Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Quote of the Day - Kicking the Oil Habit.

Robert Redford, Sundance, Utah. (CNN) on America's Kicking the oil habit.

Today the American people are way out in front of our leaders. … People are coming together and demanding new answers. A grassroots movement is gathering today to promote solutions, like renewable fuels, clean electricity, more efficient cars, and green buildings that use less energy.

W ell, apparently Congress is obviously not leading the country in this direction - especially when environmental solutions threaten their peaceful vacationing in Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard, the bucolic Massachusetts vacation areas frequented by many high-profile celebrities, business executives and politicians. (Chicago Tribune)


Life (or Death) in Iraq.

From the Pentagon’s latest quarterly status report on Iraq, published yesterday:
On average, nearly 80 Iraqis were killed or wounded every day…up from the previous quarter’s 60 per day


New Nominee for Treasury Secretary Is Pro-environment.

NBCNews last night reported that the new nominee for Treasury Secretary, Goldman Sachs Chairman Henry M. Paulson Jr. as at odd with president Bush's views on the environment issue. ThinkProgress confirms this and apparently, the man "not only endorses the Kyoto Protocol to limit greenhouse emissions, but argues that the United States’ failure to enact Kyoto undermines the competitiveness of U.S. companies". I think that's a major argument one can use against those Conservatives who have a short view and claim that the Kyoto Protocol makes no economic sense.
And so the nomination of this sucessful businessman, Chairman and COE of Goldsman Sachs, a major investment bank is paradoxically strongly opposed by a coalition right-wing groups seeking to cast doubt on climate science, such as the National Center for Public Policy Research, describing Paulson as “diametrically opposed to the positions of [the Bush] Administration.”
That's great!

NOTE on the Environment:
MIT separately reported new evidence yesterday supporting the idea that global warming IS causing stronger hurricanes. (NYTimes)


Reflection on the difference between "Freedom" and "Liberty".

On Memorial Day, president Bush said :
"We have made clear that the war on terror is an ideological struggle between tyranny and freedom," Bush said. "Our strategy to protect America is based on a clear premise: the security of our nation depends on the advance of liberty in other nations.”

And on Sunday, Senator Bill Frist said that the troops in Iraq are fighting for “our freedom and liberty”.

The expression “freedom and liberty” although quite common sounds a bit redundant, doesn't it? Is there actually a difference between the two words?

Most European languages only have one word - the Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish, etc.) generally have a word derived from the Latin libertas, whereas the Germanic languages (German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, etc.) generally have a word derived from the Old Teutonic frijo. (see here). Even though there are historical reasons for the two words (Thanks to William), why has English taken the trouble to retain the pair of Anglo-Saxon and Latin words?

In fact, the use of one word over the other may also be symptomatic of how we see our values and this vison evolves.

The U.S. Declaration of Independence, for instance, speaks of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." and it doesn't mention freedom at all. It was "liberty" that Patrick Henry declared himself willing to die for, and liberty that the ringing bell in Philadelphia proclaimed on July 8, 1776. (see here).
The Pledge of Allegiance also talks of “
Liberty and Justice for all” (first written in 1892). It seems that the word “liberty” is associated with a fundamental American value and a political system. That may be the legacy of the conception of "English liberty”. (as opposed to Continental Europe and its authoritarian monarchies). It may also by why the French national motto is usually translated as "Liberty, equality, fraternity," and not “freedom”.

However, the word “freedom” gained popularity in the early XXth century with for instance Roosevelt's Four Freedoms — of speech, of religion, from want and from fear, thus adding the economic and social justice that permitted people to pursuit happiness. In the 50s and 60s, it is the word “freedom” which was mostly used during the Civil Rights Movement (Think of the "Freedom Rides"). Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used "freedom" 19 times in his "I Have a Dream" speech, and liberty only twice. So it seems that “freedom” became associated with an "absence of constraints and with individual rights". In the 70s and 80s, the word “freedom” shifted to a more economic meaning – think of Reaganomics and "economic freedom" (i.e. deregulation, tax cuts and a weakening of unions). Today, the word freedom is often confused with “free market” whereas the word “liberal” has become a derogatory term for the radical left.

So here are some possible definitions (here):

  • “Freedom” as an exemption from control by some other person, or from arbitrary restriction of specific defined rights like Worship, or Speech
  • “Liberty” as the sum of the rights possessed in common by the people of a community/state/nation as they apply to its government, and/or the expectation that a nation's people have of exemption from control by a foreign power.

When “liberty” used to be the most patriotic word (during World War I sauerkraut were renamed "liberty cabbage" and dachshunds, "liberty dogs."), today, it seems to be freedom (think of the attempt by American “patriots” to rename French fries “freedom fries” but also of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” followed by “Operation Enduring Freedom” in Afghanistan). Interestingly, freedom often connotes oppressive influences (freedom from something; freedom to do something), while liberty often implies deliverance or release.

However, I think most English-speaking people understand both “liberty” and freedom” as synonyms. The use of the two words together only serves to reinforce the concept. While "Freedom" is strong,"Liberty and freedom" is even more powerful and becomes worth fighting for. Besides, the combination of the two may just sound better.

NOTE: whereas English has two words for “liberté”, the adjective “free” (libre) (as in "free speech") does not distinguish from from free (gratis) (as in "free beer").


Monday, May 29, 2006

Unhappy Anniversary.

Today is also the 'anniversary' of the French 'non' to the European Constitution.
As Jerome-a-Paris commented on the European Tribune:
Chirac is still there, France is treated (quite deservedly) like a sick joke and Europe is withering away!


Iraq 's My Lai and Afghan Riots... on Memorial Day.

Today is Memorial Day in the US but quite a bitter one if we are to believe the following news from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Today's NYT published testimonies of Iraqis who say they survived the mass killings of civilians by Marines in Haditha last November.

Those stories can't be independently corroborate but the then LATimes gives the account of a marine part of the "cleanup crew" sent to carry out the bodies of victims, and he took photos of the dead that he gave to the Haditha Marine command center.

On may still have doubts... but when this man speaks, you should really begin to ask questions:

A powerful member of Congress [Rep. John P. Murtha (Pa.), ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations defense subcommitte] alleged yesterday that there has been a conscious effort by Marine commanders to cover up the facts of a November incident in which rampaging Marines allegedly killed 24 Iraqi civilians. (Wash. Post)

Some now call the Haditha Massacre: Iraq’s My Lai! In the meantime, today saw the worst rioting in the Afghan capital since the fall of the Taliban regime following a traffic accident Monday involving U.S. troops.


Super Heroes Get Political.

It seems that not only TV series like to deal with controversial social and political issues, so do comics these days. The Christian Monitor recently reported that in today's comic books, superheroes are also tackling topics such as terrorism, war, and civil liberties as a heavy dose of 21st-century reality seeps into their alternate universe.

Obviously comic book heroes have always been fantasies mirroring our actual struggles and fears – Spiderman is for instance your typical teenager, dealing with a changing body (not every grows spider-like hair and shoots spider-web, but you get the main point, don’t you?) and the need for integration (who hasn’t ever felt ‘different’? Who has not felt ‘double’ at some point?) and acceptance. And we all know that the villain in comics often looks like your typical Nazi or Communist, reminiscent of our grandpa’s fears of WWII and the Cold War.

But it seems that in comics too, the real-world echoes are much more straightforward and it has also become more clearly political. Above all, new stories now nurture a higher degree of ambiguity about the boundaries of right and wrong (something probably appalling to most Conservatives).

According to the editor in chief of Marvel:

"We're posing this argument: Would you sacrifice your privacy for your public safety or your civil liberties for your public safety? This is happening, literally, while we're still in the turmoil of asking ourselves these very same questions.

I don’t read Marvel comics anymore but it looks like some series tackle some issues quite directly:

"Civil War," for instance, explores the issue of civil liberties in the wake of a deadly explosion in a Connecticut neighborhood during the filming of a superhero reality show. Soon, superheroes are at war over mandatory registration, with dissenters facing terms in a prison that will remind readers of Guantánamo Bay.

Some argue it is partly because the audience has gotten older so maybe I should get back to reading Marvels and DC Comics. I am afraid that I might be disappointed with ‘X-Men III’ precisely because I used to read and enjoy them as teenager. Sometimes, it seems that only the old good-vs.-villain stuff does it for me.


Selective Immigration and the Need for Medical Professionals.

In France as in the US, the idea of selective immigration based on qualification is a hot but highly controversial topic, and not only in Africa as we reported last week. An editorial in last Sunday’s Herald Tribune raises the question by taking the example of the need for nurses in America. It is interesting because it is a problem not just for the US or France but also for most western countries as they face problems caused by their aging population. It is also something that is part of the current debate on immigration.

As they noted:

American hospitals are looking overseas to solve some of the current nursing shortage, eliciting concern from African and Asian countries that worry about losing their own desperately needed medical professionals. In the Philippines, most government doctors have enrolled in nursing training in hopes of being permitted to come to the United States to work.

The idea of the richest country in the world skimming the scant cream off the health care staffs of poor countries is disturbing.

The solution to this problem offered by the IHT looks (almost) ‘dangerously’ socialist though – they claim that one of the first and most obvious fixes is increased government spending on nursing education.”.

But as they also notice, there needs to be radical improvement in the work conditions (more medical workers serving fewer patients) and in the pay. To fix those problems, you will need to increase spending in healthcare as well as a shift in how money is spent (more on the wages and less in lawsuits and insurance.). In any case, those changes will probably be painful to somebody.

It is likely however that the pain will be greater in developing countries that desperately need medical professionals, and in the end, if the medical situation gets worse there, the pain will eventually reach the rest of us as it always seems to backfire in the long run.


Gay Marriage and Flag Burning... who really cares?

Here’s a good example of how much the Senators on the Hill are out of touch with the people: Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said yesterday that gay marriage and flag burning the most important issues the Senate can be addressing in June of 2006. Yes, flag burning!

Thankfully, Americans have a more realistic approach and their pressing issues are actually the following:
- terrorism (89%),

- the war in
Iraq (89%),
- the economy (88%),

- and health care costs (88%).

Here’s what First said though (Transcript via Think Progress):

When you look at that flag and you tell me that right now people in this country are saying it’s okay to desecrate that flag and to burn it and to not pay respect to it, is that important to our values as a people when we’ve got 130,000 people fighting for our freedom and liberty today?

I know the flag is important to a lot of people but I don’t think it is THAT important to most. Besides, it is not like the flag is under attack… at home anyway. If you are very upset about the desecration of the flag, find a way to make the rest of world less upset about it.

I find it maddening that those who not only voted but even supported the war all heartedly get all worked up about a symbol and not about the 2,464 US marines killed in that war (and what about the thousands of civilians killed everyday?). It gets nonsensical when a major politician confuses the symbol (the flag) with the values (say, human life). The symbol does not matter compared to the values it represents and if the Republicans held life as a major value, they would not worry about the flag burning but why it is burning and why people get killed for “our freedom and liberty”, and precisely, it is not clear for most Americans that the war in Iraq serves “our freedom and liberty”.

I can’t believe that Frist is not aware of that. So he’s probably just playing with people’s emotional attachment to the symbol of the flag so that they buy the dubious reasons why this nation is at war in Iraq. That's what propaganda has always been about.

Here’s a good example of his emotional manipulation:

I’m going to Arlington cemetery tomorrow and I’m going to see that flag waving on every grave over there.

Again, it seems to me, you should get more emotional about the bodies coming than the flag in the cemetery. First does have his priorities wrong for sure.

As far as the other subject of gay marriage, Frist said that it is “under attack today”. I must say that I fail to see the logic of his point. Here's what he said:

Right now there are 13 states who passed constitutional amendments in the last year and a half to protect marriage. Why? Because in nine states today, activist judges, unelected activist judges are tearing down state laws in nine states today. That’s why I will take it to the floor of the Senate, simply define marriage as the union between a man and a woman.

I don’t understand the conservative view there (as in many other areas, I must admit). How is it that allowing marriage of gay people could be a threat to the institution of marriage? Does it make the marriage of heterosexuals any less real? I wish they could explain what they mean by “an attack” on our values. What are they afraid of? - that more people are going to decide to become gay?

The defensive tone of the Republicans who always claim to be under attack on issues that most of us don’t really care about is a sign of acute paranoia. It is probably the result of the influence of the religious right in the Party which is also based on paranoia.


Sunday, May 28, 2006

Why American TV series are good.... for America.

This month is the grand finale of this year’s TV season. Last week, it was ER, Invasion and the West Wing, and this week it is Lost and Desperate Housewives. Most of those shows are not just popular in the US but also all over the world and I think it is something that most (but not all) Americans are unaware of.
The main reason for their success is primarily that they are very entertaining, which is, I suppose, the main point of any entertainment. But there is more to it.

For one thing, the writing is often very good, and often surprisingly better than for movies. It seems that, partly thanks to daring initiatives by HBO some 10 years ago, the genre has become extremely creative.

But it is also a lot more in touch with the concerns of today’s world. Something not so prevalent in fiction in the rest of the world.

Of course, fiction has always mirrored our fears and frustration – think of the old Star Trek and its integrated team (including a black woman, an Asian and a Russian) or M*A*S*H, and its social commentary on the Vietnam war. But nowadays, a lot of shows deal even more directly with controversial issues. There are of course shows like The Simpsons or South Park which are satires of current social issues (and they have, as such, been under political attack for what they portray). But even more mainstream shows deal with hot issues such as:

  • political corruption (The West Wing, 24, Galactica, Law & Order, The Shield, Commander in Chief)
  • the war in Iraq (Over There but also ER or Lost)
  • torture (Galatica, 24, Lost)
  • Hispanic immigration (The Shield, Law & Order – the last season of The West Wing even had the election of a Hispanic democrat to the presidency)
  • abortion (Desperate Housewives, Galactica, Law & Order)

And this is just to name a few of those issues and a few of the shows – those I’m most familiar with. Usually, when faced with those controversial issues, the audience is either left with no definite answer and is given a more liberal view, and that’s a good thing.

"ER" recently featured a Darfur episode starring Noah Wyle and Mekhi Phifer.

Clearly, entertainment is not just entertaining – it is also an important vehicle for the transmission of political ideas and values. No matter how much G. W Bush’s politics has hurt the image of the US abroad, US fiction continues to make the American lifestyle very attractive as well as the ideas and values that come with it. It is not Karen Hughes who will help US image abroad, it is television.

Most people in America should thus rejoice of the success of American TV shows in the world. They should also rejoice of the fact that most of those shows present a more benign, tolerant society. Paradoxically, it gives a more complex picture of the America, society and takes us away from the simplified binary view of the Bush administration over the last 6 years. It shows the world that Americans are willing to question the very foundation of their politics and social choices.

I am not naïve enough to believe this is just the result of the producers’ misanthropy or the networks’ new enlightened vision. There is most certainly a market for those shows otherwise they would not last. It looks like in recent years, the mainstream networks have finally caught up with HBO’s provocative creativity precisely because the audience called for it.

Other than improving America’s image, those shows won’t affect world politics. What is certain, however, is that American fiction is the most influential means of communication of this country. As to whether it is politics that shapes culture or culture that shapes politics, there is no definite answer but we can venture to say that it may be both.


Thursday, May 25, 2006

Poland's Right Wing turn continues

While watching the French news tonight on the visit of the pope to Poland, I couldn't help wondering why nothing was said of the current far-right wing Polish government. The coverage was just mostly anecdotical and about how the Poles miss John-Paul II but nothing about the controversial ideaology of many of cabonet members. Is that news? Given the influence of a conservative fringe of the Catholic church on Polish politics, you'd think it'd be worthy of the news during Benedict's visit. But no, nobody seems to notice.
In fact, since we posted on the subject, I have not seen much of anything in Western news (including the US) on what is going on in Polan [I must say that French-German Arte is the only station that gave a fair account of the situation there. I guess that's because the Germans know better].
Yet, there have been some interesting developments. The current Law and Justice's minority government formed a coalition on May 5 with the church-affiliated Polish Families' League and the agrarian, anti-European Union Self-Defense party to give himself a majority in parliament. The leader of the
Polish Families' League, a far-right political party with anti-Semitic ideology, is no less than the Minister of Education now.

As you can read here:
The Families' League says it believes the church should continue shaping government policy, while Roman Giertych, the party's chairman and education minister, last week reiterated his plan to bar what he called the ``propaganda of homosexuality'' in schools.
As you can read in the Jerusalem Post, there is great concern in Israel about the Polish education minister's anti-semitism. Even the European Commission has warned Poland that it could be taken to the European Court of Justice if it was found to be infringing EU equality laws.
I wonder why the Poles are so obsessed with homosexuality and Jewishness.

Here's what one of the
Kaczyński brothers [the twin brothers now in charge of the country] said last March.
"It would be a threat to all mankind if such attitudes [i.e. homosexuality] were more widespread. How fortunate that gays and lesbians can’t reproduce." — comment during a state visit to Germany, made in Berlin. March 2006.

NOTE: I don't know if Kaczyński is a common name in Poland, but in the US, it also happens to be the last name of the Unabomber!


Wednesday, May 24, 2006

ID Theft (part 2) A Short History of Smart Cards.

As a note to our previous post on the problem of ID theft, here's what you can read in Wikipedia on the smart-cards (if anyone has a suggestion on why the US has singled itself out so much, be my guest!)

The first mass use of the cards was for payment in French pay phones, starting in 1983 (Télécarte). Roland Moreno (France) actually patented the concept of the memory card in 1974.

The second use was with the integration of a microchips into all French debit cards (Carte Bleue) completed in 1992. When paying in France with a Carte Bleue, one inserts the card into the merchant's terminal, then types the PIN, before the transaction is accepted. Only very limited transactions (such as paying small autoroute tolls) are accepted without PIN.

The major boom in smart card use came in the 1990s, with the introduction of the smart-card-based SIM used in GSM mobile phone equipment in Europe. They are becoming quite common now.

The international payment brands MasterCard, Visa, and Europay agreed in 1993 to work together to develop the specifications for the use of smart cards in payment cards used as either a debit or a credit card.

With the exception of the United States there has been significant progress in the deployment of EMV (Europay, Mastercard and Visa) - compliant point of sale equipment and the issuance of debit and or credit cards adhering the EMV specifications. Typically, a country's national payment association, in coordination with MasterCard, International, Visa International, American Express and JCB, develop detailed implementation plans assuring a coordinated effort by the various stakeholders involved.

Smart cards are also being introduced in personal identification and entitlement schemes at regional, national, and international levels. Citizen cards, drivers’ licences, and patient card schemes are becoming more prevalent, and contactless smart cards are being integrated into passports ICAO to enhance security for international travel.


ID Theft - the European lesson.

Recently, a government computer disc containing personal information on more than 26 million veterans was stole (here). This latest news comes in a string of similar reports about information security breaches have once again heightened public concern about the risk of identity theft.

But while ID theft has been a major concern in the US, it does not seem to ever make the headlines in Europe.

The reason is that just that it is harder to steal your ID information but it is also harder to make money with it. And in this matter, the US looks rather underdeveloped. The solution is very simple but it requires a great change of mind.

This MSNBC article makes a short list of the reasons why Europeans do not need worry about ID theft:

  • First of all Social Security numbers are only used for Social Security -- period. (Most European nationals have national identity cards - the exception being the U.K which has precisely a higher rate of ID fraud than in the rest of Europe.)
  • Information is kept private. Western European countries have laws that keep businesses from sharing and selling private personal or financial information.
  • Credit bureaus are maintained by groups of banks that share information strictly with each other so you don’t have so much data floating around.
  • Credit is not as widespread. In fact, the major difference between the US and Europe is that people used deferred debit card (where charges are deducted from checking accounts once a month, instead of daily) rather than credit cards than credit cards. There are also restrictions for getting those debit cards and the banks generally know enough about them to verify their identities.
  • On a more technological level, most European cards use tiny computer chips (i.e. smartcards) instead of the magnetic strips which are easier to reproduce. This "chip and PIN" technology is credited with reducing payment fraud by half in France, where it was introduced in 1992.

By the way, if you wonder why the United States didn’t go with smart cards, it is because the patent royalties would have cost banks more than they want to spend. The patents have run out for a while now but I have yet to see widespread use of those smart cards in the US.


What the Best American Novels Tell Us.

Last Sunday, the New York Times Book Review published the results of its contest for the best work of American fiction of the last 25 years. The jury was made of 140 writers, critics, editors and other literary sages and they were given no list to choose from. And the winner is… Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987) (now a classic and a staple of the college literary curriculum) followed by the following works:

Underworld by Don DeLillo (1997), Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (1985), Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels by John Updike (1995), American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997).

This is for novels but it is also worth noting that the most often mentioned American novelist is Philip Roth. What is more interesting that this list, however, is the analysis of A. O. SCOTT in his essay In Search of the Best, also published in the Sunday Book Review. Scott begins by asking the expected questions:

What do we mean, in an era of cultural as well as economic globalization, by "American"? Or, in the age of James Frey, reality television and phantom W.M.D.'s, what do we mean by "fiction"? And if we know what American fiction is, then what do we mean by "best"?

– questions to which there is no definite answer of course.

Also, as might be expected, A. Scott underlines the anxiety of American writers reflected in their "perpetual doubt of the coherence and adequacy of American literature". As a result, the jurors have not necessarily chosen the novels they liked best but those that have the most attribute of American fiction. In other words, this list is not so much about the books themselves but rather about our time and culture. That’s what I personally enjoy the most about literature – it is not that it is about universal themes (love, hate, death…), it is also, and in my opinion more interestingly, that it is about our culture and the way we represent it.

According to Scott, this latest survey has one dominant concern: the recovery of the past - especially the more recent past. By looking not only at Beloved but also at the top five titles in the survey you discover “how heavily the past lies on the minds of contemporary writers and literary opinion makers.”. This obsession for the past is also made obvious by the choice of Philip’s Roth novels and precisely, "the Roth whose primary concern is the past - the elegiac, summarizing, conservative Roth - is preferred over his more aesthetically radical, restless, present-minded doppelgänger by a narrow but decisive margin."

Scott also concludes that "this concern with history, with origins, to some extent with nostalgia is primarily the work of a single generation". He even ventures to say that it reveals that "the baby boom, long ascendant in popular culture and increasingly so in politics and business, has not produced a great novel."

I am not enough of literary buff to have any opinion worth giving you, but I find Scott’s essay quite challenging as it opens new doors to our understanding of this day and age - an age he calls “retrospective”. It even seems to me that a parallel could be drawn with European and particularly French literature which has, of late, often explored the questions of (national) identity and origins.


Monday, May 22, 2006

Eurovision... GRAAAAAAARG!

The Eurovision is usually a bore. Even though it is watched by over 100 million people, it is often ridiculed in Europe for being tedious, whith cheezy soft bubble-gum pop music with 'inspirational' lyrics like "Every song is a cry for love," (Ireland's Brian Kennedy).
So you'll understand why this year's win came as shock : a hard rock band from Finland dressed as bloodthirsty orcs, wearing latex monster masks and holding spark-spewing instruments.
Quite a change from your Abba and Celine Dion! Lordi (that's their name) and their song Hardrock Halellujah! won with 292 points, the highest score in Eurovision history.

Personally, I find the whole thing hilarious. I know some people might be worried to have their kids listen to such 'monsters' and even in Finland they caused a bit of a national identity crisis, where opponents accused it of devil worship and cringed at the thought that it might win. That may be because they refuse to be photographed or even interviewed without their frightful wardrobes, even though in some cases it has led to their own discomfort. In fact, some people go even further:
Those protesting against Lordi argued that the five key members of the band were KGB agents that Russian President Vladimir Putin sent to destabilize Finland in preparation for an eventual Russian coup, and that this was the main reason why the group has consistently refused to take off their freakish masks in public.
In't it funny? It seems so obvious to me that their mock-demonic imagery is more about fun and entertainment than anything else - not unlike U.S. band KISS (an acknowledged inspiration of lead singer Mr Lordi):
“We have the same aesthetic as horror films,” says Mr Lordi, who has studied at a film school. “The scarier the film, the more fun it is. And rock music should be all about fun.”
On their Eurovision victory, here's what the band leader said:
"This is a victory for rock music ... and also a victory for open-mindedness." . "We are not Satanists. We are not devil worshipers," adding, "This is entertainment. Underneath [the mask] there's a boring normal guy, who walks the dogs, goes to the supermarket, watches DVDs, eats candies. You really don't want to see him."
As for those who say it is not good music (I agree), so what? When did quality music ever come from the Eurovision anyway? At least this time it was fun and silly.

NOTE: in case you don't know, the Eurovision is the annual televised song contest with participants from numerous countries whose national television broadcasters are members of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). Apparently, NBC is working on a US version of the same show with representatives from each of the 50 states competing against each other.


Sunday, May 21, 2006

Countries where French or English are official languages.

Countries where French is the official language:
  • Belgium (with Dutch and German)
  • Benin
  • Burkina Faso
  • Burundi (with Kirundi and Swahili)
  • Cameroon (with English)
  • Canada (federally, with English)
  • Central African Republic
  • Chad (with Arabic)
  • Comoros (with Arabic and Comorian)
  • Congo-Brazzaville
  • Congo-Kinshasa
  • Côte d'Ivoire
  • Djibouti (with Arabic)
  • Equatorial Guinea (with Spanish)
  • France

Countries where English is the official language:
  • Australia
  • Bahamas
  • Belize
  • Botswana (but the national language is Setswana)
  • Canada (federally, with French)
  • Cameroon (with French)
  • Fiji (with Bau Fijian and Hindustani)
  • part of the People's Republic of China
  • Hong Kong (with Chinese)
  • The Gambia
  • Ghana
  • Guyana
  • India (with 22 other official languages)
  • Republic of Ireland (with Irish)
  • Jamaica
  • Kenya (with Kiswahili)
  • Kiribati
  • Lesotho
  • Liberia
  • Malawi
  • Namibia
  • New Zealand (with Maori)
  • Nigeria
  • Pakistan (with Urdu as the national language)
  • Papua New Guinea (with Tok Pisin and Motu)
  • Philippines (but the national language is Filipino)
  • Rwanda (with French and Kinyarwanda)
  • St. Kitts and Nevis
  • St. Lucia
  • Sierra Leone
  • Singapore (with Malay, Tamil and Chinese)
  • South Africa (with Afrikaans, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, Zulu)
  • Swaziland (with Swati)
  • Trinidad and Tobago
  • Uganda
  • Zambia
  • Zimbabwe (with Chichewa)


Languages Spoken in the US.

French is the fourth largest language in the US (after Spanish and Chinese). It is spoken mainly by the small native French, Haitian or French-Canadian populations. It is spoken in Maine and in Louisiana (where it is an official language). However, don't get too excited, French is only spoken at home by 0.771% of Americans.

(in the meantime 336 languages are also spoken by the population - spoken or signed - of which 176 are indigenous to the area. 52 languages formerly spoken in the country's territory are now extinct - Grimes 2000).

According to the 2000 census, here are the languages most spoken at home :

  1. English only 82.105%
  2. Spanish 10.710%
  3. Chinese (all spoken varieties incl.) 0.771%
  4. French (incl. Patois, Cajun) 0.627%
  5. German 0.527%
  6. Tagalog 0.467%

Here are the official
states and territories officially bilingual:

  • Louisiana (English and French),
  • Hawaii (Hawaiian English and Hawaiian),
  • Puerto Rico (Spanish and English),
  • Guam (Chamorro and English),
  • American Samoa (Samoan and English)


The language question and immigration.

The US is one of the few countries in the world that has no official language (even though some states do), along with Sweden, Tuvalu, and the United Kingdom. Most countries (158 nations, it seems) have included a specific measure in their constitutions promulgating one or more national languages

As we mentioned before, if the US Senate voted two amendments to the immigration reform act to designate English as the national language last week, it was careful not to mention the word ‘official’ in the wording of those amendments.

The irony is that in most other countries, it is English that people fear might threaten their national or local language. For instance in France, l’Academie Francaise aims at protecting the "langue de la nation" from words borrowed from other tongues, and particularly English. Not that it is necessarily working but for historical reasons, the French identity is very much built around its culture and thus its language. Love for their country is often expressed by the French through the love of their culture and language, in the very much the same way that the Americans express their patriotism by putting their flag on the front porch. In other words, just like the Americans consider their flag sacred, the French consider their language *scared. (Ooops! Typo = SACRED is what we meant!)

Most Americans do not usually care so much about their language and it is not like English is about to become an endangered language anyway, not even in the US.

So why even bother? Well, that’s probably because despite appearances, it is not the fear of a dying language which is actually at sake in the current debate, it is rather a fear of immigration and of rapid changing demography which gets people so worked up, as this article suggests, :

The emotions surrounding language resurface less because of the comfort people feel with English than with the discomfort many American feel with everything that the influx of new languages represents.
A law establishing English as the official language might be largely symbolic. Or it could lead governments to restrict services it provides in other languages.
But could such a law change reality? In
France, despite the best efforts of the Academie Francaise to root out Franglais, people still talk about their plans for "le weekend."
And consider all those commercials in Spanish, a regular feature now on American airwaves. Businesses realize the value of speaking to people in whatever language makes them most comfortable - and Crawford says that is something Americans will have to make peace with.
"It's never about the language," Wolfram said. "It's always about the cultural behaviors that are symbolically represented by language. That's what scares us."

But the displacement of the issue to the question of language may also be a smokescreen for people to hide their shameful prejudice.


New business models for the entertainment industry.

It seems that television netwars are at a loss when it comes to the business of entertainment. The reason? Well, the Internet of course. Even though there has been a tougher crackdown on 'piracy' in the US than in Europe, the downloading of many popular shows has had some economic impact and it is certainly funny to see how slow the entertainment industry has been to react.
"We're going to experiment with different business models," Disney CEO Bob Iger said last week.
One of those 'business models' consists in allowing people to watch programs on the web for free with the commercials. In fact, ABC (owned by Disney) has began an Internet trial allowing viewers to watch four of its programs, (including hits like Desperate Housewives and Lost) with a 10-second sponsorship message from a single advertiser, followed by three commercials that air during breaks in the program.
So the idea, I suppose the deal is to convince people to play it safe by downloading legally while accepting to watch those annoying commercial breaks. Will it work?
Maybe... Apparenty, the ABC shows have been downloaded 3 million times since the Walt Disney Co. network launched the free service just over two weeks ago. That's probably a good sign. But they might also consider making those shows available for viewers outside the US which they currently do not. A bit amazing in this (very) global world of entertainment.


Saturday, May 20, 2006


While American kids may not know much about geography, they do know their way around campus. Harvard's Widener library is the largest university library in the world. It's 65 miles of book shelves spread over 10 floors house 3 million of Harvard 15.8 million books. These lonely corridors have traditionally been the site of many Harvardian trysts. It seems Harvard students also know a thing or two about tradition. A name like Harvard adds weight to one's CV, but hopefully things like this get left off the section dealing with extra-curriculars.

One note, if you haven't heard of craigslist and you live in the US, crawl out from under your rock. It's only one of the best ways of swapping junk this side of ebay. It's perfect for larger items since its mostly local. You can get all sorts of items, goods, and through craigslist.


Friday, May 19, 2006

Religion and Politics - US and Europe.

Stanley R. Sloan had an interesting yesterday in the International Herald Tribune on the reasons why most Europeans are so uncomfortable with the role played by religion in American politics. Here are my favourite parts which, I think, give a fair (yet rather short) account of the misunderstanding:
Europeans have always been uncomfortable with the way American presidents have invoked God in support of U.S. policies. Bush didn't start this, but he has practiced it with more conviction than most of his predecessors.
As opposed to America, where religion has historically been on the side of "freedom," Europe's experience suggests that the church is not always a friend of democracy, and that religion can be a source of conflict as much as an instrument for peace. For Europeans the political success of the 18th-century Enlightenment was that it ensured a social contract based on reason, rather than on an absolute truth that made discussion and debate impossible.
A strong believer, with political views on an issue grounded in religious beliefs, is less likely to tolerate varying political views. Uncompromising faith, which can be a strength in one's personal life, can be a recipe for disaster in foreign policy.


Selling Immigration Bill to Africans ... or not!

As we mentioned yesterday on this blog, the French parliament passed a new immigration law (which has yet to be voted by the Senate next month). The man behind the bill is Nicolas Sarkozy (The French Interior Minister AND presidential-candidate) of course. Here are the basics of the bill:

  • Only the qualified get "skills and talents" residency permit
  • Foreigners only allowed in to work, not live off benefits
  • Foreign spouses to wait longer for residence cards
  • Migrants must agree to learn French
  • Migrants must sign 'contract' respecting French way of life
  • Scraps law on workers getting citizenship after 10 years.
Today and yesterday Sarkozy was in Africa trying to sell the new law to the African leaders there. As can be expected, he faced protests both in Mali and Benin (with chants of "racist, racist" from protesters!).
"Our policy is simple: More rights for Malians whose situation is in order and fewer Malians in an illegal situation. No nation with a state of law can fault us for that policy," he said after meeting Malian Prime Minister Ousmane Issoufi Maiga. (here)

Most critics have said that selective immigration deprives Africa of sorely needed talent, creaming off the best-educated to work in France and elsewhere. That may be true, but it is not something that would get to most French voters, I'd think. It takes some guts to go to Africa to sell an anti-immigration bill, you might think (Imagine Bush go to Mexico right now). But the real target of his trip is not the Africans, it is the French voters who support tougher restrictions on immigration.


Latino Assimilation.

By simply looking at the US Attorney General's family history, you'd think the answer to this question is pretty obvious. Yet in the current emotional debate, it seems many (mostly Conservative) people are afraid that Latinos do not assimilate - at least not fast enough. That may be a growing sentiments but facts seem to indicate otherwise. According to this very thorough study by the American Immigration Law Foundation (see here too):
Each new Latino generation not only has had higher incomes than their forefathers, but their economic status converged toward the white men with whom they competed.
As far as English being overwhelmed by Spanish in the US (a common belief even held in Europe), it is yet another myth:
Spanish is the primary language among 72% of first-generation Latinos, but this figure falls to 7% among second-generation Latinos and zero among Latinos who are third generation and higher.
My personal experience - for what it's worth - is that the second generation Latinos in the US always speaks English - which makes sense hen you think of it. They have been raised in English (in school) and English is a necessary skill in today's economy. If that's true in the world, it is certainly so in the US (outside Miami of course!).


English in US - national, common and unifying but not official

The English-language debate has been a controversial issue in U.S. politics for decades and sometimes considered as important as an amendment to ban flag burning.

Yesterday the American senate voted two amendments to the immigration reform act which proposed to designate English as the national language. (WP)
The first one (sponsored by Republican Sen. James Inhofe - OK) is intended to "preserve and enhance the role of English as the national language of the United States of America."

The second one, which a less binding amendment, declares that "English is the common and unifying language of the United States, and to preserve and enhance the role of the English language."

The "common and unifying" measure was, to Inhofe, a weak Democratic response to declaring English the "national" language, since "national" is now supposed to be taken as a code word for "official," softened to placate moderates.

It is worth noticing, however, that neither amendment will designate English as the nation's official language, which would require all government publications and business to be in English.

So what’s the point? Well, for one thing, under the first amendment, no one has "a right, entitlement or claim to have the government of the United States or any of its officials or representatives act, communicate, perform or provide services or provide materials in any language other than English." It would also stiffen the language rules for immigrants seeking to qualify for citizenship under the new legislation, requiring them to demonstrate English proficiency and understanding of American history and government rather than simply to enroll in a language class and so:

Critics said they fear the directive could lead government agencies to scale back their bilingual efforts, cause discrimination against people who do not speak English, disrupt emergency operations in communities with populations of immigrants and have other unintended consequences. (NYTimes)

We have yet to see what the final bill will say after negotiations with the House.


Attorney General's Illegal Grandparents.

Here's an interesting twist in the debate over illegal immigration: Alberto Gonzales - the chief law enforcement officer of the United States government - admitted that it is not clear whether his grandparents came from Mexico to the United States legally or illegally. (video here)
He also said that his family's story is the “American dream.”
See the paradox?


Picture of the day - CIA Chief to be...

Here's a great shot of Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, Bush's CIA nominee, while listening to a question during his Senate confirmation hearing in Washington Thursday.

Obviously in a state of infantile regression...


Thursday, May 18, 2006

Pro-pollution Propaganda.

In case, you didn't know, well, we all got it wrong - Carbon dioxide is actually good for. That is at least according to two new tv ads to be aired soon on American tvs. The first pro-pollution TV ads (see Think Progress). Yes, I kid you not – pro-pollution ads!

Here’s the amazing script of the first ad:

"There is something in these pictures you can’t see, it’s essential to life, we breathe it out, plants breathe it in. It comes from animal life, the oceans, the earth and the fuels we find in it. It’s called carbon dioxide - CO2. The fuels that produce CO2 have freed us from a world of backbreaking labor, lighting up our lives, allowing us to create and move the things we need, the people we love. (watch video here)
Now some politicians want to label carbon dioxide a pollutant. Imagine if they succeed what will our lives be like then.
Carbon dioxide they call it pollution, we call it life."

Surprise, surprise, the ad is funded by the Competitive Enterprise Institute – a group itself funded by ExxonMobil and other big oil companies (lately, ExxonMobil has pumped more than $8 million into more than 40 think tanks; media outlets; and consumer, religious, and even civil rights groups that preach skepticism about the oncoming climate catastrophe as you can read here).

The second ad (here) is similar but it goes a bit further by attempting to show that the scientific evidence for global warming is in dispute - which it really is not. (read here or here)

Those ads may be seen as a response to Al Gore’s new movie, An Inconvenient Truth but they are incredibly cheesy (add the right music and pictures). They are worth watching though - just for the fun of it. They are good illustrations of the war raged by the big oil companies for public opinion. I call that propaganda.


Migration of Graduates.

From yesterday's Financial Times (via Euro Tribune):


More Muddy Waters in 'Clearstream' Affair!

The latest news in the French thriller-like political scandal (see here, and here), the poison-pen letter writer (corbeau - 'raven' or 'crow' - in French) has been found - a senior French arms industry executive has admitted writing an anonymous letter at the heart the scandal shaking the government (but even though the executive vice-president of EADS is allegedly a close friend of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, he denied it was to help him smear his rival Sarkozy).
As expected, De Villepin's cabinet survived the no-confidence vote in Parliament on Tuesday but more than half of the representatives of his own party boycotted his speech. The scandal has been so damaging within the ranks of the majory party (UMP) and within the cabinet that President Jacques Chirac had to lecture his ministers at the weekly cabinet meeting yesterday, telling them they must work harder at advertising government successes on jobs and the economy.
Because it is such a complicated issue (if you don't know how much, you cn always read this), it has failed to become a real 'popular' scandal. That does not mean it is not going to cost the Conservativy party some votes in next year's elections. The scandal may be hard to read for most of us who are not in the elite circles but the idea that there is corruption at the top level is the basic stuff that people get. Not that anybody is surprised.

To end on a more 'exciting' twist- the latest developments make the scandal look more like a thriller than ever before:
Jean-Louis Gergorin claims he had to write anonymously because he feared for his life. He believed that the a core shareholder in EADS and its founder, Jean-Luc Lagardere, who died in hospital in 2003 aged 75 under mysterious circumstances (described as a rare disease) was actually murdered by the Russian mafia! ( here in French). Paranoia runs high.


Wednesday, May 17, 2006

France, the US and Immigration.

One commonality between France and the US these days is their with immigration. Both governments are at a loss and both countries are polarized.

On Monday President Bush announced he would send National Guards to the US-Mexican border (mostly in order to appease the Congressional conservatives who want to toughen the law against illegal immigration and sell his temporary guest-worker program).

Now today the French parliament passed a new immigration law aimed at selecting immigrants and making it difficult for immigrants already in France to have their families join them. This is a dramatic change for this country - for the first time it puts France on the list of countries with selective immigration. The idea is to create a "skills and talents permit" for foreigners with qualifications which are judged to be important for the French economy and labor market. (see the article in Le Monde here).

The bill has been harshly attacked by human-rights groups, labor unions, leftist politicians, and Muslim and Christian church leaders in France while in the US, pro-immigration activists from across the country representing union members, citizens and others have rallied in DC.

As many other European countries and the US, France is closing its borders and this is is only the last measure in a series of laws. In the last few years the number of deportations and the number of people who were refused asylum have risen. In 2006, the government is planning to make 26,000 repatriations.

In the US, even though rounding up more illegal “aliens” and deporting them has been mentioned by some conservatives, it seems pretty unrealistic to think you can send back an estimate of 10 million people and prevent them from crossing a border of 1,951 miles (3,141 km). Besides, there may be other practical reasons:

Rep. Linda Sanchez, a California Democrat, jokes that Republicans had enough trouble moving 250,000 New Orleanians who wanted to be evacuated. "And we knew where they were," she gibes. (Time)

Personally, I find it hard to make up my mind on the issue of immigration - whether in the US or in France. Of course, I tend to lean towards a more liberal approach and I definitely dismiss the 'national security' reason. Fear should certainly not be a good reason to pass such laws. At the same time, I tend to support a rather pragmatic approach and I know how hard it is to find a balance between idealism and reality.
What is clear though is that there are ulterior motives for passing laws now. Both in France and in the US, the elections next year can explain why the issue has gained so much momentum
lately. Yes indeed, we do share a lot of the same bad stuff.