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December 2004

An Acehnese Child

I like this kid. I hope he's OK. This picture was taken by William Nessen of the SF Chronicle for the November 2003 piece ON THE RUN IN ACEH: With the guerrillas in Indonesia's westernmost province. He looks to me to be about five. The picture was probably chosen for its subtext about child soldiers and the effect on children of being raised in a war zone. He looks like a bright little boy with a strong personality and perhaps the ability to triumph over adversity. The caption reads: An Acehnese child lifts a defiant fist in support of independence during war play.


Worst Case Scenario

What at this moment I find most remarkable is how little impact this greatest of international disasters has had upon my daily life so far.

Kathryn Cramer cooking Christmas dinnerWe hosted my extended family here for Christmas and today they all went home. Our house is much cleaned up and reorganized in preparation. Everyone had a place to sleep; the Christmas tree did make it up on Christmas eve. And the dining table was cleared in time for Christmas dinner. It was a success. We had a very merry Christmas.

I spent very little time on the web and no time with any other new media, since the goings on here were more than enough to hold my attention. On the 26th, we went over to Tarrytown and toured Lyndhurst, one of the robber baron castles on the Hudson. The decorative arts have a whole different narrative of American history in which the very rich can do no wrong except by ill-advised remodelling and the like. And so after the tour, I web surfed a bit and came across a delightful post by Belle Waring on Jay Gould, whose family owned Lyndhurst for 80 years. She is one of Gould's descendants.

I had left the main page of her blog up when I went to bed. When I reloading it when I got up in the morning, I encountered this post:

I hate to think what's happened there. It's just like a horrible nightmare I have sometimes, the towering wall of water, everything frozen for a moment, then the crashing and turning and the baby ripped out of your arms. I have to go lie down now. I feel the deepest sympathy for all those mothers caught in this tragedy, who didn't have the good fortune to be sitting on their balconies with a cup of coffee and watching the dawn come up like thunder at 7 yesterday, like I was. And everyone else, too.

I didn't know what the hell she was talking about. Then I went to CNN. The official death toll was about 21,000 at that point, a mere 10 times the number who died in the WTC. Our Christmas celebration rolled on. Various family members had laptops on our wireless network. We made quiet conversation about the latest on the disaster. 25, 30, 35, 40, 55, 75, . . . Thank God we have no real TV reception in this house. There are certain things I have learned from disasters in the past. One of those is don't watch it over and over on TV.

To the dead and the survivors: No, I don't understand. I can't comprehend what has happened to you. In the abstract, 2,000 dead does not seem much different from 20,000 or 200,000. We made an awfully big deal about 9/11 but what has happened to you is on a scale more comparable to Hiroshima. And yes, I do understand. Small children are not abstractions. When the fuse blew last night and David stumbled on a piece of furniture and hurt his hand, Elizabeth ran down the hall after him saying "Let me kiss it! I make it feel better!" Children are unimaginably precious. Although there are many ways in which we are different, large family gatherings situate one in the midst of cultural universals, all of these most precious things that you had to lose, that so many of you lost. I know that I don't really know what has happened to you but it appears to be the worst disaster that has occurred during my lifetime. Many of the dead I probably would have enjoyed knowing. I have never been to any of the affected countries, and the trajectory of my life will probably not take me there. But your deaths and sufferings are be no less important because of this. You have my sympathies.

The single most sensible idea I've encountered so far on what to do about this is debt relief for the affected counties. Disaster aid is good. Debt relief is better because it allows the affected countries to spend the fruits of their own production on helping their own people when they need it most rather than paying on loans from the West. Push for debt relief.

Throughout, so far, I keep hearing echoes of our own 9/11 rhetoric. Did 9/11 change everything? Maybe yes. Maybe no. But 12/26 certainly changed everything. We just don't know how yet.

Kids' table at Christmas dinner.


Behaviorism & Autism

I was intrigued by the NYT story How About Not 'Curing' Us, Some Autistics Are Pleading, so I looked around some of the web sites run by autistics mentioned in the article. I found some fascinating stuff. Michelle Dawson, quoted in the article is one heck of a writer. I found myself laughing out loud and reading passages to my husband -- a rare occurance with things I find to read on the web. Her quiet, relentless demolition of the ethics of using beheviorist techniques to "cure" autism, entitled THE MISBEHAVIOUR OF BEHAVIOURISTS: Ethical Challenges to the Autism-ABA Industry is a joy to read.

Here is a sampling of passages:

In 1991, researchers from Rutgers, including the well-known behaviourists Sandra Harris and Jan Handleman, published a study about the consequences of aversives in autism programs. The study was called "Does punishment hurt? The impact of aversives on the clinician." They compared the morale and job satisfaction of more than 100 staff, divided into those who could use only mild aversives, and those who could use severe aversives on their autistic clients. Severe aversives included (and one assumes were not limited to) "slap, pinch, electric shock, noxious odor, noxious liquid, and hair pull."

Restraints were removed from the scope of this study when no one involved could decide whether their use on autistics constituted a "mild" or "severe" aversive. Clearly, they did not ask an autistic. Nor did anyone notice that autistics had been injured and killed in restraints, which might argue for a classification of "severe". 

In any case, the researchers' concern that clinicians routinely applying severe aversives to autistics would suffer for this proved groundless. They found that those applying severe aversives were happiest and reported less job-related stress and greater personal accomplishment. In fact, the longer they had been at it, the more personally accomplished they reported being.

. . . and . . .

Autistics cannot communicate. Autistics are incapable of learning from a typical environment. Autistic behaviours and interests are useless and wrong. These are some behaviourist claims at the core of autism-ABA. When this treatment was being developed, intelligence and autism--that is, autistic behaviours--were assumed rarely to co-exist. There have since been radical changes in autism diagnostic criteria and epidemiology which are subversive of most core behaviourist claims about autistics. No commensurate adjustments have been made in the tenets of the autism-ABA industry: tenets which, having been deserted by their scientific basis, remain stubbornly in place as articles of faith.

As I naively pointed out to the behaviour analyst Gina Green, there is no scientific evidence that autistic behaviours are incompatible with intelligence, learning, and achievement. She countered that there exists no proof they are compatible. Untreated intelligent autistics are mere anecdotes, which, in her view, means non-existent. All ABA-deprived autistics are by definition unintelligent, uneducable, and unaccomplished, until the day behaviourists like Dr Green decide to believe, by their criteria, otherwise.

This sort of "science" informs the autism-ABA industry's omnipresent exercise in fiscal coercion, the cost-benefit analysis. In its most popular manifestation, Dr Green and colleagues base their analysis on an elaboration of the articles of faith listed above: all ABA-deprived autistics are a financial burden on society; all ABA-deprived autistics are lifetime liabilities; and all ABA-deprived autistics contribute nothing whatsoever to society.

Similar articles of faith have been imposed on other groups. I couldn't vote until 1940 or deliver the mail until 1980 in the province where I live. This is because, like Dr Green, I'm female. Quebec females did not undergo behaviour modification in order to become intelligent enough to vote or strong and tough enough to deliver the mail circa 1940 and 1980. In fact, we did not change at all. We did not prove anything we hadn't already proven for centuries. But suddenly, we were discovered to have qualities we never had before. 

I have no dog in this fight. Before reading Dawson, I had a vaguely favorable opinion of this kind of treatment for autism, having encountered advocacy for it on the web. I remember thinking, At least behaviorism is good for something. In any case, I find her literary voice clear and compelling, the kind of voice I would happily follow for thousands of pages. But I must stop now because it's time to put my kids to bed. But here's one last bit:

My fourth ethical challenge to the autism-ABA industry is directly stated: I challenge behaviourists to realize that human rights violations do not just damage and destroy their victims. They also damage those who commit them. Human rights violations compromise your work, mar your science, and undermine your credibility. They cast doubt on your successes and call into question your own humanity. You have decided to deny our rights and our worth to get what you want and this leads to worst outcomes for everyone. 

UPDATE: I have received a couple of nasty comments from "parents" whose remarks cross the line into trolling which I have not let through the comment approval process. One sounds to me like "she" may be a practitioner rather than a parent by "her" tone, and the other seems to think that telling me that her child started out subhuman will sway me to his or her point of view. Look, people. I am a fellow parent. I know what it is like to negotiate with insurance companies. I have met a lot of other special ed parents. The special ed parents I know care about the ethics of the treatment of their children. How come the ones who are writing to me care more about whether Dawson is autistic than about the very convincing arguments she raises? What is wrong with you people? I'm willing to be convinced but not insulted.


Will the White House Disable Civilian Use of the GPS Sytem in a Crisis?

DefenseTech reports that they're exploring the possibility:

The White House has completed yet another piece of its never-ending review of the Clinton-era 1996 National Space Policy.

U.S. SPACE-BASED POSITIONING, NAVIGATION, AND TIMING POLICY, signed by the President on 8 December 2004, "establishes guidance and implementation actions for space-based positioning, navigation, and timing programs, augmentations, and activities for U.S. national and homeland security, civil, scientific, and commercial purposes."

In other words its a GPS policy, and pretty aggressive one at that.

The policy, which also comes in a classified flavor, reportedly resulted in a directive to the Secretary of Defense (SecDef) to develop plans to shut down civil use of U.S. GPS signals in certain emergencies and to deny adversaries access to foreign space-based satellite navigation services, such as the European Union's Galileo system.

(This last bit quite understandably has the Europeans upset.)

If they discuss this with anyone with half a brain who doesn't live in a cage in the White House basement, I suspect what they'll discover is that the genie is out of the bottle and there is no going back: that large parts of out "Homeland Security" apparatus use civilian GPSs, which I expect are much cheaper and more plentiful than their military counterparts; and that disabling "civilian" access to the GPS data would be a Homeland Security disaster.

I guess the real question is not whether it is feasible to turn off civilian access, but whether this administration listens to anyone but their own caged "experts."

(They do throw some language around like without unduly disrupting blah blah blah, but I don't see how they can deny use of GPS systems to adversaries any more than they can deny them use of the Internet without major service interruption; the passage with the cushioning language reads not so much like a piece of coherent policy as like a hostile compromise between common sense and stark raving lunacy.)

UPDATE: Here's the AP version of the story. And the UK's Inquirer discusses it as a form of trade war: Galileo versus GPS: A trade war in the making:

According to the anonymous source, President Bush has responded by instructing the US Department of Defense to develop plans to disable an enemy's access to the US navigational satellites and to similar systems operated by others "in certain areas". This is clearly aimed at Galileo.

Although such action "would come under only the most remarkable circumstances", it's a clear threat. Of course Europe can claim that Galileo has no military applications until it is blue in the face. But Bush has merely found another axis of all evil - anyone who puts a satellite into space. Gosh, doesn't that conveniently include the French?

And in a dizzying bit of spin, the NRO's Carlos Ramos-Mrosovsky uses the Galileo system as an example to illustrate his thesis that the " European Union is held together by nothing more than anti-Americanism."


Roadside Sofa

We have joined the ranks of those horrible Westchester people who put perfectly usable sofas by the street. First come first serve: 100" wide white cloth Ikea sofa David bought at a yard sale 15 years ago for $5. Pleasant to have around. Descent to sleep on. The only reason we're throwing it out is that we've moved the sofa David 's mother gave us into the living room and the old one is too long to stand on end in the garage. If you are interested, email me (kec@panix.com) and I'll check if it's still there. Also out by the street there is an old Singer sewing machine with table. It works except that you need to use your finger as the tension. (A few years ago, I bought myself a fancy new Bernina.)

UPDATE: 12/18/04, 7:30 AM Sewing machine gone. I just saw it being loaded into a green minivan. Also out there is a cedar chest in poor condition David got from someone else's junk pile and we never found a use for, and a gas grill in poor condition that should be let to go to the dump. It is actively dangerous. And there is a removable rear seat from a Dodge Caravan, a car that was Geoff's and that nolonger exists.

FURTHER UPDATE: We have a taker for the sofa.


Rearranging

I've been working on rearranging the house and fixing up the kids' rooms. (Pictures later.) I've got two guys coming from the Home Services Shop this afternoon to move big things. So no time to say much.

Go read Alex at the Yorkshire Ranter, who is holding up my end.

PS: I can't resist sharing the first thing that came to mind when I saw this picture/headline combo:

Bush to sign intelligence reform bill into law

My photo caption: I'm tired of being called stupid. So now we've got this here bill that changes the very definition of Intelligence. Other captions?


A Juxtaposition I Just Can't Resist

I've got a lot of things to do today and Elizabeth has been home sick with a cold and has been helping me not to do them, but I just can't resist juxtaposing these two articles:

• The Washington Post: Changes Behind the Barbed Wire: New Standards Are in Place for the Oversight of Contract Workers at Abu Ghraib Prison A very long article (pointed out to me by Thomas Nephew) which remarks:

Employees of two government contractors, CACI International Inc. of Arlington and Titan Corp. of San Diego, were implicated in some of the abuses, according to two reports produced by Army generals. Both companies faced a barrage of critical news reports and questions about how they handled their contracting responsibilities.

The allegations rocked CACI, sending shares of the company down 18 percent the month after the first report implicating one of its employees was leaked, although the stock has since recovered. Executives at the company said they received hate-filled e-mails and demonstrators picketed outside their headquarters.

But in the months since, the evidence that has been detailed so far in military reviews indicates that contractor employees played a more limited role in abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib than initially suggested. . A panel of generals, led by Maj. Gen. George R. Fay, assigned blame for committing abuse or failing to report it to 42 military personnel and six civilian contractor employees.

(All of you wanting the opportunity to invest in this sort of thing, this is the PR all clear signal to call your broker.)

And

• The New York Times: Pentagon Weighs Use of Deception in a Broad Arena

The Pentagon is engaged in bitter, high-level debate over how far it can and should go in managing or manipulating information to influence opinion abroad, senior Defense Department civilians and military officers say.

Such missions, if approved, could take the deceptive techniques endorsed for use on the battlefield to confuse an adversary and adopt them for covert propaganda campaigns aimed at neutral and even allied nations.

Critics of the proposals say such deceptive missions could shatter the Pentagon's credibility, leaving the American public and a world audience skeptical of anything the Defense Department and military say - a repeat of the credibility gap that roiled America during the Vietnam War.

The efforts under consideration risk blurring the traditional lines between public affairs programs in the Pentagon and military branches - whose charters call for giving truthful information to the media and the public - and the world of combat information campaigns or psychological operations.

The question is whether the Pentagon and military should undertake an official program that uses disinformation to shape perceptions abroad. But in a modern world wired by satellite television and the Internet, any misleading information and falsehoods could easily be repeated by American news outlets.

Once when I was 17, I was in the Dallas Airport waiting for a plane with several other teenagers. The Hare Krisnas were out in force and we found an abandoned Hare Krisna hardcover book. We were bored and tried defacing pictures in the book to entertain ourselves. But the guys in the book really didn't look much different with Martian horns and crossed eyes. It was frustrating.

Having learned from the experience, I won't even try to make sarcastic remarks about these juxtaposed news stories. There's just nothing I can add.


Here I Am

Resuming blogging. I would have resumed blogging about four days ago except that my ISP was once again trying and failing to move us to a new server over the weekend, so I didn't want to post entries that would get overwritten. Monday, we had a painter here painting the walls, and I was occupied with taking the house apart and putting it back together. Tuesday, out cable modem connection was out all day.

Some of my recent adventures:

As mentioned in my last post, I had some kind of virus that took me out for a few days. But I recovered.

Over the past month, we've had repeated and expensive problems with the security feature of my car's ignition system; my Secret Decoder Ring (a.k.a. my car key) wouldn't activate the Passkey II system. Earlier in the month, it broke down in our driveway, so it was towed to the dealership where the starter motor was replaced. It worked for a week or so. Then shortly before Thanksgiving, it broke down in the parking lot of Peter's elementary school immediately following my parent teacher conference. We had let the conference run long, and I had let Peter get on the school bus at the end, rather than having him wait for me. I couldn't get home to meet the school bus and the neighbors weren't home so couldn't be called upon to meet it either. So I had the school secretary call the bus company and waited until the bus cold come back to the school so he could meet me. This had the problem that with Peter, there were one too many of us to ride in the front of a tow truck, so I had to go back to the school the next day and deal with the towing of the car. Meanwhile, I had Geoff come pick us up and drive us home.

The car got towed and then it got a diode in its ignition system replaced and everything seemed to work. David has a bad habit of using his van as a storage space and the van was full of cartons, so it was decided that we would drive my car to Massachusetts for Thanksgiving.

We stopped at Books and Food at the foot of the Mass Pike for dinner. When we got back in the car to drive, the car wouldn't talk to the car key, once again. David went back in the restaurant to try to arrange for a tow and a rental car and I continued to try to start the car. After about 25 minutes, I got it started. I sent Peter back inside to get David and we drove to Brant Rock, Massachusets to the Fairview Inn. (David's mother sold her house to relatives a few years ago. While she still lives there, there isn't enough room for us to stay there.) The Fairview is on the ocean and has a nice restaurant and bar downstairs. David got me a fine drink from the bar downstairs and the kids played with playsilks, a belated birthday present for Elizabeth which had arrived in the mail, and then we all went to bed.

Thanksgiving morning, we got up and tried to start the car and it wouldn't start. So we stayed put, in our suit with a view of the ocean, and David's mother and sister came over to visit. Meanwhile, David and I began to think seriously about buying a new car and trading the old one in. Then in the late afternoon, the whole crew came over for our Thanksgiving dinner in the restaurant downstairs, as planned.

Friday morning, the car still wouldn't start. We called AAA and they sent a truck. Our thought was to have the car repaired in Massachusetts. But meanwhile, we needed to get home. So we were going to need to rent a car and David would have to come back the next week and pick up the car. Luckily, the guy with the tow truck was able to start it by jiggling the gear shift. So we all got in the car and drove straight home without stopping (except for gas when we were careful not to turn the car off!), picked up our other car at home, and went straight to the gas station where we had it most recently repaired and dropped it off for further repair.

Over the weekend, we did some serious car shopping. We have a 1992 luxury sedan that David's mother passed along to us when she decided to stop driving. What to replace it with was an interesting question. David usually buys large cars that hold a lot of books, but I mostly drive the kids around. I've never been really comfortable driving large cars, and have always said I wanted a "mouse-sized car," like, say, a Mini (though no one in her right mind who has to have two kids' car seats in the back seat would buy a Mini). Given the price of gas, and the political cost of keeping the price down, I also wanted a car with great gas milage. (The hybrid cars are interesting, but there's not much of a used market for them yet, so they come with new-car prices.) But of course, being a mom, the cars that really get my attention on the show room floor are the mini vans because they are engineered to be dedicated mothermobiles. Not satisfied with anything we saw below about $20,000, I decided to give the current car another chance. Although I hate the security system and did actually have the dealership give me a price on having it ripped out by the roots, I think for $20,000 I could do a lot of standing around waiting for AAA. Also, when we thought about it, if we were to make a list of the things we'd like to blow that much money on, buying a car doesn't make the top five. So far, so good. The car has behaved itself since we arrived at that decision.

When I thought about what I'd rather spend money on, painting a couple of walls came to mind. So Monday the painter came. The living room wall, damaged by a former roof leak, now is white as a blank piece of paper. And in Elizabeth's room, which we never finished painting a few years ago because a large piece of furniture was in the way, is completed. The largest wall is now a very pale lavender that David picked out. (I wanted to paint it a really bright color, but David insisted a light color would be better. He's probably right.) Now that the living room wall has been painted, the bookcases in Elizabeth's room can move to the living room and many other things in the house can shift around. So things are in flux. My family is converging here for Christmas, so this is a good time to rearrange. I have two guys coming to help me move furniture next week.

In the meantime I've been trying to get my son's elementary school involved with YouthCan, a natural science conference for K-12 held at the American Museum of Natural History in April, and iearn.org, the entity which provides the Internet infrastructure for YouthCan:

iEARN is the world's largest non-profit global network that enables young people to use the Internet and other new technologies to engage in collaborative educational projects that both enhance learning and make a difference in the world.

Bureaucratic inertia being what it is, the principal and I figured out the perfect way to do this for next school year. The tricky bit is now to get it started now.YouthCaN's theme for this year has to do with endangered and recently extinct species, a topic very near to Peter's heart. So I've been using a lot of energy that might otherwise have been used for blogging working on that.

In general, when I've taken a break from blogging for a few days, I find it hard to resume. What is important enough to write down? Alternatively, there's way too much to say.

Anyway, here I am.