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.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Election 2008 Websites

At the Oct. 22 meeting of the Madison Macintosh Users Group, we'll immerse ourselves in the hot topic of the season. No, not Halloween: politics!

Most attention is focussed on the quadrennial race for the White House, and we'll certainly spend a fair amount of time on that. But there are lots of other races on the ballot as well. Wisconsin has no US Senate seats up for grabs this year, but, as always in an even-numbered year, all 8 seats in the US House of Representatives are open. Furthermore, we'll be electing all 99 State Assembly representatives and half of the 33 Wisconsin state senators.

To help you get ready for the election on Tue. Nov. 4, we'll tour of a flock of websites that are devoted to various aspects of the election. I'm your tour guide, Richard S. Russell, CPJ (certified political junkie), and below you'll see the sights and attractions that I've highlighted for your amazement and amusement.

Get a jump on the presentation by browsing thru these goodies in advance. Clearly, clearly there are way more websites out there than I've listed here. If you've got some faves you'd like me to cover (tho hardly any of these will get more than a minute or 2), by all means let me know (at what they are.


Candidate Matching


Party Platforms

Civic Information

Horse Race

Fact Checking

Legislative Record

Interest Groups
(There are a ton of these out there. I'm using my faves as a representative sample.)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Alternative to Bus-Fare Hike

Madison's mayor has proposed a 33% bus-fare increase, from $1.50 to $2.00 per ride. I think this is the wrong way to go, especially in an era of belt-tightening, rising gasoline prices, intermittent fuel shortages due to things like hurricanes and international tensions, and the continuing environmental problems caused by massive automobile usage.

So this is my proposed alternative. Part 1: Don't raise bus fares.

Instead, generate the same amount of money by raising the rates in the city parking ramps. This will encourage more people to take the bus.

But, you will probably object, NOBODY likes to take the bus during rush hour. It's too crowded. Shuffling people out of parking ramps and onto busses will only exacerbate the problem.

That's where Part 2 of my proposal kicks in: staggered starting hours.

Using all the moral suasion (and fiscal leverage) at the city's disposal, we should strive for the following (or some variant on it) as standard starting hours for the various sectors of Madison's downtown economy:
 • County offices @ 7:00 AM
 • State offices @ 7:30 AM
 • University operations @ 8:00 AM
 • City offices @ 8:30 AM
 • Private businesses @ 9:00 AM

Everyone would get a full hour off for lunch, starting 4 hours after the beginning of the work day, and the normal work day would end 9 hours after it started. This would give everybody plenty of time to do all their official business and shopping either before work, after work, or during the lunch hour. And it would thin out the rush hour for both cars and busses. Businesses would love it, because they'd have a steady stream of customers instead of a sudden glut, followed by hours of ennui.

This is a win-win situation all around, but it'll take some coordination. Unfortunately, the economic picture is grim, but maybe it takes something like this to goose us into action.

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Dear Osama: The whole economy of the entire United States is completely dependent on the continued operation of the tollbooths on I-90 in northern Illinois. Helpfully, your friend, Richard

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Fearless Predictions

Isaac Asimov once noted that any idiot, upon seeing the 1st automobiles, could have predicted that they would revolutionize transportation; it took real insight, he said, to predict that they would also revolutionize the sex lives of teenagers.

In that spirit (and without waiting for the traditional New Year's Day), I look upon 2 major developments that seem to be upon us — the election of Barack Obama and a pronounced, worldwide economic slowdown — and hazard a few guesses about what else may be in store for us. In no particular order ...

 • It will become fashionable for old people to commit suicide, some in intriguingly imaginative ways, rather than face lingering illnesses, the need to impose on their children, and ruinous expense.

 • Democratic households will experience a bumper crop of babies around next Aug. 4.

 • Speaking of babies, "Barack" and "Michelle" will become popular names for newborns, tho not coming anywhere close to the overwhelming global preference for "Muhammad" as a boy's name. "Hussein", despite its current boomlet among Republicans, will not experience a similar uptick.

 • Scientists think that the Universe comprises only about 5% "normal" matter and energy, 30% "dark matter", and 65% "dark energy". They don't have a clue what the latter 2 could conceivably be, only that there's evidence that there must be SOMETHING there. Religious leaders will arise who claim to have the answer and be willing to share it with you in return for a modest contribution.

 • Fashionistas will rediscover brown. UPS will find a way to capitalize on it.

 • The economy of Utah will boom as salt and sand become hot new commodities.

 • The FBI will create a new crime category, "roommate abuse", to cover the inevitable consequences of incompatible people being forced to live together in order to afford the rent.

 • Out of necessity, the Republicans leapfrogged the Democrats in the use of direct mail back in the day of Richard Viguerie. Similarly, Howard Dean had the Dems leapfrog the GOP in the use of the internet. It's the Republicans' turn again. I figure they'll find some way to make use of jobless people.

 • Canada and Mexico will face increasing problems with illegal immigration from America.

 • Cubs fans will continue to loyally say "Wait till next year.". They'll have to. (Sometimes this game is just too easy.)

 • The common cold will be discovered to be good for you. (I threw this one in like a good astrologer. There's almost no chance whatsoever it'll come true, but every now and again you get lucky, and then you look like a genius. If not, nobody remembers, anyway.)

 • There will be an upsurge in retired people starting new part-time careers mending things. Production of thread and glue will rise.

 • A new form of music will arise that prominently features wailing.

 • New Orleans will turn 9th Ward Lagoon into a thriving tourist destination.

 • Obama will realize that knee-jerk patriots are an untapped source of wealth. Puerto Rico will become our 51st state; the Virgin Islands, our 52nd; Anbar, our 53rd. The righties will dutifully buy new flags every couple of months, thereby pumping money into the economy.

 • New North Korean leader Kim Il Kimil will increase his nation's world standing and income by franchising consultancies on how to deal with poverty and destitution.

 • Cities will subsidize vertical community gardens in former parking ramps.

 • Colombia will become the new economic powerhouse of Latin America after industrialized nations give up their futile battle against recreational drugs and legalize them. Not coincidentally, Coca-Cola will come out with another new variant which somehow incorporates the word "real".

 • Microsoft and Google will explode after trying to eat each other. And largely succeeding.

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You see how this game goes. Anyone can play. To participate, just swing by my OTHER blog at
and drop off a response to this posting.

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The future is already here. It is just not uniformly distributed.
-- William Gibson

Friday, October 17, 2008

Who Is Sarah Finn?

She is the casting director for Oliver Stone's new movie W., and she's gotta be the front runner for whatever Oscars they hand out for excellence in casting.

Josh Brolin, who played a much lower-class cowboy (Llewelyn Moss) in last year's "Best Picture" winner, the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men, does a bang-up job as Dubya. Despite the best effects of Hollywood make-up wizards, he doesn't really bear much facial resemblance to the Resident, but he's got the mannerisms and inflections down cold.

And the rest of the cast is just stellar, particularly James Cromwell as Bush 41 (who comes off pretty well), Thandie Newton as Condi Rice, and Toby Jones as Karl Rove.

Laura Bush is portrayed by Elizabeth Banks as a real sweetie who truly loves the man she stands by. (We see the twins mainly in quickly flashed family photos.)

Jeffrey Wright is perfect as Colin Powell, and Richard Dreyfuss is every bit his match as Cabinet-meeting opponent Dick Cheney.

Nobody will ever top the casting of Christopher Reeve as Superman or Madonna as Evita, but for an ensemble performance, this will be the gold standard for decades to come.

Oh, yeah, about the movie.

Knowing that this is an Oliver Stone film that was billed as being merely BASED on a true story, you could be excused for expecting a political hatchet job. It's not. In many cases, it simply has the actors repeating the actual dialog that emerged from the mouths of actual people (tho with Hollywood's customary license about "composite characters" and time compression).

It's more of a psychodrama, as Stone tries to get into the head of Dubya and paints him as a ne'er-do-well who finally became an overachiever because he was always being compared unfavorably to his brother Jeb and could never make his daddy happy. (The old man communicates even approval distantly, by writing the little notes he was so famous for as Reagan's VP.)

Stone uses soft background music ironically and, I thot, unnecessarily. Silence would have been preferable. I was also annoyed at all the jumping around in the timeline, to no apparent purpose (tho at least labelled properly with the year in the lower-left corner of the screen), and I would have preferred a straight chronological narrative.

We don't get to see any detail of Dubya's 2 big conversions — the one off the bottle or the one to Jesus — even tho we do get a disturbing look at the extent to which these power brokers resorted to prayer when making critical decisions. Real or fiction? Hard to say.

The biggest surprise is that Stone cuts The Decider a lot of slack when it comes to Saddam Hussein's supposed WMDs. According to the movie, everybody (possibly including Saddam himself) was convinced that Iraq had them. (As the joke used to go: "We know he's got them. My dad's still got the receipts.") They just didn't have absolutely irrefutable evidence, but they were all convinced it would turn up eventually. And, of course, Dubya didn't have the intellectual firepower to insist on a reality check.

The few fantasy sequences, in which Stone tries to portray the inner workings of Bush's mind, show both the carrot and the stick. The former is a dream of baseball glory, the latter the fear of Poppy's disapproval.

We never really get any insight into how this moron managed to hornswoggle the country into voting for him twice.

The dominant impression I carried away from the movie was how much more I knew about this guy than ever made it to the screen, and what a waste of my brain it was having to store all that info about one of history's biggest losers.

Voter Fraud Compared to Bird Flu

Suppose you've heard about a new strain of bird flu popping up in, say, Indonesia. Local health officials say it's fatal for 3 out of 100,000 people.

Well, if it can kill you, it's probably worth taking precautions against, right? And, as it turns out, there's a vaccine specifically designed to prevent bird flu. So we should all go get vaccinated, right?

That's what the Republicans are saying about voter fraud. It does exist in some places, and it might exist here, so we should all get the "vaccine" they're proposing: strict voter ID requirements.

Here's what they're not mentioning:
 • The vaccine is very expensive.
 • There's no real indication that it'll prevent all cases of bird flu. (It cuts the death toll by 1/3, which sounds impressive until you realize that means from 3 to 2.)
 • And side effects from getting the vaccine kill 100 people out of 100,000.

In other words, the "cure" is worse than the "disease". Once the full story is known, only an idiot would propose mass vaccinations, right? Well, in Wisconsin, the name of that idiot is J. B. Van Hollen, the attorney general who aspires to to be the Republican wet-dream successor to such worthies as Katherine Harris (Florida, '00) and Kenneth Blackwell (Ohio, '04).

Now, admittedly, my vaccination analogy falls short in some regards.

1st, it's fairly easy to compare mortality rates, because you've got dead bodies you can count. It's much harder to find fraudulent voters, because hardly anybody brags about it out loud when sober. That's why I'm not going all the way toward saying it never happens. There are no documented cases of it anywhere in Wisconsin, but some of them might be sneaking by under the radar.

2nd, the 100 vaccination victims are largely random — could be anyone! The 100 likely victims of "voter ID", however, are well known to all: the poor, the elderly, students, racial minorities, single mothers, people with 2 jobs, etc. — that is, people much more likely to think of the government as a friend, rather than the enemy, and thus much more likely to vote Democratic.

The Republicans claim the real problem (the analog to the flu) is voter fraud. They are so arrogant (and perhaps so lulled into complacency by the success of the Bush regime's habit of playing fast and loose with the truth) as to think that we suckers will buy that line. (And, FWIW, many people, upon hearing only the GOP side of the story, artfully packaged, do buy that line.)

But anyone who's paying attention recognizes that what the Republicans are trying to pass off as a "solution" is considerably worse than the virtually non-existent "problem" it purports to address: It's really voter suppression.

This is, of course, exactly what the Republicans want, regardless of how much lipstick they smear on the pig by way of protestations of innocence and "We're just trying to enforce the law!". The blind sheep following them may be dumb, but these Mayberry Machiavellis, to give them their due, are not.

Devious, yes. Disingenuous, yes. Clever, yes. Self-interested, yes. Spinmeisters, yes. Dumb, no.

My final word on the subject: I live in Madison, Wisconsin, home to the University of Wisconsin. Any Republican who's dumb enuf to think that you can't fake a photo ID card if you really wanted to cheat at the polls needs to spend a Friday night on State Street.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Name Me Some Socialized Services

Synopsis of many e-mail discussions I've had lately:

Me: We need national health care.

Idiot: But that would be *gasp* socialized medicine!

This objection is always delivered with an overtone of shocked horror, as if the mere prospect of socialism is akin to gifting your 1st-born child over to Satan.

I have finally had my fill of this attitude and have begun compiling a list of various socialized services that are widely available in America. It's reproduced below. I'd appreciate your taking a look at it and filling in the gaps or otherwise offering suggestions for improvements.

By "socialism" I mean something akin to the Marxist motto "From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs.". The general idea is that money goes into the common pot (usually in the form of taxes) and is used to pay for services that are available for free (or at nominal cost) to the average citizen, regardless of what he or she paid into the pot in the 1st place.

It is my contention that almost every American benefits from many different socialized services, but that we've become so accustomed to them that nobody thinks of them as socialism any more. They're just taken for granted. It's my hope that listing a whole batch of them in one place will help remove the blinders from those who mindlessly denigrate socialism as if that's the only objection they'd ever need to raise to a new idea.

Here's the list as it stands so far. Have at it.

addiction-treatment programs, air-traffic control, anti-discrimination laws, anti-trust enforcement, bank deposit insurance, canals, consumer protection, contract enforcement, criminal justice, diplomacy, elections, employment relations, energy generation and transmission, epidemiology, fair labor standards, farm price supports, fire fighting, fish hatcheries, food and drug safety standards, game management, garbage pickup, handicapped transportation, historic preservation, housing standards, immigration controls, insurance regulation, lake districts, levees, libraries, mail delivery, medical research, Medicare, mental-health services, mentally disabled care, money, national defense, occupational safety and health inspections, outdoor recreation (playgrounds, tennis courts, golf courses, etc.), parking ramps, parks, police protection, pollution controls, prisons, public broadcasting, public housing, roadways (streets and highways), rural electrification, scholarships, schools, scientific research, sewerage, snow removal, Social Security, space and oceanic exploration, swimming pools, traffic engineering, unemployment compensation, urban planning, utility regulation, veterans' health care, water, weather prediction, weight and measure certification, wetland protection, workers' compensation

Sunday, October 05, 2008

3 Minutes Well Spent

From Jay Smooth's Ill Doctrine blog: "How to Tell People They Sound Racist"

Copy for later pasting:

Friday, October 03, 2008


Just came back from seeing Bill Maher's religion-bashing film Religulous (a word of his own invention, starting out as "religion" and ending up as "ridiculous"). As an atheist, I found it satisfying in its thoro trashing of the many stupidities of many religions, but it wasn't as funny as I'd hoped. Most of the chuckles came from a whole lot of quick cuts to scenes from old movies as a kind of sidebar commentary on what was happening on screen. This is a technique akin to what Stephen Colbert does on his "The Word" segment on his fake-pundit show: He'll say something in his persona of a right-wing blowhard, and the right side of the screen will flash a short satiric comment on it. Maher also uses the technique of subtitling (like "No, it's not!") to point out when somebody on screen is telling a whopper.

There's probably no way that this movie is going to convince anyone who's deeply religious that their own beliefs are ridiculous. Other people's, yes, but not their own. Maher admits as much near the end, when he overtly pitches anti-religious people to get off their butts and start making waves, and moderately religious people to take a closer look at their "evidence" and their mirrors.

His final admonition, accompanied by images of nuclear explosions, is "Grow up or die.".

Interestingly, he doesn't describe himself as an atheist, only as a doubter, but I think he probably conforms to the definition of "one without belief in any gods". Does he know there aren't any? He forthrightly admits he doesn't. That just makes him an agnostic, one who is not positive about his opinions. But he's still an atheist.

Would I recommend the film? Sure, if you're an atheist. It absolutely reinforces everything you believed about how religion is nuts for sure and often dangerous. It'll also give you some sense of Maher's sympathy for the people he encounters. They all seem pretty nice, sincere, and harmless, except for the one ardent non-Zionist rabbi who's just nuts and whom Maher eventually walked out on. He laffs his way thru most of the movie, and good cheer goes a long way toward making something palatable. But in the 2 bookend scenes at Megiddo, he's dead serious.

I'd like it if everybody would see this movie, but it would make way too many people uncomfortable.

I hope it does at least as well as Ben Stein's Expelled, but, since it's not aimed at an audience of mindless sheep who'll pay anything for a little more reassurance, it probably won't.

Sadly, it didn't contain a single word about separation of church and state.