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–) 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–) 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.

Random Crap

* First off, you all realize that if Saddam is in fact dead, we’re six weeks away from the End of the World. Please refer to the seminal film South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut for all the details. The truly ironic thing about this is that relations between the US and Canada at the moment are very nearly as bad as they are in that film, not in the least because Canada actually hasn’t repeatedly apologized for Bryan Adams.

* Got word from Tor today that Old Man’s War has been slotted into a May 2004 release, slightly later than the late 2003/early 2004 release Tor had been mulling over. I’ll need to go through the site and update references, but for now, you’ve heard it here first. I’m not known as being the world’s most patient man, but I’m actually pretty good with this release date, since previously there’s was a chance that OMW and The Book of the Dumb would be released right on top of each other. That would have been no good because I can’t reasonably expect people to buy two books of mine in the same month, no matter how much guilt I apply. However, now they’ll be six months apart — more than enough time for people to have save up their pennies once more. Everybody wins!

* The Movable Type – increased readership thing is definitely confirmed — I’m now operating at double the unique visits per day than I got pre-MT even on weekdays, which is pretty neat (and doesn’t even count the RSS feed access). I wonder if other people who switch over to MT have noticed a similar bump in traffic with a switchover.

On the flip side of this, the amount of spam I get also seems to have doubled in the last couple of weeks as well — about 250 pieces of junk mail daily on my spam trap accounts and another 50 or daily on my main account. Yes, I actually get 300 pieces of spam a day. And yet, I still don’t want to buy a Dale Earnhardt commemorative wrench set! I wonder if people also have noticed a corresponding spam increase after they switch.

Back to work. Done with Scandalous Women, now I’m onto Inventors of Fads. Yes, it is a truly random life I lead, thanks for asking.

Morbid Thought for the Day

Phone meetings and essays to write on Scandalous Women, so contributions here will probably fairly light today. But I leave you with the following question:

I am I the only one whose first impulse, when he doesn’t see any of his New York friends on his IM list, is to click over to the CNN site?


Defense of the Flag

As anyone who reads this knows, I’m no fan of the new Georgia flag, which despite having the virtue of not being based on the Confederate Battle Jack is still steeped in Confederate imagery. Be that as it may, a reader forwarded me a link to a floor speech by Georgia Rep. Bobby Franklin, arguing for the new flag at the expense of the 1956 Battle Jack flag. Franklin, an admitted “Southern Heritage” sort of dude, has some very interesting things to say about the Confederate Battle Jack flag which he had previously supported, including the following “Nixon to China” moment which I will pull out here:

“Allowing hate groups and white supremacists to hijack the battle flag and pervert it into a negative symbol without publicly and repeatedly repudiating them, dissociating from them, and demanding that they cease and desist has been a grievous moral failure. Silence in the face of evil may be construed as consent or worse. The result of this moral failure — a failure of conscience and courage — is that the battle flag is so tainted from misuse that it cannot stand as merely a symbol of heritage.”

Here’s Rep. Franklin’s entire speech.

“Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to explain why HB 773 is an excellent means to bring reconciliation, healing, and unity to our state.

“In 1993, when Governor Miller proposed eliminating the Confederate Battle Flag from our state flag, Southern heritage concerns lead me to consider running for the legislature. In 1994 I did run unsuccessfully, but then was elected in 1996.

“In 2001, I voted against changing the flag. In the next legislative session I sponsored a bill calling for a referendum. This session I introduced HR 1, calling for a referendum.

“My motives for defending the use of the Confederate battle flag have always been totally unrelated to race; I have simply regarded it as an honorable symbol of Southern heritage.

“However, political reality now argues against returning its imagery to our state flag.

“The General Assembly is the place to resolve the flag issue. The governor’s call for a non-binding referendum means this responsibility will ultimately devolve upon us.

“So let us decide now. Let us rise to the challenge of leadership. Let us lay aside the past. Let us lay aside prejudice, partisanship, and politics. Let us bring healing, reconciliation, and unity so that we may focus on making Georgia a better place for all our citizens.

“Let me ask you four simple questions:

“1. Is it not true that the political campaign leading up to the referendum is not likely to be characterized by intellectually honest debate and enlightened discussion that will bring us together as one people?

“2. Is it not true that the far greater likelihood is that such a campaign will drag us through the mire of racially-charged and racially-divisive demagoguery from extremists on both sides?

“3. Is it not true that a referendum over the flag will be counterproductive, not only in terms of stirring up racial animus, but also in terms of negative national publicity injurious to our business climate in the midst of an economic crisis?

“4. Is it not true that this entire process is a distraction and a diversion that interferes with our concentration on the more essential issues of education, economic development, environmental quality and transportation?

“As a proud Southerner who is a former member and camp commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and while continuing to believe that the battle flag is not inherently a symbol of racism, oppression or hatred, I have gained a better understanding of why it is deeply disturbing and offensive to many.

“There is a reasonable alternative which will allow us to honor Southern heritage without including the Battle Flag image on our state flag.

“To those who argue that the battle flag has been misappropriated and misused by hate groups and white supremacists, but that it is only a symbol of heritage, I offer three answers:

“1. Allowing hate groups and white supremacists to hijack the battle flag and pervert it into a negative symbol without publicly and repeatedly repudiating them, dissociating from them, and demanding that they cease and desist has been a grievous moral failure. Silence in the face of evil may be construed as consent or worse. The result of this moral failure — a failure of conscience and courage — is that the battle flag is so tainted from misuse that it cannot stand as merely a symbol of heritage.

“2. Even if those who argue that the battle flag is a symbol of hate, etc. are absolutely wrong in their interpretation of history, can we not have the grace and the sensitivity to be considerate of their feelings? In order to honor our ancestors and the Confederate war dead and wounded, must we insist on a means that hurts and offends over one-third of our fellow Georgians?

“3. In the Scripture, I Corinthians, Chapter 8, the Apostle Paul discusses things that while not inherently sinful might create a stumbling block or give offense to others. He concludes in the final verse of the chapter, verse 13 “that if eating food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, that I might not cause my brother to stumble.” The spirit of Christian charity is to surrender my right, even though there is nothing wrong with it, so as not to offend my brother. The analogy is clear: While there is nothing inherently wrong with the Confederate Battle Flag, to some it is the cause of grievous offense. Therefore, in the spirit of Christian charity, let us choose not to offend.

“I ask Southern heritage advocates to search their hearts and be willing to agree to a plan that does not restore the perceived negative and offensive messages associated with the battle flag.

“I also ask those opposed to the use of the battle flag to be willing to compromise so as not to alienate, anger, and injure citizens of good will who, without negative race-based intent, merely wish to honor their ancestors and heritage.

“Together, as legislators elected to do the peoples’ will, if we act in good faith and with mutual respect, in the spirit of charity, we can achieve a solution that will satisfy the concerns of all our citizens.

“What do I propose?

“1. That the General Assembly repeal the current state flag.

“2. That the General Assembly adopt the following flag. (He held up a photo of his Stars and Bars design.)

“This flag is specifically based upon the first national flag of the Confederacy, popularly known as the “Stars and Bars,” with the Georgia state seal and the phrase “In God We Trust” added.

“If the true motive of “heritage advocates” is to honor the South and those who fought for Southern independence, what better symbol than an actual national flag of the Confederacy with reasonable and timely modifications?

“Unlike the Battle Flag, the national flag has never flown at a Klan rally or at a lynching. Thus, it does not carry the racially-charged and racially-offensive perceptions of the Battle Flag.

“This is an attractive design around which all Georgians of mutual respect can rally.

“Finally, let me stress that returning to the pre-1956 flag, or some new variation thereof, is absolutely not a satisfactory compromise. There is absolutely nothing specifically and uniquely Southern about the pre-1956 flag. Some proclaim, and the media seems to promote, the idea that its red and white stripes are taken from the Stars and Bars. However, there is at best only an oblique and tenuous connection. Without the context of the actual Stars and Bars alongside for illustration, these stripes are merely generic. They could well appear on any state or national flag without reference to Southern history. Certainly just as good a case could be made that it derives from the Austrian flag.

“Adopting a flag that is not clearly Southern will guarantee ongoing unhappiness and uproar. Many will view it as capitulation, not compromise. Let us avoid this by adopting a flag that while distinctly Southern is free of negative, racially-divisive imagery.”

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