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.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Russell's Rules of House Buying

Russell's Rules of House Buying
recycled from 2005 Jan. 28 but for some reason I was thinking of them again today

The Rules

(1) Never buy a house on a corner lot.
(2) Get a lot that's narrow but deep.
(3) Make sure the house is close to the main sidewalk and has an attached garage.
(4) Choose the north side of the street.
(5) The lot to the west should have a big deciduous tree in its front yard.
(6) The lot to the east should have a fire hydrant.
(7) Blacktop driveway is good.

The Reasons

(1) (A) Twice as much sidewalk to shovel.
     (B) Twice as much cost for curb, gutter, and sidewalk assessments.
     (C) No back yard. (2 side yards, but that's not the same.)
     (D) Twice as much traffic.
     (E) When you get a car crash on your corner, they'll track bloody footprints on your carpeting on the way to use your phone.
(2) Less public sidewalk to shovel but same size back yard.
(3) (A) Less private sidewalk and driveway to shovel.
     (B) Gets the car off the street so it doesn't get plowed in.
     (C) You can walk into the house without having to face the weather.
(4) It's sunnier and melts the snow faster.
(5) Note the "deciduous". In the winter, when the branches are bare, the sun shines thru. But in the summertime, when it's in full leaf, you don't get the hot afternoon sun. You don't have a tree on your own lawn so you don't have to rake.
(6) (A) If your house catches fire, you want one close.
     (B) If your nabor's house catches fire, you don't want the firefighters camped out on your front lawn.
(7) Black absorbs the sun's rays and helps melt snow and ice.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Words for Retards

In the early 20th Century, people were classified as morons, imbeciles, and idiots as progressively more profound levels of mental retardation. When intelligence testing became standardized (Binet, etc.), these categories became associated with IQ levels below 75, 50, and 25, respectively. The whole group was more generally known as "feeble-minded".

All of these terms soon became derogatory insults in common vernacular, especially among kids, who famously say the darnedest things, including the freely offered observation about the emperor's clothes. And so began the never-ending quest to find socially acceptable replacement terms that would be descriptive rather than judgmental. As we will see, hardly any newly minted terms had a shelf life of more than 5-10 years before they, too, became hopelessly "contaminated" by their association with "dummies".

At one time, it was thot to be a kindness to suggest that "slow learners" (a proposed upgrade from "the feeble-minded") weren't innately less intelligent than their peers; no, they were just as capable of learning, but they had somehow been artificially "held back" or "retarded" from exercising their natural hunger for knowledge. Hard as it is nowadays to think of it that way, "retarded" was meant as a term of kindness, implying that the problem lay outside the individual, who was thus blameless.

The old categories got shiny new names. Morons became educable mentally retarded (capable of some intellectual learning, such as limited reading and writing skills); imbeciles became trainable mentally retarded (able to tie shoelaces, wash dishes, and perform other simple physical tasks); and idiots became profoundly mentally retarded (slightly more trouble than house pets).

Just as the overarching adjective "feeble-minded" gave way to "retarded", so did the corresponding vernacular nouns: "feebs" became "retards" or "tardos".

Education professionals, being only human, weren't up for using 3 multi-syllabic words every time they needed to characterize a child, so they quickly hit on the abbreviations EMR, TMR, and PMR, which as always were intended to be merely descriptive. It took only a few years of usage among the teachers before the 1st 2 of these became pejorative among the students. PMR was apparently never used insultingly, because those individuals were almost always institutionalized, so the term never got bandied about much outside of the asylums and mental hospitals where they were warehoused.

So the quest for politically acceptable euphemisms began anew. "Mentally", "cognitively", and "developmentally" were adverbs slapped in front of "challenged", "disabled", and "handicapped" by various people at various times in various different parts of the country. ("Developmentally disabled" is actually a broader term that may also include physical handicaps.) Each of them had its vogue, its advocates, and its quickly degraded abbreviation. ("Go away, Billy, you CD!" did not refer to either certificates of deposit or compact disks.)

Desperate to avoid stigmatizing, educators tried shifting the perspective. They tried institutionalizing the condition. Instead of labeling the kids, the reasoning went, why not simply describe the educational programs we put them into? And let's describe it with a word that indicates how wonderful those programs are; let's call them special education. Thus we got the Church Lady's catchphrase "Well, isn't that special!" and the character on Crank Yankers known as Special Ed. Needless to say, these comedic uses of the phrase were only effective because "special ed" had already been snickered over by half a generation by that time. So even compliments didn't work.

Next up: How about externalizing the problem? It wasn't the kid who was a dummy, it was his environment that made him that way. Presto: "learning disability". And some kids had worse environments than others, so they had "special learning disabilities". For some odd reason, out in the schoolyard "SLD" just meant "really stupid". To kids, "special" was never gonna be as good as "ordinary".

The latest trend has been to medicalize the terminology, apparently on the theory that kids have never made fun of their peers who are blind or stutter or walk with crutches. It's been observed that "just because your doctor has a name for your condition doesn't mean he or she knows what it is." So if we say that Jimmy is autistic or Janey has Asperger's syndrome, surely that'll elicit sympathy instead of derision, right? Oh, yeah, that's exactly how it worked, yah, you betcha.

The fact of the matter is that children are unsocialized little hedonists who are never more than a couple of weeks away from reenacting The Lord of the Flies. There will never be a word so good, noble, and pure that they won't quickly turn it into a term of mockery if it's associated with a class of people that they're inclined to mock. If we habitually referred to mentally disabled kids as "God's little children" (which is what my own mother called them), the stigma would probably eventually work its way up to God as well.

It's a losing battle and always will be. And it's gotten to be a pain in the ass to try to come up with a fresh approach every half-dozen years or so, to say nothing of wreaking havoc on long-term record-keeping. My recommendation is to just pick a set of labels (letters of the alphabet, or category numbers like hurricanes, or anything, really) and stick with them. Yes, we can predict with utter confidence that they too will become insults, but let's face reality. There are going to be insults no matter what we do. All we're accomplishing by switching terms every few years is adding to the collection of available put-downs. Let's accept defeat as gracefully as possible and move on (or, as Sen. George Aiken recommended with respect to Vietnam, declare victory and leave).

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

On the Afghan Escalation

President Obama gave another terrific speech last night, further cementing his place in the history of American oratory. He laid out his case for escalating the American presence in Afghanistan calmly, clearly, and succinctly. He marshaled facts and figures instead of bombast, flag-waving, and bloody shirts.

To his credit, he said, in essence, “We should do this because it’s a good idea.” His supporters and subordinates have already begun to make a different case: “We should do this because he’s a good guy.” (or, at the very least, “because he’s OUR guy”).

Curiously, while this line of “reasoning” would, in almost any other arena of public policy, bring snorts of derision and snide remarks about “the Messiah” from the right, it’s unlikely to have the same effect here. War is the one arena where the right really wants people to blindly play follow-the-leader.

Obama famously spent lots of time consulting lots of people (or “dithering”, as Dick Cheney would have it) before arriving at this decision. We are encouraged to believe that this reflective process, in and of itself, provides some kind of assurance — at a minimum that the result wasn’t a hasty decision made under the mistake-inducing pressure of a deadline or the adrenaline-pumping heat of an emotion-filled moment. But one thing we know about asking questions is that the answer very often depends upon whom you ask:

 • A surgeon will say to operate.

 • The coach will tell you that you have to play with your little hurts.

 • A used-car salesman will say you should drive this little beauty off the lot today.

 • A middle manager will reply “Sure, we can do that, but we’ll need more staff and a bigger budget.”

 • An Israeli would say “Let’s you and him fight.”

 • Mom will say “Anything you want, Sweetie, just be sure to wear clean underwear.”

 • A general will say to attack.

 • John Lennon would have said to give peace a chance.[1]

So, while many were consulted — costs and benefits were weighed, pros and cons examined, options and alternatives considered — the decision was made in the brain of only 1 person. If there was any doubt before, this eliminates it: Officially, irretrievably, Afghanistan is now Obama’s War.

And Obama’s War bears all the hallmarks of vintage Obama: the cautious compromise. The generals and their hawkish supporters wanted up to 80,000 additional troops (for now[2]); they’re getting 30,000. The doves (and, to a lesser extent, the penny-pinchers) wanted a draw-down; not even close.

The hawks wanted an open-ended commitment to “stay as long as it takes to get the job done”; what they actually got was the mushiest imaginable target date, which they immediately started mischaracterizing as a hard deadline. The doves wanted to get some kind of benchmarks, some kind of measurables that any independent observer could use to decide when “mission accomplished” would be visibly demonstrable instead of merely claimable; what they got was bupkis.

It’s hard to say exactly what our troops want. As we would expect of good soldiers, their response to every challenge is a snappy salute and a “Yes, sir!”. Bless them, every one.

What idealists and romantics want is “winning hearts and minds”[3] of the Afghan people, just as we did in Vietnam with our “advisors”, “strategic hamlets”, and “Hershey bar diplomacy”. At least THESE dewy-eyed souls are able to find their hearts’ desire; it’s in the part of the library where they don’t have those funny numbers on the spines of the books.

What the Afghan people want is American dollars in, American troops out; they too end up on the uncertain ground of Obama’s Muddlin’ Middle.[4]

What all Americans want, of course, is no more terrorist attacks on the United States.[5] (No more terrorist attacks anywhere in the world would be nice, but really, we don’t give a shit about the rest of the world.) The left and the right are bitterly divided about what strategy would best accomplish this goal. The right wants to try to eradicate all terrorists everywhere forever (after which we can move on to eradicate all evil everywhere forever); the left contends that an aggressive approach makes enemies faster than we can kill them.

Let me address this last concern. Sorry to disillusion both the left and the right, but there WILL be more terrorist attacks on America, no matter what you do. Even if we clamp down with the harshest imaginable police state, with Orwellian surveillance everywhere,[6] there will always be a Timothy McVeigh or a Michaele Salahi or a Marcus Junius Brutus whom nobody saw coming. Heck, a kid with a crowbar living next to a railroad track could be an aspiring Mohammad Atta, and what could anybody do about it?

We need to accept the grim reality that we are vulnerable to idiots and assholes as an inevitable consequence of the freedom we all cherish. It’s the downside to the glorious openness and freedom of travel we enjoy in this country, just as libel and Ann Coulter are the downside to a free press, O. J. Simpson is the downside to a fair trial, Seung-Hui Cho is the downside to the right to keep and bear arms, and Creflo Dollar and Fred Phelps are the downside to freedom of religion. In all these cases, the upsides of our freedoms vastly outweigh the downsides.

Let me further underline that part about the cost-benefit analysis. Osama bin Laden’s goons attacked America on 2001 September 11. They took 3,000 American lives. It probably cost bin Laden about a million bucks, all told, to mount the attack.

George W. Bush was determined not to let bin Laden emerge triumphant. And so it proved to be. Biblical King Saul got irked when he came out 2nd best in the songs of the little Hebrew children: “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” Think, then, how similarly disheartened bin Laden must be to hear the modern-day equivalent: “Osama has killed his 3,000 Americans, and Bush his 4,000.” (In an irony probably lost on Bush’s die-hard free-enterprise partisans, bin Laden was by light-years the better businessman, spending only $333 per American corpse, compared to Bush’s $250,000,000.)

So, to be utterly blunt and crass about it, pursuing every conceivable terrorist to the ends of the Earth, no matter what the cost, is not only a dead-end strategy (we’ll never catch them all, and trying to do so only makes more enemies), it is horribly, unbelievably, ghastlily cost-inefficient. The days when the US had money to burn have finally come to an end, largely as a result of our burning so much of it — not least on military expenditures which, for our 5% of the world’s population, outweighs the other 95% combined.

“So, Russell, you wise-ass,” you’re probably thinking, “if you think you’re so much smarter than the commander in chief, what would YOU do?”

Glad you asked. I’d learn from history.

Ike bailed out of Korea. Nixon bailed out of Vietnam. Reagan bailed out of Lebanon. Is it only Republicans who have a license to “cut and run” from a losing war? Democrat Obama has a chance here to REALLY make history. Get the hell out of Afghanistan. My bet is that we will no more be attacked by Afghans in the future than we have been by Koreans, Vietnamese, or Lebanese.

But suppose I lose that bet. How much worse could it be? Obama’s strategy may or may not succeed in shutting down al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Nobody knows. HE doesn’t know. He’s just guessing and hoping. The one thing his plan absolutely rock-solid guarantees is that more American kids will die, more American dollars will go down yet another black hole, more innocent civilians will be killed and displaced, more of other people’s homes, hospitals, and roads will be blown to smithereens, and many many more Muslims will become inordinately pissed off at the United States.

I’d learn from George Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Nelson Mandela. Marshall knew that WW2 was in no small part attributable to the ruinous reparations that the Treaty of Versailles imposed on Germany after WW1, so he went the other way and poured money INTO a war-ravaged continent — including former enemies Germany and Italy — rebuilding Europe into peaceful, productive, friendly nations. MacArthur did likewise in Japan. While it was Reagan who grandstanded “tear down this wall”, it was Gorbachev who actually did it, without shedding tears over frustrated pride or loss of face. And Mandela, who could have gone down the same bloody road of retaliation against the former white rulers of South Africa that occurred in so many other African nations, instead formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and set a new global standard for civilized behavior.

I’d learn from the Israeli Mossad. Argentina was providing shelter to war criminal Adolf Eichmann in much the same way that Pakistan[7] is sheltering Osama bin Laden, which is to say, not intentionally, but not exactly going out of their way to dig him up and turn him in. The Mossad used solid undercover police work to uncloak his secret identity, kidnap him, spirit him out of the country, and put him on trial in Israel. They produced witnesses against him, gave him advice of counsel and every other legal protection, found him guilty of crimes against humanity, and executed him.

At no time did Israel even vaguely contemplate waging war against Argentina, let alone invading it, bombing the living daylights out of it, slaughtering innocent civilians, and spending a trillion dollars in the process. Yet they got their man, using good, old-fashioned undercover police work and the rule of law.

The police-based (Mossad) model works. Truth and reconciliation work. Rebuilding works. We know this from history.

The military-based (imperial) model doesn’t work. We need go no farther than Afghanistan to see this. It didn’t work for Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the British Empire, or the Soviet Union. We know this from history.

I’d learn from my buddy Rick Weizenegger. The summer after his freshman year at the Air Force Academy, where he was on the gymnastics team, we went out to hit the beaches. Rick showed me how to do a full gainer off the diving board. (A normal dive is a half-gainer, flipping half-way over and going into the water head-first; a full gainer requires a complete rotation, going in feet-first.) Not being all that athletic, I was kind of half-hearted about it, didn’t fully commit, and ended up doing a 3/4 gainer, thereby independently discovering Obama’s Muddlin’ Middle.[4]

Yes, as Rick showed me, learning can be painful. And it remains an open question whether Obama’s hopes for a Goldilocks solution (not too much, not too little, just right)[8] remains a more accurate paradigm than the 3/4 gainer. I have serious doubts about it.[9] I think George Santayana was right when he wrote that those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it. Haven’t we been down this road before? How did THAT work out?

I don’t ask, as the old folk song does, “When will they ever learn?”. My question is more immediate:

When will WE ever learn?[10]


[1] Nobody’s quite sure what the Nobel Peace Prize Committee would say, but I suspect they’re right now investigating escrow accounts for this gold medal they’ve recently commissioned.

[2] Abraham Lincoln kept asking Gen. George B. McClellan what he needed to successfully prosecute the Civil War. McClellan always answered “more troops”. He basically repeated this answer every time Lincoln supplied the requested troops and subsequently asked why Little Mac hadn’t started to move yet. To this date, the Civil War remains the bloodiest conflict in American history.

[3] To demonstrate that even slow learners may be educable, the lesson of the unfortunate acronym eventually sank in even to the foggy brain of George W. Bush, who decided at the last minute that his invasion would NOT be known as Operation Iraqi Liberation.

[4] trademark applied for

[5] In fact, it’s been suggested that “protecting all Americans” is the primary duty of the president, maybe of government in general. Really? In all my many readings of the US Constitution, I don’t recall ever running across that provision. Perhaps somebody could point it out to me. Or perhaps it’s one of those things — like the number of wise men in Bethlehem or the falling speed of a big rock compared to a little one — that “everyone knows” without the need to actually verify.

[6] a “cure”, I contend, that is far worse than the “disease” and which would be Osama bin Laden’s most optimistic wet dream

[7] Yes, Pakistan, NOT Afghanistan. Pakistan, with a real army and nuclear weapons. Do you get the image of the 3rd grader who’s been shoved around by the 5th-grade bully deciding to take it out on the kindergartener because it’s safer?

[8] Let us not say to ourselves that the best truth always lies in moderation, in the decent average. This would perhaps be so if the majority of men did not think on a much lower plane than is needful. That is why it behooves others to think and hope on a higher plane than seems reasonable. The average, the decent moderation of today, will be the least human of things tomorrow. At the time of the Spanish Inquisition, the opinion of good sense and of the other good medium was certainly that people ought not to burn too large a number of heretics; extreme and unreasonable opinion obviously demanded that they should burn none at all. — Count Maurice Maeterlinck, “Our Social Duty”, in The Measure of the Hours (1907)

[9] Altho, like all the people who never admitted to voting for Nixon, I will conveniently forget having ever taken this position if Obama proves to have been right.

[10] As long as I’m paraphrasing, let me throw in this slight reworking of what we always said about Microsoft: War is not the answer. War is the question. “No” is the answer.