Thursday, December 28, 2006

Ford on Cheney and Rumsfeld - oh the Truth!

Related to our post yesterday, came the news that Ford strongly disagreed with the politics of Cheney and Rumsfeld, his former protégés.

Former president Gerald R. Ford said in an embargoed interview in July 2004 that the Iraq war was not justified. "I don't think I would have gone to war," he said a little more than a year after President Bush launched the invasion advocated and carried out by prominent veterans of Ford's own administration.

In a four-hour conversation at his house in Beaver Creek, Colo., Ford "very strongly" disagreed with the current president's justifications for invading Iraq and said he would have pushed alternatives, such as sanctions, much more vigorously. In the tape-recorded interview, Ford was critical not only of Bush but also of Vice President Cheney -- Ford's White House chief of staff -- and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who served as Ford's chief of staff and then his Pentagon chief.

"Rumsfeld and Cheney and the president made a big mistake in justifying going into the war in Iraq. They put the emphasis on weapons of mass destruction," Ford said. "And now, I've never publicly said I thought they made a mistake, but I felt very strongly it was an error in how they should justify what they were going to do."

He added about VP Dick Cheney:

"He was an excellent chief of staff. First class," Ford said. "But I think Cheney has become much more pugnacious" as vice president. He said he agreed with former secretary of state Colin L. Powell's assertion that Cheney developed a "fever" about the threat of terrorism and Iraq. "I think that's probably true."
(Wash. Post)

So people do change... and not always for the better in te case of Cheney and Rumsfeld. What I wonder, however, is why in the worl he granted the interviews on condition they not be released until after his death. After all, what do you care about when you're in your 90s? I'm a bit puzzled....


From Reality to a Representation of Reality.

In case you find the previous post slightly too long, here's a shorter one;

As a teacher and an everlasting student, I find the following sentence to be very simple and very true at the same time:
The process of learning can be viewed as one by which reality (as perceived by the senses) is transformed into a representation of reality. Mathematically, this transformation is described as mapping.
The Economist
, I think, therefore I am, I think. (this week's issue)
It is based on an article on neurology and the study of the brain. The philosophical and political implication though is that it makes it hard to claim that we can have a good grasp on some "objective" complete truth outside ourselves. Our view of the world being a (simplified) representation is necessarily incomplete and partly wrong.
Only God has the whole picture (and faith in Him is indeed extremely subjective) but that's preciely my other point: we are not "God".
That's one reason why I am more a post-modernist than a conservative Christian.


Challenging your knowledge of English pronunciation.

English is a difficult language to teach in one particular area: its pronunciation.

In case you are not convinced, here's a challenge for you -read this classic English poem which contains about 800 of the most common irregularities in English spelling and pronunciation with a friend or a parent (after all this is the holiday season, what else do you have to do between meals?)

In fact, if you know the exact pronunciation of every word, you are better than any English-speaking person I know - including myself of course!

Convincingly the author ends his poem with the only natural conclusion to draw: My advice is -- give it up! It all depends on whether you like being challenged!

The Chaos by Dr. Gerald Nolst Trenite (1870-1946)

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse
I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye your dress you'll tear,
So shall I! Oh, hear my prayer,
Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare heart, beard and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it's written).
Made has not the sound of bade,
Say said, pay-paid, laid, but plaid.
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
But be careful how you speak,
Say break, steak, but bleak and streak.
Previous, precious, fuchsia, via,
Pipe, snipe, recipe and choir,
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, shoe, poem, toe.
Hear me say, devoid of trickery:
Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,
Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles.
Exiles, similes, reviles.
Wholly, holly, signal, signing.
Thames, examining, combining
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war, and far.
From "desire": desirable--admirable from "admire."
Lumber, plumber, bier, but brier.
Chatham, brougham, renown, but known.
Knowledge, done, but gone and tone,
One, anemone. Balmoral.
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel,
Gertrude, German, wind, and mind.
Scene, Melpomene, mankind,
Tortoise, turquoise, chamois-leather,
Reading, reading, heathen, heather.
This phonetic labyrinth
Gives moss, gross, brook, brooch, ninth, plinth.
Billet does not end like ballet;
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet;
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Banquet is not nearly parquet,
Which is said to rime with "darky."
Viscous, Viscount, load, and broad.
Toward, to forward, to reward.
And your pronunciation's O.K.,
When you say correctly: croquet.
Rounded, wounded, grieve, and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive, and live,
Liberty, library, heave, and heaven,
Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven,
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
Mark the difference, moreover,
Between mover, plover, Dover,
Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police, and lice.
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label,
Petal, penal, and canal,
Wait, surmise, plait, promise, pal.
Suit, suite, ruin, circuit, conduit,
Rime with "shirk it" and "beyond it."
But it is not hard to tell,
Why it's pall, mall, but Pall Mall.
Muscle, muscular, gaol, iron,
Timber, climber, bullion, lion,
Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, and chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor,
Ivy, privy, famous, clamour
And enamour rime with hammer.
Pussy, hussy, and possess,
Desert, but dessert, address.
Golf, wolf, countenance, lieutenants.
Hoist, in lieu of flags, left pennants.
River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rime with anger.
Neither does devour with clangour.
Soul, but foul and gaunt but aunt.
Font, front, won't, want, grand, and grant.
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say: finger.
And then: singer, ginger, linger,
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, age.
Query does not rime with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dost, lost, post; and doth, cloth, loth;
Job, Job; blossom, bosom, oath.
Though the difference seems little,
We say actual, but victual.
Seat, sweat; chaste, caste.; Leigh, eight, height;
Put, nut; granite, and unite.
Reefer does not rime with deafer,
Feoffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Dull, bull, Geoffrey, George, ate, late,
Hint, pint, Senate, but sedate.
Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific,
Tour, but our and succour, four,
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Sea, idea, guinea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria,
Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean,
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion with battalion.
Sally with ally, yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, key, quay.
Say aver, but ever, fever.
Neither, leisure, skein, receiver.
Never guess--it is not safe:
We say calves, valves, half, but Ralph.
Heron, granary, canary,
Crevice and device, and eyrie,
Face but preface, but efface,
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, out, joust, and scour, but scourging,
Ear but earn, and wear and bear
Do not rime with here, but ere.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew, Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, clerk, and jerk,
Asp, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.
Pronunciation--think of psyche--!
Is a paling, stout and spikey,
Won't it make you lose your wits,
Writing "groats" and saying "grits"?
It's a dark abyss or tunnel,
Strewn with stones, like rowlock, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict, and indict!
Don't you think so, reader, rather,
Saying lather, bather, father?
Finally: which rimes with "enough"
Though, through, plough, cough, hough, or tough?
Hiccough has the sound of "cup."
My advice is--give it up!


Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Bush and Cheney on Ford - oh the Irony!

Here's what president George W. Bush said, following the death of former presiden t Ford:
"For a nation that needed healing and an office that needed a calm and steady hand, Gerald Ford came along when we needed him the most," Bush said this morning from his ranch in Crawford, Texas. USA Today.
Am I the only one who sees some irony in this?
As for Cheney, who used to be the White House Chief of Staff under Ford, he said in a statement:
"When he left office, he had restored public trust in the presidency, and the nation once again looked to the future with confidence and faith." CBS
Indeed, the greatest unfortunate irony of all is that it is precisely Gerald Ford who helped launch the careers of the two men who undermined this nation's confidence and faith by restoring the "Imperial Presidency" and by waging a war sometimes (innacurately) compared (by president Bush himself) to Vietnam: Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

Ford meets with Rumsfeld and Cheney, April28, 1975.


'Big Brother' Coming Near You Soon!

The British have chosen the path of technology when it comes to fighting crime – something you might have expected in America instead - but that choice comes with a price.
Camera videos (called
Close Circuit TV or CCTV) have made their way into people’s daily lives. Not only do they record the facts to be used after the crime, but they also spot "anti-social acts" by talking to people who behave badly – whatever that means.

Now the whole process has finally come to its logical conclusion and indeed, Big Brother is just a bit closer to home:

This is the true story of a guy who made a simple withdraw at an ATM*, but he happened to do right where a thief had used a stolen card just before him. Because he was “caught” on CCTV taking money out of the ATM, he was thought to be an accomplice by the police. Even though he showed the records of his bank account to explain the error, he was arrested and questioned by the police for hours. He was eventually bailed but the story does not end there.
The police released the footage they had of him to a TV station (Granada TV) and it went out on their program “Crimefile” the next day. As a result the poor man was suspended by his boss! Even though he was eventually able to cleared his name, he was traumatized. No kidding!

Here’s the details of the story in The Register, with a sensible comment in the end:

Just last weekend, a long feature in the Sunday Times went into this very scenario of innocent people being caught up in a web because data is accumulated so fast that people automatically assume guilt.
As you may know, the UK is currently the most monitored place in the entire world. There isn't a street in London where you can't be picked up on CCTV cameras. The rest of the country is much the same.
And this is only the beginning....

*NOTE: by the way, I do not know why so many people say "ATM machine", since ATM stands for "Automatic Teller Machine" already....


Anti-Americanism and the Subversion of American Icons.

Expression of anti-Americanism can be found anywhere and take all sorts of forms. The most effective form is probably the subversion of American icons, and here follows a good illustration.

This one (here below) is a stencil and I find it somewhat fascinating. Because it combines two strong visual symbols (McDonald’s Golden Arches and the Twin Towers, i.e. The World Trade Center) which both represent American economic dominance, it is extremely powerful.
Of course, it is also extremely offensive (which is precisely the point, we can all guess) while
it is clever and well-done at the same time. The planes seem to be the offshoots of the arches, as if the attack was somewhat the inevitable result of global economic success.
It is probably not thought through, but the very fact, it is a black stencil adds to the gruesomeness of the whole thing.

In my opinion, however, the most aggressive part is actually the words: EAT THIS! It is much worse than the F-word, or any “US Go Home” slogan. It plays with a primal idea of stuffing something down, or forced feeding, which akins to a rape of some kind. Of course it says a lot about the rejection of American culture, lifestyle and products in some parts of the world (as if it read, "you want us to eat your food, now you eat something") but it also hints at the idea that 9/11 is also well deserved.
That’s what is most offensive and thus effective here, I believe.

By the way, this post does not mean to offend anybody or condone anything. No matter how sick one may find this, it is a compelling illustration and that’s the point of a political slogan isn’t it?

By the way, I know very well the primary source of this picture, but it was not taken in France, nor was it taken in Iraq. Can you guess where? The question is a hard one, I'll admit. After all, anti-American feelings are rampant throughout the world these days. The answer might surprise you a little.

[ANSWER: here's the country and the city where it was taken.]

NOTE: Here's another "subversion" of the Golden Arches, which is undeniably a lot more fun:


Tuesday, December 26, 2006

"War on Chrismas" spilling over into Europe.

America can sometimes export good things but occasionally some really bad things too. Of course, whatever they can sell abroad says much more about those who buy it than it does about those who sell it. (and who is to blame the most?)

ANYWAY - one of the bad exports of the U.S. this year is the uniquely American concept of the “War on Christmas”. As we reported last year, this is a notion invented by right-wing conservatives who claim that there is a liberal conspiracy to rid Christmas of its “Christian meaning”.

The result has been that if you innocently used a phrase like “Happy holiday” instead of “Merry Christmas”, you may have run the risk of being associated to this "great conspiracy" and be even labelled a “liberal” (Oh my!). Cynics have noticed that the supposedly assault on this Christian holiday has been very profitable for many Christian groups who have used it to raise funds.

While this so-called “War on Christmas” has essentially died this year in America, it has gained some momentum in Europe. As can be expected the Vatican has complained that "societies in Europe are taking Christ out of Christmas”, but that’s no surprise and who listens to them anyway.

More surprisingly, the “War on Christmas” concept seems to take hold in Britain.

Like an unwelcome guest arriving at midnight on Christmas Eve, Britain has imported America's "culture wars," in which Christmas becomes a pitched battle between Christians, secularists and minority faiths.

The Christmas cards of Prince Charles, Prime Minister Tony Blair and his heir-apparent, Gordon Brown, have been scrutinized to see whether they offer anemic "Seasons Greetings" rather than a stout "Merry Christmas." Journalists have been dispatched to find school canteens that have replaced the traditional fattened goose with halal chicken. The tabloids are full of trendy teachers that have banished the nativity play in favor of a multifaith "festival of light."

The passions spilled over the last few weeks suggest that this is no silly- season frippery. Christmas has become the latest battleground in a series of skirmishes over whether Britain will remain a Christian society. (IHT)

I suppose it is another sign that some people feel threatened by change and that others have not much on their hands. But at least the British are a bit more coherent, after all Britain remains officially a Christian country. However, despite what Rob Blackhurst says in his HT article, I tend to think this is essentially spin – a fade of sorts that will be over by next year. Who is really worked up about this anyway?

It must be added, that this has one benefit, it underlines the great ignorance of those people! (What else is new?!) Not only Jesus never said anything about celebrating his birth, but Christmas was not celebrated before the 4th century anyway (when Pope Julius I set that date as an attempt to Christianize Pagan celebrations) and most theologians agree that Jesus was not even born on December 25th.

Besides, as we said last year, it is quite ironic to remember that the Puritans thought that “Christmas was too strongly linked to the Pagan Roman festival and were opposed to all celebration of it” (here).

So maybe those so-called Christians should read their bible again and see that if there should be one Christian Holy Day, it is Easter, not Christmas.


Sunday, December 24, 2006

Bush Using Public Broadcasting for Conservative Political Agenda!

If, by now, you believe Bush’s nice talk about bipartisanship after the mid-term elections; if you believe he would listen to the country or even to the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq; if you believe that the good old days when members of both parties could problems over lunch in the Metropolitan Club; in fact, if you believe any of the president’s promises that he would reach across the aisle to work with all members of Congress; I'm sorry to say that you are very naive!

Not only has the Bush administration clearly shown that they are ready to do exactly the opposite of what the Baker-Hamilton report recommended on Iraq (The Economist) but they also continue to use the same strategy and conspicuously ignore anyone who disagrees with them - including Congress, old and new - in all sorts of ways.

Remember how John Bolton was nominated to the post of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations by President George W. Bush without being ever confirmed by the Senate? (see here)

Well, it looks like Bush is doing it again. This is time with a nomination to CPB, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in charge of public broadcasting (including PBS - Public Broadcasting Service - and NPR -National Public Radio).

Last Wednesday, the president nominated Warren Bell, a television sitcom producer and an outspoken right-wing conservative who writes for the neoconservative magazine The National Review to the board of CPB (LATimes). This nomination had been in the air for some time but concerns over Bell’s qualifications and a record of inflammatory remarks (regarding Democrats, women, minorities, and underprivileged people) had raised concerns in the Senate Commerce Committee by both Republicans and Democrats. (Media Matters)

But here’s the dirty trick used by Bush. He was able to "circumvent the need for Senate approval by naming Bell to the board Wednesday evening as a recess appointee". Talk about listening to the nation! As a result, Bell’s term will “last about a year, unless a permanent nominee for the seat is confirmed before then.” (LATimes)

Now this is the last move in an attempt for this administration not only to politicize public broadcasting but even to turn it into a political tool. And amazingly, it seems to be going quietly in the press. Other than the LATimes and a few blogs, I have not seen this news in a lot of mainstream media.

If you have any doubt that this is a deliberate move, look at what’s happened in the last 5 years:

  • The CPB has nine board members who serve six-year terms and are selected by the President of the United States and confirmed by the Senate. Until now, the CPB board contained 4 Republicans (all nominated by Bush), 3 Democrats, and 1 independent.
  • Two years ago, Kenneth Tomlinson, a close friend of Karl Rove, was appointed as chairman of the CPB board by President Bush. He claimed to purge CPB of what he perceived as "liberal bias." (Wiki) and he pursued aggressive policies of adding conservative viewpoint to CPB's programming. Ironically, he had to resign for allegedly violating both the federal law and the corporation's own rules and misusing federal money for his political agenda. (he was also accused of using "political tests" as a criteria for hiring top employees, exerting political influence over programming, and other offenses. FoxNews)

But you may wonder why Bush nominated a democrat (former Senator David H. Pryor) to the CPB board last June. Isn’t that a sign of “bipartisanship”? No, absolutely not. In fact, according to Public Broadcasting Act, the White House cannot appoint persons of the same political party to more than 5 of the 9 CPB board seats.

And with the nomination of Warren Bell, it all makes sense, doesn’t it?

And if you need more convincing look at this:

The move mirrors Bush's other recent promotion of one of his political advisers, Mark McKinnon, to the Broadcasting Board of Governors without Senate approval through the use of a recess appointment. The Cox News Service said McKinno's appointment will allow him to serve a year on the board before needing Senate approval. (M&C)

The Broadcasting Board of Governors is an ”independent” agency of the United States government, responsible for all U.S. government and government sponsored, non-military, international broadcasting (like V.O.A, Voice of America).

So if you think Bush is showing any respect for the democratic process, especially after the results of the mid-term elections, allow yourself to be disabused of that foolish notion forthwith. For this Scrooge, 'tis the season to screw the voters. To paraphrase Dickens: God bless us all, every (Republic)un.

Democracy, it's one helluva bitter pill to swallow, non?


Saturday, December 23, 2006

Rise of Islamophobia in the U.S.

One the most radical changes I have seen in the U.S. since 9/11 has probably been the growth of negative public rhetoric about Islam. This though, like many other issues, has greatly divided the country.

While some Americans (in the great State of Minnesota) are tolerant enough to elect a Muslim (Dem. Keith Ellison) to Congress, others are quick to see it as a sign that all hell broke loose. As we pointed out before, right-wing host CNN Headline News' Glenn Beck said very clearly, when speaking to this new elect-member that he felt like saying "Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies."

Now recently, there has been much talk about Representative Virgil H. Goode’s letter to his voters warning that “the recent election of the first Muslim to Congress posed a serious threat to the nation’s traditional values.(Watch him on Fox News through Youtube link here, it's a riot! You'll also enjoy a bit more bigotry with a Southern drawl!). Interestingly, it is the very idea that a Muslim elected to Congress considers using the Koran during his (private) swearing-in ceremony that makes some conservative people so angry.

I do not subscribe to using the Koran in any way. The Muslim Representative from Minnesota was elected by the voters of that district and if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran. (NYTimes)

Of course, Goode’s views have caused furor. As for Ellison, he was quick to respond that he is an African-American, not an immigrant and that he can trace his American ancestors back to 1742. Too bad he even needs to justify himself, isn't it?

Last month already, Dennis Prager, another conservative columnist and radio host, said very bluntly that Ellison’s decision (to swear on the Koran) would undermine American civilization. No less:

“Ellison’s doing so will embolden Islamic extremists and make new ones, as Islamists, rightly or wrongly, see the first sign of the realization of their greatest goal — the Islamicization of America,” said Mr. Prager, who said the Bible was the only relevant religious text in the United States. “If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don’t serve in Congress,” Mr. Prager said. (Star Tribune)

You may think Prager is some obscure bigot, but significantly enough, he is also a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. In fact, the executive committee of the museum has distanced itself from Prager’s comments, but they do not have the power to remove him from the council. Indeed, only the president does. In fact, President Bush appointed Prager in August to fill the remainder of a five-year term, which expires in January 2011. Great! We all know the "decider" won't change his mind..... or will Prager go down with Rumfeld?

In any case, this nasty anti-Muslim rhetoric has become more common in the United-States but it is mostly found in right-wing conservative circles, usually associated with very conservative evangelical Christians. Unlike other more liberal Christians, evangelicals have for the most part always rejected interfaith dialogue but things have taken another turn after 9/11.

Evangelical leaders have openly attacked Islam and polls show that evangelicals in general to have more negative views on Islam than other Americans.

Another Congressman, Rep. Robin Hayes from NC has a great plan for Iraq: convert Muslims to Christianity!

“Stability in Iraq ultimately depends on spreading the message of Jesus Christ, the message of peace on earth, good will towards men. Everything depends on everyone learning about the birth of the Savior.” (Blue NC)

Needless to say that this will play quite well to the ideologists in al Qaeda who are trying to sell Muslims the obviously idiotic idea that Americans are just crusaders! Oh… and by the way, France is also seen as a crusade nation by those madmen.

The fact remains - there is growing Islmaophobia in the American conservative circles. In fact, I personally know a number of conservatives who hold very negative views of Muslims.

I tend to blame this rise of Islamophobic rhetoric not just on bigotry but also on ignorance and fear. It seems to me that the lack of exposure of most Americans to positive images of Islam but also to some personal relationship to Muslims is at the heart of the problem. Of course 9/11 and the war in Iraq have played a major role there, by triggering all sorts of fantasized nightmarish views of the Muslim threat.

One of them is the idea that Europe (and France in particular) has been “taken over by Muslims” – in other words that Europe is now Eurobia (as revealed by this issue of the Economist). Even if facts and hard data can easily debunk this myth, most people who believe those things, feel it must be true!


Thursday, December 21, 2006

Not winning, not losing, just covering the spread....

Here's another great piece by Jon Stewart (The Daily Show) on Bush's "consistent" words on Iraq. Stewart is absolutely hilarious and adds great video and audio segments not only from Bush but also from Tony Snow of course, and the whole thing looks like a farce indeed!
As Stewart puts it, if:
"We're not winning, we're not losing….Are we covering the spread?"

(video here via Crooks and Liars)


Yet "another" Word of the Year!

As we have said before, since both the Joker and the Thief are language teachers, they are quite interested in languages - primarily English and French, especially if it's a bit trival of course otherwise what os the fun of having a blog!)!
I often tell my students to look for words on the Web and is one of the most popular free online dictionaries which they use a lot.

Recently, the folks asked their users to nominate a word for their "2006 Word of the Year," and guess what?
Once again, "Truthiness", the word coined by Stephen Colbert (Coal-BEAR) on his Comedy Central show, won the vote. (see our post on Truthiness)
The guys behind say that "8 of the first 10 words voted by people on were coined on "The Colbert Report." and they’re not too happy."

"We were surprised by how many of our dictionary users are fans of the moderately popular fake political talk show, which is obviously reflected by the words they nominated," said Brian Kariger, CEO of Lexico Publishing Group. "In light of the evident voting irregularities, we are launching an investigation into our electronic vote counting procedures. Something needs to change before the next Word of the Year is chosen to preserve the dignity of this prestigious annual award." has some doubts and insists that “resistance is futile” (see our note down below) when it comes to the power of the mighty Colbert Nation! Who cares anyway....

As for the New Oxford American Dictionary, their Word of the Year for 2006 is Carbon Neutral. They also had a couple of interesting new words (and new concepts) that didn’t know on their list :

  • elbow bump : a greeting in which two people touch elbows, recommended by the World Health Organization as an alternative to the handshake in order to reduce the spread of germs.
  • funner: an informal/nonstandard comparative of fun. (That one I find ugly!).

Now guess what is most searched-for word on LOVE! Amazing, isn’t it? So what does it mean, that people are so confused about love that they need to look it up?

Here are the top 10 words people searched for on

  1. love
  2. affect
  3. effect
  4. good
  5. beautiful
  6. metaphor
  7. integrity
  8. experience
  9. irony
  10. happy

NOTE: "resistance is a futile" by the way is another major cultural meme. If you're not a Sci-Fi buff, you may not know... The expression refers to the phrase used by the Borg in Star Trek : The Next Generation. (The Borg are villain cyborgs who want to assimilate humans. They have also become a popular concept in today's culture and represent a mataphor for conformity. So if someone is called a "borg", it means they are slaves to conformity)


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Queen's English Down the Gutter!

As a teacher of English, I am obviously always interested in anything having to do with the evolution of the English language. English is a very dynamic and diversified language and as we argued before there is no such thing as ‘purity’ in a language and, if I may add, contrary to common belief, English is not threatened by standardization. In fact even American English is growing more diverse.

Because my English is American (with a “Midland accent” if I am to believe this fun but unreliable site, which really means not a very distinct regional accent), and because I am more exposed to American English on a daily basis I am not so familiar with the changes in British English.

Yet, there is also an interesting evolution in British English. Of course, in Britain it is the Queen who sets the standards, even though most people do not speak the Queen’s English (which is obviously upper-class) but a rather more common form called Standard Received Pronunciation (RP) which is close to the English spoken in south-east England (also called Estuary English).

Interestingly, because Elizabeth III has been a queen for so long (54 years), and because her words have been recorded in that entire period, they offer some interesting material, so a team led by a professor of phonetics has recently studied all of the Christmas broadcasts made by the queen during her reign (Telegraph).

The findings are interesting: the Queen herself no longer speaks the Queen's English! Shocking!

Her speech has followed the general trend from cut-glass URP (Upper Rec-eived Pronunciation) towards the more democratic Standard Received Pronunciation and its close relative, Standard Southern British English.

According to the author, it reflects a general change towards a more classless British society since "half a century ago the social classes were much more demarcated." In fact, according to the study, not much changed in the first decade of her reign (1952-1962) but by 1977 the researchers detected subtle hints that the Queen's vowels were changing.

"That changed with the social revolution of the 1960s and 1970s and the much greater blurring of boundaries," the professor said.

"I don't think the Queen changed consciously at all. What the study suggests is that we all participate in sound changes, whether we like it or not. The Queen has merely altered her way of speaking in line with her host community in south-east England."

Most of the changes have occurred in vowel sounds in the middle and at the end of words.

Here are some examples:

In 1952 she would have been heard referring to:

  • thet men in the bleck het”, when now it could be "that man in the black hat".
  • the citay and dutay” rather than “citee and dutee” today,
  • hame” rather than “home
  • and she would have been “lorst” back in the day when now she is simply “lost”.

As for the queen, she is at least aware that her grand sons, the princes, "sound a bit Estuary." That may be why the American broadcaster CBS decided to provide subtitles during a recorded interview with the princes. Too east-enders for the American audience maybe? (The Guardian)

The British being so British tend to take the whole thing with humor although some of course lament that the Queen’s English is going down “the gutter of crowd-pleasing uniformity, where everyone must sound the same in order to prove they are "real".”

The rest of us of course knows that it is not true and that English is not becoming more unformed but actually more diverse precisely because more people speak it.


Monday, December 18, 2006

France's Teachers on Strike.

Today, there was a strike in France (here in French). Ok, I know,… what else is new? Yes, strikes and demonstrations seem to be part of France’s raison d’être. But actually the reason is often that unfortunately, if you want the government to listen to you in France, you often need to let them know loud and clear and the only way to do that is to go on strike, demonstrate and "walk the street for money". (here's an illustration). Both unions and politicians seem incapable of holding real talks and the blame falls on everybody.

So what is it this time? Well, to make a gross simplification – the government wants teachers to work more and get paid less. As you can imagine that does not go too well. In fact, this hass been the largest strike of teachers in France since 1998 (between 35% and 50% depending on the source)

But there are deeper concerns – in the last few years, teachers have seen their working conditions deteriorate and their buying power decrease and on top of everything else, they have often been smeared by politicians both on the left and the right in the last few years.

Paying teachers well may be more important than you think if you want quality teachers.

NPR had a recent segment on this:

A new study by education researchers concludes that the best way to improve the quality of teaching is to pay teachers more. And to pay good teachers even more.

I couldn’t agree more. But the question is how do you assess a teacher’s performance? You can probably figure out those who are really bad, but what about the rest of them? Certainly looking strictly at test results is not an option. So much depends on other things (like social backgrounds) that have little to do with the teacher.

So what about the teacher’s performance in the classroom? Yes, that seems the best way. But the problem is that you need people to do that…. so do you ask other teachers? How does it work out? The problem is that no matter what, the results are likely to be too subjective and unreliable.

I am all for changing things and for assessing teachers’ performances. I just haven't been able to figure out how and nobody seems to have either.


Sunday, December 17, 2006

Carter to the American Jews on the bias for Israel.

When former US president Jimmy Carter talks about the Middle-East, I tend to listen. I think he has a lot more credibility than the current US president in that respect. Carter has after all spent a great deal of his life trying to bring peace to Israel, including some notable success during his administration. Who else can say so much?
So when, when Carter chose to call his book "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid", I tend to think that he's mostly trying to draw attention by stirring controversy, and that is obviously working. In this letter to American Jews, he explains his use of the term "apartheid" very clearly. Interestingly, I do not think any official Jewish leader has called for the boycott of his book anyway.
But there's something else he says in his letter, which, I believe, very few Americans would have the guts to say:
I made it clear that I have never claimed that American Jews control the news media, but reiterated that the overwhelming bias for Israel comes from among Christians like me who have been taught since childhood to honor and protect God's chosen people from among whom came our own savior, Jesus Christ. An additional factor, especially in the political arena, is the powerful influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is exercising its legitimate goal of explaining the current policies of Israel's government and arousing maximum support in our country. There are no significant countervailing voices.
I think Carter has captured quite well the reason for pro-Isreal bias of many Americans. (for more on this subject, see our posts here, here, and here, here, here, and here)


What more troops?

McCain and a lot of others may be in favor of sending more troops to Iraq, and how knows if they have a point but that is so much besides the point today. As former Secretary of State Colin Powell said it very clearly, there are simply no troops to send!
Let’s be clear about something else, Bob, that gets a little confusing. There are really no additional troops. All we would be doing is keeping some of the troops who were there there longer and escalating or accelerating the arrival of other troops. (Powell to Bob Schieffer on CBS’s Face the Nation via Think Progress).
But does the Bush administration even bother to make decisions that have to do with reality? No, they let others figure out those minor "details":
Still, President Bush has asked his military planners to figure out how to get the extra forces he wants. Among the ideas being considered are extending tours of duty from 12 to 15 months in the Army and seven to nine months in the Marines. (ABC)
So really "new troops" or just old troops staying longer! How much longer are they going to lie to the American people and say "new troops" are needed??! How much longer are they going to get away with it?

NOTE: As Matt Damon suggested, maybe Bush should start by sending his own daughters...


Saturday, December 16, 2006

France and the 'Woman Paradox'.

France is in many ways a land of paradoxes. This is all more obvious when it comes to the role of women in French society.

This year, one of the two contenders for the highest office in the nation is a woman and not only has French society as a whole no problem to the idea of a woman presidency, but it is even what makes this campaign attractive to a lot of people. At the same time, as we mentioned in a previous post, in no European country outside Scandinavia do women make up as large a proportion of the workforce as in France.

However do not let these elements mislead you. French society is far from egalitarian when it comes to the role of women in the fields of politics and economics:

A new study by the World Economic Forum, released last month, ranked France in 70th place in terms of parity between men and women in public and economic life, out of a field of 115 countries representing 90 percent of the world's population.

France was beaten by, among others, China, Peru, Russia, Poland, Sri Lanka, and South Africa. The ranking of the United States was 22, Canada was 14th, and the United Kingdom was 9th best in overall success in closing the gender gap. (CSM)

These results are in line with those of research done by the French:

Women represent 46% of the working population but only one-quarter of the managerial jobs in the private sector, according to the national antidiscrimination agency.

Their salaries, on average, are 21% lower than the salaries of men in comparable jobs. Also, only 12% of the deputies in the National Assembly - and only 17% in the Senate - are women. (CSM)

Are things changing? Yes, but slowly.

More women are elected at a local level (in cities and regions) but the key positions are still held predominantly by men. In 2000 a law was passed that required political parties to have as many women as men on their list of candidates in national elections and all parties have had to pay penalties for failing to reach parity between male and female candidates in national elections. (BBC)

Sure, you may see the popularity of Segolène Royal’s candidacy as a good sign, and it may very well be. But the very fact that the hype has a lot to do with her being a woman is an illustration that French society is far from mature in this respect. She has herself used her gender too often when attacked, even though it must be said that some men in her own parties made some rather misogynist comments early on. However, she seems to use her sex to dodge real questions sometimes.

Besides, France has always been keen on symbols but that does not mean that reality is affected. After all, the national symbol of France is the bare-breasted warrior-mother, Marianne, who is said to represent liberty, reason, and homeland, but it has not kicked in yet, more than 200 years later.

My fear is that this campaign might end up being too much about gender or personalities and not enough about ideas. In a way, the choice between Sarkozy and Royal seems to come down to a choice between a strict father and more nurturing model – a possible sign of the immaturity of the French people.

Gender Gap Report 2006

Overall ranking and score (1=equality - and you will notice than no country reaches 1.00)

  • 1. Sweden .8133
  • 2. Norway .7994
  • 3. Finland .7958
  • 4. Iceland .7813
  • 5. Germany .7524
  • 6. Philippines .7516
  • 7. New Zealand .7509
  • 8. Denmark .7462
  • 9. United Kingdom .7365
  • 10. Ireland .7335
  • 14. Canada .7165
  • 22. United States .7042
  • 46. Romania .6797
  • 63. China .6560
  • 70. France .6520
  • 98. India .6010
  • 115. Yemen .4762

Source: World Economic Forum


Friday, December 15, 2006

The Border Fence Irony.

It seems that one of the companies in charge of the construction of the 700-mile border fence between the U.S. and Mexico - which is supposed to prevent illegal immigrants from entering the U.S - has hired…. illegal immigrant workers to build part of it.
A fence-building company in Southern California agrees to pay nearly $5 million in fines for hiring illegal immigrants. Two executives from the company may also serve jail time. The Golden State Fence Company's work includes some of the border fence between San Diego and Mexico. (NPR via Crooks-and-Liars)

Don’t you just love the irony!


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Why good food is not always so "good".

This blog has always been keen on environmental issues; global warming, CO2 emission, etc…. but how do we apply grand ideas to our daily lives? There are basic things we all know about of course: using public transport instead of cars, taking showers instead of baths, turning off the lights when leaving a room, or buying organic food, etc….

Let’s take this latest example. Buying organic food (called “bio” in French) or fair-trade food may be a bit more expensive but it seems a rather easy thing to do. More importantly, it feels good! After all, not only am I supporting good economic development, and I’m helping the planet and my health at the same time. In other words, it seems like the perfect deal – I can reconcile my selfish desires with morality. Of course, I have been always known at some level that things must be slightly more complicated than that but what do I know….

Well, this week, The Economist is busting the myth really hard. Their cover takes on a rather pessimistic view of the whole food business.

If we just look at the topic of organic food, here’s a bit of depressing news for you:

Perhaps the most eminent critic of organic farming is Norman Borlaug, the father of the “green revolution”, winner of the Nobel peace prize and an outspoken advocate of the use of synthetic fertilisers to increase crop yields. He claims the idea that organic farming is better for the environment is “ridiculous” because organic farming produces lower yields and therefore requires more land under cultivation to produce the same amount of food. Thanks to synthetic fertilisers, Mr Borlaug points out, global cereal production tripled between 1950 and 2000, but the amount of land used increased by only 10%. Using traditional techniques such as crop rotation, compost and manure to supply the soil with nitrogen and other minerals would have required a tripling of the area under cultivation. The more intensively you farm, Mr Borlaug contends, the more room you have left for rainforest.

So in other words, because it is less intensive, organic food requires more room to be cultivated so the whole thing might just be counterproductive: when we buy organic food, we may actually be even destroying the rainforest. Great! And I thought I was doing something good.

Well, perhaps we could at least argue that organic food requires less energy to be produced. That surely is a good thing, isn’t it? Well, thin again:

Anthony Trewavas, a biochemist at the University of Edinburgh, counters that organic farming actually requires more energy per tonne of food produced, because yields are lower and weeds are kept at bay by ploughing.

Besides, it appears that only "one-fifth of the energy associated with food production across the whole food chain is consumed on the farm: the rest goes on transport and processing".

Last chance, how about buying organic food from your local producer? (providing you have one). Wouldn’t that help? Well, that too may be counterproductive: "a mile traveled by a sport-utility vehicle carrying a bag of salad is actually worse for the environment than a mile traveled by a large truck full of groceries is not as bad for the environment as.'. That makes sense... but it sucks....

In fact, it turns out to be better for the environment to truck in tomatoes from Spain during the winter, for example, than to grow them in heated greenhouses in Britain.

Now, I’m depressed.

The Economist suggest that our “feel-good” impulse when buying food may be a diversion from addressing the real issues which may require more painful decisions :

Real change will require action by governments, in the form of a global carbon tax; reform of the world trade system; and the abolition of agricultural tariffs and subsidies, notably Europe's monstrous common agricultural policy, which coddles rich farmers and prices those in the poor world out of the European market. Proper free trade would be by far the best way to help poor farmers. Taxing carbon would price the cost of emissions into the price of goods, and retailers would then have an incentive to source locally if it saved energy. But these changes will come about only through difficult, international, political deals that the world's governments have so far failed to do.

Now, by the way, they make a similar argument about "fair-trade"..... (read here or here)

As far as what I’ll buy next time I’m at the groceries, I think I’ll just accept being selfish and stick to organic good simply because there is at least chance it might be better for my health after all. I will have just drop any pretence of morality about it.

NOTE: now of course, the whole issue is very controversial and I am sure you could find just as many scientists making the opposite argument, and is not because The Economist says so that it is true. What I find interesting though is that these articles make us slightly more aware of the complexity of the issue so we look at the different facts and not just the truthiness of what our options are.


Obama-nia and Sego-mania.

Obamania! Here’s a new term for you. Maybe next year’s Word of the Year.

There have lots of speculation this week about Barack Obama’s rock-star popularity: he was after all the most requested speaker during the mid-term election campaign, and Time magazine had him on its over with the captionWhy Obama could be the next president”. The success of his appearance in New Hampshire last Sunday certainly adds more weight to his potential candidacy for the Democratic primaries.

This is not unlike Segomania, the phenomenon used in French to describe the hype about Segolene Royal, the socialist female candidate for next year’s presidential elections.

So what do Segomania and Obamania have in common? At first sight, it seems it has a lot to with good looks, and with the excitement over change and new faces. Segolène is the first female candidate for the highest office in France and Obama is the first mixed-race politician to seem to have a chance at this point. In a way, it is the rejection of the old guard that drives people to candidates with fresh new faces.

But it is also the call for a different approach of politics which breaks the classical ideological barriers. In fact, the following words could have been easily uttered by both Segolène and Obama just the same way:

"People are looking for something new, and I'm a stand-in for that desire on the part of voters. They want a common sense, nonideological, practical approach to the problems they face" (source here)

So what these two politicians give people is hope - the hope that there is a different kind of style of governance, that it does not have to be politics as usual. The downside is that they both come across as a bit vague in their political platform. Here’s what someone who had just heard Obama speak said:

"I came with questions and I left with questions," said Anne Stowe, a high-school mathematics teacher from Nashua. "I'm not certain that I know who he is and what he stands for."

That, plus a lack of foreign policy experience is what both politicians have been criticized for. So while Segolène royal has often been compared in France to Hillary Cliton, I think the comparison with Obama stands better. Yet, from what I have heard him say, I think Obama has a bit more substance than Segolène Royal and he is a better speaker in a round-table discussion anyway.

On the other hand, the French presidential candidate has already won the primaries, and Obama could face other serious challenges – being black certainly makes him different but it is far from certain that the country is ready for it (especially the South). Besides, he has already faced other stupid attacks such as having a middle-name that is definitely not politically correct (listen to this great video and how GOP op Ed Rogers vicuously emphasizes Obama's middle name!!)

The good thing is that he seems to have the stomach to humor it off:
Asked about his middle name "Hussein" at Sunday's press conference, Obama, provoking laughter from the reporters, flatly declared, "The American people are not concerned with middle names."

And Obama will certainly need a lot of humor if he decides to run for presidency.

NOTE: Here's a pretty fun of video of Obama's announcement that he's running.... :

"So tonight I'd like to put all the doubts to rest. And tonight, after a lot of thought and a good deal of soul-searching, I would like to announce to my hometown of Chicago and all of America that I'm ready…"

.... with the Chicago Bears of course!