I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Greg Hungerford, Part 4: An Atheist Memorial

I was invited to speak at Greg's memorial service yesterday. I had originally written about five hundred words to read, avoiding the subject of Greg's atheism. I knew his mother was deeply religious, and didn't want to appear confrontational. But, some of the speakers before me framed Greg's life in religious terms, and I realized that it wouldn't really be Greg's funeral without an argument breaking out. So, I got up and gave a eulogy emphasising Greg's atheist values. Since it was mostly improvised, below is my attempt at recreating what I had to say:

Greg and I didn't agree on much during the years we were friends, but there was one issue on which we were in complete agreement: We were both atheists, loud and proud. Greg lived a life in which he was kind, considerate, and genuinely caring of others. No one who knew him would say he wasn't a good man, and he was good without God. He didn't show kindness to strangers because he was afraid of some afterlife punishment, or in pursuit of some afterlife reward. He was good because it was simply in his nature.

Still, the question that any atheist must face is, does life have any meaning? If there's nothing beyond this life, do our actions now really matter?

I think the answer is yes, and here's why Greg's life mattered to me:

When I met Greg in college, he didn't immediately stand out as the one friend who would stay part of my day-to-day life for the next twenty-five years. I think that a casual observer of our first few conversations might have thought that maybe we'd one day be enemies. We argued about pretty much everything. I was for nuclear power; he was against it. I thought that capitalism was fundamentally fair, he thought it was tilted to reward the greediest and most cold-hearted among us. We drew our battle lines early.

For the next two and a half decades, we kept arguing. We'd get together to play rummy, and squabble about politics as we racked up scores into the thousands. We'd get together in restaurants and debate over dinner, keep arguing until they closed for the evening, then stand in the parking lot and continue verbally sparring until two or three in the morning.

But, underneath the surface of all this fighting, there are three important things I learned about Greg, and about life.

First, Greg was a passionate defender of ideas he believed in. He'd keep fighting for them even as his political heroes proved to have feet of clay, or as the country tilted to the right. He didn't care if his beliefs were popular, or moderate his positions so that they would appeal to more people. He staked out his ground, and would defend it until the end.

Second, Greg's beliefs were underpinned by a powerful intelligence. In an age when American culture seems to grow ever dumber, Greg was unashamed to be a geek, capable of tearing down any computer and putting it back together better than ever. For a man who didn't even own a computer before he was thirty, he plunged into the world of bytes and bits with unabashed enthusiasm, devouring books about the origins of the PC, and reading biographies of the men who helped make our world digital. There was a time when he would hang motherboards and deconstructed hard drives on his wall like works of art. He never once thought he was too old to keep learning new things or tackle new challenges. In our last conversation in the Intensive Care Unit, he was already talking about his next educational goal, as he stared at all the medical equipment around him with eyes determined to tear them apart and discover what made them tick. I honestly think if he'd had a screwdriver and a pair of pliers, he would have had a difficult time resisting taking apart his heart monitor to see what made it tick. (No pun intended.)

Finally, this smart, passionate man probably couldn't have been my friend if not for one thing: He had the wisdom to know that a person who disagrees with him doesn't have to be an enemy. While he could be quite ferocious in attacking political figures, one on one he would debate ideas without slipping into personal attacks. For Greg, the fact that he was talking to someone who disagreed with him was no reason to end a conversation. If anything, it was an invitation to keep the conversation going and the dialogue flowing. He could form firm friendships with people who didn't agree with him on a single thing.

In the end, we can honor Greg's memory by honoring these virtues: The passion to speak your mind, the courage to keep learning at any age, and the wisdom to engage others without malice.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Greg Hungerford, Part 3

Back in 2004 I posted an entry called "Entropy and Death," in which Greg played an important role in helping me define my world view when I was thirty, which, at the time, was summed up as, "Things tend to go wrong. Then they get worse. And, eventually, something will kill you."

This doesn't sound like the punch line to a funny story, does it? And yet, that was the beauty of my friendship with Greg: No matter how bleak or pessimistic I could become, Greg and I could always, always find life funny. I uttered the above line about the inevitablity of death fifteen years ago on a cold, windswept beach on New Year's Eve and we spent the rest of the day laughing about it. The next morning, Greg and I drove to Shoney's for breakfast and read Dave Barry's year in review column out loud to each other, laughing until our faces hurt.

When I saw him last Monday in intensive care, he told me the story of how he'd passed out on Sunday and the ensuing adventure of getting swept off to the hospital in the ambulance. He thought it was funny that he'd crawled across the floor, unable to rise to his feet, to unlock the door to his house when he heard sirens, because he was worried that rescue workers would break his door. He'd also detoured to a portable heater he'd had running to turn it off, so that his house wouldn't burn down while he was gone. He was amused by the trivia of the things that had fixed in his mind. For instance, as he was lying on the floor unable to breathe, he'd called his brother-in-law so he could go pick up his daughter, but had never thought of, you know, calling 911. In writing, or even in person, I can't do justice to the telling. Greg had been an actor in high school and college, and always maintained the ability to turn his stories into performances. He had the gift of timing that never really translates into writing. He knew the number of beats of silence that should pass before delivering his punchlines; you are either born with this gift, or you aren't.

There's no way to pretend that dying at 48 isn't a tragedy. It's difficult to put a good spin on such a fate. But, those who knew Greg for a long time can testify that he lived his 48 years mostly on his own terms. I've spent most of my adult life working for two employers. I worked for one company for 8 years, my present employment is going on fifteen. For the most part, I hate my job, but lack the courage to just quit. I think too much about consequences. As a result, far two many hours of my life feel like they weren't truly my own; I've been selling them, at a shockingly low price, to others. Greg, on the other hand, was pretty much fearless when it came to quitting jobs. Until his daughter was born, he would change jobs on pretty much a weekly basis. He had a low tolerance for working for idiots, and wasn't afraid to just turn around and walk out if asked to do something stupid. Assuming he even went in to walk out. Once, we were playing spades with some friends; he had just started a job on third shift the week before. Eleven o'clock passed without comment, and sometime around midnight, someone finally asked, "Weren't you supposed to be at work an hour ago?"

He shrugged and said, "I quit."

"Really? When?"

"About an hour ago. They'll figure it out."

So, while he may not have gotten a lot of years on this earth, no one can say that he didn't spend the hours he had here doing the things he most wanted to do. He sometimes chose to enjoy the moment over deferring pleasure to work toward long term goals in a tomorrow that might never come. I guess, in the end, his instincts proved correct.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Greg Hungerford Memorial Service Information

I just learned that the memorial service will be held Tuesday. 3pm at
Burroughs Funeral Home
1382 Hwy 65 West
Walnut Cove 27052
336 591-4341

Since there's not going to be a wake, and since Greg and I have a tradition of almost 25 years of getting together for dinner once a week to talk about politics, I'm going to go to San Luis Mexican Restaurant in Greensboro that evening at 7:00pm for dinner and invite any of Greg's friends to come along, though I don't think we'll be discussing much politics. There are two San Luis; this is the one on the southern side of I40, not the one near the coliseum.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Greg Hungerford, Part 2

First, for friends checking in for funeral information, I still don't have any firm dates or times as of Christmas night. I promise I'll post information the second I have it.
Driving home in the rain tonight, I mindlessly cruised past the exit I was supposed to take go home; missed it by about ten miles, in fact, before I came out of my memory fog and realized I was pretty far off course. I was, of course, lost in memories of Greg and one of those memories, ironically, involved missing an exit on the highway. Almost twenty years ago, when we lived together in Asheville, Greg had been driving on the interstate as we headed home one evening. We were arguing about something or other, and in the heat of the argument, Greg drove past our exit. I noticed, but didn't say anything. About two exits later, he realized he'd screwed up, and took the next exit to turn around. I told him I'd wondered why he hadn't taken our normal exit. He asked, exasperated, "If you saw that I was going to mix the exit, why didn't you say anything?" I shrugged and said, "I trusted you had a destination in mind. I figured you knew what you were doing."
And, for twenty-five years, I was able to maintain that trust, despite a lot of external evidence that Greg didn't know what the hell he was doing on just about everything in life. I watched as he'd churn through bad jobs and unhealthy relationships, and more than once I gave him some grief about his seeming lack of direction in life. Yet, beneath it all, I always had a rock solid faith that Greg knew what he was doing. He had a vision of life as it should be lived, but somehow never quite managed to put it all together. Greg was born about twenty years too late; he was, in many ways, a child of the sixties. I think in his perfect life, he would have lived in a VW microbus, following the Greatful Dead, selling tye-died tee shirts and bootleg Bob Dylan albums.
Over the years I knew him, he engaged in just about every art form you can name. He wrote poetry, short stories, plays, and a fair chunk of a novel. He painted portraits of men he admired, played guitar, and once recorded a tape full of his own folk music, a tape I have sadly lost long ago. He was an eternal critic of the society he lived in. I met him when he was full of indignation about Reagan. He had fits under Bush 1. And, in case you think he just hated republicans, he disliked Clinton enough to actually leave the democratic party and declare himself a communist (though he did come back around to defending Clinton once the right wing tried to impeach him). His rants against Bush Junior were works of art, and he was well on his way toward branding Obama as a right-winger in disguise. But, his frustrations with politicians was matched by his puzzlement of his fellow citizens. He couldn't understand how so many people were simply disengaged from politics, or how such a high percentage of those who did bother to get involved could do so at such a shallow, sound-bite driven level.
You might think I'm describing someone who was bitter or angry; in truth, there has seldom been anyone in this world more laid back and friendly. Greg could easily fall into conversation with almost anyone. Unlike me, he had interests outside of politics, and could discuss sports and movies with an ease that always eluded me. I saw Greg get angry about politics, but I never saw him lose his temper under every day circumstances. A natural storyteller, I think he simply catalogued his daily frustrations to turn them into funny stories later on.
I happen to have taken part in some of those funny stories; I promise to share a few soon.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Greg Hungerford, Part One

My best friend passed away last night. He'd been admitted to the hospital on Sunday after fainting with his pulse and blood pressure at frighteningly low levels. He'd been having a wide variety of health problems for a while, and before this incident there had been discussion that he might require a pacemaker. He finally had the surgury yesterday, and seemed to emerge from it in good shape. Then, apparently there was a blood clot, and he passed away with no warning, still in the hospital.

I had visited him on Monday, and he'd been in good spirits, looking forward to resuming normal life once the pacemaker was in. I honestly thought I'd be seeing him again any day, and was looking forward to a new, healthy Greg who could join me on walks up at Hanging Rock, only a few miles from his home.

I called a lot of people today to share the news; Greg never had any trouble making friends, and he's going to be remembered by a lot of people. I promised to post information about the funeral here, but, alas, I don't have anything firm yet. Tentatively, there will be a memorial service for Greg Tuesday at 3pm. Hopefully I'll have definite information soon.

I've started work on a memorial post about Greg. This post has been about his death; what I want to do is tell you about his life, but it's more than I can process at the moment. Greg has been an ever-present part of my life for twenty five years. He was my intellectual sparring partner, my voice of wisdom, my ally in tough times, and the one person who I was always free to laugh loudly and freely with. It's going to take a little while to sort out an organize my thoughts.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Better or Worse, 2009 Edition

Last year, before the whole collapse of the housing market, I wrote a column called "Will things get better or worse?" As a science fiction writer, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out where the future is going based on present trends. I filter the world for odd bits of data that serve as omens, both good and bad, seaching for clues as to whether the world twenty years from now is going to be in the midst of a Golden Age, or if we're all doomed and should be stocking up on bottled water and shotgun shells.

Last year, I didn't know. This year... of course I still don't know. The only thing certain about the future is that it's going to throw you curveballs. But, here are some data points that have caught my attention lately:

The best clue that the world is going to be just peachy:

My best friend has been having trouble with his heart, and is even now facing the prospect of Christmas spent in the ICU, having a pacemaker installed. This ISN'T the good news. But, during the course of diagnosing his heart condition, he was sent home for two weeks with a cell phone that transmitted data continuously to a monitoring service, tracking his pulse and blood pressure. This information was collected primarily to diagnose whether he actually needed a pacemaker, but while he was on the monitor, he'd get phone calls asking him if he was feeling any symptoms, apparently because the data was showing abnormal data. The bad news is, this created a lot of grief: It's not conducive to sleep to have medical big brother waking you up with phone calls at 2am asking how you're feeling. "Stressed out and tired!" would be the only sensible answer by about the third phone call. But, while the execution of the data collection left something to be desired, I was still amazed by the potential of the cell phone heart monitor.

For instance, my grandmother fell and broke her hip while gathering firewood a few weeks back. She was all alone, and made the heroic struggle to drag herself back into the house so that she could call for help. But, these days, cell phones are sophisticated enough to know their orientation and flip their screens based on how they are being held. I predict the day will come when the elderly could have a simple app on their cell phones that recognizes the motion of a person falling and can automatically trigger a call for help, or at least a call to investigate whether assistance is needed (since there will almost certainly be more false positives than actual injuries... they might drop the phone, for instance).

Diabetics could have continuous, real time blood sugar monitoring via cell phone. A chemotherapy patient could be monitored for drug levels following an infusion, and the treatment schedule fine tuned with a precision that formerly would have required residing in a hospital. In fact, it won't be long before you don't have to go to the hospital, because your cell phone and a few sensors implanted beneath the skin will turn you into a walking hospital. Google has released the android operating system. I predict we aren't far off from the cyborg operating system. You won't need to go visit your doctor when you wake up with the sniffles. Your phone will scan you like a tri-corder and have all your vital signs ready when you call in to the Google doctor desk. The Google doctorbot can tell you to call in sick and drink lots of chicken soup, or it can tell you to get to a surgeon immediately to get that damned appendix out.

This level of innovation and ingenuity fills me with a lot of hope. No matter how challenging the problems, there a actual geniuses out there hard at work finding solutions. Invention will begat invention, and one day, we shall all be healed.

The reason we should all just give up now:

I've been finding the political news this year just agonizing. I'm not arguing that things were better under Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, or Carter, or that things would be better under McCain. But, as sure as there are a lot of smart people solving the problems of the world, there are legions of idiots in elected offices working hard to create new problems.

The levels of outright bribery going on in the house and senate to pass health care "reform" have to leave any fair-minded person a bit sick to the stomach. But, whether or not this was a good bill or a bad bill, what terrifies me most is that I honestly worry that the US is on the verge of bankruptcy. As a nation, we are deep in a debt hole, and the hole is only getting deeper. I feel like we're in a very fast car heading for a cliff, and our politicians keep slamming down on the accelerator, and no one is grabbing the steering wheel.

I cannot point to a single significant national figure who is proposing a sensible plan to deal with our national addiction to borrowing. The democrats have turned into a parody of themselves; the rap against the party has always been that it's a party of free-spenders and big government, so, of course, now that they are back in control, they are on a spending spree that truly does dwarf anything we've seen since WWII, both in real dollars and as a percentage of GDP. I want to throw the bums out... but replace them with what? Republicans? They haven't exactly covered themselves in glory when it comes to deficits. They are stuck on the idea that tax cuts are going to eliminate the deficit. But, since they first acted on this idea in 1980, and we've had three decades of deficit spending in the interum (save for one brief blip during the Clinton years), I'd say that they can keep beating the tax cut horse if they want to, but most sane people understand that the horse is dead.

Unfortunately, our politicians aren't elected by sane people. They are elected by Americans. Our binary political structure leaves us doomed. We can either elect democrats, who will produce sky-rocketing deficits with unrestrained spending coupled with a lack of courage to raise taxes, or we can elect republicans who will produce sky-rocketing deficits by cutting taxes while lacking the courage to cut spending. No party out there is willing to tell the American public the truth: To escape from three decades of outrageous fiscal irresponsibility, we are going to have to both cut spending and raise taxes.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Is Global Warming a Hoax?

So, if you are even moderately paying attention, you've probably heard two bits of news lately:

1: There's a conference in Copenhagen where the countries of the world are going to band together to save the world from man made global warming and

2: global warming has been exposed as a hoax cobbled together by a conspiracy of scientists, as revealed by the publication of their stolen emails.

I'll start with the second bit of news: Even if every single scientist in the world were colluding to dupe developed nations into crippling their economies, it doesn't change the underlying reality of whether the world is or is not warming. I'm convinced by enough untainted data to say that the earth certainly does seem to be experiencing a warming trend for about the last 150 years. I hear some people claim that the trend is over; that, since 1998, the trend has gone down. I think it's fairer to say that the trend has stayed flat. Of course, I also feel that, in matters of global climate, it's difficult to point to any ten year span and be able to call it a trend.

The data that convinced me that the world is, in fact, warming, were rather mundane canal records dating back a few hundred years. A lot of civilized places build canals, and a lot of these place keep records of when the canals freeze over and when they thaw. These dates have been recorded without any agenda, and they show that canals freeze later and thaw earlier than they did a century ago. Unless the global warming conspiracy is in possession of a time machine, I'm prepared to acknowledge that a fair judgment of objective data shows that the world (or at least the northern hemisphere) has been warming, and I also accept that this warming correlates with an increase in carbon dioxide from industrial activity.

But, correlation isn't always proof of causation. There was a warming trend about a thousand years ago that is well documented and obviously can't be blamed on an addiction to coal or oil. The argument that our increasing temperature of recent decades is purely coincidental with industrial activity is very difficult to prove or disprove in any politically useful time frame. Given the constant natural fluctuation of temperatures, I don't see how anyone can claim, as I often hear, that the debate is settled.

One place that you'll be hearing that it's settled is Copenhagen. Currently, the right wing is all fired up about the US damaging its economy by signing treaties calling for carbon cuts. Personally, I'm upset for a completely different reason: If the world ever does face a truly global environmental threat, I worry that toothless, wheel-spinning conferences such as this are going to destroy any ability for effective action later on. I think we'll come out of this conference with nation committed to a bunch of targets for emission cuts, and I think that, a decade from now, not a single target will have been met, and, in fact, net global emissions will have risen.

Fortunately, if global warming is man made, and can be blamed on carbon, I still don't see myself losing much sleep over it. The earth isn't going to turn into Venus. Pre-industrial men have adapted to living in the Sahara with their greatest technology being tent making and camel husbandry. I suspect that modern men will be able to muddle through. Nature will adapt as well. No one is talking about temperature extremes as what we experienced during the last ice age. There was wildlife during that time, there's wildlife now, there will be wildlife in the world to come. It's true that some islands might vanish beneath the waves, but that's just a reality of some types of islands. A lot of islands exist for only a blink of a geological eye. I suppose that it's vaguely possible that in a century the Outer Banks of North Carolina could vanish, but unless we chain the people who live on the islands to posts, its difficult to imagine anyone getting killed because of this. Prudent people will move inland as the waves start lapping at their door. (Though, one may argue that prudent people wouldn't build homes fifty feet from the ocean to start with.)

For me, my biggest objection to the arguments of proponents of global warming is that it's going to produce catastrophe. I will accept it's going to cause change, but it's going to be gradual change, decade to decade. We'll plant different crops in different places, we'll build new homes on new shorelines, and life will go on. And, fifty years from now, if a real global threat arises, we'll point back and laugh about how worried we were about global warming, and do nothing. This really is a case where hyping the fear of global warming can potentially do more harm than just learning how to live with it.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Surge of Stupidity and Hypocrisy

Several weeks ago, I wrote a post critical of Obama dragging his feet on deciding what to do in Afghanistan. Now that he's made a decision, I'll continue to be critical, since I'd rather we just pack up and come home. Note that I think we should pack up and come home from pretty much everywhere in the world, including Germany, Japan, Korea, Iraq, etc. I fear that we are following the path of the former Soviet Union, pouring our national resources into a mighty military until the point that it bankrupts us. The amount of stability we add to the world with troops in over a hundred nations doesn't equal the amount of instability that will be created when the dollar has all the prestige and buying power of Monopoly money.

However, please note I've been opposed to most of our military adventures for decades due to my libertarian leanings. So, while I dislike Obama's decision and decision process, I'm also gob-smacked by the hypocrisy of right-wing critics of Obama. Limbaugh, Palin, and other prominent right wing voices griped for most of the year that Obama wasn't giving Afghanistan the troops needed for victory. Yet, the troop levels under Obama were already higher than they were under Bush. Where was the right's criticism of Bush's timidness for the proceding seven years? Famously, Cheney criticized Obama for "dithering." But it seems to me that Bush and Cheney had a policy of permanant dithering on Afghanistan. Dithering was the actual plan. We occupied the country for seven years with just enough troops to keep the taliban from marching into Kabul, but not enough force to do anything like bringing actual peace and stability to the country. It may be argued that peace and stability weren't and aren't possible without a massive multi-decade multi-trillion-dollar nation building effort that the public will never support. But, in that case, I don't see how it's moral to keep troops in a country for seven years primarily to harrass people with cave-men morality and technology.

The taliban were never an actual threat to the world. Osama bin Laden wasn't and isn't an actual threat to the US commensurate with the response to him. His terrorist actions cause lots of local pain and suffering, but it wasn't like he had armies waiting on aircraft carriers to land on the shores of NYC and occupy it. On the other hand, with a few box cutters and airplane tickets, he's provoked a response that has killed and maimed far more Americans than he could touch with his original attack, and caused far more economic damage. It's like dying from a bee-sting--the original injury is painful, but it's the body's overzealous, disproportunate immune response that actually proves fatal.

The one thing I admired about Obama's speech this week was his committment to wrapping the war up without passing it on to his successor. It's tough to know if he'll actually keep his word on this, but, one can hope.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Good without God?

One argument for for God is that, even if he's merely a creation of human imagination, he still serves some useful functions. First, by creating an imaginary parent of all mankind to dish out punishments and rewards, there's an incentive for people to be good. The world is full of personal testimony of people who will tell you they were hard-drinking, wife-beating, mother-robbing, dog-kicking scoundrels until they realized God didn't approve and changed their ways. Convicted murders, rapists, drug addicts, and congressmen emerge from prison testifying that they've found the Lord and from now on will walk the straight and narrow path, and often they do. Even if fictional, God keeps us from being up to our eyebrows in wickedness, one may argue.

Second, God offers hope. The doctors come into the room and tell you there's an inoperable cancer the size of an apple growing in your brain. Prayer might be your only source of hope. Even better, perhaps, is the hope that death isn't actually death. On the latest Mountain Goat album, there's a song with the lyric, "I won't get better, but one day I'll be free, for I am not this body that imprisons me." There are circumstances where life feels like a trap, and God is the best hope of escaping the trap. Hope isn't a valueless commodity. For instance, if you are unemployed and have hope, you will keep applying to jobs and going to interviews, increasing the odds that you will be hired. If you have no hope, you won't even bother to apply for the job that you might have eventually landed.

Faced with these tangible values provided by even a fictional God, what's an atheist to do?

Let me deal with hope first. Nothing about being an atheist eliminates hope from your life. When the doctor tells you about your inoperable tumor, you can turn to the stories of thousands of people who received similar diagnosis and went on to live fulfilling lives for years and decades. Stephen Jay Gould was told he would likely die in six months when he was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and he lived another twenty years, working right up to the end. Even if you don't believe in a God who will intervene to cure your cancer, you can believe, based on evidence, in spontaneous remissions that seem to arise at random in any given population of cancer. One might argue that placing hope in randomness doesn't seem as hopeful as placing hope in God. I think there are more lotto ticket buyers than church goers, so apparently it's not without appeal. And, for me, it removes an unintended ickiness of God-based hope. You pray, your wife prays, your children pray, and still you die. In the room next door, people pray, and the patient lives. The rather random outcomes of prayer based interventions might lead to the stress of people wondering what they did to displease God. Why weren't they worthy? Remove God from the equation, and you're left with statistics. Things happen in certain proportions, and you hope that today won't be the day your luck runs out.

Not, of course, that it all needs to be left to luck: If you believe there is no interventionist God, then perhaps you place your hope in men. Men are building an increasingly good track record in all manners of cures. God guided healing, such as we've had for most of human history, produced average life spans under fifty. Evidence based healing, where humans have studied the functions of the body and the origins of disease to ever greater levels of understanding, is populating our world with octogenarians. Suppose I told you that, twenty years from now, you would go into a hospital and be told you have a tumor. Would praying now be the best strategy for dealing with it? Or would donating money to cancer research and building your financial resources to allow for top notch health insurance be a better strategy? Going back to the unemployment example, are you more likely to get a job staying at home and praying for one? Or going out and filling in applications? Placing hope in God seems like a strategy that might limit your hopeful outcomes. Placing hope in your own actions, and in the actions of your fellow humans, seems like it might increase your odds of hopeful outcomes.

But, of course, there's the point where all hope is lost. The tumor has killed you. Bluntly, I don't think, at that point, hope matters to you in the least. I don't think you are you any more. Still, isn't it useful for the survivors to have hope that they will one day be reunited with you? I suppose. But, as someone devoid of this hope, I can tell you that I don't miss it. For me, the value is in a person's life, not their afterlife. And, if you want a person to survive after they are gone, the human brain is equipped with this wonderful thing called memory. When Laura passed away, I'd find myself wondering what she would think of certain choices I was making in life. When I selected my new house, I wondered if she'd like it. Luckily, her opinions on houses weren't a mystery to me. We'd sat and watched home improvement shows side by side for years. I think she would have approved of my choice of a cosmetically impaired dwelling that was structurally solid. Your loved ones can have an afterlife of sorts as you carry them with you in your memory and still consider them as you make your decisions in life. If you live well, and try to make a difference in the lives of others, then you can have hope that, when you're gone, you at least won't be forgotten.

Which leaves us with the argument that God is useful as a source of morality. The evidence that some people embrace God and go on to live lives that benefit mankind as a whole is incontrovertible. This is the "heads" side of the God-based morality coin. The "tails" side is that there's a lot of harm done in God's name as well. People strap on dynamite vests and blow up buses, or pull out a gun and start gunning down fellow men. Doctors get murdered in cold blood while sitting in church pews. By the millions in some nations, women are kept illiterate and treated as property. In our own nation, it wasn't so long ago that prominent Christian voices celebrated AIDS as God's judgment on homosexuals. Today, fundamentalists actively attempt to squelch the teaching of evolution, fearing that Darwin is dangerous to the human soul. The danger of having an imaginary God as the font of morality is that it leaves morality in the hands of human imagination.

I would argue that it's much safer and more beneficial to strip God out of the moral equation and base our ethics on reason. Altruism is an excellent strategy for advancing the interests of you and your loved ones. The world is full of problems that can be solved by humans working together. Maybe some people need God to tell them to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. But, these things are good even in the absence of God. Just because I'm an atheist doesn't mean I want to see people suffer. I'm surrounded by people I love who suffer misfortune. Even if I'm a selfish bastard who sees nothing beyond my immediate friends and family, among those friends and family I have people who are sick, people who are unemployed, people who are disabled and disadvantaged. It's in my own interests to work to mitigate the sources of human suffering. I don't need God to tell me I don't want to lose any more loved ones to cancer in order to drum up money for cancer research.

If we wish to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and clothe the poor, I would argue that we can accomplish more by focusing on science than on God. Prayer probably won't cure your cancer, but surgery and chemotherapy have a real shot. Praying for rain might not increase your crop yields, but America produces more food than we can eat thanks to our studies of genetics and the engineering prowess we've shown at bringing water to deserts. As for clothing the poor, we've produced such a surplus of clothing in this country that there are probably 60 billion shirts to clothe the 6 billion people on the planet. Involuntary nudity just doesn't seem to be a major source of human misery anymore.

Mankind is capable to doing good without God. I would argue we've been doing so since we first started walking on two legs. Letting go of God as a source of goodness seems to me to be a natural part of growing up as a species, just as letting go of Santa Claus as a rewarder of good behavior is part of growing out of childhood. The question we should be asking ourselves isn't, "What would Jesus do?" It's "What should I do?"

Right now, I should go eat some lunch.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

My Experience Buying a Casket Online

In a perfect world, everyone would be prepared for death. You'd have the funeral arrangements made in advance, the headstone selected and paid for, and the coffin purchased and stored, waiting for the right moment of use. In the real world, even when people have been in declining health for months or years, death still comes as a moment for which the survivors are usually ill prepared. A lot of life's big decisions you can take your time on; I spent a couple of months on my last search for a house, and the last time I bought a car I made my choice after several weeks of research, reading reviews and visiting lots to look at models. But, when someone dies, the family is is often forced to make a lot of financial decisions in a span of days, and sometimes even hours.

You'd be an idiot to buy a car without at least looking at two or three competitors, but it seems unrealistic and perhaps a bit crass to "shop" for a funeral home, going to two or three and getting quotes while the deceased is left in limbo. However, having twice been closely involved with planning a funeral, there is definitely one area of the burial that you can have a lot of control and choice over: the casket. It may seem a bit shallow to worry about cost when you are getting ready to bury your loved ones. But, unless you are financially well off, the funeral often comes just as you are hit with eye-popping bills for medical care, not to mention lord knows how many financial loose ends that are left at the end of a person's life. If you can save significant sums of money and get exactly the same quality product, I don't think anyone should think ill of you.

My father's funeral was the second time I've purchased a casket online. Both times, I've been very pleased with the price and the product. This time, I looked online before I went to the funeral home, with my siblings and my mother at the laptop looking at different designs and options. One nice thing about the Internet is that you have plenty of choice. I was leaning toward a steel casket, but my mother thought a wooden one was more suited to Dad's personality, and we soon narrowed it down to a solid cedar casket in a natural wood grain finish. The casket, with express shipping, would cost us $1500. Then we went to the funeral parlor. They showed us their caskets, and the least expensive wooden casket they had started at $4000, and the one most similar to the one we liked online was $6000. Needless to say, we decided to go with the online option.

The funeral director did his best to dissuade us, but, legally, at least in North Carolina, you are free to purchase a casket from whoever you wish and they have to use it. We ordered from bestpricecaskets.com. I made the order on a Saturday night, and the casket was at the funeral home by 9am on Monday morning. The customer service department was excellent; I called back Sunday for tracking information and they had the information in seconds. The following morning, when the driver left the airport to deliver the casket, he called me on my cell phone so I could meet him at the funeral parlor to inspect it on arrival.

I was more than a little paranoid Sunday. I was worried because I was buying something online without actually having seen anything but a small photo. I worried it might arrive scuffed or damaged, or show shoddy workmanship that you wouldn't be able to spot in an online image. Instead, the coffin was lovely. The attention to detail was exceptional, and, as advertised, it was solid cedar. It had a wonderful cedar odor, and polished finish that practically glowed. All during the visitation people commented on how nice the casket was. This matched my experience with purchasing Laura's casket online: a bit of anxiety while it was in transit, but an excellent product once delivered.

I'm writing this in hopes of soothing the nerves of anyone out there who has had a loved one pass away and is thinking of buying a casket online, but is worried it might not work out. Several of the casket websites have personal testimonials, but, of course, you assume they are only going to post their positive comments and not their negative ones. I'm an objective third party who will testify that, in my two times as a casket shopper, I've gotten a good product for a fraction of the price the funeral parlors were going to charge. The only downside has been the completely self-inflicted anxiety in the hours between making the purchase and seeing the product. I can see how some people might buy a coffin at a funeral parlor just because they can actually see it, touch the bedding, etc., and skip the worry that the little photo you saw online won't match the product that arrives at the funeral home. Still, paying $2500 to $4000 extra to avoid that anxiety is a pretty steep price. Hopefully this will be a useful data point in making your decision.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Obvious Truths I Finally Understand

When Dad passed away earlier this month, I did what I could to help with the expenses by buying the coffin. I had to put it on a credit card, largely due to the fact that I've managed to reach the no longer youthful age of fourty-five pretty much flat broke. On paper, I look okay. With the 401k rebound of the last year and some aggressive debt repayment, plus the equity in my house, I'm nicely in the black. Unfortunately, most of this is because of the 401k and home equity; it's not money I can actually put my hands on in an emergency situation.

But, I really have to accept the fact that Dad's funeral was an emergency situation only because I made it one. Dad had about four time bombs ticking away, health-wise, that I was completely aware of. He'd had heart attacks, strokes, didn't manage his diabetes well, and had almost died once before from internal bleeding. Mitigating this were the fact that he was relatively active and engaged with his life. He had reasons to get out of bed in the morning, no matter how bad he felt.
So, when the day came that he passed away, it was a shock, but not a giant shock. Yet, I'd done nothing to prepare for it, financially. The same was true when Laura passed away. I'd been so focused on immediate financial problems, I'd done almost nothing to plan ahead. I've never built up a pool of money to have on hand not for myself, but to help other people.

Part of my financial blindness comes from what I can only describe as a self-centered world view. Since I have no children and, for large chunks of my life, no spouse, I've managed my money strictly with an eye toward my own comfort and goals. This is a very "Ayn Rand" worldview; other people aren't my problem or responsibility. But, events of this last week have slapped me in the face and completely flipped me around. If they aren't my responsibility, then who who, exactly, is responsible?

The liberal view would seem to be that government is responsible, though this could be restated more felicitously as we are all collectively responsible. But, my libertarian instincts still distrust this answer, based on the simple, inarguable truth that the US government sucks at about 99% of everything it tries to do. The few cases where they acheive a good outcome, they do so by spending such outrageous sums of money that it makes your head spin. Few would argue that we have a fantasticly powerful military. Few would also argue that this military chews up a massive amount of our tax dollars (or worse--our borrowed money) and that congress every year increases its expense and decreases its efficiency by funding weapon systems and keeping open bases the military hasn't asked for and doesn't want. And, of course, places like Afghanistan, Vietnam, Somalia, and North Korea are constant reminders that even the most powerful military in the world faces limits on what it can achieve. So, I distrust turning over to government any further responsibilities until we demonstrate as a people that we can operate our government in a responsible fashion.

On the other extreme we get back to the objectivist version of the world: A man is responsible for no one but himself. He is under no obligation to care for the poor or the sick or for children; the greatest good he can achieve is to pursue his own dreams and self-interests, asking nothing from anyone, offering nothing to anyone. This world view made a lot of sense to me when I was in my twenties. Back then, of course, most of the people I knew were healthy. While I knew a lot of poor people, I could still see fairly clearly that most of the poverty I was personally aware of was self-inflicted. Bluntly, I knew a lot of people in their twenties who would quit jobs they didn't like at the snap of their fingers then gripe about how broke they were. Frequently, these people had strong safety nets to fall back into, families who would keep them from going hungry or homeless. It felt easy to extrapolate that the safety nets were creating a moral hazard. Many people, maybe even most people, just don't like to work all that much. The more their basic needs are met, the less motivated they are to do anything. As a society, we don't want to see people go hungry or homeless. But, once some people get free food and free shelter, even if it comes at the most basic level, they lose all motivation. Their basic needs are met, so why push themselves? It's pretty easy to follow this line of thought into a rather hard-hearted libertarianism.

But, of course, the world looks one way when you're twenty-five, and a different way when you're forty-five. I've seen people get sick with diseases that weaken them year after year, leaving them unable to work, but still nowhere near the ends of their life. I've seen other people work hard to become highly paid, stellar performers at their jobs, only to lose those jobs because the owners of the company make a decision that they are going to shut down a plant here and build their product in Mexico. If you're twenty-five and your employer shuts up shop, you can shrug it off and move on. If you're fifty-five and your entire industry is collapsing, things can be a little rougher.

So, I've reached a stage in my life where I'm keenly aware of the difficulty and suffering of others, and want someone to help them. When I look around wondering who should be responsible, I find myself staring in a mirror. I care about these people. Why aren't I helping them? Of course, the main limit on my ability to do good for other people is that I don't have much money. If I had a time machine, I'd like to tell my twenty-five year old self: "Start saving now. I know it seems very far away, but twenty years from now, you're going to want to have cash on hand to help the people you love get through difficult times."

And, of course, I do have a time machine. Alas, it only goes forward. I'm being carried into the future, and the further I go into that future, the more people I care about will face difficulties. I am ill prepared today to give people the assistance I know they need. But, I have the power to change this in five years, and ten years, twenty years, and--who knows--maybe fifty. Five years from now, I should at least be able to pay for a funeral without going into debt. Ten years from now, if I had a friend about to lose a house due to unemployment, I'd like to have the power to step in and help them through a difficult year. And twenty years from now, I'd like to have the money to write large checks to causes I'm passionate about, like medical research. This year, I was happy to help raise a thousand dollars for cancer research. Twenty years from now, I want to be able to add a lot of zeros to that sum.

It's such a simple, obvious truth that I don't know how I didn't understand it until now. It's common wisdom that, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. The caveat is, if you want good done in the world, you are the person ultimately responsible for making that good come to pass. We are all moving forward in a world where our friends and loved ones will one day suffer misfortunes and tragedies. We don't need to know the dates and circumstances in order to start preparing now to help them.

So, I have long term goals to do good. But, I also plan to begin to take action right now. I give relatively little to charity. Starting today, I plan to set aside at least a few dollars from every paycheck specifically to help other people. I know the world is full of people who've been doing this since they first started working. I'm embarassed it's taken me so long to join the club.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Sidney W. Maxey, Jr.

Sidney W. Maxey, Jr.

February 20, 1940 - November 7, 2009

You were once a presence full of light upon this earth,
and I am here to witness to your life and to its worth.
--the Mountain Goats
My father passed away yesterday a little more than a month after he suffered a severe heart attack. The days that followed were mostly spent in hospitals. There would be promising news one day, discouraging news the next. Earlier this week, I was certain he would still be coming home, definitely not to the same life he'd lived before, but at least healthy enough to sit in his recliner and talk to people.
Dad's great gift was his ability to talk to anyone. There were no strangers in his world. It wasn't just that he would go up to people and start talking to them. There was some strange pull he had that caused complete strangers to navigate through crowds to find him in order to strike up a conversation. There was just something about his face that said, "Talk to me," and people responded to this.
My cousin Tony told me on the phone last night that, due to a variety of factors, he wouldn't be able to make it to the funeral on Tuesday. But, he said, while he wouldn't be able to be there for his death, he felt fortunate to have been there for his life. And, I think that's mostly what I'm feeling today. A sense of loss, yes, but also a sense of gratitude that I got to spend time with Dad when he was alive. I fished by his side, ate dinner with him in restaurants, held drywall while he set the nails, went swimming him, handed him wrenches while he worked on cars, pulled weeds with him in his garden, and sat on the couch with him watching television.
Dad had one moment to die. But he had 69 years to live. I'm here to tell you, he lived it well, and well-loved.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Be careful what you wish for

The big development this week in the health care debate is that it looks like the senate will move ahead with a public option, i.e, a plan via which the federal government will offer medicaid or medicare like insurance to anyone willing to pay the premiums. Presumably, these premiums will be priced well below premiums of private insurers, since the government doesn't need to worry about running a profit or deficit spending. If a private insurance company ran a deficit of a trillion bucks, it would be shut down. If the government chooses to run such a deficit, there doesn't seem to be any realistic opposition to this. Both political parties are dominated by people willing to spend without raising revenue. Republicans didn't say a word about deficit spending as they voted to fund two wars. To hear them now profess concern for deficits feels a bit disingenuous. They seem stuck on the notion that tax cuts are the key to balancing the budget. Since Ronald Reagan first championed this idea, we've had three decades of deficits. Even the "surpluses" of the Clinton years were actually deficits, since we were only ahead if the social security "trust funds" were counted as revenues (which they are, obviously, but the theory is they are to be saved, not spent as quickly as they come in, which is what actually happens).

But, I'm getting sidetracked onto a deficit rant, when I really want to discuss health care. For a long time, the public option has run very high in the polls. It's been a very strange paradox in this health care debate: Polls show rather thin support for government reform of health care, but usually show very strong support, well over sixty percent, of a public option. Why? I think the answer is fairly obvious: most people who support a public option do so because it's a vaguely defined term that they are free to pour any meaning they wish into. It would be very interesting to see a poll that asked people what they believed their monthly premium would be under a public option. My suspicion is, most people equate a public option with "free." Again, I have no polling data to actually back this up. I just sense from talking to supporters that they imagine that the public option will work like health care in Canada or the UK. You'll just go to whatever doctor you want, get whatever services you need, and won't pay a dime for it (or maybe a small co-pay).

But what if the public option comes with a premium of $100 a month, per person in your family? Would support still be as high? This is certainly cheaper than almost any private insurance. Still, my gut instinct is that a lot of people who support a public option would change to opposing it if they found they would actually have to pay for it. And, I could be way wrong as to what a public option would cost. Maybe it would be set at a flat ten percent of income. Maybe five percent. Maybe you'll pay $9.99 once a year, and it comes with a free pony! Right now, there's no way of knowing. The bills creating a public option don't talk about actual premium costs; these will be figured out down the road. But, if people are willing to support it thinking it will be free, then I guess I'm free to oppose it thinking it's going to come with a non-trivial price tag.

The price tag is going to be important because the bills are also going to include a second element: a personal mandate to purchase health insurance. Right now, this is turning out to be a toothless mandate. Early versions of the bills were discussing sizable fines for people who didn't buy health insurance. Now, the fines have been reduced and loopholes are being added for millions of people who won't get fined at all. But, of course, these people will also be uninsured. The personal mandate is the only cost saving measure currently being proposed. Currently, a significant chunk of people who don't have health insurance are young, healthy people. If we force these people into the insurance pool, presumably that will help control costs, since you'll have a large population of people who are paying premiums but not using much in the way of services. Very few twenty-five-year-olds have heart attacks or cancer. (Obviously, yes, some do, but compared to people who are sixty-five who develop these problems, the numbers are tiny.)

But, I look back on my own life, and wonder about the different choices I might have made if I'd had a mandate to buy health insurance. I used to work for a company that I just hated. I really wanted to quit my job and make a living writing. This was about fifteen years ago; I was only thirty. I scrimped and saved for a few years in my late twenties to get debt free and build up a little buffer of savings. Then, I quit. I made it almost year without taking another job, even though my writing income that year turned out to be nothing. But, I had carefully designed my life to cost as little as possible. My car was paid for, I was renting a space not much larger than a shoe box, and I ate a steady diet of Sam's Club frozen chicken breasts, which were something like 30 cents a pound back then. I still look back fondly on that time. But, if I'd been forced to spend a few hundred buck a month on health insurance, I don't think I could have made it as long as I did. It's true, if I'd developed cancer or been in a car wreck during these months, I would have wound up saddled with far worse bills than the insurance would have cost. But, I knew this; I had the freedom to choose to take that gamble. I still have that freedom; I just think that, at 45 (and thirty pounds heavier), my odds have changed.

To me, it feels fundamentally unfair to impose a personal mandate to buy health insurance. Some people argue that it's no different than the personal mandate to have car insurance. But, if I wanted to skip car insurance, I could just not own a car. I don't have any realistic option to not have a body.

I also have to admit, I'm thinking about this from the perspective of a man who doesn't have children. If I had kids, I think that a mandate requiring that I insure them would be perfectly sensible, no different than a mandate that I make sure they get an education.

Still, right now, I'm nervous about both the public option and a personal mandate. This doesn't mean that I don't want to see health insurance reform. I'd love to see a "catastrophic option" at least discussed, where people are responsible for their own health care for most services, but the government would step to pay for medical bills that fall beyond a certain lifetime limit: Say, $200,000. In other words, the government wouldn't pay a dime for me to have my appendix removed or to mend my broken leg, but they would step in for a long term, chronic cancer or heart disease. I'd also love the very common sense reform of making privately purchased health insurance tax deductible, the way it is when businesses purchase it. And, of course, I'd love to see the government doing more to facilitate medical research. One way to reduce the breathtaking cost of cancer would be to cure it.

Since I opened this post complaining about deficit spending, I feel like a hypocrite to end it calling for more government spending. So, let me propose some ways to pay for them. First, there have been trial balloons from the Obama administration about taxing soft drinks. There seems to be very little support for this, but you can count me among the enthusiastic proponents of this. No one needs a Coke or a Pepsi. And few people bat an eye at paying $1 for a two liter in a grocery store, but paying $2 for a glass of soda in a restaurant. We could raise billions by charging a quarter a quart. If you want to avoid the tax, don't drink soda. It seems to me no more onerous than a tax on cigarettes or booze. I'd also be fine with taxes on most fat foods and snack items. A potato chip tax, maybe. And, finally, obesity is a real risk factor for all sorts of disease. I say this as someone who is, no big surprise, obese. So, though it goes against every libertarian instinct I may have, why not have a fat tax? Every year on tax day, you go get weighed. For every pound you are overweight, you pay a dollar. This offsets some of the additional cost and risk that carrying around an extra fifty pounds adds to society, but isn't going to bankrupt anyone. There may be one or two circus freaks who see their tax approach a thousand bucks, but most people would be paying under $100. And, maybe the thought of saving ten bucks a year would be the push some people would need to lose ten pounds. I'm not proposing this as a punishment for obese people, just as a way of some reflecting that, long term, all of society pays for me weighing more, so why not chip in a little now to offset the costs of my eventual health care expenses?

Of course, I should be careful what I wish for. Five years from now, when I'm shelling out $5 for a coke, I'll be the one grumbling loudest. But, people who are supporting the health care reform bills now before the house and senate should be careful too. Our current health care system is, no question, a real frying pan. I just worry that any government intervention is going to be a fire.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Early morning thoughts on money

I just got back from Washington, DC, where I stayed with my friend Mr. Cavin and his lovely bride Sunshine. They were courteous hosts for me and Cheryl, and we definitely saw parts of DC with them that we wouldn't have found on our own, like ass-kicking Ethiopian food, a trapeze school, and the Red Bull art exhibit at Union Station. (I think it was Union station... everything is a blur at this point.)

We came back from DC the long way, veering westward to drive down the Skyline Drive. It was amazing; I'll link to Cheryl's photos as soon as she posts them on Flickr. We were close enough to a large buck deer at one point that we could have reached out and touched it. We also nearly ran over a black bear. And, we finished the day by watching the sun set over the Shenandoah Valley. Absolutely brilliant.

Of course, after sun set, we still had a five hour drive back to Hillsborough. "Amazing" isn't the word to describe this part of the journey. "Death march" is closer, though not appropriate since we were sitting down, and both survived. I only made it the last 80 miles by drinking a monster-sized cup of convenience store coffee that is probably going to leave me awake until five in the morning. Cheryl also had the coffee... she still zonked out and slept her way back home after we crossed the North Carolina line, leaving me alone to think about monetary policy. It would have been nice to think about something interesting, perhaps, but what can I do? I blame the caffeine.

Anyway, there was a point in a discussion of the post-consumer economy last week at CapClave where one of the panelist was discussing the disparity of wealth, pointing out how vastly wealthier the rich are today in comparison with the poor. I had pointed out that I wasn't disturbed by Bill Gates or Warren Buffett being in possession of tens of billions of dollars, because it wasn't like they convert it all into gold bars and store it in their basement. In theory, money is seldom a static thing. When someone has a billion dollars, they don't actually have a billion dollars. They'll have bought stock, providing money for companies to expand. Maybe, like Bill Gates, they've built a hyperfuturistic mansion that cost eye-popping sums of money. But, this money has gone to architects and construction workers; it's gone to seamstresses who sew couches and curtains, to burly men who lay brick and mow yards, and to god knows how many electricians it takes to wire the house of tomorrow. I know this gets the bad name of "trickle-down economics," but any fair minded person has to admit that the money does indeed keep circulating in the economy.

There was once a Doonesbury cartoon that parodied this, with a rich person placed on the spot about what area of the economy he'd stimulated with his tax cut. The punchline was that the rich guy had spent the dough on antiques, as if this was a wasteful thing. But, why is it wasteful? Why shouldn't an antique dealer earn a living? And, again, it's not like he's putting the money into a vault. He's going to be buying new inventory. With the profits, he'll be shopping at Walmart and McDonald's next to the rest of us. The money circulates. Even if it gets put in a savings account in a bank, the bank circulates it by making investments of its own. Money in our modern economy is almost never stagnant (not counting the pennies in your couch).

But, here's the flip side of this argument: Money spent by the government is never really wasted either. I will hear conservative talk show hosts rail against wasteful spending for, say, a trolley museum in Wastebuck, Virginia. The folks at the trolley museum are going to get hundred grand; how on earth is this going to do the larger economy any good? Well, by the same principal that it's good for a wealthy man to pay $100,000 to an antique dealer. The government money is going to keep moving. If the trolley museum gives all ten of its employees a $10,000 bonus this year, they are all going to go out and spend it on pizza, blue jeans, or maybe a new car. As long as the money isn't gathered into a large pile and set on fire, any dollar spent, whether by government or private industry, is a dollar flowing from one person to another. A dollar spent is a dollar earned... by someone else.

The big, big difference between Bill Gates spending a billion dollars on a house, and the US government spending a billion dollars on the cash for clunkers program, is that Bill presumably has the dough, while the US is borrowing half the money it spends now. Thus, all stimulus spending we currently undertake is effectively borrowing from the potential prosperity of our children and grandchildren. A child born today is in hock for many tens of thousands of dollars before the doctor even slaps him. But, maybe his father kept a job at the trolley museum he would have lost otherwise. Anyone who tells you they know with absolute certainty where the greater good lies is probably able to arrive at this certainty only by ignoring all parts of the larger reality that don't fit into their vision of How Things Are.

I'm not sure I'm going anywhere with this. Just random, coffee driven thoughts after a week of overstimulation. If I do have a point, I guess it would be to be kind to children. With the help of our elected officials, we are mugging them daily, and they aren't even aware of it. The least they should get in return are some cool birthday presents.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Actually, this might increase the peace in the world...

After my anti-Obama peace prize rant of two weeks ago, this morning I wake up to discover that Obama is issuing a directive telling federal law officials not to pursue prosecutions of pot-smoking patients in states that have legalized medical marijuana. (Details are here.)

This isn't quite the first thing I've agreed on with Obama. I thought he was correct to raise the federal restrictions on funding of stem-cell research. (Though, I always was bothered that the Bush policy was misrepresented, since it was referred to as a ban, when, in fact, the research was still legal with private or state money.) I also think that pulling back on deploying a missile defense shield makes sense. We are out of money; the Soviet Union was, according to some interpretations of history, bankrupted by an arms race with the US. We are now being bankrupted by much smaller, weaker states, or even non-states. Osama bin Laden spent a few thousand dollars to engineer 9-11. The cost of us launching a war against terrorism in response is arguably over a trillion dollars by now, all of it funded by debt. Some pundits say that we need to build the missile shield to guard against Iranian missiles. But, again, it's asymmetric; we're spending tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars of borrowed money to defend against weapons that, like Saddam's mythical nukes and bio-weapons, may not even exist. (The missiles exist, yes, but a nuclear warhead is highly debatable.)

If we were a nation running a budget surplus, I might feel generous about spending ten billion here or ten billion there to defend Poland or Hungary. But we're a nation $10 trillion in the red. We are far more vulnerable to economic warfare at this point than we are to missile strikes.

Anyway back to pot: I will again be critical of Obama in saying that I wish he'd gone further. I would have liked to see him declare the 80 year old war against pot over entirely and just go ahead and legalize it all. It would save money, and maybe even earn some dough if we taxed it like cigarettes and booze. I have never smoked pot. Never even been interested. But, the pot smokers I've known have been pretty ordinary people, holding down full-time jobs, raising kids, even attending churches. The drug remains illegal only because no serious politician has the courage to come out and say what everyone knows: it's just not that dangerous. As for the argument that it's a gateway drug, I would argue that if it is a gateway, it's solely because it's illegal. Right now, if you want to buy pot, you have to do so on the black market, where other, more harmful drugs, are also going to be available. Make it legal, and you could buy it in grocery stores along with beer and cigarettes--it would mainly be a gateway drug to potato chips, which really are dangerous to your health, but that's a whole different blog post.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Myth of Darwin as a Prophet

This weekend at Capclave, I'll be on a panel discussing Darwin. The panel description reads:

Darwin was born 200 years ago. Why are his ideas still controversial? Is the voyage of the Beagle the prototype for sf missions of scientific discovery? Why aren't there more books about Darwinism?

It's been a while since I've had a science post, so I'm going to do a little warm up for the panel with a gut reactions to these questions.

Working backwards, when I search Amazon for books mentioning Darwin, I come up with 100,000 hits. So, for the last question, I guess my reaction is, just how many books do you need? By comparison, Jesus has 400,000 hits on Amazon. Of course, this is also the same number of hits returned if you search for the word "diet." In any case, I hardly think that Darwin, natural selection, or evolution are suffering from a lack of exposure.

As for the Beagle being the prototype for SF missions, I think that, if there ever are going to be extra-solar explorations of other planets, they will almost certainly be carried out by the machines that eventually replace mankind. These machines will be able to claim that they were intelligently designed, and that their improvements are the result of deliberate actions. Perhaps they will regard evolution as a mere momentary blip in the natural order of things, the way it was once thought that capitalism was just a blip on the way to socialism. It's an interesting thought, but I'm not sure that I, personally, would be able to milk an entire book out of it.

Which brings us to the last question: Why are his ideas still controversial? And I suppose my answer is, what controversy? It's true that not everyone believes in evolution, and that a lot of people work hard to keep children from being exposed to these ideas. But, in the places where it really matters, I don't think that evolution or natural selection are controversial at all. Where does it really matter? How about hospitals, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and, of course, universities where the various aspects of biology are studied?

I'm not certain that it matters that half of all American's don't believe in evolution. It is, of course, the central narrative of biology; you can't really understand the natural world without understanding natural selection. But, relativity is a pillar of physics; I'm guessing maybe one person in a hundred has a firm grasp on relativity. Quantum mechanics is the other unreconciled pillar of physics, and I'd be shocked if one person in a thousand really understands the world on a quantum scale. Somehow, the world muddles through; people manage to become bankers and doctors and movie stars and rodeo clowns without understanding the difference between a photon and a proton. If you're an electrical engineer, you need to understand electrons. If you're a house painter... not so much.

I guess the major thing about Darwin, natural selection, and evolution, is that they aren't and shouldn't be and can't be major things in an average person's daily life. Natural selection has surprisingly little day to day impact on a person's behavior. Let's see... I suppose that understanding evolution can help you understand why it's important to finish off your full course of anti-biotics. But, it doesn't help you know how to invest your money. It doesn't guide you in how to deal with your friends and family. It won't tell you what to eat for dinner or what toothpaste will make your teeth their whitest.

Some people treat Darwin as a new prophet, pointing the way to a new religion. But if you really understand natural selection and evolution, you understand that it's actually a rather precise tool for understanding one specific aspect of biology. Some people attempt to misuse it, and say that Darwinism applies to economics. Other's will point to examples from the natural world and draw moral guidance from it. For instance, I've heard serious people argue that homosexuality either is or isn't moral based on things like whether or not there are gay penguins. If homosexuality evolved in flightless sea birds, it must not be a choice for humans. But, of course, if you promote this argument, what are you to make of bonobos, who are always promiscous? Or some insects, where the females devour the males? Turning to the guidance of animals for your moral choices is a dangerous slippery slope.

The one shocking aspect of Darwin--the thing that generates the most opposition--is that natural selection doesn't require a god to explain the existence of man. It doesn't rule out a god, but the theory doesn't have any major holes in it requiring divine intervention to explain our presence. But, I have to wonder how important the creation myth is to most religions. Is it really, really important, if you are a Christian, that the world was created in six days? How important is that fact to your day to day life? It seems far more likely that the parts of your religion that matter on a daily basis are the moral guidance to love your neighbors, treat the poor and the sick as if they might be Jesus himself, and to stop coveting your neighbor's ass? In all these matters, Darwin offers no guidance whatsoever. Carry on as you were before; science really just doesn't have a lot to tell you about whether or not it's moral to steal.

Darwin wasn't a prophet. He was a scientist. His theory is science, not religious philosophy. Any controversy that exists is built upon the myth of what he said, rather than his actual contributions to our understanding of the world. I don't really expect his opponents to grasp this, but I still hold out hope that, one day, his proponents might.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Jumping on the Obama bashing bandwagon

I hurt my hand at work yesterday, pulling one of my flexor tendons in my left hand. I was told to try to lay off using the hand until it heals, including no (or very little) typing. Obviously, I was worried about not being able to work on my latest novel, Greatshadow, and I also thought about not being able to blog. How is the world ever going to get by without my banal, scatter-brained ramblings about the issues of the day?

Then, I wake up this morning and find out the Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. It's enough to send me back to the keyboard despite feeling like I've got a knife stabbing my left palm. Because, what the hell? I mean, what the bleeping hell?

I really don't think I've engaged in much Obama-bashing here. I didn't do much Bush-bashing either. In general, I respect the fact that nobody with my libertarian leanings is ever going to be allowed near the White House, and that most of my political gripes aren't with my president, or even really with politicians. My most fundamental gripe is with my fellow citizens who have turned American politics into a giant superbowl game. Only two teams are allowed to play; it really doesn't much matter what goes on in the actual game. The republican roots for their team, the democrats root for their team, and the "independents" root for whoever seems popular at the moment. Issues get divided up arbitrarily. In a logical world, you might think that one party would be "pro-life," and oppose abortion, the death penalty, and war. Or maybe one party would be "pro-liberty" and support free markets, open immigration policies, reproductive rights for women, and fiercely defend freedom of speech. Instead, issues get chopped up by the parties in ways that seem to defy logic, because the American public defies logic. We have the government we deserve; the things I dislike about my government aren't Obama's fault or Bush's fault. They're the citizens' fault.

But, this morning, hearing that Obama had won the peace prize, I suddenly discovered that I hate him. I started trying to think of anything he'd done to earn this award, and the more I thought about his accomplishments, the more I started thinking he's pretty much on track toward being the worst president of my lifetime. Bush was frequently mocked for being an idiot, but he was at least a decisive idiot who knew how to accomplish his agenda, even if I loathed that agenda.

Obama has his party in control of both the house and the senate. You might think that, nine months into his first term, he might have seen a few laws he supported get passed. The only major bill I can think of that has actually been signed into law was the stimulus plan, and I really use the word "plan" in a very loose sense. I don't think there was any unifying narrative or goal to the $700 billion allocated in that bill. It was a collection of mostly random pork projects; I'm sorry, but asking congressmen to pass an all-pork bill doesn't earn him high marks for leadership. A dead gerbil could have lobbied for a bill like this and seen it passed. In everything else that has been debated over the last year, I've felt like Obama has been willing to talk about "principles" of things he might like to see passed by congress, but as far as drawing a line in the sand and saying, "You will pass a public option," or "You will pass cap and trade," or "You will pass financial regulations that prevent the creation of banks too big to fail," I haven't seen it. His governing style seems to be, "Hey, it would be nice if you guys passed some laws or something, but, you know, whatever." He seems willing to accept whatever is handed to him and claim it as a win, rather than fighting for something and possibly losing. I can respect someone who tries and fails. Obama seems to be so adverse to failure he's not even trying.

There was a headline in the paper this week that made my brain hurt. I don't have the paper in front of me, but the gist of the headline was, "Obama consults with advisors to form Afghanistan strategy." It makes my brain hurt. The war in Afghanistan isn't a surprise. He's known for a year now he'd be commander in chief. This war is his war. And he's just now getting around to figuring out a strategy? He sent twenty thousand troops in earlier this year... apparently without a strategy?

It makes me ill.

Suppose you believe that Bush sent 200,000 troops into Iraq solely to steal their oil. You look at the bodies piling up and ask, "What are they dying for?" and, while you hate the answer, at least, in your mind, you saw the flashing word, "OIL."

For the 20,000 troops Obama sent in earlier this year, sans strategy: What are they dying for? In my mind, I see the flashing words, "You know, whatever."

Giving Obama a peace prize is just a joke. Anyone who sends troops to die without some actual goal in mind deserves scorn, not awards.* If anyone can justify what he's done to earn this, please, please, please jump in and let me know.

*Note: Sending troops to die with an actual goal in mind may deserve scorn as well, depending on the goal. And, I'm NOT DEFENDING BUSH by bashing Obama, so don't jump in with posts about how bad a president Bush was. I feel like I can't hate both men equally. Now I'm going to shut up and go ice up my hand. Ow.

Monday, October 05, 2009

A grim vision of the future

Since the relaunch of Bitterwood.net, the boards have been plagued with adbots. Browsing the board this morning, I was struck this morning with a grim vision of the future. All technology eventually becomes a tool of advertising. My dragon age books assume that we will be able to genehack our way into creating dragons and unicorns and other fancifal beasts for our amusement. This morning, however, I realized that the most likely use of gene hacking will be advertising. The day will come when the butterflies that lights upon a flower will have have tiny billboards for wings, advertising Sherwin Williams brand paints. The flowers it lands on will be purple, blue, orange, and green--resembling the FedexOffice logo. Cows in the field will have hides with golden arches on the sides. Apples will grow that pefectly resemble the logo on an iPod. The birds outside your window in the morning will chirp out the jingle for Folger's crystals. And, all insurance salesmen in the world will lose their jobs, replaced by tiny talking geckos.

You have been warned.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Acorn Videos and a Plea for More Muckraking

One thing has been bugging me in all this Acorn video frenzy. (If you don't know what the Acorn videos are, google them.) It's true that, if the workers caught on video should have immediately picked up the phone and called the police once they had the names of two self-confessed child-slavers. There's really no excuse; this is bad behavior.

Still, take out the child-sex ring angle, and what you really have on tape are people giving tax advice on how to work the tax code to hide or launder income. It make me wonder: if you're the CEO of a big corporation, and you go consult with your tax attorney about how to hide your income in foreign bank accounts to avoid taxes, how many of those attorneys do you think pick up the phone and call the police? When Bernie Madoff was meeting with his tax attorneys, did any of them ever think of reporting that something fishy was going on? Where are the hidden camera investigations into the boardrooms of the banks that swindled the general public out of a billion bucks? I'm all for undercover reporters exposing corruption and graft. I just hope that, next time, someone shoots for a larger target instead of going after such low-hanging fruit. A pimp and ho laundering money might ruin a neighborhood. A big bank messing with the books can cost millions of peoples their homes and their jobs. Aim higher, future muckrakers!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Why Must Laws Be Long?

I've discussed this topic before, but after Max Baucus announced his health care reform bill this week, I've found myself once more obsessed with an aspect of lawmaking I don't understand. Why is every bill that now emerges from congress a 1000 page plus monster?

The second the Baucus bill was arrived, critics from both the right and left took their knives to it. Everyone could find one provision that they couldn't abide. At the beginning of the year, I was certain that the president would get something out of congress he could call Health Care reform and sign it triumphantly. Now, I'm not so sure. The problem is, all the bills that are getting designed have a core of attractive items in them, but then glom on stuff that seems guaranteed to be opposed by a majority. I suppose the idea is, you use the popular items as leverage to pass the unpopular ones. But, in this case, I'm starting to think that the whole enterprise will crash and burn, and nothing at all is going to pass.

The big bills wind up being almost impossible to explain to the American public. The president can't go on TV and tell us everything that's in a 1000 page bill in a half hour. He might explain five or six popular provisions of a bill, but the second he stops talking critics will jump in to talk about the others and the general public will wind up with the feeling that they are getting sold a pig in a poke. The legislation is so complex, any sane person is going to be suspicious of it. No average citizen with a day job and a personal life is going to be able to sit down and read all the bills to form an opinion on them.

But if the president really wanted the five or six reforms that he most often talks about, couldn't each of these reforms be introduced as a seperate bill? This week, we vote on new rules for recission. Next week, we vote on a program to set up insurance co-ops. The week after, vote on a bill that standardizes insurance application forms. The following week, shoot for a bill that would allow for more portability of insurance between jobs.

Some bills would pass, some would fail. My gut instinct is, you might actually see a return of bipartisanship on the more popular measures. Small, tightly targetted bills would be easier to explain to constituents. The general public wouldn't live with the worry that their lawmakers were trying to hide the truth of what they were attempting to do from them.

If health care reform does eventually fail, it won't be the Republicans or the rabble rousing public that have doomed it. It will be the stupid, pointless complexity of trying to do a hundred things with a single vote.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Health Care is a Right. Feel Free to Use It.

In the context of the health care debate, I've been hearing a lot of people assert that access to health care is a fundamental human right. During my years of following politics, I've heard any number of things proposed as rights that aren't specifially spelled out in the US constitution. Among some of the more common ones:

A right to work.
A right to housing.
A right to nutrition.
A right to an education.
A right to privacy.

Now, I suppose I could play strict constructionist and argue that if it's not written down by the founding fathers, it's not a right. However the ninth amendment says, "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." It seems to me easy to accept that the founding fathers would acknowledge that people had some or all of the rights listed above. Even if the founding fathers wouldn't, we certainly can today come together and agree that everything on this list, including a right to health care, is important to living a good life in today's world.

So, I'm willing to agree that you have a right to health care, a house, food, education, and privacy. It's now up to you to go out and excercise them. A right is not the same thing as a guaranteed service. It doesn't mean that you are owed anything, or given anything. It merely means that, if you choose to excercise a right, no government can stop you from doing so.

For instance, at the top of the bill of rights, you are granted the right to free speech, and freedom of the press. Note that this right doesn't mean the government has to provide you with a printing press and free paper. It doesn't have to provide you with blogs or billboards or megaphones. If you want to use your right to free speech, you have to do the work of writing your blog, or publishing a newspaper, or plugging in your ham radio set, or going down to the town hall and shouting till your throat is raw.

Next on the bill of rights is the right to bear arms. After two centuries of fence straddling, the Supreme Court has finally said that, yes, this guarantees the right of an individual to own a firearm. It does not, by any legal theory or argument, mean that the government has to mail you a voucher to go out and buy a rifle. You have a right, but to take advantage of it, you'll have to spend your own money.

You have a right to housing. While at one time there were definitely discriminatory practices against blacks or jews or catholics or what have you, none of that is legal today. There is no governmental force standing in the way of you going out and getting all the housing you can handle. You can own five or six or seventy houses if you so choose, and take the neccessary financial steps to make it happen.

You want a right to work? Well... what's stopping you? People who don't speak english, who can't read our want ads, and who have no social security cards come across our borders in waves and mow our lawns and diaper our children; they pick our peaches and package our pork. There are no barriers to most people's ability to work beyond their dignity. I'm not knocking dignity! I work at a desk, not in a ditch. But, a right to work doesn't mean that the goverment is obligated to give you full employment in the trade of your choice. I want to make a living writing fiction, but I don't expect the government to guarantee me a living wage while attempting to do this.

You want an education? You're in luck! Every state in the union provides one for free. Most towns have libraries where you can study up on any subject you want. Again, it wasn't that long ago that armed men would line up around a school house to keep children of the wrong color from walking through the door. But today, if you aren't getting an education, you really just aren't trying. We have more information at our finger tips than ever. So why do I keep running into cashiers who can't count correct change?

Which brings us to health care: I think costs are insane. I think it's unfair that sick people should lose their houses and their livelihoods. But, again, the right to health care is a right that individuals have to excercise. The vast majority of American's get the treatment they need without losing everything they've earned because they've made life choices that saw that they would have insurance. It's not always easy, but it's not impossible. The statistic Obama quoted the other night was that 33 million Americans have no insurance. That means roughly 267 million Americans are excersizing their rights to obtain health insurance in some form or fashion. It's not impossible.

I'm not so naive to think that all men are created equal. There are people out there who have had the bad genetic luck to be born without the intelligence to function independently. There are others who are going to encounter really awful luck; young mothers get the phone call in the night and learn that their husband's plane has crashed, or heathy, twenty-year old college students who get diagnosed with bone cancer. A kind and caring society will band together to assist these people in difficult times.

Still, for those people who are arguing that health care is a right, I'd like to say that I agree with you. I certainly won't stand in the way of you going out and getting some. I won't stop you from getting a gun, a megaphone, or printing press, either. I'm just not completely clear, however, on why anyone else has a moral obligation to spend money to pay for you to use rights you already possess.

Friday, September 04, 2009

I Saw Lightning Fall

Frequent visitors to this blog have probably noticed the name Loren Eaton in the comments section. Loren recently invited me to write a guest post at his blog, the poetically named "I Saw Lightning Fall." Apparently, he and his wife were having a new baby, and some how this event was more important to him that writing on his blog! Tsk, tsk.

Anyway, I was just informed that the newest Eaton has arrived, a little boy. So, congrats, Loren! Woohoo!

It's moment like this that make life so swell. Which is a rather clumsy segue into the subject of my guest blog, on the literary technique of slowing and freezing time.

Forgive me if that's the clunkiest, least clever segue ever. Today was day 1 of Dragoncon; I gave blood within an hour of arriving at the con. They apparently liked my blood so much they talked me into giving a platelet only donation, which I'm told is used to treat cancer patients. How could I say no? They gave me a sheet that said I should 1: avoid lifting anything heavy for a few hours: 2: drink lots of fluids, and 3: generally avoid over exerting myself. So, of course, I spent the whole day wandering around the con, probably logging at least five miles, sweating like a fool, drinking only one small bottle of water, and lugging at least twenty pounds of books.

Anyway, more Dragoncon stuff is going to be posted at my dragon blog in, like, ten minutes.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Unsung Heroes

I'll admit it: Most of my posts focus on gripes and frustrations. Readers of my blog might come away with the impression that I'm kind of a jerk who wanders around looking for things to argue about, complaining ceaselessly about government and corporate stupidity to anyone in earshot. That impression is mostly correct.

Today, I'd like to shift gears. There are some human behaviors I take note of, small, almost invisible acts of kindness, or mere politeness, that make this old world a better place to live. Here then, are ten of my unsung heroes:

  1. People who return their shopping carts to the cart return bins in parking lots, even if they aren't coveniently placed.
  2. People who have concise messages on their voicemail, so you can start leaving them a message in under thirty seconds.
  3. People who spay and neuter stray cats.
  4. People who give blood.
  5. Parents of children who are deeply tanned when they return to school in the fall. (I mean the children are tan. I could care less about whether the parents have spent their summers outside.)
  6. Waiters and waitresses who magically appear with a pitcher of iced tea the second my glass is 2/3rds empty.
  7. People who populate wikipedia with accurate information.
  8. Retail outlets that don't require me to fill out a card collecting my personal information in order to get their best prices.
  9. People who can talk about religion and politics without the main thrust of their argument being that people who disagree with them are evil or idiots.
  10. People who call in sick to work when they wake up coughing/sneezing/feverish.

I suppose that even pointing out the heroes among us can be interpretted as a form of griping. By saying I admire people with concise voice mail, I suppose I'm admitting annoyance with those who have long ones. But, that wasn't my intention when I launched into this list. If you're one of the people on this list, seriously, thank you for being you.

So... any one else have any nominees? Who are your unsung heroes?