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.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Overblown Risk of Terrorism

2006 Nov. 30

Re your article:,9171,1562978,00.html

I read Jeffrey Kluger’s article about risks (“Why we worry about the things we shouldn’t … and ignore the things we should”, Dec. 4 issue) waiting for him to get to the obvious, but he evidently chickened out. Let me fill in the gap.

If you start in 1981, with the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, and run thru the end of 2005, you’ve got a quarter century’s worth of data about terrorist attacks on America. Add up all the casualties: 9/11, of course. The 1993 WTC attack as well. The bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut and the embassies in Africa (where most of the casualties were Africans, but count ‘em anyway). The Unabomber. Oklahoma City. Think of the FBI as terrorists and throw in Waco and Ruby Ridge. Count everything.

What body count do we come up with? 3,771. Over 25 years. (See table below).

So, to “keep America safe” from an average of 151 deaths per year (half as many as bathtub drownings or falling off ladders), we have shredded our civil liberties, completely reorganized the federal government, hassled airline passengers for an hour or 2 on each and every one of literally billions of trips, started 2 wars, provoked a national sense of paranoia and anxiety, and poured at least half a trillion dollars down a black hole.

Historians a hundred years from now will compare this era to the Salem witch trials and wonder what OUR excuse could possibly have been.

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Richard S. Russell, a Bright (
2642 Kendall Av. #2, Madison WI 53705-3736
608+233-5640 *

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Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
-- George Santayana, American philosopher, 1863–1953

Deaths from Terrorist Attacks on America, 1981-2005

1981, 0
1982, 0
1983, 241 (Oct. 23 truck bombing of Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon)
1984, 0
1985, 1 (Unabomber killing of Hugh Scrutton in California)
1986, 0
1987, 0
1988, 0
1989, 0
1990, 0
1991, 0
1992, 3 (Aug. 21 FBI raid on Ruby Ridge, Idaho)
1993, 89 (2 events: 6 killed Feb. 26 in World Trade Center truck bombing organized by Ramzi Yousef, inspired by Omar Abdel-Rahman; 83 killed Apr. 19 by FBI terrorist raid on Branch Davidian compound in Waco TX)
1994, 1 (Unabomber killing of Thomas J. Mosser in New Jersey)
1995, 169 (Apr. 17 truck bombing of the Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City carried out by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols plus Unabomber killing of Gilbert B. Murray in California)
1996, 0
1997, 0
1998, 258 (Aug. 7 al-Qaeda bombings of embassies in Kenya and Tanzania)
1999, 0
2000, 17 (Oct. 12 boat bombing of USS Cole in Aden harbor, Yemen)
2001, 2,992 (Sep. 11 al-Qaeda airline hijacking organized by Mohammad Atta, inspired by Osama bin Laden; total includes 246 innocent airline passengers and crew, 2,602 at World Trade Center, 125 at Pentagon, and 19 terrorists)
2002, 0
2003, 0
2004, 0
2005, 0

Total: 3,771 in 25 years
Average: 151 per year

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Beginning the Dialog between Faith and Reason

2006 Nov. 26

Voice of the People
The Capital Times
PO Box 8060
Madison WI 53708-8060

“Colleges ought to shed light on religions”

Thus opined Notre Dame’s top academic officials, John I. Jenkins and Thomas Burish.

[Original essay available on line at]

It might surprise them and a lot of your readers to know that almost all atheists are 100% in agreement with the sentiment, if only for the reason expressed by Isaac Asimov: “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.”

More generally, religions (and non-religious traditions as well) are major components in the lives of virtually all people at all times, and they deserve to be taken seriously in academia. It is particularly instructive for students coming from a sheltered, monocultural background to be exposed to the diversity of beliefs in the world.

Jenkins and Burish conclude by hoping for “a dialogue that truly explores the relationship between faith and reason.” Me too. Let me start. Faith begins with conclusions reached without evidence, and often despite contradictory evidence. Reason starts with evidence and follows it to conclusions. They are, therefore, mutually exclusive decision-making methods.

Long, often painful experience has shown that faith is like dividing by zero: you can use it to prove anything you want. (Fortunately, hardly anybody uses it to decide anything that really matters, like when to cross the street.) Reason, on the other hand, leads to reliable, consistent results that are, as the name implies, reasonable.

This is exactly what college students SHOULD be learning, even at Notre Dame (perhaps especially at Notre Dame).

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Richard S. Russell
Atheists and Agnostics of Wisconsin
2642 Kendall Av. #2, Madison WI 53705-3736
608+233-5640 *

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Faith: 1. unquestioning belief
-- Webster's New 20th Century Dictionary (unabridged)

Monday, November 13, 2006

You Thot Katrina Was Bad?

Helping to keep things in perspective:

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Election Reflection

Election Reflection
by Richard S. Russell

OK, I sure don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, because goodness knows it’s been a long time since we on the left had much to feel good about, so we should relish the moment while it lasts.

Whoopee! We won!

All right, celebration’s over. Let’s face some facts.

Democrats barely control the US Senate. They had a big surge in the US House of Representatives, which was significant mainly because a big surge was what it took to overcome the big hole they were in. This has resulted not in overwhelming dominance of the House, only in a majority with a very small cushion. Speaker-in-Waiting Nancy Pelosi can’t afford more than a few defections from the ranks on any given issue. And, given that Bush the Lesser is standing by with veto stamp in hand, this is not a prescription for a raging liberal activist agenda.

And just because Democrats hold a bare majority doesn’t mean that liberals do. The Democratic majority in the US Senate includes people like the 2 Senator Nelsons (Florida and Nebraska), Wisconsin’s Herb Kohl, and technically Independent (but Dem-leaning) Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation now has 5 Dems to only 3 Republicans, but of the 5 only Dave Obey, Gwen Moore, and Tammy Baldwin are reliable lefties. Ron Kind is, to be charitable, a centrist, and newly elected Steve Kagen is a self-made millionaire whose appeal to his naturally conservative constituency relied heavily on his pro-business attitude.

As we learned in 2000 and again in 2004, the American public is split pretty much down the middle. And the new Congress reflects that split. Republicans remain a force to be reckoned with.

Was this a sea change in American public opinion? No. Flat-out no. It was not.

The election results were not a repudiation of the Republican Party or of the conservative worldview. They were an expression of disgust at the venality, corruption, hypocrisy, cruelty, and most of all incompetence of this particular bunch of lying assholes who happen to be Republicans.

If the Republicans can come up with an honest, principled, hard-working set of replacements, or if the Democrats get caut with their hands in the nation’s till (or some kid’s pants) the way the ousted Republicans did, Tuesday’s victory will go up in smoke just as fast as it arrived.

Remember that 1 person out of 3 still thinks that the incredibly incompetent George W. Bush is doing a good job. We will never get thru to these people, as they are manifestly oblivious to evidence.

A bare fraction under half of the voters in the Commonwealth of Virginia think it would be just ducky to be represented in Congress by an overt racist. This is 42 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed, and racism is still seen as a political advantage next door to the nation’s capital. (And ignore the racism for a moment and consider how just plain dumb it is to stare straight into a camera being operated by somebody working for your opponent and voluntarily offer up a racist comment.)

Wisconsin liked conservative Democrat Jim Doyle for governor but rejected liberal Democrat Kathleen Falk for attorney general. And, by almost a 3-2 margin, it rejected the idea of equal human rights for gay people and those straight people who, for reasons of their own, choose to live together without the “blessings” of marriage. At the same time, the voting public of the Badger State said it was a swell idea to execute people — this in a state that has banned the death penalty for longer than any other political jurisdiction on the planet.

So we on the left have to be on our very best behavior for the next 2 years. We have to keep our noses clean and prove that we can actually get things done. We have a very delicate hold on the reins of power, and we must use them responsibly.

We cannot go gallivanting off on the left-wing equivalent of such symbolic but meaningless crusades as those the right wing waged against flag burning or school prayer or partial-birth abortion. (I’m thinking in particular of the left’s mindless obsession over guns.)

We can’t just jerk the troops out of Iraq. We can’t immediately introduce a motion to impeach Bush for all his many (well documented) war crimes. We can’t expect national health care by the 4th of July.

What we can do is be open and honest — to say what we mean and mean what we say — without doing everything behind closed doors (the way Cheney did with our pro-oil-company national energy policy). We can hold public hearings on everything. We can be humble in asking for advice from our constituents.

What we can do is deliver on a minimum-wage increase. We can openly compare different plans for getting out of Iraq, pick one, enact it, publicize it, and stick to it. We can repeal the idiot provision of the prescription-medicine plan that prohibits the government from negotiating prices with the drug companies. We can extend the Social Security tax to incomes above $90,000 and solve the Social Security deficit for eternity. We can repeal the subsidies for oil companies, which have set world records for quarterly profits. We can sit back quietly and let the Bush tax cuts for the rich expire on schedule and return to the Clinton days of balanced budgets with modest surpluses paying down the national debt.

Every one of these proposals provides direct financial benefit to the average citizen, and we should not be bashful about pointing this out.

For the symbolic value, we can repeal our government’s official approval of torture and dare Bush to veto it.

Most of all, we can put real campaign-finance reform at the top of our domestic agenda. The whole process has been so corrupted by special-interest money — delivered by the millions to candidates in return for billions returned to the investors — that the phrase “the best Congress money can buy” has long since ceased to be a joke and is now widely recognized to be a perfectly accurate description of reality.

Let me be specific here. Jim Doyle is a whore. He ran for governor 4 years ago promising to work hard for campaign-finance reform. 5 minutes after he took the oath of office, he was already trying to drum up money for his 2006 campaign war chest. He is part of the problem, not part of the solution. I don’t give a damn that he’s a Democrat, he’s an obstacle. (Not that Mark Green would have been any better, but Doyle’s the obstacle we’re stuck with.) We can’t go around him, so we’re gonna have to go thru him.

We on the left can prove best to the American public that we have their interests at heart if we’re willing to criticize our own guys at least as enthusiastically as we do the righties.

Conventional political wisdom holds that the way to win elections is to spend the 4-month run-up to each election rallying the base. This is only half a strategy. What we really need to do is spend the other 20 months of the cycle trying to build the base. We do this in 2 ways: by performing well in public office and by doing grass-roots organizing and education.

Professional politicians (including party staff and officers as well as elected officials) focus on elections to the exclusion of education, to sound bites instead of thotful discussions, to bumper stickers over white papers. That’s not gonna cut it in the long run. We have to reach out to those who don’t agree with us as well as to those on the fence.

So, let’s enjoy the moment while it lasts.

Then let’s roll up our sleeves and prove we deserve a sequel.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Families I Have Known

Families I Have Known
by Richard S. Russell

Family values have been much discussed of late, leading me to spend some time thinking about families I have known.

I’ve spent the 2nd half of my life in Madison, Wisconsin, working mostly for the state. But during the 1st half I grew up and went to school and college in Eau Claire. 522 Niagara Street. TEmple 2-5610. The big old elm out front is gone now, but the sidewalk still has the cursive letter “R” that I drew in the wet cement right after Pop and I had laid it down.

We kids were in and out of each others’ places all the time, so I was completely familiar with the kitchens and living rooms of the Borums, the Boettchers, the Houses on the corner, the Andersons kitty-corner across the intersection, and the Drabants next door to them. Homes without kids were less familiar, but friendly and welcoming all the same. One nice lady didn’t have any children at home, but she DID have the 1st TV in the naborhood, and half a dozen of us showed up there every week to watch “Davy Crockett”. Same deal with our baby-sitter, 2 doors down, whose family invited ours to watch Mary Martin starring as “Peter Pan”.

About the only house on the block where we DIDN’T feel welcome was right next door to ours, where old Mrs. King lived. Rumor had it she was a witch. I suspect my mom overheard that comment at some point, because one fine day she told me it was time to go meet the nice nabor lady.

We didn’t spend long in Mrs. King’s front parlor -- maybe 10 minutes (which can SEEM long to a squirmy young boy) -- but we had some milk and cookies (in retrospect, goodies that were probably supplied by my mother), Mrs. King told me how much I reminded her of her own little boy (probably in his 50s by then), she didn’t pinch my cheek or pat my head (thankfully), and I realized that she was just a regular person (albeit hard of hearing and a bit musty). We never talked again after that, but a couple of times she waved at me from the front window, and I waved back. I candidly reported to my playmates that she wasn’t a witch, and that was that. And, had push ever come to shove, there was one more house on the block where I knew I’d be safe.

In the house on the other side lived the Kohlhepps, who ran a local family grocery store. Donnie Kohlhepp was quite a bit older than I was, so he wasn’t a playmate, but I still remember that he came to Pop when he needed to know how to tie a Windsor knot for the high-school prom.

A couple of blocks away lived Joe Hulwi, who I think was between me and my 3-years-younger sister Mary in age. Joe’s parents were both profoundly deaf, but Joe was not, so he grew up interpreting for them. I understand that lately this has become a common situation in the families of Hmong and Hispanic immigrants, and has caused some friction in situations where the elders expect that the younger generation will respect them for their worldly knowledge. For Joe, it just meant mixing adult responsibilities in with being a kid.

My friend and classmate Hugh Robertson always wanted to fly. He was an Air Force junkie and mainly responsible for converting our Boy Scout Explorer post into Air Explorers when he got the local Air Force recruiters to serve as post advisors. Hugh and his mom lived on Water Street. I think his mom was some mix of American Indian and black, which was pretty unusual in Eau Claire at the time. Hugh never talked about his dad but he was tight with the 2 Air Force sergeants.

As I got older, I became more attuned to the “no dad” situation, my own father having died when I was 15. My fraternity, Alpha Kappa Lambda, held a father-son banquet every year, and I’d attend in the company of AKL’s faculty advisor, Dr. Roy Saigo, who wasn’t all that much older than I was. Roy’s own upbringing had included a stint -- along with his parents and siblings -- as a guest of the US government in a Japanese-American internment camp. At the same time, a couple of his cousins were here in Wisconsin, at Camp McCoy, training for combat duty in Europe as part of the 442nd Infantry Regiment -- the Nisei Brigade -- which became the most decorated unit in American military history, including 21 Medals of Honor. It ended the war with a casualty rate of 314%. I learned this more from Roy than from the textbooks and lectures I got as a history major.

AKL brother Larry Roberts attended with a guy also named Roy. One day I asked him how come he didn’t call Roy “Dad” or “Pop” or something similar. Turned out that Roy wasn’t his original father. That guy had run off when Larry was still a little kid, leaving his mom in a pretty awkward situation -- not divorced, not widowed, but a woman alone trying to raise a small boy. Roy was a co-worker at the dairy plant who started out by being helpful and ended up moving in. They never bothered with the fuss and expense of doing a formal divorce and marriage, but Roy was for all intents and purposes Larry’s REAL father.

Another AKL brother was Wally Lane. Wally’s mother lived in Shanghai, and there was no way Mao Zedong’s government was ever going to let her out of the country, nor was Wally ever going to take the chance of visiting her. Wally lived with his guardian, an artsy older woman from Eau Claire who had somehow come to “inherit” him. I never did get the full story on that, since I didn’t want to be nosy, but I’m sure there WAS a story to it.

The male relative closest to me in age is my cousin Greg. Greg’s mom, my Aunt Mary, had died a horrible death from cancer when Greg was still little, and my folks doubted that my dad’s brother Sherwood would ever remarry, since he had been so obviously in love with her. But within a couple of years he had found a lovely woman to share his life, and she became my Aunt Barb. She and Uncle Sher had 2 more kids -- Jane and Kay -- and nobody who saw the 5 of them together would ever have guessed that Greg and Barb weren’t blood relatives.

Kay, who’s at least as Wonder Bread white as I am, married a black man. Their kids are never going to have to worry about working on their tans. Occasionally, looking at them all smiling at me out of family pictures, I’m struck by the fact that, for most of our country’s history, their marriage would have been illegal somewhere in the United States.

My own mother’s attitude toward black people was an odd mix of admirable and exasperating. She’d say things like “They have such beautiful teeth.” and “They’re wonderful entertainers.”, and Mary and I would just roll our eyes at the blatant stereotyping. Yet Mom never had a mean bone in her body. Even her stereotypes tried to find good things to say about people.

At the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, where I spent 25 years as an analyst, there was a good guy named Roger Sunby, a supervisor a couple of years older than me. Roger was reaching the point in life where he and his wife could retire, move to a smaller home on a lake, kick back, and enjoy themselves. Unfortunately, their son committed suicide, leaving behind a couple of small orphaned kids. So Roger and the missus, the children’s grandparents, signed on for another couple of decades of parenthood.

This isn’t unusual in ANY society. The people we most often turn to when times are tuff are family, friends, and nabors. The government’s there to provide a safety net when those 1st options aren’t available or when -- as in the case of the sawmill shutting down or a tornado ripping thru town -- everybody else is in the same boat. But “family values” prominently include the concept of “help”.

There were probably gay families all around me as I grew up, but it wasn’t the sort of thing people talked about. Looking back, I realize that one of my grade-school classmate’s “Uncle” Roger showed up for school functions along with his dad, even tho I never remember meeting his mother.

I do remember another situation, tho, when I was driving school bus during college. A bunch of AKLs were hanging out at Bill Mooney’s Bar and Grill on Grand Avenue, celebrating a legal victory that Kip Crandall had scored suing the insurance company of a driver who’d run into him on his motorcycle. Kip’s lawyer was celebrating with us, and he got a little soused. It came out that he was gay. The part I found interesting was that he was married, and his teenage son rode my school bus. I often wondered how he and his wife worked things thru. The kid seemed OK, as far as I could tell.

With the advent of the 20th Century version of the Gay ’90s, there’s been a lot more openness about gay relationships, and we straight folx have discovered something we’d previously been kind of oblivious to. Businesses have long catered to gays and lesbians because they’re supposed to fit in the demographic group known as DINKs -- double income, no kids -- and therefore supposedly have a lot of spare cash and free time. And, indeed, childless couples are the kind of gay family I’m most familiar with. But surprise! It turns out that a lot of gay couples DO have kids -- offspring from earlier, failed attempts at straight marriage, or artificial insemination, or adoption, or the “just kinda happened” sort.

I muse about how such a family would have fared on the Niagara Street of my youth. There wouldn’t have been a problem with the kids, of course. They would have gotten along the way kids always do, since they don’t know “better”. And I like to think that, if we had somehow started whispering about how odd it was that Pat had 2 dads, Mom would have arranged another milk-and-cookie session so we could get to know them. Maybe, maybe not. It was the 1950s.

Half a century later, I still hope that I’ll be learning things until the day I die, but I’ve reached a point where I have a few conclusions that I’m willing to share.

The 1st is that families come in all shapes, sizes, and configurations. I’ve seen ’em. They result from odd combinations of choice and chance. Pick your aphorism: “Blood is thicker than water.” vs. “You can pick your friends, but you’re stuck with your relatives.”. There’s some truth to each in pretty much every family -- often simultaneously.

The 2nd is that most people in this world want essentially the same things out of life: a decent home; 3 squares a day; good health; the company of family and friends; a fair shot at the good things in life; fun; a chance to leave a lasting mark (hopefully a good one); and to neither get nor give any grief. Who needs the hassle?

The 3rd is what government is good for. It’s to do things FOR us, not TO us. We hire government to make our lives easier, not harder.

In my experience, every family has been able to figure out for themselves what their values are. I can’t imagine that we’d EVER need the government to do it to us.

Let alone with a constitutional amendment.