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The Straight Dope



It seems to me that "shameful" and "shameless" basically mean the same thing, yet one is "full" and the other is "less." How is this possible? --Katherine C., Van Nuys, California

I've got a sneaking suspicion, Katherine, that you're one of those people who call up radio talk-show guests and ask why their noses run but their feet smell. But this time you're out of luck. Shameful and shameless don't mean the same thing. A shameful act is one that ought to inspire a sense of shame in its author. If said person is shameless (brazen), however, it doesn't. In other words, Katherine, you ought to be ashamed, but if you're like most of the people who write to this column, you ain't.


You are usually so hip I checked your naive repetition of the excuses for bomb testing five times before I was sure it was not satire [July 3]. Let's get two points out of the way first: (1) There is no known case of a nuclear bomb being tested and not going "boom." The likelihood of a nuclear warhead failing is almost nil. (2) The purpose of nuclear weapons is to threaten to use them. Combine these and the scenario that weapons tests are supposedly preventing runs like this: "Ten percent of the weapons with which the Yankee dogs are threatening us haven't been tested. Our scientists are convinced there is one chance in a thousand they won't work. If we attack now, 10 percent of our cities have one chance in a thousand of surviving until U.S. satellites redirect the last sub-based warheads. I suggest we attack now!"

You mention the danger of most of our nuclear weapons not surviving a first strike. The CIS (nee USSR) could put up a credible first strike against American ground forces. They haven't up to now, and it is hard to figure why we need to test any weapons against the likelihood of them doing so with decreased armaments, decreased motivation, and increased complexity in command and control. For that matter, we have a sufficient threat in telling them we will suspend all aid to any country attacking us with nuclear forces.

The fact is, we have a bomb-testing bureaucracy because we once needed to test bombs; we now test bombs because the bureaucracy wants to have a purpose. --Frank Palmer, Chicago

"We will suspend all aid to any country attacking us with nuclear forces"? Tell me, Frank, what do the other martians think about this?

As for your specific gripes: (1) The fear is not that our nuclear bombs won't go boom but that they won't make a big enough boom. We covered this in the original column. (2) Loss of confidence in the nuclear arsenal is cumulative. If we arrived at a point someday where none of our active warheads had been tested, the credibility of our nuclear deterrent would be significantly reduced. (3) I agree the CIS does not pose much of a threat and that the nuclear arsenals of both countries should be dismantled. Pending that happy day, however, it'd be foolish to go to all the expense of maintaining nuclear weapons without being sure they'll work.


In your column on carrageenan, the thickener used in McDonald's shakes, you reminded the writer that the company's most famous product contains "pieces of . . . dead cow" [March 13]. I am sure you are aware most beef products come from dead steer. --Jonathan Milenko, New York

Jonathan, I have a shameful confession to make. Many years ago, in response to a particularly dim-witted letter, I wrote, "If ignorance were cornflakes, you'd be General Mills." Priceless, eh? Here's the confession: General Mills doesn't make cornflakes. However, it was funnier that way. Same deal in the present instance. Cow = funny. Steer = stupid. Just a little insight into the twisted world of the media, where it definitely helps to be shameless.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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