Hot Water? More like hot air.
"The new fagarnace for men."
No, I did not photoshop this image.
Ebert on violence in movies and in real life
After seeing the movie Elephant and liking it, I checked out the review of noted Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, as I often do. In his four-star review of that movie, he tells a little story that I would like to quote for you verbatim.
"The day after [the Columbine High School shooting], I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. "Wouldn't you say," she asked, "that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?" No, I said, I wouldn't say that. "But what about 'Basketball Diaries'?" she asked. "Doesn't that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?" The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it's unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.
"The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. "Events like this," I said, "if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn't have messed with me. I'll go out in a blaze of glory."
"In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of "explaining" them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy."
It has once been said that evil triumphs if good people do nothing; this little story proves to me that stupidity triumphs if intelligent people do nothing. Ebert did not do nothing, nor did his editor.
Greenland beginning to live up to its name
Here's a poignant story I read in the papers.
Greenland is seeking more autonomy (it's currently part of Denmark --remember this for the pub quiz question, 'What country in Europe has the largest land mass?'), .
The reason Greenland is seeking more autonomy is because they are extracting more and more oil from the island, and are slowly becoming more self-sufficient.
The reason they are extracting more and more oil is because the ice in Greenland is melting.
The ice in Greenland is melting because of the greenhouse effect.
The greenhouse effect is caused by people extracting more and more oil.
Conclusion: Al Gore cares more about the Greenland ice melting than do the 50,000 or so Inuit that inhabit Greenland.
The mysterious Governor Pinchback
Now that the USA has its first black President, I read a newspaper article about the first black X in the US, where X is senator, astronaut, or golf champion. Among the list was the first black governor, a certain Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback. Pinchback's governorship is intriguing for a number of reasons:
- He was governor in 1872, a mere 7 years after slavery was abolished.
- He was governor for only 35 days, but he was not forcibly removed from office.
- He was governor of Louisiana, a state not known for its tolerant stance on minorities (present-day example).
- He was a Republican.
- He was captain of an all-black regiment of the Union Army in the Civil War.
- He doesn't exactly look black (judging from this picture).
Can anyone tell me a bit more about this fascinating character? Wikipedia is pretty sketchy.
We've just been through eight bad years under the leadership of a president that has been called the worst in living memory by some. He will always be connected to a unnecessary war, the stripping away of civil liberties, letting his citizens die in New Orleans, dismantling the Constitution, and the worst financial crisis in about a century.
Even after it became clear that the Iraq war was started under false pretenses, Bush still got re-elected. And both the media and the people just let him do his stuff. Sure, Keith Olbermann and other liberal Pavlovian dogs foamed at the mouth with indignation, but we didn't exactly see picket lines outside the White House every day demanding his resignation.
In short, there was enough reason to be very cynical about America and the American people.
And here we find ourselves at the beginning of a completely different eight years (you heard me, eight years). An African-American in the White House would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago. But he's also common sense personified, a man who has made intellect, nuance and calmness into his trademarks. Sort of like Al Gore, but funky. The opposition has tried to push every emotional button of the voters they could find, but it was all in vain.
In short, there's enough reason to be very hopeful about America and the American people.
Goatse endorses Obama
Mr Bob Goatse, the well-known internet celebrity, has formally endorsed Barack Obama for president of the United States. 'I believe his vision and his talent can bring about a new America we can all believe in,' said Mr Goatse.
VPRO Gids interview with Mark Frauenfelder of BoingBoing
Here's a translation of the VPRO Gids interview with BoingBoing's Mark Frauenfelder (the interview is © Jeroen van Bergeijk):
BoingBoing is the world's most popular weblog. According to Technorati - a company that measures the popularity of weblogs - BoingBoing receives over 330,000 visitors daily. BoingBoing calls itself a 'directory of wonderful things', which in practice means a weblog about technology, digital culture, underground comics, science fiction, politics and whatever else interests the editors. Such as, to name but a few, the cock ring of Bush strategist Karl Rove's stepfather or the ten most incomprehensible Bob Dylan interviews. BoingBoing, initially a small-scale zine, is made by four people, former WIRED columnist David Pescovitz, journalist Xeni Jardin, science fiction author Cory Doctorow and founder Mark Frauenfelder. Frauenfelder is an artist and journalist - he worked as a WIRED editor for year. Now, apart from being a BoingBoing editor, he is also the chief editor of the magazine MAKE. He lives and works in Los Angeles, where VPRO Gids looked him up.
-How is BoingBoing actually made?
"We don't have an editor's meeting room or something. All four of us work from home. We see each other rarely. We get hundreds of story suggestions per day via e-mail. I go through all of them. For example, I just now got a tip about the Radioactive Boy Scout. That's an old story about a boy who built a nuclear reactor in his back yard using weak radioactive materials from smoke detectors and clocks. He's been institutionalized, but now he seems to be active again. I write a post about this - Return of the Radioactive Boyscout- in some 5 minutes. I do that 3-5 hours per day: reading suggestions, surfing the Web and writing posts. That's BB in a nutshell."
-How did BoingBoing come about?
"I once started BB as a self-published magazine, a zine. We were interested in topics such as cyberpunk, SF, underground comics, conspiracy theories, basically what BB is still about. The magazine did OK: we had about 18,000 subscribers, but at a certain moment I got too busy with other work and the magazine went into a slump. In 1999 I wrote an article about weblogging for an internet magazine. That article was then rejected, that blogging stuff didn't amount to anything, nonsense for a few freaks. Hahaha. But I was fascinated bu the idea that publishing had become as easy as writing a mome. I though, 'Why not make BB into a blog?' And so I did. I wrote a post every day and got some visitors, not many, but enough to keep it fun. But then in 2001 I had a scoop about a super-secret project by inventor Dean Kamen. I found some drawings online of what later turned out to be this scooter, the Segway. CNN referred to BB and the visitor count skyrocketed.
-BB was then still a one man project. Why did you involve more people?
"Just as BB was beginning to take off as a weblog, I was about to go on holiday for a long time. I found it important that the site should stay intertesing while I was gone. I then asked Cory Doctorow. I blogged one post per day, but when I came back he turned out to have written dozens of posts per day, and the visitor count was phenomenal. We had learned the first rule of blogging. The more you blog, the more people will visit. Within a few weeks, we were at 10,000 visitors per day."
-But how do you go from 10,000 visitors per day to the world's most popular weblog?
"Part of the explanation is that we were one of the first blogs. Time and again it's shown on internet that if you're first, you build up an audience quickly. What's also important is that all four editors of BB are professional journalists. We know what makes a good story, how to write a headline, how to summarize an article. Those are basic skills that every blogger should have, but that are missing all too often. It might seem as if BB is about anything and everything, but there actually is a clear focus. We don't go sports or gossip, you can find enough of that on other sites. We want stories that surprise you, that have a 'wow' factor, that put your idea about how the world works on its head."
-Andrew Keen, author of the controversial book 'The Cult of the Amateur', in which he argues that current internet is destroying our culture, recently called BB "a surreal and completely meaningless collection of miscelleanous knowledge." What do you think of that?
"Hahaha. I liked that quote so much that we spent weeks creating a special "surreal and completely meaningless collection of miscelleanous knowledge" every day. He says: amateurs produce only shit on the internet and feed off mainstream media in such a way, that those old media can no longer exist. I agree that the internet is full of garbage. I believe in Sturgeon's Law. Theodore Sturgeon was a science fiction author who once said, "90% of everything is crud." I totally agree. 90% of what you find on internet is crud, but also 90% of old mass media is crud. I see no difference. Keen seems to prefer the old situation in which media were centralized, I find the fact that anyone can set up their own little newspaper of TV station a big advantage. I applaud technology that allows individuals to create things themselves."
-But sometimes those individuals create stuff that doesn't make you happy either. A typical part of every blog is the ability to comment. But on BB, that was not possible for years. Why?
"There are really a lot of huge assholes out there, let that be clear. People who enjoy dispersing a community. When you get more readers, the percentage of those super creepy assholes also increases. And you only need one bastard like that to poison the atmosphere on your blog. We just had too many visitors, too many responses and we didn't have time to keep track of that, nor felt like it. Now we hired someone to moderate the comments. And we also found a beautiful tool to silence the loudmouths: disemvoweling. That means that if someone starts cursing, we leave the comment but remove the vowels. If you try real hard, you can still read what it says, but all the strength has been drained from it. A great way to defuse someone's verbal abuse without actually censoring them."
-Keen fears that print media will be pushed to the sidelines as a result of the popularity of free online media. Don't you worry about that?
"Look, I also enjoy reading the paper at breakfast, but to be honest, I hardly have time for that anymore. And once I'm behind my desk, I won't open a paper anymore. I read everything online. As do millions of other people. I'm the editor of MAKE and that is doing just fine."
-What kind of magazine is that?
"MAKE is about hacking your environment. Adapting existing products in such a way that they meet your demands. How do you turn a shopping trolley into a wheelchair? How do you make a programmable kitten feeder out of a meat grinder and a VCR? How do you make win out of mulberries?"
-Why not publish that magazine online?
"A magazine still gives a much better experience than a computer screen. You browse through the information more easily, the visual experience is better, you can grab it, nothing can beat that. And because you use MAKE when you are making stuff, a magazine is also a much more logical choice: who takes their laptop into their DIY room?"
-MAKE is basically a crafts magazine. That sounds a bit cheesy in an old-fashioned way...
"Making stuff is generally not seen as imporant, but I think it's a universal human need. I think many people get depressed because they consume too much passively and donβt take charge often enough. Knitting, crafts, it may sound boring, but the fact is that it makes people happier. Both in BB and in MAKE, I try to show people that it's become very easy to express yourself, to be creative yourself. Don't just accept what mass media and big corporations are offering you. You can adapt technology and products to your own wishes and desires."
Bullshit: talk to your doctor about it
After I had finished the morning paper, I looked around the waiting room at my doctor's office for some reading material. I picked up the nearest glossy, a self-proclaimed 'Mindstyle Magazine' called 'Happinez' (the Dutch love deliberate misspellings of English, it makes them look all savvy and hip). The magazine had a sticker on it that said, 'Waiting Room Copy', so it wasn't brought in by a patient.
I was only vaguely aware of this magazine, but to my surprise, it turned out to consist almost completely of articles about Ravi Shankar, alternative medicine, general noncommittal 'spirituality' and other such nonsense. Now while I don't hold with such views, I don't mind anyone believing this. Some of my best friends are New Age types.
But this is a doctor's office. A place where I expect to be treated in a rational, scientific manner, and to find that common sense reflected in the office. Instead, I find claptrap about how thinking positively might cure me. I know the doctors are busy, but this is just silly.
I just came across the following quote:
It is often said that in face-to-face communications, the words we speak actually account for less than 10 percent of the meaning that we convey, while body language accounts for more than half of our message (our tone of voice supposedly communicates the rest).Now, I've read this type of quote before and it always bothers me. Quite apart from the obviously meaningless phrase "It is often said" (whenever you read such a phrase, add the words 'by mentally retarded neo-nazi serial killers'), how exactly do you measure "10 percent of the meaning" of something?
But let's say for the sake of the argument that the statement somehow holds true. Doesn't that imply that when you talk to someone over the phone, you understand only half of what they're trying to inform you about, and that when you read, say, someone's e-mail, only ten percent of the message comes across? That is blatant nonsense.
If you only understand 10 percent of what I just said, I stand corrected.
The Reason for the Assault
Former Vice-President Al Gore has been making the rounds on various talkshows to plug his new book, The Assault on Reason. In this book, he argues that lies and misdirections have triumphed over reason and common sense because of misinformation or distortion from both the Powers That Be and from the mainstream media. Arguing, like Winston Smith in 1984, that 'all hope lies in the proles', Gore places the internet on a pedestal as the last vestige of the reasonable, a place where intelligent people can openly debate issues.
Now, much as I like and admire Gore, and would surely support that bid for the Presidency he's so strategically avoiding at the moment, I must respectfully disagree with the distinguished gentleman on this issue.
The internet is a place for reasoned, intelligent debate?! I believe Mr Gore frequents a different cyberspace continuum than me. Remember, it is the internet that gave birth to Godwin's Law ("As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one."). It's the internet that prompted the coining of the phrase, 'Winning an argument on the internet is like winning the Special Olympics: even if you win, you're still a retard.' And only because of the internet, "more than a third of the American public suspects that federal officials assisted in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or took no action to stop them." Intelligent debate indeed.
So while I support Mr Gore's sentiments, I find his allegiance with the Net to be somewhat suspicious. Could it be that he has found leftist blogs such as Daily Kos and Crooks and Liars to be particularly effective in mobilizing his supporters, while the mainstream media have stood by Bush much longer than they should have, caving in to populist commercialism? Maybe I shouldn't be too shocked to find a cynical politician, but somehow, I expected more of good old Al.
Open letter to Air France customer service
Dear Air France customer service,
I am posting this letter to my weblog because the Air France Web site requires me to become a "member of [y]our Flying Blue loyalty program" before I can send Air France an e-mail. After reading this letter, I'm sure you'll agree that 'loyalty' is the last word I would use to characterize my attitude toward Air France.
One reason why your customers see organizations like yours as faceless moguls is having to write to something like "Air France customer service" instead of to an actual person by name. I'd like to think that an actual Air France employee will one day be reading this, and I'll just pretend that your name is Alain. Feel free to replace that name with your own throughout this letter, Alain.
Alain, let me start out by saying that what I am about to say is not directed at you personally. I don't know why you work at Air France customer service; maybe you don't even particularly like your job. I have no idea what you look like --hell, I don't even know if your name is Alain. So please, don't take offense at what follows.
Alain, my girlfriend and I purchased an Air France ticket and used it to fly from Amsterdam to Marrakech via Paris. After a pleasant holiday, we took the return trip, which involved a transfer by shuttle bus in Paris from Orly airport to Charles de Gaulle. Getting from the plane to the bus was bothersome because:
- Air France was 15 minutes late on our incoming flight;
- Air France made us check out our luggage ourselves; and
- Air France makes all of its passengers pay €16 to get on the bus, slowing down boarding considerably (seriously, would it kill Air France to add this amount to the ticket price and let us just get on the bus?).
The time between the connecting flights was 2.5 hours, which you must admit, Alain, is not much in 7 PM rush hour traffic on the Périphérique. We sat on the bus, nervously glancing at our watches every five minutes, forced to endure clips about wood flute manufacturing, pet cemeteries and classic 1950s automobiles (accompanied by elevator music) playing on the TV installed in the vehicle. The minutes ticked by as the bus crawled its way through the banlieues, but luckily, it arrived a mere 55 minutes before takeoff: plenty of time to check in.
Or so we thought; upon checking in, we were told we were on a 'waiting list'. Waiting to board the plane, surely. No: waiting to find out whether Air France would let us on the plane. The plane for which we had valid tickets to the sum total of about €1000. The plane for which we were only slightly late checking in, and that only because Air France gave us a very tight connection. The plane for which we could not have checked in at Orly, because we could not risk missing the connecting flight (which, ironically, we missed anyway). The fact that we were transferring passengers seemed to have no effect whatsoever on our ability to get on the plane.
Learning that you are going to miss your flight through no fault of your own, while there is plenty of time to board, and with a ticket fully paid, is distressing to say the least. It would make sense that whoever breaks this unwelcome news first allows the customer plenty of time (after all, you now have loads of it!) to come to terms with the unpleasant arrangement, and then to communicate the following as gently as possible:
- Air France is very sorry for the inconvenience, and accepts that it and it alone is responsible for it.
- Air France offers you a hotel adjacent to the airport, including a dinner, breakfast, and a compensation of €250 per person.
- Air France will make every effort imaginable to assist you with any alternative resolution you may have in mind, such as helping you book a train for this evening, helping you book a ticket with a different airline for this evening, or anything else you may require help with.
- Air France reminds you for future reference that an Internet check-in within 24 hours before departure would have ensured you a seat.
My girlfriend, it must be admitted, was wrong: Air France did not fuck up. Fucking up implies that some kind of mistake was made. Air France's decision to overbook the flight and leave several of its paying customers stranded at the airport for a night, forcing them to wake up at 5 AM to catch the first morning flight out, was as calculated as it was callous and greedy. Air France knew that it would probably be fucking several of its customers in the ass when it deliberately overbooked the flight, and it chose not to care. Not only that, when one of the passengers objected to this, it told her -in so many words- to go fuck herself and threatened to take away any compensation.
Alain, my girlfriend and me are a so-called DINKY couple (Double Income, No Kids Yet), the kind of target demographic that most of Air France's marketing execs dream about at night. We fly a lot, and we did not hesitate to pay Air France a thousand Euros to take us to Marrakech and back. Over the coming decades, we probably represent an investment of several tens if not hundreds of thousands of Euros for whichever airline we choose to fly with.
Now hear this, Alain: because of this experience with Air France, and especially thanks to Benito, my girlfriend and me will never, ever again choose Air France as an airline to fly anywhere. All that money will be going to one of your competitors. Please inform your superiors of this fact, and tell them that in the end, it is Air France who is getting fucked in the ass.
Overthrow the government
In the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre, new discussion are starting about gun control in the United States. As a European, the ready availability of firearms of any kind is nothing short of baffling to me. I know that Americans consider the Bill of Rights as something of a sacred text, and its Second Amendment is pretty unambiguous. But I would urge Americans to wake up and smell the statistics: other countries have astronomically less firearms-related crimes. And the problem is not the legality or illegality of firearms (because as gun lobbyists so rightly point out, outlawing guns puts guns in the hands of outlaws only), but their omnipresence: the reason people don't shoot each other nearly so much in, say, Denmark, is because there simply aren't so many guns being manufactured. How about setting a quota on gun production and imposing super-strong border checks?
Ah, say gun proponents, but there is another, vital part to the availability of guns: it allows the people to gather together and overthrow their government, by force if necessary. To these people I would say: here is your chance! If ever in the history of the United States a government was more in need of overthrowing than the Bush administration, I'd like to know which one it is. This government has lied to you, undermined the Constitution, started an unnecessary war, fired people in the legislative branch for political reasons, and has generally eroded everything America stands for to send it teetering on the brink of dictatorship. Support for this presidency is lower than low. So now is the time to exercise that well-preserved right to get your gun, march to the White House, and depose the tyrant.
Yeah, I didn't think so. Even if this were an advisable course of action, Secret Service snipers would take you out in 5 minutes flat. So you can throw that bullshit argument out the window as well.
Mind the lack of progress
While visiting London this Easter, it occurred to me that the stock phrase "Mind the gap", so well-known as typically London for decades, is actually an embarrassing admission of guilt: in all those decades, nobody ever came up with a way to fix the gap? It's a bit silly that a city's international motto signifies the town's glaring incompetence.
Other than that, I had a pukka time.
The public secret
Call me crazy but sometimes these speeches by Bush seem somewhat redundant.
Reuters reports: 'Unswayed by doubts among Americans, President George W. Bush plans to announce on Wednesday that he will send about 20,000 more U.S. troops to Iraq as part of a long-delayed new plan for the unpopular war.'
CNN says, 'In the speech, set for 9 p.m. ET, Bush will announce a plan to send about 20,000 more troops to Iraq in an effort to pacify Baghdad, according to an unnamed U.S. official who spoke to CNN on Tuesday.'
While the BBC tells us, 'The president is expected to bolster the US presence in the country by sending at least 20,000 extra troops to Baghdad and the restive Anbar province.'
Um.. so why are we having this speech? Isn't this news bad enough without Dubya telling it to us yet again? Or is it for the benefit of those three staunch supporters of Bush who don't believe anything unless they've seen him say it personally?
Spam is getting more like free verse every day
Spamfilters keep getting harder to break, I guess, but this spam I received is ridiculous. Apparently, they are trying to sell me something called a Garment of Repulsion, pretty neat from the sound of it, but some whole other story about credit card debt comes barging in.
Our attorneys discovered a mistake inside the bank laws, Using waht we found
we were successful at entirely eliminating peop1es creditcarddebt without
them having to pay one more dime. We know that our firm can do this for you
Please contact us-
information or to finish receiving or to look at our location
Why don't you walk down? asked Eureka. Many were killed outright, while
others fell wounded to be trampled upon by those who pressed on from the
rear I'm as hungry as the horse is, and I want my milk. Rob maintained his
position in the front rank, but escaped all injury through the possession of
the Garment of Repulsion
Imagine if commercial snail mail or real live sales pitches went like this. "So you see, Stain-B-Gone is perfect to wipe away any spot." (pause) "May the armies of Snardor be victorious in their Great Battle against Nordach!"
Taken out of context
Dear all politicians in the entire world,
Throughout your entire career, you have from time to time said outrageous, shameful and idiotic things. Things like "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job" or "Your president is not a crook". You and your spokespeople subsequently then often go on a damage control mission, claiming that the quote was "taken out of context". Here's a thought: would it be so terribly hard to make quotes that CANNOT be taken out of context?
Just a thought.
PS Oh wait, maybe you already do, and you just CLAIM you don't.
The Peace President?
Some people smarter than me have taken the major speeches given by all US Presidents and made frequency counts of the words therein. Click here to see those words nicely assembled in what are known as 'tag clouds', with more prominent words appearing bigger.
I went through these using the handy slider and couldn't help noticing two interesting things.
- Every single one of these speeches contains the word 'war'
- Not one of these speeches contains the word 'peace'
Dewinter of our discontent
Filip Dewinter (left) and Pim Fortuyn
The pleasantly lukewarm performance of Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest), the Belgian racist-populist political party of Filip Dewinter, in the most recent elections, prompted some analysis in the newspapers of my native Netherlands. My paper made two points that had me puzzled.
Firstly, my paper claimed that Vlaams Belang, which had been renamed after a court convicted it of being a racist organization, was not really that racist. Comparing its party programme with that of the Dutch party "Lijst Pim Fortuyn" (named after its charismatic leader, who was assassinated prior to his first elections), the paper said, revealed little difference. Maybe, I wonder, this is because the LPF is racist, too, and not because VB is moderate.
Secondly, the paper explained in detail how all established political parties in Belgium responded to the rise of VB back in the 1980s by agreeing with each other that none would enter into a coalition with these idiots. Because VB never gained an absolute majority, it was effectively doomed to be in the opposition benches forever.
In contrast, the spectacular rise of Pim Fortuyn prompted no such response in the Netherlands. On the contrary, LPF joined the government coalition, creating the most incompetent and amateurish cabinet this country has ever seen, which fell after a mere three months. My newspaper failed to pick up on that contrast.
The TRUTH behind the so-called "TRUTH about the LIES of 9/11"!
You've seen the Web sites. You've read the theories. "The Pentagon was not hit by an airplane but by a missile!" "The Twin Towers were destroyed by a controlled demolition, not by two Boeings flying straight into them!" "Building WTC 7 crashed all on its own, it was rigged to explode!" Slowly, these conspiracy theories are beginning to gain a hold on the world's public opinion. One in three Americans now think that the Bush administration knew about the attacks and did nothing to stop them, or even more nefariously, personally organized this bloody attack.
The question is: who is behind all these whacky theories? Who stands to gain from this?
The answer is obvious to anyone with an IQ over 12: the Democrats.
It's perfectly simple: after 9/11, the popularity of Bush and the Republican Party soared, even though (and that is the REAL truth) they had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11. Democrats were in no position to argue at a time of war, and had to sit and watch as Bush got his second term. Even when Bush severely curtailed civil liberties and obviously pushed his own partisan agenda, democracy did not help the Democrats out. So what did they do? They began infiltrating the biggest communications network on the planet (I just mean 'the internet', but this sounds way more dramatic) and spreading endless bizarre theories about what "really happened".
So don't believe the hype about not believing the hype! Conspiracy? That's what they WANT you do think!
Two cheers for democracy
The Dutch Justice Minister, Christian Democrat Mr Donner, shocked the Netherlands yesterday by stating that it should be possible to introduce shari'a (Islamic law based on the Qur'an and enforced by Islamic scholars) if two-thirds of the population was in favor. Quite apart from the big row that was created over an obviously hypothetical scenario, I think that your reaction to this statement says a lot about how you see democracy.
If you disagree, you're basically saying that shari'a is so much against democracy that even its democratic emergence must be prohibited. While this idea runs counter to the democratic principle that whatever most people want goes, it does have a point in that shari'a is fundamentally undemocratic because it eliminates the separation of church and state. Then again, the Netherlands has state-subsidized Christian schools.
If you agree with Donner, you believe that it's worth risking the existence of a fundamentalist Islamic state over the principle of democracy. This is an optimistic, possibly naive view, a strong faith in the resilience of the democratic state.
Ironically, it's exactly the response to Donner's statement, an ugly mix of paranoia, stupidity and demagoguery, that makes me less optimistic and lean toward the 'disagree' camp.
The man who knew
Both the American ABC channel and the British BBC (and, logic would dictate, possibly the Canadian CBC) have aired or will air a 'docudrama' called "The Path to 9/11". Word on the Web is that it's a heavily slanted piece of misinformation that puts a lot of the blame on the shoulders of the Clinton administration. Even Harvey Keitel, who plays FBI agent John O'Neill in the miniseries, complained privately during, and publicly after shooting about the lack of veracity in the script.
So, instead of watching this dubious piece of work, watch "The Man Who Knew" instead. You can view this excellent PBS Frontline documentary about that same John O'Neill online. O'Neill came tantalizingly close to figuring out the 9/11 plot, but his gruff manner and the political scheming in the intelligence community eventually cost him his job before he could complete the jigsaw. His new choice of career was as tragic as it was bizarrely prophetic: he became head of security in the World Trade Center in New York. John O'Neill died exactly five years ago today.
Ugly rumor confirmed
It's George W. Cruise! Run for the hills!
When a public figure is asked about a persistent and horrible rumor, a thing so unspeakable that the very thought makes the public shudder, then that public figure cannot escape his responsibility, and must come clean. That is what we have witnessed today. We were not happy to have our dark suspicions confirmed, but at least the ugly truth is now out in the open.
Yes, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes did have a baby.
Oh yeah, and then there was that thingy with Bush and the secret prisons.
Olbermann the Orator
When it comes to political oratory, the Americans have retained a flair for the dramatic that Europeans lost somewhere after World War II. It's surprising that in a country so often accused of being a low attention-span nation, full of sound bites and instant gratification, speechmaking is alive and well today. In this grand tradition now enters Keith Olbermann, the host of MSNBC's "Countdown", and here I copy his fervent and lethally delivered reaction to Donald Rumsfeld's speech verbatim on this site (hat tip to Crooks and Liars for providing the transcript).
The man who sees absolutes, where all other men see nuances and shades of meaning, is either a prophet, or a quack.
Donald H. Rumsfeld is not a prophet.
Mr. Rumsfeld's remarkable speech to the American Legion yesterday demands the deep analysis, and the sober contemplation, of every American. For it does not merely serve to impugn the morality or intelligence, indeed, the loyalty, of the majority of Americans who oppose the transient occupants of the highest offices in the land; worse still, it credits those same transient occupants, our employees, with a total omniscience; a total omniscience which neither common sense nor this administration's track record at home or abroad suggests they deserve.
Dissent and disagreement with government is the life's blood of human freedom; and not merely because it is the first roadblock against the kind of tyranny the men Mr. Rumsfeld likes to think of as "his" troops still fight, this very evening, in Iraq. It is also essential. Because just every once in a while, it is right, and the power to which it speaks is wrong.
In a small irony, however, Mr. Rumsfeld's speechwriter was adroit in invoking the memory of the appeasement of the Nazis. For in their time, there was another government faced with true peril, with a growing evil, powerful and remorseless. That government, like Mr. Rumsfeld's, had a monopoly on all the facts. It, too, had the secret information. It alone had the true picture of the threat. It too dismissed and insulted its critics in terms like Mr. Rumsfeld's, questioning their intellect and their morality. That government was England's, in the 1930's. It knew Hitler posed no true threat to Europe, let alone England. It knew Germany was not re-arming, in violation of all treaties and accords. It knew that the hard evidence it had received, which contradicted its own policies, its own conclusions, its own omniscience, needed to be dismissed. The English government of Neville Chamberlain already knew the truth. Most relevant of all, it "knew" that its staunchest critics needed to be marginalized and isolated. In fact, it portrayed the foremost of them as a blood-thirsty war-monger who was, if not truly senile, at best morally or intellectually confused. That critic's name was Winston Churchill.
Sadly, we have no Winston Churchills evident among us this evening. We have only Donald Rumsfelds, demonizing disagreement, the way Neville Chamberlain demonized Winston Churchill. History, and 163 million pounds of Luftwaffe bombs over England, have taught us that all Mr. Chamberlain had was his certainty, and his own confusion. A confusion that suggested that the office can not only make the man, but that the office can also make the facts.
Thus did Mr. Rumsfeld make an apt historical analogy. Excepting the fact that he has the battery plugged in backwards. His government, absolute and exclusive in its knowledge, is not the modern version of the one which stood up to the Nazis. It is the modern version of the government of Neville Chamberlain.
But back to today's omniscient ones. That about which Mr. Rumsfeld is confused, is simply this: this is a democracy, still. Sometimes just barely. And as such, all voices count, not just his. Had he or his President perhaps proven any of their prior claims of omniscience: about Osama Bin Laden's plans five years ago; about Saddam Hussein's weapons four years ago; about Hurricane Katrina's impact one year ago; we all might be able to swallow hard, and accept their omniscience as a bearable, even useful recipe, of fact plus ego.
But to date, this government has proved little besides its own arrogance, and its own hubris. Mr. Rumsfeld is also personally confused, morally or intellectually, about his own standing in this matter. From Iraq to Katrina, to flu vaccine shortages, to the entire "Fog of Fear" which continues to envelop this nation, he, Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, and their cronies, have, inadvertently or intentionally, profited and benefited, both personally and politically. And yet he can stand up in public and question the morality and the intellect of those of us who dare ask just for the receipt for the Emporer's New Clothes.
In what country was Mr. Rumsfeld raised? As a child, of whose heroism did he read? On what side of the battle for freedom did he dream one day to fight? With what country has he confused the United States of America?
The confusion we as its citizens must now address, is stark and forbidding. But variations of it have faced our forefathers, when men like Nixon and McCarthy and Curtis LeMay have darkened our skies and obscured our flag. Note with hope in your heart that those earlier Americans always found their way to the light. And we can, too.
The confusion is about whether this Secretary of Defense, and this Administration, are in fact now accomplishing what they claim the terrorists seek: the destruction of our freedoms, the very ones for which the same veterans Mr. Rumsfeld addressed yesterday in Salt Lake City, so valiantly fought.
And about Mr. Rumsfeld's other main assertion, that this country faces a "new type of fascism": as he was correct to remind us how a government that knew everything could get everything wrong, so too was he right when he said that, though probably not in the way he thought he meant it. This country faces a new type of fascism indeed.
Although I presumptuously use his sign-off each night, in feeble tribute, I have utterly no claim to the words of the exemplary journalist Edward R. Murrow. But never in the trial of a thousand years of writing could I come close to matching how he phrased a warning to an earlier generation of us, at a time when other politicians thought they (and they alone) knew everything, and branded those who disagreed, "confused" or "immoral."
Thus forgive me for reading Murrow in full. "We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty," he said, in 1954. "We must remember always that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of un-reason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular."
And so, goodnight, and good luck.
Posted by cronopio at 03:43 PM
A False Sense of Rationality?
In an earlier post, I linked to an article about the preceived and actual dangers of terrorism and global warming. "A False Sense of Security?" (links to PDF), as blogged by BoingBoing, reinforces this point, saying among others that
[A]n American's chance of being killed in one nonstop airline flight is about one in 13 million (even taking the September 11 crashes into account). To reach that same level of risk when driving on America's safest roads —rural interstate highways— one would have to travel a mere 11.2 miles.I suspect that the authors of both documents still jump when the killer suddenly appears in a horror movie, even though rationally, they're looking at a piece of celluloid projected rapidly on a harmless sheet of canvas. The reality is that we're animals, not computers, and assess risks with our hearts, not with our brains. People who are afraid of terrorist attacks are less stupid than people who think statistics would calm them down.
On hot summer days like these, it's worthwhile to stop and think about the obvious. Here's one simple question: why does a fan cool you down? After all, fans just move air from one location to another. How does that produce coolness? Especially in a closed room, where all air is roughly the same temperature, this doesn't make sense.
Trust internet to give us the answer. The handy How Stuff Works Web site tells us that fans actually help evaporate the sweat from our skin by the continuous stream of air passing over it. This is know as the wind chill effect. Sweating eliminates body heat, so the longer and the faster the fan blows, the more you cool down.
Car vs public transport: no match
To many it may seem absurd, but I'm only now, in my mid-thirties, learning to drive a car.
Most people my age have either learned it long ago or given up altogether. In the Netherlands, you can get by fairly easily without a car: the public transport network is one of the densest in the world. The problem is that drivers and public transport users are not often exposed to the other type's transportation, and so they view it with skepticism and bias. That (well, that and my general fuddy-duddiness) explains why I was surprised to learn that a drive from Amsterdam to The Hague takes about twice as much time by public transport as by car.
To test whether this was generally true, I went to two route planner Web sites: one for public transport, another for a car. I entered 5 sets of random zip codes and watched.
The results are horrifying. On average, public transport takes 1.96 times more times than a car ride. The difference is so staggering that I'm surprised anybody still takes the train. I'll consider this a morale boost for my driving lessons. And yes, I know that this does not take traffic jams into account, but still.
Behold the horrifying results.
Global warming solved!
I admire environmentalists for their exposure of corporate disregard for our precious natural resources.
I hate environmentalists for their propagandistic, unscientific "doomsday" tactics. Here's how they bite themselves in the ass.
One, thanks to the Greens, everybody except Exxon and Dubya knows that global warming is a serious man-made threat.
Two, environmentalists prophesize the imminent, cataclysmic depletion of the world's oil supply, which we can avoid by globally, like, mellowing out, man.
So...no more oil, no carbondioxide. No CO2.. no global warming.. This is perfect!
Excuse me as I enjoy summer while it lasts.
100 important words: bowdlerize
Means: To remove or modify the parts (of a book) considered offensive; to modify, as by shortening, simplifying, or distorting in style or content.
Review: Named after 19th-century Thomas Bowdler, who expurgated Shakespeare, and for that alone deserves to be forgotten. Avoid 'bowdlerize' because its practitioners are unlikely to understand it.
First Google link is to dictionary: Yes.
Example: Calls to bowdlerize "Louie Louie" were quickly silenced when no one turned out to be able to make out the lyrics.
Hits for media sites:
|New York Times||10|
100 important words: bellicose
Means: Inclined to or favoring war or strife; warlike; pugnacious.
Review: Pretentious. Sounds like "belle" and "cozy", suggesting a cuter meaning. Use "warlike", an acceptable, instantly understandable synonym.
First Google link is to dictionary: Yes, but link 2 (www.bellicose.co.uk) contains nonsense ("From the by or do it of creation stereovision astereovision seven hands"). Is this some Al Qaeda site, containing an encrypted message? The site name would certainly fit!
Example: Faced with critics denouncing the Iraq war as "a steaming pile of bovine manure", Bush remained sternly bellicose.
Hits for media sites:
|New York Times||381|
What's scarier, the flu or terrorism?
This LA Times article explains why many people misjudge the severity of dangers: psychology and evolution.
And it's true: we're infinitely more likely to die in an automobile accident than in an Al Qaeda attack. But we wouldn't spend the Iraq billions on road safety. That's odd: none of the top 20 killers in the US is wanted by the FBI. Worse, before looking it up, I had no clue what "nephritis" is (and a "malignant neoplasm", is that like dying because you say 'white snow'?).
It's hard to solve this problem. Maybe responsible, well-informed politicians (stop laughing) should use statistics rather than the world's latest panic attack to plan ahead.
100 important words: belie
Means: To misrepresent, show to be false, or contradict.
Review: A handy word, often used to refer to people's behavior contrasting with their professed stance or character. And there's a lot of that going around.
First Google link is to dictionary: Yes, the first 6 links are.
Example: Harry drumming his finger to the tune of the William Tell Overture throughout the date belied his suave demeanor.
Hits for media sites:
|New York Times||281|
Hire me a mover, I wanna move to Vancouver
HR company Mercer released its 2006 lists of 50 costliest and 50 best cities. The first list somehow got the most attention. The second list, though interesting, doesn't factor in money. For example, Zürich is the best place to live, but also the 9th most expensive one.
Using advanced mathematics (Microsoft Excel), I calculated "Desirability = Quality - Costliness". If a good city was so cheap that it wasn't in the other top 50, I went for the minimum.
The resulting top 5:
How scared we are
Last weekend, the countdown on http://www.eon8.com reached its final seconds. Hundreds of thousands watched as Zero Hour arrived. They'd discussed eon8's hex codes and security measures, and invented outrageous scenarios about its purpose.
No terrorists attacked, no viruses broke out, and the alien invasion was canceled. Creator "Mike" revealed that eon8 was simply an experiment.
eon8 shows how easily people can work each other into a frenzy and abandon common sense for undiluted panic. Remember eon8 the next time the media, politicians or internetters go scaremongering.
Die-hard conspiracy nuts will now probably claim that eon8 really is sinister, and that its proclaimed innocence is yet another cover-up.
100 important words: auspicious
Means: Giving promise of success, prosperity or happiness; prosperous, fortunate.
Review: Derives from Latin avis (bird) and specere (to look), referring to the practice of examining flights of birds to predict the future. A good word: it captures a combination of two concepts, prediction and quality (though not necessarily quality of prediction).
First Google link is to dictionary: Yup.
Example: Wendy started considering the date auspicious when Andrew ordered champagne and proposed a drive to the beach in his Lamborghini.
Hits for media sites:
|New York Times||344|
Scientology vs anti-Scientology
Many years ago, some guy in Amsterdam's main shopping street invited me to a personality test. Spinelessness found me at "Dianetics", the name Scientology gives itself in countries that don't recognize its church status. The fairly mediocre test, which resembled psych tests at job interviews, revealed my weak spots and strengths. The results were far from mind-blowing. I left, declining the Dianetics guy's attempts to coax me into buying stuff.
Neverthless, I was shocked years later when I read up on the Fishman Affidavit, a legal document released by an ex-member of Scientology that contained the cult's superduper secrets involving the intergalactic overlord Xenu. More research taught me that Scientology used mind control, threatening lawsuits, tax evasion, and allegations of pedophilia against its opponents and victims. I came to regard Scientologists as dangerous lunatics. Now, a popular YTMND presentation revives these stories.
I thought I was wiser because Scientologists can't tempt me into their test again. But I found that I've been equally stupid by taking the anti-cultist accusations (which include murder) at face value. To wake me from this dream is a level-headed and politely insistent Web site (by an ex-member) that says the truth is in the middle. Bernie, the author, shows that anti-cultists take a surprisingly cult-minded approach to cults (best illustrated here). And if you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. The same people who, unlike me, were so gullible as to be taken in by the Dianetics team and became ex-members will also be swayed by equally hysterical and absolutist countercultists. So kudos to Bernie. And I must mention that I discovered he used an image from snowstone only after reading his site.
Don't make me blog you!
'Please don't blog this, I'll do ANYTHING!'
Big companies are increasingly realizing that webloggers can make bad news about them travel like wildfire. Some are clued in enough to react.
Example #1: AOL fired a service rep who simply refused to cancel the account of a customer, after the customer put the phone recording online.
Example #2: Comcast canned a cable guy who fell asleep on the couch of a customer, after Sleeping Beauty was caught on film and broadcast on the Web.
Both guys would probably be working today if the bloggers hadn't exposed them; it was the level of exposure, not the low quality of the service (undeniable as it may be) that cost them their job. "Support" people can treat non-bloggers much worse, and get away with it. And more disturbingly, bloggers can probably get people fired for a lesser offence if it makes the company look bad enough. All in all, I don't think this kind of consumerist vigilantism is very effective, and it's potentially capable of severely damaging someone's life for no good reason (maybe the cable guy was sleeping because he worked two jobs because Comcast has crappy wages).
100 important words: antebellum
Means: Belonging to the period before a war, especially the American Civil War.
Review: Good for historians, and for people who want to come across smarter than you. Vaguely nationalistic word: why is it specifically "ante" this "bellum"?
First Google link is to dictionary: No, to a Wikipedia entry. In fact, there are no dictionary entries anywhere on page 1.
Example: In the antebellum, George W. Bush was still moderately popular, but since he invaded Iraq, his polls have plummeted.
Hits for media sites:
|New York Times||299|
100 important words: acumen
Means: Quickness, accuracy, and keenness of judgment or insight.
Review: Handy and fairly well-known. I actually encountered this word in real life. "Exhuming McCarthy", an early song of REM, contains the lyrics: "Sharpening stones, walking on coals, to improve your business acumen."
First Google link is to dictionary: No, but Google includes links to dictionary sites in the results.
When Hank's boss found him slouched over his desk, asleep and drooling, she became less convinced of his professional acumen.
|Hits for media sites||Site Hits|
|New York Times||409|
100 important words: abstemious
Means: Eating and drinking in moderation; sparingly used or consumed, restricted to bare necessities.
Review: One possible reason this word is rarely used is our modern all-you-can-eat culture.
First Google link is to dictionary: Yes, 8 out of 10 links on the first results page are to dictionary sites.
It was the kind of town that considered someone who ordered the Large KFC bucket, rather than the King Size, to be unhealthily abstemious.
Having grown up in a household that never denied her anything, Cindy had naturally become abstemious.
Hits for media sites:
|New York Times||35|
Move over, Da Vinci Code!
In a world full of bullshit disguised as 'mystery', the Voynich Manuscript stands alone as a true and beautiful enigma.
Named after one of its recent buyers, this book from the 15th or 16th century is in an undecipherable language and script. Statistical analysis shows it to be natural language, not random scribbling.
The illustrations suggest that the book is European. But the text cannot be mapped to any European language. Some guess that it's a transcribed Oriental language. Leading cryptographers have tried, unsuccessfully, to decode it.
Truly, the Voynich Manuscript deserves the title 'Most Mysterious Book of All Times'.
See Wikipedia entry on the Voynich manuscript
100 important words: abrogate
Means: To annul or abolish by an authoritative act; to put and end to, to do away with.
Review: Useful for its more specific meaning, makes you sound like a lawyer otherwise.
First Google link is to dictionary: Yes, 8 out of 10 links on the first results page are to dictionary sites.
In 2007, president-for-life George the Decider officially abrogated the US Constitution.
"As your President, I promise to abrogate all superfluous circumlocution," Gore told a befuddled audience.
Hits for media sites:
|New York Times||52|
Twain's rules for writing
After Chekhov and Dahl, Mark Twain also has recommendations, if not hard rules, for aspiring writers. I heartily recommend that you search out Twain's application of these rules to the truly dismal prose of James Fenimore Cooper, the author of the book "Last of the Mohicans", which even Daniel Day-Lewis, who played Hawkeye in the movie, admitted was a piece of crap. Twain cuts just one paragraph of Cooper's to shreds by following these guidelines:
The rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction require:Surely, these are words to live by: more people read and enjoy Twain than Cooper, I'm sure.
In addition to the large rules there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:
- That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
- They require that the episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale and shall help to develop it.
- They require that the personages of a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.
- They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit sufficient excuse for being there.
- They require that when personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when people cannot think of anything more to say.
- They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.
- They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand tooled, seven dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it.
- They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as "the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest" by either the author or the people in the tale.
- They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.
- They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages in his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.
- They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.
- Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
- Use the right word, not its second cousin.
- Eschew surplusage.
- Not omit necessary details.
- Avoid slovenliness of form.
- Use good grammar.
- Employ a simple and straightforward style.
100 important words: abjure
Means: to renounce under oath or solemnly; to abstain from, to shun.
Review: Given its rarity and the availability of a close synonym, "renounce", "abjure" is not such a welcome addition to my vocabulary.
First Google link is to dictionary: Yes, like most links on the first results page.
I have abjured Internet Explorer in favor of Firefox.
In the Great Purging, Grand Inquisitor J.W. Bush needed fifteen days of Creationist Re-education before Richard Dawkins would abjure evolution theory.
Hits for media sites:
|New York Times||11|
After "The Passion of the Christ", Mel Gibson is an even richer Hollywood celebrity than he already was. So probably, this new movie, "Apocalypto" cost a few bucks to make. And as usual, a large part of that budget probably went into promoting the movie. We're talking tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars here.
So when I went to the official site of the movie, I looked, then blinked, then looked again. Yes, it was really there in bold red prominent letters:
WHEN THE END COMES, NOT EVERYONE IS READY TO GO
The mind boggles.
Words, words, words
Many snowstone entries are exactly 100 words long. The inspiration for this is the 100 words Web site. To find out if the site had inspired others, too, I Googled for "100 words" and found this: a list of 100 words every high school graduate should know. (I would add, "..and none do know.")
As someone who earns his money using English, it pains me to admit I know only two-thirds of this list. So for the betterment of you and myself, I'll write a separate posting on each of these words from time to time.
Here's the list.
Usability Beef Burger
Dear Microsoft Usability Team,
When I search for files in Windows Explorer, matching file names appear in one column, the folder in which the file lives in the other.
To see the contents of a folder containing a found file, I'd expect one of the following to work:
- Double-click the folder name. This does nothing.
- Select the file and hit Folders. When I do this, the folder tree appears, but it highlights an item "Search Results". Useful!
- Right-click file
- Select Open containing folder from the context menu.
How logical. Sigh.
Danny, the Champion of the World
I'm somewhat skeptical about skepticism (debunking supernatural claims). Skeptics mostly choose easy targets and preach to the choir. They rarely investigate why people believe in crop circles and aural photography, and never debunk the most powerful people to thrive on logical nonsequiturs and smokescreens: advertisers and politicians.
Here to connect politics with mumbo-jumbo is "Danny" (Danijel Šmid), a fortuneteller on late night Slovenian television, who uses his own (presumably not full) deck of cards. He's also a mayoral candidate for Slovenia's capital Ljubljana. Imagine if he'd win, though: to predict crimes, economic crises etc, he just flips a few cards!
Bush vs Mandela
Everyone reasons with a bias, even when they think they don't. Especially in political debates, both sides lend great weight to their side's positive arguments, while downplaying the negative ones.
It's hard to identify such a bias, but Dutch political science student Marloes Stammen nailed it when she queried a cross-section of the Dutch population with quotes, alternately attributed to George W. Bush or to Nelson Mandela. A clear bias showed up when respondents judged the same quotation negatively when Dubya "said it", positively for Mandela.
Think about this the next time you read a weblog advocating your political slant.
And always the Twain shall meet
When I read in Mark Twain's "Letters from the Earth" about the Law of Periodical Repetition, the idea that all things repeat themselves throughout history, I had my reservations.
But just a few pages later, I was struck by the following passage, which gives considerable credence to the Law:
Against our traditions we are now entering upon an unjust and trivial war, a war against a helpless people, and for a base object --robbery. At first our citizens spoke out against this thing, by an impulse natural to their training. Today they have turned, and their voice is the other way. What caused the change? Merely a politician's trick --a high-sounding phrase, a blood-stirring phrase which turned their uncritical heads: Our Country, right or wrong! An empty phrase, a silly phrase. It was shouted by every newspaper, it was thundered from the pulpit, the Superintendent of Public Instruction placarded it in every schoolhouse in the land, the War Department inscribed it upon the flag. And every man who failed to shout it or who was silent, was proclaimed a traitor --none but those others were patriots. To be a patriot, one had to say, and keep on saying, "Our Country, right or wrong," and urge on the little war. Have you not perceived that that phrase is an insult to the nation?Reading this back, I suddenly realize that the Law of Periodical Repetition does not hold after all. The difference between then and now is that now, there is no Mark Twain.
For in a republic, who is "the Country"? Is it the Government which is for the moment in the saddle? [...] Is it the newspaper? is it the pulpit? is it the school superintendent? [...] In a monarchy, the king and his family are the country; in a republic it is the common voice of the people. Each of you, for himself, by himself and on his own responsibility, must speak. And it is a solemn and weighty responsibility, and not lightly to be flung aside at the bullying of pulpit, press, government, or the empty catch-phrases of politicians. Each must for himself alone decide what is right and what is wrong, and which course is patriotic and which isn't. You cannot shirk this and be a man. To decide it against your convictions is to be an unqualified and inexcusable traitor, both to yourself and to your country, let men label you as they may. If you alone of all the nation shall decide one way, and that way be the right way according to your convictions of the right, you have done your duty by yourself and by your country --hold up your head! You have nothing to be ashamed of.
In the Darfur region of Sudan, Musa Hilal, a Janjaweed sheikh, is one of several militia men concerned about media coverage.
"I'm with president Bush", Hilal says, assembling his semiautomatic weapon. "You journalists always report only the bad stuff. Yes, we rape and kill innocent civilians. But why focus on that? Just like in Iraq, there is good news here. But you, the media, refuse to report it."
When pressed for details, Hilal fidgets. "OK, so I can't think of a good example just now. But you are reporters! The news will not come to you, you must find it!"
As a non-native speaker of English, it's often hard for me to figure out how native speakers see their own language. For example, it's hard for me to hear any Dutch song lyrics without cringing, while even such inane stuff as "She loves you yeah yeah yeah" sounds more, well, right when it's in English. (Although even in English, there are some exceptions, most notably the incredibly silly "Guilty feet have got no rhythm" in George Michael's "Careless Whisper").
Anyway. Does any English speaker, I wonder, stop and consider the term "Explorer" in "Windows Explorer" and "Internet Explorer"? As I see it, you only use the words "explore" or "explorer" in the real world in two contexts:
- when talking of toddlers, as in "the new SofToys allow little Timmy to explore and learn without banging his head into sharp objects";
- when talking of Columbus and Maghellan, as in "Columbus was pretty explore, but Maghellan was even explorer."
Chinese Dutch are the Dutchest
In response to the rising xenophobia in the traditionally tolerant Netherlands, the Dutch government wants every immigrant to take an assimilation test. This test queries the student on social mores, history and political structure of the country, and practical matters such as where to pick up your driver's license.
In a TV show, TV viewers and specific ethnic or cultural groups in the studio were invited to take the test. The groups were:
- Chinese immigrants (predominantly working in the restaurant business)
- ex-colonials from the Netherlands Antilles (who are being blamed for a lot of urban crime)
- people living in the rural and fairly conservative province of Zeeland (who were all dressed in folkloristic outfits)
- Dutch celebrities (partly 'imported')
- volunteers who organize Queen's Day celebrations in their city or town
- people who work in refugee centers, deciding about the status of asylum seekers.
The results were embarrassing. No group in the studio passed the test. Participating TV viewers on average also flunked. The studio group that did the worst were the people from Zeeland and the Queen's Day crowd, while the best groups were the Antillians and... the Chinese. That's right, Chinese immigrants are more Dutch than native Dutch people.
I went to the test's Web site (only in Dutch, of course) and left the following comment (in Dutch):
If Dutch people flunk their own assimilation exam, the questions must be wrong. I also suspect that a Maroccan who passes this test with flying colors will still not be invited for coffee in most Dutch people's homes. Maybe it's the Dutch who need to take an exam. The one question to ask: "What used to be Holland's biggest virtue? (a) Thrift (b) Tolerance (c) Entrepeneurial spirit."
The correct answer is left as an exercise to the reader.
Google (the company) is known for its friendly and simple way of communicating with its users. Simplicity is key, and this is evident on all kinds of levels.
For example, the System Requirements page for Google Earth says: "Windows-based desktop PCs older than 4 years old may not be able to run it", a much more useful and informative statement than the garbled stream of acronyms ("Windows 2000/XP/ME, Pentium III or IV (512MHz or higher), 780MB disk space") commonly found. This page does get down to these dirty details, but only as a failsafe, that is, if the "old PC" wasn't clear enough.
Sometimes, Google's messages get downright playful, which may be a bit too informal for some. I personally like it, but I wouldn't have written an error message like this one (as found in GMail):
The Wonderful World of Amazon Text Stats
After a number of years, Amazon.com has discovered that its huge database of books, CDs and DVDs can be a source of fun info, especially for books whose entire text is searchable.
One such feature is Text Stats, which offers interesting tidbits about a specific book (if it has Search Inside! functionality). You can access Text Stats by hovering over the cover of the book you're looking at.
The first interesting feature are the readability indexes. Various wise people have created formulae to measure how easy to read a book is. As the statistics show, they haven't always succeeded. The Fog index indicates the number of years of education needed to read the text. The higher the Flesch index, the more readable the text. The Flesch-Kincaid index represents a US school grade level required to read the text.
the famous children's book
Joyce's huge masterpiece
|The Hacker Crackdown|
a nonfiction book about the hacker community
Karl Marx' most important work
|Aspects of the Theory of Syntax|
Noam Chomsky's book, which launched modern linguistics
So apparently, you need to be a ninth-grader to read 'Goodnight Moon', but you can read 'Ulysses' before that. Riiight. The other figures also don't make much sense. The implication of these statistics is that nonfiction prose is harder to read than fiction.
On to the 'Words per Dollar' feature. These figures are less surprising, but not less interesting:
- The Bible: 48,284
- Who Moved My Cheese: 884
- Goodnight Moon: 16
Why Greenpeace ain't getting one dime from me
Living in the Old World, I have not had the opportunity to see much of the work of comedians/magicians Penn & Teller yet. I was most interested in their Bullshit! series, which aims to debunk some more or less widely accepted "truths", and thanks to Google Video, I watched one episode that was more than interesting.
For some time now, I've been trying to figure out what's what in the debate about Genetically Engineered food, or GE food. Environmental and animal rights activists speak of 'Frankenfood', warning of unknown horrors that may or may not occur as a result of eating GE food. The general stance seems to run along the lines of an 'abomination against nature'. Many of such activists accuse large corporations of putting profit over biodiversity and health.
In this program, Penn & Teller make a convincing case that this whole abhorrence of GE food is nothing short of (all-natural) bullshit.
To support their case, they point to Nobel Peace Prize winner and agricultural scientist Norman Bolraug (never heard of him, right? Neither had I), who is credited with saving a billion lives in Mexico, India and other parts of the world through his evil manipulation of crops. Borlaug is very puzzled by these radicals, when his aim is to feed the world.
But this is not all. Bullshit! debunks some other claims of the anti-GE league:
- GE food is not tested for health risks. This is bullshit. The USDA, FDA and EPA spend tens of millions of dollars (more than for any other type of food) to establish the safety of GE foods.
- Organic food is a viable alternative to genetic engineering. This is bullshit. Growing organic food would not feed more than 4 out of the 6 billion (and rising) inhabitants of the planet.
Of course, any anti-GE food activisit is welcome to argue this point with me. There's a "Respond" link at the top left of the snowstone homepage.
The Democracy Gap
For years now, the Bush administration has been trying to force democracy down the proud Iraqis' throats, while at the same time stripping away basic democratic values in the U.S.:
- The Patriot Act severely restricts civil liberties of American citizens, especially if their names contain the words "Abdul", "al" or "Ahmed".
- The Guantanamo Bay prison, built in a military base in Cuba and so outside of U.S. jurisdiction, detains prisoners indefinitely without charges and tries them without the right to choose an attorney.
- Rumors abound of "black sites", illegal prisons in Eastern Europe, Thailand and elsewhere, where the U.S. holds prisoners illegally and without supervision by anyone.
- Both 'at home' and in Iraq, the government buys the news, creating or paying journalists to create positive news stories about the administration.
My theory is simple:
The Bush administration is closing the Democracy Gap from both sides.That is, by redefining democracy to become more like a dictatorship, Iraq more easily becomes a democracy. It's as simple a plan as it is brilliant. Bravo, President Bush!
In these dark days, in which some would have some inane concept of an Intelligent Designer taught alongside the theory of evolution, it's interesting to see what genetics may accomplish. For one, it shows that we are all Africans, an unpleasant revelation to some, and that what we call our 'roots' may be in a completely other place than we thought.
Our friend in drawing these conclusions is a piece of genetic material called "mitochondrial DNA". Ordinary DNA does the genes' evolutionary job by mutating with each new generation. In contrast, mtDNA (as mitochondrial DNA is called for short) propagates through the maternal line, and never changes. This means that your mom, her mom, and any mom before that all have the same mtDNA as you. So does all the offspring of any of your maternal ancestors. This means that if you can find someone with the same mtDNA as you, the both of you must have had an ancestor in common at some time.
A television show illustrated the strange types of revelations this can produce. By assembling a database of mtDNA from all over the world, ordinary people were stupefied to learn that their ancestors came from Mongolia, France or Central Africa. I watched a black man in England, heading off to the lab to get his results, be dumbstruck when he learned that he did not stem from the royal family of Ghana (which he'd secretly confessed to hoping), but instead from a rural village in Bavaria, Germany.
That's the other surprise: skin color means close to nothing when it comes to tracing your heritage. For example, the continent of Africa, our common home, still hosts virtually all of the world's genetic variety. Meaning that if all the world except Africa were destroyed, present-day Africans could repopulate the planet, producing the same kind of racial diversity seen today.
I'm seriously considering submitting a DNA sample to see where in the world I have cousins or ancestors.
I'm a Podling.
The Podlings are the cutesy creatures from Jim Henson's sadly overlooked masterpiece, "The Dark Crystal", who speak a strange language (actually Serbo-Croat if you listen carefully) and like music.
OK, so maybe I'm not a Podling in that sense. But I am hooked on the National Public Radio podcasts, exposing content usually not available to us Old Worlders. I download the interesting programs during the day with iPodder (free software), stick my MP3 Player in the back at the end of the day, and listen to insightful commentary and book and music reviews during my evening commute. Life doesn't get much more convenient than this.
Three years ago, I blogged about a Dr Pepper-sponsored Web site in which one of the cartoon characters on the site was anti-consumerist.
Several Subservient Chickens later, the trend still hasn't changed: over at Maintain Your Identity (ooh, a .net site, how alternative), Saab, a multinational car company, urges us to hold on to our individuality. It offers us the chance to put our own quote online and have it float around in a Flash movie, or submit a photo or even a movie.
How all this ties in with a faceless corporation that produces millions of identical consumer products is a bit of an enigma to me. Big business isn't about individuality; it's about conformity. This site is like Brian of Nazareth shouting: "You are all individuals!" and the crowd responding "Yes! We are all individuals!" And I would be the one guy going, "I'm not!"
Reality Check for Saab: sirs, if I want to voice my opinion, show a picture or even distribute a movie, I can do it without your Web site. I have this thing called a weblog, that lets me do all those things and more. Just get back to building safe and nice-looking cars, and keep your nose out of my individuality.
Debunking the Middle Ages
Ever since (and before) he directed "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" with Terry Gilliam in 1975, Terry Jones has had a keen interest in all things medieval. Recently, I came across an episode of his "Medieval Lives" series in which he debunks a medieval myth that has been particularly persistent: the notion that people in the Middle Ages thought that the earth is flat.
As Jones shows, this was not at all true. Seafaring people from across the European continent had been well aware of the fact that high buildings, boat masts and mountains always appear first when you approach them from the sea. Only a curvature in the earth's surface could explain that. In fact, medieval scholars even imagined a range of weird creatures known collective as Antipods, who supposedly lived on the other side of the globe.
So why do we all think that medieval people believed in a flat earth? Because the 19th-century American author Washington Irving, writing a highly dramatized account of Columbus embarking for the New World, invented church officials who tried to stop Christopher from proving the heresy that the world may be round. Nothing could be further from the truth, but the lie persists to this day.
Peter Rhodes, hero citizen
Many people, when faced with bureaucratic nonsense in government or the corporate world, complain about it to people around them, fume silently and grow an ulcer, or write irate but ineffective hatemail to the party responsible.
Those people should read this story. It is the story of one Peter Rhodes, a citizen of the town of Wanaka in New Zealand, who "was frustrated with the Queenstown Lakes District Council's regulatory contractor, CivicCorp, and with the 'bureaucratic nonsense' he had to deal with while trying to subdivide his property", as the New Zealand Herald reports.
So when Mr Rhodes received an electoral roll confirmation form for the New Zealand elections, and saw that there was an additional form for eligible voters who had been "inadvertently overlooked", he did the obvious thing: he signed up his dog Toby for the elections. In keeping with their bureaucratic incompetence, civil servants overlooked the fact that the signature on the form was a dog's paw print, changed the voter's occupation, listed as 'rodent exterminator', to 'hunter', and allowed Toby to vote.
Election day has come and gone and neither Toby nor his boss have voted. But I think that the mere fact of a Jack Russell terrier being allowed to cast a vote in the national elections (and the ensuing press) sends a clearer message to the New Zealand government than any filled-in ballot could.
Much has been made of the Kansas Board of Education's upcoming ruling about whether to teach "Intelligent Design" next to evolution theory in schools. Generally thought to be covert creationists, the ID crowd argues (and I use the word loosely here) that some mechanisms in nature are so complex that they could not have come into being through the randomness thought to be so inherent to evolution. Rather, they argue, some unnamed "Intelligent Designer" (three letters, starts with a capital G) has been responsible.
Here's how the ID people are wrong:
- ID is a hypothesis with no actual empirical data to back it up. In contrast, Darwin's concept of natural selection has received strong support through the discovery of DNA: randomly mutating building blocks of life.
- ID was born out of an assumption, not out of a problem. Darwin tried to find out why; ID attempts to prove "because".
- As a scientific theory, its backing by the scientific community is less serious than, say, the idea that HIV does not cause AIDS.
- ID argues that evolution is 'just a theory'. And so it is --just like, for example, gravity.
- How can the Designer be Intelligent if He (let's be honest, it's that He guy, isn't it?) designed the appendix and the tailbone? Why did He create animals that can smell or hear thousands of times better than we can, even though we are obviously the cream of the crop?
No Intelligent Designer would ever have allowed such a blatantly stupid group of people as Intelligent Design advocates to be born.
For further reading, see: how Douglas Adams argues that intricate things in nature disprove God's existence, and which other 'parallel theories' must be considered.
Xenophobia in the Netherlands
Muslim Web site El Qalem (only in Dutch) did some enlightening research into how immigrants (read: non-Western immigrants) are treated in the Netherlands in their search for employment. The experiment was set up professionally: two groups of 75 (nonexistent) job applicants each, one with a Dutch name, one with a 'foreign sounding' name, applied for the same types of jobs. The resumés were drafted by HR professionals, and students were prepped for any follow-up interviews.
The results are shocking: of the 75 Dutch applicants, 51 got a job offer; of the 75 non-Dutch applicants, 2 (that's two) got a job offer. Note also that the non-Dutch applicants were deliberately given better resumés than their Dutch counterparts.
El Qalem offered what it called its "Corporate Shitlist", a list of companies that scored worst when it came to hiring foreigners. I'll be happy to reproduce the international players in the list here:
- Saturn Corporation (car manufacturer)
- Ford Credit (car financing)
- Kraft Food Europe (food products)
- Rank Xerox (document management)
- Shell (oil; imagine an oil company turning down people who speak Arabian!)
- Reed Elsevier (publishing)
Against All Enemies - Richard Clarke
You might think I'm a bit late in reading Dick Clarke's "Against All Enemies" (2004), the counterterrorism czar's scathing condemnation of Dubya's bungled response of 9/11. Clarke argues, amongst others, that Iraq is unrelated to Al Qaeda, that the Department of Homeland Security sets back counterterrorism efforts, and that Clinton committed more money, expertise and resources than Bush jr ever did, even after 9/11.
However, one excerpt is not only eerily prophetic but also proves that Clarke is not an alarmist with a hidden agenda:
In 2000, I asked DOD and FEMA to determine what units would be needed to deal with a small nuclear weapon going off in a midsize U.S. city. Both agencies said I had to be more specific, so I chose Cincinnati because I had just been there. The kind of federal plan and units needed to help metropolitan Cincinnati officials deal with such a calamity simply did not exist. Nonetheless, many city officials assumed that there were federal units somewhere that would come to help them in an extreme emergency. They also noted that it is the first 24 hours in which the injured can be saved, and most local officials I spoke with doubted that the U.S. Cavalry would appear that fast. In fact, many of the kinds of federal units that city officials assume will help them will never show up. Large MASH-style military field hospitals are no longer in the force structure. Military Police are in short supply and stretched with overseas deployments. (Now, because of Iraq, many National Guard units are also overseas, taking with them mobilized police and fire personnel from cities and towns. The new Northern Command created to assist in homeland emergencies has not developed a single new field unit to meet domestic requirements; it merely has the ability to plan to call on units that already happen to exist and are still in the homeland.)Hmmm... let's summarize here, shall we? A major U.S. city falls victim to a disaster. Local officials expect federal emergency agencies such as a certain FEMA to step in. Such agencies cannot respond within 24 hours, are dangerously understaffed, have no effective response plan, and have lots of able-bodied personnel fighting overseas in Iraq.
The value of a theory is often said to be found in its predictability. The Katrina disasters -unfortunately- proves Richard Clarke right in his assessment. Makes you wonder what else he's right about...
Fame and Fortune
I may have mentioned before on this weblog that I'm not a great fan of the paranormal, belief in UFOs and other such hocus pocus. So when I read an article in Metro, one of my home country's biggest newspapers (distributed for free), about some astrologer, I felt the need to protest in some way. She cast the horoscope of the reporter, who was amazed at the results. So was I, but not in the same way. So, on a whim, I decided to e-mail a response.
Metro on 7 September fills a whole page with a story about astrologer Hanneke Lageman, who cast the horoscope of reporter John van Schagen and drew some shocking conclusions: this employee of the biggest newspaper in Holland is someone who "determines his own destiny and takes initiative himself." He also loves justice (something most people, after all, dislike) and has "a strong urge to achieve something special." It's amazing.To my surprise, the entire letter was published in the paper the next day! Deciding to open the door when opportunity came a-knockin', I forwarded the epistle to James Randi ("The Amazing Randi"), a magician and skeptic who awards $1,000,000 to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal powers under controlled test conditions. Sure enough, I got a reply and here we go, I'm in this week's newsletter.
How can someone with common sense believe that the way in which heavenly bodies move through the cosmos has anything to do with our characters? A new planet has recently been discovered in our solar system; did Ms. Lageman take that into account in her calculations?
If this journalist were a real skeptic, he would have come up with a waterproof test. Why not, for example, turn things around: Van Schagen (or rather, a complete stranger) tells what kind of person he is, and Ms. Lageman guesses his sign. Or, submit a wrong birth date and check if the horoscope is still correct. Astrologers, with or without a diploma, are consistently exposed as frauds with these kinds of tests.
I understand that in summertime, when there isn't much to report, you need to fill your newspaper, but why not then interview a skeptic (from the Skepsis Foundation for example) instead of legitimizing nonsense?
Howevers, rumors that I will soon be hosting a national talk show about skepticism are exaggerated. Unfortunately.
Two Katrina stories
In the course of one day, two separate news stories from the Katrina-struck state of Louisiana affected me deeply. One almost made me cry; the other almost made me puke.
The first one is spreading over the internet quickly and it's from September 4th, when the rescue wasn't underway yet. The speaker is one Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, just by Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans, being interviewed on NBC's Meet the Press. For people who are saying that this is no time to point fingers, Mr Broussard has the perfect answer:
Why did it happen? Who needs to be fired? And believe me, they need to be fired right away, because we still have weeks to go in this tragedy. We have months to go. We have years to go. And whoever is at the top of this totem pole, that totem pole needs to be chain-sawed off and we've got to start with some new leadership.Excellent point: if we can all agree that what happened in the first few days after the levees broke (read: nothing) can be categorized as a grade A fuck-up, why are the lunatics still running the asylum? Surely things can't get much worse than this?
Broussard continues, saying also that
FEMA needs to be empowered to do the things it was created to do. It needs to come somewhere, like New Orleans, with all of its force immediately, without red tape, without bureaucracy, act immediately with common sense and leadership, and save lives. Forget about the property. We can rebuild the property. It's got to be able to come in and save lives.Another good point. Geraldo Rivera, standing in the New Orleans Convention Center with a black baby on his arm, begging Fox News reporters to explain to him why there was a checkpoint on the bridge preventing these people from getting to food, water and medicine, made the point implicitly: property is apparently more valuable than human life. If I lived in New Orleans and was lucky enough to have gotten out, I would have urged any of my fellow New Orleanians to break into my home, take my supplies, steal my car and drive it the hell out of there.
But wasn't local government also to blame? Why didn't the mayor of New Orleans evacuate everybody well in advance? Again, Mr Broussard has the answer.
MR. RUSSERT: Hold on. Hold on, sir. Shouldn't the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of New Orleans bear some responsibility? Couldn't they have been much more forceful, much more effective and much more organized in evacuating the area?As we know now, those hoofs did not belong to the cavalry, but to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. And as a first sign of the horror that was to follow, Mr Broussard had the following story to relate.
MR. BROUSSARD: Sir, they were told like me, every single day, "The cavalry's coming," on a federal level, "The cavalry's coming, the cavalry's coming, the cavalry's coming." I have just begun to hear the hoofs of the cavalry. The cavalry's still not here yet, but I've begun to hear the hoofs, and we're almost a week out.
The guy who runs this building I'm in, emergency management, he's responsible for everything. His mother was trapped in St. Bernard nursing home and every day she called him and said, "Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming?" And he said, "Yeah, Mama, somebody's coming to get you. Somebody's coming to get you on Tuesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Wednesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Thursday. Somebody's coming to get you on Friday." And she drowned Friday night. She drowned Friday night. Nobody's coming to get us. Nobody's coming to get us. The secretary has promised. Everybody's promised. They've had press conferences. I'm sick of the press conferences. For God sakes, shut up and send us somebody.This death cannot be attributed to meteorology or to an act of God. This man's mother died because of gross incompetence or, to use another term, as some have suggested, criminal negligence. And there will be thousands of stories like this. Is this not a time to point fingers? Like hell it isn't. People died by the hundreds, maybe thousands, through sheer incompetence. The issue is not preventing such mishaps in the future, the issue is bringing the assholes responsible now to justice now.
On to the next story, this one a bit less known. The small city of St Gabriel, Louisiana, population 6000, is home to a makeshift morgue in a local warehouse. CNN's Christiane Amanpour reported that refrigerated trucks full of bodies were driving into town. Not all the townspeople were happy with this development, citing a possible drop in property value, as well as health risks, as reasons. Personally, I'd pay good money to live in a town that did its bit in the disaster relief. Or rather, I might have, until Amanpour interviewed one Ms Theresa Roy, owner of a small grocery store. Ms Roy remarked (video here):
I'd rather have them here dead than alive and, you know, at least they're not robbing you and you don't have to worry about feeding them.That's true. The dead three-year-old girl being driven to your town in a truck might otherwise have held you up at gunpoint and forced you to hand her all the chewing gum you had. It's a good thing she's dead, isn't it.
Ms Theresa Roy, it is a rare thing for me to hate a fellow human being, what else a total stranger, but you have managed to make it happen. Your remark was revolting in any context, but at a time like this, it is particularly loathsome. What you said next was ironic in the most bitter way possible:
They have to go somewhere, these are people's families. They have to have, they still have to have dignity.They do indeed, Ms Roy. But you just took it away from them. I hope the ghosts of all of those dead people come to haunt you in your dreams.
Don't Touch That Dial (Smash Your TV Set Instead)
Rarely has a news event thousands of kilometers away created such powerless rage in me as the 2005 Katrina Hurricane and its gruesome aftermath. I'm almost dumbstruck at the ugly mix of bureaucratic inefficiency and political indifference that unfolded over the past couple of days.
There was also a marked contrast between CNN, which mostly showed heroic rescue workers herding refugees into helicopters and distraught white people returning to what, if anything, was left of their rural homes, and BBC World, which was on the scene at both the New Orleans Superdome and the Convention Center and focused on the logistical ineptitude of the local, state and federal governments. When CNN reported about corpses -which was rarely- they were strangely apologetic about it, as if it was an unpleasant reality that the viewers of a worldwide news channel would rather not hear about.
But what most definitely took, eat and shit the cake in my book was a CNN anchorwoman saying: "Up next, which numbers should you call to get in touch with your loved ones? That and more, right after these messages." I'm sure that a starved mother who had lost all of her earthly possession, arriving in a refugee center and seeing a working TV set for the first time in 5 days, would be more interested in the comfort of flying Singapore Airlines business class than in which number to call to find out if her children were alive or dead.
So I took my news from the Beeb whenever I could, and I followed the live reports on the Survivors of New Orleans weblog, one of the very few communication lines of any kind coming out of the city (yay for diesel-fueled generators). The hosting company that is behind this weblog also used to host the famous Something Awful site. SA, instead of reviewing clown porn or insulting 'furries', showed its true colors in a beautiful piece of biting commentary:
Who is responsible? Who should be blamed? All of them. This is a colossal failure of our government to care for and protect its citizenry on every conceivable level. The heroes are the men and women on the scene doing their utmost to help those in need. Coast Guard rescue workers plucking people to safety and Red Cross workers feeding people from emergency kitchens are heroes. The man who commandeered a bus and got people out of New Orleans when the government was woefully impotent is a hero. The woman who smashed the glass on a convenience store to loot bottled water for fifteen kids who should have been absolutely inundated with supplies by then is a hero. The doctors and nurses hand-bagging ventilator patients 24 hours a day in dark hospitals are heroes. In the ineloquent but true words of the Mayor of New Orleans: "Don't tell me 40,000 people are coming here. They're not here. It's too doggone late. Now get off your asses and do something, and let's fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country." CNN was better prepared to deal with this disaster than FEMA was.
I am ashamed of my country's government in a universal way right now. Republicans, democrats, opportunists, it doesn't matter; they're all guilty in this situation. In a magical world where justice is actually served most of these people would not have jobs in a month or two. Instead the people without jobs will be the millions who have lost everything and found their government with its back turned. Remember that people are still dying because of this incompetence. Remember that when each and every one of these fools appears on TV for a photo op or complains about "placing blame later," because placing blame now is the only hope America has to change the situation.
Lesson learned: the next time a disaster threatens the U.S., you're on your own.
Summer's Lease Hath All Too Short a Date
Overheard in the company canteen: "Well, obviously, sales guys need big-ass lease cars so that when they visit the prospect or customer, it shows that the company is doing really really well."
Why is that? Doesn't it show instead that a sizable portion of the 100 dollars an hour you're paying this bozo is spent on his company-paid, gas-guzzling, penis-extending vehicle, and could be spent more wisely?
I have just traversed a larger part of the Adriatic, crossing a national border in the process. Now here's the thing. The boat I was on sold cans of Coca Cola bearing the mysterious message: "export product - for maritime consumption only".
What does this mean? I took one such can off the ship. Will drinking it get me arrested? Or is this perhaps a can of Coke without a nationality? More importantly, is it not subject to any law because it is sold and intended to be consumed in international waters? Perhaps the Coca-Cola company found that it had the right to stuff its normally innocent beverage full with all kinds of shady ingredients? Who knows? The full effects of the can will not be felt until some 24 hours after consumption. Will it turn me into a Coca-Cola addict that would make the average crack whore seem stable and well-balanced in comparison? Only time will tell. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a sudden urge for a carbonated beverage...
The Will & Grace Drinking Game
Want to get so drunk you'll pass out under the table? Then line up the tequila shots and let's do the "Will & Grace Drinking Game"! Here are the rules:
- Whenever Karen makes a reference to her breasts, take a shot.
- Whenever Jack diverts the topic back to himself, take a shot.
- Whenever Grace whines about her personal life, take two shots (you'll need them).
- Whenever Will produces his satisfied "It's great to be gay" smirk, take a shot.
- Whenever anyone refers to Will as a woman, girl, or uses a woman's name to refer to him, take a shot.
- Whenever Karen instructs Rosario to do something horrible and/or humiliating, take a shot.
- If Grace (or Karen, for that matter) is shown actually working for more than 5 minutes, empty the bottle.
- If either Jack or Will is seen kissing a man on the mouth, report to your local physician. The drink has made you delusional.
Jason Burke: Al-Qaeda
The first non-fiction book I've read in a long time, "Al-Qaeda" is a refreshing insight into the history and future of radical Islam. The book shatters a number of myths and offers a sobering prospect of a future that is a lot less simple than Dubya and his staff would have you believe.
The book itself can be pretty daunting in its endless enumerations of power shifts and makings and breakings of alliances between endless radical factions. Most chapters bravely begin with a concrete scene ("We drove into Kandahar around noon") but inevitably deteriorate into a detailed family tree of Islamist splinter groups ("Opposing the Sunni states was a second axis comprising Iran and their Shia proxies among the Hazara factions within Afghanistan.")
That said, there is much to discover here, such as:
- Al Qaeda is much more an ideology than an actual organization, especially after 9/11. The bombs in Bali and Madrid were planted by people who were in no way in contact with Bin Laden or his associates, and their arguments differed both from each other's and from the 9/11 attackers'. The fact that Madrid was not a suicide attack is also a "break with tradition". The problem is not finding the terrorists who were behind 9/11 (many of whom were caught), but realizing that terrorism has changed from something local and factional to something scattered and unified.
- Bin Laden did not get most of his money from his family. When his father died, most of the man's estate went to the eldest son. Rather, Bin Laden got (and gets) his money through charities, from donations by mostly Saudi Arabian businessmen.
- There are no terrorist demands to meet. Asking what the terrorists want is absurd, not because they can't be reasoned with, but because they are too diverse. The only thing that more or less binds the terrorists from Bali, Madrid and London together is some abstract notion of a 'cosmic struggle' between the Arab world and the West, a convenient scapegoat for everything that is wrong in the Middle East. Bin Laden can be credited with coming up with this abstract goal, that manages to bring together groups that normally would want to kill each other, such as the former Baatists (ex-Saddam Hussein people) and foreign mujahideen (radical Muslims) in Iraq. As Burke wryly notes, the Baatists supply the money and weapons, and the mujahideen supply the willingness to blow themselves up.
- From the perspective of terrorism, 9/11 marked the end of an era, not the beginning. The WTC bombing in '93, the attack on the US Embassies in Africa and the bombing of the USS Cole, all fall into the pattern of suicide attacks using big explosives on very symbolic targets. In contrast, post-9/11 attacks are marked by non-suicide bombings using small devices.
- Al Qaeda did not go out to find, recruit and brainwash its terrorists. Rather, would-be terrorists volunteered for training, or prepared attacks completely independently and only contacted Bin Laden to ask if they could attribute said attack to him. The willingness of young men, often guided by an older mentor, stems more from deep dissatisfaction with the West. War in Islamic countries only serves to reinforce the notion that the West is evil.
- Osama bin Laden had nothing to do with Saddam Hussein. In fact, when Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1993, Bin Laden proposed to the Saudi Arabian government to supply an elite group of Islamist fighters to fight back the secular invaders into Iraq. He was horrified to learn that the Saudi had employed the help of Christian soldiers, from the US, instead.
It's times like these, when double-decker buses and tubes are exploding around us, that our thoughts drift back to those early days of the millennium, when a certain man by the name of Osama bin Laden was the talk of the town. So today we wonder: whatever happened to Osama? and take a trip down Memory Lane (if you don't remember where that is, it's at the intersection of Alzheimer's Avenue and Senility Street).
When we last saw Osama, he was spewing hatred in front of a rock formation that geologists were sure was either of Pakistani or Afghan origin. These days, Afghanistan has pretty much been ruled out as his current hideaway, so all eyes are on Pakistan and its leader, General Pervez Musharraf.
According to journalist and fundamentalism expert Ahmed Rahid, Musharraf knows his Taliban well enough to negotiate a ceasefire (as requested by Bush) for the Afghan presidential elections. So why can't he catch and deliver bin Laden?
The answer is: he probably can, but he won't, for several reasons. First, Pakistan is currently strongly in America's Cool Book. Nonetheless, Pakistan's arch-enemy India is constantly currying favors for the US, and with apparent success (India makes a mean curry, after all): America signed a ten-year defense agreement with India and is doing nothing to block India's support for anti-Pakistani rebels in Afghanistan. If Musharraf would deliver Osama, he would lose his trump card.
Second, Musharraf has made dubious political allies and is ruling over a pretty Osama-friendly people (support for bin Laden was weak after 9/11, but has steadily grown since). Handing over bin Laden could spell political isolation for the general, and the threat of Iraq-like insurgency.
Luckily for us, Bush has vowed to attack and punish any country that harbors terrorists. So not only will US troops soon invade Pakistan and take over the country, they will also turn it into a peaceful, freedom-loving and organized state, just like they did with Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hints that Bono is a bozo
- According to Bill Clinton, Bono gave him a book by William Butler Yeats, inscribed by the author and by Bono himself.
- At a recent concert in Amsterdam, Bono dedicated a song to two well-known Dutch public figures: politician Pim Fortuyn (who referred to islam as "a retarded culture") and movie director Theo van Gogh (who wrote, in reference to the Holocaust, "It smells like caramel; they must be burning diabetic Jews").
Jesus saves! (but Moses invests!)
This fair city I live in has recently been defaced by large posters proclaiming that "God loves you!"
Note to self: buy large black marker so that I can add:
"Well, you can tell Him from me that I'm very flattered, but He's not really my type."
What a difference a day makes
London, July 6th. Trafalgar Square erupts at the news that London has been selected as the site for the 2012 Olympic Games. Mayor Ken Livingstone promises "Games you will never forget".
London, July 7th. The wreck of a double-decker bus in Tavistock Square is the result of one of four bombings that have left 37 dead and some 700 wounded. Mayor Ken Livingstone calls the attack "an indiscriminate attempt to slaughter, irrespective of any considerations for age, for class, for religion, or whatever."
I'm a bit late with my weekdaily update, as I've been following the news in London. The morning commute in this metropolis was ripped to shreds with seven or more explosions. The similarities (timing, public transport, multiple locations) with the Madrid bombings leave little doubt in my mind that Al Qaeda was behind this.
Some random observations:
- The internet is a fantastic medium in this situation. The BBC News site, my main source of news on the net, has been steadily gathering eyewitness reports from all over the city.
- Apart from the obvious timing for the G8 summit, it might also be related to the 2012 Olympics, which were awarded to London only yesterday.
- Tony Blair made a short statement, looking visibly distraught.
Even though Live8 is over, world hunger is not. Apparently, the increased awareness about hunger in Africa, which was the reported purpose of this multinational megarock festival extravaganza, was not enough to stop people from starving. Indeed, Beth and Edith Runsacker from Jefferson, Iowa, the two 92-year-old ladies who were the last people on the planet still unaware of Third World hunger, missed the entire event because they don't own a television set, making the millions of dollars spent on the project a complete and utter fiasco.
Better then to turn to more hopeful developments in the developing world. Such as the arrival of Plumpy'Nut. No, Plumpy'Nut is not some disgustingly weird sexual fetish, but the brand name given to small packets of vitamin-enriched peanut butter, which are distributed in massive quantities among starving people around the world, Darfour being its testing ground. Unlike condensed milk, which needs (preferably clean) water before it can be consumed, Plumpy'Nut can be eaten by hungry children anywhere and without any preparation. In war-torn Darfour, it has reportedly cut starvation numbers in half.
The only problem is the name. I don't expect the NGO-based industry to waste precious dollars on senior-level marketing teams, but anything would have sounded better than this.
Those stupid.. Europeans?
Here in Europe, we like to think of our American friends as dimwitted, gun-toting moralistic couch potatoes. Ask any American to point to, say, Belgium on the world map, and they'll be at a loss for words.
What a difference from us Europeans! If we were asked to point out the state of, say, Idaho (many times bigger than Belgium) on a US map, we of course would have no trouble at all. Just like pointing to, say, Moldova on our own map of Europe would be a breeze. Ha ha. Those stupid Americans.
And take MTV. This international music channel is often portrayed as a prominent brain cell killer designed to suck the lifeblood out of the pure, wholesome bodies of our European teenagers. These kids, who would otherwise be studying Schopenhauer and reading Victor Hugo, are now irresistibly drawn to the cathode ray tube, which turns their grey cells to mush.
But, strangely enough, if you go the American MTV Web site, you will find a section called MTV Books, which, yes, features obvious MTVehicles such as "Tupac: Resurrection", but also a Classics section with "The Catcher in the Rye", Brontë, Austen, Hemingway, and Nabokov.
In contrast, the English and Dutch MTV Web sites turn up empty when you search them for books. Could it be that American teenagers actually read more books than their European counterparts?
Dear Microsoft Windows 2000 Usability Team,
Windows 2000 lets you create shortcuts. This is handy: instead of clicking through a ten-deep folder structure to find an item, you create a shortcut to it (right-click, "Create Shortcut"), place it on your desktop and hey presto, you have direct access to the item. Nifty. Not original (think Unix' symbolic links), but still nifty.
I just have one usability issue with this piece of functionality. What is the one place where you don't want this shortcut to go? Answer: in the folder where the actual item is (the one that the shortcut points to). That, after all, would defeat the whole purpose of the shortcut.
And what is the only place where the shortcut can be created? That's right, in the folder where the actual item is. This means that you always have to manually cut-and-paste the item to somewhere else (most likely the desktop).
This is silly.
Why not pop up a dialog that says "Where do you want this shortcut to go?" with the choices "On the desktop" or "Somewhere else" + browse button. In fact, if you are in a folder that you don't have write access to, a helpful popup appears saying "Windows cannot create a shortcut here. Do you want the shortcut to be placed on the desktop instead?" So you are dimly aware that the desktop is where people want to put their shortcuts 99.99999% of the time.
Just fix this in the next Service Pack, please.
If journalists were humans
Anchorwoman: We're going live now to our reporter Michelle Gonzalez in Santa Maria, where the long-expected verdict in the Michael Jackson trial has been announced. Michelle?
Reporter: Well Jackie, the verdict is out and it's not guilty. Back to the studio.
Anchorwoman: Erm.. excuse me?
Reporter (to crew): OK kids, let's pack it up. Good work, everybody.
Anchorwoman: Um, Michelle, can you hear me?
Reporter: Finally I can-- yes I can hear you Jackie, what is it?
Anchorwoman: You said it's not guilty.
Reporter: That's right, not guilty on all counts.
Anchorwoman: So what does that mean?
Reporter: What do you mean, 'what does that mean'? It means he's a free man, he's not going to jail, he walks!
Anchorwoman: But, I mean, do you have any reactions from Michael Jackson's fans, how do they feel?
Reporter: Well they're devastated and appalled.
Reporter: Of course not you stupid cow, they're going crazy! Because you see (maybe I didn't say this clearly enough) Michael Jackson is NOT GUILTY!
Reporter: Sheesh! How many times do I have to say it? Not guilty, in-no-cent!
Anchorwoman: We-well, it's been quite a trial, wouldn't you say so.. Michelle?
Reporter:Indeed I would, Jackie. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna take a bath.
Anchorwoman: But what about the jurors?
Reporter: What about the jurors?
Anchorwoman: Will they be making a statement?
Reporter: Who cares? It's not like they're gonna say, 'Oops, we actually voted guilty but we made a mistake!'
Anchorwoman: A-and Michael Jackson himself and his defense attorneys, will we be hearing from them?
Reporter: Yes, what would you expect them to say, 'Well, that was a lucky break!' or 'We're appealing' or something? What could they possibly have to say? The guy's free!
Anchorwoman: But I--
Reporter: Listen. I've been standing outside this stupid courthouse reporting on this stupid trial for four months now. FOUR. FUCKING. MONTHS. And it was all just to hear this verdict. Well, I have it right here Jackie: "NOT GUILTY!" Once again, that's "NOT GUILTY!" ALLRIGHT?
Anchorwoman: Thank you for that report, Michelle.
Reporter: Any time, Jackie.
Tom Cruise in The Amazing Ego
When I went to see Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith the other day, one of the trailers showed Tom Cruise among a group of unknown actors, getting his family out of the way before a piece of highway was torn away by some unseen force. When I saw that the trailer was for a remake of War of the Worlds, I was surprised that it didn't show any other actors. After all, a disaster movie usually has a large, star-studded cast. But then I remember the Tom Cruise Ego phenomenon.
Many years ago, a friend told me that Tom Cruise had a clause in his contract that stipulated the following:
- Any poster of a movie starring Tom Cruise should show only Tom Cruise's face.
- Any poster of a movie starring Tom Cruise should show only Tom Cruise's name.
Name: Check. Face: Nope, but no other face either.
Name: Nope, but first billed. Face: Check.
Name: Check. Face: Check.
Name: Check. Face: Check.
Name: Check (some minute faces also shown). Face: Check.
Name: Check. Face: Check.
Name: Nope, but his name is at the top --above Kubrick's! Face: Nope, but the other face is his wife's.
Name: Check. Face: Check.
Name: Check. Face: Check.
Name: First billed, above title, and in largest size. Face: Check.
I think we can safely say that Tom Cruise has an ego the size of the galaxy. He's a pretty decent actor, don't get me wrong, but this is just ridiculous. Defense rests.
Come see the bureaucracy inherent in the system!
Tomorrow, Dutch citizens decide whether they want to accept the new EU Constitution. It seems likely, especially after the French non, that they will reject this new treaty as well. Meanwhile EU officials from all sides are thoroughly baffled by all this. So in the interest of a unified Europe, which I think makes good sense in all sorts of ways, I've decided to help them out.
Dear EU official, please examine this image from BBC News that attempts to show how the decision-making process in the European Council will work. Please note that the BBC, on the whole, do a pretty good job of explaining complex issues in a comprehensible way.
So... 55% of member states (representing 65% of the population) need to vote in favor, UNLESS fewer than four countries oppose is, EXCEPT when the decision requires unanimity. And remember, this is just how voting works in the Council, one of several EU bodies. As one fellow blogger remarked,
Hey Guys, next time you draft a proposed constitution, try to keep it under 1000 words. If you can't, it probably means you haven't really given it sufficient thought.
The same goes for the EU's procedures. It's like the classic dialogue between King Arthur and Dennis, the anarcho-syndicalist farmer, in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (paraphrased for effect):
EU: We take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week,...
EU: ...but all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified at a special bi-weekly meeting...
VOTER: Yes, I see.
EU: ...by a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs,...
VOTER: Be quiet!
EU: ...but by a two-thirds majority in the case of more major--
VOTER: Be quiet! I order you to be quiet! [votes No]
Unusual EC regulation
On a new blog I recently discovered, an interesting piece of EC legislation is mentioned: the EC Fatherhood Tax. I'm not sure what to make of it... I'll be checking with my inside sources in the European Union to hear what they know of this new Regulation, and get back to you.
In olden days, the core skill taught to schoolchildren was factual knowledge. How much is the square root of 289? In what year did the French storm the Bastille? People learned these facts even when they had no application whatsoever in practical life. (Have you ever had occasion to spell the word 'myrrh'?)
In these, ahem, enlightened days, the education system doesn't believe in all that nonsense. Instead, the value of learning facts has now been shifted to the value of learning to find facts. Your trusty old calculator can tell you that 17 times itself equals 289, and Google is aware of the fact that the French Revolution broke out in 1789.
The problem is, of course, that the facts are as useless as ever. Worse, many of today's 'resources' that claim to provide objective facts actually presented a selective or distorted view of reality and twist the 'facts' to accommodate some pet theory. Thanks to the Interweb®, misinformation now outnumbers information in many places (your spam-filled inbox amongst them).
What every child should learn, then, is to tell the truth from the lies by learning critical thinking. How is that people can convince you of something, even though it is false? How do people mislead you or trick you with arguments? In short: uncommon sense is what children and adults alike desperately need (myself included). I'll get back to this topic later.
Europeans unified in rejecting Europe
As a citizen of Europe, I feel it is my duty to say a few words about the proposed new European Consitution. This European Constitution has made the European Union a "hot topic". This means that the average European thinks about the EU slightly more than about, say, the migratory behavior of the yellow-casqued hornbill of Africa. And so, politicians and media outlets alike desperately attempt to make us interested in a topic that to most of us is profoundly dull, except when it affects out pocketbooks.
Based on what I've heard and read from people who should know more about this than me, there are two things you should know about the European Constitution:
- It's not a Constitution.
- To the average citizen, having or not having this Constitution doesn't make any difference.
Different Bullshit, Same Smell
On the Web page "Basics of .NET", Microsoft makes a valiant attempt to explain to the common man what Web Services are. It starts off as follows:
If you ask a developer what Web services are, you'll hear something like, "self-describing software modules, semantically encapsulating discrete functionality, wrapped in and accessible via standard Internet communication protocols like XML and SOAP."
Hee hee. Those dumb developers and their developer jargon. When will they ever learn that the common man can't stomach alphabet soup?
Just for the record, I have been in IT for many years, and I have never heard any developer talk like this.
The text continues:
But if you ask a business leader who has implemented Web service-based solutions, you'll get a different kind of answer. You'll hear that Web services are an approach that helps the business connect with its customers, partners, and employees. They enable the business to extend existing services to new customers. They help the business work more efficiently with its partners and suppliers. They unlock information so it can flow to every employee who needs it. They reduce development time and expense for new projects. You'll hear less about what Web services are and more about what they enable the business to do.
See, that's telling 'em! Thank God for the guys at marketing to clear things up for us. Oooh, I can connect with my customers, partners and employees! Gee whiz, the business will work more efficiently! And holy crap, Web services even... unlock information!
In all fairness, there is a concrete example toward the bottom of this page. But the implied suggestion that the second quote was any more informative than the first has no bearing on reality. It merely shows who's calling the shots around here.
All Hail Zipf
An intelligent person with the memorable name of Zipf is behind the principle known as Zipf's Law. Zipf's Law is about distribution, and applies to all sorts of things. Take words in the English language, for example. If you were to run a few 100 MB of English through a frequency counter program, you would find that a few words occur gazillions of times ("the" springs to mind), while the vast majority of words (say, "discombobulated") occur only once. This is similar to the way, say, wealth is distributed in the world.
An interesting case in this respect is Web sites. Check out this table of Distribution of user volume among web sites according to Xerox Internet Ecologies Project:
|% of sites||% of Web visitors|
That's right, if you're in the bottom half of the Web (and aren't we all), you attract less than 5.08% of the Web's attention. And believe it or not, that fact made me feel better about snowstone.
For weeks, I'd been busy redesigning my site, coming up with ever more profound and informative content, until snowstone became hilarious, profound, and dramatic *ahem*. I eagerly awaited for that one phone call from my ISP that I actually would like to get: the message that my bandwidth was exceeded beyond my wildest dreams. But no. The hordes of screaming fans did not present themselves. *insert sound of chirping crickets*
But now, I realize that it's not about your content; it's about your exposure. You basically have to sell out, post vile, controversial or extremely perversed content to your blog to get someone's attention. It's sad, but that is the way of the world --even on the so-called 'democratic' internet.
So if you, reader, are a blogger (which you probably are, if statistics are anything to go by), then by all means stop worrying about visitors. Get rid of that smug counter. Stop investing weeks and months into a better navigation for your site. And accept the that there are tundras in Central Siberia that have seen more visitors than your weblog.
A recent survey in the Netherlands about freedom produced some interesting and unexpected results:
Note how the responses to the first and second question seem to be at odds with each other. Most polled seemed to think that they could be the offended party in question 1, whereas in question 2, they didn't imagine themselves the object of discrimination. This, then, is what more and more Dutch people are today: easily offended but even more easily offensive.
I personally can't imagine what it is that might offend anyone in what must be the sweetest, most harmless and most tolerant country in the world. As one Dutch citizen once commented, "you can't fart in this country without a government committee jumping up to help you take a shit."
But that's Holland as an institution. Dutch citizens, on the other hand, are becoming more and more narrow-minded, callous and bigoted, as this poll helps to show. If I offended the 37 percent from Question 1 with that comment, great.
Over at Carniola, Michael often complains about his little country being confused with another. I thought the Netherlands did not suffer this fate, until I stumbled across this PowerPoint presentation by accident, and froze in my tracks when I saw slide number 4:
Please check out the dot that the word 'Benelux' is pointing to. 'Benelux' as in 'Belgium, Netherlands, Luxemburg', not 'Sweden, Norway'. Apparently, when the people from LiveManuals call their Benelux distributor, they imagine a backdrop of majestic fjords and mighty mountains, with the occasional moose walking past.
Coming to your screen in the new season: "Pardon Me", the latest in reality TV show entertainment!
Watch as 16 death row inmates literally fight for their lives in a white-knuckle competition to win the favor of.. The Governor! At the end of each episode, Governor Alfred Bush chooses which contestants get to live.. and which one gets a lethal injection! And, of course, you can dial the Pardon Me hotline or go on the Internets™ to let Governor Bush know who you would like to see eliminated.
Then, in the season finale, the last man standing will win the ultimate prize: his death sentence will be commuted to life imprisonment.
Don't miss it... Pardon Me! Coming to BS Networks soon!
Einstein spinning in his grave
You've probably seen them: popups that show you a multiple choice question and link to a page with an online IQ test. Well, they are right, this is an IQ test. Here's how you calculate your IQ:
- Noticing that the multiple choice question is actually one big image file that takes you to the site no matter what you click: +75 IQ points
- Installing a popup blocker that itself installs spyware: +25 IQ points
- Replacing Internet Explorer with Firefox: +175 IQ points
- Clicking on the popup and being redirected to the site: -300 IQ points
Lately, the issue of clear and plain writing has been catching my attention. The most hilarious advocates of understandable communication have been the toreadors over at Fight the Bull. These fine people devised a plug-in called Bullfighter that automatically checks your Word document or PowerPoint presentation for the kind of language that scores high on your Bullshit Bingo card. You know, like 'synergy', 'pushing the envelope' and 'value-added'.
But let's face it, the funniest people are always those who are unintentionally funny. Which is why I called the matadors' attention to WhiteSmoke, a plug-in that seems to do the exact opposite of Bullfighter: it adds "meaning-free" adjectives to your text, and replaces simple, mundane words like "buy" with pompous synonyms like "purchase".
I installed both plug-ins, fearing the universe would implode as a result. Luckily, it didn't, and I was able to tell the bullfighters about it, who promptly posted a blog entry mentioning it (and me (yay)), followed by a detailed review of a head-to-head competition between the plug-ins.
Circus in Town
The Terri Schiavo case has been the subject of furious debate over the last few weeks. I know that the various sides in the conflict will probably never see eye to eye, but I would like to reach out to the pro-lifers in this case and tell them that Terri's husband only goal in this was that his wife end her life with dignity.
And with that in mind, the snowstone™ Online Store© is now offering limited-edition Terri Schiavo coffee mugs at a special discount! Now for only $19.95, you too can own this dishwasher-safe piece of crockery! Call now while supplies last!
The Party's Over - Richard Heinberg
|I care a lot about the environment and I believe that capitalism is a questionable system at best. So you'd think I'd be positive about "The Party's Over" by Richard Heinberg, which aims to alert the world about the impending depletion of the world's crude oil resources and the cataclysmic consequences of that shortage for the economy, political stability and general well-being.|
But I'm not. In fact, I think that "The Party's Over" is a biased, shoddily argued and utterly unconvincing book that preaches to the choir while alienating the very people it seems to want to convince.
The basic argument of the book runs like this: the world's oil has been steadily drying up over the last few decades, and what little oil remains is so hard to get to that we will actually spend more energy extracting it than the energy gained from the extracted oil. Coupled with an explosive increase in demand for oil as countries like China are industrializing will cause the world to spin out of control. The only cure for this disaster is an immediate and structural investment in renewable energy sources and a return to a more sober, frugal lifestyle.
My first suspicion about this book was raised when I found out is that it is not written by someone who himself discovered the oil depletion and then tried to figure out how big it was and how it would affect the world. Instead, the author barely hides his views that both the oil industry and the gas-guzzling consumerist society that supports it are hideously obscene; that working people today are no more than slave laborers who happen to earn wages; and that oil is the main motive behind almost every war in recent history.
Could it be that his theory is "supported" by these opinions and preconceptions, rather than by solid facts? Facts are hard to come by in this book, and most of them are accompanied by maybes, ifs and possibles. Counterarguments to the theory are addressed, but some essential questions are never asked. Here are some examples.
First, if oil is really running out, then the oil industry should be most worried of all. After all, they are the ones going out of business soon (although there are short-term profits to be had). So why aren't oil barons trembling in their seats? Heinberg suggests it's because the problem is too big to solve. Personally, I'd think that a multi-zillion dollar industry can afford to invest at least a bit into a solution. On the other hand, of course, a much simpler explanation is that the theory is bullshit.
Second, why isn't the mainstream press writing about this? Yes, we know, The Media are a global conglomerate dominated by Big Business and is, therefore, on the side of the industrialists. But there are still reporters who know a good story when they see it. More importantly, they also know a bad story when they see it. Maybe the problem is that there are hardly any authoritative scientific publications on the matter, only books with similarly alarmist titles and similarly unauthoritative authors. Which in turn might be, again, for the simple fact that the theory is bullshit.
Third, a very convenient feature of this theory is that it fits the paranoia template like a glove. It's full of claims that (a) seem to make a lot of sense, (b) scare the reader shitless by their catastrophic character, and (c) are impossible to verify before the supposed shit hits the fan. From a propagandistic point of view, this is a winning combination. in the same class with a terrorist attack by Muslim fundamentalists (always a good excuse to curtail civil liberties); a nuclear war started by the Ruskies (always a good excuse to increase defense spending), or the arrival of Slurba, a gigantic alien rabbit from the planet Zurkon intent on enslaving humanity. Well ok, that last one fails the (a) criterium.
In short, I believe that Heinberg is needlessly alarming people into a panic in order to push forward his personal flower-child agenda, and is deliberately exaggerating his claims out of frustration over the general public's increased apathy and cynicism when it comes to corporate greed and mindless consumerism.
The sad part is, he might be right and there really may be reason to panic. But the general public will not be convinced by such a thoroughly one-sided, badly argued and obviously biased view.