May 27, 2004

So cutting edge it kind of hurts.

So now I feel all advanced, what with my ah, perspicacious remarks the other day about comparing NYT coverage of Abu Ghraib to the Wall Street Journal's coverage of it. Stephen Den Beste over at the flagship USS Clueless has a short article on the same matter of media bias today (though he's assessing Reuters/AP coverage of President Bush's speech Tuesday).

Good for me, eh?

I had kind of planned to say a few things about the Sarin shell in Iraq, which contained the fairly staggering quantity of four liters of the stuff; but it turns out that Bravo Romeo Delta, one of the good folks over at Anticipatory Retaliation, and who is a much better writer on munitions than I am, has already said it better. A single four-liter Sarin artillery shell could kill 10,000 people if the agents fully mixed and dispersed, making it unquestionably a WMD. That two agents in separate chambers of the same shell would have to mix in order to produce Sarin, and they were mostly drained without mixing them, is what resulted in our soldiers being exposed only to traces of Sarin, rather than a whole lot of it. As I understand it, simply detonating the shell (rather than launching it ballistically and dropping it from great height) wouldn't likely mix and disperse the gas effectively anyway, so the roadside bomb had no real chance of creating a cloud of aeresolized Sarin.

That only a trace of Sarin came out of the shell and the rest was Sarin precursors doesn't change a bit that this was a chemical weapon which was designed, built, owned, and--evidently, since Hans Blix didn't find it--hidden by Saddam in the runup to the war. Don't forget about the MiG-25 Foxbat which Saddam had had buried in the desert, and which took us five months after the fall of Saddam to find. Little containers of highly nasty stuff will not be easy to find, even if it hasn't been moved to Syria.

So instead of talking about Sarin, I instead ask: when was the last time John Kerry said anything bad about how many jobs we've lost under This President? I braved the trolls long enough to wade through the Official John Kerry For President Blog, and find the category on policy remarks. There I found that in fact Kerry last referenced jobs in a way that his blog thought important enough to report on 5/7/2004--quite a change of pace from only a couple of months ago when jobs were literally an everyday complaint of his. The 5/7/2004 remarks are almost ironic, coinciding as they did with the release of an excellent labor report which showed an increase of 288,000 jobs (after big gains the two previous months as well). I did notice that he has now again, in this blog entry entitled "Jobs Up, but the Middle Class Squeeze Continues," repeated the quite fallacious claim that we are "still in the worst job recovery since the Great Depression, with 2.2 million private-sector jobs lost in the Bush presidency."

This 2.2 million jobs claim hasn't been true for months and was always more than just a little bit spurious. Let's just spend a minute to bring our facts up to date.

In December 2000 (just days before Bush took office), Total Nonagricultural Employment according to the payrolls survey was 131,878,000. (The original release of the data in the December 2000 report showed employment higher than that, but it was subsequently revised down.) As of the release of the report on 5/7/2004 which triggered Kerry's above-quoted tantrum, Total Nonagricultural Employment was 130,902,000. This is a reduction of 976,000; not 2.2 million. There's lots that could be said about interpreting what the 976,000 figure really means, but at least using the correct numbers when commenting on employment data would lend some credibility, not to say honesty, to Kerry's statement.

Though I haven't personally heard Kerry say anything foolish about jobs lately, I have had a number of opportunities to hear him whinge about gas prices. This business of the price of gas is also a fascinating subject, one which I will have (lo!) more to say about tomorrow or Friday.

Posted by JKS at 05:42 AM | Comments (0)

May 24, 2004


I spent the entire weekend trying to recover from Thursday.

Thursday night I had to do some work at a western Michigan customer site in the overnight hours since it would involve causing temporary but widespread outages in their customer's services. So I went to bed at 8:00P on Thursday and got up just after midnight Friday morning and went to work. I finished all my disruptive work at about 6:00A, checked my email and had a bit of breakfast, and decided I had nothing better to do than to keep working since I wasn't really all that tired. Hm.

At about 2:00P I was about ready to call it a day, and headed into Chicago to pick up my brother, which put me coming into the I-80/90/94/294 bottleneck at a bad time of day, though frankly I think most times of day are bad times to encounter this stretch of highway. The worst of it saw me take about an hour to cover six miles. With a few delays in town and some minor but puzzling problems with the truck on the way home, we didn't get back to my fair Ohio community until 2:00A Saturday morning, at which point I realized--poof!--I had been awake for 26 hours and was starting to get a little loopy.

Six hours later I was awake again, and between the crying baby and the weekend festivities and the dog and whatnot, it was 9:00P Sunday night and I had had enough--no mas--so after putting the babies to bed I crashed hard and feel miraculously better this morning.

So much to write about after being away for two weeks. Where to begin?

I do intend to bore all of you with some recounting of my fabulous trip to New York, so--although I don't think I'll get to that today--none of you are off the hook for hearing about my trip. But more on that later.

Time to catch up on the actual news. A brief note on the whole Abu Ghraib business:

There is the occasional bad person everywhere. Some of them even conspire to be bad together. No one claims Americans are all angels, or that the American military is comprised solely of angels either, just because we live under democracy (actually a republic). Democracy doesn't make the people who live under it better, but it does generally provide for the rule of law, and the punishment of the guilty.

James Madison, in Federalist 51, wrote:

[W]hat is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

Spc Jeremy Sivits is now in jail for his role in the Abu Graib debacle. And he won't likely be the last. In that same article, Lt General Sanchez told the Senate Armed Services Committee that abuse of prisoners in Iraq will be investigated thoroughly up the chain of command, specifically saying "and that includes me."

All this is as it should be. The particularly guilty should go to jail, and likely will. The senior NCOs and commissioned platoon commanders responsible for the facility where all this took place have demonstrated, at best, gross negligence in being ignorant of what happened under their command, even if they knew nothing of the abuses and didn't order them. Some administrative penalty should be levied against them for not maintaining better control of their units.

Sanchez, puzzlingly, had previously provided for certain interrogation techniques like stress positions and sleep deprivation, provided they were administered only with his written authorization. While these clearly violate some of the Geneva Conventions, they would not necessarily violate the fourth Convention, which deals with the occupying force maintaining order and contemplates non-uniformed detainees. This was probably an aggressive, perhaps marginal, reading of the Conventions, but which was probably not illegal as such. The acts at Abu Ghraib were clearly beyond the scope of techniques contemplated in Lt Gen Sanchez's order, and it's hard to believe that he would have actively encouraged such practices. More likely, if he is actually complicit in this fiasco, he may have created a system in which such offenses were not quickly or aggressively investigated. I do hope the matter is investigated fully up the chain of command, including Lt Gen Sanchez, and the guilty or negligent parties punished as appropriate.

For now, Sivits is in jail and has been booted from the Army. At this early stage, I'd have to say this is an example of the system working to clean up a mess after the fact. It's just too bad it didn't prevent it to begin with. It's harder to convince the average Iraqi (or the "average," meaning non-Al Queda, Iraqi insurgent) that we're there only to help them to develop a free system of government when we have our own soldiers pull this kind of stunt. "A lot of Marines may get killed because of these idiots [the Army prison guards]," said 1st Lt. Justin Engelhardt, 28 years old, of Denison, Iowa. (Marines in Iraq See Prison Photos Creating Enemies, Wall St Journal 5/10/2004)

Now the way the press has played this is a little interesting. In New York as this thing was breaking into the news, on Monday morning at our hotel there was a stack of New York Times and a stack of Wall Street Journals in the lounge. The Times, on 5/10/2004, had two full-page columns (of six) on its front page dedicated to Abu Ghraib, (after at least as much in the Sunday edition), and all of pages 8, 9, 12 and 14 (apart from ad space) dedicated to Iraq and Abu Ghraib in particular. The front page included a two-column-wide color photo.

The Journal had most of one column on the first page with no photo. Inside, pages 10 and 11 featured the fallout from Abu Ghraib (except for ad space).

One may ask, perhaps just rhetorically, why the Times would be more aggressive in showing something it supposes to be embarrassing to the current Administration in an election season. Anyone who suggests there is no bias (perhaps even just an unintended one) in the mainstream media in favor of discrediting George Bush could perhaps explain this to me.

Tomorrow! Sarin nerve gas, and why we all say "bringing democracy to the middle east," when it's actually the Republican form of government, just like what we have here.

Posted by JKS at 01:14 PM | Comments (0)

May 07, 2004

Big Apple bound

I and the missus are off the the Big Apple for the weekend for our tenth wedding anniversary. It's our first visit to New York. We're taking an Amtrak train (having hired a sleeper cabin) which leaves tonight at 1 AM. The kids, who I miss already, are with their grandparents this weekend--bless their hearts, they who have forgotten the "I need a hug" ploys associated with threeyearolddom. I hope they're still speaking to us when we return home, at least enough to buy them dinner as a thankyou.

So! No blogging this weekend naturally, but I hope to have time to write a bit come Tuesday night when I return.

Have a good weekend all!


Posted by JKS at 03:12 AM | Comments (4)

May 03, 2004


For those of you wondering somewhat about the shortage of current posts here, all I can say is that last week was just about the busiest I can remember dating back to my sordid life as a college student.

In the summer of 1995 I took the rather bold approach to life that working full time in the restaurant business and attending school full time during a half-length summer semester would somehow work out OK. I was within six months of graduating and I absolutely needed to take these two classes: FIN 450 (Problems in Corporate Finance, I believe was its formal name) and POM 374 (Intro to Productions and Operations Management). These were probably the two worst classes I could have chosen for my little adventure into sleep deprivation that summer.

POM 374 I had taken twice before, struggled, and dropped just before the cutoff date both times. I hated that class and everything about it. I found the entire subject matter irritating, obsessed as it was with saving a quarter-second per assembled unit by having the worker place his parts bins on a shelf six inches above his work bench instead of hanging from a bag six inches below his work bench, then multiplying the resultant quarter-second efficiency by ten trillion parts per year, and announcing that through the miracles of POM (the instructor actually used it as a word, "pom," in discussion) she had made the company millions of dollars which the workers would otherwise have simply wasted on unneeded arm movements transferring coffee to mouth and so forth. I don't know why I hated it as much as I did, but I had kind of a visceral reaction to the whole thing and I considered the class would have been better entitled "the study of man as a machine." I'm certain there were other things discussed in the class but I can't remember what they were.

I was a Finance major, and FIN 450 was supposed to be sort of the crowning achievement of a Finance major's undergraduate career. It was the one class which could not be taken lightly or casually. I recall that I had to prepare two long case studies and five short case studies in an eight-week semester. My professor was one of those who after the fact you respect and admire greatly, but during the class he allows no slack or no shortcuts, and if he suspects a student is just phoning in his work he'll crucify him.

I had already discovered earlier in my college career that my technical writing (finance and economics, mostly) was pretty good when I was called to do it, but the process of producing a finished paper took far longer than it did for others. So on these short case studies (3,000 words or so) I would spend 20-30 hours writing. On the long ones (7,000 words or so) I would spend about 40 hours writing. On more than one occasion the 30 hours in question was entirely performed during the last 31 hours before the paper was due; in fact during that eight-week semester I somehow managed at least one and often two all-nighters during every single week.

At the time I was working as a line cook. After a few weeks of this nonsense I found I was literally falling asleep standing up at work, and that I'd suddendly snap back vaguely awake and be aware that I had no idea what I was doing or looking at. This was not popular with the other cooks, or the wait staff, or anyone else presumably; so I developed a surefire method to combat fatigue when this began to happen.

1. Fill a restaurant-size water pitcher with ice.
2. Pour an entire pot of coffee over the ice.
3. Mix in several tablespoons hershey's syrup or sugar or whatever else is handy.
4. Try to drink the resultant product in under 20 seconds.

This actually worked pretty well as far as staying awake is concerned. Now I think it would more likely kill me.

By the time it was over, my initial theory that it would all work out was rather surprisingly proven correct. I got an A- in the Finance class and a B or B- or something in the other absurd class. And I haven't tried anything so silly since then, until last week.

I am attending classes at the local college here to round out my accounting education as a complement to my finance degree. I need three more accounting classes to be able to sit for the CPA exam, which I expect will happen by this time next year. So this semester I am taking one auditing class and had a paper due analysing the accounting elements of the WorldCom scandal. Nothing big, about 2,500 words, but it hit me on a bad week when work had me travelling all over Michigan and working crazy hours (Tuesday I left at 7 AM and returned home at midnight). So at 1 AM the night before the paper is due, I discover that (ta-da) it has to be written in some formal MLA style.

Now most analytical papers are more concerned with the analysis than the presentation, since generally there's not really much in the way of outside sources to reference. And I tested out of all my composition and English classes in college (thank you, AP and CLEP) so I hadn't written a paper in a formal MLA style since I was a senior in high school lo these many years ago. And I didn't like it much then either.

The big problem is that I don't much like pointless rules of formatting. Writing is supposed to be an expression or a communication, and the biggest test of it is whether the reader is able to understand and/or act upon what you've written. This kind of crap I really couldn't care less about:

Using either footnotes or endnotes, writers refer their readers to citations and reference lists by means of a number at the end of a sentence, phrase or clause containing the language or idea requiring citation. The number appears as a superscript.15 No space appears between the period and the superscript number. There should be four spaces between the last line of text and the first footnote on each page. Footnotes should be first-line indented and single-spaced with a double-space between each footnote. If necessary, a footnote can be carried into a subsequent page. In that event, on the second page, create a solid line two spaces below the last line of text, include another double-space and then finish the footnote. Double-space before the next footnote.


This, lest I fail to cite my sources, and it be interpreted as a vain attempt at irony, is from A Writer's Practical Guide to MLA Documentation, on the internet from the good people at Capital Community College. My first thought on this is why should I or my reader care whether my footnotes are first-line indented or not? My second thought is significant irritation at having to exert considerable effort into complying with utterly arbitrary and meaningless form guides. It's a major distraction which adds nothing whatever to my ability to communicate to the paper's audience.

I enjoy writing and I am fascinated by the English language. I expect most bloggers, for whom writing is a hobby, share these sentiments. I could never perform James Lileks' job, producing 5,000 words of pith every day. As I said, even though I think the end result of my writing efforts is usually reasonably competent, I'd go hungry if I had to write for a living and they paid me by the word. Writing for me takes some work, but since I like the end result I still find it interesting and satisfying to do. I've developed something of a style, which isn't unique by any means, but since it's fairly consistent across all the essays I write I don't think it would be inappropriate to call it a style, even though certainly not a grand style or anything. But a style is just whatever the author wants to include in his toolbox for purposes of communication.

Which means that, once a writer is sufficiently versed in the "proper" way to write and use English, he can then use his own judgment as to when to violate the guidelines if doing so will aid in communicating the message. I end sentences in prepositions all the time, especially in speaking. I split infinitives at least as often as not. And you know what? It turns out that both of those rules we all learned as kids are not so much rules but guidelines, and there's no one to apologize to when you don't comply with them.

I read a fascinating book by Bill Bryson a couple of years ago, called The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way. Bryson points out that English, unlike French, has no official usage body to determine grammatical rules, pronunciation, or even spelling. Look up the word banal in any good dictionary to get a sense of the flexibility in pronunciation allowed even among usage boards and other quasi-official bodies. English is just a beautiful cobbled-together language with nothing other than actual usage, not prescribed usage, to provide for structure.

Bryson points out two excellent examples of the triviality of some of the guidelines common in English usage, and why no writer need apologize for violating these guidelines if the essay requires it. The origins for two of the more perplexing rules—the proscriptions of the split infinitive, and the sentence-ending preposition—are illuminating.

The manner in which Latin verbs are conjugated structurally prevents any infinitive from being split in that language. The proscription of the split infinitive in English is one of many attempts to impose Latin grammatical structure onto English; in this case, it seems to be no more than a philosophical suggestion that if so pure and elegant a language as Latin has no split infinitives, then certainly English should not either. This attempt to impose Latin structure onto English was common six hundred years ago when even England used Latin as its official language for legal and government documents.

The business of the sentence-ending preposition is equally trivial, and somewhat more amusing. The rule derives from the very name preposition, itself of Latin descent, from which rule makers inferred that the preposition must be “pre positioned”—i.e., placed before—something, else it clearly would cease to be a preposition. Any word at the end of a sentence clearly fails that test. Decades of school children frustrated by the whimsical application of silly rules conjured up with a metaphorical snap of the fingers.

Which is part of why I love English--the flexibility it provides for the writer to get his point across. And in subjecting myself to the MLA's double-spaced reign of terror, I was back in high school again, wondering why I couldn't split my infinitive if I thought it was more emphatic that I ordered someone to not set fire to the trash pile, rather than simply telling him not to do it. So I stayed up till 5:00A finishing this damn fool double-spacing and footnote first line indenting and careful formatting of the works cited page instead of working on my weblog, which would have been much more enjoyable for all of us.

Someday I may even establish my links and try to spruce up the page a little bit. Tomorrow.


Posted by JKS at 04:29 AM | Comments (2)