A weird spam comment

Here’s the text of a comment that our spam filter caught last night:

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Mind you, this is a single comment.  There was only one link in it, at the beginning of the comment.  My guess is that it was supposed to be 22 separate comments.  I don’t know anything about how spammers operate, so I don’t know what kind of mistake would generate such a result.

Punchline search

I started using the web back in the mid-90s, when the top search engine was Yahoo.  I loved its “ontology,” the categories and subcategories into which it divided sites.  I would sometimes click on a heading for a topic I didn’t know much about, then on a subheading that I knew even less about, and end up with links to a dizzying array of sub-sub-sub-categories I would never have dreamed existed.  It was great fun.  Long before the success of Google’s radically simple format forced Yahoo to scrap its ontology, however, I had tired of that little game, and simply typed text into the search window.  So the switch to Google was seamless for me.

I’ve been wondering if people would use Google differently today, and if the web would therefore be structured differently, if the first generation of Google users had not included such a high percentage of people whose first experience of search engines had involved a lot of time monkeying around in the labyrinth of Yahoo’ old ontology.  For people like me, the search window was a straightforward place for relatively serious business; the ontology was for goofing off.  So when Google came along, we may have used it as a tool to find fun things, but we didn’t see it as a toy in itself, not at first.

The other day I passed a few idle minutes on Google typing in punchlines, looking for the jokes that went with them.  I was surprised at how little I found.  After a moment of thought, I was surprised that I didn’t run a series of searches like that the first day I used Google.  Without the experience of the old Yahoo, I suspect I probably would have done so, and that a great many other people would have done so as well.  That initial burst of inquiries might have led to the creation of any number of sites matching jokes with punchlines.  Such sites might have become one of the major components of the web, up there with blogs devoted to people telling stories about their cats and conspiracy theories that begin in the 1960s and experiments with Photoshop.

Jail to the chief?

In the current issue of The Nation, Alexander Cockburn reminisces about the day he became a citizen of the United States of America.  On that day he and his fellows swore to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, a document which they had all been required to study, and which speaks of limits to state power and protection for the rights of the individual:

But it turns out it was all a fraud. The Uzbek down the row from me who had fled Karimov’s regime probably had no need to anticipate being boiled alive—a spécialité de la maison in Tashkent. But being roasted alive by Hellfire missile, doomed by executive order of President Obama, without due process in any court of law, for reasons of state forever secret, could theoretically lie in his future. If presidential death warrants beyond the reach of scrutiny and review by courts or juries are the mark of a banana republic, then we were all waving the flag of just such an entity.

What moves Mr Cockburn to this bitter declaration is of course the killing of Anwar al Awlaki, a killing for which the president of the United States proudly claimed responsibility.  al Awlaki may have been acquainted with some men who committed or attempted to commit acts of terrorism, and he certainly made unpleasant comments in public forums.  But the Obama administration has yet to do so much as accuse him of complicity in any violent act, much less provide evidence that he was the commander of an enemy force engaged in war on the United States, and as such a legitimate military target.  As it stands, the al Awlaki killing can be classified only as an act of murder.  Mr O’s boast that he ordered the strike is of a piece with his predecessor’s casual public admission that he ordered the torture of terrorism suspects.  Each man is serene in his belief that there is no crime he can commit that will stir the legal authorities to prosecute him.

Ought Americans who stand to Mr O’s left support a candidate to challenge him for the Democratic presidential nomination next year?  If being on the left means that one prefers the rule of law to a regime in which the president may kill and torture with impunity, one might  think the answer would be obvious.  For John Nichols, it’s more complicated.  Some might say that the best thing the president could do is resign, stand trial, and go to prison, accompanied if possible by his predecessors.  For Mr Nichols, not only is it clear that Mr O should continue in office, but it is apparently desirable that he should be reelected.  He wonders whether a primary challenger could help Mr O improve his chances of winning a second term, and seems to wish that one were on the horizon.  He doesn’t claim to know that it would work out that way:

The dramatically sped-up and concentrated primary calendar leaves little time for slow-to-develop challenges. It is already very late in the 2012 process, and no well-known Democratic official or progressive activist seems to be entertaining a run.

“We don’t even have a Pat Buchanan,” jokes Jeff Cohen, the veteran media critic and adviser to progressive candidates who is convinced that a credible primary challenger could win 30 to 40 percent of the vote in some states. Cohen argues that a primary challenger would not have to win to make a meaningful impact; a strong competitor could force Obama to sharpen his message and give progressives a significant role in defining the party. But for every progressive who argues that Obama’s re-election prospects would be improved by primary prodding from the left, there are cautionary voices like that of James Fallows, who asserts: “As for the primary challenges, what similarity do we notice between Jimmy Carter (challenged by Edward Kennedy in 1980) and George H.W. Bush (challenged by Pat Buchanan in 1992)? What we notice is: they held onto the nomination and went on to lose the general election.”

Obama is not likely to be defeated by a primary challenger. Despite the dip in his national approval ratings, polling suggests he retains relatively solid numbers with Democrats in key states—and among critical voting blocs. African-American voters, 86 percent of whom give the president favorable ratings (58 percent strongly favorable), are definitional players in Southern and a number of Great Lakes states. A ham-handed primary challenge could energize African-American voters—who, as Nation columnist Melissa Harris-Perry notes, may be inclined to ask why the equally disappointing Bill Clinton did not face a primary challenge in 1996. Such a challenge could also antagonize young people and many white liberals inclined to defend the nation’s first African-American president against what they perceive to be an unfair assault.

The prospect that the Democratic Party could divide against itself in an ugly debate gleefully amplified by right-wing media has little appeal even to Democrats who disdain Obama’s policy drift. But there is almost as much concern that a nuanced challenge from a candidate who appeals to African-American voters, such as Cornel West, would weaken the incumbent the way Ted Kennedy’s 1980 challenge to Carter and Buchanan’s 1992 run against George H.W. Bush are perceived to have undermined those presidents’ re-election.

In fact, the theory that primary challenges invariably lead to November defeats is wrong. In the past fifty years, two of the biggest presidential wins were secured by incumbents who faced meaningful primary competition. In 1964 President Johnson and his “favorite son” stand-ins had to fend off a determined challenge from Alabama Governor George Wallace, who won roughly 30 percent of the vote in two Midwestern primaries and 44 percent in Maryland. In 1972 President Nixon was challenged from the right and the left by Republican Congressmen (Ohio conservative John Ashbrook and California liberal Pete McCloskey) who attracted a combined 30 percent of the vote in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. Both Johnson and Nixon would go on to win more than 60 percent of the fall vote.

On The Nation‘s website, Dave Zirin denounces singer Hank Williams, Junior, who recently lost a gig after comparing Mr O to the late Adolf Hitler.  It is not entirely clear what it is about Mr O that reminds Mr Williams of Germany’s late tyrant.  Perhaps the fact that each head of state boasted publicly of the murders he had orchestrated, that each dispatched his air force to bomb into submission countries that posed no threat to his own, that each used his office to accelerate the dismantling of the democratic constitution under which he had come to power, and that each claimed the right to detain any number of people for any length of time without judicial process may have prompted Mr Williams to think that they bore some resemblance to one another.  Of course, since Mr Zirin is a faithful supporter of the Democratic Party, one might expect him to find ways in which Mr O is less advanced in his murderous ways than was Adolf Hitler, as faithful Republicans spent the years 2001-2009 counting the degrees that separated Mr O’s predecessor from the same benchmark of wickedness.  Strangely, Mr Zirin says nothing about Mr O other than to describe him as the “first African-American president.”  This description precedes Mr Zirin’s pronouncement of his anathema upon Mr Williams, that anathema taking the form of the label “racist.”  Such a pronouncement is a sort of ritual; to complete it, the officiant needs nothing from Mr O but his skin color.  Once this ritual element is provided, no further information about Mr O could have any possible relevance to the proceeding.

Of course, there are sound reasons why one ought not to compare active politicians to Adolf Hitler.  For one thing, using him as the all-purpose symbol of an unjust ruler gives him a satanic glamour of just the sort that the Nazis used so effectively in their seduction of the more desperate members of Germany’s middle classes in the late Weimar period.  If Hitler must be remembered, it is far better to view him with contempt, perhaps tinged with the sort of pity one feels towards people who have psychological problems that one finds uninteresting.  Besides, the history of humankind is bursting with tyrants and killers; it is dismaying indeed that we share so little knowledge of history that Hitler is virtually the only one of the evil rulers of the past whose name we can be confident will be recognized almost anywhere.  For my part, I think an apt analogy could be made between Mr O and Critias, a fifth-century Athenian who is remembered today as the uncle of the philosopher Plato and the namesake of one of his nephew’s uncompleted dialogues, but in his own day he was rather more widely known as the leader of the “Thirty Tyrants,” a group who seized power in Athens after the Peloponnesian Wars and claimed the right to govern by means of assassination.

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away”

The other day, I was eating an apple for breakfast.  My wife mentioned that a friend of ours was planning to stop by our house later that morning.  This friend is a medical doctor by occupation; I joked that I’d better stop eating the apple, since I didn’t want to keep him away.  Recognizing the play on the proverb “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” Mrs Acilius was kind enough to chuckle at my little witticism, as was our friend when I repeated the line to him.  Clearly, the proverb means something like “If you eat an apple each day, you will reduce the likelihood that you will require the professional attentions of a medical doctor.”  Since our friend’s visit was purely social, the humor of my remark arose from an ambiguity in the expression “keeps the doctor away.”  It wasn’t hugely funny, since this ambiguity is a purely formal one that has rarely confused anyone, but to the extent that it is funny at all, that’s what makes it so.

The next day, I was teaching a class.  I had a Twitter stream on the screen in front of the room, consisting of questions and answers that my students had tweeted to my work Twitter account (not to be confused with the Los Thunderlads Twitter account, or my own private Twitter account.)  There are other systems that enable students to send short items to a page that can be projected on a screen, but since Twitter is a public site and the students always have access to it, it has certain advantages.  In the middle of class, a student decided, for some reason, to share with the class a joke that has been whipping its way around Twitter of late: “A blowjob a day keeps the pimphand away.”  The class laughed, and I took advantage of the opportunity to remind them of the reasons why they should keep a separate Twitter account just for their classes.  I also spent a moment or two making fun of the offender for his need to share, then moved on.

It’s a shame the class wasn’t in lexical semantics.  If it were, I could have used the sentence “A blowjob a day keeps the pimphand away” as an example of some interesting points.  It scans the same as “”An apple a day keeps the doctor away”; “apple,” “blowjob,” “doctor,” and “pimphand” are all trochaic, and in each pair the second word has a more complex consonant structure than does the first.  So the two expressions sound very similar, but of course they differ dramatically in that one is among the most anodyne of expressions, while the other is doubly taboo, combining as it does an explicitly sexual term and an explicitly violent one.

“A blowjob a day keeps the pimphand away” also gets a laugh because it prompts us to think of similarities between the act of eating an apple and the act of performing oral sex on a man.  Each process takes a few minutes.  In each case, one performs a series of oral manipulations on an object that is, at the beginning of the process, bulbous in shape and about as long as it is wide, and in the course of those manipulations changes the object into a roughly cylindrical shape.  Also, an uneaten apple is covered with a peel, that can be any of a variety of colors, but that shows a variation of color tone around its exterior.  Once the peel is gone, the apple eater chews on the fruit inside, ending up with a mouth full of shapeless, but uniformly white, material.  The similarity to fellatio is perhaps obvious.

The relationship between “keeps the doctor away” and “keeps the pimphand away” is, perhaps, more interesting.  The phrase “the doctor” in the proverb calls up the image of a person who is a doctor; keeping that person away is supposed to mean preventing the need for a house-call.*  As my little joke of the other morning showed, the bare noun phrase “the doctor” does not by itself logically imply the idea of need for a house call, but could, to a person unfamiliar with the proverb, allow for the meaning “If you eat an apple, doctors will avoid you.”  By contrast, the phrase “the pimphand” evokes a very specific scenario.  A pimp demands that a prostitute hand over her earning to him, and slaps her in the face for refusing to do so.  Look at this image, from Urban Dictionary’s top-rated entry for “pimphand”:

Compare it with this comic strip, which Josh Fruhlinger described as featuring a “distinguished-looking senator, who isn’t so distinguished that he can’t slap an angry lake-bully with his pimp hand when he gets his dander up”:

The first picture is accepted as an illustration of the term “pimphand,” even though the man in it has few of the characteristics one associates with pimpdom, because the position of his hand suggests the sort of slap that the senator is administering in the comic strip.  So in place of the merely nominal “the doctor,” with its vague evocation of a gentle custom that is obsolete in the USA, we find an expression that may parse the same, but that definitely signifies a particular scenario of brutal violence.

*Some USA residents may never have heard of “house calls.”  This is when a doctor goes to a patient’s home to provide medical care.  These have been unknown in the USA for decades, my entire lifetime in fact, though I understand there are still places where they are common.

What matters in life

Here are the last three sentences of an opinion piece that appeared in Time magazine some time ago:

It is a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life. As such it deserves fairness, compassion, understanding and, when possible, treatment. But it deserves no encouragement, no glamorization, no rationalization, no fake status as minority martyrdom, no sophistry about simple differences in taste—and, above all, no pretense that it is anything but a pernicious sickness.

To what does that “it” refer?  By themselves, these sentences leave open several possibilities.  They sound very much like the more strident remarks that aggressive atheists make about religion.  For their part, believers have been known to reply to these remarks in kind.  People on each side of that dispute tend to build their favorite presuppositions into the way they use words like “reality” and “life,” so that each could accuse the other of offering “a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life.”  At the same time, leftists have been known to write this way about right-wingers, especially when the right-wingers in question belong to groups that the leftists see as victims of unjust policies that the right supports.  The phrase “false consciousness” may not be much in favor any longer, but there are other ways of accusing people of being deluded about what political movements are in their own best interests.  The line about “fake status as minority martyrdom” sounds just like the sort of thing left-of-center Americans are often provoked to say when their least favorite political figures claim to have suffered unfair treatment at the hands of a “liberal elite.”  Again, it is not uncommon for right-wingers respond in kind, presenting leftism as a mental illness and a sign of self-loathing.
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Indeed, just about any activity or belief of which a speaker disapproves could be attacked in the words that Time magazine used above.  If the speaker is absorbed in a rival activity or committed to an opposing system of belief, it may seem obvious that Time‘s description is perfectly accurate.  For example, when I was in graduate school, I was entirely immersed in the study of ancient Greece and Rome.  For years, I and my fellow students averaged something between 80-100 hours a week studying the languages, literatures, histories, and material remains of classical antiquity.  We socialized primarily with each other, and modeled ourselves on our professors.  So by the middle of our grad school years, we came to take it for granted that every walk of life that did not advance classical learning was a waste of time, a poor consolation for people who couldn’t make it in classics.  We had entered graduate school with a more balanced view, and by the time we entered the job market most of us were on our way back to that balance, but for most of us there was a period starting sometime around the end of the first year and ending sometime before the fourth year when it was hard to take anything outside of classics at all seriously.  I suspect we would all have nodded in agreement if someone had described, say, a career in the insurance industry as “a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality,” etc.
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Of course, classical scholarship is not one of the most powerful or celebrated professions in the twenty-first century.  So once a person emerges from the odd little world of a graduate program in classics, that person is unlikely to continue taking it for granted that classicists are the only successful professionals.  Other fields enjoy far more  prestige; their practitioners are in much greater danger of becoming unalterably attached to the idea that they and their colleagues have a monopoly on wisdom.  Businesspeople, scientists, and medical doctors seem to number among their ranks many people whose intellectual development is permanently stunted in the condition of the second-year grad student.  For these individuals, the boundaries of “reality” and “life” are the boundaries of their disciplines, and anything outside those boundaries is a “substitute for reality” and a “flight from life,” and people who dwell out there are sad cases to be taken gently, but firmly, in hand.
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Political and religious beliefs are even more likely to swallow up a person’s conception of success in life than is a sense of the importance of one’s profession, and certainly less likely to spit that conception back out into the open air.  So it is small wonder that left and right, atheist and believer might see each other in the light that Time magazine describes.  For each ideological group, it seems obvious which things truly matter in life, and people who are uninterested in those things and devoted to others must therefore be fools who are suffering from some peculiar sort of disorientation.  Any influence such fools have on those around them is, of course, dangerous and requires action to reassert the more wholesome values.
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So, these sentences represent, on the one hand a content-free insult, but on the other hand the writer’s confession of faith.  What he was attacking as unreal, unliving, and pernicious was the direct negation of what he thought of as most plainly real, lively, and wholesome. To find out who Time magazine was insulting, turn to the original article (which I found here.)

“If politicians would stop arguing, they could work together– to get things done! Doesn’t matter what! Just, you know– things!”

The other day, The Monkey Cage featured a post called “Why Does Congress Flail?  Voters Reward Positions More than Success.”  As the title implies, the premise of the post was that the US Congress has been relatively ineffective in passing major legislation of late because its members know that their jobs depend, not on passing bills into law, but on striking poses that resonate with the ideological leanings of their constituents.

In a comment, I challenged the first part of the premise.  In the last ten years, the US Congress has in fact passed a great deal of major legislation, changing American government and American life far more profoundly than in almost any other epoch of US history.  Among this legislation are bills funding several wars, permitting the president to wiretap virtually anyone he likes, maintaining indefinite detention of persons accused of terrorism, creating the Department of Homeland Security, formalizing a variety of terrorism watch-lists, adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, requiring citizens to buy health insurance, dramatically expanding the federal role in education, handing a trillion dollars of taxpayers’ money to Goldman Sachs and companies friendly to it, and repeatedly cutting taxes on the largest incomes, to name just a few measures with vast ramifications.  It’s true that members of congress rarely cite these achievements in their reelection bids.  That isn’t because they are unimportant, but because none of them is at all popular.  If these acts constitute “success,” then it is no wonder voters don’t reward it.  Rather, it is a mystery that voters don’t punish such “success” by deserting both the Republican and Democratic parties, and replacing their entire set of political leaders.

Yet one still hears Americans who wish to be regarded as “moderate,” or “centrist,” or “responsible” say that top elected officials in Washington should stop battling with each other so that they can be more effective at “getting things done.”  I’ve found that the people who say this seem puzzled when I point out how much has “gotten done” in Washington since 2001 .  What seems equally difficult for them to grasp is the point Tom Tomorrow makes in this cartoon::