Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Low (Bush) & Lower (Cheney)!

The latest CBS News poll finds President Bush's approval rating has fallen to an all-time low of 34 %.
Most Americans (51%) say the president does not care much about people like themselves.
What could be a brighter spot - the fact that most Americans have had enough of the vice-President's hunting accident - is irrelevant : just 18 % said they had a favorable view of 'Darth Cheney'. Wow! That's impressive! Good that the scariest man in America does not intend to run!


Changes in American English.

It was our contention in our post on ‘The purity of English’ that there is no such thing as ‘pure’ English. Professor Labov in his “Atlas of North American English,” shows how diverse and changing American English is, and contrary to common belief, Americans are NOT growing more similar in their speech. Change does not occur in grammar but in pronunciation and particularly in vowel sounds as consonant sounds are comparatively stable.

In fact, it seems that the mass media, greater mobility and easier communication have not standardized the language and new pronunciations continue to arise while others disappear - and this what a linguist is saying.

According to Professor Labov, the greatest change is taking place in the Inland North dialect, which used to be the model for standard American pronunciation. This is the English spoken around the Great Lakes including Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland or Buffalo (about 34 million people today).

This change of pronunciation is called ‘the Northern city Shift’. Here are some interesting examples:

  • All words with the same vowel as 'cot' (box, lot, job, Don) are pronounced with a vowel closer to that of 'cat'.
  • A word like ‘block’ is pronounced increasingly like ‘black
  • The word ‘bus’ sounds like ‘boss
  • And the vowel sound in ‘news’ is moving forward towards the French sound of ‘u’.

According to Labov, the newest and most ‘invasive’ sound change is taking place in the Chicago area with the ‘eah’ sound, which you hear in ‘happened’ [sounds like heahppened].

There are other ‘mergers’ – i.e. sounds that used to be different and are becoming increasingly the same taking place in other parts of the country. In some cases the process is finished such as
  • The ‘h’ sounds of ‘wHile’ or ‘wHen’ which has completely disappeared (so now ‘which’ is no different than ‘witch’ when it used to be).
  • Or the vowel sound of 'o' in cot (or box, lot, job, Don, etc.) which is pronounced like the 'au' sound of caught (fought, bought, off, dawn, etc.). Many Americans use the same vowel in all of these words [so for them cot and caught as well as Don and dawn, stock and stalk, and other pairs are homophones].

There is also a Southern Shift for which all words with the vowel of tame (bake, late, Jane, day) take on a pronunciation closer to the vowel of time.

The question as to why such changes have taken place is fascinating and hopefully we'll have to make another post on that fascinating subject.

For more information read this or listen to this.

NOTE: it is worth noting a similar thing has occured in French – today very few people will make a difference between the vowel sound of ‘un’ as in ‘brun’ and ain’ as in ‘pain’ when it used to be quite different just a couple of generations ago.


Monday, February 27, 2006

Better than Phishing!

According to the N.Y.Times, phishing is quite passé. There seems to be an easier and more invasive approach for fraud over the net which may affect any of us some day – the use of keylogging programs to exploit security flaws and monitor the path that carries data from the keyboard to other parts of the computer.
The scary part is that whereas phishing relies on deception by tricking people into giving their information to a fake Web site [and you know that YOU are smarter than that], keylogging is a lot more simple and more treacherous.
In fact, keylogging's simplicity may be why it is suddenly so popular among thieves. "Phishing takes a lot of time and effort," said David Thomas, the chief of the computer intrusion division at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "This type of software is a much more efficient way to get what they're after."
I am no expert but I would give Eugene Kaspersky quite a bit of credit in that area. My (so far quite efficient) anti-virus is Kaspersky after all.
The programming, too, is often trivial. "These can be developed by a 12-year-old hacker," said Eugene Kaspersky, a co-founder of Kaspersky Labs, an international computer security and antivirus company based in Moscow.
That risk is one that Mr. Kaspersky believes is in danger of getting out of hand.
"I'm afraid that if the number of criminals grows with this same speed, the antivirus companies will not be able to create adequate protection," said Mr. Kaspersky, who added that the time has come for increased investment in law enforcement and far better cross-border cooperation among investigators, who are overwhelmed by the global nature of cybercrime."There are more criminals on the Internet street than policemen," he said.

When Mr Anti-Virus himself says that the antivirus companies will not be able to create adequate protection, I begin to worry. So what to do? Just the usual stuff, it seems:

  • be wary of unfamiliar Web links sent via e-mail,
  • avoid questionable downloads and...
  • keep up to date with Windows patches and antivirus updates.
Then, after that, it's Good Night and ... Good Luck [sic]!


Sunday, February 26, 2006

Bird-Flu ... and the US.

I am quite surprised to see how little coverage the bird-flu crisis is getting in the US press. It may not be the end of the world... just yet, but it could become a big deal and should be taken seriously for its potential danger.
Here is an interesting article from the IHT which seems to give a fair assessment of what has happened so far... and a grim perspective of what MAY happen in the near future. If you think this is only a problem that won't reach the Americas, think again:
It is in the realm of reasonable probability that H5N1 will reach the United States this summer or early autumn.



Today the major news in France :
Tens of thousands of people marched through Paris and other French cities on Sunday to denounce racism and anti-Semitism following the torture and killing of a young Jewish kidnap victim. Politicians from left and right joined the marchers under banners declaring "France united against barbarism" to express their shock over the gang killing.
It is a good thing that the French can get together and be united against barbarism and racism. The gang was barbaric indeed. However, I feel very uneasy when I see people call this over and over again an "anti-semitic" crime. Other non-Jewish people were also either targeted or abducted by this so-called gang. It is not clear whether greed or sheer hatred for whomever was not the real motivation.
As the Jerusalem Post cautiously [and rightly] reported:
It remains unclear whether anti-Semitism was the motive for the grisly killing, which may have been part of a suburban extortion racket.

What bothers me is the quick emotional response not only of the Jewish community - that is somewhat understandable - but also of politicians and especially of Interior Minister who is known for his quick and often mistaken remarks :
To know whether they (Halimi's kidnappers) acted with anti-Semitism or partly with anti-Semitism is not important. Because anti-Semitism there was," Sarkozy said Sunday.

Then you also get stupid reports by conservative newspapers such as the Chicago Sun Times which has exposed once again its great ignorance, when it wonders "How many Jews will be living in France in five years' time?". Phu-leez!

Let's remember that France has the largest Jewish community in Europe as well as the largest Muslim community in Europe. If anti-Semitic acts, and acts against Muslims increased in France starting in 2000, reflecting the rise in Israeli-Palestinian violence, the tension has decreased a great deal since then and things go fairly well over all, thanks to constant dialogue between the two communities.
As the Grand Rabbi of France said, "An investigation is underway," so let's not jump to hasty conclusions and agree to see such a terrible crime used for political purposes as Sarkozy does once again.


The 'purity' of English

It is funny to see how many people still view languages in moral terms – not just in 'right' or 'wrong' but even in terms of ‘purity’. This usually reflects of form of nostalgia for a golden age [that never existed] when people spoke and wrote well. Many lament for instance over the Americanization of English.
It is quite ironic when in fact many of those Americanisms that some British ‘purists’ decry are actually originally British expressions. They have been preserved in the colonies while lost in the motherland. (see here and here)
Here are some good examples of words lost by the British but still quite common in the U.S.:

  • fall (US) as a synonym for autumn (GB)
  • trash(US) for rubbish (GB)
  • frame-up(US) which was reintroduced to Britain through Hollywood gangster movies
  • loan(US) as a verb instead of lend
  • quit (US) as in "to cease an activity" (as opposed to "to leave a location" as still used in most other Anglophone countries)
  • gotten (US) as a past participle of get.
  • creek (US) for stream (GB)
  • or again the word diaper (US) which apparently goes back at least to Shakespeare, and usage was maintained in the U.S. and Canada, but was replaced in the British Isles with 'nappy'.

A similar phomenon also exists in grammar. For instance the subjunctive mood ( "far be it from me", America, America, God shed His grace on thee, and crown thy good... ) is more common in North American English than in British English (British English has a strong tendency to replace subjunctives with auxiliary verb constructions).

This is obviously not to say that American English has not changed, evolved and taken a life of its own. If nothing else, it has been greatly influenced by the languages spoken by the immigrants. It just means that t
he idea of ‘purity’ of a language is as ridiculous as the idea of purity in a culture. It is all mixed with something else. Besides, to see exclusively things in binary terms - as we have seen in the last few years in politics - is awfully conservative and can have real damaging consequences, isn't it? Well, we could 'almost' say it is quite... "wrong" ... but we won't!
In this French book (called Americana) about the history of American music for instance, you find out that Irish traditional music was lost in Ireland and was eventually reintroduced through the Irish-American community which had preserved it.
Another example might be the ‘Italian pizza’. Which is the ‘real’ thing? Does it really matter
as long as diversity continues to exist?
The only ‘real’ thing is that thing you like! Here we go again with 'freedom'!

NOTE: the same thing can be said between French and English. After all, between a third to half of the English words come more or less directly from the French language. In French the English word 'flirt' which is considered an Anglicism actually comes from the old French expression 'conter fleurette'
which means "to (try to) seduce" by the dropping of flower leaves.


Saturday, February 25, 2006

A Healthy Debate

In this politicized world, one can actually begin to wonder if a good healthy debate is possible...about anything. Well, from the unlikeliest of sources, the answer is yes. Northwestern College in Roseville, MN, a school founded to train fundamenalist leaders since the turn of the last century, has invited controversy into the classroom, so to speak.
For the last five years Prof. Ronn Johnson has invited an atheist-friend into the classroom to debate God in front of his students. August Berkshire, who considers himself a "positive" atheist, isn't interested in destroying the faith of the students, only in telling them just how ineffectual their arguments for God really are. Both sides seem to enjoy the debate and nobody goes home without having been prodded. Why the invite? "Because atheists like Berkshire," says Johnson, "often define us better than ourselves." These two men define a good, honest debate better than most politicians at present. Good for them. And good for the students.


Even more Conservative Spin.

In our previous post, you had Fox News wondering if a civil war in Iraq could actually be a good thing, now you have another conservative (Terry Jeffery) - interestingly the editor of a very conservative newspaper, paid by CNN to provide 'political analysis' - who considers the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Iraq as evidence of the 'success of the Bush strategy':

WOLF BLITZER: Terry, is Iraq falling apart right now?

TERRY JEFFERY: Well, I certainly hope not, Wolf. But I think actually these attacks on Shia shrines can be attributed to the potential success of the Bush strategy.

(Via Think Progress - video here)

Well, at leats he doesn't hope that 'Iraq is falling apart'. I got so worried for a moment...


Fox News always has the 'killing' questions?

Over 200 Iraqis killed in the last 72 hours, and a nation of 26 million people is on the verge on a civil war... and Fox News has one question:
"All-Out Civil War in Iraq: Could It Be a Good Thing?"


Friday, February 24, 2006

free-speech vs hate-speech

Of all the reasons to protest at a military funeral in the United States these days, this one has to be by far the most ludicrous and obscene. A traveling posse of six hate-filled church members attends the funerals of soldiers because they:

[believe] that God is killing American soldiers because they fought for a country that tolerates homosexuality.

This is their message: Your son's in hell for supporting the Immoral States of America. You can't really argue that the US doesn't have free-speech when nuts like this are allowed to preach their hatred at a solemn moment like a funeral. Of course, hats off to the motorcycle veterans who cordone off the nut jobs with some good verbal abuse of their own.


Thursday, February 23, 2006

Freedom v. Hollywood.

We have been talking a lot about 'freedom of speech' lately, what about 'freedom' of sharing?

Two days ago, the Swiss and Belgian police shut down a major peer-to-peer server (P2P) – Razorback, the biggest eDonkey/eMule server in the world (BBC). One administrator is reportedly under custody in Belgium and the site's operator in Switzerland was also arrested and his home was searched while the site's servers were seized by the police.

Now who do you think it behind this? Not some poor small association of starving artists, nop, but the Motion Picture Association (MPA), in other words, Hollywood itself.

"This is a major victory in our fight to cut off the supply of illegal materials being circulated on the Internet via peer-to-peer networks," said Motion Picture Association (MPA) Chairman and CEO Dan Glickman.

MPAA anti-piracy chief John Malcolm even called Razorback2 “a menace to society". Interestingly, John Malcom used to work for Ashcroft and is a member of the conservative Federalist Society which aimed to combat what they see as the 'orthodox American liberal' ideology found in most law schools.

Anyway, it looks like P2P has become Hollywood’s new Al Qaeda. In fact, P2P servers have been accused of sharing child pornography or terrorism videos (bomb making videos, they claim). Since the Razorback servers didn't host any files, it’ll be interesting to see how that can be legally sustained. In fact, the whole idea of ‘legality’ is puzlling, given that copyright laws are different everywhere.

For those who do not see the hypocrisy of the whole thing, and put the P2P issue in 'moral' terms, just remember that one of the most important members of the MPA is Sony which is also a major maker of CD and DVD burners! How to make money both ways....

In the end, no need to panic for your pirate-friends and relatives. It is quite clear that the demise of Razorback will be like the fall of Napster – it’ll change absolutely nothing. Following raids and shutdowns file-sharers simply move to other networks. In fact, according to the BBC, notes posted on discussion groups by Edonkey users following the raid show that the numbers of people on the Edonkey network was back to normal a few hours after the server was shut down.

It’ll be interesting to see the follow-up though, particularly from a legal perspective since the technological side has already been lost by the rich and powerful producers.


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Chik

If you haven't heard of the 'Chikungunya', well that's probably because you're not French. Despite what it sounds like, it is not a dance, nor is it the latest pop song on the charts.
It is something far more dramatic which has actually killed 52 French people and has affacted no less than 110,000 people so far. One more clue - it has to do
with something flying but not with birds - although even in France, people have been talking way more about bird flu than about the 'Chik', as it is now called by the locals.

If you want to know more, go here, here, or here.


Danish Editor Explains His Decision.

Flemming Rose, the editor of the Jylland-Posten - the Danish newspaper that published the now (in)famous cartoons of the Prophet - explains his decision in today's Washington Post. He makes some very interesting points and clarifies the background of the his decision.
He also gives his interpretation of the most controversial cartoon:
One cartoon -- depicting the prophet with a bomb in his turban -- has drawn the harshest criticism. Angry voices claim the cartoon is saying that the prophet is a terrorist or that every Muslim is a terrorist. I read it differently: Some individuals have taken the religion of Islam hostage by committing terrorist acts in the name of the prophet. They are the ones who have given the religion a bad name. The cartoon also plays into the fairy tale about Aladdin and the orange that fell into his turban and made his fortune. This suggests that the bomb comes from the outside world and is not an inherent characteristic of the prophet.
Fair enough. But that's just one way to look at it. However, when I look at the drawing, I see something quite different, I see man who does not look like a nice man who'd be surprised by what "fell into his turban", I see a fanatic whose eyes look very threatening. Besides, the very idea that, as Mr Flemming Rose says, what fell into his turban "made his fortune" (if that's indeed the correct reference) can be understandly offensive. Does the bomb make his fortune?
Once again, it is our belief that the newspaper had the right to publish offensive material. There is no question about it. It should be legal. But I think it would be smart for Mr Rose to acknowledge that the drawing can be interpreted in a different way than his own, and that it is easy to understand that Muslims can feel offended. That's all.

NOTE: he also explains himself that "On occasion, Jyllands-Posten has refused to print satirical cartoons of Jesus, but not because it applies a double standard." (see our post )and gives the exemple of an offensive drawing of Jesus by the same artist. One would be interested, however, in knowing what makes the occasion right to publish or not a cartoon offensive to Christians.


Free Speech and Holocaust Denial

Should you go to jail because you say things that are obviously loathsome, odious and a denial of historical facts?
David Irving [see profile here] a Holocaust-denier, an anti-Semite and a racist was sentenced to 3 years in jail in
Austria this week. Now, saying that “A democratic society must allow people to voice even the vilest opinions if it wants to protect freedom of expression” [in the Globe and Mail] looks like something I might agree with - except that Irving’s views are NOT a matter of ‘opinion’ but a denial of historical facts. Using the word ‘opinion’ is a way to turn factual reality into relativism.

I still think, however, that it should Irving’s right to deny historical facts and reality itself. It is precisely all about history – and all the countries [Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Switzerland] which have specific laws against the denial of the Holocaust have plenty of good historical reasons for them. It is no surprise that, in their sometimes extreme traditions of free speech, neither Britain nor the US have those laws.

But it might be time for those (mostly) European countries to question the need for such laws and acknowledge that this is not a post-WWII world any longer. If what happened in the 30s and 40s can always happen again, it will probably take a different shape anyway. Surely there are other ways to fight anti-Semitism than putting such a pathetic guy to jail.

Besides, in addition to the questionable moral constraints on “freedom of expression”, those laws have a more practical downside: sending him to jail may turn him into some sort of martyr, it gives him and his views more media coverage and, last but not least, none of those laws have way reduced anti-Semitism in Europe and in the world. We need to take those facts into account in today’s more global world. For me, if it ain’t working, change it!

As a side note, the most ridicule part of the Irving’s story is that he:

told the court that he had revised his opinion after seeing the personal files of Adolf Eichmann. Speaking in German, he told the court he now accepted that the Nazis had killed millions of Jews.
Some sort of epiphany…?
"I made a mistake when I said there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz," he said. "History is a constantly growing tree - the more you know, the more documents become available, the more you learn. And I have learned a lot since 1989.
"Yes, there were gas chambers. Millions of Jews died. There is no question. I don't know the figures. I'm not an expert on the Holocaust.".

A mistake? That guy, who is 'not an expert on the Holocaust' is just beyond belief, isn't he? I think the idiocy and inconsistency of his words speak for themselves.


Email communication failure.

While modern technology and most certainly the internet has in many ways improved communication, there is a down side. Misinterpretation of email messages can lead to serious communication failure and that’s mostly because of our inability to ‘read tone’. But most of us tend to not remember that.
A new study shows that people think they've correctly interpreted the tone of e-mails they receive 90 % of the time and those who sent the messages predicted that nearly 80 percent of the time their partners would correctly interpret the tone.
Apparently, we only have a 50-50 chance of ascertaining the tone of any e-mail message.
"People in our study were convinced they've accurately understood the tone of an e-mail message when in fact their odds are no better than chance," says Nicholas Epley, from the University of Chicago.
He also explains that
"People often think the tone or emotion in their messages is obvious because they 'hear' the tone they intend in their head as they write,".
The reliability of the study may be questionable (the details show small sample size) but it seems fair to say that overall the results make very much sense and reflect something most of us have experienced before, doesn’t it?

It is all very simple after all – human communication relies not just on words, but on the tone of voice as well as on body language. So it is probably easier for most of us to have good communication when we see people, less so when we talk to them on the phone, and it becomes really hard to ascertain tone when writing or reading. It is also clear, as the study underlines, that interpretation of a message is also based on current mood, stereotypes and expectations.

From personal experience, I would also say, along with Kevin Drum, that your chances to get it right are definitely worse when you are emotionally stressed.

So what’s the solution? Well, it seems to me that the more complex the tone is – i.e. sarcasm, irony for instance– the more careful one has to be, and it should probably be avoided altogether in a business context. However, I think it can be fun to do when you know more or less whom you’re emailing. Moreover there are ways to communicate your tone better. There’s always the smiley face, :-) the wink of the eye ;-), or the single quotation marks to show irony in the use of a word or an expression. And then you should also be able to rely on the trust that binds relationships.

In the end, what I have learned lately is that it is probably better to wait and not email when you’re too upset, angry and emotionally stressed about something or about someone whom you want to send an email. The irony is that it is precisely when emailing seems to be an easy cop-out.


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Neo-Conservatism Down the Loop!

For such an influtential neoconservative ideologue like Francis Fukuyama to lash out so much against the Bush administration is a very telling sign of the cracks within the conservative family. Let’s just hope that the Democrats are going to seize the opportunity and be a bit more aggressive.

He says:

"Neoconservatism, as both a political symbol and a body of thought, has evolved into something I can no longer support."

Like you couldn't tell it would be natural evolution of neocon ideology put into practive! Please! Now that so many (bad) things have come out in the light, the dangerous ideologues such as Fukuyama whose ideas have shaped the decisions of the Bush administration, making them responsible for the present situation are leaving the ship when they see it sink. Pathetic... and cowardly.


Moore's Law - how much More?

According to the N.Y.Times:
I.B.M. researchers plan to describe an advance in chip-making on Monday that could pave the way for new generations of superchips. The development, which comes from materials research in the design of advanced lenses and related technologies, will make it possible to create semiconductors with wires thinner than 30 nanometers, one-third the width in today's industry-standard chips. The advance potentially clears one of the biggest hurdles facing the progress of Moore's Law.

I wonder how much further this will go. Just looking back to the computers we had only years ago.... is baffling. To see your own familiar equipment belong to the history and musuems is pretty cool.

Science-Fiction is also always inspiring:
The I.B.M. researchers performed their research on a custom piece of equipment they call Nemo, referring to the character in Jules Verne's novel "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."


Monday, February 20, 2006

British Sharia?

In the Telegraph today (via The Washington Monthly) :
Four out of 10 British Muslims want sharia law introduced into parts of the country, a survey reveals today.
Overall, the findings depict a Muslim community becoming more radical and feeling more alienated from mainstream society, even though 91 per cent still say they feel loyal to Britain.
I know surveys are often wrong and the results depend on how the question is worded. But you got to admit this one is a bit disturbing. 40% is a really high number!
It's not like we can know about the French Muslims since it is illegal to make surveys based on ethnic or religious beliefs, but I suspect that the French muslims are paradoxically more integrated and more secularized.


France v. the US - the 'Cartoon Issue' and National Politics.

It is worth noticing a major political difference between France and the US – whereas “freedom of expression” is mostly defended by cultural icons of the left in France (think of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, or Libération, or even Le Monde), it is the conservatives in the US – and particularly the Christian conservatives who tend to support the publication of the cartoons. They see any refusal by the media to do so as a form of dangerous "appeasement," that will only bring more violence and weaken Western values. And that goes with their view of the media as the enemy.

So whereas most religious groups in Europe – including the French catholic and Jewish leaders - tend to sympathize with the offense felt by many Muslims, the American Evangelicals see militant Islam like communism during the Cold War - the greatest global threat. They have also clearly taken pro-Israeli stances, shifting from anti-Semitism in the 70s to Christian Zionism in the 90s. This stance from the conservatives also comes from their attempt at making economic freedom equal to other freedoms. (see here, here and here)

In France, it is historically the anti-catholic tradition of the left (Catholicism was against separation of church and state and against the Republic for years in the late 19th and early 20th cent.) which explains their strong pro-secular stance and their opposition to censorship based on religion – a view also shared by a great number of Europeans.

So it is interesting to see how regional history and political ideology shape the treatment of this highly sensitive issue. It also shows how hard it is to have ideas that are not just products of our environment and be able to go beyond that.


The American model of self-censorship.

Robert Wright’s op-ed in the NYTimes who analyzes the question of self-censorship as a way to avoid legal censorship raises interesting questions.

First, he dismisses the idea of a ‘clash of civilization’, while acknowledging the obvious cultural gap between the West and the “Islam world”, then he makes a point I have not heard so far: even though he recognizes that most of the violent demonstrations have been politically orchestrated, he also reminds us that there has been also a tradition in America of using violence to make a point. I agree and think this is also true of Europe. Most recently, it took days of violence in the French suburbs for the government and the media to address the issue of racism. The French unions can also be quite violent in their demonstrations when they want to be heard. That’s been the trend in the last few years anyway.

But Robert Wright’s main point is that he supports the Muslim’s demand for self-censorship by major media outlets. In his view, it is the kind of self-censorship that “has helped make America one of the most harmonious multiethnic and multireligious societies in the history of the world”. His point is highly debatable.

While I agree with him that you should be legally free to publish just about anything – and thus I oppose most of the legal restraints that exist in Europe, and if I also agree that freedom comes with responsibility, I don’t believe it is wise to “let each group decide what it finds most offensive, so long as the implied taboo isn't too onerous”. I think the responsibility is a personal one. I believe that ridicule and shame for saying offensive things should be enough to keep censorship out of the legal realm. That’s where education and public opinion should play their role, not pressure groups and lobbies as it is the case in the US. That may be quite idealistic, I admit, but it is the sort of society I’d rather live in. Freedom not only requires responsibility but it also comes with a little bit of risk and we ought to accept it.

The danger of the American model as it is defined by Mr Wright is that you end up with trying to satisfy just about everybody and any pressure group and you become paranoid with political correctness. Real meaning is replaced by tasteless platitudes through hypocritical euphemism on just about anything. You then live under the constant fear that you may have offended whomever. The problem is that self-censorship is the most successful and efficient form of censorship that comes cheap for any society but the result is conformity of speech and language which leads to poverty of thought.


Blasphemy as a new human right at the UN?

Even though the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) is pushing United Nations to adopt a reference against blasphemy in the tenets of a new human rights body, I don’t see how it’ll ever happen. Even if Mr Javier Solana, the High Representative of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and the Secretary-General of both the Council of the European Union (EU) and the Western European Union (WEU) said that the EU might be supportive of this idea, I believe that is just a pose to conciliate the oil-producer countries. In Europe he Poles might buy it but not the French or the Dutch. But even if the Europeans agreed, many Arab countries won’t do what it takes. I don’t think the Americans will buy it either.

Besides, the irony of having a top EU official talk about UN conventions on human rights in Saudi Arabia is just addind more ridicule to the whole idea, and there is only so much ridicule one can take for oil.


Sunday, February 19, 2006

Bird Flu ... and pigeons.

The first case of bird flu has been confirmed in France - a dead wild duck, after Germany, Italy, and other European countries. France combines two problems - it is Western Europe's main migratory crossroads for wild birds, and it is its biggest poultry producer. But there is also a sophisticated health system and the level of awareness is very high. There does not seem much panic just yet. The worry should probably more about the developing world - particularly Africa where people live in close contact with chickens and birds, which means that the virus can more easily evolve into a man-to-man virus.
Personally, I will actually take the opportunity that the sales (and prices) have gone down (by 15 or 20%) to eat more chicken. I don't really get this - what is the rationale behind people not buying chicken? One can hope that the government has learnt its lesson since it told us that the radioactive cloud from Chernobyl stopped at the border!
One thing I wonder about though is the pigeons. There are lots of them in Paris and they are all over the place in most European cities. But nobody seems to be talking about that....
Maybe that's a ridiculous points but while I will eat my chicken, or my foie gras, I will try to stay away from those nasty pigeons anyway.


Best to let your unconscious make the decision!

Here's more 'scientific' discovery [ABC]
When faced with a major decision, such as buying a car or a house, it's best to do your homework, then forget about it for a while and let your unconscious churn through the options.
According to the results of a novel study published today in the journal Science, unconscious deliberation may lead to a more satisfying choice than mere conscious deliberation alone, at least for major decisions.
Conscious deliberation is fine for the less important, more mundane everyday choices like deciding which shampoo or towels to buy, but not for bigger decisions, the report indicates.
There are several possible reasons why conscious thought sometimes leads to poor judgment, the researchers say. Consciousness has a "low capacity" causing individuals to consider only a subset of relevant information and they may inappropriately weight the importance or relevance of this information.
In contrast, the human subconscious has a higher capacity to integrate more information, which can lead to better choices.
"Once you have the information, you have to decide, and this is best done with conscious thought for simple decisions, but left to unconscious thought, to 'sleep on it', when the decision is complex."
The novel finding from these studies is the "idea that we can think unconsciously and that unconscious thought is actually superior to conscious thought for complex decisions", the researcher adds.
I have two questions on this one:
1) Does the need to "let your unconscious churn" work for serious scientists doing research ?
2) What does that tell us about President Bush's political decisions? Too conscious or not enough sleep?


The bad, the worse and the ugly!

We already knew that there have been studies showing that ugly people are more likely to be the victim of bias attitudes, including conviction by a jury rather than beautiful people, but this new study goes even further: ugly people are now said to be also more likely to become criminals.
The explanation according to this study may be that because unattractive men and women are less likely to be hired, and since they earn less money, than the better-looking, such inferior circumstances may steer some to crime
"We find that unattractive individuals commit more crime in comparison to average-looking ones, and very attractive individuals commit less crime in comparison to those who are average-looking," claim Naci Mocan of the University of Colorado and Erdal Tekin of Georgia State University.
I find that a bit... far-fetched. I imagine it is hard to say since most of us are... more or less average looking. How ugly to you have to be... to be ugly? How about ugly people why are nevertheless charming? What about those cold beautiful ones? Seems a whole of subjectivity there. But my number one reason for being suspicious of those results is that the research was done by two economists...
Explain that one to me!


C'est levee!

C'est levee! (excellent play of words) is the title of this year's Mardi Gras Parade in New Orleans.

There is some controversy in the very idea of having a parade while there are uninhabitable neighbourhoods nearby and that it has only been a few months since hundreds of people actually died and hundreds of thousands are still refugees. Some will argue the Mardi Gras festivities are an economic imperative.
But I think that one could also argue that it is part of a much needed psychological and sociological process. As you can see in the picture above, the parade is also about mocking both Katrina and public officials.
Isn't that precisely what carnivals are all about - the irreverence and mocking of authority in a very Rabelaisian manner as Mikhail Bakhtin would have put it? Something which seems particularly welcome and must be a good way to release all sorts of nasty emotions - and, contrary to what Time suggests, it is quite appropriate not despite the circumstances but because of them.
And all we can tell the unhappy whiners is what the cajuns say and live by: "laissez les bon temps rouler"


Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Jesus-Christ of politics.

Silvio Berlusconi, prime minister of Italy, wanted to set the record straight: He was "joking" when he compared himself to Napoleon.
"I am the Jesus Christ of politics," he corrected himself a day later in a speech on Saturday. "I am a patient victim. I bear everything. I sacrifice myself for everyone. IHT
Please give my a kleenex to wipe my tears away.... Well, the good thing about Berlusconi is that whenever I get desperate about my country's politicians or think they are clowns, I remember there's always Italy, with the greatest bozo in Europe!


Ronald is laughing it off.

This picture puzzles me. It was taken during the three-day violent demonstrations against ' THE' cartoons in Lahore, Pakistan. (as many as 70,000 people have been said to be involved according to some reports).
I am not sure exactly sure what these people are trying to do here with Ronald. It looks like one man may be trying to contort Ron's leg but Ron looks like he's actually enjoying himself of course, and that’s what strikes me the most - that RMcD ends up looking so relax, like he's making fun of the petty attempt to destroy him [or to steal his shoes who knows...]. The contrast between the anger of the the guy in white [who looks quite irritated] and the smile of RMcD is interesting. The opposition is also reinforced by the contrast in colors. While the protesters are all wearing grey, brown, and black Ronald is wearing defiant bright colors, the colors of mustard and ketchup. At the same time, it also looks like the other 'protesters' are also smiling or at least enjoying themselves. How serious is the whole thing? There's a guy in the background ready to take pictures.

What is certain is that Ronald looks very western [one does not associate clowns with the Islamic world], but you can also oppose the demonstrators made of flesh and blood which the plastic icon which here symbolizes
America, and even probably Western civilization as a whole. This picture could be easily seen as symbolic for the differences between the West and the Islamic world, and clearly whether metaphorically or not, it is the smile which is most defiant and no matter what, the protesters are not going to take it off. They may be able to destroy this “3-D cartoon” [I’m not sure it can easily burn] but the smile is indestructible. One could also argue that the protesters may think Ronald is the closest thing the West has to a Prophet – but it is probably more simply that it is the only western icon they can put their hands on, along with flags. It's not like there are many Christian symbols in Pakistan! It is in any case one representation against another. Putting down an icon is quite common anyway – let’s not forget the most recent photo op of pulling down Saddam's statue which had quite an impact on the American public opinion.

The less funny part is that three people ended up dead during the demonstrations, including an 8 year-old boy. My first reaction was to think that this demonstration was probably not as orchestrated as the other ones in other countries – 70,000 is no small number. But it looks like things may be more complicated than they look. Many groups are obviously eager to embarrass Musharraf, who is not the most democratic leader in the world either. It’s hard to know, really:

A security official said members of the outlawed militant group Sipah-e-Sahaba and others from Jamaat al-Dawat -- which is linked to the outlawed Laskhar-e-Tayyaba group -- were among the rioters, and were trying to turn the cartoon furor against Musharraf's government.

"People belonging to outlawed militant groups participated in today's rally, and some of them attacked public and private property," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. "They were the ones who stirred up violence."

NOTE: Judging by McDonald's Corp.'s latest results, Ronald McDonald has all the reasons in the world to keep smiling. Who cares if they're trying contort his leg, or steal his shoes. There will eventually be a new one to replace him.


Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Be Vewwy Quiet...

DON'T think we're jumping on the conspiracy bandwagon in this whole VP hunting accident. So the VP shot a fellow hunter; accidents happen. When we first saw the headlines we both thought the same thing: "You're kidding me right?! Could the headlines possibly get any worse for this administration?" We thought we were reading the Onion, the well-known satirical publication. The only improvement to make would be to end the report with, "insert joke here."

So in that spirit, we offer you a few of the jokes floating around the late night airwaves poking fun at the recent incident:

David Letterman:
"We can't get bin Laden, but we nailed a 78-year-old attorney."

Rob Corddry (The Daily Show):
"The Vice President is standing by his decision to shoot Harry Whittington. Now, according to the best intelligence available, there were quail hidden in the brush. Everyone believed at the time there were quail in the brush. And while the quail turned out to be a 78-year-old man, even knowing that today, Mr. Cheney insists he still would have shot Mr. Whittington in the face."

Click here for the rest, or here for the cartoons.


Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Real Free Speech.

Some time ago in my attempt to understand the shock felt by many Muslims over the Danish Cartoon controversy I wrote in a previous post:
For obvious historical reasons, most Europeans are deeply shocked whenever someone makes anti-Jewish humour and especially when they deny humorously or not the Holocaust.
I also read this in VOA News article yesterday:
Some Muslims who live in the West are also offended by what they see as a double standard in the laws against inciting hatred and violence that have sprung up in Europe. They ask why it is forbidden to challenge the veracity of the mass murder of the Holocaust, or to espouse the Nazi's racist ideology, but not forbidden to criticize Islam.
I must say that after more thinking and discussing over the issue, I have somewhat changed my mind a little and believe that religious offense does quite not equate denying the Holocaust, even if both are offensive. If we thikn about it, the former is, after all, about a personal belief while the other is about documented facts. I am not putting any moral status to either one, I'm just trying to acknowledge that they are quite different in nature.
It is obvious that no country permits complete free speech. The question is really about where you draw the line. While there is
no such thing as a national hate-speech law in the United-States, there are laws in seven European countries against what is called 'revisionists', that is those who deny the reality of the Holocaust.
When the law on Holocaust-denial was passed in France in 1990 (Loi Gayssot), I thought it was a good idea. After all, those who opposed it where the far-right extremists whose political agenda is revised version of old fascist ideas, and that's precisely the problem. The European far-right has hijacked the issue by making anyone critical of that law suspicious of ideological complicity.
But by now, 16 years later, it looks to me that France has actually returned to its old obsessive habit of putting everything into law. There are what is called "lois memorielles" (memory laws) which consist in having Parliament vote laws that recognize certain historical facts:
the Armenian Genocide in 1915, slavery or the colonies (the latter was very controversial as you can read here and here).
I can see the dangers in having people proclaim that the Holocaust is a myth, but we must also accept that living in a democracy is also a dangerous thing. As The Economist also said this week, denying the Holocaust should certainly NOT be unlawful precisely because it is a well-documented fact with ample evidence. Denying such major historical facts should cause public outrage for sure and put those who deny it to shame and ridicule but at least, it wouldn't trun them into victims or martyres.
Besides, the danger also comes from pressure groups who want THEIR history and their past recognized by the law. Where does it end?
Finally, the repeal of those laws would show some coherence and avoid any suspicion of double-standard. Isn't it President Chirac who recently
said :
"Laws are not meant to write history," and that "The writing of history is for historians.
This may sound very naive but I do believe that education has more impact that the law (This is the teacher talking no doubt.). So it seems to me that France needs fewer constraints on free-speech. The limits should be the protection of people from libel or murder, not the writing of history. Unfortunately, i am not naive enouhg to think that will happen any time soon.


Monday, February 13, 2006

Old Wisdom Quote.

The relevance of the following quote is pretty amazing... given when it was written and who wrote it:

To a very considerable extent the media of mass communications in a given country reflect the political, economic and social climate in which they flourish.
We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.


No one is forced to live there...

According to ABC news:

Roger Koeppel, editor in chief at German newspaper Die Welt, which published the cartoons last week, says that European societies have a right to make their own choices. "Every society has the right to have taboos, the things they don't talk about," he says. Mr. Koeppel says the cartoons were not published to annoy but to question a growing tendency for press self-censorship in delicate matters.

At times, he says, it may appear there is a double standard. "Evenhandedness cannot be a goal," he says. "It has to be clear that the majority culture rules and the minority culture has to accept the rules. If the rules are not acceptable, no one is forced to live there."

It seems Mr Koeppel is forgetting that most European Muslims were raised and born in Europe and have nowhere else to go. They ARE European. His words are a frightening reminder of a the underlying racism and intolerance of some influential people in Europe today. It is a scary comment from the editor in chief of a major German newspaper.


Putting Economic Figures Into Perspective!

The Economist which cannot be suspected of propagating leftist views has a fascinating article on the measure of economic wealth in Europe and in the U.S.:
... a nation's well-being depends on many factors ignored by GDP, such as leisure time, income inequality and the quality of the environment.
The OECD's calculations suggest if people strongly dislike inequality, the gap between America and most other rich countries, which have a more equal distribution of income, should be greatly reduced. By this measure, adjusted income per head is higher in France than in America.
Longer holidays and shorter working hours increase an individual's well-being, yet conventional national accounts completely overlook such benefits. America is one of the world's richest countries, yet its workers toil longer hours than those elsewhere. As a result, adjusting GDP for leisure also narrows the gap between America and Europe.


Backfire... literally!

Ooops... As the saying goes, 'stupid is, stupid does'!


Saturday, February 11, 2006

Carrefour Puts Prophit First.

So Carrefour has voluntarily banned Danish products in the Middle-East and is boasting about it. (The Economist - with subscription).

Carrefour is an international supermarket group, headquartered in France, with a global network of supermarkets. It is the second largest retail group in the world in terms of revenue and sales figures after Wal-Mart.


'Freedom of expression' in Europe - Double-Standard?

Do you think this picture should be banned? Do you find it offensive?
Well, last year, this ad was banned in Italy (by Milan authorities) and in France:

France's Catholic Church has won a court injunction to ban a clothing advertisement based on Leonardo da Vinci's Christ's Last Supper. The display was ruled "a gratuitous and aggressive act of intrusion on people's innermost beliefs", by a judge. (BBC)

Maybe that's why some Muslim organizations in France also sue the newspapers that published the 'Danish Cartoons' . As in the case of the cartoons, we decided to post the controversial picture in order to be fair and so you can judge for yourself.
Personally I think the ruling against the clothing advertisement was a shame and I think we should allow all of it to be out there. However, the idea that there might be double-standards in the way we view and treat different religions in a democracy is even more shameful. We ought to show some coherence.

PS: Stupidity knows no (religious) boundary - on case you didn't know, in 1988
a French catholic fundamentalist group launched molotov cocktails inside the Parisian saint Michel movie theater to protest against the projection of Martin Scorse's Last Temptation of Christ.


Friday, February 10, 2006

'Freedom of Expression' - Fear or Defiance?

In today’s Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer makes an interesting point in his column. He suggests that while the US media have not shown the controversial Danish cartoons (last night, NBC News blurred the picture when the addressed the subject) out of fear, the European press (and sometimes television) has shown them out of defiance.

There is a "sensitivity" argument for not having published the cartoons in the first place, back in September when they first appeared in that Danish newspaper. But it is not September. It is February. The cartoons have been published, and the newspaper, the publishers and Denmark itself have come under savage attack. After multiple arsons, devastating boycotts, and threats to cut off hands and heads, the issue is no longer news value, i.e., whether a newspaper needs to publish them to inform the audience about what is going on. The issue now is solidarity.
The mob is trying to dictate to Western newspapers, indeed Western governments, what is a legitimate subject for discussion and caricature.

The point is who decides what can be said and what can be drawn within the precincts of what we quaintly think of as the free world.
The mob has turned this into a test case for freedom of speech in the West. The German, French and Italian newspapers that republished these cartoons did so not to inform but to defy -- to declare that they will not be intimidated by the mob.
What is at issue is fear. The unspoken reason many newspapers do not want to republish is not sensitivity but simple fear.

The word 'mob' may be misleading - it is not spontaneous violence, it is the 'unleashed evil' of political propaganda allowed or fomented by non-democratic governments who are trying to switch the focus from their own troubles to an easy scapegoat.

It also seems to me, and here I disagree with Krauthammer, that the press (in the West) is mostly there to inform, not to defy and certainly not to cave in to fear ( about a volatile political situation). I think the best choice is simply to show the pictures precisely because the are part of the news – period. The media are supposed to inform the readers or the viewers what we’re dealing with and to let them make their own mind and they shoould show the cartoons in that spirit. Not showing them is thus a form of bias. On the other hand, showing simply to defy seems to pointless - after all 'freedom of speech’ is not threatened in Europe. The only brave move was to publish them in Jordan.


Wednesday, February 08, 2006

How the 'Danish Cartoon' Issue has become International!

This blog has already talked a lot about the ‘Danish cartoon’ controversy [here, here and here and here]. I am still baffled by the continuing violence in SOME countries. In the last couple of days, a few things have become clear and need to be mentioned. Even though the cartoons were published on September 30 in Denmark, the violent protest occurs NOW and OUTSIDE Europe and here is how the internalization of the controversy was orchestrated:

Abu Laban, leader of the Islamic Society of Denmark, took the images on a tour of the Middle East in December to rally support for his protest against the newspaper and Danish government. Tour spokesman Akhmad Akkari explained the three drawings had been added to "give an insight in how hateful the atmosphere in Denmark is towards Muslims."
Akkari claimed he didn't know the origin of the three images, saying they had been sent anonymously to Danish Muslims. But he rejected a request by the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet to speak with the people who supposedly received them.
In a television interview, Abu Laban told Fox News the cartoons came from threatening letters, but he has not replied to the network's request to provide copies of the letters. (WorldNet)

Now Abu Laban said something a lot scarier:

The Muslim cleric told reporter Jonathan Hunt of his demand that Danish leaders "within their abilities and competence and within the concept of dynamism of liberalism to create … a new set of rules. … "
Hunt: So, you want a new set of rules for the way
Western Europe lives?
Abu Laban: Yes.

So we must keep in mind that however offensive the cartoons may be, the sentiment of most Europeans is that it is for those countries to tell us how to run our own. I also believe this is the feeling of a majority of European Muslims, born and raised in Europe and who not wish to be associated with the minority of extremists committing violence.( I guess we will see on Saturday as there is a demonstration organized against the cartoons in France).

So I believe that we ought to differentiate between the issue on an international level which is highly political and utilized by religious fanatics and the issue within Europe which has to do with ‘freedom of expression’ and its limits. The second issue is a question of interpretation. I, for my part, can see why one of the cartoons can be interpreted as Islamophobic as it associates the Prophet with terrorism. But not everybody agree.

As far as blasphemy is concerned, that’s a moot point – blasphemy is only for those who believe. As a Christian myself I am not offended by those non-Christians who make fun of my God. To use a famous quote by someone I most admire: ‘forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing”.

As for the question of ‘freedom of expression’, it is a difficult one. Everywhere in the West, including the United-States, there are limits to ‘freedom of expression and speech’ and the discussion in Europe is about what those limits should be. As this article in the Christian Monitor points out, “the violence over cartoons satirizing the prophet Muhammad has highlighted often inconsistent rules in Europe governing free speech, tolerance, and the boundaries of public expression” and maybe that’s one of the problems of Europe – how do you reconcile the views of a French person and of a Pole?

PS: It appears that "one of the three especially inflammatory but undocumented Muhammad images distributed by a Danish imam as an example of an "anti-Muslim environment" in the European country turns out to be a poorly reproduced copy of an Associated Press photo taken at a French pig-squealing contest" (WorldNet)

UPDATE: Read today's NYTimes article on how Muslim leaders utilized the cartoon controversy for their political agenda. (Feb. 9) - someting we all knew but it's good to have facts.


Oil-free in 15 years?

Sweden is to take the biggest energy step of any advanced western economy by trying to wean itself off oil completely within 15 years - without building a new generation of nuclear power stations.
(the rest here in the Guardian)


Picture of the Day.


No Balls at the Super Bowl

While in Europe, the 'Danish cartoon' controversy has sparked a debate on 'freedom of expression' and its limits, not only do mst US media have not reproduced the cartoon out of 'cultural sensibility' but censorship is becoming more prevalent in the lives of Americans.

The latest exemple is obviously the Super-Bowl:
When the Rolling Stones sand "Start Me Up," one of their most widely played hits, the vocals suddenly went silent as Jagger finished the risque line "You make a dead man [come] " and another word, a sexually suggestive synonym for rooster [if you can't guess, we will dare to say it was the word 'cock'], was omitted near the start of "Rough Justice".
I guess since Janet showed some boob, the paraonoia has run high. Everybody is afraid of losing some big contract here.From a "moral" point of view, I must add, this sort of censorship seems to be "ridiculous" indeed (as the Rolling Stones have said). Either you're old enough to get it - and one should assume you're an adult and can 'take' it, or you're too young and don't get it. I doubt that kids are going to be asking their parents about those lyrics. (It reminds me of the South Park episode about the word sh-t and beeps!)

So what's the big deal? What about the rebellious spirit of good old rock'n'roll? Has it aged along with the babyboomers who are now in power? It makes you wonder.

Interestingly, those questions do not seem to be discussed much and the debate seems rather to focus on whether the Stones agreed to the cut
(Chicago Tribune). :
A Stones spokeswoman Tuesday refuted the league's contention that Mick Jagger agreed to self-censor his lyrics during the band's Super Bowl halftime performances of "Start Me Up" and "Rough Justice"--and the NFL backed down from its initial contention that he had.
Either they are telling the truth, or they just don't have the balls to admit they backed down to the financial pressure. It's all about money after all, isn't it? not about morality!