Friday, February 27, 2015

February 27, 2015--Ligatures

One of my very favorite people loves ligatures.

When she first revealed this to me I was worried since I associate ligatures with violence, actually strangulation where a ligature is put around a victim's throat and by tightening it it slowing causes death by strangulation. I know, I watch too much TV.

But, of course, the ligatures she so loves are not of that type. Hers are typographic where two or more graphemes are fused together or joined into a single glyph. With a grapheme being the smallest unit in a writing system--alphabetic letters, numerical digits, punctuation marks, and in graphemic written languages such as Chinese or ancient Egyptian characters or hieroglyphs. And a glyph is a symbol that conveys information nonverbally.

It would be good to give a few examples, including her favorite, the ampersand.

Here is an assortment of the ones I like--

I worked at the Ford Foundation for some years and thus the ff ligature stands out for me; and I studied Old English in graduate school so OE is another that I enjoy. And ae also is a good one. Typographically. And of course the ligature version of fs.

In spite of what one might intuitively think--that in the name of efficiency they are examples of modern streamlining or shorthand--ligatures are found in some of our earliest manuscripts and even quite often in the world's earliest known script--Sumerian cuneiform where there are many examples of character combinations. But, over time, most of these ligatures devolved into graphemes or independent characters in their own right. So those that remain have ancient, untransformed origins and deep echoes of the past from when written language was being invented. Which, I suspect, is why my imaginative friend likes them so much, again, especially the ampersand.

The ampersand's history is an interesting one. When reciting the Latin alphabet the last letter was the ampersand but it was preceded by per se (by itself), meaning that it was pronounceable as a full word, not unlike I which is both a letter and a word.

So, the alphabet, morphed over time into English, would conclude . . . X, Y, Z, per se et (et meaning and) which over time saw the e and the t fuse, becoming the modern day ampersand--

Also amusing is the etymology of the word ampersand itself--it is an English phonetic mashup of "and+per+se+and.


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Thursday, February 26, 2015

February 26, 2015--Return Tomorrow

I will be back tomorrow with thoughts about ligatures.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

February 25, 2015--Two of a Kind

Appearing on CBS's Sunday show, Face the Nation, Senator John McCain said that he is "ashamed of my country" for allowing Vladimir Putin to annex Crimea and push militarily to overthrow the government of Ukraine.

Host Bob Shieffer was stunned. "I'll say this, senator, I've known you for a long, long time, interviewed you many, many times, and I've never heard you say I'm ashamed of my country."

McCain added, "I'm ashamed of my president and I'm ashamed of myself that I haven't done more to help these people."

Adding himself to the list of who to be ashamed of softened his otherwise outrageous characterization of his president. It is not appropriate for a senior senator to express these divisive and mean-spirited feelings. Yes, disagree, disagree strenuously, disagree fundamentally, disagree profoundly, whatever; but to be ashamed crosses the line and thus stunned veteran journalist Shieffer.

McCain was trumped in mean-spiritedness last week by Rudy Giuliani, formerly known as America's Mayor. Over the weekend at a Scott Walker fundraiser at New York's 21 Club, he said, "I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn't love you. And he doesn't love me. He wasn't brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up, through love of this country."

And he didn't walk it back, reiterating later that he was merely expressing his feelings.

Giuliani, and to a lesser extent, John McCain are suffering from Dick Morris Syndrome. Sensing that they are both aging and losing influence and power. For Rudy, who ran disastrous campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination, to see rising empty-suit political stars such as Scott Walker grabbing attention and headlines, it is hard because of his kind of colossal ego. Ditto for McCain who still can't accept the fact that he lost the national election in 2008 and that Barack Obama is president.

In Dick Morris' case, he began his professional political career working for Upper-Westside liberal Manhattan Democrats and then moved into the center of the Bill Clinton reelection campaign until he was forced out when he got into a scandal involving a prostitute. Next stop for him was Fox News and after making a fool of himself there (predicting on air a landslide victory for Mitt Romney), he descended further and is left now pandering to that 20-30 percent of the GOP base that takes Glenn Beck, Russ Limbaugh, and black helicopters seriously. There's money to be made there by writing books about how Obama is seeking to turn America into a totalitarian state with him self-imposed as president-for-life.

These same dead-enders are now the people with whom Giuliani is left to cavort. What a sad fate.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

February 24, 2105--Oscars

I'll try to restrain myself from being too bitchy. Though bitchy is an Academy Awards reflex. Yes, the show Sunday night seemed overlong, running at least a half hour beyond its scheduled time slot. To bitchy me, it seemed to drag from the very beginning. Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser) brought his patented Broadway snark to Hollywood where it went down, as we used to say, like a lead balloon. But here I am being bitchy.

His first line was his best of the night--"Tonight we honor Hollywood's best and whitest--sorry, brightest."

He was referring of course to what many consider a slight to Hollywood's African-American film community. Specifically, though Selma was nominated among seven others for Best Picture, it's star, David Oyelowo, and director, Ava DuVernay, were not nominated. Clear evidence, it was claimed, that we may have a President of color but racism and sexism is still pervasive in the film industry.

Feelings were not assuaged by Selma's theme song, "Glory," winning Oscars for its two African-American songwriters, Common and John Legend. Even during slavery and Jim Crow days, it was implied, black folks were noted to be good at dancing and singing.

As objectively as possible, looking at the specifics of the nominees and award winners, did David Oyelowo, who portrayed Martin Luther King, really qualify as one of only five nominated for best actor? The others were Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), Michael Keaton (Birdman), Benedict Cumberbatch (Imitation Game), and eventual winner, Eddie Redmayne for Theory of Everything?

I think not.

On the other hand, it would be easy to see Ava DuVernay justifiably feeling excluded. As, of course could Clint Eastwood, director of the hugely successful, American Sniper. He might cite political bias.

The five actual nominees were Wes Anderson (Budapest Hotel), Richard Linklater (Boyhood), Bennett  Miller (Foxcatcher), Morten Tyldum (Imitation Game), and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the winner for Birdman.

DuVernay belongs in that company. Selma, far from a great movie, is as well directed as two other not-great films--Imitation Game and Theory of Everything.

But then again, Al Gore really won the presidency in 2000. And as John Legend reminded us during Red Carpet time, the march in Selma 50 years ago was about voting, including when it yields votes one does not like. When that happens, he said, it is one's responsibility to not complain but work harder.

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Monday, February 23, 2015

February 23, 2015--Lines In the Sand

At the end of the First World War, a territorial plan devised by Sir Mark Sykes of Great Britain and Francois Georges-Picot of France established spheres of influence in the Middle East for the victorious European powers. Some compared this to drawing lines in the sand.

Prior to the War, most parts of the region were under the control of the Ottoman Empire. This included all of present-day Turkey, much of North Africa, and virtually all of the Middle East with the notable exceptions of Arabia, today's Saudi Arabia, and Persia, today's Iran.

The Syke's-Picot secret agreement became the blueprint for the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire after its defeat in the War-to-End-All-Wars. The Great Powers, particularly France and Britain, with the assent of Russia, carved up the former Ottoman territory, creating modern Turkey and the countries that make up the contemporary Middle East, and assigned to themselves mandates and colonial oversight for what became Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and Palestine among other newly established countries.

(The U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was more interested in the establishment of the League of Nations and so effectively kept hands off as the region was carved up and parceled out.)

Based on Sykes-Picot, the Treaty of Paris assigned the blue regions to French authority, the red to British, and the green to Russian.

The more delineated map of the Middle East which was derived from the Sykes-Picot accord is the one we live with today. Take special note of those countries that were assigned straight-line borders. It is particularly revealing that some of the countries that are most in turmoil and include restive populations,  jihadists, and other groups of terrorists, are those with these kind of linear borders that do not take geography, culture, or religion into consideration--Syria, Sudan, Egypt, Yemen, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and of course Israel.

Thus, "Iraq" should probably be deconstructed into at least three countries with cultural borders, including Kurdistan, and "Libya" into at least that many. The region, and the world would be much more peaceful if those who met in Paris in 1919 would have established borders that took history, religion, and tribal identity into consideration.

One might counter that there are straight line borders in the United States. Many. In fact, two of our states are virtual rectangles (Colorado and Wyoming), and four meet at the Four Corners (Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico), but with the exception of the genocidal  example of what we did to our Native populations, territories that became states were not that culturally diverse and applied for statehood, staking out and suggesting their own borders. These borders for the most part were as viable as others that used rivers and mountain ranges as natural ways to divide and assign territory.

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Friday, February 20, 2015

February 20, 2015--Jeb & A-Rod: Mistakes Were Made

In a speech in Chicago Wednesday, presidential-aspirant, former Florida governor, brother of one president, and son of another, to establish himself in foreign policy terms as his "own man" (to quote him), Jeb Bush said--
Look, just for the record, one more time, I love my brother, I love my dad, I actually love my mother as well, hope that's OK. And I admire their service to the nation and the difficult decisions they had to make, but I am my own man, and my views are shaped by my own thinking and my own experiences.
Then, about his brother's decision to preemptively invade Iraq, he torturously added--
There were mistakes made in Iraq for sure. Using the intelligence capability that everyone embraced about weapons of mass destruction turns out not to be accurate.
He did not say that his brother made a mistake by pressing the CIA to "sex up" the intelligence to justify an otherwise illegal war and then waged war based on that cooked information.

What Jeb had to say represents a little progress from what brother George W said after he left the presidency, as part of his efforts to promote his memoir, Decision Points, when he reluctantly acknowledged, in the very passive voice, that "mistakes were made."

On the same day as Jeb Bush's speech, in his own handwriting, Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez wrote--
To the Fans
I take full responsibility for the mistakes that led to my suspension for the 2014 season. I regret that my actions made the situation worse than it needed to be. To Major League Baseball, the Yankees, the Steinbrenner family, the Players Association and you the fans, I can only say I'm sorry.
Who knows how sincere this is but at least he fessed up.

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

February 19, 2015--"That's a Lot of Ice Cream"

"That's a lot of ice cream," Rona said after I read her an article from the New York Times website about Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu's and his wife Sara's personal spending. Spending that gets paid for or reimbursed by Israeli taxpayers.

In a report by Israel's state comptroller, it was revealed that the couple spends $2,700 annually on ice cream. He apparently prefers pistachio, she French vanilla.

This is far from the worst of it. Basic food expenditures have tripled to $120,000 a year since Netanyahu took office in 2009. To tell the truth, it does look as if he has put on weight. Now we know why.

In addition, the state spends $2,000 a month to clean their seaside cottage (which they rarely go to) and over the past two years, $68,000 for Sara's makeup, hairstyling, and what the controller calls her personal "presentation."

They also in 2013 billed the state for a "rest chamber," whatever that is, that was retrofit into the El Al plane that took them to Margaret Thatcher's funeral.

On the literal nickel-and-dime front, Sara Netanyahu was forced to reimburse the state $1,035 after being exposed for having pocketed the deposit money from recycled beverage bottles. That's a lot of Coke and Pepsi.

The report stated that the Netanyahus "strayed from the cornerstone principles of proportionality, reasonableness, saving, and efficiency."

They "strayed" so far that it is being suggested by legal authorities in Israel that they may be criminally liable for many of their expenditures.

In the meantime, with Bibi Netanyahu set to speak in early March to a semi-joint session of Congress (many Democrats have indicated they will risk the ire of the Israel lobby and boycott the Republican-sponsoerd campaign speech--Netanyahu is up for reelection a few days after he is scheduled to address Congress), he and Sara must be making plans to get El Al to reconfigure the cabin for them so there is enough freezer space for their ice cream supply and all the empty soda bottle they will be scooping up while in Washington.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

February 18, 2015--Bibi, the Fanatic

"Eli, the Fanatic," one of Philip Roth's wonderful short stories, is also one of his most overlooked. Perhaps because of the direct way in which it deals with and excoriates secularized, seemingly-assimilated Jews.

Set in suburban America, the story concerns a non-observant Jew, Eli Peck, who is hired by his Jewish neighbors to convince a recently-arirved group of orthodox Jews to close the yeshiva they established in their midst. The other Jews in town are embarrassed by the visible presence of these Hasids, fearing they will call attention to them and thereby interfere with their desire to blend in among the largely gentile residents of Woodenton.

To make a short story short, Eli fails in his attempts to get the ultra-orthodox to back off, including abandoning their traditional way of dressing, and, after an epiphany of his own, gives up his normal wardrobe and appears before his stunned and outraged Jewish neighbors in Hasid garb. The last thing they want is to be identified as Jews. And, thus, they became what some call self-hating Jews.

It is worth reading these days when throughout the Middle East and the West a fierce new religious war has broken out with people being attacked, tortured, enslaved, and killed just for being who they are--the wrong kind of Muslim, Christian, or Jew. It's a from of back to the Middle Ages.

The latest outrages, just over the past few days, are the shootings in Copenhagen, the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by ISIS in Libya ("We will conquer Rome, by God's permission"), and of course the murder of three Muslin university students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

As evidence that fanaticism is not just confined to ISIS and other Muslim extremists, pay attention to what Benjamin Netanyahu is calling for. As after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, this week following the murders in Denmark, Netanyahu again called for all European Jews, by "mass immigration," to give up their countries and European roots and emigrate to Israel where, he claims without evidence, that they will be safe from religious extremists of all stripes.

He makes no mention of Hezbollah fighters in the north of Israel nor rockets fired into Israel from Gaza. And, of course, the real possibility that Israel, under Netanyahu, will preemptively wage war against Iran.

In Bibi's own words--
Jews have been murdered again on European soil only because they were Jews. Of course, Jews deserve protection in every country, but we say to Jews, to our brothers and sisters: Israel is your home.
This call is hardwired into the consciousness of many Jews who remember the Holocaust when millions of Jews, on European soil, were slaughtered for just the fact of being Jews. Since then, there has been pressure on Jews living in more than 100 countries to "make Aliya," which literally means to "ascend," to "return" to Israel and for Israel to call for the "in-gathering" of Jews living in the Diaspora, in "exile."

This call for Jews to in-gather is about much more than safety. It has deep religious roots.

For the orthodox, to foster conditions that will call forth the Messiah (for Jews, of course, Jesus is not the Messiah) and lead ultimately to the End Times and Last Judgement, all Jews in the Diaspora must return to what messianic Jews refer to as Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel, which to many means Greater Israel.

There is dispute about what is biblically-defined to be that Land, especially Greater Israel. With the latter it is a geopolitically dangerous view of national boundaries, because to those Jews literally right now awaiting the appearance of the Mashiach, Greater Israel stretches from the Nile River in western Sinai all the way to the shores of the Euphrates. In other words, from land belonging to Egypt to territory that is a large part of current-day Iraq. Settling the West Bank is a part of this strategy.

So these are not just eschatological ideas but political ones. And dangerous ones at that.

Thus, the seemingly empathetic, welcoming call by Prime Minister Netanyahu to Jews in so-called exile to emigrate to Israel resonates much more deeply that a simple reminder and offer to descendants of those who died in the Holocaust. It also serves a larger purpose--to have Jews return to ancestral lands and thereby help flesh out the boundaries of Eretz Israel and to contribute to the circumstances that will lead to messianic times.

As an American of Jewish descent I resent and reject these fanatical notions. I am not Philip Roth's Eli.

Though assimilation is never easy--even in polyglot America--I do not consider myself as living in anything resembling a diaspora. Any more than Americans of Italian descent consider themselves living in an Italian diaspora. Israel is not my home. No matter what might happen here (and there have been waves of dangerous anti-Semitism in America) this is my home, my land, my America.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

February 17, 2015--Have It Our Way

Two major food companies last week released financial statements about earnings for the fourth quarter of 2014. Kellogg and McDonalds.

Both failed to meet expectations, with McDonalds reporting a significant and on-going decline in "customer visits," earnings, and profits. Speculation about both--for the most part confirmed by the companies as they scramble to turn things around--is that they are losing customers because people are seeking healthier food. And there are healthier fast-food alternatives to Mickey D's at places such as Chipolte, Chick-fil-A, and, if you must have a burger, Shake Shack.

McDonalds saw customer visits during the quarter decline by 1.7% and, more ominous, earnings decline by 21%. The third quarter was even worse with visits down 3.3%.

In response, they are launching an ad campaign, featuring a new slogan--"I'm Lovin' It." And employees are being made to wear new, lighter-feeling uniforms. Reportedly, they hate both. Especially the "lovin'" part.

Recognizing that much of this decline is the result of Americans becoming health conscious, McDonalds is experimenting with "custom burgers" (in other words, "Have it your way")  and eliminating some items, including quarter-pounders with cheese. A cholesterol nightmare.

For my money, they could get rid of the quarter-pounder altogether. The burger itself may start out weighing a quarter of a pound, but during the cooking, after all the fat runs out, it looks more like the sliver of a burger one gets at White Castle. If you want something resembling a burger that weights a quarter pound, head for Shake Shack. Though, as a guilty treat, McDonalds still does make some mean fries.

Meanwhile, over at Kellogg, the world's largest supplier of cereal, the picture isn't much brighter. There sales too have been plummeting. Fourth-quarter earnings were down an astonishing $293 million. Even after adjusting for currency fluctuations and accounting maneuvers, the company self-reports great concern. Like McDonalds, they too are scrambling to make modifications in their product lines. And for some of the same reasons.

CEO John Bryant cited weakness in sales of even Kellogg's "healthy" cereals, including  in the Special K line. He observed that consumers are shifting away from products that claim to be "diet" foods and are opting more and more for what executives in the industry call "functional foods." Those with fewer, simpler ingredients that do not include genetically-modified grains. So Kellogg accordingly is moving quickly to modify its breakfast cereals, Kashi brand, and snack foods.

As counter evidence that Americans are adjusting their diets for reasons other than health, Coca Cola continues to lose market share with bottled water, energy drinks, and coffee becoming beverages of choice for younger consumers. (The average age of Coke drinkers is 56.) It is obviously good to be moving away from drinks that are loaded with corn syrup, but becoming addicted to caffeine is not the ideal alternative.

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Monday, February 16, 2015

February 16, 2015--Presidents Day Off

I will return tomorrow with some good news about healthier food.

Friday, February 13, 2015

February 13, 2015--Best of Behind: The Middle East? Hands Off

This seemed pertinent in June 2014 when it originally appeared and feels even more so today as President Obama is asking Congress to retrospectively authorize military strikes against ISIS Islamists and many in the House and Senate are pushing back against what some feel is the next step to our getting more directly involved in Syria and northern Iraq where ISIS poses an existential threat--

As President Obama feels the pressure to provide military assistance to the collapsing regime in Iraq, he and we should step back and review the last 2,500 years of history. Just a few pertinent highlights!

The major lesson is that no outside power, from Alexander the Great of Macedonia to the French and British imperialists, from the Soviet Union and now the United States, no one has been able to impose their will on the region.

All interventions, all attempts to subjugate proud and defiant peoples have failed. And worse--have reverberated back disastrously on the invaders, colonizers, and occupiers.

After 330 BC Alexander never recovered; the British and French colonial powers after the First World War never recovered; the Soviet Union collapsed and never recovered; and the United States lost treasure, power, and influence in the region and I suspect will also not recover.

So what to do now?

The right answer is nothing.

We should get out of the way and allow the people living there figure out their own futures, very much including their own borders.

If we could impose a sane and just plan of our own that would endure, I would consider supporting it. But the long reach of history teaches that any attempt to do so is doomed to fail and, worse, will only make things worse.

Look at the current situation in Iraq. The Sunni jihadists have already overrun a third of the country, a country that was arbitrarily constructed at the end of WW I. From the videos showing ISIS's triumphant advance, while the so-called Iraqi army discards its uniforms and attempts to blend in with the benighted civilian population, we see the invaders already in possession of American military equipment that also was abandoned by the Iraqi army.

This was reminiscent of the experience in Afghanistan where the U.S., still entangled in the Cold War, armed the Mujahideen who were fighting the invading Soviets and, after defeating them (which contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union), morphed into the Taliban which proceeded to overthrow the Afghan government and then turned its weapons, the ones we supplied, on us when we invaded at the end of 2001. And does anyone doubt that as soon as we finish leaving Afghanistan the Taliban will once again take over?

Sounds like current-day Iraq to me.

Seven years ago, presidential candidate Joe Biden was ridiculed when he said that Iraq should be allowed to devolve into three countries--Shiite in the south, Sunni in the middle, and Turkistan in the north.

He was right.

In fact, he could have advocated similar things for the rest of the region, from at least Tunisia in the west to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the east.

Few of the countries in that geographic span have cultural borders--Iran (formerly Persia) and Egypt are perhaps the exceptions--but rather ones drawn for them by various conquerers and occupiers.

For centuries, for their own strategic and economic purposes, dominant Western powers have attempted to contain and control the essentially tribal people who live in this vast region. Since the end of the Second World War, country-by-country this has been unraveling. And at an accelerated pace for the past four or five years. Recall the Arab Spring of 2010.

The emergence of jihadist and terrorist groups--ISIS is just the most recent example--feels especially threatening to our national interest. But it may be more dangerous to attempt to continue to contain these aspirations and energies than let to them play out.

The genie of various forms of liberation cannot be stuffed back in the bottle. It is much too late for that.

It may be less risky to step back and allow these contesting forces to work things out. We may not like this idea or the potential outcomes; but, in reality, do we realistically have the ability and resources to impose an alternative scenario?

Do we see ourselves intervening on the side of the Shia-dominated government in Iraq allied with Iran's Revolutionary Guard? As unlikely, even as preposterous as this may sound, it is being seriously discussed.

Frightening as that prospect is--very much including the blow to our national ego--it represents another reason to back off. If there is to be fighting, and of course there is and will be, at least it will be focused within the region, internecine, and less directed toward us. That could be truly in our national interest.

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Thursday, February 12, 2015

February 12, 2105--Lust for Life

The French can be, well, so French. Take Dominique Strauss-Kahn for example.

Perhaps the last time you were aware of him was in 2011 when he was under posh house arrest in New York City awaiting trial for allegedly forcing a chamber maid at the Sofitel Hotel to perform oral sex.

There was some of his semen on her blouse but he beat the rap, claiming the DNA evidence was not conclusive and that she had a checkered past, having accused other rich and powerful men of sexually assaulting her and attempting to cash in.

He, on the other hand, did not deny that they had sex, claiming it was consensual, which appeared to be all right with his America heiress wife, who said at the time something like, "That's the way men are."

Subsequently, back in France, Strauss-Kahn, who had been Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund and was preparing to run for the presidency of France, was accused of raping a journalist and having been involved with a ring of prostitutes. This was too much for his long-understanding wife, who finally dumped him.

And now, in Lille, a trial is underway in which Strauss-Kahn and 13 others are accused of pimping and abetting prostitution. If convicted, he could go to prison for up to 10 years.

According to a report in the New York Times, earlier this week, there was testimony about "sex parties with high-flying power brokers and prostitutes." Outside the courtroom topless protesters threw themselves at the Strauss-Kahn's car. For what reason I do not know. But, vive la France, it made for more juicy headlines and vivid video in a country that could use some diversion after last month's Charlie Hebdo massacre.

Though that testimony itself would have been enough to provide some schaudenfreudian relief, from the witness stand Strauss-Kahn offered up even more salacious fun--his defense.

It is that lust is no crime.

He acknowledged having been at sex parties (though as he put it during his testimony--it was only "four times a year") but claimed he had nothing to do with organizing the orgies nor hiring prostitutes--both crimes in France.

On the other hand, prostitute witnesses such as Mounia (no last name) authoritatively offered, that "it was obvious that those at the party were prostitutes," even though she acknowledged that she never discussed money with Strauss-Kahn.

His defense is that since at least the 16th century, there is a long tradition in France, libertinage, that makes legal "freewheeling sex and pleasure among multiple and consensual partners." But Mounia, when asked about the consensual nature of their activities, said that was not the case--Strauss-Kahn had forced her to engage in "a brutal act," she said, "I felt like an object."

Jade agreed, admitting she had engaged in prostitution but not libertinage, "I was not a person but a thing that was supposed to complete a task."


But Strauss-Kahn had the final word--when insisting that at the quarterly orgies he was unable to determine who were prostitutes and who were non-working girls, he shrugged his Gallic shoulders and declared, "I dare you to distinguish between a prostitute and a naked socialite."

C'est tout.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

February 11, 2105--Built On Lies

The problem at NBC is not that Brian Williams is a lier.

He admits now that he sexed up a 2003 report about a foreign-correspondant-trip of his to war-ravaged Iraq--that his helicopter was hit by incoming enemy fire. And there may be evidence that he did a version of the same thing while reporting about Hurricane Katrina from New Orleans (he claimed then that he saw bodies floating by his hotel though there was apparently no significant flooding where his hotel was located); and, who knows, he may have stretched things in a similar self-aggrandizing way during the other assignment that put him on the map, reporting knee-deep in water from South Asia about the tsunami of 2004.

The problem is that the real lie is that he and his anchor colleagues are no longer reporters and that the shows they star in are not about the news. They are exhorbitantly-paid news readers. Reading the script like the actors they are and blow-dried to attract viewers, especially those from coveted demographic groups, all to keep sponsors happy and buying commercials.

All the anchors, with rather thin journalistic backgrounds, but telegenic, Brian Williams, extra-youthful David Muir at ABC, Scott Pelley at CBS, Anderson Cooper at CNN, Megyn Kelly of Fox, and who knows who at MSNBC, all are more in the entertainment business than the news business. Thus their favorite things are to report on events that will garner the highest ratings--natural disasters (hurricanes, blizzards, and tsunamis), terrorist activities (if there is video of beheadings to accompany their reports), and plane crashes. How many hours and days and weeks did CNN devote to the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 307?

Now in paroxysms of schadenfreude, TV colleagues, print journalists, and people calling in to talk shows are asking for William's head. (Not literally of course. But who know.) And as of last night they at least had a taste of blood--NBC suspended him without pay for six months.

Some rue the "fact" that he isn't Tom Brokaw or, even more distressing by comparison, "the most trusted man in America," Walter Cronkite, both of whom presided over TV news when it was still news, not profit centers. Neither Tom nor old Walter, I have been reading in the blogs, ever would have participated in such unprofessional behavior. What is not noted is that Cronkite and Brokaw did not live and work in a world so pervaded by social networks and Internet sites where hyper-scrutiny of anyone famous' missteps go viral and thus magnified beyond proportion.

I cannot claim for certain that Tom and Walter were on the full up-and-up. Can anyone?

When Roone Arledge, who headed ABC's remarkably successful sports operation was asked to also take on responsibility for the network's news division, it was with the assumption that he would turn what had been the Tiffany Network's unprofitable news division into a profit center. He managed to do so by softening up the reporting, getting the hard news out of the way in the first few minutes and then turning to the up-close-and-personal stuff that had been his signature in ABC's Olympics coverage.

The rest is history. Now even NBC's fading Today Show and widely-watched CBS's 60 Minutes make hundreds of millions and are those networks' most profitable shows. And Brian Williams spends more time on the Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live than he does in Syria.

But this TV news environment also contributes to the success of so-called "fake-news," with entertainment and fun unabashedly at the heart of Jon Stewart's Daily Show and the Colbert Report. More young people who even bother to watch TV get their "news" there than on the three networks and cable news outlets. And often that news is real news.

Meanwhile, desperate, isn't it the Today Show that is now raising a puppy on the set?

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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

February 10, 2015--Latest Homograph

Reading about the Pax Romana early yesterday morning in David Abulafia's The Great Sea, I came across, for me, a new homograph--two words with different meanings and pronunciations but spelled the same way.

Refuse as in to turn something down and refuse as trash, something to throw away.

Etymologically, they come from similar Old French sources--

Refuser, in the case of the verb refuse meaning to reject, literally to avoid; and with the homograph noun pair refuse or trash, etymologically from refus, meaning waste product.

As I have wondered here in the past, how puzzling, how strange, how truly unnecessary that with English so rich with more than 1,025,109 words, and new ones being created every day, that we have any homographs at all. Why not have refuse just mean to turn something down and another word entirely to be a synonym for trash. Say a portmanteau word such as refrash?

But there could be a problem with that since when googling refrash this came up--

Mooning with refrash shout out to Refrash of Nebula

Whatever this means. I think perhaps something having to do with an electronic game. But you get my point.

I do, though, have a speculation as to why we still have homographs.

The Old French etymological roots of refuse/refuse go back to the 14th century when our language was a lot less nuanced and so, at that time, for the sake of efficiency, and since people were busy just trying to survive, there were many homonyms, homophones, and homographs. Over time, as living conditions improved, English filled out exponentially (thanks in substantial part to Shakespeare who was both a wordsmith and multi-thousand word-creator), it would have been easy to clean this up. But English speakers decided not to do so.

Perhaps to leave traces of where we have been as a people, how much we "advanced," and how much ambiguity and mystery we wanted to retain in our language. Linguistic footprints in our amazing English, which, when you think about it, is a magical collective creation. As are all the world's other 7,000 extant languages.

There is no organization, business, or government entity whose job it is to generate new words in response to changing circumstances. Even in language-obsessed France!

We all pitch in from IT entrepreneurs to hip-hop artists to kids on the street.

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Monday, February 09, 2015

February 9, 2015--Equal Opportunity Offender

Somehow President Obama managed to offend nearly everyone Friday during his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast--the Chinese, Indians, Muslims, Jews, and especially Christians.

To agnostic me this suggested it was a good speech.

To offend or minimally agitate those who hold and are guided by powerful belief systems is a good thing to do every once in awhile to shake them up, especially at a time in world history when radical religious forces are roiling nations and regions.

It was a speech Obama impressively didn't paddle back from, even after the predictable chorus of outrage and criticism. These days even a few raised eyebrows will get pandering politicians to
"clarify" in the afternoon what they in the morning said about, say, the safety and efficacy of vaccinations.

But first, what is this Breakfast anyway?

It has been sponsored since 1953 by the Fellowship Foundation, otherwise known as "The Family," which is a secretive organization devoted to spreading Christian values and, through its many powerful congressional members, lobbies for legislation compatible with its mission. Many key members of Congress, mainly male conservative Republicans, are and have been active in The Family. Among many others, Jim DeMint, Sam Brownback, Strom Thurmond, Bill Nelson, and Mark (Appalachian Trail) Sanford.

In The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, Jeff Sharlet described his experiences working for them as an intern. He provides evidence that The Family "fetishizes" power by comparing Jesus to "Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, and Bin Laden." Not that The Family or Jesus holds beliefs similar to these dictators but rather The Family takes note of and admires the ways in which they exercised power. Guided by these lessons in wielding authority, The Family also engages in below-the-radar international diplomacy, especially in the Middle East, that skirts what is permitted by law for religious-based, tax-exempt organizations.

And the Fellowship attempts to have its own version of influence on American society. They have been remarkable effective and powerful. As an example of their ability to mobilize support, since 1953 every President from Eisenhower to Obama has addressed the group at its annual Breakfast.

It was before this group last week that Obama intentionally stepped into the weeds.

His basic theme was to draw attention to how dangerous it is to use faith to justify violence. From his detractors' perspective, so far so good if he is talking exclusively about Islam. But his caution was more wide reaching than that. There's the rub. He not only indicted Muslim extremists but noted that people also "committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ." Particularly during the Crusades.

As might be imagined, that brought down a firestorm of criticism. The firebrand fringe was the first to react. Michelle Malkin, an ultra-conservative columnist said it is historically outrageous to compare ISIS with Christian Crusaders. On Twitter she wrote, "ISIS chops off heads, incinerates hostages, kills gays, enslaves girls. Obama: Blame the Crusades." Not a word about what Christian crusaders perpetrated with the sword in the name of Christ.

According to the New York Times, semi-credible responses came from commentators who actually know a little about history--they defended the Crusades, noting that they were launched as a response to earlier Muslim advances across Europe. On the other hand, the best informed historians who study this era reject that view and offer evidence that the Crusades were motivated by attempts to reclaim sacred territory (Jerusalem) not Muslim dominated lands that resulted from incursions more than 400 year earlier.

As another example the President spoke about religious strife in India. In his words, though he called India "an incredibly beautiful country," irrelevant to his larger point, he also noted that it is "a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other people of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs--acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhi."

In spite of Obama noting this occurred in past years and only on occasion (some might say he was being kind considering the enmity and violence, some of it religiously-based, between millions of Indian Hindus and Muslims) Indian leaders reacted in unison and outrage. For example, the Finance Minster said that India "has a huge cultural history of tolerance. Any aberration doesn't alter history."

Obama committed another alleged faux pas at the Breakfast when he shook hands with the Dalai Lama and in his remarks noted how he is a "powerful example of what it means to practice compassion," one "who inspires us to speak up for the freedom and dignity of all human beings.

A high-ranking Chinese spokesman reacted with public fury, saying, "We oppose any country using the issue of Tibet to interfere in Chins'a internal affairs."

It might have been politically wiser for Obama to have taken a pass on so publicly acknowledging the Dalai Lama, but he did choose not to point out that Tibet is not a Chinese internal affair but rather an example of Chinese imperialism, their having conquered and occupied Tibet since 1950, including forcing the Dalai Lama into exile.

Again, instead of walking his comments back later in the day, Obama doubled-down, having a senior aide reiterate that he intended "to be provocative," wanting to connect how the brutality of ISIS is part of a sweep of global history that frequently calls forth "a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith."

Our faith? Which one might that be?

That aside, one final question--

Ours is a free country, a secular country that protects our freedom to believe or not to believe, and, if religious, to worship as we choose. Since we are not a Christian nation, why then do our Presidents choose to attend this so-called National [Christian] Prayer Breakfast?

My recommendation--stay home and let former senator, Family member Jim De Mint, president of the Heritage Foundation run things.

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Friday, February 06, 2015

February 6, 2014--Macro Beer

Super Bowl ads often mark changes in the social culture.

This year there were all the warm and fuzzy ones that were clearly produced to pitch women who now constitute a growing, almost equal share of the NFL audience--46 percent of viewers of last week's Super Bowl were women. Forty-six percent. That's a surprising cultural shift in itself. Further, for obvious reasons, the League produced an ad that was designed to raise consciousness about the physical abuse of women. In desperate need of such conscious raising itself, the NFL probably feels it has discharged its duty.

Other ads addressed other changes in the fabric of America. One that stands out is the commercial for Budweiser that asked, "How should real beer be brewed?" Answering its own question, Bud proclaimed--"MACRO BEER." A clear slap at micro beer.

I wondered why Bud, so dominant in the beer-guzzling market, would waste millions to produce such an ad and then spend many millions more to broadcast it since and micro beer, to me, exists at the margins and comes with funny names such as Bad Tattoo, Fat Head, and the well-named Trouble.

But what do I know.

In yesterday's New York Times came the real answer--so-called craft beer now accounts for nearly 15 percent of the $100 billion US beer market. So Budweiser can no longer ignore these funky brewers, which I consider good news since Bud is literally tasteless and I am delighted to learn that more and more of the small, micro brewers are surviving. Some even thriving.

An earlier straw in the shifting cultural wind wafted by almost unnoticed two decades ago when sales of salsa surpassed ketchup. I do remember reading about that at the time but, like many others from marketing mavens to political pundits, missed the meaning, which is now so clear. Not only are Americans seeking to spice up their lives and enjoy full-bodied flavors but the population, in addition to getting older, is getting more youthful and more Latino.

Implications abound.

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Thursday, February 05, 2015

February 5, 2015--Farro Salad

In recent years there has been considerable interest in ancient wheat. Not the 4,000-year-old grain found in Egyptian tombs, placed there as sustenance for a Pharaoh making his way to the netherworld, but ancient strains of grain we can buy and use today in a variety of recipes. Strains of wheat not genetically modified and thus deemed more natural and healthier. Many would also say tastier.

If you are thus inclined, check out this wonderful salad made from Farro wheat (get the Tuscan kind if you can), leeks, chickpeas, and currants.

This recipe will serve six--

4 large leeks, halved lengthwise, cleaned, and cut crosswise in 1/4 inch slices
1 cup olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
3 1/2 half cups cooked chickpeas or two 15 ounce cans drained chickpeas
1/4 cup Meyer lemon juice from 2 lemons (or, equivalent amount of conventional lemon juice)
1/4 teaspoon red chili flakes
1 garlic clove minced
2 cups dried farro
2/3 cups dried currants
1/2 cup chopped celery leaves and tender stems

Heat oven to 425 degrees.
On large rimmed baking sheet toss leeks with 1/4 cup olive oil, half the salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper.
Spread leeks in single layer (if necessary make one-half at a time).
Roast about 20 minutes, tossing frequently, until golden brow, making sure edges are crisp.

In large bowl, mix leeks with chickpeas, 1/4 cup lemon juice, remaining salt, chili flakes, and garlic. Stir well and let marinate while preparing Farro.

In large pot of boiling salted water cook faro until tender about 20 minutes.
Drain well.

Toss with leek-chickpea mixture.
Stir in currants and celery.
Taste and add more salt and lemon juice if preferred.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

This keeps well for a week if refrigerated.

Bon app├ętit.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2015

February 4, 2015--Burned Alive

After beheading six innocent captives on elaborately produced videos, ISIS descended to a new low. Assuming anything can be lower than the kinds of things they have already perpetrated and put on barbaric display.

Yesterday they released a 22-minute-long video of the murder of Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh. He is the Jordanian A-16 pilot who was either shot down or crashed in ISIS-controlled territory. After failing to get Jordan to meet its ransom demands, they doused him in flammable liquid, put him in a steel cage, lit a fuse, and moved in for closeups as the flames ignited his garment, and  burned him to death. They then crushed him and the cage with a bulldozer.

Rather than breaking Jordan's resolve, officials there rushed to execute the first of six ISIS captives they have been holding and the military leadership vowed an "earth-shaking" retaliation. I can only imagine what that will be.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, calls have been increasing, mainly from Republican hawks--but not exclusively--to arm Syrian rebels and consider sending 10,000 American troops into the region. To put "boots on the ground."

How bad an idea is that?

Considering the reaction in Japan after two Japanese hostages were beheaded and now in Jordan, how do you think we would respond if one of our troops was captured, tortured, and either beheaded or burned alive on vivid TV?

Even with just the current bombing campaign we are leading it is likely that one or more of our pilots will crash and be captured. With troops on the ground, it is inevitable.

All of us, and I stress all, would be so justifiably outraged as to push us to do who-knows-what.

Do we need any of this? A mess and disaster of the first magnitude, sorry to remind you, brought about and catalyzed by the militant policies of the previous American administration. As we think through what to do, let's also keep that in mind.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2015

February 3, 2105--Sniping

We finally got around to seeing Clint Eastwood's Western, American Sniper.

This is not a typo, since Sniper is more a conventional Western of the sort Clint used to make than a traditional war movie.

In full Manichean mode, Eastwood is in familiar territory with forces of good confronting and overcoming, if somewhat ambiguously, evil. Good guy against bad guys.

It is also a biopic about Chris Kyle, the American sniper who during four tours of duty in Iraq is credited with at least 160 "kills." He is a Rambo figure. As Sly Stallone's Rambo single-handedly took on and defeated our stealthy enemies in Vietnam (a war we otherwise in real life were losing) Kyle takes on al-Qaeda fighters and through sniping and pitched firefights wipes out dozens of them though in real life they were and are winning.

Superheroes Rambo and Kyle help reconcile us to defeat by providing an alternate reality--that what we see on TV and read about in the papers is less real than what is on the big screen. Thus perpetuating the illusion that America has never lost a war.

One has to wonder why Sniper is doing so incredibly well at the box office, having already taken in more than $200 million. The highest grossing "war" movie of all time. What about it is appealing to Americans' consciousness?

The film puts on vivid and overwhelming display American exceptionalism, showing a self-made, unencumbered man taking on the world's evil forces. And, in a cool 2015-version of winning, prevails.

Eastwood and Stallone in their eras of American self-doubt have made careers out of such films.

But ironically, since I am certain this was not Eastwood's intent--he is a well-known conservative hawk--Sniper is more than anything a powerful antiwar movie.

Kyle is represented as heroic and undoubtedly deserves to be (sorry Michael Moore), but his heroism is not worthy of the situation--the Iraq War--in which it plays out. The war on the ground, in which Kyle and his comrades are unremittingly exemplary, is not worth the human cost. On either side. Even the heroic are drawn into the blood and gore, the purposeless and waste, and, yes, the evil that wars of this kind are.

In Sniper, in Western terms,  good outcomes prevail--more bad than good guys are killed, the principal evil-doer, Mustafa, an al-Qaeda sniper who was a Syrian Olympic marksman, is shot by Kyle after he kills three or four American soldiers; but in the end, as represented in Sniper, it means nothing, amounts to nothing.

Though our boys kill more of the elusive enemy than in turn get killed and maimed, as we are shown at the end of the film's climatic battle, which ends without a clear sense of outcome, as Kyle and his comrades withdraw from the field of battle more and more al-Qaeda fighters are shown to be streaming in.

With that, with his kills tallied, though the war will continue--it continues to this day (al-Qaeda has become ISIS)--Kyle decides it's time to go home.

And then when he does, he appears to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder but, as could only happen in a Rambo or Eastwood movie, is "cured" in less than 15 minutes of film time. At first shown sitting alone at a bar nursing a beer and brooding, after spending a few minutes with a VA psychologist, who takes him on a walk down the hospital corridor where he meets cheerful veteran amputees, Kyle is back to himself and is ready to return to his wife and children, where he is soon shot by another returning veteran, who presumably has a more enduring case of PTSD.

This, of course, is not shown on screen and thus is another way Eastwood attempts to sanitize and camouflage the reality of war's horrors. In Westerns, for the same reason, the good guys are never killed on screen. They head for the sunset.

With all this absurdity and horror to obscure and cover up, how could anyone claim that what we have been up to in Vietnam and more recently Iraq makes any sense or has any clear purpose? Including Clint.

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Monday, February 02, 2015

February 2, 2015--Halftime Show

Rona growled, "I just read they used 108 footballs in the Super Bowl. A separate one for each play."

"I wonder if they were all legally inflated."

"I think the NFL cared more how much they could sell them for as balls that used during the game."

"Everyone of them is a so-called 'game ball.'"

"Do you think they collected all the uniforms and sneakers and--"

"Jockstraps," I added. "And are selling all of that junk on eBay?"

"The same article said that balls from last year's Super Bowl XLVIII are selling on the secondary market for about $180 each so the bottom line of all this nonsense is not that huge considering the billions in other forms of revenue the Super Bowl generates."

"It's just a game but has become the single most-viewed event in America, sort of a national holiday."

"The cheapest tickets on StubHub were going for $7,000 each. And others sold for upwards of $40,000."


"I'll tell you what's really insane," Rona said, "More than 115 million viewers tuned in, though for sure it was a great game."

"Even crazier, 117 million watched Katy Perry during the halftime show. That's an even bigger mega-event."

"No surprise. She has more Twitter followers than anyone else in the world. Sixty-four million."

"Unbelievable. Who's second and third?"

"Justin Bieber has 60 million followers and the person in third place you won't believe."

"Taylor Swift?" I guessed.

"She's fourth. Guess again."


"Wrong again. She's sixth. In third place, with 54 million Twitter followers, is Barack Obama."

"I don't know if I should be depressed about this--especially the Justine Bieber numbers--or impressed that so many people know who the President of the United States is."

"Maybe," Rona quipped, "they think he's a rapper."

"Speaking of Barack Obama, do you know how many watched his recent State of the Union Address? All the networks, even Fox, carried it."

"About 52 million. I think I know where you're going with this."

"Maybe yes, maybe no."

"If more that twice as many watched Katy Perry than the SOTU, why not next year begin the halftime show with Lady Gaga or Rihanna and--"

"That would assure another 'wardrobe malfunction.'"

Ignoring me, Rona said, "And after the music and costume changes, have Obama deliver the State of the Union and--"

"And three-quarters of the 115 million viewers would take a bathroom break."

"Not if they showed a few Budweiser commercials with the Clydesdale horses and that cute lost puppy."

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