Piling On CNN

Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby has a fairly sane take on the CNN controversy that’s gotten bloggers into a high moral dudgeon these days. The gist is that CNN is not the first news organization cuddle up to fascist bastards in exchange for access and it won’t be the last either. I don’t think CNN necessarily made the best moral choices, but I think the people who are saying “well, they should have simply not reported from Iraq,” or whatever have a smugly naive view of both the nature and business of news gathering. The absence of any other news organization coming forward to admit the same actions does not mean that other news organizations did not indulge in them; I think the folks at CNN deserve at least a measure of credit for coming forward as early as realistically possible to admit to what the organization had done.

What I Do When I’m Not Here

Being a freelance writer, I do a number of writing jobs, ranging from columns to corporate work. In the interest of showing you a little bit of what I do when I’m not doing this, let me show you some of the stuff I’ve been doing for Network For Good. Network For Good is a non-profit that uses its Web site to make it easier for people to get involved in various non-profits, both in their communities and in the categories that most interest them. What I do for Network For Good is put together packages based on themes they provide.

So, for example, when they need a package on drug abuse, I’ll go out and find links on the subject, which include information on the topic, opportunities for people to volunteer with organziations that combat drug abuse, and opportunities to donate money to non-profits in that area.

Like a number of my writing gigs, this one is a lot more interesting than you might expect. I really enjoy researching just as a general rule, and it’s interesting to see the width and breadth of non-profit organizations out there. Apparently a lot of Americans spend a lot of their time working in the ways they think will make the world better.

Anyway, here are three packages I help write and/or collect links. Here, one on humanitarian aid for Iraq, one on drug abuse and one on Earth Day. Enjoy and be sure to dig around the site — you’ll probably find information on non-profits you’d want to give cash to.

“Free” Speech — and its Enemies

“In this time when a citizenry applauds the liberation of a country as it lives in fear of its own freedom, when an administration official releases an attack ad questioning the patriotism of a legless Vietnam veteran running for Congress, when people all over the country fear reprisal if they use their right to free speech, it is time to get angry.” — Tim Robbins, addressing the National Press Club, 4/16/2003

“Now, applying an equal amount of absurdity to this ridiculous notion that Robbins attempts to gain credence with, I have a question. How is it that Tim Robbins is still walking free? Wasn’t somebody supposed to pick him up in a black helicopter? Who was it that blew that assignment? Didn’t the order go out for this guy to be behind bars a long time ago? How in the world is he still able to go to the National Press Club and say whatever he wants to say? Somebody has fouled up. Tim Robbins should have been silenced long ago…” — Rush Limbaugh, on his Web site.

Both of these guys are right, which is a fact that in itself should be enough to signal the apocalypse. But both are also running on a couple of interesting assumptions.

Tim Robbins is operating on the assumption that free speech means speech without personal consequence — that because one can say what one wants that everyone else’s proper reaction is to say “well, you have your right to say that,” and then go about their lives. But as we know, people aren’t like that. Politics are to grown-ups what boy bands are to 11-year-old girls: Criticize their favorites and you’ve got a blood enemy for life. Speech is a full-contact sport (metaphorically), and if you’re going to use it, you’ve got to be willing to take your lumps for it.

Therefore you have to accept that people are going to hate you and revile you for your positions. You have to accept that with your right to speak your mind, you accept that your opinion can have repercussions, particularly among the dim-witted who cannot hold two thoughts in their brain at the same time. These are the people who think that if you think gay people should be able to marry, that you spend a lot of time in public toilets cruising for action, or that if you’d like to keep a gun in the house that you eyeball the mail carrier through a rife scope every day because, after all, he’s from the government. Repeat after me: Stupid people are everywhere. It’s just the way it is. But let’s not pin it down entirely on stupid people. Stupid people are a continual problem, but it’s the smart people who know better that are the real problem.

Tim Robbins complains that too many people fear the repercussions of voicing their opinion. I sympathize, but I also have to ask what the value of an opinion is if you’re not willing to express it even at the risk of personal cost. This is why, paradoxically, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and Janeane Garafalo are deserving of a certain amount of respect — you may think they are right or wrong (I personally think they were wrong about the value of the war), but you can’t deny they are out there voicing their opinions regardless of the backlash. They’re standing up for their views, and as far as I can see the problem is not that they’re standing up, but that those who want to but don’t, aren’t.

And the First Amendment is always under attack, from all sides, by well-meaning and/or ignorant people who believe free speech is fine and all most of the time, but now is a moment when we should all stand behind the president/ we should all think of the children/ we should all know that whatever that person is speaking about is just not right. The opposition to the first amendment is bi-partisan; the opposition to the first amendment is based in fear, based in ignorance, based in politics, based in distaste. We will never reach a point where people won’t have to accept the consequences for having controversial opinions. If you want to speak, you have to have the guts to stand by it. Robbins is right that it’s time people should get angry. Their passivity is a bad, bad sign.

But now let’s flip things around. Limbaugh’s opinion is that simply the right to free speech is enough, and really, it’s not. Granted that those who want to speak their minds must be willing to accept the personal cost of doing so, but on the other hand it’s not a positive thing when people go out of their way to imply that exercising one’s first amendment rights is something illegal, immoral or dangerous. This is exactly what conservatives are doing right now; switch on MSNBC’s Michael Savage, and he’ll tell you that people who are exercising their first amendment right to protest the war are guilty of sedition and treason. I don’t want to give Michael Savage too much credit for intelligence, but I suspect he knows that protesting is neither of these things; he just prefers to be partisan and dishonest about it. The good news is that more people watch curling than watch MSNBC. The bad news is that Fox News is still out there.

Conservatives, with their apparently-inbred inability to think of anything outside of the immediate political advantage, are cheerfully and cynically painting protest as something that should be made to shut up; they’re helping to create an atmosphere where free speech is regarded as suspect. Why would you think that? What’s wrong with you? That’s treason and you know it. It’s disingenuous to say that it’s only conservatives who do this sort of thing (recall the “politically correct” uproar of a decade ago), but it’s not inaccurate to say that at this moment, conservatives are leading the charge against the first amendment, for the worst of short-term reasons — after all, the war is already over — and with the worst of long-term implications.

It’s a little much to ask Rush to celebrate Tim Robbins’ right to free speech, but it’s not too much to have him acknowledge that some of his conservative brethren right now are actually saying that Tim Robbins and those with his opinions should be picked up by that black helicopter, and that is wrong. Conservatives have benefited from their right to free speech over the last two decades. It’s too bad they don’t think others should have those same rights — and that by their very words they’re working to create a world where dissent equals crime.

We should be willing to accept the consequences of our right to speak. We should also be willing to acknowledge the right to speak is a right to be celebrated. I don’t really see how you can have the one without the other.

Scene From an Uno Game

SCENE OPENS on John and Athena, playing a game of UNO.

John (setting down a red four card): Four. Your turn, honey.

Athena (sets down card): Draw two, daddy.

John: Okay. (draws two)

Athena (sets down another card): Draw two again, daddy.

John: Um, okay. (draws two more)

Athena (sets down yet another card): Now you have to draw two more, daddy.

John: Wow. Three Draw Two cards in a row. That’s pretty evil, Athena.

Athena (reprovingly): That’s not a very nice thing to say, daddy.

John: You’re right, honey. I’m sorry.

Athena (sets down another card): Draw four, daddy.

The Right to Virtually Assemble

As many of you know, in addition to all the other pointless and stupid but mortgage-paying crap I do, I also do something important, which is to write a bi-monthly column about video games and social issues for Official PlayStation Magazine. Shut up. It actually is important stuff, thank you very much. One of the things I’ve been following for the column is a case in St. Louis about the what first amendment protections should be afforded to video games. About a year ago, a judge in St. Louis ruled that video games should not be afforded First Amendment protections, a decision he came to after watching about fifteen minutes of videotape, prepared by the prosecution, of some of the more gory moments of Resident Evil and Mortal Kombat.

It’s worth noting that the judge making the ruling was so unfamiliar with the titles he was adjudicating upon that he didn’t even get their names right (he called Resident Evil “Resident of Evil Creek”), which doesn’t inspire much confidence in his jurisprudence. Needless to say, the decision was appealed, and at the appeal the video game makers submitted complete scripts to a couple of video games to show that there was indeed some artistic effort put into the games that afforded them first amendment protection. They’re waiting for this decision to come back now.

I think video games do have first amendment protection, if for no other reason than because off the top of my head I can think of several that have better stories than a whole raft of movies I could name — it’s nearly axiomatic that video games almost always have better stories than movies based on them (see: Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil, and — God love it — Super Mario Brothers). In the case of Star Wars, the recent Jedi Knight II video game has a story that kicks ass over the story in Attack of the Clones, which is a real embarrassing development for George Lucas. Director Paul W.S. Anderson is reportedly preparing an Aliens Vs. Predator movie, and given his craptacular past (he directed the Resident Evil movie and the Mortal Kombat movie) there’s almost no hope it’ll be better than the stories in the video game series, which are pretty damn good (especially the second one). If any of these God-awful films meet the standard for protected speech, these video games certainly do as well.

But I think there’s also an interesting wrinkle in the first amendment argument for video games that I’d like to toss out there for comment and criticism (which, of course, I’ll use for background in my next OPM column). So far all the arguments for first amendment protection for video games is founded on freedom of speech from governmental intervention. But what about freedom of peaceable assembly?

Follow: one of the fastest-growing genres of the video game market is that of the Massively Multi-Player Online Role Playing Game (also known by the unwieldy acronym MMORPG, which I would assume is pronounced “more-pig”). These games feature persistent universes in which players all around the US (and the world, but let’s keep focused) send virtual versions of themselves to do whatever they do in that world. The virtual worlds range from fantasy-themed worlds where people go on quests, to more contemporary worlds (like The Sims Online) where online-created characters simply go to exist.

Beyond the MMORPGs, there are also more simply multiplayer-enabled games which while lacking persistent universes, still create “places” where game players congregate online to play their games — lots of first person shooters (most obviously the various Quake and Unreal Tournament iterations) do this. The games themselves are sometimes violent, particularly as it concerns first person shooters, but in the real world sense, they are less violent than, say, your average softball game, at which you have the potential to get beaned or to rip up your leg sliding into a base, or your average Society for Creative Anachronism meeting, at which you might get impaled if you’re not careful.

I think that one could reasonably argue that video games allow like-minded people to assemble peaceably, to pursue their interests and so on and so forth. And thus, attempts by the government to restrict such assemblies is an imposition on first amendment rights.

Some objections I can possibly see to this line of reasoning:

1. Assembling online may or may not be recognized as the same as assembling at the park — I don’t know what the case law on this is;
2. The implements of this assembly are commercial products, most of which have EULAs that might make such claims to constitutional rights moot (but — a little help here — only as it relates to a player’s protections against the manufacturing company, not the government);
3. Likewise, the servers on which the MMOPRG “worlds” exist are also frequently privately owned, which may have ramifications for Constitutional issues (on the other hand, might not multiplayer games on servers at a publicly-funded institution, like a state university, be explicitly protected).

So: Your thoughts. Is there a first amendment right to assemble through video games? And if not, why not?

Um….Stuff. Yeah.

I’m going to pull the Lileksian maneuver of announcing that writing here will be light today on account of real live work — I whipped up four articles this morning for the Uncle John’s “Great Lives” book (short articles), and then I’m likely to spend part of the afternoon thinking of taglines for a financial services company to convince brokers to sell their funds to their clients, and the other part finding non-profit resources for mental disabilities. You can’t say I don’t keep busy. Be that as it may, here are a couple things I’m rolling around in my brain.

* This is good news, if it’s true. I understand for many there would be a great temptation just to ram on through into Syria, since we do happen to have a quarter of a million military folk just across the border, and a three-week war is kind of unsatisfying, I mean you hardly have time to get your war on and everything. Be that as it may, I say we try a little diplomacy and economic thumb-screwing first. You know, just to see if they’ll work. The prospect that Dubya, at least, knows when enough is enough is also heartening.

*Hope you all have your taxes in. This is the second year we had someone else prepare our taxes for us because we have a tax situation, involving rental property and home offices and whatnot, that is beyond the competence of myself and whatever tax software is the cheapest to use this year, and once again our accountant has come through for us with a fairly whopping tax return. Yes, I realize that just yesterday I said that if you’re smart you don’t have any return at all, but I have a good excuse in that, being a freelance writer, I don’t have what you would call a stable income situation, and some months I make lots o’ green, and some months I, um, don’t. This tends to make estimating my tax burden more of a shot in the dark than it would be for someone who gets the same amount every two weeks. I’m not complaining — this is one of the few jobs in which a man in his 30s is still allowed to lounge about in pajama pants at noon and not get fired — but it does explain why, in this case at least, I don’t practice what I preach. Anyway, it’s not like I saw any of that whopping return. We just rolled it into the quarterly estimated tax payment we’re supposed to be making today. It’s no fun to pay taxes with your return, but on the other hand it’s like paying 15 months of taxes with just 12 months of income, and that’s not too shabby.

I happen to fall into one of the tax brackets in the upper half of the tax scheme, so my annual tax bill is pretty steep (it’s more than I actually made in any one of my first four years out of college — a statement rather less impressive when you realize I made what in technical economic terms is known as “diddly”) but I don’t think it’s unfair. I think it’s not unreasonable to spring for a certain level of communal things, even if I don’t tend to use them myself, and I don’t even mind paying, proportionately and in real dollars, more than most other people. What’s more, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of putting a bunch of governmental spending on a tab my kids will pick up in order to slash a bunch of taxes that uniformly benefit a small, rich number of people.

I often joke that I’m unlikely to oppose Republican tax cuts since I wouldn’t want them spending my money anyway, but there’s joking and then there’s reality. I’m well off enough that many of the cuts Dubya wants to enact will benefit me personally, but I’m also here to tell you that I don’t need any more tax cuts right now, and I very seriously doubt that anyone who makes more than me needs them, either.

Or, let me put it another way: The largest book acquisition my local library has had recently came from me — when I got an extra copy of my astronomy book, I took it and about ten other recent astro books I used for research and hauled them over to the librarians (who sent a very nice thank you note). I don’t mind playing a miniature version of Andrew Carnegie for my local branch, but I would have vastly preferred it if the library had the wherewithal to buy some recent astronomy books on its own (not to mention could have sprung for mine). Given the choice between paying taxes and having a good local library and getting a tax break and having my local library’s most recent astronomy book date from the mid-80s (as it did right up until about 10 days ago), I’ll be happy to keep paying the rate I pay now.

*Spring has finally, like an action hero, stabbed that evil Winter through the heart and it appears no longer able to make that final lunge at us, and I have to say, about damn time. Unfortunately, tomorrow and Thursday appear to be bringing rain towards us, which is bad to the extent that it could rain out the baseball game we’re going to in Dayton (AAA! Whoo-hoo! 80% as good as the majors (not counting Tampa Bay, which is AAA in drag) at 50% the price. That’s value!). So no offense to the farmers around me — and I do mean around me — but I’ll be doing my Yoda-like hand wave and muttering “Rain, it shall not” for the next couple of days. You can have all the rain you want on Friday, promise.

Off to create corporate positioning statements. Have fun, kids.

Comments, Taxes, Oil

A visitor named Ron asks in one of the comment threads:

“Any commentary on the IRS giving returns instantly (say, a week), for a nominal charge just as private tax services offer? Also, since oil rhymes with spoils, who should pump the oil in post-war Mesopotamia, in your opinion? After finding out who supplied some of the weapons to Iraq, the ‘Shock’ in the ‘Shock & Awe’ slogan seems only appropriate.”

Thing is, he asks this in the comments for the entry about Athena learning to read and taunting me about her ability to do so. Ron has not done anything bad, it just never occurred to me that people would post totally random things in a comment thread. So, if you please, I’d like to make a couple of refinements to my comment thread rules:

1. Please try to be “on topic” — which is to say make sure that what you’re writing about in a comment thread is at least tangentially related to the posting with which its related, or at the very least a previous post in the thread. Wild digressions are amusing and fine, so long as the starting point can be traced back to the original post.

2. If you have a great urge to ask me a question that you’d like me to consider writing about, simply e-mail me and say something like: “Hey John, I’d really like to see you bloviate on the following question/topic/observation” — and then enter your suggestion there. I’m very open to this, since I love each and every one of you, my readers, and want you to feel I am responsive to your needs, to the extent that they involve this site (i.e., don’t be asking to borrow cash). Also, every topic you suggest is one less topic I have to think up on my own, so I win, too. So don’t be shy in asking me what I think about things. Just don’t post it in an inappropriate comment thread.

No penalties for Ron, however, since he was unaware I might have this line of thinking (totally fair, too, since I was unaware I had it until about 20 minutes ago). So to answer his questions:

1. I’m against the IRS charging anyone for a “quick refund,” since inevitably someone at the IRS would find a way to abuse it, and also it would be an excuse for the IRS not to improve their response time for “non-quick” refunds. I mean, if IRS created a revenue center out of “quick returns,” eventually some go-getter at the IRS (inasmuch as such an organization would have one) would figure out that they could increase revenues by delaying all other refunds to such an extent that people would feel they have to sign up for the “quick refund” to get their refund at all. This seems like a bad idea.

Incidentally, I’m pretty much against “instant refunds” from tax preparers and others as well — what you’re essentially doing is receiving a high-interest loan for the dubious privilege of getting your own money in your hot little hands a couple of weeks early. Ideally, you shouldn’t be getting a return anyway, since any return you have means that you’re allowing the US government to take money you don’t owe it and use it interest-free until it decides to give it back to you (yes, I sound like a conservative ogre here, but, damn it, they’re right about this). But if you are getting a return, don’t you want to get all of your money back? Exercise a little patience, for God’s sake, and wait a couple extra weeks.

2. As to who should pump oil in Iraq, in the short run (say, the next 2-5 years) I think it’s pretty clear we’ll be doing it, and in the long run, it should be pretty clear that the government of Iraq should be able to award the oil contracts to whomever it pleases. That’s the exciting thing about having one’s own government — it does what it wants (hopefully, although clearly not always in the case of this region, backed by its people).

I think what you may be asking here is if France and Russia, who currently have a number of pumping rights in Iraq, should be allowed to continue to have those rights. I feel reasonably confident we’ll find some way to screw France out of theirs, since as a nation we have it in for France at the moment, and we’ll no doubt want to give them an object lesson in the price of messing with our plans. Russia I suspect we’ll allow to keep pumping, because there’s more of a long-term value in keeping Russia on an even keel, and anyway, it’s not exactly an “ally” in the same manner as we have expected France to be, so a little backdoor dealing with Saddam (and front-door opposition to our plans) isn’t going to be held against them in the same way.

I don’t know that Germany has any oil interests in Iraq, but I would expect that we’d deal with them in a more conciliatory fashion than with France, who will be singled out for the pummeling because it’s easier to thump on one country than two or three, and once everyone else realizes our government only means to ream France, they’ll probably get in line and look they other way. Fear will keep the local systems in line! Fear of this battle station!

Yes, it’ll all be very realpolitik and being such, there’s a good possibility that one day it’ll rise up and just bite us in the ass. But isn’t that the fun of being alive.

War Lessons

“Young Arab toughs cannot tolerate insults to their manhood. So, as American armored columns pushed down the road to Baghdad, 400-watt loudspeakers mounted on Humvees would, from time to time, blare out in Arabic that Iraqi men are impotent. The Fedayeen, the fierce but undisciplined and untrained Iraqi irregulars, could not bear to be taunted. Whether they took the bait or saw an opportunity to attack, many Iraqis stormed out of their concealed or dug-in positions, pushing aside their human shields in some cases, to be slaughtered by American tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles.”The Secret War, Newsweek, 4/13/2003

There’s something that is just off-the-scale bizarre about the fact that US forces scored a massive victory in Iraq at least in part by taunting their enemies to the point of fatal stupidity. And I think that this point is the one that US enemies may wish to truly fear — not that we’ve got better guns, tanks and planes, but that we can make you kill yourself through the power of sheer, unadulterated mindfucking. Those Fedayeen would have rather have died than be told they’ve got limp noodles, and so they did. Darwin Awards all around.

At the same time, one has to wonder how applicable some of the major lessons of this war will be against an enemy who is not Iraq. In the various post-mortems of the war which ran in the newspapers this Sunday, three things were consistently listed as major factors in the Coalition forces effectively wrapping this up in three weeks: Unprecedented cooperation between military branches and the adaptability of our forces to existing circumstances (both supported by technology), and by the utter incompetence of the opposing Iraqi forces. While taking absolutely nothing away from these first two factors, the Iraqi incompetence seems to be the overriding factor here. Let’s face it, when you’re dealing with an enemy that can be teased into suicidal attacks, you’re not dealing with an opponent that can be called formidable by any rational definition of the word. Brig. General John Kelley said of the Iraqi fighters that “we shoot them down like the morons they are,” and while that’s not a very nice thing to say, it’s hard to come up with a better word to describe a fighting force that willfully charges an Abrams Tank armed with only with a machine gun and a vague hope that everything they’ve heard about getting into paradise if you die in battle will turn out to be true.

(A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I thought that the fighters doing these things didn’t actually expect to win, they just expected to lose with such style that they became an inspiration to others. But to some extent, that estimation was predicated on the idea that the Iraqis could hold out for a while with such harassing tactics. Clearly, that didn’t work — partly due to the adaptation of our forces, and because we just went ahead and flattened Saddam’s regime in three weeks, thereby overshadowing any propaganda value of the attacks. I think we can all be glad for that.)

The incompetence of Iraqi forces allowed our military forces to engage in some audacious maneuvers that might have otherwise been folly, the dash across the desert on dangerously extended supply lines and the armored column push through the heart of Baghdad being two examples of this. Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz et al have been feeling vindicated in the last week that their plan, so roundly doubted two weeks ago, has been pulled off — as well they should. But I don’t think the retired generals who were sniping at the Rumsfeld plan were wrong. Coalition victory was never in doubt, but had Saddam’s defenders had the slightest bit of competence, it’s very likely we would have paid a far higher price for it, in blood and treasure, than we have so far.

The rest of the world is taking a moment to let the ease in which we won this war sink in, and stories like the one about goading the Fedayeen into becoming bullet holders will undoubtedly have an effect. But I do hope that on this end of things people factor in who our enemy was this time around. Just as war protesters need to get over the idea that every military engagement is going to be a quagmire with ten of thousands of innocent civilians dead, so too do the neocons and hawks have to need to come to grips with the idea that every war we fight from now on isn’t going to be a cakewalk with fewer deaths in the whole war than we’d take in a single day in Vietnam. Not every enemy will respond to a challenge to his manhood, broadcast over a loudspeaker.

So There, Daddy.

A couple of weeks ago, Athena and I were looking at educational software at the local office superstore, and trying to decide on which one to buy. I was favoring the Jumpstart advanced kindergarten software, whereas Athena wanted some software featuring Clifford, the polyploidial red canine.

“But you like Reader Rabbit,” I said, recalling the fact that until my death, certain Reader Rabbit “songs” will rattle about my head like unwanted spiky marbles. “And look, this Phonics stuff will teach you how to read.”

Athena was unconvinced. “But I want Clifford,” she said. Eventually I gave in because a) she’s already got tons of educational software with material, Phonics and otherwise, which is aimed at boosting her reading skills, b) buying your child educational software she doesn’t want seems like a great way to make sure it never gets used, and c) it was five dollars cheaper anyway. We take the Clifford software home and Athena’s been playing it merrily ever since.

Fast forward to last night, when Krissy calls me into Athena’s room and points at the book they have open, Are You My Mother?, P.D. Eastman’s classic tale of avian child abandonment. “She’s reading,” Krissy said, with all the due excitement a parent is supposed to have at a moment like that. “She just read this by herself.”

I agreed it was a wonderful thing, and bent down to give my daughter a kiss and to let her know how proud of her I was. And my darling child, beaming with pleasure at her parents’ happiness at her newly-acquired skill, looked up at me, dimpled adorably, and said:

See, Daddy? I told you I didn’t need that software.”

I’m happy that my child is actually reading. But I’m throughly amused that she also has perfect “Ha ha ha so there” timing. The first of these is truly useful. But the second shows that she’s my kid. I’m pleased as punch.

Making the Other Guy Die

Here’s an interesting little fact for you. If you add up every single combat death the United States has experienced in every single war it’s ever fought, from the Revolutionary War to this one, you’d find that in about 230 years, it tallies up to just over 650,000 deaths (fewer if you throw out the 74,500 combat deaths suffered by the Confederacy on the grounds it was a separate political entity, but for now, let’s just assume they were merely rebellious states and toss them back in).

650,000 deaths are nothing to sneeze at, to be sure, but the remarkable thing here is how few combat deaths that number represents over the course of time, especially when you add totals from other countries in the same period of time. And thus we learn the United States’ real secret weapon in war: Not our technological edge or our productive capability, but the fact that relative to other combatants, we die a hell of a lot less — as a nation we adhere to the maxim, put forward in the film Patton, that the object is not to die for one’s country, it’s to make the other poor son of a bitch die for his.

As an object lesson of this, let’s take World War II. The US lost more men in that conflict than any other before or since: about 295,000 dead in combat. But to put this in perspective, that’s fewer than were lost by Yugoslavia (300,000), Austria (380,000) or Romania (580,000) — these are combat deaths, and don’t include civilian casualties — and far fewer than were lost by China (1.3 million), Japan (1.5 million), or Germany (3.25 million). And, of course, you could add up the combat deaths of every major and minor participant in WWII and still not even come close to the number of combat deaths from the Soviet Union — a staggering 13.6 million. Now, the US number is mitigated somewhat by the fact that we came into the war over two years after everyone else started mixing it up, but on the other hand it’s not as if we didn’t make up for lost time by fighting extensively on two fronts.

The first 80 years of America’s history saw fewer combat deaths than a single battle of the Civil War; in fact, twice as many US soldiers died at Antietam (21,000) than in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Indian Wars and the Mexican-American War combined (9,500). Basically, in order to really rack up American deaths, we had to fight ourselves. Even in defeat, we made the other guy bleed more: We had 47,000 combat deaths in Vietnam, but North Vietnam had over 600,000.

The lopsided combat death totals in Gulf War I (about 150 combat deaths for the US versus and an estimated 100,000 for Iraq) and the current war are extreme — the day the US entered Baghdad we estimate we killed somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 Baghdad defenders and lost one Marine, which has got to be a record of some sort — but as a part of a continuum of the US’ relative ability to not to lose a lot of combatants, you can’t really say they’re entirely surprising.

Simply put, and especially in the last 100 years, we’ve made a science of making the other guy die for his country, while not dying for ours. We’re merely getting better at it as we go along. That’s good news for us, of course. It’s not so great for the poor sons of bitches who get to be the other guy.

I Don’t Know What This Means, #43,226

I don’t want to alarm any of you living in the Pacific Northwest, but last night I had a dream that Mount Rainier erupted. Pop, there it went.

The two reasons you probably shouldn’t be alarmed by this:

1. I make no claims toward having psychic abilities. I’ve never once had a “psychic” dream that came true.

2. What was erupting out of Mount Rainier were huge, flaming pieces of Honeycomb cereal.

I don’t that anyone should be concerned that a pyroclastic flow consisting of crunchy, honey-flavored oat nuggets might suddenly descend upon them. On the other hand, if your homes are suddenly engulfed in a nutritious part of a complete breakfast, you can’t say you weren’t warned.

Contribute to the Book of the Dumb

So, hey, wanna help me write a book?

As many of you know, I’ve started research on a book titled The Book of the Dumb, which is (as the title suggests) a book on the march of stupidity over the years. This is, as you might imagine, a tremendously fertile topic, especially these days, and one could end up writing a whole series of books on the subject (and indeed, that’s the plan). I’m making considerable progress on finding a whole bunch of stupid people and events, but at the same time I just know there are some really great dumb moments in the history of our species that I’m just not thinking about. And that’s where I’m hoping you can help.

I’m looking for suggestions on topics to include in the book — events, discoveries, inventions, people, political events, sports moments, military maneuvers, movie/music/tv stupidity, and so on, which represent, in your opinion, a really stellar example of stupidity on the hoof. Obscure and esoteric stupid events are fine, and even desired (not every prime example of stupidity has been relentlessly publicized). Everyone has their favorites, and I’d love to hear yours.

In return, for every suggestion I use, I’ll give credit within the book (i.e., “topic suggested by [your name here]”). Also, Portable Press (the publisher) will be providing me with a fair number of books to give to idea contributors, so depending on the number of books I get and the number of ideas I use, I’ll either pass out a book per idea used or — and this is more likely — put all the contributor names in a hat and randomly select winners of a free copy of the book.

Please note that I’m looking for ideas only — I’m not asking for full essays that I’d cut and paste into the book, for which, quite obviously, a name credit and maybe a book would be woefully inadequate compensation. Just a suggestion will be fine. I’m guessing most people have a good idea of something they think is really, really stupid. Let me know about it — I’ll take it from there.

If you’re wondering what the end result would look like, go over to my “Best of the Millennium” section — many of the topics there were suggested by readers, and a large portion of the book will be in essay form just like those. I’ll also post a couple of sample topic suggestions at the top of the comments thread.

Well, you say, stupidity is everywhere! I have many suggestions! What should I do? Easy:

1. E-mail me your suggestion at a special address I’ve created for just this purpose: suggestion(–at–)scalzi.com. Just replace the (–at–) there with an actual @ symbol to send (my token attempt to defeat the spam spiders, there). When you e-mail your suggestion, if you want to include a couple of sentences as to why you think that particular person, place, thing or event is really lame, that would be swell, although don’t feel you need to go into great detail (much of my fun in writing is in researching things for myself).

Please e-mail suggestions instead of using the comment thread. It’s easier for me to collate and organize that way (you can use the comments thread to ask questions about what I’m looking for, however).

2. In the subject heading of your e-mail, please put the word “SUGGESTION: ” first, and then whatever you like afterwards. This will allow me to filter out the inevitable piles of spam that I will get.

3. Please provide your full name with your suggestion (or alternately, however you wish to be referred to), so if I use your suggestion, I can credit you appropriately for your idea. Don’t worry about sending your address; when I send out the books, I’ll notify people and ask for addresses then.

4. You can make as many suggestions as you like, but be aware that I’ll typically credit one suggestion in the book (in order to give more people a chance to be named). In the cases where more than one person suggests a topic, I’ll credit the first three people who have suggested an idea, in order of when I receive them. The more topics you suggest, the more chances you have that I’ll use one.

5. I’m open to any suggestion in any category of the stupidity of the human experience, but I do have a couple of caveats.

a) I’m trying to avoid explicitly “Darwin Award”-like examples, since the people who do the Darwin Awards, you know, have that corner of the stupidity market well covered, and more power to them. Most particularly, don’t send me ideas from the Darwin Award web site or from the books. “Urban Legends” are also out, because stupidity is more interesting when it actually happens.

b) In terms of presidential politics and stupidity, I’m not taking suggestions on the sitting President, George W. Bush. Those of you who know me know this isn’t due to a particularly pro-Bush stance; I do it because I don’t want to politicize the book. All previous presidents, from Washington to Clinton, however, are fair game.

c) Don’t write me to tell me how your friend/sibling/random person you know is really stupid. It’s not that I don’t believe you, but aside from the possible libel issues, I’m looking for topic ideas I can actually research. Also, it’d be uncomfortable to call someone up and say — “so, someone you know thinks you’re a real idiot.”

6. If you have any friends who you know would have some suggestions (and who doesn’t?), by all means send them to this entry (you might point at the archived version), or link to it from your own site/blog/online journal/whatever. I’m hoping for one of those “power of the blogosphere” moments here, where friends tell friends and people link and I get a lot of great ideas I never would have thought up of on my own.

(Mind you, the flip side of this is people saying to me, hundreds of times over, “do your own damn work, you sad little man.” It’s a chance I’m willing to take.)

Separately but related: I’m looking for a select few people (30 or so entire) to become part of what I call the Book of the Dumb Brain Trust. This elite but entirely unpaid group will act as a sounding board for specific topic ideas and will be the “go to” brains that I pick when I need fresh perspectives. The benefits? You’ll be e-mailed book entries fresh from my brain (all the better to provide withering feedback) and you’ll receive special acknowledgment in the book. Also, you’ll go to heaven. I’ve cut a deal. It’s a group rate.

If you’re interested, let me know at braintrust(–at–)scalzi.com. Depending on how many people want to join in, not everyone who asks to be in will be included (and at least a couple of the spots are already filled). But I will be looking to add a wide range of people and at least a couple of total strangers. That could be you!

Thanks — I’m looking forward to seeing your ideas on stupidity.

My New Sister

If y’all don’t mind, I’d like to take a moment to introduce you to Andrea Perez, who is today officially my new sister: My mother got the go-ahead to formally adopt Andrea today, and as you might imagine, we’re all very excited about it. It’s a little weird to be getting a new sister at this late date, but on the other hand, it’s also pretty cool. And a lot less weird than it would be if, say, my mom had actually gestated a new kid at age 54. I hear that’s possible these days, but it has so many layers of I don’t want to think about it attached to it, it’s hard to know where to begin. So let’s not. Adoption. It’s a good thing.

Also, now I’m officially a middle child, and I just can’t wait to try out all those “middle child” developmental issues I’ve heard so much about, from books and articles and, lest we forget, Jan Brady. The good news here is that it seems highly unlikely I’ll have very many sibling issues with Andrea, being that she’s nine and I’m about to be 34; and anyway, if I did, it’d look pretty bad on me, wouldn’t it.

This was a fairly difficult adoption process, in part because Andrea is a Mexican citizen and my Mom is a US citizen, living in Mexico (she runs a children’s home there, as part of her religious calling — yes, yes, I know, what happened to me. It’s a long story), so there were a lot hoops to jump through before it finally happened. Nevertheless, mom persevered and here we all are, formally expanding the family by one.

So congratulate me, damn you! I have a new sister. And that’s just neat.

Women at War

I’m wondering if this is the war in which we get rid of the polite fiction that women aren’t capable of serving in forward combat positions in the military. The first point to make is that in a war like this one, every position inside Iraq could reasonably have been assumed to be a “front” position — if you’ll recall, there were those couple of weeks in which Iraqi irregulars were whacking at supply convoys as they sped by, and while I’m not a military expert, I’d be guessing that no matter wherever you are, when the enemy is trying to kill you, where you are has suddenly become a front for you.

The second point is that this war has had prominent examples of women serving and fighting with equal facility as the men. In the comment thread of the post I made about the Marine reservist shocked to find out that Marines kill people, someone called Stephen Funk a “pussy” for his position. I deleted the reference, not only because it’s a rather pedestrian insult, but because inasmuch as American and British women are pulling their weight out there in Iraq, so the insult literally makes no sense. If “fighting like a girl” means blasting the hell out of advancing Iraqis until your ammo runs out, as Pfc Lynch so famously did, we should all fight like girls.

I’m sexist enough to note that I’d personally have a vague, rather irrational preference that women not be placed in direct combat positions, but I’ll note that my reasoning here has nothing to do with what I understand are the official reasons against it, which is a presumed male superiority in size and strength or whatever. I speak from personal experience that this presumption is just plain wrong. My wife is three inches taller than I am and demonstrably stronger as well; the idea that I am fit for combat duty while she is not is entirely stupid.

My reasons come down to two mostly indefensible positions — one, the desire not to see women shot up like Swiss cheese in combat (which is entirely sexist, and considering how many women are civilian casualties of combat, really tremendously futile), and two, men are more expendable since they don’t actually, you know, grow babies. One of the big stories prior to the war was how so many soldiers were storing their sperm so that if they were killed (or just had their sexual organs blasted off, I suppose), they could still father children. A woman, by contrast, can’t just leave her uterus frozen in a lab somewhere to be defrosted and used, should she not make it back home alive (she could leave behind her eggs, but from what I understand extracting eggs is neither as simple or easy as, ahem, extracting male gametes in quantity).

This is a wholly irrational position because in a nation of some 280 million, whose population is not in decline and is unlikely to decline any time in the next century, the placement of women in military combat positions is not at all likely to impede the production of future little citizens to any significant degree (and, of course, looking at women solely in reproductive terms is a fine way to get a punch in the eye). But as I said, I don’t claim for this to make any sort of rational sense; nevertheless, when someone says “Women in Combat,” some weird part of my brain says “but they’re more reproductively useful! Send a man!” I can’t explain it. But there it is.

My indefensible leanings aside, if women want to be on the front lines, I don’t see at this late point any reasonable rationale against it. Again, at this point in time, it’s merely a polite fiction that they don’t fight on the line, and the thing about polite fictions is that they are inevitably condescending to someone, and in this case, it’s to women in uniform. Personally, I wouldn’t want to condescend to a woman in uniform; I’m pretty sure she could kick my ass. Obviously, this makes my larger point.

For the Record

As most of you know, I would rather attempt to swallow a live, angry wolverine in a single gulp than vote for George Bush for just about anything, much less President of the United States. I consider him basically an incompetent largely surrounded by smug apparatchiks of dubious morality.

So you can believe me when I say to you: His removal of Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq is an unambiguous good thing in itself, for which he deserves thanks, and the appropriate respect for his decision to do it, and his focus to follow through.

I don’t doubt the all-too-near future will offer me numerous opportunities to get riled up at his general disastrousness as the Chief Executive of the United States, and as for my confidence that he can manage the rebuilding of Iraq… well, we’ll just have to see. However, from now to the end of time you won’t hear me say that the man never did anything right. He did, and what he did right has a pretty big thing. And were I ever to meet him, I would say to him: Fine job with Saddam. You did well.

No, it’s not painful in the least to say that. What would have been painful would have been to have to say, well, you screwed up on the Saddam thing, too. Because the implications of that — for our troops, for our country, and for the planet in general — would have been immeasurably bad. I can live with Dubya having done a good job with Saddam. Happily.

I’m still not voting him. Not even close. But I’m not going to let that get in the way of recognizing the fact he’s done something good for the world.

Is It War?

Leaving aside the pedantic strategy of consulting a dictionary for a definition, here’s the question: Does what’s happening in Iraq actually qualify as a war in itself? I wonder.

Primarily, it’s because the span of fighting has been awfully short. From first strike to occupation of Baghdad, it’s been three weeks. The “hard” part of the war, which is to say taking operational control of the enemy’s stronghold, is done. Three weeks is sufficient time to get a lot done in a war — Nazi Germany blitzkrieged its way through much of Western Europe in a similar span of time — but it’s not very frequently the entire war itself. Operationally speaking, this is one of the shortest wars on record, shorter (in the sense of from first shot to last) than even the first Gulf War, itself a model of brevity. In one sense, I guess you could say this is simply another example of the production and manufacturing superiority of the US: No one makes a war faster than the Red White and Blue. Our assembly line for these things is frighteningly efficient.

Of course, no one ever said wars had to be long. Indeed, during the Cold War, the going line was that the entire of World War III would last just as long as it takes for an ICBM to arc over the pole. Granted. Even so, in a real-world sense, “war” isn’t just a condition of military activity but also a matter of national psychological adjustment, and a three-week war isn’t going to do that — It’s a shot of adrenaline jammed into the cerebral cortex of the national psyche, but adrenaline wears off. As some have noted, this is a war where the national willingness for material sacrifice to support the war was not only not implied but discouraged — no one is rationing, no one is buying war bonds, no one is told that when they ride alone they are riding with Saddam. The only things Americans have been asked to sacrifice recently have been their personal liberties (which, ironically, are things that worldwide are on a continual scarcity basis). I’d rather ration sugar, personally.

The more logical response here is that obviously what’s going on in Iraq is not a war, but merely a campaign in a war that begun on 9/11 — the famed neocon transformational war of the Middle East. And this makes sense. Three weeks is enough not time for a psychological transformation, but 19 months sure is, and anyone who doubts that the US is psychologically a different place than it was on September 10, 2001 is ignorant to an embarrassing degree. Saddam found this out on the tip of a JDAM, while France is likely to get a few additional economic and political lessons on this one as well before everything is sussed out.

(I don’t say this last one as a newly-transformed frog-hater; I like France and the French as much as I ever have (which is to say, I’m categorically indifferent). The French did what the French do, which is to pursue their own self-interest; what they failed to appreciate was that the United States and its citizens are now less inclined to be forgiving of self-interest when it conflicts with our self-interest, because the motivating factors of our self-interest — revenge and national security — are adjudged to be rather more consequential than France’s reasons — mulish, reflexive opposition to the US and incomprehensible Euro-centered diplomatic rigmarole.)

My major problem with Iraq being the second campaign in a wider, undeclared Middle East war is simply that: It’s an undeclared war, the contours, goals and designs of which are secretive and hidden, not from our putative enemies — believe me, Syria and Iran know they’re next — but from the us, the American people (and in a larger and to my mind far less critical sense — sorry guys — the rest of the Western world).

If Iraq is indeed just part of a larger war, it’s a larger war that the American public is being told doesn’t exist (just ask Ari Fleischer), which means that once again the Dubya administration is telling us that we don’t need to know the details. And either we don’t need to know the details because the Administration is doing its patronizing, paternalistic “trust us, we know what we’re doing” thing, which is insulting and scary (and of course, so often wrong), or we don’t need to know because they don’t really know what they’re doing and there’s no point burdening us with their lack of insight. This is also insulting and scary, but in entirely different ways, and given the constantly surprised, backtracking, “I meant to do that” nature of this Administration, is the one I’d personally suspect is in effect. Either way you slice it, it’s troubling that our government’s war intentions are probably more transparent to our eventual enemies than to its citizens.

On the other hand, maybe the Iraq thing simply is its own thing. In which case, we’re back to the original question: What is it? It’s too small for a war, too big for a battle, and too singular for a campaign. Is there a word for something inbetween all these things? Maybe now is a good time to consult the dictionary.

I Am a Science Fiction Convention Virgin

Oh, before I forget: I’m giving serious thought to attending Torcon 3 this Labor Day Weekend. It is this year’s host of the World Science Fiction Convention, at which they give out the Hugos, and I think it might be a fun introduction for me into the world of SF fandom. Also, Toronto is a nice town.

Having said that, I am — what’s the best way to put this — a complete SF Con virgin. I know, I know, hard to believe. And yet there it is. Well, there was that one time I went to a Star Trek convention. But I went as a reporter! I was working! I interviewed Armin Shimerman, for God’s sake! So I couldn’t actually soak in all the SF-y goodness. I was on the clock.

Basically, if I go, I don’t wish to comport myself as an ass, at least not unintentionally. So those of you who have attended an SF Con or two who might wish to pass along your words of wisdom about what I can expect and should steel myself for, please do so in the comments or in e-mail, and tell all your friends to come by and offer their advice as well.

See, I’m not ashamed to admit I’m a virgin. And I want to make sure I know enough so that when it comes time for my first time, well, that it’s, you know, special. So there you have it. Please, be gentle.

%d bloggers like this: