1. souse, n.5: 3. A drunkard. slang (chiefly U.S.). (OED)
  2. white souse, n.1: A blog for literature, politics, science, and the occasional cocktail.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

France Swoons

It appears the French are going all rubbery over their new conservative president, Nicolas Sarkozy, what with his bluejeans-blazer-and-RayBan sporting ways and his Prada-clad wife. The current fad in French coverage (duly mimicked by the NYT) is to compare the Sarkozys to Kennedy and company ca. Camelot. Elle ran a page comparing Cecilia Sarkozy's style with Jackie's (at right). But my favorite bit come at the end of the article, in an interview with Jean-Marie le Pen, the jingoist uber-conservative who's voting block was co-opted by Sarkozy in the elections:

Mr. Le Pen accused Mr. Sarkozy of stealing his right-wing message and using "American advisers who know how to work the great popular masses." (emph. added)

Wow. I wondered where they'd gone.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Why do giraffes have horns?

My family recently returned from a trip to Africa with a bunch of photos of wildlife. We were halfway into a marathon of lions, wildebeests, and secretary birds when we came upon a close-up shot of a giraffe (not pictured above). And suddenly, it occurred to me that I didn't know why giraffes have horns. I raised the question, promised to research, and report back.

And the result of my exhaustive search of the internets: we don't really know. Based on what I've found, it's likely that the horns of the giraffe are an example of what Steven J. Gould called "spandrels" -- structures or adaptations that served as a support for some other function. In the case of giraffes, biologists know that the ancestors of giraffes had antlers, much like deer. Antlers are made of protrusions of bone which are shed and regrown each year. The giraffe's "horns" however, are not antlers -- they are permanent outcroppings of bone from the skull, called "ossicones." Giraffes are born with them, and they are covered with hair (except for adult males, who wear away the fur at the end). A best guess is that the giraffe's "horns" were originally support structures for their antlers -- sockets that supported the large racks which deer find so handy during mating season in their tests of strength and dominance. To speculate a bit, as giraffes grew taller, and their necks thinner, the violent frontal assaults of the mating ritual would have become dangerous. Instead, giraffes joust by wrapping their necks around each other (pictured at right) and banging the back of their skull, and sometimes their forehead, into the skull of their opponent. For this purpose, giraffes additionally have bony protuberances above their eyes and at the back of their heads -- just visible in the illustration above. But this method of fighting renders antlers at the top of the head useless -- as you can see, the horns remain pointing more or less into the air. There's a strong chance that it was partly because of this that giraffes lost their horns.
But it is possible that the bone structures which supported those horns were not lost so easily -- resulting in ossicones.
Thus, the "horns" of the giraffe may present a strong example of a structure which no longer serves a purpose, because the antlers these horns were meant to anchor no longer exist. Gould loved to talk about such "spandrels" because they provided evidence of evolutionary by-products, evidence that creatures are not designed from the ground up, but adjusted and shifted over time. Sometimes, spandrels find a new, secondary function. And it may be that the horns of the giraffe do have some new purpose which biologists have been unable to suss out as yet. But it may be that they are evolutionary flotsam -- illustrations of the odd side-effects produced as evolution fiddles with a few thousand genes in order to produce the wild variety of physical forms we call life.

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From News of the Weird:

Last year, a BBC News correspondent in Sudan reported that village elders in the Upper Nile state had punished Charles Tombe, who had been caught being amorous with a goat, by requiring him to pay a dowry to the goat's owner, to endure a "wedding" to the goat, and to treat the goat as his "wife" to embarrass him. The dispatch ran worldwide and was the most popular story on the BBC News' Web site for 2006. BBC News reported in May 2007 that the goat, "Rose," which had given birth to one kid in the interim (clearly, not fathered by Tombe), had recently passed away after choking on a plastic bag.
Just think of the opportunities. (Bush/Blair marriage, anyone? I'm sure the U.K. would appreciate a hefty dowry.) And here's to BBC news. Not only to they report on a -- quirky -- story like this, they follow up on it.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

New and improved: Logic (Now, with Benchmarks!)

I'm studying some logic right now and it occurred to me last night (around 3) that much of the public debate over Iraq can be distilled into a single fallacy called "affirming the consequent."

To explain. If I were to tell you, "If it rains tomorrow, I'm going to get wet" and the next day I walked into a coffee shop sopping, would that mean it rained? The answer is no; it's conceivable that I got splashed by a car, or ran through a sprinkler, etc. In any of these cases, my prediction is not false, because it only applies if the antecedent (if it rains tomorrow) is true. This is called "affirming the consequent" because the fallacy pretends that by verifying the second, "then" part of the statement, the "if" part is proven true. Any of us could come up with a hundred examples which make this point clear. (I.e. if I'm abducted by aliens, I'll be surprised. You find me surprised -- does that mean I was abducted by aliens?)

But the main arguments for the war in Iraq present the clearest examples of this fallacy, arguments which have been used (ridiculously) to prove a variety of "ifs" about Iraq.

For instance, it was argued that if Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, we must invade. And for quite a while, people believed that there must be such weapons, because we had, in fact, invaded.

It was also argued that if Iraq had ties to Al Qaeda, we should attack them. And because we attacked, many believed for years that Iraq did have ties to Al Qaeda. Of course, this brew is muddied by the further argument that if we fought Al Qaeda "over there" we wouldn't have to fight them elsewhere. Now that we're fighting Al Qaeda forces in Iraq, it's been argued that the war is protecting us from Al Qaeda's expansion. But of course, recent articles -- based on the analysis of our intelligence services -- have shown that the opposite is the case. Iraq is serving a as a recruitment center and huge revenue drive for Al Qaeda-in-Iraq, which is now exporting expertise and money around the globe.

But this basic fallacy can also illustrate the central misbelief of our Iraq policy: If we are to stabilize Iraq and prevent a military failure, we must not withdraw our troops. Conservative and administration officials, despite all the contrary evidence, continue to affirm the consequent -- arguing that continued presence in Iraq will stabilize the country and prevent failure. The fallacy lies in the failure of the consequent -- maintaining troop levels -- to secure the antecedent -- peace and political success in Iraq.

To put this differently, affirming the consequent illustrates that there is a huge difference between necessary and sufficient conditions. It may be necessary that I pick up a bat in order to hit a home run in the World Series. But it is completely insufficient -- no matter how many times you put a Louisville slugger in my hands and send me in against Andy Pettit, I still suck at baseball. And no matter how long our military stays in Iraq, there's nothing they can do to solve a civil war driven by forces that predate our presence by a hundred years.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

It's raining

Charles Dickens, Bleak House: "The adjacent low-lying ground, for half a mile in breadth, is a stagnant river, with melancholy trees for islands in it, anmd a surface punctured all over, all day long, with falling rain. My lady Dedlock's 'place' has been extremely dreary. The weather, for many a day and night, has been so wet that the trees seem wet through, and the soft lopping and prunings of the woodsman's axe can make no crash or crackle as they fall. The deer, looking soaked, leave quagmires, where they pass. The shot of a rifle loses its sharpness in the moist air, and its smoke moves in a tardly little cloud towards the green rise, coppice-topped, that makes a back-ground for the falling rain. ... On Sundays, the little church in the park is mouldy; the oaken pulpit breaks out into a cold sw
eat; and there is a general smell and taste as of the ancient Deadlocks in their graves."

But a good day for writing.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

If a tree falls in afforest...

I've been studying French lately and I'm getting ready to head off to a French camp in a month (like nerd camp, but croissants at breakfast). In the meantime, I've been meeting with a weekly conversation group, and I'm afraid that my dissertation description came out much as above. Over at Language Log they have an analysis of how this happened. Of course, English teachers experience this daily, in harrowing experiences detailed in the Adventure Channel series, "When Undergraduates Pick Up the Thesaurus."

File under "All your tree are belong to us all."

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Teaching a young dog old tricks

I've been working on teaching my dog Zooey a new trick. I yell "Do the Democrat!" Here's an example:

Zooey doesn't get it yet -- she's still too spunky. But I'm sure given the current climate she'll catch on quickly. Next step: play dead.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

False Appositive

Right down the street there is a cute little bakery, situated in a house within an unzoned neighborhood, complete with little baskets of flowers below the second story window. Each time I pass it, I either laugh or cringe. Why? The sign:

Who Made the Cake!

If only they'd allowed themselves to settle for that lowly interrogative they were reaching for ("Who Made the Cake?"). If what they needed was more pop, they could have grinned and bourn the double punctuation by adding the exclamation after the question mark ("Who Made the Cake?!"). Hey, it's good enough for bloggers.

But instead, they've launched into a radically different sentence structure -- now we are left with an orphaned appositive. At times, I amuse myself as I'm driving by providing the long-lost noun clause. As always, it started prosaically ("He must have failed grammar, that rube, Who Made the Cake!"), but I've been reaching for more fantastic formulations.

"It was Mr. T., Who Made the Cake!"

"The Klingon, Who Made the Cake!, was reciting Hamlet (in the original Klingon, of course)."

"I dreamt I was eaten by flannels, Who Made the Cake!"

Perhaps the noun clause was on Oceanic flight 815, and is now marooned somewhere within the script of Lost.

My most elaborate scenario involves the Commander Adama of Battlestar Galactica, who, upon learning that the mess cook (known for his pastry skills) is actually a Cylon, comments, slowly, acerbically, and with increasing volume, "Who. Made. The. Cake!" At which point, all eyes turn immediately to the threatening Dutch chocolate concoction sitting on the table.

But the world is full of lost noun clauses which will never be realized (perhaps what is missing is the transcendent referent itself). Confections never tasted so Derridean.

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Why it's better to go to film school

Someone with technical flare actualized my post on the godfather-esque nature of Comey's testimony last week. Did you know that W.'s nickname for Gonzalez is "Fredo"? Watch "Godfather IV" and enjoy.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Rudy for Prez!

I have a strong feeling that the hybrid-driving set are either delusional or self-satisfied that choosing a "more environmentally friendly" car is a meaningful political choice. John Nichols points out in this article from The Nation that Rudy Giuliani is the only major Presidential candidate who doesn't drive at all. Of course, this only means he takes limos from one thousand-dollar-a-plate dinner to the next. Still, as a non-driving person myself (except in Japan, where I was tricked into a free car for the year), I strongly believe that a totally car-free society is the only kind of society worth living in. I doubt Rudy is that radical, but from a field of hardly differentiated political candidates, I might as well choose one using personal, if only somewhat less arbitrary, criteria.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Magnificent Moyers

Bill Moyers -- winner of more than thirty Emmys and lifetime achievement awards for his extensive and principled career in documentary journalism -- has a new show on PBS: the Bill Moyers Journal. Or rather, it's a very old show; it's also the title of his first show with PBS, which ran in the seventies (largely before I was born). I am a *huge* fan of his work, ever since watching a rerun of one of his pieces on the Iran Contra scandal.

His new show started last month, and already he's had amazing interviews with Jon Stewart (also a fan) and Josh Marshall, the Talking Points Memo editor and web reporter who (along with the his team of two) played a central role in breaking the United States Attorney firing scandal. Also of note is his interview with British intellectual Jonathan Miller about his new show on atheism (Moyers is a devout and liberal Christian). All of the new episodes of Bill Moyers Journal are available on the PBS website -- which means I stayed up all night last night watching.
The standout piece, to my tastes, was his inaugural episode, "Buying the War," on how the mainstream media allowed themselves to be conned by the Bush administration into vocally advocating for the invasion of Iraq. It's a story that's gotten some muted play, but never a comprehensive investigation in a broadcast outlet. I imagine the broadcast news would find it too painful. Moyers interviews a huge and impressive cast, from Tom Brokaw, to the Washington-bureau editor and chief correspondents for Knight Ridder who got the WMD story right from the beginning (and were ignored by their peers). In large part, it details the reasons why the major news organizations got the story so wrong -- the political and social forces which drove the truth underground. Most striking is the attempt of figures like Brokaw to come to terms with the failure of America's watchdog to fulfill its function. It's a gripping documentary, as Moyers' tend to be. I suggest that you watch each and every episode now -- Moyers is remarkable for his nose (how many other journalists are covering the ways in which blog journalism or Stewarts' fake news show are positively affecting public discourse and political accountability?). Moyers has been around long enough, and achieved enough, that he doesn't need to worry about how the Next Big Thing might affect his job.
A closing moment of Zen -- Moyers and Jon Stewart talking about our Goodfellas president:

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007


Do you remember the godfather scene where Michael Corleone shows up to visit his just-shot dad to find out the guards have been dismissed and there are hitmen on the way to finish the job? Well it turns out that's almost exactly what went down four years ago when a hospitalized John Ashcroft refused to recertify Bush's illegal wiretapping program. Watch Comey's testimony, as he struggles to describe what happened:

Comey had to get F.B.I director Mueller to instruct his agents to prevent him from being ejected from the hospital room. And after facing down Gonzalez and Andrew Card, Comey didn't think it was safe to visit Card at the whitehouse without bringing a witness. For a written account of his testimony, check Glen Greenwald's analysis here. Basically, everyone knew the program was flagrantly illegal. And when Ashcroft refused to renew it, the White House tried to strong-arm him while nearly incapacitated. It's the Plumbers all over again (except, of course, that Gonzo isn't nearly as striking to watch as G. Gordon Liddy).

Tipplometer: Take two bourbons to salve burning eyeballs.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Holy Bloated Bigot!

Jerry Falwell is dead. Long live the Falwell in waiting. With the fall of Mark Foley, I wonder who will be the next Avatar of Holy Bloviation. Whoever it may be, they'll have some shoes to fill. Remember when he outed Tinky Winky? Those were the good ole days.

NOTE: I thought I'd skip over the obligatory comments upon sympathy for his family, etc. I'm sure that their house is buried under flowers and deafened by prayer by now, even as Liberty University is flooded with an avalanche of donations. Yea, even unto the highest of the high goals for their capital drive.

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Invasions are Sweet...

Someone animated the Bayeux tapestry, which details the Norman invasionof Britain. Those crazy Saxons -- everyone said they'd greet the Normans as liberators.

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Sorry, Tejas: No Sex Toys for You

According to an article cited over at Pandagon, it's illegal to sell sex toys in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas. Well I'll be hog-swallered. I'm living in Houston right now (save commiserations), and about five minutes from my house is a string of half a dozen sex toy shops within sight of Montrose (our Sunset Strip). A "friend" reports that vibrator sales at the nearest store are trading a three-month high right now. This salutary measure pales in comparison to the current run on a line of anatomical moulds of various pornstars' nether parts. I understand the Jenna Jameson torso is delicious, if'n you're into blonds.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Resignation Pro Forma

In the spirit of Paul J. McNulty's resignation as Deputy Attorney General in order to, among other things, begin saving for his kids' college tuition, I thought I'd tender the resignation letter I would have penned.

Dear Attorney General Gonzales:

This is to advise you of my intention to step down from my position as Deputy Attorney General on a date to be determined in the late summer.
The financial realities of college-age children and two decades of public service lead me to a long overdue transition in my career.
Moreover, it has recently come to my attention that there are needlepoint classes now available at my local community college. I have often discussed learning needlepoint with great grandma Bee. When she passed away last year, I was attempting to deal with the sh*tstorm firing those USAs has caused. Now seems like a good time to learn basket-weave stitching and work on that monogrammed doily.
And I don't need to tell you the mountain of household chores I've recused myself from. That leaky faucet in the guest bathroom and the grout in our kitchen can be ignored no longer. I envision many happy hours at my neighborhood Home Depot discussing the ins and outs of silicone versus putty.
I greatly appreciate the opportunity and privilege I have enjoyed for the past seven years to serve my country at the Department of Justice as both a United States Attorney and malarchy-shoveller pro-temp. The history of the Department will record the extraordinary challenge we faced after your appointment as Attorney General, and in particular, how those of us who served as United States Attorneys embraced the new cruelty.
I am grateful for your friendship and support, an experience which will come in handy should I ever respond to a Craig's list BDSM ad soliciting ultra-subs. I look forward to working with you to ensure a smooth transition in my office.

With deepest respect,
Paul J. McNulty

EDIT: I'm guessing that McNulty's at a party somewhere slamming Ritas while the iPod cycles through a smart list of fiesta-themed tunes. Tipplometer: Herradura Time!

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Nation of Hypocrites

There is a serious problem with violence in America. How do I know this? Not because of random shootings at shopping malls and university campuses. At the moment, I live in Japan, a land of barely contained aggression if ever there were one. But incidents of violence, except against oneself, are extremely rare here. OK, the mayor of Nagasaki (Nagasaki!) was assassinated by a yakuza member recently, but what an aberration. Can you imagine someone putting a hit out on "Mike" Bloomberg? And yet the Japanese love violence. If you can wade through all the cutesy Hello Kitty/Pokemon crap, you'll find in the popular culture here an absolute obsession with all forms of destruction and mutilation. With the lack of Judeo-Christian morals (and I didn't say those were good things!), hardly anything is considered taboo, at least for personal, private consumption. I found a very nice pornography emporium recently that I stumbled into because it looked like a Walmart (and was basically on the top floor of its Japanese equivalent). Oops, well, I'm here so I might as well do some "research".

Later, a Japanese friend, after more drinks than necessary--and this guy, a nuclear chemist or something, went to the MIT of Japan--told me he finds The Simpsons, his only source of English practice, too violent. "What?" I blurted in my inebriation. Well, of course it's violent, that's what's funny about it... Hmm... Actually, it's the Itchy and Scratchy toon-within-a-toon that he finds most disturbing. "But, Taku," I explained, "it's not funny because it's violent, it's funny because it's a parody of all those other violent cartoons from, you know, the '50s. We're not laughing because Itchy repeatedly beheads and dismembers Scratchy in increasingly gruesome and inappropriate ways. We're laughing at the irony..." So that's about where the conversation stalled. Am I naive enough to believe that the general viewer of The Simpsons operates at such a high intellectual level? Do I operate at such a high intellectual level? When I pointed out to my friend the aforementioned violence of Japanese popular culture, he said, yes, it's there, but we don't think violence is funny.

Slavoj Zizek wrote about the Abu Ghraib photos that they were not evidence of the chain of command gone horribly wrong. He suggested that, in fact, they were a normal product of American culture, that if you'd shown them to people out of context, they might have thought them some sort of experimental theater. Consider the hazing rituals of the military and college fraternities, the popularity of violent sports, and, finally, Itchy and Scratchy. Remember that, in the photos, the soldiers are smiling. That's what was most shocking of all--not only were these young brats defiling the sacred name of America, they were having a good time, too! We should remember, while we're chuckling with exasperation at Itchy and Scratchy or shaking our heads with shame at Abu Ghraib, that they're of a piece, that the lampooning of Tom and Jerry can take divergent forms, isn't always just lampooning, and that the original article is suspiciously close to less deracinated forms of popular entertainment, e.g. blackface performance and lynching.

That's all a long, perhaps facile introduction to what will be a very short point. Recently, members of Congress and potential Presidential candidates have been falling all over themselves to denounce the continuation of the Iraq War. Even the Republicans have joined in on the race to out-dove the next guy. But the reasons for this sudden shift in sentiment have nothing to do with the morality, shall we say, of the war. The politicians are angry because we didn't find weapons of mass destruction; because the country didn't stabilize immediately after we liberated it; and because it's costing us too much in money, lives, and "political capital." The problem is America only likes to fight wars we can win, and we're not winning this one. That's no fun! And that's the ultimate sin of the Bush administration. I doubt the anti-war rallying cries, really anti-Bush rallying cries (like cursing out the quarterback of your favorite sports franchise), would be so vociferous if Iraq were today a stable, liberal, oil-exporting democracy. The fact that this Hail Mary scenario was even attempted and believed possible to begin with points up the delusions of victory with which Americans are obsessed, contrary evidence and sober commentary notwithstanding. So the war itself is OK, really, but not winning it is not OK. All those politicians who rubber-stamped it back in '02, only to recant now? They're not hypocrites? They only thought we were actually going to war for a good reason? Or, barring that, that at least we could win it pretty easily? Garrison Keillor was eloquent on this topic in a recent New York Times editorial: shame on them.

A person of conviction would have had to maintain a consistent stance against the war from the beginning, not because it would be too difficult to win, but because it is wrong to fight wars. In America, though, this is a rather unpopular position. You won't hear any politicians stating their objection to the Iraq situation in this way. They will only tell you that the administration deceived us (into doing something that is wrong no matter what the circumstances?) and is now mishandling things (which someone else can surely handle better?). Let me repeat more affirmatively: war is always wrong. You can't say we went to war for the wrong reasons without presupposing that right reasons exist. "What about World War II?" you might say. Good point. But that very popular war was a resounding victory for the United States, to the extent that it forms the terminus a quo of much contemporary folklore, from apple pie to the X-men. Our victory then may be the reason we continue to love a good war, and the violence, and the fun of winning it. To bring things back to Japan, it is much different here. Their loss haunts them, and it is a loss we cannot begin to imagine--thousands upon thousands dead, all their cities destroyed, their nation subjugated, their emperor embarrassed. Not so funny! There was even a fistfight in the Diet when it was proposed that the Japanese defense forces be upgraded to full ministry status (sadly, this has now occurred). We Americans may not have Japanese decorum, but our politicians would never do that (want to see McCain and Kerry go a few rounds?). And not surprisingly, most Japanese are anti-war as a matter of principle, not of contingency. As difficult as it usually is to get an opinion out of them, many are also quite upfront that they don't like George W. Bush. Many Americans don't either. But in the upcoming Presidential election, we'll probably vote for someone who argues not that war is morally wrong, even if we generally say this privately, but that the Bushies have deprived us of what we Stars and Stripes-worshipping, violence-crazed Yanks love best: victory.

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