. Calley was a legitimate soldier through most of his military career, but on at least one day at My Lai he was a mass-murdering terrorist. These guys are exactly the same.) I hope I don’t have to explain why killing innocent people is murder, not ‘execution’.

It’s been almost nine hours since I submitted this, and ten other comments on the same post have been approved in that time, but mine has yet to appear. Cole’s comment page says that he “does not allow anonymous comments”, but mine is pseudonymous rather than anonymous, and he has approved comments from “Clive of the Islands”, “The Diarist”, “presstech”, “copy editor”, and plenty of others just as pseudonymous as I. Perhaps I should have addressed mine to “Professor Cole” with a deep virtual bow and then done a little preliminary sucking-up before getting to the point. Or perhaps Cole should stop being such an intellectual oaf, admit it when he’s wrong, and try not to make the same mistake over and over again. Though common, that kind of arrogance is particularly unfortunate in someone who professes to be a teacher and a scholar.

Misplaced Snark

Filed under: — site admin @ 6:25 PM GMT-0500

Jessica Wilson, one of Brian Leiter’s subaltern posters, writes about Abu Ghraib:

“Specialist” Charles Graner was sentenced to a mere 10 years; Pvt. Lynndie England just 3 years; involved higher-ups, Singh notes, have frequently been promoted.

I put off commenting on this, thinking that one of her academic friends would clue her in, but a week has passed and no one has. A simple question: why the quotation marks around “specialist”? It’s an ordinary enlisted rank (E-4), the same as a corporal (also E-4), or a bit lower, as a simple Google search will show. Here is the official list of enlisted ranks, with a note near the top that corporals take precedence over specialists. A private like England is an E-2, and the only thing lower is someone still in boot camp.

To return to “specialist”, is Wilson trying to make some kind of joke? For a sophomoric play on words, you would surely need to bring in a “general” to balance the “specialist”. There’s one available, Gen. Janis Karpinski, who was in command of all prisons in Iraq until she was demoted to colonel for not preventing the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Of course, mentioning her would rather wreck the point about higher-ups being promoted. So what is the point of the quotation marks around “specialist”? Has life in academia inclined Wilson to add “sneer quotes” (note the illustrative punctuation) even where they are inappropriate and inane, or can someone come up with a better explanation of what they are supposed to mean here?

Interesting Absences

Filed under: — site admin @ 5:29 PM GMT-0500

As most of my readers already know, Christopher Hitchens organized a demonstration of support in front of the Danish Embassy in Washington at noon today. I wish I could have been there, waving a block of Danish Esrom (like Havarti, but more pungent, and better). InstaPundit reports that Bill Kristol, Andrew Sullivan, and roughly 200 other people turned out, and provides pictures. I was glad to see on some site or other that at least one of the scholars at the Center for Hellenic Studies, right next door to the embassy, came out and joined the demonstration.

What I find disappointing, though not surprising, is who didn’t show up. Whitehaven Street is only a block long. (I’ve been there many times.) The most famous residents are Bill and Hillary Clinton. I have never been able to determine which of the eight or ten houses on the street is theirs: the Secret Service does a good job of keeping the number off the web, and their own selves invisible. But it does look a lot like the one in InstaPundit’s first picture. Here’s a picture of the Clinton house last fall for comparison: the porch roof is a different shape, but the rest is a close match, and they have been doing a lot of remodeling. It’s possible that the dumptruck in InstaPundit’s second picture belongs to a Clinton contractor. Even if the Clinton house is not the one in the picture, it can’t be more than a block away.

Hillary’s official website mentions that she was in town yesterday, interrogating “representatives from departments and agencies” for the Senate Armed Services Committee. I have been unable to determine whether Bill is in D.C., New York, Little Rock, or somewhere else. [See Update below.] Of course, she may have had unavoidable Senatorial duties to attend today, and he may be out of town, but perhaps someone should ask them at their next press conferences why they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, come to the demonstration.

To make my disappointment bipartisan, I should note that the grounds of the Naval Observatory nearly touch Whitehaven Street very near the Danish Embassy. It would have been nice if the Vice President or his wife or both had climbed their back fence and joined the demonstration. Of course, I didn’t even bother to try to find out whether Cheney’s undisclosed location of the day was at home. And I don’t think that members of the executive branch are quite so free as senators to express their opinions on international affairs without going through the State Department.

So, did anyone at the rally notice any Secret Service men hanging around? If so, were they Cheney men or Clinton men, or could you tell? VodkaPundit reports that there were only three D.C. cops at the rally.

Update: (2/25, 1:00am)

According to the second comment, Bill Clinton is in New Zealand. I’ll call that an excused absence.

Monday: February 20, 2006

A Surprising Parallel

Filed under: — site admin @ 10:58 PM GMT-0500

Austin BaySmall Dead Animals) has a long post on the Human Relations side of al Qaeda, that is, the generous fringe benefits and not-so-generous salaries listed in a captured document. I was as surprised as everyone else to hear that terrorists have paid vacations, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been, since I’ve read Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. In one of my favorite passages, around four-fifths of the way through Chapter II, small-time terrorist and shop-owner Adolph Verloc is meeting with his contact Mr. Vladimir at what is obviously intended to be the Russian embassy in London. Mr. Vladimir is the first speaker:

“You’ll get your screw every month, and no more until something happens. And if nothing happens very soon you won’t get even that. What’s your ostensible occupation? What are you supposed to live by?”

“I keep a shop,” answered Mr. Verloc.

“A shop! What sort of shop?”

“Stationery, newspapers. My wife—”

“Your what?” interrupted Mr. Vladimir in his guttural Central Asian tones.

“My wife.” Mr. Verloc raised his husky voice slightly. “I am married.”

“That be damned for a yarn,” exclaimed the other in unfeigned astonishment. “Married! And you a professed anarchist, too! What is this confounded nonsense? But I suppose it’s merely a manner of speaking. Anarchists don’t marry. It’s well known. They can’t. It would be apostasy.”

“My wife isn’t one,” Mr. Verloc mumbled, sulkily. “Moreover, it’s no concern of yours.”

“Oh yes, it is,” snapped Mr. Vladimir. “I am beginning to be convinced that you are not at all the man for the work you’ve been employed on. Why you must have discredited yourself completely in your own world by your marriage. Couldn’t you have managed without? This is your virtuous attachment-eh? What with one sort of attachment and another you are doing away with your usefulness.”

Mr. Vladimir seems almost as surprised by the shop as by the wife, no doubt because keeping a shop is such a stereotypically bourgeois (not to mention English) occupation. Perhaps it would have helped if Verloc had told him that he sells pornography as well as stationery and newspapers.

Petty Annoyance of the Month

Filed under: — site admin @ 10:26 PM GMT-0500

I went to the Time site a few weeks ago to look up an article I remembered from 1986. (Their coverage of Reagan’s bombing of Libya included a picture and caption so ridiculous that I’m still laughing about them almost twenty years later. I wanted to fisk them, and I couldn’t find them in the U.N.C. back issues, which are missing a few pages.) Time‘s website charged me a very reasonable $1.98 for access, but:

  1. I was looking for a picture, and the archives do not include pictures. Perhaps not surprising, but it would have been nice to have been told that up front, so I wouln’t waste my $1.98.
  2. Paying for access to the archives automatically signed me up for a four-week free trial subscription, which I emphatically did not want and turned out to be fairly difficult to cancel. When they e-mailed to ask how I liked my new subscription, I explained to them that I didn’t want it, hadn’t ever wanted it, and asked them to cancel it. Apparently no one reads these surveys, because issues of Time soon began appearing in my mailbox, disappearing immediately afterwards in the nearby dumpster. After three weeks of this, I went to their website to cancel ‘my’ subscription. Since I declined to accept their cookie, they declined to let me in. It took 20+ minutes on the telephone, mostly trying to get through to a human being, to actually cancel, and I’m not yet sure that it worked.

Some interesting conclusions can be drawn from this:

  1. It’s not surprising that traditional media are losing money: Time insists on sending multiple copies of their magazine even to someone who throws them in the dumpster unread and will never pay a penny for them. And they haven’t even gotten around to charging my credit card the $1.98 I agreed to pay.
  2. Then again, perhaps they’re not losing money. Are they counting me as part of their circulation (sort of true), or even as a paid subscriber (totally false)? If so, are they counting me for the entire year, or just for the few weeks between pseudo-subscribing and cancellation? Most important, do their circulation auditors know the answers to these questions? Do their advertisers? Are circulations declining even more precipitously than officially admitted?

Petty Annoyance of the Week

Filed under: — site admin @ 9:58 PM GMT-0500

The North Carolina state tax site gives me an error message whenever I try to open some of their PDF files. Which files? The basic D-400 income tax form and the instructions for it, which is to say the only files I needed. They would not open on my desktop or my laptop, using either Acrobat 4.0 or 6.0 via either Firefox or Internet Explorer. I had to do my N.C. taxes at work, where Acrobat 5.1 via IE worked just fine. That was both inconvenient and potentially embarrassing, since I had to keep shooing students away from the desk where I was working and had laid out all my paperwork.

Leaving Himself Wide Open

Filed under: — site admin @ 9:50 PM GMT-0500

The Telegraph (via Roger Simon) reports on David Irving’s reaction to being sentenced to three years in jail for Holocaust denial: “I’m shocked and I will be appealing.”

Surely I’m not the only reader whose first thought was “Maybe you should have tried being appealing a long time ago, instead of a repulsive lying bigot!”

Saturday: February 11, 2006

An Obscure Anniversary

Filed under: — site admin @ 11:56 PM GMT-0500

. . . and I almost missed it. Today is the 200th anniversary of the death of Vicent Martín i Soler. He seems to be a mere footnote* today, but what I’ve heard of his operas (Una Cosa Rara and La Capricciosa Corretta on CD) was enough to convince me that it isn’t so much Mozart’s operas as classical opera in general that I like. Seeing Salieri’s Falstaff at Wolftrap and Cimarosa’s Il Matrimonio Segreto on DVD helped. So why are these operas so rarely produced? It’s not as if Mozart’s mature operas are all that numerous. Anyway, to commemorate the occasion, I just played the overtures and a few arias from each of my CD sets. Now if only someone would record one or the other (or both!) on DVD, so I can follow the plot: I’ve never really been able to follow an opera well without seeing it, which makes listening to the CDs a frustratingly incomplete experience.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

*A literal footnote about a metaphorical footnote: Una Cosa Rara was a big hit just before Don Giovanni, so much so that Mozart quotes a bit in the banquet scene and has the Don say “Bravo! Una Cosa Rara”.

Monday: February 6, 2006

Permanent Relief or Temporary Respite?

Filed under: — site admin @ 10:22 PM GMT-0500

Over the last two or three months, spam comments on my two sites gradually increased from less than 200 per day, which was bad enough, to 300, then 400, then 500, and so on, peaking at around 900 per day, at which point they outnumbered genuine comments by 500:1 or more and forced me to spend half an hour or more per day deleting the filthy things. Though I have been unable to install any software solution, some time last week the flood suddenly turned into a trickle. I’m now getting a very manageable 30-40 per day, and the last two comments on this site were both genuine. It’s been months since I’ve had the pleasure of approving two in a row.

I wonder what happened. Were all the spam comments coming from a single spammer ? If so, has he been kicked off his ISP? Arrested? (I hope so.) Assassinated by rival spammers? (Even better, and there have been some hints that many of the comments were coming from Russia.) Or have his ill-gotten profits allowed him to retire to the Riviera and give up spamming entirely? Most disquieting: is my relief purely temporary? Perhaps spammers all take their vacations this time of year, or go to a spammer convention in Acapulco. Time will tell, but so far I’m enjoying the extra free time.

Sunday: February 5, 2006

Etymological Stereotypes

Filed under: — site admin @ 7:18 PM GMT-0500

Wanting to make a big pot of Mulligatawny soup a few nights ago, I finally got around to unpacking my Christmas blender. Consulting the manual, I was amused to discover that the Spanish name is the macho and sinister ‘licuadora’, while the French name is the wimpy and over-educated ‘mélangeur’. I suppose the effect is partially offset by the Spanish liquidator being grammatically feminine (would that make it a ‘liquidatrix’ in English?), while the French melange-maker is grammatically masculine.