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March 18, 2005

Perspective...or something

In the time it takes me to write this post, 20 children in Africa, all under the age of 5, will have died of malaria.

I have to admit, I don't really think about malaria much, except maybe as something to worry about if I were to travel to South Asia. It's not on my radar of diseases running rampant in the world the way tuberculosis and AIDS are. I don't regularly hear staggering numbers associated with malaria the way I do about those other diseases. And yet, the numbers are incredibly staggering.

Twenty percent of childhood deaths in sub-Saharan Africa are from malaria, a preventable and treatable disease. There are 300 million to 500 million cases of malaria every year, and over a million deaths.

If every person in that part of the world slept under mosquito netting, those numbers could be reduced by 20-50%. But the nets are out of reach of many people, where the cost of one can easily represent several weeks of pay for a struggling family. Which brings up another sobering number. Those nets cost, oh, about $4 to $6US. What is 4 bucks to me? How often do I plunk down three times that for a CD from a band I know one song by? Or a Frappaccino?

The thing is that I know these kind of figures exist all over the place. I know that the price of a cup of coffee a day can save a life from all those Sally Struthers commercials. But being confronted with specific causes, with the numbers, with all of it, is heartrending.

This was the topic on Weekday on KUOW this morning, and the reason I'm so preoccupied with these numbers today. I had to do some further research after crying when the regional director for African programs from PATH talked about how the unprofitability of developing a vaccine that would be consumed mainly by the poorest people on the planet has been a big part of the reason why there isn't one already (though the Gates Foundation is working with PATH to fund research and clinical trials into several potential ones now).

And it all makes me want to do something, because, in fact, it's been more like 15 minutes since I started this post, which means that 30 children have died since I wrote this headline. There are too many things wrong in the world to take them all to heart, unfortunately. It's unreasonable to say I was inspired by the story this morning and have decided to quit my job and run off to Africa to try to provide health education. It is not, however, unreasonable, to make a donation to the United Nations Foundation to purchase some of those mosquito nets. I'd encourage you all to as well.

March 17, 2005

Made in America

For the past couple of months, I've been working on an article about how a sporting goods manufacturer is moving their production to China. I've tried to stay really open minded about it. I don't, just in principal, object to offshoring - hell, I've worked in software! - and I'm still developing my conclusions around this issue.

But as a byproduct of my research, I've been paying really close attention to where the stuff I buy is made and trying to select American made goods. You know what? It is really hard to do. REALLY hard. You should try it. No, really, you should. I'm not saying you have to get all hardline and buy only American made goods. What I'm saying is that I dare you to pay attention to where the stuff you're buying already comes from.

For me, it's really driven home the death of US manufacturing. (Okay, I got it when I saw Roger and Me. I'm not a total ninny.) But STILL. Think about the jobs. Think about what's making the US economy go. We're not making stuff that people can use even if we are selling it to them at cut prices out of box stores. Also, what are we doing for a living? We can't all be "knowledge workers."

I can't stop thinking about or start shutting up about this. The thing that bugs me most of all is that I don't know what an educated consumer is supposed to do when they need new underwear.

February 01, 2005


Like many of my fellow nonfamousi I have been against this war in Iraq and the policies of the Bush Administration (both at home and abroad). I and others here have been saying, all along, that this war was about OIL - primarily the unfettered access of US oil companies to Iraqi oil fields and through Iraq into the Caspian Basin.

I don't care how many different reasons the neo-cons funnel through their mouthpiece in the oval office. The one and only reason we went to war in Iraq was OIL.

And now, it turns out that the neo-cons are about to be rewarded for all of the innocent blood that they have shed. Please read this article by Antonia Juhasz.

"On Dec. 22, 2004, Iraqi Finance Minister Abdel Mahdi told a handful of reporters and industry insiders at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. that Iraq wants to issue a new oil law that would open Iraq's national oil company to private foreign investment. As Mahdi explained: "So I think this is very promising to the American investors and to American enterprise, certainly to oil companies."

In other words, Mahdi is proposing to privatize Iraq's oil and put it into American corporate hands.

According to the finance minister, foreigners would gain access both to "downstream" and "maybe even upstream" oil investment. This means foreigners can sell Iraqi oil and own it under the ground — the very thing for which many argue the U.S. went to war in the first place."

If this doesn't get you just a little outraged over the lack of reporting in our "liberal" media, then I don't know what you are doing on this site. I mean, for pity's sake, he announced this at the freaking National Press Club! Where is the Fourth Estate? Oh, yeah, they're sucking on the corporate teat that owns their journalistic integrity.

"It turns out that Abdel Mahdi is running in the Jan. 30 elections on the ticket of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution (SCIR), the leading Shiite political party. While announcing the selling-off of the resource which provides 95 percent of all Iraqi revenue may not garner Mahdi many Iraqi votes, but it will unquestionably win him tremendous support from the U.S. government and U.S. corporations.

Mahdi's SCIR is far and away the front-runner in the upcoming elections, particularly as it becomes increasingly less possible for Sunnis to vote because the regions where they live are spiraling into deadly chaos. If Bush were to suggest to Iraq’s Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi that elections should be called off, Mahdi and the SCIR's ultimate chances of victory will likely decline.

Thus, one might argue that the Bush administration has made a deal with the SCIR: Iraq's oil for guaranteed political power. The Americans are able to put forward such a bargain because Bush still holds the strings in Iraq."

So, were the elections in Iraq a victory for democracy or American oil companies? I refuse to believe that elections held under the security conditions in Iraq were either free or fair. I think the Iraqi people have been sold down the river by their economic elite to a corrupt American oligarchy of industrial interests and the downpayment was made in blood.

December 18, 2004

The Economic Bill of Rights

Here are some thoughts for George's second term.

It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people— whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth— is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.

This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights— among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.

As our nation has grown in size and stature, however— as our industrial economy expanded— these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.

Among these are:

  • The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

  • The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

  • The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

  • The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

  • The right of every family to a decent home;

  • The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

  • The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

  • The right to a good education.

All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.

America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens.

That's from FDR's State of the Union speech on 11 January 1944. Roosevelt saw security as including economic security.

November 24, 2004

Reasons to Be Thankful

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving – that means it’s just about time for my annual retreat to Old Europe. Going to Europe feels somehow more significant now, as I arrive with a resident’s visa and I have actually been looking for work there, though more with a sense of capitulation then of adventure. (Before you jump on me for abandoning ship, know that anything I decide to do regarding living in Europe also means being back in time to get residency in a swing state in 2008. At least, that’s the current plan).

Anyhow, as I gather the things I need to pack, I’ve been thinking about what I have to be thankful for that has an American flavor, about things that carry some essence of Americana. Globalization means that you can buy pretty much all the same stuff everywhere, especially if it’s just Europe you’re headed to, so I don’t think so much anymore about how I wish I could get, oh, I dunno, peanut butter. But there are other, sometimes ethereal, American things that I’m thankful for. So in addition to the usual “friends, family, and good health,” here’s a handful of American induced miscellanea for which I am grateful.

1. Al Gore’s World Wide Interweb. Oh my god, I honestly can’t imagine how we got by before the Internet. After all, it’s the web that connected me with you, the nonfamousi! The web keeps my long distance phone bills down when the husband and I are on opposite sides of the Atlantic – hooray for teleconferencing – and keeps me connected with all my friends when I’m snowbound in Austria.

2. Multiculturalism. I’ve got friends of all religions, plus, is there anywhere else in the world where you can have huevos rancheros for breakfast, cous cous for lunch, and pad thai for dinner?

3. Road Trips. I was driving around in my car the other day listening to dinosaur rock and Tom Petty was singing “She was – an American girl…” Then I started thinking about one of my favorite Bowie tracks ever, Young American. Then I started thinking about driving in places where you only get old rock and roll, country western, or Jesus on the radio. I’ve done lots of traveling, but there’s something about hearing “Stuck in Lodi Again” while you’re driving south from Blackfoot with the Rockies on your right….

4. Levis. Yeah, they’re not even made in the US anymore, but they always fit, they last forever, and maybe they go in and out of style, but they’re the most comfortable jeans on the market.

5. “I can do that.” American mentality is just busting with possibility. Europeans I know are always inventing these elaborate schemes around how they’ll get all these necessary people involved with the correct licenses and paperwork and then, they’ll skim off the top while others do the work, and they’ll be rich, rich I tellya! Americans just don’t seem to think that way. They want to start a business? They start a business. They’re not bogged down in credentials and systems. They have an inventiveness of spirit that you rarely encounter in Old Europe. Freelancers, contractors, the free agents you see at Victrola and 11 am on a weekday? Virtually unheard of in my other home.

Another surprising thing I found is that in spite of my heartbreak, it wasn’t that hard to come up with American things I’m thankful for. Yet another reason to be thankful on the holiday. Enjoy the holiday. And thanks.

November 03, 2004

Dear Mr. Bush

I cried tears of rage and sadness upon learning that John Kerry had stepped down and you had been given the Presidency. You should know that I am not, by nature, a crier and I am not a bitter person. I am not given to melodrama. But I cried and it appears I haven’t finished crying. Furthermore all of my friends have confessed to exactly the same reaction: men, women, white, brown, Jews, Christians, Hindus, we have all wept openly over your success.

Perhaps it is easy for you to dismiss us as overly sensitive liberal pansies. But you might take a minute to listen to what it is that has us so worried from the voice of at least one American.

Plainly put, you terrify us.

Your vision of the US as the champion of democracy at the helm of policies that are perceived as bullying and imperialist in the eyes of our global neighbors puts us in danger when we leave the country.

Your zealous tenacity to anti-abortion rhetoric leaves us in fear that abortion, which will never go away, please don’t fool yourself, will return to back alley institution that threatens the lives of the unfortunate women - and sometimes children - who find themselves pregnant without wishing to be so.

Your narrow minded application of the term “family values” to the desired exclusion of civil rights for our gay friends and neighbors makes us fear for not just them, but for the precedent this sets for denying rights to other classes of citizens.

Your profligate spending of our tax dollars on war to the detriment of social services, including those for our soldiers, makes us wonder what will happen to the poor who have no place to turn for assistance.

Your callous disregard for the environment, including your desire to release our treasured national parks and wilderness areas to exploitation, makes us ask what the glories of Yellowstone, Sequoia, Yosemite, and other precious areas of natural beauty will look like to future generations.

These are only a few of the things I’m crying about. You said in your acceptance speech that you will work to earn our trust. Understand that you do not have it now. You have not worked in the past to establish it. You have pushed us away with your war-mongering, your untrammeled spending, your restriction of civil rights, your disregard for the things we hold valuable. Right now, you’re the president that made me cry. You might start by reassuring me that the things I hold dear, my rights and my American sense of pride, are not at risk on your watch.

I am a patriot. I worked long and hard to see you defeated and for that work, I received no compensation. I did it because I did not trust you to hold the nation’s honor for me. I dare you to prove me wrong. I dare you to give me cause to stop crying and to calm my anger. I dare you to give me reason raise my head and be proud again.

PM, Seattle WA


Hey Nonfamousi: Write to the President, okay? (president(at) And send a copy to your local paper, too.

September 26, 2004

The literary marketability of self-indulgent self-recrimination

I have a compulsion to read while I’m waiting. And while I’m waiting for something, as opposed to someone, more often than not, I seem to have a compulsion to read magazine articles, the more horrid the better. Even if I’ve got something actually worthwhile to read in my own purse.

Which is how I came to reading a story last night at about 2 am about a guy who broke his own arm off after getting his hand pinned to a rock wall by a boulder, in the veterinary emergency clinic waiting room, even though I had a Tobias Wolf novel in my handbag that I really was looking forward to reading.

Ok. So I know that what you’re thinking is, back up a step or two, chica. What were you doing in the veterinary emergency room? And what kind of opportunistic, self-absorbed mother is going to come away from an experience like that and write about what she read while her poor puppy was subjected to hours of tests by complete strangers?

The answer to the first question is spending several hours and several hundreds of dollars to find out that there doesn’t appear to be anything physically wrong with Yogi that would actually explain his behavior and vomiting for the last several days. The answer to the second is that, well, the point of this piece is going to be about the cult of self-indulgent self-recrimination as a literary genre.

You see, the guy who broke his own arm off, rather than die stuck to a boulder, got a book deal out of it.

And that kind of pisses me off.

Now, I’m not going to go buy the book. I read enough in the preview article in Outside magazine in the consulting room of the puppy ER. I had physical reactions to the mildly graphic details of how he went about doing this feat of self-mutilation similar to those I had during the hobbling scene in Misery. Only this was real, told from the point of view of the guy who’d actually been through this hell who’d come to the realization that he was only there because of his own stupid choices and not through some karmic pyramid scheme making its way through the Utah desert; who’d been forced to drink his own urine for days before finally realizing that if he didn’t amputate his arm he’d die not of hypothermia or dehydration, but from the effects of myonecrosis; and who eventually accepted his fate, mustered up the courage to do what had to be done, and saved himself.

Yeah, whatever, dude. This is worthy of a book? To me, this is just more validation that my whole theory about appropriate ways to spend one’s time away from work should not include any activity that precludes calling a cab, an ambulance, or just hopping in the car and going home, the minute it stops being fun. And to be absolutely clear about this, having your hand crushed between a boulder and a rock wall does count as the fun having ceased.

There are two points in the article that I believe are supposed to be the main pivot points—you know, those realizations, twists, unfolding layer-type things that all submissions to This American Life are supposed to contain every 45 seconds or so? Two. And this wasn’t a short article. And these weren’t exactly stunning realizations. In fact, they were kind of pendantic, really.

The first was of the “stop blaming the world for your misfortune; you got yourself into this, dude” variety. Wow, really? So, you go out into the desert completely alone, without telling anyone where you are going, to climb mountains or something with no protective clothing and only enough water and gear for a good walk in the woods, and you’re the only one to blame for the mess you find yourself in? So your assumption before that was that people who actually take precautions are just missing out? Nervous Nellies? I wonder if this guy ever wore seatbelts. Caution is merely for the faint of heart!

Ok, so I realize I’m being harsh. The guy lost his hand because he made some stupid choices and put himself in a bad situation, so yeah, that sucks. I have sympathy for people who’ve been to hell and back, even when they themselves chose to get off the freeway at Hell's Exit (14a on the NJ Turnpike, for example). Sometimes you have to test your limits. Sometimes you’ve got to really screw up to come to some realizations about yourself, about your motivations, or about why you need to change direction in life. But does that really warrant a book deal?

The second pivot point comes at the end. It’s a pivot point in that he invites you to continue following his survival saga by buying his book. Yes, you’ve just heard his horrific tale of fear and pain, and you’ve just gotten through a squirm-inducing depiction of a person BREAKING HIS OWN ARM OFF!!! But this is just the beginning of the survival tale, he tells you in the last line of the article. Presumably, the book offers 200-300 pages more worth of his heroic escape. Allow me to be the first to say, "yippee".

One assumes that might include a lot of the sort of self-reflection hinted at in the preview article. The sort where he realizes that everyone else in his family who he has looked down upon all these years for taking the safe route, who have lived responsibly while he went off trying to climb mountains in winter by himself, might not be the cowards he always thought they were. And he might not be the noble heroic character he always saw himself as. There’s a surprise.

So what have we learned from this story? That if you go off by yourself doing extreme sports without the proper safety equipment or a backup plan and something goes wrong, there is a good chance you could seriously blow it and have something really bad happen, like losing a limb, or having to drink your own pee, or dying. On the other hand, we’ve also learned that if you can avoid the third option, you should start looking for a literary agent.

So I admit it, I rubbernecked and read the article. I slowed down to see how many ambulances there were and if anyone was being carried off on a back board. But somehow I doubt I’ll be buying the guy’s book. I'm not going to be one of those people who comes to an almost complete stop to get an accurate body count.

On the other hand, somehow I also think there is a better chance than I’d previously believed to hyping some of my travel misadventures into some reflective narrative where I am forced to do something extreme (like pee in a girlie bar in Tudela?) and realize that perhaps I should be focusing my energies elsewhere and get a big fat advance on the promise that rest of the story will enlighten and inspire others to make their decisions more wisely or something.

At the very least, maybe I should shop the story to an agent.

September 03, 2004

The Ownership Society

Ownership. It’s a big theme with the President. We’re supposed to own more of the decisions and processes that affect our lives, this will make us more empowered Americans. That’s what I got from the speech last night. Here’s what we’re going to own if the president is “reelected.”

Our health insurance. If we own our health insurance we’ll be able to take it with us when we change jobs in our highly mobile society. Buying coops will give small business folks like myself the purchasing power of large corporations. Medical savings accounts will let me own the money I use to pay for services. First, that whole medical savings plan isn’t new – lots of employers offer that now. And owning the insurance means, oh yes, I own the payments. Having ownership has done nothing to make it more affordable; it’s made it less affordable. And furthermore, though I do own my teeth and eyes, as an individual buyer, I’ve been unable to find a way to own insurance for them.

Our decisions about health care. (George, you really should have checked in with Jeb on this.) Check out the Terri Schiavo case and tell me who owns decisions about medical treatment for us and our families. Are the choices owned by us, or are they owned by the same politicians and bureaucrats that the president says should not own those decisions?

Our homes. Don’t get me wrong, I love owning my little condo on the hill. But home ownership isn’t, of itself, a virtue. I don’t understand why home ownership is so key to our perceived success. Almost anyone can get a mortgage, There are FHA programs that will help you buy a home with next to no capital. But home ownership comes with great expense. The home goes in to the hands of your mortgage lender. The bank owns your home and you own the debt.

Our bodies? Oh, wait, no. The rights of the unborn are pretty important to the President, more so than a woman’s right to choose. You might think you own your body, but from the President’s speech, it sounds like the government is trying pretty hard to own the contents of your uterus.

Our marriages. No one was surprised when the president brought up the Defense of Marriage Act. It’s not up to you to decide if you’re married to your same sex partner. That definition is owned by the government.

Our future. Yeah, we own this alright. And if the president is “reelected” my future is going to involve owning a one way plane ticket and a pocket of cash from my sidewalk sale. It’s taken me years to realize that I really do love America. I really do believe it’s the land of opportunity. But after watching last night’s speech, things looked really bleak. If this is the future, I want out. We have got to take this election. It’s personal. If W wins, I’m going to have to pack up and head to Austria. When you think it’s a better idea to live in a place where it’s okay to have crucifixes in public school classrooms, where the society is culturally xenophobic, and where you can not for the life of you find even a mediocre serving of Pad Thai then things are very bad indeed. I don't want that. I want the America I love back.

At least I own my vote.

August 09, 2004

Seattle Times "backyard blog" project

The Seattle Times emailed today to let me know that I will be one of the bloggers in their Backyard Blog project starting Aug. 23 and running through the election. I don't think I'll be allowed to use all the bad words that the Badministration provokes me to, and it sounds like our posts (and comments) will be highly edited but it should be interesting. More to come.

July 21, 2004

Enter racism, stage right

Ever since the 9/11 attacks, one of my biggest concerns has not been a repeat, but rather the repercussions on those who share the same, or even just somewhat related ethnic backgrounds, to the hijackers. These fears were founded, of course, as evidenced by the stories of people of Arab decent (or even non-Muslim, non-Arabs of similar skin tone) becoming the victims of hate crimes in this country. It made me sick how, traveling by plane a few days after international flights resumed that weekend, the airline employees made no bones about hassling and searching the Arab passengers and made such a show about letting obviously white passengers go through the security checkpoints without having their bags opened and searched thoroughly. I wasn't subjected to the humiliation of having my underwear held up to the light for inspection in front of everyone, but the Arab grandmother in front me was.

Anyway, today Salon is discussing an article that had the incredibly poor taste and judgement to publish, about one Americans terrifying ordeal of being trapped on a plane with 14 Syrian musicians who had the gaul, in this day and age, to be Muslim and on a plane. According to Salon, the piece has made the Internet rounds, and hasn't been adequately discredited as one Web site's bad judgement in publishing an obviously racist and pointless piece. I can't say anymore. I want to, but it's too busy a day. Just read this. And be pissed off.

July 19, 2004

Ain't Nobody's Bidness

If there's one thing that gets up my nose, it's people telling me what my family ought to look like. If my family includes a foreign husband who doesn't share my religion or address, a gay boyfriend who lives with his long term sweetheart in White Center, a couple of church goers, their kids, and the hippies they rent to, some lefty Europeans, and other people's pets, well, hell, why should anyone but me care?

What brings this up? A big ad in the Sunday PI from an organization called Families Northwest, who seem to think they know what my family - and yours - should look like. And who also seem to think that the state gets to say something about that. It looks all warm and fuzzy on the surface, but it's just another insidious plan to outlaw gay marriage.

The FMA didn't make it out of the Senate, but that doesn't mean it's all over. It's time to readdress those letters and postcards to your state reps.

June 17, 2004

The Passion of Michael Moore

Oh, for crying out loud. First they try to tag it as an 'R' rated movie because it shows graphic clips from the war in Iraq. And now, this.

All this from the people who got the Reagan TV movie canned from CBS. I wasn't in the US during the flap over The Passion - can someone tell me, did anyone take out television ads calling for the movie not to be shown?

And what's with the public cry for censorship? Are protests over Farenheit 9/11 to be punctuated with book-burnings, just for good measure? Don't forget your Salinger and your Harry Potter, folks!

When, again, is "Take a Teenager to Michael Moore's Movie" day?

June 10, 2004

Pas de SUV en Paris? Oui!

Lately I’m feeling increasingly hostile towards the Large Car Drivers in our midst. My fists clench and get sweaty every time I see a Hummer. When I do drive to work (and I carpool, thank you), I have to squeeze my little car squeeze in between the giant 4x4 trucks and SUVs with Bush in 2004 stickers on them. It makes my blood pressure rise and a Tourettes like syndrome takes me over. Yesterday while walking back from lunch we saw a red Hummer parked in my narrow street neighborhood, and in front of my house we watched a Ford Explorer unload two tiny people.

So I was pretty excited to see this story on MSNBC this morning. Okay, it’s in France and we all know what a bunch of freedom hating commies the French are, but still, still. This is a nice sequel to the London law which charges you 8$ a day to drive your car in town.

I’ve been missing the brave guys and gals that started the “I’m changing the environment, ask me how” bumper sticker campaign, though I did think they were way too subtle. I’ve been joking about creating “Fuck the Environment” stickers for the big ass cars choking the streets of my neighborhood, but I hear stickering cars that aren’t your own is vandalism.

The other night we watched a PBS broadcast of Scientific American Frontiers in which Alan Alda questioned a number of upper management white shirts about why it’s taking so long to get alternatively fueled cars on the market. “The market demands it” was the single note reply. “No one thinks they need 500 horsepower,” the husband scoffed at the TV. “They wouldn’t even consider it if it wasn’t on the market.”

We talked about this a little bit in my carpool this morning. One of the things that came up was how Iceland is trying to build a fuel economy based solely on hydrogen produced using their considerable geothermal power. It makes good sense to me. I hear you can make hydrogen fuel using wind and sun. We've got plenty of both in the US. Plus, imagine how peaceful we'd be if we were able to produce our own fuel.

May 11, 2004

God Hates Fred Phelps, Part MMMXXLVIII

This makes me so angry I can barely type. Our beloved rugby coach, John Cook, passed away earlier this year. In March, his partner Brett and many friends hosted a memorial service, with space kindly donated by Christ the King Catholic Church, whose priest had been John's friend for many years. Well, somehow Fred Phelps (whom you might remember from these posts about his sick, sad activities) heard about it and is coming here to protest a week from Saturday. David and I will be in Europe but if some of you could join the Quake boys in a counter-protest, it would be wonderful. I'm copying below Brett's note the Quake Rugby list and some of our responses, including the Phelps Family Itinerary of Hate.

On Sat, 8 May 2004, flip98102 wrote:

> Hello everyone, Brett here. I got some bizarre and infuriating news
> last night. Apparently Fred Phelps' hatemonger minions are planning to
> demonstrate at Christ the King church, because said church dared host
> a memorial for a goddamned, burn in hell forever faggot, namely John
> Cook. Their brainless hate is infuriating enough on its own, but this
> is happening specifically around John. I will be there. I told the
> Priest I wouldn't "make trouble", but there's no way I can ignore
> this. I know many of you will be out of town (it's supposed to happen
> May 22)but I hope a few of you at least can be there with me and for
> John. I still have to find out what time and other details, but
> please contact me (John's old number) if you want to help.

Hey Quake,

I went to (that is Fred Phelps' website) and got some details about the May 22nd demonstration.

May 22, 2004
3:30 pm 4:00 pm
Seattle, WA
Seattle Eagle Tavern, 314 East Pike St.

May 22, 2004
4:30 pm 5:00 pm
Seattle, WA
Christ the King Catholic Church, 415 N. 117th St.

So, apparently they will be at the Eagle and then Christ the King Catholic Church.

I'm not sure what sort of action we should take about this, but there must be some action. I have a meeting in the morning and hope to be out to the church by 4:30pm. I hope to see many of you. After reading some of their website and trying to keep my breakfast down I noticed a few interesting points. It appears that gays yelling at the protesters does a few things
1. shows them that we are as violent and immoral as those at Sodom and Gomorrah.
2. Shows them that someone is hearing their "truth".
3. It gets them off, they really like to see gay people upset because that is their mission.

Now, I don't agree with these things but according to their website this is what happens. So, I think we need to come up with something outside of yelling. I think if we all went there and silently prayed, or pretended to pray (depending on your feelings around God) with some signs saying something along the lines of: "We're Praying for You to Find Love". I think this would actually really piss them off. However, if this isn't your cup o' tea, Craig and I spoke with a judge last night and apparently if your record is clean and you go and thump some bible thumpers you will only get about 6 months of jail time and most likely you won't even see that, just some community service.

Either way I'd be proud of ya.


Unemployed Voters for Kerry

I can't help it. This really bothers me.

Massachusetts Sen . John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, was the only senator who missed the vote. Kerry was campaigning Tuesday in Kentucky.

Senator Kerry. Do you want my vote, or what?

April 28, 2004

Wake me when it's over

I'm seriously wondering if the number one threat to my health and well-being is knowing what's going on in government these days. Now congress wants to hold anyone who throws a concert where people might use drugs accountable for a federal crime. So basically, half the bands on tour should just go home.

You know, I half don't blame Bush anymore. It would be nice to be as blissfully ignorant of the real world as he is.

Habeas corpus in flagrante delicto

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court hears the case about “enemy combatant” rights. The issue at hand?

“…whether in the war on terrorism President Bush can order American citizens held indefinitely in a military jail without charges, a hearing or access to a lawyer.”

A young friend of mine has been studying the Constitution as part of her home schooling program. I was honored to be asked to help put together some of the course materials. Every now and then I like to throw something over the wall to her to see what she thinks. I sent her a bit of about the upcoming Supreme Court hearing of the Guantanamo Bay case. She had this to say:

In the Constitution, the articles, it says that all people in the US have the ‘Writ of Habeas Corpus’, which is that you can’t be detained for more than 24 hours without sufficient evidence. Now, if this was the only thing, I could see an argument for the other side, that these people aren’t US citizens, so that wouldn’t apply.

But in the 14th amendment, that all people who can be punished by US law, also get to have the protection of the US law. Since it seems as if we are intent on punishing these people, it seems like they should also have the protection of our laws.

To which I say this: Will somebody get that gal a robe?

The two in question, Hamdi and Padilla, are both US citizens, a trait they share with a young man named John Walker Lindh. Lindh's lawyer said this:

"He was a soldier in the Taliban. He did it for religious reasons. He did it as a Muslim, and history overcame him," his attorney, James Brosnahan, said in July.

It’s possible that Hamdi and Padilla, if given legal counsel, might cite the same reasons. What’s the difference between them and Lindh? Why was Lindh given a lawyer and a trial and even given the chance to “serve out his term in a facility closer to his family, in Northern California” when Hamdi and Padilla have been in the hole, only allowed to receive counsel as the case reaches the Supreme Court?

Please don’t mistake me for thinking these guys should get off the hook. But this clearly selective application of justice smacks of racism. Of fascism, even. A 13 year old girl can look at the Constitution and see that something is not quite right in Guantanamo Bay. Let's hope the court doesn't let down my young friend.

April 20, 2004

It's all about the price of oil

There's an interesting read on the BBC today about where the oil is and how much of it is left. If you want to cut straight to the chase, check out the chart. Flip ahead a few slides to see the chart that shows who the big consumers are. When you look at this chart, Bob Woodward's revelations - which the Saudis are denying - about the Saudis offering price controls in exchange for election results become less surprising.

"...President George W Bush... in an election year really does not want to see car-loving Americas moaning about high gasoline prices, which have also risen as a consequence. " The Beeb is right, but also, I'm pretty sure W. doesn't want to see us conserving either.

The other day I listened to Billy Bragg's song "The Price of Oil" - available for free from his site. I don't know if Billy Bragg read the Beeb article, but I'm thinking the song would be a good soundtrack for the Power Point presentation of the Beeb's slides.

I carpool to work. It's not just that I adore the company of my carpool, though that's a huge bonus. It's that we really need to vote more with our wallets and our gas tanks.

March 03, 2004

Giant Rights

In the latest blow to equality and justice for all, now tall people are being denied -- by activist judges, no less! -- their constitutional right to be preferentially seated in the exit row.

I'm being sarcastic, of course. (I'm also a bit confused: why do women need the extra room at 5'10", but guys need to be 6'2" before they get uncomfortable?) This kind of thing annoys me, that there is such expectation that a minor convenience deserves such redress. It's not as if these people are being denied comfort: no one is preventing them from buying a business seat, or from flying on a different airline with more leg room! Each of us is born with certain faculties in life: height, weight, mobility, and such, but that doesn't mean the market has a requirement to accommodate us perfectly, and especially not at the expense of others.

Of course, at the same time I'm asking for special consideration: to marry my same-sex partner. What's the difference? The difference is that there isn't a market for marriage licenses -- I can't simply visit another license provider who would be happy to serve me (perhaps at a different price). Jay and I are being denied a fundamental right at a universal level, with no alternative.

And that's all we ask for really: the possibility of an alternative. Just as I don't think it's right that every airline should be required to carry tall people in larger seats, I don't think it's right that every church should be required to perform gay marriages. I don't think anyone is asking for that, and on a personal level, I don't even want to get married in a church anyway. But I do wany my love for Jay to be recognized by society, to be able to file our taxes together, and to live out our lives in peace.

February 23, 2004

Where are the gropes of yesteryear?

I was skeptical when I heard the CNN blip about Naomi Wolf's article about being "sexually encroached upon" by Harold Bloom almost 20 years ago. Not that I doubted such a thing out of Bloom, whom I have long regarded as something of a cretin when it came to his treatment of women; rather, I doubted Wolf's motivation for coming forward.

Wolf is now more or less a professional pundit, rightly or wrongly associated with her fateful (she swears misconstrued) advice that Al Gore act the "alpha male" part in the 2000 elections. And let's face it--The Beauty Myth will always be the ugly stepsister of Backlash.

But Wolf's article Sex and Silence at Yale in New York Magazine is actually quite good. Bloom didn't harrass her, exactly, but he did use his position to try to get laid--at a moment in Wolf's life as a student and a burgeoning writer when she needed mentorship, she got instead a clammy pass from a Big Lech on Campus. The man who was supposedly guiding her in independent study, and had agreed to write critical letters of recommendation, leered across a table at her over her unread manuscript, and delivered one of the creepiest come-on lines in the history of campus sleaze: "You have the aura of election upon you.” Ewww! Election, erection, hand on her thigh-- she responded (as I would have!) by puking in a nearby sink.

Not shockingly, her academic life suffered drastically. She had no idea what to expect as far as a grade for the independent study, and worry over the whole situation hurt her senior-year grades across the board. I find her description of the effect this had on her fairly reasonable--and her portrayal of Yale's institutional wishy-washiness rings solidly true. Worse still, she catalogs a list of Yale's horrible responses to harrassment and outright rape that makes me never want to give my alma mater a dime.

I quote below the ending of the piece, which is a terrifically reasonable and actionable suggestion for getting us past the "sexual harrassment" impasse to something that will do less to punish individuals (and criminalize sex, dating, and flirtation) and more to ensure that institutions are transparent and accountable so that when something does happen, it gets dealt with in a manner that treats both accuser and accused fairly.

Is Harold Bloom a bad man? No. Harold Bloom’s demons are no more demonic than those of any other complex human being’s. Does this complex, brilliant man’s one bad choice make him a monster? No, of course not; nor does this one experience make me a “victim.” But the current discourse of accused and accuser, aggressor and victim is more damaging than constructive.

Here is a more helpful reading: This man did something, at least once, that was self-centered and harmful. But his harmful impulse would not have entered his or my real life—then or now—if Yale made the consequences of such behavior both clear and real.

All the women who have come forward want only to fix what is broken. Critics of sexual-harassment standards argue that you can’t legislate passions; true enough. But you can legislate what to do about people who act on them improperly. Powerful men and woman who belittle and humiliate their subordinates manage not to belittle or humiliate their supervisors. Neither men nor women tend to harass upward in a hierarchy.

There is something terribly wrong with the way the current sexual-harassment discussion is framed. Since damages for sexual misconduct are decided under tort law—tort means harm or wrong—those bringing complaints have had to prove that they have been harmed emotionally. Their lawyers must bring out any distress they may have suffered, such as nightmares, sexual dysfunction, trauma, and so on. Thus, it is the woman and her “frailties” under scrutiny, instead of the institution and its frailties. This victim construct in the law is one reason that women are often reluctant to go public.

But sexual encroachment in an educational context or a workplace is, most seriously, a corruption of meritocracy; it is in this sense parallel to bribery. I was not traumatized personally, but my educational experience was corrupted. If we rephrase sexual transgression in school and work as a civil-rights and civil-society issue, everything becomes less emotional, less personal. If we see this as a systemic-corruption issue, then when people bring allegations, the focus will be on whether the institution has been damaged in its larger mission. The Catholic Church is a good example: The public understood that church leaders’ maintaining silence about systemic sexual transgressions corrupted the mission of an organization that had a great responsibility to society as a whole. Even the military is starting to understand that systemic sexual harassment of cadets corrupts its social mission.

If we change the framework to this kind of transparency and accountability question, then instead of asking, “What were you wearing?” or “Why disrupt this man’s life?” we would ask: “What are we—together—going to do about it?”

The saddest part? If a Yale undergraduate came to me today with a bad secret to tell, I still could not urge her to speak up confidently to those tasked with educating, supporting, and mentoring her. I would not direct her to her faculty adviser, the grievance committee, or her dean. Wishing that Bart Giamatti’s beautiful welcoming speech to my class about Yale’s meritocracy were really true, I would, with a heavy heart, advise that young woman, for her own protection, to get a good lawyer.

February 03, 2004


In statistics and epidemiology, meta-analysis is the process of distilling several studies into one. For example, there may have been 50 different studies into the efficacy, of say, Viagra, and a meta-analysis study would look at all of them, and weigh them by various factors such as the number of patients in each study to conclude, overall, how good Viagra really is.

Seems there's a similar trend in journalism, but rather than combining the conclusions of several articles we just re-analyze the same article over and over again. Here's an article in The New Republic Online by Andrew Sullivan, where he discusses David Frum's discussion of Daniel Casse's analysis of George Bush's alleged conservatism. Just how many nested layers of analysis can we get? I guess I'm contributing to the problem by commenting on Sullivan's article myself.

It's turtles all the way down, sonny!

January 31, 2004

Only Congress

It's budget time in Washington. According to the Washinton Post, "President Bush will send Congress a $2.39 trillion budget on Monday that cuts environment, agriculture and energy programs while giving large increases to military and homeland security spending." The President reminded Congress that "we're at war" - hence the priorities in his new budget.

I tried to remember if the President had ever issued formal declaration of war in the "only Congress can declare war" grade school civics way. Naturally I turned to Google, typing in "President Bush declares war." Here are just a few of the resulting headlines:

President Bush Declares War on the Environment
President Bush Declares War on Math
President Bush Declares War On Whales and Dolphins
President Bush declares war on fat America
President Bush declares war on UN weapons inspectors
President Bush Declares War on Hollywood
President Bush Declares War on Dock Workers
President Bush Declares War on Gays
President Bush declares war on immigrant cleaning ladies
President Bush Declares War on Ohio
President Bush Declares War On Terrorism
President Bush Declares “War Against Nerds”
President Bush declares war on English language
President Bush declares war on Fresh Veggies

January 30, 2004

Race: Not a Black and White Issue

Interesting story about a man who refused to answer the "What is your Race" question on a form when applying for security clearance. It raises some interesting questions about what race is, and equally important, why people want an answer to the question.

Read on for Kick the Mongrel, by Les Earnest. (It's also in the comp.risks archive, but doesn't appear to be archived anywhere else, so I duplicate it here, formatted for HTML.) He describes this in 1988 as "a trilogy of true short stories that I posted on the Stanford bboards two years ago. The incidents described span a period of twenty years ending 25 years ago."

e-t-a-o-n-r-i Spy and the F.B.I.

Reading a book got me into early trouble -- I had an F.B.I. record by age twelve. This bizarre incident caused a problem much later when I needed a security clearance. I learned that I could obtain one only by concealing my sordid past.

A friend named Bob and I read the book "Secret and Urgent," by Fletcher Pratt [Blue Ribbon Books; Garden City, NY; 1942] which was an early popular account of codes and ciphers. Pratt showed how to use letter frequencies to break ciphers and reported that the most frequently occurring letters in typical English text are e-t-a-o-n-r-i, in that order. (The letter frequency order of the story you are now reading is e-t-a-i-o-n-r. The higher frequency of "i" probably reflects the fact that _I_ use the first person singular a lot.) Pratt's book also treated more advanced cryptographic schemes.

Bob and I decided that we needed to have a secure way to communicate with each other, so we put together a rather elaborate jargon code based on the principles described in the book. I don't remember exactly why we thought we needed it -- we spent much of our time outside of school together, so there was ample time to talk privately. Still, you never could tell when you might need to send a secret message!

We made two copies of the code key (a description of how to encrypt and decrypt our messages) in the form of a single typewritten sheet. We each took a copy and carried it on our persons at all times when we were wearing clothes.

I actually didn't wear clothes much. I spent nearly all my time outside school wearing just a baggy pair of maroon swimming trunks. That wasn't considered too weird in San Diego.

I had recently been given glasses to wear but generally kept them in a hard case in the pocket of the trousers that I wore to school. I figured that this was a good place to hide my copy of the code key, so I carefully folded it to one-eighth of its original size and stuck it at the bottom of the case, under my glasses.

Every chance I got, I went body surfing at Old Mission Beach. I usually went by streetcar and, since I had to transfer Downtown, I wore clothes. Unfortunately, while I was riding the trolley home from the beach one Saturday, the case carrying my glasses slipped out of my pocket unnoticed. I reported the loss to my mother that night. She chastised me and later called the streetcar company. They said that the glasses hadn't been turned in.

After a few weeks of waiting in vain for the glasses to turn up, we began to lose hope. My mother didn't rush getting replacement glasses in view of the fact that I hadn't worn them much and they cost about $8, a large sum at that time. (To me, $8 represented 40 round trips to the beach by streetcar, or 80 admission fees to the movies.)

Unknown to us, the case had been found by a patriotic citizen who opened it, discovered the code key, recognized that it must belong to a Japanese spy and turned it over to the F.B.I. This was in 1943, just after citizens of Japanese descent had been forced off their property and taken away to concentration camps. I remember hearing that a local grocer was secretly a Colonel in the Japanese Army and had hidden his uniform in the back of his store. A lot of people actually believed these things.

About six weeks later, when I happened to be off on another escapade, my mother was visited by a man who identified himself as an investigator from the F.B.I. (She was a school administrator, but happened to be at home working on her Ph.D. dissertation.) She noticed that there were two more men waiting in a car outside. The agent asked a number of questions about me, including my occupation. He reportedly was quite disappointed when he learned that I was only 12 years old.

He eventually revealed why I was being investigated, showed my mother the glasses and the code key and asked her if she knew where it came from. She didn't, of course. She asked if we could get the glasses back and he agreed.

My mother told the investigator how glad she was to get them back, considering that they cost $8. He did a slow burn, then said "Lady, this case has cost the government thousands of dollars. It has been the top priority in our office for the last six weeks. We traced the glasses to your son from the prescription by examining the files of nearly every optometrist in San Diego." It apparently didn't occur to them that if I were a REAL Japanese spy, I might have brought the glasses with me from headquarters.

The F.B.I. agent gave back the glasses but kept the code key "for our records." They apparently were not fully convinced that they were dealing just with kids.

Since our communication scheme had been compromised, Bob and I devised a new key. I started carrying it in my wallet, which I thought was more secure. I don't remember ever exchanging any cryptographic messages. I was always ready, though.

A few years later when I was in college, I got a summer job at the Naval Electronics Lab, which required a security clearance. One of the questions on the application form was "Have you ever been investigated by the F.B.I." Naturally, I checked "Yes." The next question was, "If so, describe the circumstances." There was very little space on the form, so I answered simply and honestly, "I was suspected of being a Japanese spy."

When I handed the form in to the security officer, he scanned it quickly, looked me over slowly, then said, "Explain this" -- pointing at the F.B.I. question. I described what had happened. He got very agitated, picked up my form, tore it in pieces, and threw it in the waste basket.

He then got out a blank form and handed it to me, saying "Here, fill it out again and don't mention that. If you do, I'll make sure that you NEVER get a security clearance."

I did as he directed and was shortly granted the clearance. I never again disclosed that incident on security clearance forms.

On another occasion much later, I learned by chance that putting certain provocative information on a security clearance form can greatly speed up the clearance process. But that is another story.

Les Earnest

Kick the Mongrel

In a previous account I told how reading a book on cryptography led to my getting an F.B.I. record at the age of 12 and about subsequent awkwardness in obtaining a security clearance. I will now describe how I learned that putting provocative information on a security clearance form can accelerate the clearance process. First let me describe the environment that gave rise to this occurrence.

White Faces in New Places

In 1963, after living in Lexington, Massachusetts for 7 years, my wife and I moved to the Washington D.C. area to help set up a new office for Mitre Corporation. After three days of searching, we bought a house then under construction in a pleasant new suburb called Mantua Hills, near Fairfax, Virginia. I hadn't noticed it during our search, but it soon became evident that there were nothing but white faces in this area. In fact, there were nothing but white faces for miles around.

We expected to find some cultural differences and did. For example, people drove much less aggressively than in Boston. The first time that I did a Boston-style bluff at a traffic circle, the other cars yielded! This took all the fun out of it and I was embarrassed into driving more conservatively.

When I applied for a Virginia driver's license, I noticed that the second question on the application, just after "Name," was "Race." When filling out forms, I have always made it a practice to omit information that I think is irrelevant. It seemed to me that my race had nothing to do with driving a car, so I left it blank.

When I handed the application to the clerk along with the fee, he just looked at me, marked "W" in the blank field and threw it on a stack. I guess that he had learned that this was the easiest way to deal with outlanders.

Our contractor was a bit slow in finishing the house. We knew that there was mail headed our way that was probably accumulating in the post office, so we put up the mailbox even before the house was finished. The first day we got just two letters -- from the American Civil Liberties Union and Martin Luther King's organization. We figured that this was the Post Office staff's way of letting us know that they were on to us. Sure enough, the next day we got the rest of our accumulated mail, a large stack.

It shortly became apparent that on all forms in Virginia, the second question was "Race." Someone informed me that as far as the Commonwealth of Virginia was concerned, there were just two races: "white" and "colored." When our kids brought forms home from school, I started putting a "C" after the second question, leaving it to the authorities to figure out whether that meant "Colored" or "Caucasian."

Racing Clearance

About this time, my boss and I and another colleague applied for a special security clearance that we needed. There are certain clearances that can't be named in public -- it was one of those. I had held an ordinary Top Secret clearance for a number of years and had held the un-namable clearance a short time before, so I did not anticipate any problems.

When I filled out the security form, I noticed that question #5 was "Race." In the past I had not paid attention to this question; I had always thoughtlessly written "Caucasian." Having been sensitized by my new environment, I re-examined the question.

All of my known forebears came from Europe, mostly from Southern Germany with a few from England, Ireland, and Scotland. A glance in the mirror, however, indicated that there was Middle Eastern blood in my veins. I have a semitic nose and skin that tans so easily that I am often darker than many people who pass for black. Did I inherit this from a Hebrew, an Arab, a Gypsy or perhaps one of the Turks who periodically pillaged Central Europe? Maybe it was from a Blackfoot Indian that an imaginative aunt thinks was in our family tree. I will probably never know.

As an arrogant young computer scientist, I believed that if there is any decision that you can't figure out how to program, the question is wrong. I couldn't figure out how to program racial classification, so I concluded that there isn't such a thing. I subsequently reviewed some scientific literature that confirmed this belief. "Race" is, at best, a fuzzy concept about typical physical properties of certain populations. At worst, of course, it is used to justify more contemptible behavior than any concept other than religion.

In answer to the race question on the security form, I decided to put "mongrel." This seemed like an appropriate answer to a meaningless question.

Shortly after I handed in the form, I received a call from a secretary in the security office of the Defense Communications Agency. She said that she had noticed a typographical error in the fifth question where it said "mongrel." She asked if I didn't mean "Mongol." "No thanks," I said, "I really meant `mongrel.'" She ended the conversation rather quickly.

A few hours later I received a call from the chief security officer of D.C.A., who I happened to know. "Hey, Les," he said in a friendly way, "I'd like to talk to you the next time you're over here." I agreed to meet him the following week.

When I got there, he tried to talk me out of answering the race question "incorrectly." I asked him what he thought was the right answer. "You know, Caucasian," he replied. "Oh, you mean someone from the Caucusus Mountains of the U.S.S.R.?" I asked pointedly. "No, you know, `white.'" "Actually, I don't know," I said.

We got into a lengthy discussion in which he informed me that as far as the Defense Department was concerned there were five races: Caucasian, Negro, Oriental, American Indian, and something else that I don't remember. I asked him how he would classify someone who was, by his definition, 7/8 Caucasian and 1/8 Negro. He said he wasn't sure. I asked how he classified Egyptians and Ethiopians. He wasn't sure.

I said that I wasn't sure either and that "mongrel" seemed like the best answer for me. He finally agreed to forward my form to the security authorities but warned that I was asking for trouble.

A Question of Stability

I knew what to expect from a security background investigation: neighbors and former acquaintances let you know it is going on by asking "What are they trying to get you for?" and kidding you about what they told the investigators. Within a week after my application for the new clearance was submitted, it became apparent that the investigation was already underway and that the agents were hammering everyone they talked to about my "mental stability."

The personnel manager where I worked was interviewed quite early and came to me saying "My God! They think you're crazy! What did you do, rape a polo pony?" He also remarked that they had asked him if he knew me socially and that he had answered "Yes, we just celebrated Guy Fawkes Day together." When the investigator wanted to know "What is Guy Fawkes Day?" he started to explain the gunpowder plot but thought better of it. He settled for the explanation that "It's a British holiday."

An artist friend named Linda, who lived two houses away from us, said that she had no trouble answering the investigator's questions about my stability. She said that she recalled our party the week before when we had formed two teams to "Walk the plank." In this game, participants take turns walking the length of a 2 x 4 set on edge and drinking a small amount of beer. Anyone who steps off is eliminated and the team with the most total crossings after some number of rounds wins. Linda said that she remembered I was one of the most stable participants.

I was glad that she had not remembered my instability at an earlier party of hers when I had fallen off a skateboard, broken my watch and bruised my ribs. The embarrassing cause of the accident was that I had run over the bottom of my own toga!

The investigation continued full tilt everywhere I had lived. After about three months it stopped and a month later I was suddenly informed that the clearance had been granted. The other two people whose investigations were begun at the same time did not receive their clearances until several months later.

In comparing notes, it appeared that the investigators did the background checks on my colleagues in a much more leisurely manner. We concluded that my application had received priority treatment. The investigators had done their best to pin something on me and, having failed, gave me the clearance.

The lesson was clear: if you want a clearance in a hurry, put something on your history form that will make the investigators suspicious but that is not damning. They get so many dull backgrounds to check that they relish the possibility of actually nailing someone. By being a bit provocative, you draw priority attention and quicker service.

After I received the clearance, I expected no further effects from my provocative answer. As it turned out, there was an unexpected repercussion a year later and an unexpected victory the year after that. But that is another story.

Les Earnest

The Missed Punch

An earlier account described how I came to list my race as "mongrel" on a security clearance application and how the clearance was granted in an unusually short time. I will now describe a subsequent repercussion that was a byproduct of a new computer application.

Mongrel in a Star-chamber

In early 1965, about a year after I had been granted a supplementary security clearance, I received a certified letter directing me to report to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations at Suitland, Maryland very early in the morning on a certain day four weeks later. To one whose brain seldom functions before 10am, this was a singularly unappealing trip request.

My wife somehow got me up early on the appointed day and I drove off in my TR-3 with the top down, as usual, even though it was a cold winter morning. I hoped that the air would stimulate my transition to an awakened state.

When I arrived and identified myself, I was immediately ushered into a long narrow room with venetian blinds on one side turned to block the meager morning light. I was seated on one side of a table on which there were two goose-neck lamps directed into my eyes. There was no other light in the room, so I could barely see the three inquisitors who took positions on the opposite side of the table.

Someone punched on a tape recorder and the trio began taking turns at poking into my past. They appeared to be trying to convince me that I was in deep trouble. While the pace and tone of their questions were clearly aimed at intimidation, they showed surprisingly little interest in my answers. I managed to stay relaxed, partly because I was not yet fully awake.

They asked whether I had any association with a certain professor at San Diego State College, which I had attended for one year. I recognized his name as being one who was harassed as an alleged Communist sympathizer by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy Era.

Responding to the interrogator's question, I answered that I did not know him but that I might have met him socially since he and my mother were on the faculty concurrently. They wanted to know with certainty whether I had taken any classes from him. I said that I had not.

They next wanted to know how well I knew Linus Pauling, who they knew was a professor at Caltech when I was a student there. I acknowledged that he was my freshman chemistry professor and that I had visited his home once. (I did not mention that Pauling's lectures had so inspired me that I decided to become a chemist. It was not until I took a sophomore course in physical chemistry that I realized that chemistry wasn't as much fun as I had thought. After that, I switched majors in rapid succession to Geology, Civil Engineering, then Electrical Engineering. I ended up working in a still different field.)

I recalled that Pauling had been regularly harassed by certain government agencies during the McCarthy Era because of his leftist "peacenik" views. He was barred from overseas travel on occasion and the harassment continued even after he won his first Nobel Prize but seemed to diminish after the second one, the peace prize.

The inquisitors next wanted to know how often I got together with one of my uncles. I acknowledged that we met occasionally, the last time being a few months earlier when our families dined together. It sounded as though they thought they had something on him. I knew him to be a very able person with a distinguished career in public service. He had been City Manager of Ft. Lauderdale and several other cities and had held a number of diplomatic posts with the State Department. It occurred to me that they might be planning to nail him for associating with a known mongrel.

The questions continued in this vein for hours without a break. I kept waiting for them to bring up a Caltech acquaintance named Bernon Mitchell, who had lived in the same student house as me. Mitchell had later taken a position at the National Security Agency, working in cryptography, then defected to the Soviet Union with a fellow employee. They were apparently closet gays.

In fact, the inquisitors never mentioned Mitchell. This suggested that they may not have done a very thorough investigation. A more likely explanation was that Mitchell and his boyfriend represented a serious failure of the security clearance establishment -- one that they would rather not talk about.

After about three and a half hours of nonstop questioning I was beginning to wake up. I was also beginning to get pissed off over their seemingly endless fishing expedition. At this point there was a short pause and a rustling of papers. I sensed that they were finally getting around to the main course.

"We note that on your history form you claim to be a mongrel," said the man in the middle. "What makes you think you are a mongrel?" "That seems to be the best available answer to an ill-defined question," I responded. We began an exchange that was very much like my earlier discussion with the security officer in the Defense Communications Agency. As before, I asked how they identified various racial groups and how they classified people who were mixtures of these "races."

The interrogators seemed to be taken aback at my asking them questions. They asked why I was trying to make trouble. I asked them why they would not answer my questions. When no answers were forthcoming, I finally pointed out that "It is clear that you do not know how to determine the race of any given person, so it is unreasonable for you to expect me to. I would now like to know what you want from me."

The interrogators began whispering among themselves. They had apparently planned to force me to admit my true race and were not prepared for an alternative outcome. Finally, the man in the center spoke up saying, "Are you willing to sign a sworn statement about your race?" "Certainly," I said. They then turned up the lights and called for a secretary.

She appeared with notebook in hand and I dictated a statement: "I declare that to the best of my knowledge I am a mongrel." "Don't you think you should say more than that," said the chief interrogator. "I think that covers it," I replied. The secretary shrugged and went off to type the statement.

Punch Line

With the main business out of the way, things lightened up -- literally. They opened the venetian blinds to let in some sunlight and offered me a cup of coffee, which I accepted. We had some friendly conversation, then I signed the typed statement, which was duly notarized.

My former tormentors now seemed slightly apologetic about the whole affair. I asked them what had prompted this investigation. After some glances back and forth, one of them admitted that "We were putting our clearance data base on punched cards and found that there was no punch for `mongrel'."

I thought about this for a moment, then asked "Why didn't you add a new punch?" "We don't have any programmers here" was the answer. "We got the program from another agency."

I said, "Surely I am not the only person to give a non-standard answer. With all the civil rights activists now in government service, some of them must have at least refused to answer the race question." The atmosphere became noticeably chillier as one of them answered, with clinched teeth, "You're the only one. The rest of those people seem to know their race."

It was clear that they believed I had caused this problem, but it appeared to me that the entire thrash was triggered by the combination of a stupid question and the common programmer's blunder of creating a categorization that does not include "Other" as an option.

The security people apparently found it impractical to obtain the hour or two of a programmer's time that would have been needed to fix the code to deal with my case, so they chose instead to work with their standard tools. This led to an expenditure of hundreds of man-hours of effort in gathering information to try to intimidate me into changing my answer.

I was surprised to learn that nearly everyone believed in the mythical concept of racial classification. It appeared that even people who were victims of discrimination acknowledged their classification as part of their identity.

I never did find out how the security investigators coped with the fact that I remained a mongrel, but in 1966 I discovered that something very good had happened: the "race" question had disappeared from the security clearance form. I liked to think that I helped that change along.

Unfortunately, almost the same question reappeared on that form and most other personnel forms a few years later, under the guise of "ethnic" classification. I believe that that question is just as meaningless as the race question and I have consistently answered it the same way during the intervening 20 years.

I now invite others to join me in this self-declassification, with the hope and expectation that one day the bureaucrats and politicians will be forced to quit playing with this issue and will come to realize that the United States of America is a nation of egalitarian mongrels. I believe that we will all be better off.

In any case, whenever you design a database, please don't forget the "other" category.

Les Earnest

December 12, 2003

The cost of free money

It's a purely American delusion that there exists such a thing as free money. (Allow me my sweeping generalizations, please.) More services and less taxation? Sure thing -- that's more in my paycheck, right! Rebates on my purchases? What a bargain! Suing my doctor for malpractice? Bonanza!

What's never counted is the cost of free money. But this amazing essay shows starkly the cost of medical litigation -- steadily worsening medical care. (Thanks to for the link.)

Some choice quotes:

our judicial system appears to have so easily dispensed with the basic elements of tort law: In order to have a claim, a defendant must have been negligent, and that negligence must have caused injury to a plaintiff ... [but] only the degree of injury, not negligence, predicts how a jury will decide a malpractice case.

This is ... unfathomable. How do these cases even survive in the court? There seems to be this impression of plaintiffs, and apparently perpetuated by the judiciary, that if something bad has happened, someone must be negligent. And we'll damn well sue until we find them.

Another quote, from a juror of a successful plaintiff who sued after her husband hit an overhead wire with a metal pole:

“Oh, we didn’t think the electrical company did anything wrong, but this way the children will be taken care of.”

But is she truly willing to pay for their care, I wonder?

March 31, 2003

Theological porn, delivered to your inbox

There's nothing like the Christian fringe to turn any day into Aneurism Day for me. So imagine my apoplexy at seeing, on the MSN home page this morning, the question "Is the Rapture upon us?" No, Billg's house organ is not stumping for apocalypse... but some very wealthy Christofascists are. It was a banner ad
for Left Behind - Interpreting the Signs, a/k/a the Left Behind Prophecy Club.

I took at deep breath and clicked the link to find, in screaming type, "Will WAR IN IRAQ launch an unstoppable chain of events that lead to ARMAGEDDON? Find out when you subscribe to the Left Behind Prophecy Club." (Note the lack of subject-verb agreement there.) In other words, it is yet another revenue stream for Tim LeHaye and Jerry Jenkins, who must be God's favorite moneychangers in the temple. For just $29.95 a month, you can get even more dangerous twaddle about world events piled into you inbox!

For those of you lucky enough to have missed all this, Left Behind is a best-selling series of sub-Clancy-grade thrillers that riff upon the should-never-have-made-the-Bible prophecies of Revelation. The absolutely flabbergasting thing to me about this is that two well-known fundamentalist theologo-politicos would dare touch this material; Revelation is, after all, the only book of the Bible with a tripwire. To wit:

For I testify unto everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book, if anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; And if anyone takes away from the words of this book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, and from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book. (Revelation 22:18-19)

But of course the Fundies ignore what they will despite the ridiculous claim that every word (even the self-contradictory ones) are the infallible Word of God.

So anyway, on this shifting rock have LeHaye and Jenkins build a towering edifice: an 11-book (and growing) series based upon the supposed signs of the coming of the end, with titles like "Apollyon: The Destroyer is Unleashed" and "The Indwelling: The Beast Takes Possession" and even (in full colonic fugue) "Assassins: Assignment: Jerusalem, Target: Antichrist." The truly sad and terrible thing is that millions and millions of these books have sold-- not only to people who were admittedly already victim to the worst fire-and-brimstone brainwashing but to a whole new class of otherwise normal people. For God's sake even David-- who is afraid he will burst into flame if he so much as darkens the door of a church-- has a copy of the first book, which he actually liked as a thriller. (Along with his blanket fatwaagainst leather furniture, this was the only moment I have doubted our otherwise wonderful relationship. But I digress.)

If they take any of this even half-seriously, how many of these Left Behind readers now bear the mark of what I call Eschatophilia? Because make no mistake... LeHaye and Jenkins love The End and want you to, too. The believe the world is so bad that it needs to end, right now. Eschatophilia is a sick brew of fear and anticipation based on a misguided theology that actually brings more happiness to its adherents the worse things get in the world. As you can imagine, that pretty well trashes the impulse toward improving things. And war with Iraq? Well, anything that brings the Second Coming closer is fine by them; if American oil companies get some sweet contracts in the mean time, even better.

If we agree to call this phenomenon eschatophilia, is there any avoiding the fact that Left Behind and its ilk is a species of pornography? It gives us something that creates a combination of thrill and dread and release, reliably enough that we know what we will get every time we open it up. And for pre-millenial true beleivers, every reading of an eschatophilic will send one prayerfully back into the arms of an angry God, begging forgiveness-- and that sounds just like every good little Christian boy I grew up with, right after he had borrowed Dad's Playboy for the thousandth time.

As you can tell, I am fairly bitter about this sort of thing. Having been raised in a church that bordered on outright holyrollerism, I got a fairly steady diet of Four Horsement and Seven Bowls of God's Wrath, etc. My family kept me from watching scary movies, but had no qualms with my reading, at age seven, Hal Lindsey's Late Great Planet Earth--previously the best selling prophetic page-turner. Of course all of its prophecies (chief among them nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union over Israel) failed to come true. But somehow these prognosticators are never held to account for their paranoid rants.

My biggest problem with the Left Behind series is that its authors seem to have hit on a strategy for removing the risk from prophecy: make it self-fulfilling. If enough people are programmed to see The End coming in every headline, they will support ever-more-reckless policies that just might bring it about. Of course, knowing that Bush and senior administration officials have read these books is terrifying. Republican administrations have been openly infested with End-Timers at least since the Reagan era, when Interior Secretary James Watt said that protecting the environment was a waste of time because "I don't know how many future generations we can count on until the Lord returns."

Know your enemy: those of you who are less familiar with the "premillenial" theology behind the books would do well to read the Christian Courier's excellent and scripturally-grounded debunking. (And this is not some lefty Episcopalian site, either; it's a pretty conservative Church of Christ site with thoughtful articles arguing against the use of musical instruments in Christian worship; though it's pro-life, it is also passionate in its denunciation of the Lambs of Christ and other scary groups.) Among its other wise explanations, it deprives of its Biblical justification the unswerving commitment among many evangelicals to absolute Zionism, at whatever cost.

For the founding of the modern state of Israel is the hope upon which Eschatophilia is based. I want to be clear that there is a difference between supporting the right of Israel to exist (which I do) and believing that complete Israeli domination of Jerusalem and all of ancient Canaan is necessary for the Second Coming of Christ (which I think is the worst kind of fantasy). There is Zionism, and then there is Zion-fetishism. Zion-fetishism among Christians has contributed mightily to the current impasse by pushing the US towards a blank-check endorsement of the current Israeli administration's ruthlessly inhumane treatment of Palestinians. To the degree than Zion-fetishism influences US foreign policy to the region, it risks bringing about... exactly the catastrophes fringe Christians want to see.

Let me be clear here. I am a Christian, down to the last syllables of the Creed. That is why these people make me so unaccountably angry. What kind of a wimp do these idiots think Christ is? If God is omnipotent, His return does not depend on our petty human real estate arrangements; to believe otherwise is the worst kind of idolatry. These people seriously believe that The Temple is some sort of key that we have to unlock for the Almighty. Umm, hello? This Bible you claim to know so well and love so much? "For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night."(First Thessalonian 5:2) Like a thief in the fucking night, people. Notice the Bible doesn't say, "Like a thief in the night who makes sure people can read in MSN with their handy Revelation decoder ring to know when he's going to break in." I mean really.

"No man shall know the day or the hour," (Matt. 24:36) and that's how it should be. We should get back to the real work of Christians-- feeding the poor, healing the sick, and generally trying to be like Christ (which is, of course, far harder than turning prophecy into best-seller big business).

The real risk (in addition to eternal damnation for themselves and a purely human-wrought apocalypse, see above!) these people run is actually delaying the thing they are trying to hasten. The Jewish commitment to "good works" on Earth is motivated by a belief that we humans are charged by God with "Tikkun," roughly translated as "repair." The Fall of Adam broke a few things, and we should do our best to fix them. God is disappointed in us when we fail to do so. Kafka summed up the project by writing that "The Messiah will come only when he is no longer needed."

I might not go quite that far, but I will say that the mass of American Christians, to the extent that they waste their time and energy reading the Left Behind books and ticking off their lists of the "Signs of the End Times," don't really seem to me to deserve the First Coming, let alone the Second.