Tuesday, January 31, 2006

It's illegal to break the law.

While I'm sure this will be observed by countless others, I can't let it pass.

A high-profile arrest was made at the U.S. Capitol tonight:
Peace activist Cindy Sheehan was arrested Tuesday in the House gallery after refusing to cover up a T-shirt bearing an anti-war slogan before President Bush's State of the Union address.

"She was asked to cover it up. She did not," said Sgt. Kimberly Schneider, U.S. Capitol Police spokeswoman, adding that Sheehan was arrested for unlawful conduct, a misdemeanor.
That's the charge? "Unlawful conduct"? Isn't that sort of implicit and therefore redundant and therefore ridiculous? When was the last time someone was arrested and charged with lawful conduct? I'd like to read the statute in question here. "It shall not be legal to do that which is illegal," perhaps.

(Do not confuse recognition of absurdity with support or approval of Cindy Sheehan. There is none of the latter here.)

If any lawyer would like to explain why this isn't ridiculous after all, I'd welcome the clarification.

Friday, January 20, 2006



This is great news. Eggagog is back. One day after I resigned myself to his enduring absence from the blogosphere and removed him from my blogroll, he's put up his first post in almost four months. This is indeed fun to make a blog on the computer website.

Let's hope he keeps at it.

Update: False alarm. It looks as though that post was the decoy, and we were the creeps who were confused into thinking he was back at it.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Burning the Alexandria Library

Tim Cavanaugh put up a post on Reason's Hit & Run blog yesterday about "an interesting brouhaha result[ing] from Pope Benedict XVI's alleged comments on Islam and the possibility of reinterpreting the Quran." The title of the post, which wasn't referenced further in the piece but shares with it an underlying principle, was "If it accords with the Quran it is unnecessary and can be burned. If it doesn't accord with the Quran it is heresy and must be burned."

That quotation, while phrased differently elsewhere, is surely a reference to the command of the Caliph 'Umar concerning the great library at Alexandria after the Muslim conquest of that city in the seventh century. Since Cavanaugh only quotes it in passing, it's difficult to know whether he means to refer to it as historical fact or as legend. It's worth noting, though, that it's the latter.

I probably wouldn't have recognized it all if I hadn't been reading earlier this week Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles. Battles relates the story of a Coptic priest, John the Grammarian, who in 641 asked the Muslim conqueror Amr what was to be done with the famous library.
The general replied, however, that he could not decide the fate of the books without consulting Caliph Omar. The caliph's answer, quoted here from Alfred J. Butler's Arab Conquest of Egypt, is infamous: "Touching the books you mention, if what is written in them agrees with the Book of God, they are not required; if it disagrees, they are not desired. Destroy them therefore." According to tradition, the scrolls were bundled up and delivered as fuel to the city's baths, where it is said they fueled the furnaces for six months.
Some on the web are today passing this on as historical fact, sometimes for the apparent purpose of disparaging either Islam specifically or religion generally. However, as Dex at The Straight Dope puts it, "this story is almost certainly apocryphal, invented in the 12th century." Battles again:
In fact, the story as we know it may have been invented by one Ibn al-Qifti, a twelfth-century [or thirteenth] Sunni chronicler. According to the Egyptian classicist Mostafa el-Abbadi, al-Qifti may have invented the story to justify the sale of books by the twelfth-century Sunni ruler Saladin, who sold off whole libraries to pay for his fight against the Crusaders.
While Battles does note that "despite its possible Islamic origin...the story has been handed down in the West as an Orientalist lament for the fate of Hellenic learning in the heathen East," this Wikipedia article considers no Islamic origin and instead asserts that claims of 'Umar's library destruction simply "are generally regarded as a Christian attack on Muslims."

While it's possible these claims are generally regarded that way, we can find a persuasive rebuttal for such an explanation from Princeton's Bernard Lewis. Lewis is professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at the university and has been described as "one of the world's foremost authorities on the Middle East" and "a towering figure among experts on the culture and religion of the Muslim world." There was a very interesting 2003 Wall Street Journal article about him that's worth reading.

In 1990, Lewis wrote a piece for The New York Review of Books, wherein he expresses his astonishment that a reviewed book found credible the story of 'Umar's destruction order and proceeds to set the record straight. It could be Lewis's work that Battles draws on in his 2003 book; it certainly seems to provide the details behind the conclusion Battles presents succinctly.

Lewis first notes,
This story first became known to Western scholarship in 1663, when Edward Pococke, the Laudian Professor of Arabic at Oxford, published an edition of the Arabic text, with Latin translation, of part of the History of the Dynasties of the Syrian-Christian author Barhebraeus, otherwise known as Ibn al-'Ibri.
He then describes a long history of Western scholarship finding the story implausible for various reasons, culminating with this:
By far the strongest argument against the story, however, is the slight and late evidence on which it rests. Barhebraeus, the principal source used by Western historians, lived from 1226 to 1289. He had only two predecessors, from one of whom he simply copied the story and both preceded him by no more than a few decades. The earliest source is a Baghdadi physician called 'Abd al-Latif, who was in Egypt in 1203, and in a brief account of his journey refers in passing to "the library which 'Amr ibn al-'As burnt with the permisison of 'Umar." An Egyptian scholar, Ibn al-Qifti, wrote a history of learned men in about 1227, and includes a biography of John the Grammarian in the course of which he tells the story on which the legend is based....Barhebraeus merely followed the text of Ibn al-Qifti....
In light of Ibn al-Qfti being the apparent originator of the tale, Lewis responds this way to the idea that it's principally "a Christian attack on Muslims":
Myths come into existence to answer a question or to serve a purpose, and one may wonder what purpose was served by this myth. An answer sometimes given, and certainly in accord with a currently popular school of epistemology, would see the story as anti-Islamic propaganda, designed by hostile elements to blacken the good name of Islam by showing the revered Caliph 'Umar as a destroyer of libraries. But this explanation is as absurd as the myth itself. The original sources of the story are Muslim, the only exception being Barhebraeus, who copied it from a Muslim author. Not the creation, but the demolition of the myth was the achievement of European scholarship, which from the 18th century to the present day has rejected the story as false and absurd, and thus exonerated the Caliph 'Umar and the early Muslims from this libel.
The last two full paragraphs of the piece explain in some detail the reasoning that the actual impetus of the myth was not to slander 'Umar but, as Battles suggests in his book, to justify Saladin for breaking up and selling off another, much later library.

None of this affects the points raised in Cavanaugh's post about Quranic interpretation and the Pope's views on it. But it's worth bearing in mind when encountering the story he alludes to in his title.

Updated to correct a bad link and a typo. Also, see Tim Cavanaugh's reply in the comments.

Another update, 11/30/06: I guess, given the mutable nature of Wikipedia, it's not surprising that the passage I quoted above from the relevant entry isn't there any longer. What is surprising is I discovered that after noticing from my referral logs that two of the footnotes there (11 & 12) point to this blog post. At least today they do. Wacky!

ESPN.com bug report

What I sent them a few minutes ago:
The ESPN.com site has become worse since the recent redesign in one respect. I use for my browser Firefox 1.5, and one of the main reasons is that I enjoy being able to right-click on links and open them in a new tab. On the present incarnation of the site, I can do that with many stories, for instance, any of the headlines or the titles for four featured columnists--Wojciechowski, Forde, Jackson, or Simmons. However, several stories are in a "Spotlight" Flash player that allows, when right-clicking, only the options, "Open," "Open in New Window," and "Copy Link." This definitely makes the site redesign less user-friendly than if the full Firefox functionality were present for all stories on the page. If you wish to reply, my e-mail address is steve.ely[ at ]gmail.com.
Let's see if there's a response or a change.

Edit, August 17, 2006: I went in and broke my e-mail address in the excerpted message. Belated anti-spam measure and all that, you know.

MirrorMask DVD

You may recall my earlier enthusiasm about the movie MirrorMask. If not, and you're not already enthusiastic about it yourself, click here to read about how awesome it is.

Unfortunately, it's not in theaters anymore. Fortunately, the DVD will be coming out soon. According to the Muppet Newsflash blog, it's scheduled for release on February 7, 2006. Click over and read their post for details.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Stroke Recognition: 3 Steps

My grandfather had a stroke when I was a small child. Until the time he died, when I was 18, he could barely move or make himself understood. So you can understand why I found important the claims in a recent e-mail I was forwarded that doctors can often totally prevent or reverse the effects of a stroke if able to treat the patient within three hours and that, while bystanders frequently fail to recognize a stroke in time, there are three simple steps to check for stroke symptoms.

I'm generally very skeptical of unattributed claims forwarded by e-mail, but a little quick checking around supports the information here. Barbara Mikkelson on Snopes.com called this e-mail last November "much-circulated," so it's possible anyone reading this blog has already seen the information. For those who haven't, though, and those who'll find some supplementary sources useful, consider the following.

WebMD lists these as symptoms of a stroke:
  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg, especially if it occurs on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking, or understanding speech
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes, or double vision
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance, or coordination
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause
  • Drowsiness, nausea, or vomiting
That same page, though, quotes an expert as saying, "Sometimes, the person having the stroke is the last to know what's happening." And obviously bystanders are dependent on the victim to know if there actually is headache, confusion, numbness, or nausea, for instance. A lot depends then on the perception and judgment of the bystanders. As Mikkelson notes,
Focal neurological signs such as slurred speech, unilateral facial droop, blurred vision, discoordination, and partial or total paralysis are often indicative of some sort of brain dysfunction and would be recognized as important markers by those in the medical profession. However, expecting laypeople to diagnose that something has gone terribly wrong in a loved one on the basis of that checklist would be reaching for too much; in that key moment few would be likely to remember what they were supposed to be looking for.
Therefore, these three steps can be particularly helpful:
  • ask the individual to smile.
  • ask him or her to raise both arms.
  • ask the person to speak a simple sentence.
Mikkelson again:
By distilling the assessment process down to three simple tests (smile, raise both arms, speak a simple sentence), anyone is likely to remember what to ask of someone they suspect has just undergone a stroke and to correctly interpret the information so gleaned.
The questions in question were apparently "drawn from a report presented in February 2003 at the American Stroke Association's (ASA) 28th International Stroke Conference." (I didn't even know there is such a thing as the American Stroke Association. I believe I might need to give them some money.) Mikkelson goes on to point out,
News of [that report] can be found on the ASA web site and the American Heart Association's (AHA) web site. However, as the ASA says in its official statement about the report, though the research was funded by a grant from the ASA, that body has not taken a position on the topic nor endorsed the test because the results, though positive, arose from a very small study.
The article about the report is definitely worth a look and very encouraging if recognition has been such a problem historically. Mikkelson's right, though, about the ASA non-endorsement. They're damn emphatic about it. Certainly, if the symptoms the ASA and WebMD list are noted, 911 should be called immediately. When uncertainty exists, however, those three questions might help to clarify the situation.

WebMD on that three-hour window:
During a stroke, experts urge people to get to the hospital as soon as possible, preferably within one hour after symptoms appear, so that they can be evaluated and perhaps receive treatments that must be given within a window of time. One drug, t-PA, can dissolve blood clots and restore blood flow during an ischemic stroke, but doctors must start delivering it intravenously within three hours after symptoms begin.
More on tPA here. And a stark reminder here that, while strokes grow more likely as we grow older, they can happen at any age. We do well to be aware.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Thank you for the math help, Washington Post!

I don't at this time have anything like a solid grasp of the Jack Abramoff scandal. As I began today to take a few steps toward changing that, I came across a weirdly insulting paragraph in this Washington Post story:
Of the 18 largest recipients of tribe contributions directed by Abramoff's group, six, or one-third, were Democrats. These included Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), who chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee from 2001 to 2002, and Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (N.D.), a leader in Indian affairs legislation.
All factual claims in and related to this paragraph aside, I find damn near unbelievable that "or one-third." Is the Post next going to clarify for us that five is "one-half" of ten? Do they actually think that people reading an article about campaign financing really are so poor at arithmetic as to need it pointed out that six out of eighteen is one third? Do Birnbaum, Willis, and Schmidt really think so little of their readers?

Thursday, January 05, 2006

PacMan Puppet Show Theatre

"PacMan stars in his own Mexican puppet theatre adaptation." Awesome.

via PuppetVision Blog.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Why What Now?

Provoked by fresh consideration of Piranha Press while composing my latest BSFUC post, I discovered that searching on Amazon.com for Kyle Baker's most notable work by its title, "Why I Hate Saturn," will also provide you with the following book-buying options:

Plainly, fans of Why I Hate Saturn do enjoy a diverse array of reading options.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Springtime is a good season for resurrection and new life.

Still in its youth, Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children was killed off over 13 years ago, and though relics of its life have circulated, and it's been remembered and noted by those who knew it, we've waited until 2006 to see its triumphant return. I'd earlier here rejoiced in its author's return to us of his excellent stories, only to mourn their disappearance once again and beseech him to give them back to us in some less fleeting form. Finally, as the clock ran out on 2005, BSFUC writer Dave Louapre posted a comment on New Year's Eve that I read between dinner out and a party, when friends and I stopped back in here to pick up the champagne (OK, Gruet, whatever that is) from the fridge:

BSFUC will live in the Spring.


8:13 PM

Enticed but cautious, I replied the next day,

Details, man. I'm withholding my excitement until I hear a few details.

But evidently when Dave tried to reply here, the software wasn't cooperative. Happily, he was able to tear himself away from the college bowl games to reply to my inquiry on the BSFUC message board:

[I]t looks like Spring will finally bring a multi-book anthology in both trade paper and hardback. Can't say any more right now, but it's with a Canadien publisher. Hopefully it won't fall through.
Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children was originally published under the Piranha Press imprint by DC Comics. Here's a helpful listing of all the titles published by Piranha Press. (I think I might still have a couple of Gregory books stashed away back in Pennsylvania in my parents' attic, along with the BSFUC issue "I Am Paul's Dog" and a million old Justice Leagues. I am happily reminded of my continuing need to acquire Epicurus the Sage and Why I Hate Saturn.)

As this Wikipedia article points out, though, DC agreed to contracts giving creator ownership to writers and artists, a situation I understand to have been even more unusual then than now. This would account for Dave Louapre and artist Dan Sweetman being in a position to seek 21st century publication from another company altogether.

I imagine there are stories full of details relating to both the DC end of things back in 1989 and with the current Canadian publisher, but I'll refrain from asking Dave about it until he's able to speak more freely after business is completed.

K'vitsh, a Canadian herself, says, "With a Canadian publisher, all will be well." I think I don't share her motive, but I must share her optimism. This is bound to improve the spring. I'm going to need to start budgeting for the purchase of each volume. I encourage anyone with the good fortune of reading this to likewise to take advantage of this new life for Louapre and Sweetman's creative achievement.

Update (20 July 2006): Turns out she was wrong. The publisher went belly up, and they've got to find a new one now. See here and here.

Plastic Jesus

Last month, I wrote about Paul Newman, beginning with a mention of having just watched Cool Hand Luke. Then, a few days ago, almost as if in response, Said The Gramaphone posted this. It's Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke playing the banjo and singing Plastic Jesus. (Not to be confused, of course, with Personal Jesus, by Depeche Mode.) Really cool.

Better hurry over there. It looks like a limited-time offer.

Who am I kidding?

I decided back before Christmas that I wouldn't post here at all until almost mid-January because there are certain other things I really should be preoccupied with in the meantime, but it's not as if I've managed so far to really stay away from the internet anyway. So as long as I'm online anyway, I may as well link some things over the next few days that I've encountered over the last few. The real writing will be next week, though.