Sunday, April 30, 2006

Bush's sense of self-derision.... and its limits.

Last night President Bush spoke at the White House Correspondents' Association and he did so with a great sens of humor by inviting his look-alike, sound-alike impersonator Steve Bridges to poke fun at himself and other politicians, including VP Cheney. The president talked to the press in polite, friendly terms while Bridges told them what the president was really thinking.
It is hilarious (watch the video here or here)and I must admit that it takes guts for a president to go that far. It does not make him a better president but it shows he has a good sense of self-derision at least, which may be a sign of intelligence.
I cannot imagine French president Chirac do anything even remotely like it. Unfortuntaly.

The other important feature in the dinner was another man with guts - comedian Stephen Colbert who not only poked at Bush (who was sitting a few seats down) and his policy but also made fun of the press corps. He did it to Bush's face and in front of the White House Press Corps.
The president makes decisions, he’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Put them through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know--fiction.
Apparently that was not appreciated by some of the press nor by the president. So there are limits to his sens of self-derinion. Bush quickly turned from an amused guest to an obviously offended target as Colbert’s comments brought up his low approval ratings and problems in Iraq.
If you watch the whole thing (available here via Crooks and Liars), you may find it a bit long and not always funny but the attack on the press feels good. As DailyKos noted, if this president is bad it is also because "we have the worst, laziest, and most irresponsible media since the bad old days of yellow journalism".

I also share this final thought on the issue by Peter Daou who wrote that:
Bush's clownish banter with reporters - which is on constant display during press conferences - stands in such stark contrast to his administration's destructive policies and to the gravity of the bloodbath in Iraq that it is deeply unsettling to watch.


An American Labor Day tomorrow?

Tomorrow the US may have its first semblance of Labor Day on May Day in more than a century - that is if "The Great May 1st Boycott," or "A Day Without an Immigrant" is successful. A sort of Primero de Mayo Day actually!
The organizers have been trying to convince millions of largely Latino immigrants, documented and undocumented, to stay home from construction sites, agricultural fields, restaurants, and factories. What they are actually demanding is amnesty and the chance for the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States to earn citizenship.
According to Business Week:
Latinos alone account for more than 40 million people in the U.S. -- including an estimated 12 million undocumented. With 17 million of them working, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, they represent 13% of the U.S. labor force. The nation's 7.2 million undocumented immigrant workers make up 24% of all farm workers, 17% of maintenance workers, and 9% of employees in production occupations.
That's a lot of people. As one of the organizers said: "Once they are gone, people will know the value of immigrant labor,".
Some pro-immigrant groups are afraid it could backfire (see this good Los Angeles Times op-ed) and they see it as a dilemna of scaring people off. A recent poll shows that 61% of Americans favor allowing the 11 million illegals already here to remain in the U.S. if they pay taxes and pass background checks; 35% want to deport them and Hispanic-Americans confront a mirror-image dilemma on the eve of the boycott.
The whole idea has little to do with regular workers marches and strikes. It is not unionized and not political in nature. In some areas the church has been supportive (as the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago which has been urging parishioners to participate in Monday's events) while other dioceses are against it (the Roman Catholic Diocese of Los Angeles doesn't support it). In any case, the whole thing is rather unusual and the developments will be very interesting.

Interestingly, France is dealing with the very same issues. Yesterday 5,000 people marched through Paris to protest a tough immigration bill which would allow France to choose its immigrants – those with particular skills – and would also toughen conditions under which immigrants can bring their families to France. French catholic and protestant leaders met with the Prime Ministe to ask for "a balance to be found between irresponsible laxism and a nearly xenophobic firmness".


May Day - the International Labor Day.

In most western countries except the US and the UK, tomorrow is not just May Day, it is also Labor Day. Yet most people don't know it has its origin in American history.
It started as a commemoration of the Haymarket Riot of 1886 in Chicago. The unions' demand for the 8 hour work day led to a general strike and demonstrations which resulted in days of violent riots. The 8 hour work day was eventually officially sanctioned but the riots (which also erupted in 1894 and 1919) and the subsequent Red Scare periods did not help make it very popular with the government.
Labor Day has been celebrated on the first Monday in September in the United States since then (it is usually simply as a day of rest and, unlike on May Day, political demonstrations are rare)
In France it did not become an official paid holiday before 1947 (it was actually changed from the Workers Day to Labor Day by Maréchal Pétain in 1941 and it was not a pay day). In most European countries, it is always marked by street rallies of workers led by their trade unions and various large socialist and left-wing parties. It is nothing like the old Soviet military parades of the Cold War era though and most people today- especially the younger generations - see it as an opportunity for extra-leisure.

Another much older tradition in France is to give each other a bunch of Lily of the Valleys (called Lys des Vallées or more commonly muguet in French). This tradition has its roots in the Paris area (Ile de France) where Lilys symbolized spring and it was made popular by king Charles IX in the 16th century.He considered it a lucky charm. In 1936, the tradition of selling them in the streets began and it is now the only flower which is legal to sell and buy in the streets for anyone - and not just in flower shops. It is an opportunity for students to make some extra-money.


Saturday, April 29, 2006

Chicago Bans Foie Gras.

Chicago is the first city that voted a ban on Foie Gras. That's no joke. The fine for selling it can be as high as $500. The state of Illinois has outlawed the production of foie gras but so far, you could still still buy it. California has also become the first state to ban the sale and production of foie gras but the law won't become effective until 2012. Other states are considering a ban : Massachusetts, Oregon, Hawaii and New York.
Some French animal rights advocates have also protested the treatment of animals during the force feeding process but it has not really caught on.
On the one hand, I don't really care for the defense of foie gras on the ground of "cultural exception" (isn 't that what the Japanese claim with whale-hunting?) but the pain of force feeding might not be any worse than other treatmen of animals:
The EU committee carried out several tests designed to detect pain or distress by looking at blood hormones and all of them were inconclusive or without any measurable difference to similarly raised animals.
Producers, and the EU report, also answer the criticism of increased mortality by noting that the overall mortality rate of ducks and geese in foie gras production is much less than that of farm raised chickens and turkeys.
Well, I am no expert, but it seems to me that the issue is a bit blown out of proportion in this day and age. As Mayor of Chicago Richard Daley noted, there may be more pressing matters:
We have children getting killed by gang leaders and dope dealers," Daley said in an interview with The Chicago Sun-Times. "We have real issues here in this city. And we're dealing with foie gras? Let's get some priorities."
The mayor makes sense to me. There is a war out there, people being killed or tortured and what about human obesity? I would be more concerned about the liver of those Chicagoans who are obese:
Two out of three children are obese in Chicago's minorities... and we're not talking about geese here... but on the other hand, there's no quick fix - you can't "ban them" even though they're just minorities.

NOTE: The irony is that in France, Chicago is synonymous with gun violence (thanks to the old Chicago of Al Capone). Recently a newspaper quoted someone about street violence, saying “Nobody dares going outside anymore, it’s like Chicago here“.
It just shows that stereotypes die hard on both sides of the Atlantic.

I am no expert on foie gras production, I just know that then end-product tastes real good!


Friday, April 28, 2006

The Joke of a British Judge.

Today a big secret was finally revealed - it is not a leak and it is not the name of a corbeau. It is the encoded message in the judgment of a UK judge in a case involving Dan Brown's bestseller "The Da Vinci Code'' . A London lawyer solved the puzzle today. (the code was a combination of a mathematical progression and letter substitutions featured in Brown's novel - more details here)
The funny thing is that the result is - as always - quite disappointing. The fun is always the challenge now isn't it?
One last thing- those people in the British law business have a lot of time on their hands... and quite a bit of humor too (Ooops, I meant humour of course!)


Le Corbeau.

France too has a 'leak' scandal of its own, only the leak happened to be fake but the scandal is nonetheless major and it reads like a real political thriller :
The scandal began with anonymous charges in 2004 that French Interior Minister Sarkozy and other French politicians (including socialists) had accounts in a Luxembourg-based finance house, Clearstream, and linked them to a bribe-ridden sale of French frigates to Taiwan in 1991. (here)
The accusations have been proved wrong since then and now investigators are trying to identify the anonymous informer who accused the top political figures. As you can imagine, the media in France have been all over the place with speculation about who was behind the letters.
This has also been yet another illustration of the rivalry between Sarkozy and Villepin (the French PM). Today in Le Monde, the French Prime Minister denied being involved in the smear campaign. The French investigators raided yesterday the office of defence minister Michele Alliot-Marie, as part of the defamation probe. Talk about a scandal!
So the big deal now is to find the the poison-pen letter writer called "le corbeau" (the 'raven'') in French.

NOTE: the term "corbeau" is extremely charged in French as it connotes the term also used for the anonymous letter writers who denounced people to the authority during WWII and immediately after.
It also refers to the title of a famous movie made in 1943 about a
vicious series of poison-pen letters spreading rumours, suspicion and fear among the inhabitants of a small French town who turn on each other as their hidden secrets are unveiled.


Thursday, April 27, 2006

As if God cared about gas prices!

As a Christian, I believe that God knows better, but still, I find this as indecent as preposterous, if not farcical:
A U.S. Christian group has grown tired of escalating gasoline prices and is set to stage a national prayer rally to lower the numbers at the pumps.
Various Christian clergy from around the country will convene around a Washington, D.C., gas station Thursday at noon to pray. For those who can't attend, a live Internet site and toll-free prayer line have been established. (UP)

You may wonder if this is not a joke - but no. From what I read, the idea might not be so much to ask God as to make a political point , if you carefully read between the lines:
It is our hope that seeing and hearing some of the nation's most powerful preachers gathered around a gas station and the United States capital as a backdrop, will remind everyone who is really in charge of our world--GOD," said Wenda Royster, founder of Pray Live a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week live prayer line, e-worship center, and Internet radio station.
What they really mean is not that God is in charge but that THEY would like to be and are using God for their political and economic agenda. Isn't that sickening? to pray for cheaper gas when so many people are dying and hurting! That'is yet another sign that some American christians have become spoiled brats and have lost touch with the reality of this world.

Thank God, you find all sorts of Christians (some more 'real' than others) in this world and in America and some have actually been praying for real important issues (peace, AIDS, poverty and genocide, and in resolving conflicts between faith) during the two-day International Prayer for Peace.


Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Politics of Gasoline Price.

I think this is the most accurate and concise way of summarizing the political ideology with regard to gas and taxation in the US:
Democrats are (because of the environmentalist wing of the party) generally in favor of higher gasoline taxes and higher gasoline prices--except when gasoline prices are high). Republicans are in favor of letting oil markets "work"--except when gasoline prices are high.


The Price of Gas in the World.

The average retail price of a US gallon of gas is now $3.00 up nearly 70 cents from a year ago, according to a weekly U.S. Energy Department survey but Americans still enjoy some of the cheapest gasoline on the planet.
It is about:

  • 4.00 (US) a gallon in Canada
  • $4.50 a gallon in Japan
  • $5.80 in France
  • over $6 a gallon in most other major European countries.
  • $6.73 a gallon in the Netherlands
The reason for those differences is obviously taxes: the Dutch pay a 158 % tax while the US only pay 15% at current prices, making it the lowest tax on gasoline of any industrialized country. So from a European perspective, the Americans sound like a bunch of whiners!

Sure in Iran, gas is only 35 (US) cents a gallon... and in Venezuela people only pay about 12 cents a gallon but really.... who would trade their life here (i.e. Europe or the US) for cheap gas there?

NOTE: to put things into perspective, just a couple of historical footnotes (here):
In 1979 (during the Iranian crisis) the oil price was $88.72 (U.S.) (inflation adjusted) while it is now (during another Iranian crisis) about 74$. Getting close but not there yet.
On the other hand, the U.S. relied on imports for 43 % of its oil needs in 1979, when now it is about 60%.


Income Inequality - France v. US.

Here's an interesting article from the Financial Times - a paper not particularly know for its anti-American views. They mention a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research showing that income inequality in the US is returning to where it was almost a century ago (after a steep decline in the mid-20th century), contrary to other countries like France or Japan.

Here's a fascinating chart:

The FT article says that this evolution is important for 3 reasons:
  • income mobility does not offset the rising inequality.
  • the failure of an economy to generate rising incomes for a majority over decades causes frustration.
  • politics inevitably become more populist (the US “right” has become “pluto-populist” – an alliance of free-marketeers, nationalists and social conservatives – and the “left” is increasingly “protecto-populist” – an alliance of protectionists, dirigistes, social liberals and anti-nationalists. This endangers both intellectual coherence and sensible policymaking.)
  • They also point out that while US individualism may contain the frustration caused by growing income inequality, most cultures cannot. I think that's a very good comment and it is definitely the case of France where l'égalité is seen as an intricate part of the French national identity.
The last point regarding 'populist politics' is, on the other hand, something that both France and the US have in common. The French read politics through a “protecto-populist” paradigm whereas the Americans tend to see politics from a “pluto-populist” perspective. Those are major cultural differences for sure.
But the commonality - and here I agree again with the conclusions of this article - both are a threat to "intellectual coherence and sensible policymaking" and I think the news in this matter speaks for itself.


Tuesday, April 25, 2006

This is the story of...

... three people on a plane:
George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are flying on Air Force One.
The President looks at the Vice President, chuckles, and says:
"You know, I could throw a $1,000 bill out the window right now and make somebody very happy." The Vice President shrugs and says,
"Well, I could throw 10 $100 bills out the window and make 10 people very happy."
Not to be outdone, the Secretary of Defense says,
"Of course, then, I could throw 100 $10 bills out the window and make a hundred people very happy."
The pilot rolls his eyes and says to his co-pilot,
"Such arrogant asses back there. Hell, I could throw the three of them out the window and make 6 billion people unbelievably happy."

[This blog is not big on jokes but this one has been making the round on the net and well, we just found it funny.]


When Bush is Right...

Bush-bashing has underestandibly become very popular lately. As much as this blog may agree with most critics of this administration, we've got to say that it is not fun to beat a dead horse.
And to be fair, the president happens to say sensible things at times - as for instance on the anti-immigration debate:
I know this is an emotional debate but one thing we can't lose sight of is that we're talking about human beings, decent human beings. Massive deportation of the people here is unrealistic. It's not going to work.
He said it yesterday at the Orange County Business Council. Now in case you don't know, Orange County exemplifies the split within the Republican party over the issue of immigration. It is a Republican stronghold south of Los Angeles (60% voted for Bush in 2004) and it is also the 5th largest county in the United States. It is one of the richest but it also has a lot of legal and illegal foreign-borns (about 30 % of its 3 million residents are of Hispanic or Latino descent).
But this is according to the 2000 census and the number today is most certainly higher, and it does obviously not not take into account the number of illegal aliens.
So on the one hand it is a conservative and suburban county where many whites advocate for tougher anti-immigration law enforcement (it is the birthplace of the Minuteman Project, the volunteer border patrol group praised by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger), but on the other hand, the local economy is quite dependent on the cheap labor provided by illegal immmigrants.
There are also signs that the longtime Republican dominance is beginning to wane mostly because of the increasing hispanic population and a more liberal population attracted by the booming economy.
So the Republicans have courted the hispanic vote.
But no matter what the reasons migh be, I have to admit that Bush has been consistent in his views on immigration. The point needed to be made - we are talking about human beings.
One last note - it is worth noticing that Europe and the United-States are dealing with similar issues. Only the difference is that French Minister of Interior (and presidential candidate) Nicolas Sarkozy believes in the deportation of illegal aliens (the so-called 'undocumented'). But depite the rhetoric, it has not really worked.


Friday, April 21, 2006


I will be out of town for the week-end with no internet access and the other half of J2T will also be fairly busy over the next two days, so blogging will be light or nonexistent. But we will be back on Monday in full speed.



Two days ago we posted something about drugs (opium), yesterday it was about chocolate, well, what about this one: is chocolate a drug?
It is officially a weak stimulant - it has been defined as something more than a food and less than a drug. Did you know that it it so stimulant for dogs and horses that its use is therefore banned in horse-racing? (see details on Wikipedia).
In fact, eating choclate triggers dopamine release in the brain's reinforcement systems which is actually similar to the effect of... opium (but legal and not as strong). It has been linked with the release of serotonin in the brain, which is thought to produce feelings of pleasure (and it is a mild sexual stimulant!).
Here we go. Chocolate is a drug! I knew it - to the point that heroin addicts tend to have an increased liking for chocolate. (Besides chocolate also contains quite a bit vof caffeine, though less than tea or coffee).
It has also been said that the liking of chocolate is linked to the fact that its melting point is slightly below human body temperature; it melts in the mouth.
And yes, chocoholism is a word, although some linguits prefer 'chocolatic' to 'chocoholic', the former is the one that has caught. Interestingly, I do not think the French have a word like it, even though they have better chocolate. That's probably because the United-States is the land of excess par excellence but I have yet to hear about CA (Chocoholics Anymous)!


Thursday, April 20, 2006

French Youth Unemployment.. the real number! (again)

What we wrote 10 days ago, that French youth unemployment is not 23% but rather 8% - despite what the media keep repeating over and over again (French and non-French alike) has been once again confirmed by a rather reliable source - the Financial Times. (via Jerome-a-Paris)

If you can't read it well, the bottom reads:
(...) The disparity in the French data reflects the high proportion of that country's young people in full-time education - two thirds. That compares with one-third in the UK and half in Germany.
So while 23% of the young people looking for a job are unemployed, they represent only 8% of the overall youth population.
What is fascinating is that the discussions in France have all focused on the 23% figure. All the pundits, experts, journalists and intellectuals have been using it without great assurance, as a figure taken for granted which does not call for discussion.
As Simon Briscoe, the FT Statistics editor explains it:
It is true that some people do not like statistics as they might undermine their story. I would not say that is the case with my colleagues, of course, but when a number has achieved such status as this 22% figure, it is hard for journalists to break from it
Yes, I suppose it would take too much humbleness!


The Chocolate War.

Last night, NBC nightlynews had a 'fun' report on a European study showing how chocolate can be good for men's health. (not that this is a new theme, see here) It was fun but not very informational. and even slightly misleading. it showed pictures of cheap milk chocolate but in fact, it is the 'chocolate' that is good but the cocoa in it.

Two studies seem to confirm this:
One study at the Erasmus University Medical Centre, in Rotterdam, and reported in the British Medical Journal, suggests that eating 50g of dark chocolate — which has to contain at least 35 per cent cocoa — a day may reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke by 10.5 per cent. Another study, at Heinrich-Heine-University, Düsseldorf, found that cocoa can reverse some of the ill-health effects of smoking, while yet another, at the University of Kuopio, Finland, reports that dark chocolate increases good cholesterol. (Times)
So forget about your M&Ms or your Mars bar or even your Hershey's. In fact, in my experience, one of the major differences between the US and Europe is that it can be really hard to find good-quality chocolate in the US (even though it is not as bad today as it used to be).
The reason is that most American chocolate companies use non-cocoa fat which reduces the cost of production rather than cocoa fat. In fact, even if you buy "dark chocolate" in the US, it will simply not taste as good as in Europe. Why? Well, precisely because American chocolates have a lower percentage requirement of cocoa liquor for dark chocolate, some dark chocolate may have sugar as the top ingredient. (the U.S. Government calls 'dark chocolate' "sweet chocolate", and requires a 15% concentration of chocolate liquor. European rules specify a minimum of 35% cocoa solids.).
There has been disagreement within the EU as regard to the definition of chocolate precisely between those (countries) who want to keep a more strict definition of chocolate (France) and those who want a more relaxed definition (Britain), with less cocoa fat. It is worth noting that in those countries in favor of less cocoa-fat, 50% to 70% cocoa solid dark-chocolate, with no additive, for domestic use, is hard to find and expensive.
This is a major issue for those of us who are not just chocoholics but also real chocolate amateur.


Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Decider In Chief!

When asked if he listened to the 6 retired Generals who called for Rumsfeld to step down yesterday, Bush answered this :
"I listen to all voices, but mine is the final decision,And Don Rumsfeld is doing a fine job." he said.
"I hear the voices, and I read the front page, and I know the speculation. But I'm the decider, and I decide what is best. And what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the secretary of defense."
On the one hand, nobody had doubts that Bush is hearing "the voices", (and we are glad that "his IS the final decision!) but on the other hand, we are not sure he is the 'decider'. In fact, most of us didn't even know the word 'decider' even existed in English (but it does). It's like "entrepreneur" - must be one of those French words again!

NOTE: Imagine if, by accident, Bush had a slip of tongue (which is SO unlilkely) and said something like 'I'm the dictator' (or 'the dictcider!)


We just have to accept... others!

Here's what States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in an interview with Rush Limbaugh:

There have always been people who have opposed wars…I think we just have to accept it, that people have a right to say what they want to say, and to have an acceptance of that and recognize that the terrorists, Zarqawi and bin Laden and Zawahiri, those people have media committees. They are actively out there trying to manipulate the press in the United States. They are very good at it.

So in other words, people who oppose this war, are like people who oppose wars (i.e. "all wars") who are working for the terrorists.

I guess in a democracy we do have to accept other people's opinions... and be manipulated!

PS: As you can hear in this audio, Rush Limbaugh is doing a buddy-to-buddy talk rather than an interview- he started by remining Rummy that he was hailed as a 'sex symbol' in Washington... in the first G.W. Bush administration. Really? A 'sex symbol'? Who has ever thought of Donald Rumsfeld as 'a sex symbol' in the last... 20 years? The Women Veterans of WWII?

(audio here though Crooks and Liars)


English Sans French!

Can't imagine the English language without its French words.? Read this on The CS Monitor. (Mmm... 'Monitor', they forgot that one!)


A Recent History of Opium.

When you hear the word “drugs”, what comes to mind it usually things like “war on drugs”, “trafficking”, or maybe the movie “traffic” but you don’t think so much of 19th century Britain. Sure, there were the famous “Opium Wars” but they happened in China.

But if you are a bit more familiar with British literature, you remember that S.T. Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan after smoking too much opium, and that not only was Sherlock Holmes addicted to drugs but so was Conan Doyle. Then there is this best-seller called Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, first published in 1821.

Opium was a costly staple from the Orient and was confined to the elite of the British society until its price fell at the end of the 18th century. Then, opium eating (it was eaten before it was smoken) became a very commonplace practice in early 19th century British society. It was mostly used to suppress the painful symptoms of the many diseases that doctors did not know how to cure.

The medical profession was not concerned about the addictive quality of the drug and most physicians were unaware of the whole concept of drug addiction. In fact, alcoholism was considered the most serious public health problem and some doctors actually substituted alcohol with opium. A more cynical interpretation is that alcohol resulted in more social disorders whereas opium-eating was far less of a threat to law and order.

Everything changed in the mid-19th century but the reason for the changes is not known by many people (the following comes from Max Dupperay's courses) :

What changed everything is the death of a prominent figure of British high Society, the Earl of Mar, when his life insurance Company refused to pay on this policy on the ground that he had never mentioned being a regular opium eater.

In 1856, De Quincey, the writer of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater described in detail how he was turned down by no less than 14 different life insurance companies on the sole ground of his being an opium-eater.

They had all come to the conclusion that insuring an opium eater was too great a risk to take. Even though they had no statistical evidence to back up their position, the had noticed that people who started taking opium or laudanum usually did so because they had some sort of health problem, and this of course increased the likelihood of a premature death.

As a result, life insurance companies would agree to ensure alcoholics (who were less likely to have started as a result of a medical condition) but not opium eaters.

By the 1850s, opium, especially if used for non-medical purposes, was no longer as morally acceptable as it had been a generation before.

Opium eating was increasingly considered a disease of a similar nature, both medically and morally, to that of drinking. Of course many Victorians continued to indulge in the pleasures of opium but the practice became more dishonorable and thus more discreet, especially among the middle classes.


Franglais indeed... (answer to "The Richness of English")

A while ago we asked
Where does the difference between the following words come from? :
  • cow and beef
  • calf and veal
  • swine (or pig) and pork
  • sheep and mutton
  • hen and poultry (although chicken is also used for the meat, ‘poultry’ is never used for the living animal)

The "Bill" of the answer is indeed William the Conqueror: when the Normans conquered England in 1066 they brought their French language with them. So the ruling class who ate meat spoke Anglo-French (also called Anglo-Norman), while the peasants who farmed the animals spoke the English of the time.

Bill Bryson calls the Norman conquest of 1066 the "final cataclysm [which] awaited the English language." .

Here's a list of some English words of French origins - and some of them might surprise you:

  • wage (Old Fr, gage)
  • war (from guerre)
  • ward, ward-robe (from garde, garde-robe)
  • warrant, (from garantie)
  • screw (Old Fr, escroue)
  • search (Old Fr, cerchier)
  • rock (Old Fr, ro(c)que)
  • remain (Old,.Fr, remaindre)
  • recorder (Old Fr, recordeur)
  • plumber (Old Fr. plommier)
  • jewel (from joyau)
  • bullet (from boulette, although the modern French for this is balle)

(more here)


Tuesday, April 18, 2006

7-Hour Standoff Ends with ... Nobody In Home!

That's why they have a "tactical team" in Oklahoma! ( read here)


The Bush Doctrine ... in real life!

I have never been a believer in moral politics and you may think I’m a cynic or a realist, depending where you stand politically. I do believe in coherence though.

Well, it seems that the Bush Doctrine of moral politics, i.e. of "active promotion of democracy and freedom” only applies to certain countries.
Here’s a photo op of a meeting of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice with Equatorial Guinean President Teodoro Obiang Nguema taken last week.

I am no moralist, but there is some apparent lack of 'coherence' here - Nguema has been the President of Equatorial Guinea since 1979, one of the most corrupt, ethnocentric, oppressive and anti-democratic states in the world and Rice calls him 'a good friend'. BUT the discovery of large oil reserves in 1996 and its subsequent exploitation by American companies may make him a much better friend in our Iranian-nuke crisis era.

One could hope that this means that the Bush administration has been converted to 'Real Politik' after all. In any case, they should really stop pounding us with moral politics and moral values.

But I’m just a cynic. So I have doubts.


Over 100$ a minute!

Usually when you hear how much CEOs make, you feel like it's just beyond comprehension. Passed a certain number, it becomes meaningless, impossible to grasp, doesn't it? What is the difference between, say, $200 million and $300 million of income? What does it represent?
Last night, Brian Williams on NBC Nightlynews reported that Exxon chairman and chief executive Lee R. Raymond retired last December with a $400 million package. Well, that's another of those meaningless numbers to me.
But then, Williams mentioned the NYTimes estimate that Raymond made more than $686 million from 1993 to 2005, and this is where it becomes interesting - that number represents $144,573 for each day he spent leading Exxon.
That is $100.4 a minute - including sleep time!!

Granted the company's performance improved - Exxon's market value increased fourfold, overtaking BP as the largest oil company and General Electric as the largest American corporation... but $100.4 a minute! Even in the US, whose culture is more accepting of corporate money, it has caused outrage. According to the NYTimes some Exxon shareholders, academics, corporate governance experts and consumer groups were taken aback this week when they learned the details of Mr. Raymond's total compensation.
It is also interesting that it should be call a "compensation" (see what Lucian Bebchuk, from Harvard Law School has to say about that).
Well, in any case, such numbers cannot be viewed positively when consumers pay their gas almost $3 a gallon!

In the meantime, the French have also reported the news but have another way of putting it - Raymond's compensation represents 20,000 years of (French) minimum wage.


Monday, April 17, 2006

The New Gadhafi.

For those who thought that there is a new Gadhafi, there is this:
Recently invited to lead a prayer in Timbuktu in front of a crowd of thousans of Muslims Gadhafi said that he considered that "People of the Book," such as Christians and Jews "are not heretics," and that "they believe in God and are not vile."
He also gave his
assurance to his audience (which included five African presidents, government officials, African tribal chiefs, Muslim theologians from East and West, South Africa, East and West Europe, Canada and the U.S), that Muslims don't need "the sword or the bomb to spread Islam,". (see here)

And here's the trick (for there is always a trick) : reason why Muslims do not need the sword is that he also expects Europe to become Muslim with a few dozen years, thanks to the presence of '50 million' Muslims, 14,000 thousand mosques and Islamic centers, and 1,500 Islamic organizations and associations in Europe, in addition to Turkey, Bosnia and Albania joining the European Union.
The problem is that Gadhafi is using fuzzy maths, as G.W. Bush would say. The numbers are not only off, but there is no guarantee that Turkey will join the EU any time soon, if ever. Moreover, in his little world, Gadhafi has forgotten - quite conveniently - to consider those who may have Muslim origins but are either atheist, agnostic and simply just traditionally religious, but don't really care and there are many of them... in Europe and in Turkey.
Last but more importantly, the Islamic world is not monolithic and has not been united under a single leader since the great days of the Ottoman Empire. There are Muslim peoples rather than a Muslim people.

Well, given Gadhafi's (religious) binary view of the world, (those who believe and are not vile... and the others, who do not believe and must be 'vile"!), it does not surprise me. The new Gadhafi has learned his lesson and is not the dangerous man he used to be but he is as much a moron as he ever was - although I'll give him some credit for hanging on to his power for so long.


South Park Censored.... again!

You may remember that Comedy Central pulled a March rerun of a "South Park" episode that mocked Scientologists. Well, this time thy have decided to censor a two-part episode of South Park called "Cartoon Wars" which featured a depiction of Mohammed.
This is how they offically explained their decision:
Comedy Central's belief in the First Amendment has not wavered, despite our decision not to air an image of Muhammad. Our decision was made not to mute the voices of Trey and Matt or because we value one religion over any other. This decision was based solely on concern for public safety in light of recent world events.
With the power of freedom of speech and expression also comes the obligation to use that power in a responsible way. Much as we wish it weren't the case, times have changed and, as witnessed by the intense and deadly reaction to the publication of the Danish cartoons, decisions cannot be made in a vacuum without considering what impact they may have on innocent individuals around the globe.
So clearly, Comedy Central is using the "responsibility" card. Well, given what we know of how the whole mess with the Danish Cartoons started, I don't think anyone would have been noticed if they had not made a big deal of it. No one in the Islamic world at least. Those who watch "South Central" are unlikely to be those who get offended by a depiction of Mohammed.
Secondly, the Muslim community in the US is not very large compared to that of Europe (which means that it would probably be futile for the Islamist radicals to try to gain American muslims by stirring public outrage and disorder. It didn't even work in Europe).
Besides it is not like the image of the US can get any worse than it is in the Muslim world.
Finally, the chances are that the reasons why Comedy Central, Border's Books, or the world's media organizations censor a satirical cartoon have more to do with business interests than 'public safety', (mking money is theur business after all, and there is nothing wrong with that) and so I agree with Matt Stone and Trey Parker (the creators of South Park) and with TigerHawk that using freedom of speech to defend their decision is hypocritical and dishonest.


Good Grammar in Massachusetts.

Today is Patriots' Day, a holiday in the U.S. state of Massachusetts. (in honor of the anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, which has is seen as the beginning of the American Revolution) - even though Harvard is not on holiday.
Interestingly, you can find three different spellings of the day in question

  • Patriots Day
  • Patriots’ Day
  • Patriot’s Day.

Which one do you think is actually the most correct one?

Language Log and Wikipedia are both right: the three forms are grammatically correct. Having recently read a lot of linguistics lately, I can add that even though there are all fully grammatical, they imply a slightly different view point.

I will not go into technical details but if there is one thing I enjoy about modern linguistics (as opposed to prescriptive grammar, i.e. the way my generation learned English) – it is that it does not give you rules to apply, it only deals with the form of a language at a given moment, the changes of that language, and the context in which it is used. It is therefore a very empirical discipline in touch with reality which does not or should not concern itself with correctness. In other words, linguistics is by essence the epitome of liberal arts.

By the way, this question about Massachusetts’s holiday is only one found in writing as phonetically the three phrases are exactly the same.


Friday, April 14, 2006

On the Importance of Good Pronounciation.

This story is likely to have been made-up - it is too saucy to be true [in case you're under age, look away, and don't sure us, you've been warned] and I'm not sure it is usable in class... Too bad because it is a good illustration of how good pronounciation is essential to avoid embarrassing misunderstanding.

When Charles DeGaulle decided to retire from public life, the British ambassador and his wife threw a gala dinner party in his honor.
At the dinner table the Ambassador's wife was talking with Madame DeGaulle.
"Your husband has been such a prominent public figure, such a presence on the French and International scene for so many years! How quiet retirement will seem in comparison. What are you most looking forward to in these retirement years?"
"a-penis," replied Madame deGaulle.
A huge hush fell over the table. Everyone heard her answer... and no one knew what to say next.
Le Grand Charles leaned over to his wife and said, "Ma cherie, I believe ze English pronounce zat word, 'appiness


Anarchy and Civil War Worse than Dictatorship?

There is something worse than dictatorship: anarchy. And there is even something worse than anarchy: civil war.
Le Figaro.

While I agree with this (translated here) quote from a French article in Le Figaro, I think it makes a rather moot point. It is NOT because the neoconservative ideologues in the Pentagon are arrogant morons and failed to even consider the post-Saddam era, THAT toppling a dictator is not a good think à-priori.

As much as I despise the neocons, I agree with them that dictatorship is the worst kind regime - chaos and anarchy are actually worse than anything else but they precisely mean that there is no regime any more. So the quote, while seemingly logical, is a fallacy.


Oil and Commodity Prices.

As oil prices hit a new record of $70.20, it is actually the whole commodity market (time to have copper and zink mine shares) which has been soaring:
However in real terms commodity prices are still under their 1970s peak. This is definitely putting things into perspective but...
... it does not mean they won't go higher and above. Besides, if the current crisis is partly political (see Iran, Venezuela, ec...) there is more to it than political tension as there was in the 70s. Demand for commodities is going up more rapidly - and it is not going to slow down, think of China in the future - and supply is struggling. It has been unable to keep up with the demand. Maybe I'm oversimplifying it but it seems to make sense to me.
(charts found on Jerome-a-Paris)


Thursday, April 13, 2006

Religion in North America.

Here are two interesting maps showing various aspects of religion in the U.S. (using 2000 Census information on a county-by-county basis). [via Matthew Yglesias and Regions of Mind]

This first map shows the dominant religious affiliation in the U.S. The red part, which corresponds to what is known as “the Bible Belt” (in the Southeast) represents the counties where the Baptist Church is predominant (see more info on the Baptist Church here). More surprisingly is the overall Catholic presence in the blue counties. (It is not just because of the hispanic immigrants - the fact that the Catholic Church is a more unified body may also have a lot to do with it):

This second map is more interesting – and stupendous, I think. It shows the degree of religious adherence according to one's acknowledged membership in a particular religious grouping. It seems it is now the Mid-Atlantic region which is become more religious. This needs to be checked by other studies but it may be the sign of the demise of the traditional “Bible Belt” and the tailoring of a “Bible Tie”:

NOTE: As you can read in this Wikipedia article on Evangelicalism, denominations in the U.S. can be very tricky and are based not just on personal faith and theology but also (and I would say primarily) on cultural identification, so the findings here above should be taken with a grain of salt.


Chirac Cartoon.

- this is obviously a caricature and is not meant to illustrate a view of this Blog regarding the recent demonstrations in France.
- but as any good caricature, it is funny! (mostly because the little brats - Chirac is really barely recognizable! The cartoonist only has a few months left to work on his talent - Chirac will be gone soon. The elections will take place next year)


Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Hiding Bigotry behind the Persecution Complex.

In yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, I read about a 22 year-old student who sues her school because of their bans of speech that puts down others because of their sexual orientation (i.e. homosexuals). She claims that it is "an unacceptable infringement on her right to religious expression" because her Christian faith "compels her to speak out against homosexuality".

I am all for free speech and for freedom of religious expression... But what I wonder, as a Christian myself, where exactly did Jesus give us THAT commandment. In fact, it must not have such a major issue for Him since He spoke neither about homosexuality nor about abortion. (I do suspect that even if it was condemned by the Jewish community, there were homosexuals AND primitive abortions in those days – let’s think of the Romans, or better yet, the Greeks.). As for Paul who indeed spoke against homosexuality in ROMANS 1:24-27, the verse seems to me too vague to necessarily see it as a general prohibition of all same-sex activities. Given what we know of Paul, he certainly did not condone them, but he was not so outspoken about it.

So why is the American Christian right (such as Focus on the Family and Campus Crusade for Christ) so obsessed with those issues? Probably because they are more self-righteous than right.... and becuse they have nothing better to do.

To that 22 year-old student sueing her school, I'd just say this - get a life!


French P.M. : the Fall.


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Solution to Illegal Immigration: Shooting 'Em!

Recently, a right-wing radio station in Arizona had his own ideas of how to deal with illegal immigrants and he definitely expressed them:

‘What we'll do is randomly pick one night every week where we will kill whoever crosses the border,'' James said in the March 8 broadcast. ‘‘Step over there and you die. You get to decide whether it's your lucky night or not. I think that would be more fun.'', adding he would be ‘‘happy to sit there with my high-powered rifle and my night scope'' and kill people as they cross the border.
He also suggested that the National Guard shoot illegal immigrants and receive ‘‘$100 a head.''
As you can guess this soon caused great controversy. To the point that the spokesman for the group had to make a statement saying that"these comments have no place on our airwaves." As for James, he did issue a disclaimer: "KFYI does not advocate shooting illegals. It might be fun, but they don't advocate it."

You may think this was just the problem of one single host ‘slightly’ going overboard. But it is worth noticing that the program manager at the radio station Laurie Cantillo acutally denied that James's comments were dangerous or irresponsible.

‘The comments were made in a satirical manner and the listeners who heard the full broadcast understand that,'' she said. ‘‘We were having a serious discussion about the immigration issue and it was solution-driven.''
Solution-driven? What solution? Shootin'em? Some satire indeed!

Well, to understand what is at stake here, we should probably take a closer look at redio station KFYI:
KFYI is owned by Clear Channel Communications (a corporation which 1200 stations nationwide and has a highly controversial right-wing ideology – read our post on them from last year).

Among other recent controversies regadring Clear Channel Communications:
- They organized and paid for a counterpoint to anti-war demonstrations,
- They banned the Dixie Chicks for critizing the war in a magazine,
- They have censored opinions critical of George W. Bush and other Republicans.

Not surprisingly, as we mentioned before, the founder and chairman of C.C.C., is Lowry Mays, a staunch Republican Texan and one-time George W. Bush business associate.

Thankfully, we can also add Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard and U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton sent a complaint to the FCC, in which they stated:

This type of threatening and inciting speech is dangerous and totally irresponsible for anyone, particularly a licensed body using public airways.
Somebody is making sense after all.


American Protests - the (Other) Impossible Number.

We recently wrote about the French tradition to give two different figures of demonstrators - those of the organizers and those of the police, and guess what? they are always different and always different in the same way.
Well, it looks like it's very much the same in the U.S. according to this Los Angeles Times article:
Juan Carlos Ruiz, coordinator for the National Capital Immigration Coalition, said organizers, in trying to estimate the size of the crowd on the Mall, tried to count the numbers arriving on buses and exiting the subway. They lost count at 400,000, he said.
"The Mall is full from corner to corner," Ruiz said.
No official crowd numbers were available, but other estimates indicated that the size was smaller than the organizers' figure. A police official who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Washington Post that at least 100,000 people were present.
The major difference with French demonstrations:
  • the numbers are more impressive (there were recently as many as between 1 and 3 million of French people demonstrating)
  • the French police do not talk to the media 'on condition of anonymity' but issue official (but just as false) statements.
Here's a bit of historical background with regard to counting protesters in the US (still in the same LATimes article):
The National Park Service stopped giving official estimates after a dispute over the number attending the Million Man March in 1995; the park service said that about 400,000 were present, whereas independent analyses using aerial photos and grids put the figure at more than 870,000.
More than 600,000 protested the Vietnam War in a 1969 rally on the Mall
About 250,000 attended the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech in 1963.
In recent years, the largest unofficial crowd estimate was 750,000 for the 2004 March for Women's Lives.
As for the other numbers of yesterday's demosntration throughout the US:
Crowds at the immigration rallies in other cities appeared to be smaller than in Washington, with police reporting 50,000 each in Atlanta and Phoenix and 20,000 in New York.


Massaoui's Assisted Suicide.

There is a good piece in today's NYTimes (through the IHT) on Moussaoui's trial which happens to sum what I have felt about it in the last few weeks.
Through a perverse confluence, Moussaoui's interest in becoming something in death that he never was in life - important - has combined with the government's interest in executing someone for the 9/11 attacks. The likely result is an odd form of assisted suicide, in which Moussaoui will claim martyrdom as he is executed, and the United States will claim that the rule of law has been vindicated by bringing a terrorist to justice for 9/11.
This piece was written by no less than a former attorney general of New Jersey and a senior counsel to the 9/11 commission. He draws an interesting parallel with the Nuremburg Trial. Even though historical comparisons like that always tend to make me uncomfortable as they often result in historical caricatures, he uses it to make a point which is at the center of the whole issue:
Atrocities cry out not just for vengeance, but for justice.


The Richness of English - one 'challenging' question.

Quite often at the beginning of the school year, I like to challenge my French students of English and ask them the following question:
Where does the difference between the following words come from? :

  • cow and beef
  • calf and veal
  • swine (or pig) and pork
  • sheep and mutton
  • hen and poultry (although chicken is also used for the meat, ‘poultry’ is never used for the living animal)

Obviously they can figure out that one type of word is for the living animal when the other is for the meat you eat. (although chicken is also used for the meat, ‘poultry’ is never the living animal). But why is that? Where does it come from? Of course, as a teacher of English, I ought to know, (one of the golden rule of teaching is to only ask questions whose answer you know)... but do you?

NOTE: And please, don’t Google or Yahoo or engine-search it, that would be cheating. (I will post the answer in a couple of days.) I'll give you a hint - the answer has to do with a guy called 'Bill'.

NOTE2: I also like to ask them how many tenses there are in English conjugaison...


Bush has no shame.

This is how Bush justified declassifying material which was than leaked to the press to undermine the credibility of war critic Joseph Wilson:
"You're not supposed to talk about classified information, and so I declassified the document,'' President Bush said in a question-and-answer session after delivering a speech on Iraq. "I thought it was important for people to get a better sense for why I was saying what I was saying in my speeches. And I felt I could do so without jeopardizing ongoing intelligence matters, and so I did.''
Now here's the best part:
"I wanted people to see the truth and thought it made sense for people to see the truth,''
I tell you, no shame but incredible arrogance and self-conficence. He really believes he can get away with anything. This Imperial President makes Nixon - THE other imperial president - look benevolent.


How can so many Italians be so stupid?

The latest news from Italy that the Italian National Election Remains Too Close to Call does not necessarily come as a schock. After all, other (bigger) democracies have had their share of wait and confusion for election results!

What surprises me, however is that so many Italians still support Berlusconi-the-Clown., and that it is a "nation split in two" - in two? Like moron-followers on the one hand and people with some common sense on the other? Ooops, I'm being dangerously binary here.


Monday, April 10, 2006

How many words in the English language?

Almost a million? 500,00? I agree with this Slate Magazine article - there is probably no way to tell, even if the Global Language Monitor proclaims that—as of now —there are exactly 988,968 words in English... and counting. Oviously, if it is even hard to agree on the basics so how can they even find such a phony number.
First, it is not even clear what a word really is.
As Jesse Sheidlower (in Slate) pointed out:
If run is a verb, is the noun run another word? What about the inflected forms ran, runs, and running? What about words with run as a base, such as runner and runnable and runoff and runway? Are compounds, such as man-bites-dog, man-child, man-eater, manhandle, man-hour, man of God, man's man, and men in black, to be counted once or many times?
An other good question is indeed : what is English?
As you can see on the following graph, a lot of English words have foreign origins:
  • 28.24% from Latin (including modern scientific and technical Latin)
  • 28.3% from French, including Old French and early Anglo-French.
  • 25% from Old and Middle English, Old Norse, and Dutch
  • 5.32% from Greek
  • 4.03% with no etymology given
  • 3.28% derived from proper names
  • 1 % from other languages.
Besides, how many words do people actually use? Probably from a few thousands to tens of thousands. (probably less for President Bush though!)

Yet, some people estimate that the English language is the richest in vocabulary. The compendious Oxford English Dictionary lists about 500,000 words, when German is said to have a vocabulary of about 185,000 and French fewer than 100,000 (including such Franglais as le snacque-barre and le hit-parade).

Well, that may be, but that is probably because English is very ready to accommodate foreign words, (and as an international language, it has absorbed vocabulary from an even greater number of other sources).
[This according to AskOxford wouldnot take into account 'agglutinative' languages such as Finnish, in which words can be stuck together in long strings of indefinite length, and which therefore have an almost infinite number of 'words'.]

I think the best way to sum it up is to reflect on this very telling quote!
"The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary."
NOTE: Obviously in France le snacque-barre (Gotta be from Quebec!) is actually spelled 'Snack Bar' but the other version looks more fun, doesn't it?


Andrew Sulllivan's suffocation by Ignorance.

Famous conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan really does know what he is talking about (not that it's a surprise). Here's what he wrote today:
If the French cannot accept even the teensiest attemp to bring market discipline and free labor markets to their over-regulated economy, then they need no longer be considered a nation with a future. They are a nation committing an extremely slow suicide by suffocation. The suffocation is caused by an overdose of insecurity. Its only cure is nerve. But nerve was never a very common French trait, was it?
In fact, he is making no point and is saying nothing. Why is he even so influential? Because of his use of ideology, to hide his massive ignorance and humorless prejudice? I wonder. At least H.L. Mencken (another famous pundit)'s quick ideological and racial misjudgements were often funny!


Understanding French Youth Unemployment Figures.

Today the French government has finally put an end to the French social and political crisis by announcing that the controversial law will be replaced by other measures. So basically they have lost because of their conttinuing refusal to discuss and negociate. Unilateralism does not (always) work. Not only have they been unwilling to negotiate BEFORE the law, but that seem to have made the wrong analysis.

As we mentioned on a post on March 28 (thanks to Jerome-a-Paris on Daily Kos), the statistical figures used by the media and politicians (and just about everybody..) have been very misleading. Everywhere, in France as well as abroad, you hear that French youth unemployment is incredibly high23%. Yet, this figure is both right and wrong but definitely misleading. Here's why:
This number represents the ratio of unemployed to active population (i.e. those working or seeking work )but a lot of the French youths are actually students, and, unlike American students, they do not need to work to pay for their studies. Students are less “active” in
France than in the US or in the UK.
As you can read here:

The unemployment rate indicator (23%) is just as significant for those young people actually in the labor market. The proportion of young people unemployed is in fact 8% (0,23*0,38).

So in other words, the ratio of unemployed to the overall youth population is only 8%, just like in the UK or the US and much inferior to the European average.

What is fascinating is that the most widely used number (i.e. 23%) has been taken for granted by just about everybody in the last few weeks although it was a major element in the current crisis. As much as I can understand why that is in the foreign press (they use French sources), it is much harder to figure why the French media missed that. Only since March 31, has it been a bit more of a ‘public’ debate (as you can read here in French).

This also implies that the French government has also failed to properly analyzed the situation and the number. (You'd think THEY of all people would know better). The problem is not with the youth overall but with those who have no degree and no qualification at all and thus can get no job. From what I have read the new measures will target them. It’s about time.

By the way, other myths about the French economy (such as “It’s impossible to fire people in France” or “France does not create jobs") are just as wrong as Jerome-a-Paris reminds us.