January 13, 2004

What I love about Ken MacLeod's blog

Go take a look at this post. First, I read this guy in part to connect to some grand radical leftist tradition which, if I am to be fully honest about it, I have only a very fleeting connection to. The closest I ever came to participating in an organised political movement was arguing for - not joining - the Canadian NDP when I lived in Montreal. The NDP has never been further to the left than Labour was in the 70's, and in Montreal stood less chance of winning than Pat Buchanan had of taking San Francisco, so there wasn't much of a local party for me to join.

I did know about the SPGB, but free-thinking Stalinists are a new one on me. I'm not sure I regret living in a time and place without much in the way of radical grouplets, but it does sometimes sound like it was a lot of fun.

But, the real gem here is the quote at the beginning:

'I vote Labour, always with the same deep misgivings. My life has been entirely lacking in excitement or incident apart from the time I attached a PAVEMENTS ARE FOR PEDESTRIANS sticker to the windscreen of a scarlet Ford Sierra illegally parked on the footway of Walker's Way, Penge, and my seven years as a Maoist guerilla in Peru.'

- Ellis Sharp, The Aleppo Button

How do you top that?


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Kudos to Matthew Yglesias

...for standing up for the the real body piercing, Hollywood-loving left-wing freak show.


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January 23, 2004

The word of the day

Today's word is lumpenprofessoriat, found on Cosma Shalizi's blog. The lexicological division here at Pedantry whole-heartedly encourages the adoption and use of this term. Presently, Google only finds three pages containing the term, two of which are a Wikipedia page and a Wikipedia clone.

As for the rest of the content of his post, I have an ideological predisposition to view computation in general and stomatal aperture adjustment in plants both as forms of goal-oriented action, so I'm inclined to respond by nodding and saying: "See, there is a more productive underlying abstraction than computation." So: Neener, neener, neener on the whole "the mind is software" school of cognitive science.

The good bit - the one that is going to force me to blow more of my exceedingly small book budget on scientific literature that I ought to be getting free at a university library - is this:

The motivation for the EvCA work was that there are some computations which are very easy if you have a centralized processor or memory, but very hard for decentralized systems. Suppose, for instance, I give you a string of random bits, and ask whether most of the bits are 0 or most of them are 1 ("density classification"). This is easy, if you can count and store your results in a central place; it's very hard if you can only do local operations, looking at, say, a bit and its immediate neighbors in the string.
One of the things my once fairly simple idea for a PhD project has evolved into is a recasting of computer science to take this sort of thing into account. I have my own nefarious reasons for casting my net in that direction, reasons that come from the humanities rather than computing theory pur et dur. The biggest barrier to actually doing this PhD - besides having a job and paying the bills - is that I am woefully underread in just this sort of thing.

Ignorance can be bliss. As long as I don't know what kind of related work is going on, I don't have to face the mountain of reading my own asperations inevitably lead to, and Cosma is making that much harder for me.


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Around the world...

Desbladet has tracked down a website that will draw a map of the world for you highlighting the countries you've been to. Since he put up his, he asks to see other people's. Here's mine:

create your own visited country map
or write about it on the open travel guide


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February 11, 2004

Some stuff I couldn't resist blogging

I'm stuck with a viciously complicated little problem in linear optimisation that I don't know how to solve. In fact, the whole reason that I have this problem is that I know that there is no linear solution and I haven't got time or resources to find a less constrained solution, so I'm going to have to come up with something half-assed that works anyway. Until I come up with it, I'm stuck. I do have another project, but it's not terribly difficult, requires the help of my office partner, who is at home recovering from surgery, and isn't due for another week when my boss gets back from Norway.

So, I decided to surf the blogs.


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More stuff I couldn't resist

From Frytopia:


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February 13, 2004

Little stuff

Having stirred up some fuss - in English! - over the French headscarf law, on AFOE I've been a bit too overworked and underslept this week to stay and fight. Looks like plenty of other folks have taken up the slack though.

I just don't understand how people who feel this law is justified because girls are being forced to wear headscarves can think that the solution is to force them to take it back off. If I hold a gun to your head and make you do something you don't want to, is the correct police response to hold another gun to your head and tell you not to? What makes otherwise rational people think that the solution lies in that direction?

The other thing I've seen on the web today is this post, particularly the debate over what constitutes a good enough lasagna to "deserve to marry a hot, sexy career woman."

I'm not an afficionado of Italian food and prepare very little lasagna. When I do, it's very much "Soprano family cooking" - Ricotta, spinach, lots of meat. "Hot, sexy career women" often worry about what it will do to their weight, and south Italian food like lasagna is just about the worst.

My alternative: Mix equal parts German beer mustard with quince jelly and a little bit of cider or white wine vinager. Stir thoroughly. Use like a barbecue sauce on pork or lamb, especially fresh lamb. If you use it in the fry pan, keep the temperature fairly low so that the sugar in the jelly doesn't carmelise. Serve with a nice mediterranean vegetable melange (broccoli, artichoke hearts, multi-coloured peppers, courgettes or summer squash, some sliced mushrooms) and homemade oven fries (cut potatoes into wedges, sprinkle with tarragon and olive oil, bake at 175C til done). Low fat, low sugar content, simple tastes, fresh ingredients, simple cooking methods - that is what will score the slacker man the hot career babe of his dreams.

Once upon a time, I contemplated writing a cookbook for young men called Recipes that get you laid. I still think it might sell.


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April 13, 2004

Truth or Photoshop?

I'm sceptical of this:

[Via Silt.]

Update: Turns out my scepticism is unfounded. This page confirms that it's legit. You can purchase products so labelled at the aforelinked-to website. And I thought it was weird when I bought a T-shirt in Canada labelled "MADE IN TURKEY / FAIT EN DINDE".


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April 15, 2004

I know that feeling

Billmon is where I was on 9/11, except I had to go to my orthodontist that morning. I'd have rather been off fishing too.


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April 18, 2004

Le désordre, c'est l'ordre moins le pouvoir

From here.

The whole thing makes me intensely homesick. On the other hand, I share the ambiguity the photographer behind this is expressing. Winnipeg is an underestimated city. There is more there than meets the eye. I know virtually every spot he's photographed, and each has a hidden history that is sometimes only hinted at, like the old ads you can still see on the sides of buildings in the Exchange district. Yet, it does not give me the pangs that Montréal's more lived-in quarters can evoke.

Still, for those of you reading Grandpa's autobiography, but have never seen WInnipeg, this photo essay may help illuminate the place Grandpa lived. I'm working on the next chapter today.


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April 19, 2004

Speaking of alternate universes

...take a gander at this:

In case of war with the United States, Canadas coal imports from this country would be cut off and her railroads and industrial activities seriously handicapped. If Blue controlled the Quebec area and Winnipeg, Canada's railroads and industries dependent upon "steam power" would be crippled.


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April 22, 2004

But I haven't used "von" in my name in years!

Des is making fun of something. I'm not sure what it is, but I have the suspicion it might be me. :^)


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Small victory of the day

Someone, in the comments on another blog, quoted something to me from Wikipedia that I had put there in the first place. A small victory to be sure, but a first for me.


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May 4, 2004

Alternate History comes to Crooked Timber

I found this in the comments at Crooked Timber, by one "Jack Lecou", along with someone pointing out how the 17th article of the Iraqi transitional constitution compares to the American second amendment:

So what if say, the French, were to invade the US to “liberate” us from our despotic oppressor?

In our hypothetical scenario, the French troops quickly defeat the demoralized and ill equipped forces set against them, but then seem ill prepared for the aftermath. They successfully guard a few coal mines and movie studios, but make no move against the looters pilfering our museums and government offices. They install a puppet regime, which they populate with various partisan French officials and American expatriates - including one wanted for bank fraud in Canada. They sack all those who held positions in the the army, the police, all levels of civil administration and education. As is their wont, French firms move in and begin profiteering madly.

Not surprisingly (except maybe to the hawks back in Paris), a resistance movement springs up almost immediately. Initially made up of mostly rednecks and Republican loyalists, Francophobes and malcontents from all over the world soon arrive to aid in the struggle. This violence is opposed by the majority of the public, but there is little they can do (the insurgents are well armed, murderous, and secretive). Lacking a proper police force (they dissolved it, and haven’t managed to build a new one yet, nor did they bring one), the French military forces respond the only way they know how. Seemingly randomly, French patrols force their way into homes in the middle of the night to perform searches and haul adult males away for interrogation. Sometimes these arrests are based on intelligence, but usually that just means someone made up a name for a reward (or a respite from torture). Then too, sometimes the soldiers aren’t really sure if they’re at the right address anyway. The violence escalates, increasingly the French retreat into armored vehicles and behind checkpoints. A televangelist preacher takes the opportunity to gather an army of thugs and start trying to involve himself in the “democratic process”.

Its been more than a year since the invasion. The French have recently begun paying lip service to some form of new “international involvement” in the mess, but mostly that is because they can’t really afford it on their own anymore. In any case, the same old mix of corruption and incompetence still reigns behind the barricades of the puppet regime’s stronghold. Also, your toilet still doesn’t work, and half the time neither does the electricity or the telephone.

One day you see pictures of American prisoners being tortured, raped and humiliated by their smiling French captors. Chances are you know someone who’s been hauled away. How do you feel?

I'd buy an AltH novel written to such a spec.


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May 6, 2004

Found on the 'Net

...in a collection of quotes labelled "Homosexuality":

Cruise the Straits with BC Ferries
    - BC Ferries advertising slogan, 1980s

I couldn't resist posting it.


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May 12, 2004

Two important pieces on Crooked Timber

First, Quiggin on the ticking bomb problem as a justification for torture and D2 on the lack of consideration given to the victims of torture in Iraq by the Western press.

I haven't got time to comment on them in any depth now, so I'm putting this up as much as a reminder to myself to do so later.

The second piece points something out that I missed. The press, even the liberal press - heck, even me - didn't think twice about the dignity of Iraqi prisoners when they showed photos from Abu Ghraib. Considering the fuss over Iraqi TV showing reasonably clean and dignified images of American POWs, this does seem a touch on the racist side, even if somewhat unconscious.

The first piece covers precisely the reason why I don't take the position against the war but for the troops. I come from a genuinely pacificist religious tradition and even though I've largely rejected it, I still have serious problems not with having a cause worth dying for, but with causes worth killing the innocent for. There may be causes worth it - things so important that they merit killing people who are not any more evil than I am. But if so, it's a cause worth not only running the risk of being killed for but of being despised for. There are causes worth killing for, but I won't allow honour or tradition to substitute for actually deciding whether your cause is worth someone else's blood before you take it.

Lastly, I seem to be gettng a reputation as an anti-liberal. It's true in the sense intended by Mrs. T, but not on most of the actual issues she's highlighting. My problems with liberalism are far more about liberal political philosophy and about the real actions taken under that name rather than the largely uninteresting matter of trade and regulatory policy.

If a state has to impoverish itself to be competitive, I don't see why folks should support it. It seems to me that free trade doesn't need to impoverish people, but I agree with the folks who claim that government intervention is may be necessary to keep it from becoming a justification for destitution.


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June 8, 2004

Traitors in Academia

Since I see that accusations of betrayal and treasonous disloyalty are back in fashion, I thought I ought to point to the latest on Abu Aardvark:

In my previous post, I attacked Daniel Pipes a bit, and suggested that his article being published in the Middle East Quarterly did not augur well for the future reputation of that journal. But then this bit of deliciousness dropped into my lap. Martin Kramer tells us that his replacement as the editor of the Middle East Quarterly has been named. And it is none other than Michael Rubin. Yes, that Michael Rubin - the person most frequently cited as most likely to be the guy who leaked classified information to Ahmed Chalabi, and hence to the Iranians.

I am shocked - shocked! - to find that Middle Eastern studies in America has been so inflitrated by probable traitors and enemy spies. Why should our hard earned tax dollars support this sort of filth? I propose that government monitor federally supported area studies programmes and withdraw funding for those hiring neoconservatives. Why, I think I'll write my Congressman!

Oh yeah, I don't pay American taxes and can't vote in American elections. Oh well.


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June 10, 2004

Libertarianism is the Socialism of Lawyers

I lifted this line from Kieran Healy. It's a good line, and I'm going to have to use it. Alas, the attached discussion on CT is fair to middling worthless, although perversely enough Sebastian Holsclaw's mother makes a good point about the persistence of religion in the absence of belief.

It is remarkably hard to find a real libertarian who hasn't made a career in some aspect of the legal trade. If there were no government, I do wonder what most of them would end up doing for a living. There is a word in English for something that works to destroy the source of its own survival. We call them parasites, and it's one of the reasons why I tend to prefer small "c" conservatives over anarcho-capitalist libertarians with any form of capitalisation.


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July 27, 2004

Bricolage in a new age

Being offline so much means missing a few things, like Crisis on Infantile Earths, over at John and Belle have a blog. The post quotes me, so naturally it drew my attention.

I can't actually read the post on my Solaris box, due to some damn bug in Netscape for Solaris, so I'm reading it on the adjacent Windows machine, which speaks Dutch and uses an AZERTY keyboard. AZERTY hurts my fingers. Plus, I'm a week late. But let me make a few brief points.


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August 5, 2004

Long day, bad joke

Couldn't resist. From H4x0r Economist: k33ping d3m0cr4cy l33t 51Nc3 1987.


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Sick, Sad World

A friend of my mother's died yesterday.

Truthfully, he was not someone I knew very well. After my father died, my mother and brother moved back to Canada while I stayed in Indiana. This friend was someone she came to know after returning to Canada. So, I can't claim to be greatly traumatised. Still, it's always a bit of a blow when someone you know, someone you've seen alive and in the flesh, someone who has a name and a voice, dies. It makes you take a good hard look at things.

It's a lot harder on Mom. This was someone who had been a part of her life for over a decade. He was chronically ill and was staying with my mother because at the end he had nowhere else to go. Mom's like that. She takes in strays.

I bring all this up because I'm not feeling very cynical right now.


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January 12, 2005

Crooked Timber on China Miéville

Crooked Timber is having a Festschrift on China Miéville, including author response. It's worth reading and it's a reminder that I ought to reread Iron Council a bit more closely.

Alas, I have a Dutch test tomorrow and thus can say very little, except that he is one of a very small number of authors for whom I am willing to truck my fat ass down to Waterstone's and cough up hard currency for new novels in hardback (as opposed to my standard practice: paying in soft currency for paperback on Amazon.com.) I am not a big fan of fantasy in general (the wife is into Mercedes Lackey, Elizabeth Moon, and Anne McCaffery - I've taken to calling her books chick fantasy) but I'm begining to take the genre seriously again after starting to read Miéville.

I'm one of those who think that there is a well-founded - although often fuzzy - distinction between fantasy and SF. I just don't think it has much to do with science. SF deals in the possibilities of the world, drawing on our ignorance of it to speculate on what might be. Fantasy deals in the impossiblities of this world, drawing on our knowledge of the world by denying elements of it. Miéville clearly falls on the fantasy side of that line.

This analysis leads to some contradictions that I'd try to write about, if I could do so in Dutch. Maybe later.


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March 9, 2005

Think of it as bullshit in action

From Partnership for a drug-free Maine, via Electrolite, an object lesson in the ubiquity of bullshit.


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May 5, 2005

Waiting for the polls to close

I've had a bit of an embarassing day. I got my stuff together, went out to Leuven for my Dutch class, noticing only that traffic was kind of thin, and discovered that today is a national holiday. It's my own damned fault for cutting last week, but I'd had a day, and my wife was leaving in the morning. Now, I've got to make sure I get to the date of the exam right on Monday.

Anyway, so instead of Dutch, I'm at home waiting for the Beeb to start election coverage. The forgone nature of this election is taking all the fun out of it though. So, I'm spending the time trying to catch up on the blogs rather than studying, and now I'm starting to think about studying again.


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May 6, 2005


I try to get back into blogging on a day when nothing whatsoever seems to be happening in the world. Ye gods, it's a slow news day. Everything is about the UK election - which was such a foregone conclusion, except Howard's resignation - and a little bit about the elections in Palestine, which don't seem any more interesting than the UK ones.

Oh, and Texas is banning sexually suggestive cheerleading, which seems pretty much to defeat the purpose. Honestly, every now and then I wonder if I've fallen into a parallel universe. A couple months ago, everyone is discovering that Lebanon is full of hot Arab chicks, but in Texas, they want cheerleaders to wear burkas. Pretty soon, they be bitching about how promiscuous Islamic girls are corrupting the morals of Our Brave Troops.

If it's going to be a useless news day, I'll see if I can get a chapter from Grandpa out tomorrow.


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May 20, 2005

Y'know, I'm not sure this is technically impossible

Via Crooked Timber, what every blogger needs...


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May 21, 2005

And, the product my wife knows I don't need...

Via Electrolite's sidebar, a robot that does something I have no trouble doing myself.


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February 16, 2006

If I were emperor of China, my first act would be to abolish the second tone

There's an article that I can identify with up today on the Guardian:

Empire of signs

There are countless justifiable criticisms of foreign correspondents, but the one that hits home hardest is that many of us are less than fluent in the languages of the countries where we are based. [...]

I must confess that after two and a half years in Beijing my Mandarin remains the butt of primary school children's jokes, invoking disbelieving frowns from strangers and straining the patience of friends and colleagues.

My efforts have not been entirely in vain, however: in a restaurant I can get by, as long as they have the five dishes I know how to order; in a taxi I can flawlessly describe the route between my work and home; and in a market I know the three phrases needed to barter with the best of them. [...]

Never mind. One thing I learned in Tokyo is that language study is like mountaineering: you reach one crest, only to discover you are still in the foothills; you scale the next big peak only to find another, far higher one further ahead. But for exactly the same reason, it can be very satisfying to look back at all the ground you have covered.

Although locals make allowances for foreigners, a mistaken tone can be humiliating and expensive. I could never be a broker: depending on the tone, "mai" can mean "buy" or "sell". A tiny slip and billions could be lost.

Face, too, can be lost. In one of my first lessons, I was studying colours, and to practise my new vocabulary I asked my teacher what was the colour of her pen (one of the only other words I knew at the time). She blushed crimson, laughed, and quickly moved on to the next page of the textbook. The reason, I found out later, was that I had slipped from the third tone to the first - which had turned "pen" into a sensitive anatomical term.

At least I am not alone. Even the best foreign speakers of Mandarin sometimes get their rising tones mixed up with their undulating tones. "If I were emperor of China, my first act would be to abolish the second tone," said Ed Lanfranco, correspondent for UPI and one of the best linguists among the foreign journalist community of Beijing. "I just can't pick the second tone."

By comparison, learning the characters is easy. This merely involves constant repetition rather than musical talent (which I suspect is something you have to be born with in order to master tones).

But, dammit, there are an awful lot of them. My only consolation is that I am not a pupil at a Chinese school, where the demands of education must be among the toughest in the world. As one taxi driver put it (and I paraphrase because I may not have understood him exactly, my Mandarin being what it is), "We are the oldest, biggest and most literate civilisation in the world, which means a lot of hard work for our students. [...]

Given that studying the basics of Chinese identity is likely to take up so much of the curriculum, it is easier to understand why so many people here are so nationalistic: they simply do not have much time to study the outside world.

China is a writing system as much as it is a country. That was one of the most insightful comments I was given before I arrived in Beijing, and it was proferred by one of the few foreign journalist who remained here throughout the Cultural Revolution, a veteran China hand. Forty years of covering the country had taught him that this was an empire united by a set of ideograms and not an awful lot more.

In terms of ethnicity, geography, religion and income levels, there are huge differences among the population. Each province is big enough to be a separate country, and there are countless different spoken languages. But what people have in common is their citizenship and - if they are educated - an ability to read and write thousands of ideograms. [...]

Japan's most famous film subtitler, Nobuko Toda - who is also a very refined lady - used to say that the hardest things to translate were swear words, because a long string of English expletives could only be rendered by a single Japanese word, "baka" (idiot). She had particular problems with gangster films and anything by Joe Orton.

Chinese subtitlers are unlikely to face such problems, if the language used at their football matches is any guide. I doubt that even the Guardian's relatively liberal guidelines would allow the main chant to be used here. Suffice to say that it is a lot terser and cruder than "the referee's a bastard".

But I can, perhaps, share an expression that my Chinese teacher recently taught me, which shows that vulgar words rarely used in Japan even for insults are sometimes used in Chinese for praise.

If you really think something is great, she said, you call it "niubi" (cow's vagina). I was astonished and childishly amused. The adult in me asked for the etymology, but she had no idea. "It is just a trendy term," she explained. "I don't know where it comes from."

I hadn't noticed it before, but sure enough, now that I have been taught the word, I keep seeing and hearing it: in conversation, on blogs, everywhere in the informal world - everywhere, that is, except in references to my Mandarin. I can only dream of the day that someone describes my Chinese as "niubi": Then I will have really arrived at a linguistic peak; then I will be on the way to being a half-decent correspondent.


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June 23, 2006

The Onion at its best

Report: U.S. May Have Been Abused During Formative Years

WASHINGTON, DC—A team of leading historians and psychiatrists issued a report Wednesday claiming that the United States was likely the victim of abuse by its founding fathers and motherland when it was a young colony.


According to Yale University psychology professor John Bauffman, while some rebellious behavior in a nation's adolescence is common, and sometimes healthy, America's historically stormy relationship with mother country Great Britain points to a deep need for acceptance.

"The U.S. is characteristic of an abused nation in that, even decades after noisily pushing away from Britain, it still maintained close contact with the motherland, took care of it, even giving it financial aid—all the while fearing disapproval even though the parent country is now old, decrepit, and powerless," said Bauffman, a prominent contributor to the fourth edition of the Democratic Symptoms Of Maltreatment handbook, or DSM-IV. "On the other hand, Canada, which was raised in the very same continent by the same mother country, only exercised small-scale resistance, remaining loyal well into its maturity. Though some see Canada as cold and remote, it has, unlike the U.S., managed to lead a peaceful, reasonably healthy existence."

Bauffman pointed to another telltale sign of abuse in the U.S.'s tendency to bully, torture, and persecute less powerful, vulnerable creatures, such as buffalo, passenger pigeons, forests, and Native Americans.


Drexel defended the study's findings amid claims that America's current condition can be attributed to a much wider variety of factors.

"Granted, part of America's problems may stem from the fact that it was burdened with a false sense of responsibility at a young age because of the unrealistic expectations of the country's forefathers, and there is certainly something to be said about America having been part of a broken homeland for a four-year period in the mid-19th century," Drexel said. "Even though the U.S. is over 200 years old, emotionally it's younger than Lithuania."

Added Drexel: "But we must remember that the country also idealized the forefathers in a classic victim–abuser relationship."

The report recommended that the United Nations Security Council once again renew its efforts to organize an international intervention to help the U.S. get the counseling it needs. Prior attempts have failed to move beyond the planning stage, however, with many countries saying they are afraid that the U.S. may lash out.


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