Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Monday, February 11, 2019


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Monday, January 28, 2019

How Cold Is It?

Temps Around 53

Getting Warmer in Wisconsin

How Cold Is It?

An annotated thermometer
(degrees Fahrenheit, then Celsius)

+50 / +10
• New York tenants turn on the heat
• Wisconsinites plant gardens

+40 / +4
• Californians shiver uncontrollably
• Wisconsinites sunbathe

+35 / +2
• Italian cars don't start

+32 / 0
• Distilled water freezes

+30 / -1
• You can see your breath
• You plan a vacation in Florida
• Wisconsinites put on T-shirts
• Politicians begin to worry about the homeless

+25 / -4
• Boston water freezes
• Californians weep pitiably
• Wisconsinites eat ice cream
• Cat insists on sleeping on your bed with you

+20 / -7
• Cleveland water freezes
• San Franciscans start thinking favorably of LA
• Cranberry bog frost warnings

+15 / -10
• You plan a vacation in Acapulco
• Cat insists on sleeping in your bed with you

+10 / -12
• Politicians begin to talk about the homeless
• Too cold to snow
• You need jumper cables to get the car going

0 / -18
• New York landlords turn on the heat
• You plan a vacation in Hawaii
• Wisconsinites go swimming

-5 / -21
• You can hear your breath
• Sheboygan brats grilled on the patio, yum!

-10 / -23
• American cars don't start
• Too cold to skate

-15 / -26
• You can cut your breath and use it to build an igloo
• Miamians cease to exist
• Wisconsinites lick flagpoles

-20 / -29
• Cat insists on sleeping in your pajamas with you
• Politicians actually do something about the homeless
• People in LaCrosse think about taking down screens

-25 / -32
• Too cold to kiss
• You need jumper cables to get the driver going
• Japanese cars don't start
• Milwaukee Brewers head for spring training

-30 / -34
• You plan a two-week hot bath
• Pilsener freezes
• Bock beer production begins
• Wisconsinites shovel snow off roof

-38 / -39
• Mercury freezes
• Too cold to think
• Wisconsinites button top button

-40 / -40
• Californians disappear
Car insists on sleeping in your bed with you
• Canadians put on sweaters
• Record ice-fishing catch on Lake Mendota

-50 / -46
• Congressional hot air freezes
• Alaskans close the bathroom window
• Michiganders put gloves away, take out mittens
• Green Bay Packers practice indoors

-60 / -51
• Walruses abandon Aleutians
• Sign on Mount St. Helens: "Closed for the Season"
• Boy Scouts in Eau Claire start Klondike Derby

-70 / -57
• Glaciers in Central Park
• Superior snowmobilers organize trans-lake race to Sault Ste. Marie
• Hudson residents replace diving boards with hockey nets

-80 / -62
• Polar bears abandon Baffin Island
• Birkebeiner at Hayward

-90 / -68
• Edge of Antarctica reaches Rio de Janeiro
• Lawyers chase ambulances for no more than 10 miles
• Minnesotans migrate to Wisconsin thinking it must be warmer

-100 / -73
• Santa Claus abandons North Pole
Girl Scouts in Eau Claire start Klondike Derby
• Cheeseheads pull down earflaps

-173 / -114
• Ethyl alcohol freezes
• Only Door County cherries usable in brandy Manhattans

-297 / -183
• Oxygen precipitates out of atmosphere
• Microbial life survives only on dairy products

-445 / -265
• Superconductivity

-452 / -269
• Helium becomes a liquid

-454 / -270
• Hell freezes over

-456 / -271
• Illinois drivers drop below 90 MPH on I-90
• Madison study committee on downhill water flow turns in findings

-458 / -272
• Incumbent politician renounces campaign contribution

-460 / -273 (Absolute Zero)
• All atomic motion ceases
• Wisconsinites allow as how it's getting a mite nippy

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Monday, January 07, 2019


Wisconsin has a lieutenant governor named Mandela!

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Tuesday, January 01, 2019

No System To It

Rob Thomas is the film critic for The Capital Times here in Madison, and I always find his reviews to be informative, insightful, and well written. The one he did last week was no exception. It was a sympathetic interview with Milwaukeean Steve Burrows, director of the HBO documentary Bleed Out, about his decade-long struggle to find justice for his mother, who had been seriously disabled in what should have been a routine medical procedure.

Something about the review nagged at me, however, and I finally realized that it was the use of the term “health care system” in the headline and thruout the article. It perpetuates the mistaken notion that there is such a thing in America.

There is not.

I’ve done a fair amount of systems analysis in my time, and I’ve got a good grasp of what a system is supposed to be. Above all, it’s something that’s been designed, something to serve an intended purpose, with all its parts properly constructed to fit together smoothly to produce the desired result. If that were the case here in the US, we’d actually have proper health care for everybody. But it’s not. It’s stupendously excellent, world-class, cutting-edge health care for the privileged few, occasionally adequate and fitful attention for the bulk of people in the middle of the economic spectrum, sincere wishes of good luck for the people between jobs, bad nutrition and emergency-room visits for the poor, and “suck it up or please die quickly” for the desperate.

No, health care in America is like our measurement system. Not neat, orderly, consistent, and easy to learn and use like the metric system used by 95% of the world’s population. Instead it’s a cobbled-together patchwork of disparate profit centers like hospitals, pharmacies, independent medical practices, X-ray and lab-test providers, insurance companies, employee-benefit plans, lawyers, accountants, marketers, lobbyists, claims deniers, and of course corporate CEOs whose only joy greater than their annual 8-digit bonuses is pissing all over their competitors. The sole purpose of each of those independent components is not health care or patient sympathy but the ability to make a buck. And if there’s no money to be made, there’s no service.

That’s why, for example, you can get mail delivered to your front door 6 days a week for any address in the United States, or flip a switch and be assured that the lights will go on anywhere in America, but good luck if you need an emergency appendectomy in the northwoods of Wisconsin. No money in it, you know.

And that’s Wisconsin. Imagine what it’s like in Appalachia. Or Alaska. Or ranch country in Wyoming. Or Indian reservations in the Southwest. Or even inner-city Los Angeles, with no public transportation.

We can do better than this. Congress needs to buckle down and give us a serious health-care SYSTEM, like every other industrialized democracy on Earth! Sorry to say, they apparently have higher priorities. Instead of health care, they’re focusing on wealth care. But my rant on big money in politics is a topic for another day.

= = = = = =
Health tip: If you can’t afford a doctor, go to an airport. You’ll get a free X-ray and a breast exam. And, if you mention al-Qaeda, they’ll throw in a free colonoscopy.

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Monday, December 03, 2018

Righty-to-English Pocket Dictionary

You know how, if you’re a tourist and somebody says “bienvenu” to you, you can whip out your French-to-English dictionary and look up that it means “welcome”? Well, it’s the same deal with right-wing phraseology: It’s a language all its own. So, in an effort to promote better communication in American politics, here’s a start on a handy right-winger-to-normal-English dictionary:

fake news = honest reporting

enemy of the people = free press

alternative facts = lies

tort reform = corporate protection bill

tax relief = billionaire enhancement program

right to work = kill unions

healthy forests initiative = chop down more trees

clear skies act = no more birds

patriot act = civil liberties farewell tour

patriot = vigilante

dangerous criminal element = young black men

cost-effective corrections = for-profit prisons

enhanced interrogation techniques = torture

judicial activists = judges who’ve read the Constitution

secure elections = voter suppression

chain migration = family reunification

invaders = asylum seekers

rapists and murderers = Mexicans

security threats = Canadians

decisive leaders = authoritarian dictators

good people = racists and fascists

abstinence education = sexual ignorance

no child left behind = standardized testing for all

Satanic mind-rotting plot = evolution

just some egghead’s opinion = science

religious liberty = Christian fundamentalism for all

values voters = shameless self-righteous hypocrites

clean coal = dirty coal

world’s greatest hoax = climate change

that which may not be spoken = climate change

[obscenity redacted] = climate change

health-care system = health-insurance jungle

health-care plan = don’t get sick, or die quickly

Stalinism = Obamacare

Benghazi = Pearl Harbor

people = corporations

speech = money

peace = war

slavery = freedom

strength = ignorance

This list is still under construction. Additions welcome.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Fixing the Problems with Personal Pronouns

This essay is about 2 problems with personal pronouns in the English language:
  1. ambiguity in the 2nd person (shown below in red) and
  2. inadequacy in the 3rd person (shown below in green).

Available Letters

I’m going to suggest using 1-letter pronouns as partial fixes for these problems. Here’s what we have to choose from:

What letters are available? The vowels, of course! But 3 of them are already spoken for:
  • A, the indefinite article (usually uncapitalized),
  • I, the 1st-person singular pronoun (invariably capitalized), and
  • O, an interjection of surprise or astonishment (also invariably capitalized).
That leaves us with these, currently unclaimed:
  • E
  • U
I recognize that Y is a “sometimes” vowel, as in “candy” but not in in “yard”, but it’s not pronounced “wye” in either of those cases, so it would make for a poor pronoun. I think that, if anything, it’ll be used in the future as a substitute for “why”. I’ll ignore it and focus on the E and U.

Fixing the 2nd-Person Pronouns

One of them fairly screams “Use me!”. That would be U, which is an obvious substitute for the singular “you” and is already in wide use (tho in its lower-case form) in texting. As a replacement for the plural, I recommend “yall” (no apostrophe). This is already in verbal use in some parts of the shallow South (where it’s apostrophized to indicate that it’s a contraction of “you all”), and I choose to turn the other way when I hear that in the deep South “y’all” is the singular and “all y’all” is the plural.

What problem would this fix? Suppose you’re addressing your board of directors and the treasurer asks what you plan to do about the slowdown in revenue. Your response? “Well, I’d like to have a separate meeting with you about that.” To whom does the “you” refer, the treasurer (singular) or the entire board (plural)? If you had “U” and “yall” available, you wouldn’t have to explain yourself.

Of course, it would be an incomplete solution if I just stopped with the objective case, so here’s the complete set of replacements:

Fixing the 3rd-Person Pronouns

So now let’s look at what we can do with E.

And here I turn to the most persistent and irritating problem in English, the final vestige of gender in the language: the 3rd-person singular pronoun, which lacks a “human” option. I realize that this is about the 50th suggested fix for the problem, and none of the others have ever managed to catch on, but I figure it’s worth trying anyway.

There’s nothing wrong with “he”, “she”, and “it” if the gender of the referent is known, and in fact having the gender association helps keep things sorted out. “We invited Bill and Sue; she could go, but he couldn’t.”

But what happens if the person’s gender is uncertain? “They told me to contact Pat. Are you, um, her? him?”. (AFAICT, nobody has ever seriously proposed using “it” in this situation, since “it” is literally inhuman, tho on rare occasions it’s been used to refer to infants.) Or what happens if you aren’t even talking about a particular person but an indeterminate one in the abstract? “The last person to leave needs to turn off the lights; he/she should also push all the chairs back in.” OK, you can get away with “he/she” in writing, but who ever does that when speaking?

In fact, for the longest time the practice was to always assume the masculine “he” (or “his” or “him”) for people of indeterminate gender. Of course, this built all sorts of biases (some conscious, many unconscious) into the language, and we’ve been making a concerted effort to overcome them. That’s how we got “Ms.” instead of “Miss” and “Mrs.”, “firefighter” instead of “fireman”, “letter carrier” instead of “mailman”, “officer” instead of “policeman”, and Time’s “Person of the Year” instead of “Man of the Year”. This is a trend I heartily endorse.

However, here’s a trend I most decidedly do not endorse: the use of plural pronouns (“they”, “them”, “their”, “theirs”) as if they were singular. Pronouns are supposed to help you quickly understand whom you’re talking about. (Remember Bill and Sue, AKA he and she, from up above?) If “they” can be either singular or plural, the pronoun has failed to do its job. “Someone told Jan and Kim they could leave early.” In the standard meaning of “they” (plural), it’s clearly Jan and Kim who could leave early. But if “they” could also be singular, perhaps it was intended to refer to the unnamed “someone”. How can we tell? Either further explanation is required (where none was before) or people proceed as if they understood what was intended (when they may not have). In short, use of plurals as legitimate singulars just introduces ambiguity into the arena, creating a new problem without actually eradicating the old one, since the temptation to use “he”, “him”, and “his” will continue to exist. No thanks!

So I’m proposing to put E to work, as follows:


Notice a couple of patterns here. The singular subjective pronouns would all be capitalized single letters: I, U, and E. The new “human” pronouns all begin with an “e” for consistency. Everything’s short, as pronouns should be. And the only place where any of them are already in use are for the very purposes I propose for them here.

These look like winners to me. But then, so do the metric system and my aversion to switching back and forth with daylight saving time. Still, somebody has to go first, so why not me?

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Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Demise of Richard Russell

This is a personal anecdote, not one of my customary hortatory essays, so if you’re easily bored with inconsequential trivia, please feel free to skip it.

My full name is Richard Steven Russell. I was named for my two grandfathers, who fortunately didn’t have names like Ebenezer or Adolf. If you go on the spiffy website Name Voyager and look up “Richard”, you’ll see that it peaked in popularity the year I was born (1944) but has been in steady decline ever since, producing a popularity graph that looks a lot like Mont Blanc. So you’d think that the chances that I’d be confused with some other Richard Russell would be in decline as well. Um, not as much as you might think.

When I was just a lad of 8, back in 1952, I naively wrote an admiring letter to Senator Richard B. Russell of Georgia, wishing him well in his campaign for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. In response, I got a nice personalized letter, typed (I’m sure) by some campaign staffer but evidently signed by the senator himself. I’m sure I’ve still got it somewhere in my archives.

Years later, with a history major under my belt and a lot more worldly experience in my head, I became painfully aware that the senator had been a racist, sexist, jingoistic bully. But, as a long-serving Dixiecrat whose seniority enabled him to spend 16 years as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he was in a position to shower billions of dollars in federal military contracts on his home state, and he did so without hesitation or apology. To this day, if you visit the Georgia state capitol, you’ll find 2 nice little life-sized busts of Nobel Peace Prize winners Martin Luther King Jr. and Jimmy Carter tucked unobtrusively into 2 of the building’s 4 exterior concave corners, but the front esplanade facing the main approach from one of Atlanta’s many Peachtree Streets features a triple-life-sized full-body statue of Richard Russell, with his generous hand extended toward (some of) the people of Georgia. Priorities, I guess.

After I graduated from college and moved to Madison to take a job with the state Department of Public Instruction, I of course made sure that my name and number were listed in the phone book. (Remember those?) Shortly thereafter I started getting calls and letters from local businesses that I’d never heard of, demanding that I pay up. I was kind of nonplussed by this, since I’d hardly been in town long enuf to have run up any debts, even if I’d been inclined to do so, which I wasn’t. Finally a letter from a collection agency threatening legal action for my delinquency got me to take it seriously. Evidently some other person named Richard Russell had been a deadbeat who’d run up tabs all over the city before skipping town, and I was the only one in the phone book by that name, so they all figured it must’ve been me. I eventually set them all straight, and they went away.

Well, these were not the kind of people I wanted to be confused with, so I took to always using my middle initial, “S.”, when giving my full name for any kind of record. (In recent years, I’ve joked that I always use it so that other people won’t get confused with me!)

About the same time, I also started to use a joke name for any formal financial dealings I had, such as my spare-time database work or renting out rooms in my home. I called my business operation “Nocturnal Aviation Associates”. It was never incorporated, of course, and the plural “associates” was part of the joke, since it was only ever just me. But it was fun to know that some small fraction of the people who encountered it would think “hmm, just another fly-by-night operation” and get a small bang out of it.

Some time after that, when various on-line services and associations would ask what company I represented, that’s what I’d put in. Then they wanted to know what my title was, so I went for the pun again and started entering “head pilot”. Aside from the meaning that’s obvious for an aviation firm, there’s also “I’m the guy who runs my own brain”. A little harmless fun with wordplay, and a matter of no consequence for decades.

Fast forward to about 2010, when I was doing some volunteer database development for the UW School of Veterinary Medicine and I needed to find the contact info for a vet who lived in Virginia. My regular sources of such info turned up nothing, so I took a deep breath and signed up for LinkedIn, figuring I wouldn’t have to use it ever again after this one occasion. And of course I identified myself as the head pilot for Nocturnal Aviation Associates. (Literary fans: This is known as foreshadowing.) I did indeed find the info for the person I was looking for and happily went off to deploy it, forgetting that I was still signed up with LinkedIn.

Well, everybody else apparently ignored it as well, since I’d only get 1 or 2 desultory notices a year from them, which I ignored. That was until this week, when I got an e-mail from LinkedIn informing me that there’d been 27 separate hits on my account in the preceding week. To quote the appropriate pilot-speak, “whiskey tango foxtrot?”.

So here’s what must be going on. On 2018 August 10, a baggage handler for Horizon Air’s operation at SeaTac International Airport stole one of his employer’s Bombardier Q400 commercial turboprops and proceeded to do an hour’s worth of aerobatics in it before crashing it into the barely populated Ketron Island at the south end of Puget Sound. His name was initially reported in the media as “Richard Russell”. There was no middle initial, but subsequent coverage supplied it as “B.”, a little-noticed factoid appreciated by hardly anybody but me.

So, say you’re an analyst for the FBI, CIA, TSA, NSA, XYZ, PDQ, or some other federal TLA, and you’re looking for clues that this guy might’ve been a deep mole from al-Qaeda. Or maybe did he leave a manifesto of some kind? Or was this some kind of joy-riding dare from one of his on-line Chuck Yeager–wannabe buddies? You hit the web. And what do you turn up? Some guy named Richard Russell with a fantasy life as the head pilot of a make-believe outfit called Nocturnal Aviation Associates. Oh boy!

So, to all you searchers out there: No, it’s not me. He’s dead; I’m still alive. Besides, I don’t like terrorism or terrorists. I deplore so-called practical jokes that harm people or property. I have a good sense of humor, but this wasn’t at all funny. Sad, really. The world needs all the Richard Russells it can get.

PS: Abigail fretted that my name might now turn up on the federal no-fly list as a suspicious person, and this might screw up our upcoming vacation to Niagara Falls. I assured her not to worry, since the only no-fly list that “Richard Russell” now appears on is God’s.

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