Tuesday, December 24, 2002

It is Islamic doctrine that the Koran is not truly translatable, and some (perhaps all) schools hold it blasphemous to even try to translate it. By contrast it is a glory of Christianity that the New Testament is translatable, with the unsurpassed parables of Jesus helping define things. ("Who is my neighbor?" he asked, and Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan.) When God sent angels to us, he didn't demand that the men and women who heard him first take a crash course in Arabic--He spoke to them in their own languages.

Saturday, December 21, 2002

I received this letter:

"The holiday season brings several images to mind. Laughing with visiting family and friends, cozying up to a warm fire, trimming the tree and sipping hot chocolate are just a few. I hope that you and your loved ones are already enjoying these simple pleasures and that your home is providing you with many happy memories during the holidays and throughout the year."

"Now is the perfect time to reflect on what truly matters. I want you to know that I value your business relationship. If you ever have questions regarding your mortgage, please feel free to call or stop by my office."

"You have my warmest wishes for a joyous holiday season and a new year filled with happiness.

Sincerely," Name removed to protect the guilty

I'm thankful for the hint to what truly matters. . . . I suppose I should change my life accordingly.

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Fish and Visitors Stink in Three Days

Its beginning to sound a lot like Christmas, and aren't you fed up with it already? The daughter who works at WalMart yelps if somebody starts playing our CD of Christmas songs. She says the store plays a 1-hour Christmas music tape on endless repeat, and she can't stand any more. She voices, loudly, what the rest of us feel--I don't know anybody who doesn't start feeling bored with the caroling long before the 25'th. When I worked at Sears in Chicago, we had the same Christmas muzak tape every year, including a dreary flute instrumental of "Christmas in Killarney." At least the rhythm was regular. The WalMart tape plays a lot of pop Christmas, and the singers can't count. And they think sliding all over the note sounds cool. E.

Why do we have to be bored? I'm told there are thousands of carols to choose from, in many variations--the music should be a feast! OK, OK. A large chunk of the songs are in Latin and French, and quite a number use musical styles not very common these days. They might be a wee bit tough to understand.

  • The holiday is schizophrenic. The core of it is a one or two day celebration of Jesus' birth. This celebration is the focus of the vast majority of those afore-mentioned carols. But in order to sell lots of stuff, we've parlayed a 2-day festival into a 2-month potlatch "Season." You can gird yourself up to smile and be happy for a day when somebody else is celebrating, but 2 months worth of "Happy Holidays!" will bust a gasket somewhere. And what's the deal with "Happy Holidays" when I'm working hard through 90% of the "holiday season?" OK, OK. Jesus said we were to love each other, and I suppose people are trying hard to work up some appearance of love using smiles and gift giving. "Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue."
  • The religious carols and the older secular carols are very much more focused on "the day," and so feel out of place when Christmas is still many weeks away. Imagine how you'd feel with people singing Happy Birthday at you for a month before your actual birthday--it feels pretty meaningless after a while, doesn't it?
  • The modern secular carols fall into only two categories: the I Yust Go Nuts At Christmas fed-up-with-Christmas-carols carols and the unremittingly happy Silver Bells type. Frankly, I never feel any of Rudolph's pain--the song is far too peppy. Two months: no, two days of White Christmasy songs makes me long for a touch of reality.

    Compare the lyrics for yourself:
    "A thrill of hope--the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn"
    "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas just like the ones I used to know, where the treetops glisten and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow."
    If I must sit through either song a dozen times, I'd rather hear the one that knows about the sorrow as well as the joy, and that talks of active hope rather than foggy reminisces.

  • To make matters worse for the secular carols, there really aren't very many good ones. Most carol collections used on the radio and shopping centers pick from the secular set and a very restricted set of very familiar religious carols, presumably to keep from offending non-Christians and from giving Christians unmerchandisable ideas ("ye who seek to bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing" from Good King Wenceslas). The result: I can't think off the top of my head of more than 50-80 songs I hear regularly.

    At from 2 to 3 minutes per song (ever notice that the stores play shorter versions?), that comes to less than 3 hours of playing time, and more like 2. Visit 4 stores (15 minutes each) and you're already likely to be hearing the same tune repeated, not counting what you hear on the radio and on commercials and ... and ... Of course, the stores don't want you paying attention to the music, so don't expect dramatic themes.

  • Can things be more dismal? Every singer thinks she needs to inflict her own style on the old carols in a Christmas CD. It stands as a testimony to the quality of the originals that they hold up as well as they do under the onslaught of the random stresses and tempo changes that pass for emoting. It is the aural equivalent of putting the Mona Lisa in a circus pink frame.

I suppose I'm being a tiny bit unfair to the merchants. We use Thanksgiving and Christmas to honor families. That's not a lot of time for people so important, so we try to stretch it out a bit. The two months of sweet songs isn't entirely a sales ploy. Some of it is because we feel guilty for neglecting our families and try to make it up. I guess I shouldn't complain too much: we mean well. Sometimes.

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Everybody puts up cartoons or other amusements on the door of their office or work area around here. No one artist provides the majority of the work, but Dilbert is very popular--except in the Business school. I wonder why.

I know that journalism largely consists in saying "Lord Jones Dead" to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive.
G.K. Chesterton, The Wisdom of Father Brown

Friday, December 06, 2002

Reporting the Earthquake

The San Jose (Loma Prieta) earthquake of 1989 coverage illustrates a fatal problem with the way our news media work.

We have friends in San Jose, so as soon as we heard of the earthquake we turned on the TV news, which ran steady coverage. We couldn't call, since some phone lines were out and the rest jammed, so we had only the broadcasts to tell us where the damage was.

The talking heads didn't have a lot of info at first either, and had to keep urgently repeating what little they knew for the benefit of people who had just tuned in. The Goodyear blimp found a real use for a change, turning the camera away from the ballfield to the damaged city.

A building had caught fire, and the blimp kept its camera zoomed in on that house for the next few hours, oblivious to the rest of the city, until the blimp ran out of fuel and started getting blown out to sea. No doubt this footage told a story--of trouble and struggle and eventual victory. Cute. But what I, and the rest of the country wanted to know was: is that typical? Was the whole city burning? Or was it unscathed and this the only problem? What was going on?

By focusing on the dramatic, the news producers effectively lied to us about the city.

What should they have done? Panned the city of course. Sweep back and forth, and zoom in on random spots. Once that footage is in hand, then select the hot spots. Intersperse current footage of the hotspots with rerunning that whole-city pan: that would have satisfied their lust for exciting footage with our desire for accurate information, or at least a representative picture of the troubles.

They could also have put up a map with little colored stickers to show where they'd had phone calls from (telling which regions had phone service), color coded to tell how much damage the informant had seen. That would have been simple and effective, and maybe even useful to rescue workers.

Of course, any time you read a news report (or watch one) of a situation you have detailed knowledge of, you're astonished at how inaccurate the result is. I served on a grand jury once, and never did the news report of a crime closely resemble the testimony we heard later. When the science reporters unburden themselves of a story on a field I know something about, they never get it straight--not even the biggest name newspapers (though they do make fewer and subtler mistakes).

Its an old story: reporters have to get the story fast and and make it interesting, and accuracy loses. Trying to make the story exciting (over and above interesting) makes it even worse. And when you spend months trying to make a measurement accurate and understand the errors, to see it hawked out of context as a barely recognizable claim . . . you can despair of the human race sometimes.

Bat Ye'or's The Dhimmi

is not a book to read if you have a short temper. She clearly documents that in the heartlands of Islam hatred and oppression of non-Moslems is built into the culture and the law--and in Islam law and religion are not clearly distinguished.

She does not address Islam in Asia or in non-Arab Africa or the Pacific, which makes it difficult to determine how well the doctrines requiring such degradation travel. That would be a very interesting data point--is it Islam that is intolerant or Arab culture? I see today some tantalizing references to sharia elsewhere, but haven't read the book he refers to. A researcher would have to exclude recent history, dating from the era in which Saudi-funded madrasa-type schools have spread Wahabism.

One of her claims is that the dhimmis ("protected person") holds his protected status not by right but by withholdable grant, and that the protection is from the righteous punishment they would otherwise receive at the hands of their Moslem neighbors. Another observation is that there was a collective aspect to the dhimmi's abasement, and if a Christian or Jew held a position of authority, dhimmis responsible for the insolence, and thus liable to death for breaking the covenant.

The application of the rules dhimmis to the current conflict with Israel is obvious--Jews ruling part of the heart of dar alIslam is seen as an arrogant attack on holy law and a violation of the dhimmis contract of abasement, and collective punishment (execution or enslavement) must follow.

Thursday, December 05, 2002

Words, words, words

I'm tired of hearing meaningless or useless words; and I plead for us all to let them lie fallow for a few decades, until they rebuild their vigor and meaning.

RACIST It could be a useful word; it describes an attitude still not that uncommon in the world. I don't hang around with racists, but I've met a few, and the newspaper keeps me informed about others. Unfortunately the term was so overused in the 80's and 90's that it became merely a term of generic abuse. To this day if I hear the word used the odds are overwhelming that it is either used by a black person to refer to a non-black person who dares disagree, or by an Arab about a Jew.

LIBERAL I have no idea what this word means anymore. In the senses used at the start of the 20'th century, it could refer to Reagan. US reporters in other countries use it to refer to people they like. In this country, what does it refer to: economic policy, social/cultural policy, theological position, or somebody who gives generously of his money when a friend is in trouble; or some combination of these? Or is it just a term of abuse? I give up.

MILITANT Newspapers use this promiscuously to describe people ranging from a mother carrying a sign in a street parade to ben Laden. This utterly obscures the real differences among advocating change, advocating violence, being destructive, being a soldier, and being murderous.

NAZI Yes, there are a few real Nazi's around, and it is hard to understand history without it, but with calls of "Feminazi" on the one hand and "Bush is a Nazi" on the other, we can safely conclude that the word has no meaning any more beyond abuse.

Some words and phrases aren't likely to ever acquire useful meanings.

HOMOPHOBE An attempt to use the language of psychiatric illness to defame someone who disagrees with you about the morality or desirability of homosexuality. It hasn't any discernible meaning beyond abuse. I can safely ignore most of what you say if you throw around abuse like this.

PRO-CHOICE Why not be frank, and say pro-abortion?

PRO-LIFE Actually a little more frank than pro-choice, but still, why not say anti-abortion and anti-euthanasia? OK, it takes more syllables...

My youngest daughter was making up a story about zebras eating flowers the other night when it occurred to me that I haven't seen as many holes gnawed in flower petals as in leaves. Are flower petals as nutritious as leaves? My first guess is no, since there's no obvious chlorophyll, so presumably not much sugar available. On the other hand, pollen is supposed to be mostly protein, which is a plus: bees seem to like it. However, bees are designed to get at the pollen without eating the flower petals, so maybe the petals are unpalatable. Some flowers are edible as that excerpt from Edible Flowers suggests. This site notes that some can be poisonous; though it makes lots of claims about healing which I won't vouch for. The author suggests avoiding the flower internals and concentrating on the petals.

So I tentatively conclude that petals are somewhat nutritious, but designed to be unpalatable to bugs.

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

Ever notice that "gym clothes" is an oxymoron?

Monday, December 02, 2002

Whenever I start feeling happy about our culture, something comes up that leaves me sick. Webcams in a coffin. Death is humiliating enough. For the love of God, or for the love of humanity, or for the love of courtesy, please don't gloat over a man's humiliation. Executive summary of article, which will become inaccessible: Some people are putting webcams in coffins, a movie has been made already; interview with a man who wants to and his family members.