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Sensitive counterterrorism operations

Run with Total Intelligence

I had missed the news that Blackwater ((Mentioned in this previous post: shortly afterwards, Blackwater left the International Peace Operations Association, presumably because it wanted to concentrate on war operations.)) had changed its name to Xe Services, hoping to put all that bad press from Iraq behind them, though everyone still refers to them as Blackwater. Xe, of course, is the chemical symbol for xenon, a “noble” gas that can be used as an anaesthetic. Maybe Blackwater is about to unveil its new slogan: “We can anaesthetize people for you — PERMANENTLY.” ((Then again, maybe not: according to one former employee, even the new name Xe already has “such a stain” on it that the Pakistan gig is run under the moniker of Total Intelligence Systems. That’s totally intelligent.))

Anyway, according to Jeremy Scahill ((Author of the fine Blackwater.)) in the Nation, Blackwater mercenaries are active in Pakistan, where they are involved in

sensitive counterterrorism operations

If sensitivity is crucial to the mission, who better to call?


Grammar challenge

Misfiring snoot, redux

Language Log links to a bizarre “grammar” quiz ((I think it was dubbed a Grammar Challenge! by the former student rather than by DFW himself, which is just as well, since, by my count, a maximum of four out of the 10 questions relate to grammar?)) that David Foster Wallace set his students. ((LL also links to this entertaining takedown of DFW’s notorious essay on language, which was subsequently reprinted in a DFW collection that I reviewed.)) I think the funniest example is the claim that “I only spent six weeks in Napa” is dangerously ambiguous, and likely to be read as something like “I only spent six weeks in Napa; I didn’t employ my time there to its full advantage” unless you move the “only” one word rightwards. But many of the others are silly too. What’s your favourite?


Mariage gris

Muddying the issue

The French minister for immigration and “national identity”, Eric Besson, has denounced a phenomenon he calls by the new term mariage gris (“grey marriage”). ((Thanks to Carole.)) He defines it as d’escroquerie sentimentale à but migratoire (“an emotional swindle with the aim of migration”). Le Monde explains further, in exactly whose voice is unclear:

Ces “mariages gris” désignent des mariages conclus entre un étranger et une personne de nationalité française en situation de faiblesse, au détriment de cette dernière, considérée comme abusée par l’autre partenaire de ce contrat. [These “grey marriages” are marriages between a foreigner and a vulnerable French person, and are harmful to the latter, who is considered abused by the other partner in the deal.]

Of course, plenty of marriages between French people and other French people, as between human beings in general, end up in tears and considerations of abusiveness, but Besson does not seem so exercised by this long-familiar phenomenon. ((Found in the HTOED: the English word “marriage” dates from 1297; before that we had wedlock (1225), and before that, the rather-too-revealing bridelock (from Old English till around 1230). Update: checking in the OED reveals that the -lock of bridelock (and subsequently wedlock) is from OE lác meaning “play”, which is nice?)) He was careful to say that mariages mixtes (“mixed marriages”) were a source of “enrichment” to French society, but that their defence must go hand in hand with a lutte (“struggle”) against the other kind of marriage, in which cunning foreigners prey on the weakened French in order to enter France.

In French, a mariage blanc (“white marriage”) is a purely business transaction (something like our “marriage of convenience”). A mariage gris sounds somehow dirtier, more polluted. Of course, grey is also what you get when you mix white and black: too much of that, perhaps, is considered threatening to the “national identity” as it is presently constructed by the French government. ((Talking of fears of miscegenation, the only use of “grey marriage” in English I could find (where grey is not a proper name) is in this innocent forum question about the desirability of intermarriage with extraterrestrials.))

What colour of marriage do you prefer, readers?


Narrowly defined

The neverending struggle

From Barack Obama’s much-bruited speech on AfPak policy:

I set a goal that was narrowly defined as disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda and its extremist allies[.]

Thus do three alliterative verbs aspirationally applied to an unquantified nimbus of immoderate enemies amount to a narrowly defined goal. Let’s hope that the President never feels the urge to define his task broadly?



A world falling to bits

What’s in a job title?

[T]he library at the University of Illinois is one of the largest in the country, a vast storehouse with more than ten million volumes and twenty-two million items and materials in all formats […] But the university’s Chief Information Officer manages not the books and journals of this massive library, but the school’s computers and networks. ((Dennis Baron, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution (Oxford, 2009), p236.))

As the author gently points out, it is a surprising taxonomy whereby ten million books do not count as information, but intrafaculty email does. Yet it seems possible that this was a deliberate and clever rhetorical decision by the university. I have written elsewhere about the contemporary rhetorical cyber-philistinism according to which all the value of the best that has been thought and said in the arts and sciences is supposed to reside in its information. ((Between 1387 and 1813, says the HTOED, information could mean education; no longer.)) Maybe the university is quietly arguing, too, that its vast storehouse of books is something else — learning? knowledge? — and that mere information is the domain of technicians. ((There is, in fact, a warlike heritage to the title “Information Officer”, as it is first recorded by OED in a 1918 Dictionary of Military Terms — but it would be hopeless to try to demilitarize our entire language now (if it ever would not have been).))

A distinction between information and knowledge can be drawn polemically widely, or it can be a subtler matter, of tone and nuance. An interesting case is the comparison in political speech between the terms the information economy (apparently dating from the early 1960s) ((This OECD paper [pdf] offers the unimprovably barbarous opening line: “Human capital is a key policy area in the information economy, as it is required for innovation and growth.”)) and the knowledge economy (first seen by Google in 1989). ((My second edition of OED records only its precursors “knowledge factory” (1928) and “knowledge industry” (1962). Interestingly, it defines the latter, knowledge industry, as a “term applied fancifully or pejoratively to the development and use of knowledge, spec. in universities, polytechnics, etc.” What once seemed fanciful grows to seem normal and even noble.)) They have often been used simply interchangeably; but according to Google’s timelines (1, 2), use of information economy peaked in 2000 and has been declining ever since, while knowledge economy saw a strong upsurge around the same time and is still going strong. Perhaps it began to be felt, in the early 2000s, that information economy carried unfortunate echoes of the dotcom crash, and so people chose instead to speak of the knowledge economy, a phrase that conveniently Unspeaks the unreliable history of information technology, while conveying a comforting sense of human certainty in the face of intractable or unpredictable forces.


Generated negative returns

Imaginary numbers

The Financial Times reports that many CEOs of oil and gas companies got paid even more in 2008 despite “missing performance targets or other measures of investor value”. In general, as the FT puts it:

Almost all oil and gas companies generated negative returns to shareholders last year and many did not meet their internal targets.

This is something on which I will be happy to be educated by readers who know more than I about finance, but generated negative returns seems to be not just mealy-mouthed but almost oxymoronic. Negative returns, I take it firstly, is straightforwardly euphemismistic for losses, ((It is odd, by the way, that a return can denote either money gained, or some article of goods (or a cheque) that is sent back (the latter sense recorded in OED from 1875). It seems as though the financial sense of return grew out of an agricultural sense of “yield” first recorded as used by Bacon in 1626:

In some Grounds which are strong, you shall haue a Raddish, etc., come in a month; That in other grounds will not come in two; And so make double Returnes.

)) but the combination with generated adds a spice of paradox. After all, to generate (from Latin generare, to beget) means “to bring into existence” or “to produce” (OED). Yet if the oil companies generated negative returns to shareholders, that means (I assume) that the shareholders lost (putative or actual) money because the market price of their shareholdings went down in the period in question.

In which case, surely nothing was generated at all; rather, (putative or actual) money was lost, or value destroyed?


Scooping up

Unspeakable battles

Reviewing Russia Against Napoleon by Dominic Lieven in the TLS, Alexander M. Martin writes of a kind of verbal Stockholm syndrome that can afflict the military historian:

[Lieven] has done all one could to find evidence by and about common soldiers, but the paucity of such material means that we mostly hear the voices of their commanders, and their euphemistic language in turn sometimes bleeds into the book. Thus, we read of Cossacks “scooping up” French stragglers. Lonely, frightened men, some of them mere boys, running for their lives as swarms of sabre-wielding riders descend on them — does “scooping up” really do justice to that? On the other hand, if we actually contemplated the reality of war, would we still care who won? ((Alexander M. Martin, “Feed the horses”, TLS, November 20, 2009, p9. (Not online.) ))


Slightly bruised

Manbag overboard

I dare you to read this tragic tale of fashion fascism without a tear coming to your eye:

Last week I had to visit London’s Canary Wharf and all I needed for the day was a notebook, my iPod Touch, a Kindle and some keys. They all slotted snugly into a patent red zip-up bag by the young London menswear designer James Long, which I’d been given for my birthday last month.

But on arriving in Canary Wharf, our hero was then detained for some tens of seconds by a security guard, under suspicion of carrying a stolen women’s handbag. I know! “Disquieting and humiliating” doesn’t begin to cover it!

I’d like to say that this encounter has propelled me to carry the bag with defiance, but instead it has left me slightly bruised. I’ve since bought an incredibly sombre pair of jeans — unusual for me.

I’m sure the writer, in claiming to be “slightly bruised”, isn’t actually accusing the security guard of having assaulted him, because the right place to do that would be in a police station rather than the features pages of the Guardian. It is a beautifully wan formulation of whimpering psychic vulnerability, though, isn’t it, this slightly bruised? Not really bruised, just slightly bruised. Just almost-imperceptibly-damaged enough to express one’s suffering by buying more fashion product: a pair of jeans that is so “sombre” you wouldn’t actually believe it. I know I don’t?


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