Monday, September 26, 2005


Postal Service Feat

The postal service occasionally amazes me; it rarely disappoints me, but then again, I wouldn't necessarily know that I hadn't received a letter unless I was expecting it.

Once or twice a year, I receive someone else's mail: typically the same house number, but on another street in the neighborhood, or a letter for my next-door neighbors. What do others do in such a case? What ought I to do? Take it to the post office and turn it in? Wait for the factor to hand it back, so he or she would be aware of the error and not make it again? Carry it myself to the correct destination? The post office is much farther away, so that option is not very convenient. To wait for the postman/postwoman isn't very convenient, either, but I wouldn't want to just leave the letter or parcel on my mailbox because there is some foot traffic and a non-zero likelihood that someone else would collect the object first. By elimination, that means I do the redelivery myself (or discard the object).

Today, though, I had a more intriguing surprise. I am genuinely mystified.

I live in a smallish town, and have been here for two decades, mostly at the same address. Smallish, but -- nearly thirteen thousand households, plus businesses -- not so small that I would expect the post office to deliver me mail with just my name and an incorrect or missing street address. And yet, on more than one occasion, packages arriving from overseas with an incomplete address1. were delivered to us. I appreciate their taking the trouble to find me, rather than just returning to sender. But although I am pleasantly surprised by this quality of service, I can more or less guess how it is done...probably using a phone book or similar directory. Today's feat is in another league.

Today I received a piece of mail from California, addressed to me with my correct street address, town, and postal code but in another country! It arrived here! Is it possible and plausible to think that whenever a piece of mail arrives in a country that doesn't have a town and postal code that matches, they look in some kind of mega atlas/gazetteer to find a country that does have a town, postal code, or both that match the address? Then wouldn't they strikeout the wrong country name and write in the deduced country name? My mail is not like that, no strikeout: it reads Germany and was delivered in France!

If there is no apparent sign that this piece of mail bounced from Germany to France, then perhaps it came directly here. Maybe the checking whether the destination country has such town, or at least such a postal code, is done by the U.S. Postal Service before sending the mail anywhere2.; then it is the USPS that looks in a mega directory of all the towns and postal codes in the world and, if they find an unambiguous match, send it there. Incoming mail to a country then would be processed with no further attention to country names.

Sigh. And for a brief, paranoid, ego-tripping instant I wondered whether somebody (or some computer) ...somewhere between California and my mailbox... recognized my name then did whatever was necessary to get it to me. Not likely, right? Nobody really has files like that, and if they did they wouldn't use them so openly.

I think this may call for some experimention.

1. Street name "Farm Street" rather than "Parchman Farm Street", in a town with streets named for eight different farms. Maybe they randomize, and I receive only one eighth of the ambiguously addressed missives.
2. Does the USPS have a "get it right first time" approach, a quality process mentality?

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Tuesday, September 13, 2005


My Linguistic Profile in English

Realizing that Friday the 13th has fallen on Tuesday this month, I did a little web browsing on the subject of Pogo the possum. Naturally, that led me to anther self-test, one that probably isn't very useful1. but which seems to be credible. What's more, it takes me back to introductory linguistics freshman year; I was taught that the most "neutral" prononciation of American English 2. was spoken in Colorado, much as the "purest" French is said to be spoken in and around Tours. Naturally, I've wondered what I speak, so I didn't hesitate to try this test. But as I discovered, it is not just pronunciation-driven; there are also questions of preferred vocabulary.

Your Linguistic Profile:

General American English
55% Presumably, by this they mean the one spoken in California and elsewhere from the Rockies westward; not that I believe there to be a great uniformity within this region. I mean, like, I know lots of people who don't say "I mean, like" in every sentence. Be that as it may, I was born in California and spent many of my formative years there, so it is properly dominant in my English.

20% A fair amount of variability therein as well. Have you ever heard Maine fishermen? New Yorkers? That is one "race" of English? ("Race" comes to mind from reading the debate on the meaning, usefulness, and reality of "race" I read on Brad DeLong's blog this morning). All right, the test was short so we mustn't expect it to reliably distiguish too many categories.3. Be that as it may, I did live and study in Connecticut for a few years, so this component seems about right, too, as a non-negligeable second component.

15% that must be from my grandmother, from Texas, who was very present during my childhood, plus a "Dixie" influence throughout the Southwest.

Upper Midwestern
10% and not "Midwestern"? It is a bit harder to reason why I would have either at measurable levels, but I do tend to pronounce "wash" with an "r" in it and have been told that hails from Upper Midwest (and no, that was not on the test so I am not giving away questions!)


What Kind of American English Do You Speak?

1. I love the narcissism of self-test, and indulge whenever I find one that seems original, and particularly if I can rationalize it as being potentially useful for getting my act together. Like "what is the right job for you? ", "what is your career personality?", "what breed of dog are you?".
2. May we call it American without offending speakers of all the other Americans -- Native American languages, Spanish, Portuguese, Creole? I suppose not. How about "English", as opposed to "British"? There are many more of us than of them now, I say we just expropriate!
3. Other questions they might add to do so, however, could include
  1. What do you call a sandwich made with a long Italian-bread roll?
    1. sub
    2. grinder
    3. hoagy

  2. When you order "regular" coffee you will be served
    1. Black coffee
    2. Coffee with milk and two sugars
    3. You don't know

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Saturday, September 10, 2005


Do Presidents Really Know Who Are Enemy Combatants?

I guess I really didn't understand what I thought I was taught in school (in the 1960's/70's). I really thought that there were Constitutional protections designed to provide justice and avoid injustice. The phrase "innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt" comes to mind, with the onus of proof on the accuser, not the accused. The ability to sue for libel when the accusation was extra-legal reinforced this protection. I believed we wanted everyone everywhere to benefit from such principles.

Clearly, I was wrong.2. Such safeguards are reserved for those who deserve them, not for riff-raff. That was amply demonstrated at Guantanamo Bay by the internment of prisoners removed from Afganistan, lieu of their arrest and purported criminal activity, without benefit of PoW status. (1) People accused of deserving to have their rights so suspended are thus in prison (without bail) until we get around to judging whether they are guilty. Presumption of guilt justifies their treatment? Of course! They are terrorists, as we will eventually determine, hence do not deserve presumption of innocence.

Now, what brought all this to mind is a decision by a federal appeals court, that seems to extend the Guantanamo principle to U.S. territory. According to a story in the New York Times, the court found that
... President Bush had the authority to detain as an enemy combatant an American citizen who fought United States forces on foreign soil.
The case in question concerns a certain Mr. Padilla.
The military has asserted that Mr. Padilla (pronounced pa-DILL-uh) was an operative of Al Qaeda who fought in Afghanistan, was trained by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, and was considering various terrorist plots in the United States.
The military has asserted. No need to presume innocence under those circumstances.

I think the judge should be careful how he phases his opinion (emphasis mine), or did I misunderstand yet more on the "why the prisoners at Guantanamo are not PoWs"?:
"The exceedingly important question before us is whether the president of the United States possesses the authority to detain militarily a citizen of this country who is closely associated with Al Qaeda, an entity with which the United States is at war," Judge Luttig wrote. "We conclude that the president does possess such authority," citing the Congressional authorization.
Mr. Padilla, a Chicagan, was arrested in Chicago in May, 2002, and has been detained ever since. He is being held on a Navy brig in South Carolina. The crime of which he is accused is not having fought the United States on foreign soil; in fact, the government appears unsure of the appropriate accusation, to the point where Mr. Padilla's lawyer, Jonathan M. Freiman said
"a sad day for the nation when a federal court finds the president has the power to detain indefinitely and without criminal charge any American citizen whom he deems an enemy combatant."
We've long known that a Supreme Court Justice can recognize pornography when he sees it; we have now been told that a President can recognize an enemy combatant when one is pointed out to him by the right people. This a a very great responsibility; let's hope that those who do the pointing are pretty infallible detectors of guilt, otherwise we'll have to go back to presumption of innocence.

1.) Why didn't anybody think of invading Sicily and imprisoning the Mafia at Guantanamo, was the activity of the Mafia not terrorizing Americans?

2.)Personal anecdote:
There were clues that should have tipped me off. The most obvious, perhaps, is plea-bargaining; in particular, a bargain I was given. When I was accused of wreckless driving, I consulted a lawyer, decided I was innocent, and headed off to court to defend myself. The court was in a settlement in the desert in Southern California, the kind of place that produced Frank Zappa--and he got out of there as fast as he could. I was a college-bound teenager from Hollywood, who had been arrested driving an Alfa Romeo, accused in a rural court, where the jury would all be driving pick-ups with gun racks. How was I going to be tried by my peers, been considered a peer and not an alien, as alien in my fashion as a wetback? Well, when the judge asked me how I pleaded, I nevertheless answered "not guilty". "Oh, he wants a trahal, does he? Well, we'll give him a trahal...would you like a trial by court, or a trial by jury?" Good question. Why was a judge in SoCal speaking with such a strong Alabama-like drawl, to reassure of his fairness and choose "court"? Well, to shorten a story which is getting long, I was still thinking about which option would be less risky when the judge offered to drop the charge if I worked five days for the park service. Even now, the logic escapes me. It would seem that I confessed to and was punished for something of which I would not be accused, and that was just fine for everybody.

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Friday, September 09, 2005


Veritanerians or Veritarians?

I recently encountered a new word, produced by permutation of letters of veterinarian: veritanerian. It seems like a nice word, albeit a bit long, and could be given a plausible etymological pedigree:
Veritarian, on the other hand, would seem to have greater semiotic legitimacy.

Oh well, veritarian doesn't seem to be registered in (online) dictionaries, either, so I hereby stake my claim. This word is my IP! If anybody wants to use my word, they should ask me first. A single word, five syllables but a single word, for believers in --and advocates of-- truth.

Surely this must have a use, there must be such people, mustn't there?

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