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.


Saturday, December 18, 2010

Word after word after word

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about an even more fundamental building block of writing, the words themselves. My musings were kicked off by an episode of Radio Lab that basically put forth the premise that what we humans think of as "thinking" is impossible without words. At the risk of oversimplifying a very complicated subject, the argument is that if we don't have words like democracy, God, genetics, and karma, we can't think about these things. Without language, our thoughts are more animalistic; we can still love and fear, still grasp that water is wet and sandpaper is rough, but conceptual, abstract thinking is no longer possible.

For evidence, they present case studies like a man who was born deaf in the third world who'd grown to adulthood without any concept of words whatsoever. He'd made it to the US as part of a migrant family and was generally regarded as retarded until a therapist managed to make that first connection between a word in sign language and a concrete object (much like Helen Keller learning the word water). Once he had the concept of words, he went on to learn sign language and hungrily devoured the words for everything under the sun. He became able to discuss his previous, wordless life, giving insight into what life is like in the absense of abstact thought. Another case involved a woman who had a stroke that knocked out the language centers of her brain. She couldn't not just speak or read; she lost all concept at all that words even existed. Slowly, her brain healed itself and she was able to report on life without words and, again, if you don't have vocabulary, you aren't able to do the kind of thinking that I'm engaging in right now.

Or rather, that we are engaging in right now. Because listening to the show it struck me that words are kind of a mental virus, a carrier by which thought is transmitted from person to person. As writers, we aren't simply telling stories; we are altering the thought processes of our readers via the transmission of words.

While the story level aspect of writing is of extreme importance, we shouldn't dismiss the power we have to create new concepts in the minds of others by bumping words together in unusual or original configurations. James Joyce and William S. Borroughs don't so much tell stories as string words together. Yet my experience reading them is still quite stimulating. Delving into their word thickets, I run across idea and concepts I've never encountered, and emerge with my mental boundaries of what exists in the world a bit broader.

Some bands I listen to have lyrics that consist of what are for all intents random words and phrases strung together. Hell, the Talking Heads are blatant about it, with album names like "Speaking in Tongues" and "Stop Making Sense." Yet, somehow, I'm still able to find meaning amid the babble. The songs bang around in my brain long after the songs of writers who were much less obscure have faded away.

When words bump up against words they don't normally partner with, our brain has to burn new pathways to absorb the concept. Even seeming nonsense has the power to activate these pathways--how many of you can quote "Jabberwocky" line for line? How many of you can find meaning in it?

Looking at my own writing, I find it riddled with neologisms. My dragons worship a religion built around evolution; the priests are called Biologians. On Mars, my protags embrace beneath moonslight, in Atlantis, Makan toys with his throatfeather. The speculative genres provide good soil for the growth of new words, which we need to create new worlds.

I've read plenty of writing books on plotting and character, and other books on style. But can anyone point me to reading material on the relationship between thoughts and words? I feel like I've taken my study of storytelling as far as I can go for the time being. I can plot, theme, and characterize like nobody's bizness. I learned these by practice and by studying the concepts. But, putting word after word after word on the page, the very heart of writing, is something I've done without really contemplating how or why I do it. It's so fundamental it seems almost fruitless to study it. It would be like taking lessons on how to breathe or how to walk. Yet, if you want to be an opera singer, you do take lessons on how to inhale and exhale. You might not need lessons on how to walk if you just want to cross a street, but lessons might be useful if you want to cross a tightrope strung between two skyscrapers.

The danger, of course, is that on the rare occassions when I do stop and think about how I walk, I find it makes me clumsier, not more graceful. Am I opening the door to my own doom if I stop to consider every word I place upon the page?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Should we eliminate the minimum wage?

Unemployment among teenagers is sitting close to 24%. It's easy to shrug this off, since most teens live with their families and their lack of income isn't likely resulting in some great wave of human suffering. Still, it has long term repercussions; the kids who don't wind up working in their teens go into the work force as adults with significant disadvantages. They haven't learned such basic work skills as showing up on time and how to conduct themselves among work peers.

Getting a quarter of our future work force off to a stumbling start is a pretty sure guarantee of problems down the line. I think it may be time to think about killing one of the sacred cows of the social safety net: The minimum wage.

First of all, as a libertarian, I accept the notion that there shouldn't be a minimum wage, period. I understand the impulse behind it, but is there any actual evidence that minimum wage laws raise people out of poverty? For years, people have warned that raising the minimum wage would raise unemployment. Usually, it hasn't, because the real world wage of most workers was well above the minimum anyway. And, up until 2008, the debt economy had enough people spending money they hadn't earned on stuff they didn't need that employers sometimes had to hire anyone with a pulse, which is frequently the sole job skill a teenager possesses.

Politically, we could probably never roll back the minimum wage for everyone. We'd get every local TV news show in the nation out talking to forty year old single mothers of eight kids earning minimum wage and the outrage ginned up would scare off even Rand Paul. But, what about a different minimum wage for people under 21? If you aren't old enough to buy beer, then you don't need to be paid enough to get drunk. Either repeal the minimum entirely before age 21, or maybe set it to half the adult minimum wage.

I'm sure I sound heartless proposing this. But I've mainly been thinking about this problem because I know a few unemployed teenagers, and would like to see them catch a break. This seems like a possible path to make them attractive to employers again.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


Roughly a decade ago, I stopped celebrating religious holidays like Easter and Christmas. It was really difficult to reconcile the celebration of these things with my professed atheism. Thanksgiving, on the other hand, is a bit more open ended. Despite it's Puritan roots, it's mostly non-sectarian. If you strip away the core supernatural element of giving thanks to an imaginary force for your good fortunes, it's still a good practice to reflect on the things you cherish in life and thank those who made it possible.

So, I'd like to thank my family, all my cousins, aunts, and uncles, and especially my siblings, Joy, Gina, and Joseph who had to put up with me while I was growing up. To my mom, I want you to know I remember the time I was having trouble with spelling in some early grade and you spent evenings with me going through long lists of words. Thank you for this and a million other kindnesses. To my father who passed away last year, thanks for working jobs you didn't especially like, working in loud, hot factories, in order to keep a roof over our heads, food on the table and books on the bookshelf.

Speacking of working jobs one doesn't particularly like, I'm grateful to my present employer for the steady paycheck and such niceties as insurance. I gripe and moan about my job a lot, but I'm smart enough to know that much good comes to my life because I have work. And, my coworkers are owed a debt of gratitude for putting up with my various quirks. Thanks.

Of course, my day job is only half my work life. Writing is my true passion, and I'd like to thank all the editors who've ever bought a story from me, and also the editors who haven't, but have at least read my work in the slush pile. I'm grateful to the publisher's who've taken a chance on my novels, I'm grateful to Amazon and Barnes and Noble and to a thousand independent booksellers, and I'm grateful to the tens of thousands of readers in the US, the UK, France, and Germany who've read my books. I know I'll never meet more than a handful of you, but you are the reason I keep telling stories. It would be a sad thing for a chef to cook a meal that no one ever ate, and sadder still for a book to be written that no one ever read. Thank you for sparing me from such a fate.

And, speaking of readers, thanks to everyone who drops in here to peek at my ramblings. Special thanks go to Loren Eaton, Eric James Stone, John Brown, Drakonis, Rastranomicals, Mr. Cavin, and everyone else who sometimes pauses to engage in conversation on the topics I bring up.

From online friends, I'll jump to friends I actually see face to face, Dona, Jesse, Stephanie and everyone else I hang out with from week to week. Thanks also to the friends I see only occasionally, like James Rice and the whole Herrmann clan. To Simon and Veronica, I'm especially glad to still know you and thank you for allowing me to be at least a small part of your lives.

Next, I owe an extraordinary debt of gratitude to my fiance, Cheryl Morgan. When we met, I was in a pretty frazzled state. My life was in turmoil as I was struggling to deal with book deadlines, the demands of renovating a house, and the tricky task of figuring out the new contours of my world following Laura's death. Thank you, Cheryl, for finding me in the center of this whirlwind and helping to slowly guide me out. You've granted me a great gift of wisdom and patience and all I have to pay you back is time and love. I hope this will suffice.

Finally, from the personal to the anonymous: Since Thanksgiving is an American holiday, I want to say I'm grateful to America. I'm grateful that the people who founded this country, and the generations of people who have since helped shape and define it, have created a nation in which I'm free to think what I wish to think, say what I wish to say, and be who I wish to be. No one person has brought us to this place. The names recorded in history books are merely a few leaves on a much larger tree. America as it exists today isn't so much the creation of lawmakers and leaders as it is the work of vast millions of people who focus on making the world better for themselves and their families and don't waste a lot of time or energy on hating others. America is a great place to live because of this. Thank you all.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Exploration of Dangerous Places

The Exploration of Dangerous Places
by Jonah Knight

At Capclave a few weeks ago, I attended a late night ghost story gathering. A few people told stories, some read, but one guy pulled out a guitar and sang about a haunted house. This was Jonah Knight, performing “Empty House,” and instantly I knew I had to hear more from him. “Empty House” fit right into my typical daily playlist of songs by the Mountain Goats, the Decemberists, and the Pogues. The chorus from “Empty House” is:

But this empty house isn’t empty after all
Late at night you can hear things in the walls
Your shallow grave isn’t deep enough at all
To keep your ghost under ground.

“Empty House” turned out to be from Knight’s new album, The Exploration of Dangerous Places. Now that I’ve listened to it a dozen times or so, I can say that it wasn’t pure chance that I first heard Knight at a science fiction convention. His website describes his music as “paranormal modern folk,” which is pretty much on target. Speculative themes run through many of the songs, from interplanetary travel and terraforming on “The Places You Will Go” to cloning an army of duplicates on “King of Nebraska.” I detect traces of Ray Bradbury and HP Lovecraft within the lyrics, such as in “Sleepy Little Creepy Little Town” with the verse:

There’s a nameless faceless thing crawling down from out of the hills
There’s a prehistoric prophecy on the verge of being fulfilled
Everybody in the village likes to gather at the general store
Talk about the screams coming from the mansion
and compare our mysterious open sores

Like Ray Bradbury, Knight is diverse, mixing introspective songs of ghosts and nameless evils with more amusing fare. “Pirate Song” is a jaunty sea shanty, and “King of Nebraska” provokes uncomfortable laughs with its rather disturbing tale of a man who’s cloning an army of followers, especially when we arrive at the heart of the narrator’s motives:

I keep your photograph buried in a book
I have a reference when I forget how you look
I down loaded more DNA
My lawyer friend says it's okay
There’s no expectation of privacy online
I rented a place and bought the stuff
Two more weeks should be enough
to finish off another you
that does whatever I tell it to

Musically, Knight fits in the singer songwriter mold, with guitar playing reminiscent of Nick Drake. Vocally, I’m reminded more of Atom and His Package mixed with early Mountain Goats. Knight’s voice probably wouldn’t get him through an audition for American Idol, but there’s a reason I don’t watch American Idol. What Knight’s voice lacks in range it makes up for in honesty and urgency. Ultimately, you understand from this album that the dangerous place that Knight has been exploring is his own soul, and the songs succeed because he’s had the courage to report back on the monsters he found there.

The album should be released any day now; visit Jonah’s website at www.jonahofthesea.com for when and where you can buy it.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Is Life Devoid of Meaning?

I've said before that I'm essentially a nihilist on the question of whether life has any greater meaning. I reject that there is any non-human power judging us, deciding if we are living correctly or not. From a universal perspective, it makes no difference how you live your life. You can be a nun, a ninja, or a nutcase, but hundred years from now all you'll be is dust.

But is the absence of greater meaning reason for despair?

Only if you think a blank sheet of paper is worthless. Which, as a writer, I definitely do not. A blank sheet of paper may be inherently devoid of meaning, but in the hands of men it can become the medium for a story or a drawing or a blueprint; it can be folded into an airplane or a hat. Love letters may be composed, yard sales and lost dogs may be advertised.

Men aren't lucky enough to be born as blank sheets. We're always going to wind up with culture and genetics scribbled all over our lives and actions. But, once you come to the realization that there is no higher outline for your life, that you are basically free to fill the pages of your existance anyway you wish, you can choose to treat your life as a medium to hold a work of art. Your body and mind can be used to love, to create, to share... or to rage and destroy.

And while there is no higher power to judge you, the same is true for literature, or music, or dance. We don't need a god to approve of these things; our fellow men are all the audience we need when we create art. In fact, sometimes we need no one's judgment but our own to feel happy with our creations. So it can be with our lives.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Unsolicited advice for republicans, Obama, and the American citizen

Last Tuesday, I did something extremely unusual for me: I voted republican for my US congressman. Not that it did much good in my district; my current congressman, David Price, is pretty well gerrymandered. If this election season couldn't budge him, he's probably safe until district lines are redrawn a few years from now.

Whenever possible I vote libertarian, since I'd rather vote for someone I agree with than vote against someone. This time, there was no libertarian running for the seat, so choosing to vote between a democrat and a republican was a bit like choosing whether to get shot in the face or in the gut. I went with the gut shot.

Since I voted republican, and since the last few days a lot of prominent republicans have been talking about listening to the voters, here some advice for the new congressional majority.

1. I'm fine with gridlock and paralysis. If the next two years pass without a single new law coming out of congress, I'll consider that a win. I think of the legal code of the US as a kind of cancer. Two years without further explosive growth might not be a cure, but sometimes simply not getting worse feels like a victory.

2. It's the balance sheet, stupid. I didn't risk a republican vote because I want you to block mosque building, deport Mexicans, hang the ten commandments in courtrooms, or treat gays as second class citizens. The only reason I'm giving you a shot is because enough republicans have given lip service to debt that I think, maybe, possibly, you might actually make some feeble steps toward cutting the growth of government. But, if experience is any guide, you're more likely to grow the debt by cutting taxes and refusing to touch sacred cows of spending like farm subsidies, defense contracts, and entitlements. Tax cuts made sense in the 80s, when income tax rates could be above 50%. Today, most households pay a net income tax of zero. I'm fine if my taxes go back to the Clinton era rates. I'd even embrace a tax increase if serious action was taken first to cut some of the sacred cows I've mentioned.

Maybe I'm in a minority, but I don't think American's feel overtaxed. I suspect most feel over-complicated. For me, as a homeowner with income from writing as well as a more traditional employer, I dread tax time not so much because I have to write a check every year, but because I have to spend days figuring out what it is I owe. I have an envelope full of reciepts for everything I spend going to conventions to promote my books, including a reciept for the envelope. What I can and can't deduct bewilders me. It's been a long time since I took the SAT, but, when I did, I had scores in both the math and the language portions that placed me in the top 2% of the population in both areas. If the tax code stumps me, I can't even imagine what it does to people who aren't as fluent with math and reading. I don't want more laws and loopholes piled on to the tax code, I want the whole thing scrapped and replaced with something comprehensible.

Cut spending and simplify taxes, and I might vote republican again.

Now, for Obama: So far, the spin doctors on the left, including Obama, seem to be in a serious case of denial. They seem to be looking at the election and thinking, "They aren't rejecting my policies; I've just failed to make sure the American public understood all the good I've done for them." President Obama, if you read this blog (which I'm certain you do, since it's part of the president's job to read all blogs that American's write), WAKE UP! HELLO! The average American voter has just screamed at you, "STOP SPENDING!" They understood exactly what you've done, and they don't want you to do it anymore.

So, here's a radical notion: Embrace the mandate. American's have said pretty loudly that they care about the budget deficit. The most radical thing you could do, President Obama, would be to go to the new congress and say, "Here's a plan that balances the budget in six years." Present them with tough cuts across the board, and maybe even a tax hike or two. Make sure the numbers add up not just in the world of wishful thinking, but to anyone with a calculator and too much time on their hands. If you presented a serious budget plan, you would either wind up a winner, or, if you fail, you'd take out your political enemies with you. If you had an actual balanced budget plan and Republican's opposed it without presenting an even more credible plan, it would expose them as hypocrits. If they embraced it, both Republican's and Democrats would share the political pain needed to reduce spending and increase revenue. I think the odds that you'll follow my advice are pretty low, but I still wanted to get it out there on the table. Thanks for reading, Mr. President!

Finally, to the American people: As convenient as it is to blame our problems on Obama or Bush or Reagan or Carter or FDR for that matter, the plain truth is that our problems exist because we elect people to govern and then stop paying attention. Obama complains that American's don't understand everything he's done for them, and he's right. We don't know everything he's done for us or to us because it's utterly impossible for any individual to pay attention to all the legislation and regulation that issues forth from any given administration. But, there was once a time in America when there were people who did this for us. They were called reporters; perhaps you remember them. They worked for something called newspapers. They definitely do not work for television. If you turn on a TV newscast, you aren't watching a reporter. You're watching a talent; they aren't speaking to you because they understand the issues or the facts to any great degree, but because they look good on TV and can talk without mumbling. They can keep talking long after they have nothing to say, such are their skills.

If you want to find actual information, you need to read. Tune out the screaming voices of talk radio and the weepy prophets of television infotainment. Read newspapers and magazines and books. In two years there will be another election, and elections should be treated like final exams. Now is the time to start studying.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Altruism will devour us all

This week it was announced that there will be no cost of living increase for social security recipients since inflation is essentially flat. Immediately, Obama announced that he was proposing a $250 "stimulus" check for social security recipients.

It's easy to assign less than honorable motives to this action. 1. He could be motivated by fear, worried that pissing off the elderly will cost him at the polls. 2. He could be motivated by a desire to score political points: He can propose an increase weeks before an election. Democrats will no doubt support the proposal across the board. Republicans must either say they oppose it, in which case they will be accused of being cold-blooded grandma haters, or for it, in which case they will be exposed as hypocrites in their claims to care about balancing the budget.

My gut instinct, though, is that his motives are probably more noble. Men don't go through the extraordinary physical, mental, and emotional effort of becoming president unless they really believe that they can make the world a better place through their vision and leadership. They may engage in a lot of political gamesmanship and cut a lot of deals that enrich their friends and allies along the way, but at the end of the day, what underlies all these efforts is a genuine desire to do good.

I think Obama passed his health care plan motivated not because it was a giant power grab, but because he's met people screwed by the present system and wants to help them. I think George Bush invaded two countries not because he was thirsty for oil, but because he wanted to make the world a safer place.

Once you set upon the path of doing good, however, it's hard to stop. When people point out that your good actions may be causing harm, it's easy to brand them hard-hearted, or even evil. If you oppose Bush's wars because they were disproportionate responses to the threat, financially ruinous to the country, or too open-ended, you were labeled as a coddler of terrorists. If you oppose Obama's cap and trade proposals, you are branded as a tool of the oil industry and a cheerleader for poisoning the planet.

The world's problems are bottomless. The demand for government to fix the problems is equally bottomless. There will always be men willing to stand up and say, "I can fix this problem."

Unfortunately, while problems are limitless, resources aren't. Obama is going to give out his $250 stimulus checks with borrowed money. We will pay back this borrowed money with more borrowed money. Bush did the same thing with his wars, or his prescription drug benefits. Whoever is president next will follow the same pattern. Clinton is credited with balancing the budget, but he got lucky in that he failed to pass his health care bill. I suspect things would have worked out quite differently if he'd had the chance to do all the good he wanted to do--and not for the better.

The hard truth is that altruism unrestrained by economics or logic will eventually grow into a monster, devouring wealth and liberty in order to crap out comfort and security. The beast is already loose, chewing up our children's futures with massive debt, devouring the lives of innocent men, women and children with wars that can never come to an end. If we cannot kill the beast, we must at least muzzle it. The $250 stimulus seems like a good test. Do not vote for any candidate that supports it. If both the democrat and the republican in the race are for it, vote libertarian. Good-hearted men will be the ruin of us all. It's time to vote for people with the wisdom and courage to say no.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Mid Term Meanderings

With the mid-term elections less than a month away, I'm starting to feel a building sense of doom. Our country is facing genuine problems and I worry that present political trends are only going to make these problems fester.

I won't play Nostradamus and predict whether Republicans are going to win the house or senate. I will ask, does it matter? If they do reclaim power, it will be by feeble margins compared to what the Democrats currently possess. If Democrats are barely able to function in the face of unanimous Republican opposition, why should the Republicans dream that once they have power, the Democrats are suddenly going to be trying to help them pass laws? We are now firmly in an era of kamakazi politics. Republican's are likely to make gains, and think that their strategy of just saying no to everything is a good one to continue if they are a few seats short of taking over either house. Democrats, if they lose control of either house, are going to say, "Hey! The Republican's made us look ineffective by never giving us a single vote. We'll show the same unity in opposition now that they are in power and they'll now get to become the unpopular scapegoat party!"

The timing couldn't be worse. Our national debt is set to devour our future. We've ignored it for twenty years, always trusting that somehow things would work out. It's like obesity; you put on twenty pounds in your twenties, and hey, it's no big deal, you were skinny anyway. Then, in your thirties, you add another ten pounds. But, while you understand you aren't in great shape, the extra weight isn't affecting you that bad. You still live your life more or less normally. And, look around: Everyone is putting on extra weight. Then, in your forties, you add more weight. Hmm. Maybe this is starting to be a problem. Your doctor's been telling you this for twenty years, but now is when you're starting to notice that you're having trouble breathing walking up a flight of stairs. You think, maybe it's time to do something about your weight. Maybe not get skinny again, but watch what you're eating more, maybe take a walk a few times each week. You'll be okay if you can just stay where you're at. It's not like you're so heavy that you need one of those wheeled carts to get around the grocery store. Then, in your fifties, you're riding around on the wheeled cart, still planning to excercise once your gout clears up. And, in your sixties, you're dead.

Our deficit has followed the same pattern. When we first started running it, no big deal. When we got worried about it in the 90's, we did a few years of excersize and got it back under countrol. Then, life got stressful again with the whole 9-11 thing and discipline went out the window and we were back at the deficit trough. Now, we've reached the point where we've gotten so fat and flabby, deficit-wise, that we have to get in shape immediately or we'll become so weak that we won't be able to save ourselves.

Do democrats have a plan to help us escape our debt trap? Nope. Their only plan is to complain that Tea Partier's didn't complain about the debt when Bush was in office. (Though, while I don't consider myself a tea partier, I certainly was talking about the debt during this time.) Do republican's have a plan to deal with the debt? A few here and there have actual plans, but only a few. For the most part, I've noticed in interviews lately that they are vaguely promising to cut spending... except for defense, or social security, or medicare. And, presumably, they won't stop paying interest on the national debt. So... they are admitting up front that they consider 98% of the budget untouchable. This is like promising to drink a diet coke while your heaping up the plates with meat loaf and mashed potatoes and chocolate pie at Bronco Billy's Big Boy Buffet Barn.

If you're obese, the prescription isn't arcane. Eat less, excercise more. Our debt has a similar simple fix: Cut spending and increase tax revenues. But, most obese people (including me) find that they lack the discipline to stick to the formula. Under what possible imaginary scenario are we suddenly going to elect politicians with the discipline to rescue us from our debt?

Friday, October 01, 2010

Masked interviews up at Mallozzi's Blog

Joseph Mallozzi has used his blog to spotlight the Masked anthology during September. He passed along a bunch of reader questions to the various authors and today has posted the collected answers in an interview that offers some great insights into both story telling and superheroes. My own contribution includes a confession of a potentially embarrassing recurring fantasy from my teen years. Also, Joe matched up each author's traits with an iconic superhero; I think he nailed me perfectly. You can read the whole post here.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Koran Burning & Ground Zero Mosque Revisited

So, there's apparently some preacher somewhere in the South who plans to have a Koran burning ceremony on September 11. (I could google his actual name and location, but these details seem unimportant to the point I'm about to make.) His plans have drawn the condemnation of a lot of people, including General Petraeus, who argue that this is going to be offensive to Muslims and unhelpful to America's image abroad.

Well, duh.

I argued that conservatives were wrong to protest the building of the so-called Ground Zero Mosque. To me, the prevailing rights were that people should be free to do what they wish with property they own, as long as they comply with reasonable zoning regulations, which seems to be the case. The argument that the mosque might stir bad memories or hurt feelings didn't particularly sway me. To me, protecting rights is a higher value than protecting feelings.

And, the same is true of this Koran burning. This is America: If you are free to burn a flag, you should be free to burn a book. Now, rest assured, I will think less of you for burning the book (or the flag), and so will a lot of other people. But, so what? If you can take the heat, light the fire. (With, of course, due regard to public safety; presumably a fire extiguisher will be on hand.) People who support the mosque in the name of free speech and religious liberty have no leg to stand on in opposing this action.

Every human activity is going to offend someone. Islamists may find it offensive to burn a Koran, or draw a cartoon of Mohammad, but certain Islamists also will find offense in my walking through a park holding the hand of my girlfriend. (Or, in my girlfriend driving us to the park. Or my girlfriend being able to read the signs along the way.) Curtailing American freedoms in the name of sparing the feelings of a few people overseas, or even hundreds of millions of people, isn't a trade worth making. But, I also hope that the Americans who agree with this particular argument will also see that the same logic applies to the mosque builders of Manhattan. The fact that millions will take offense is no reason not to say what you wish to say and do what you wish to do in a free society. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Reason Zero: Death

Last year, I did a series of posts called Ten Reasons to Believe in God. I dealt with the most frequent arguments I've heard for the existence of God, such as the argument from design, eye-witness testimony, and documentary evidence such as the Bible or Koran. In the end, I remained firmly in the atheist camp, but I hope I gained at least a little insight as to why some people are believers. Still, looking back at the series now, I'm stunned that I completely skipped what is most likely the most important reason of all. It's so important that I can't really call it reason eleven. It's more like reason zero, a foundational truth that all the others rest upon.

God exists because death exists.

Before this sounds like a retreat from atheism, allow me to clarify that by the use of the word "God" I'm not admitting the existence of an actual deity. God does exist as a tool humans use to navigate the world, a purely human construct or concept like justice or money. It may sound a little deranged to argue that money doesn't exist, since I certainly carry around little green slips of paper in my wallet that I call money, and structure my entire life around accumulating these little green slips. In fact, I've even skipped the step where I collect the paper, and now hungrily pursue mere numbers on a computer screen. These numbers have zero actual value or reality. They exist purely as a shared fiction that makes our modern society possible. Money doesn't need to have any intrinsict value as long as we can all mutually pretend that it does.

And, so it is with God. He doesn't really need to exist as long as a critical mass of people believe that he does. God, like money, has many functions. Money can motivate behavior both good and bad, and so can God. Money can provide a sense of security and well-being, and so can God. But God can do one thing money can't: God provides relief from death.

Being smart enough to understand the future is a pretty horrible thing for humans to have evolved. We are (probably) the only animals smart enough to understand that our deaths are inevitable, and permanent. One day we exist, enjoying our meals, the sunshine, and the company of our loved ones, then, one day, it ends. And, as if the burden of our own mortality weren't enough to bear, we also must face the truth that everyone we love will die, and once they are gone they are gone forever.

Except, of course, we don't have to face these truths. We can, instead, adopt a shared fiction that sidesteps the unpleasant reality. Death isn't inevitable: We were actually created as immortals and death is just a temporary punishment inflicted upon us for our sins. But, one day, God will have finally punished us enough and death will go away. Poof! And, if you happen to die before that glorious day, no problem. God will just bring you back and you'll spend all of eternity surrounded by your friends and family, except for those horrible people who lived differently than you, who will burn in Hell forever and ever.

There are variants of this belief, of course. Some religions just sidestep God and heaven and instead when you die you get recycled into a new body here in this world. If you've behaved well, that body might even be human. And, of course, many people think that bodies are optional equipment, and that when you die you can simply linger on as a ghost, watching over your children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren like some benevolent intangible voyeur.

Death is a problem that no human mind has yet solved. But, our shared lie at least takes some of the sting out of death. The inevitability of death is kind of a raw deal: We can't escape it by eating well and exercising, we can't escape it by knowing the right people or having enough money in the bank, we can't escape it because we're famous, or loved by our parents and children, or because our cats need someone to operate the can-opener. The convict on death row, the brave and wise judge that sent him there, and the little girl that was his victim, all wind up with exactly the same fate: death, forever and always. Is it any wonder the mind rebels? Death in its blind and equal treatment of everyone just seems so unfair. You can't blame people for hoping there's a secret way out.

Which, of course, leave me as an atheist on somewhat strange ground. I'm smart enough to understand that money has no inherent value, but I'm also smart enough to understand that my life will be more pleasant if I pretend that it does. I have more access to food, shelter, and comic books by participating in the fiction than I would if I were dogmatic in my rejection of the value of cash. Couldn't the same argument then be made for God? Even if I understand him to be a fiction, wouldn't life be more pleasant if I partook in this fiction? Rather than staring into the abyss of my own inevitable death, or carrying the burden of my ever accumulating losses of people I love, wouldn't life be less stressful if I just went along with the shared coping mechanisms that have been tested and proven effective as a source of relief from the pain of death for thousands of years?

I suppose I'll never know. I've learned what I've learned over the years. I've devoted myself to understanding what's real versus what's false. My knowledge has been burned into me, bright and shining and hot, a candle guiding me through darkness. I can't unburn that candle. Nor would I want to. Because, in the end, it doesn't matter what coping mechanisms you might adopt: You and everyone you love will die. The God escape hatch from death is a door that doesn't actually lead anywhere. Knowing that you can't escape death doesn't devalue your life. Instead, it intensifies the experience. It helps to remind you not to take even the small things for granted. Enjoy that burger you're eating. Kiss your loved ones whenever you meet or depart. Play your car stereo as loud as you like it and sing along, even if you're at a stop light, even if your windows are down. You cannot be aware of death unless you are alive. If you are reading these words, you are alive. You've blood in your veins and breath in your lungs. Treasure these things, and don't waste them.

Atheism may not help you escape death. But it is a kick-ass tool for living life.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Ground Zero Mosque

For a couple of weeks, conservatives have been in outrage mode about plans for a Muslim mosque to be built in New York only a few blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center. Liberals have been the main defenders of the mosque, arguing that religious freedom means freedom even for unpopular religions. I honestly don't see how this argument is going to sway a single conservative. The religious right is, let's face it, the Christian right. They are in favor of religious freedom, but the only religion they define as such is Christianity, with the occasional tip of the hat toward Judiasm. Other so-called religions don't deserve any protection or recognition in America because they are so self-evidently absurd or evil that to call them religions taints the word.

You can waive the banner of religious tolerance in front of the conservatives, but it's not a flag that they are ever going to salute. However, I'd like to see some of the conservatives who oppose the mosque respond to a completely different defense: People who own property should be free to use it for any legal purpose they wish. Presumably, the Muslims who want to build the mosque own the land or have a legal lease to it. I haven't heard anyone saying that use of this land was a gift from the city or the state, nor has it been reported that they've occupied the land by force. I know that there are Christian churches in this area, and presumably the new mosque must meet the same zoning requirements that the churches do. So, if they are using their property for a legal enterprise, what gives the government the power to step in and deprive them of this right? And, if conservatives are truly in opposition to the mosque, may I suggest that, instead of protesting or trying to rezone, they simply dig into the deep pockets of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and make an offer to buy the property themselves? This would be the free market solution instead of the authoritarian government solution. They could erect a giant museum there, the Museum of Right Thinking Conservatives that could serve as a shining beacon for the enlightenment of mankind. Just stay away from the men's room if any senators are in town.

If there's one bedrock principal that conservatives are supposed to defend, it's private property rights. If they aren't willing to defend these rights now, do they actually mean anything at all?

Friday, July 30, 2010

My thoughts on turning books into movies....

My thoughts on turning books into movies can be found at fellow fantasy writer Andy Remic's blog, where I've written a post called "Your Book Would Make a Good Movie! (And Why I Know It Wouldn't). While I would be happy to cash any checks Hollywood would care to write me, I tend to have a dim view of the rubberstamp tendency to turn any successful book into a film.

In other news, I'm keenly aware that I haven't produced a blog post here for over two weeks. Eek! I've been staying up late at night working on my kindle edition of Bitterwood, designing covers, troubleshooting fonts, and writing supporting copy. And, at last, it's live! Woo! Anyway, I should soon return to the regularly scheduled programming of offering assinine opinions on subjects that no-one has asked me about. I've got an idea for a further article in my "ten reasons to believe in God" series. Technically, it will the the eleventh reason, but it's a good one, maybe the best one yet, the ultimate truth of why atheism will never truly surpass theism as a way of life. So, keep checking back. This next post is going to be so good, they'll want to make a movie out of it.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Fishing in the Rain

I'm down at the beach this week, making a feeble attempt at relaxing. As always happens when I have time off from my day job I have massive writing goals before me. I'm prepping Bitterwood for Kindle, and I've decided to do a full rewrite. I'm not changing the story much, but I am polishing the prose a good bit. I'd like to finish by Friday, which means I'll likely put in a full fourty hour week.

The other thing keeping me from fully embracing the vacation is the absence of my father. Beach week was fishing week for us. I went fishing last night and spent the whole time thinking about him. It was a dark and stormy night, literally, with lightning far out on the ocean and a steady wind blowing a light rain that never quite reached a level where I decided to give up. The fish weren't biting. But, I had the pier mostly to myself, and there was a beauty to the dark horizon, with the ink black sea rolling beneath black clouds that would turn incandescent as lightning jagged within them.

I stayed out there for hours, thinking about what my father had taught me about fishing. Not much, really. He liked fishing, but wasn't very good at it. But, in the end, fishing isn't really about the fish. I don't think my dad ever said these words, but he taught me the lesson all the same.

And tonight, I'll go fishing again.

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Monday, June 21, 2010

Should Gays (and Atheists) Marry?

Few issues unite American's more than the opposition to gay marriage. Even among Democrats, you normally will find few politicians willing to proclaim the union of two homosexuals a marriage, even if they are open minded about allowing civil unions or some other legal partnership.

I admit to having been on the fence. Gay marriage shot to the top of the culture wars after judges in Massachussetts decreed that gays had a constitutional right to marry. I get nervous whenever judges start stretching the meaning of words. Since the founding of our nation, marriage has been commonly accepted as a union between one man and one woman. Even if I agreed that the definition of marriage could and should be expanded to include gays, I would want this changed through actual political debate rather than through judicial fiat. If you allow judges to start altering the meaning of commonly understood words in order to promote some social good, you unintentially grant them the power to do great harm. We live in a land of laws, and we have an open process for changing those laws. Judges shouldn't be able to side step the normal legislative process.

That said, I am 100 percent in favor of gay marriage. I don't want to change the mind of judges, however. I think the first goal should be to change the minds of average Americans. I know that this seems to be an impossible hurdle, and it's an easier, quicker task to change the minds of a handful of judges rather than trying to sway a hundred million voters or more toward your point of view. But, if a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing right.

So what is my best argument that marriage is an institution that should be open to homosexuals as well as heterosexuals?

Not long ago, I was discussing marriage with an atheist couple. They seemed almost apologetic that they had decided to get married, since it was such a traditional, churchy thing to do. I was familiar with such feelings from my own life. I'm a libertarian, so I don't feel like I should have to seek the approval of a state to decide who I spend my life with. And, I'm an atheist, so I don't need to seek the approval of a god or a church. Of course, our society has built up a lot of legal advantages for married people over non-married people. There are tax benefits, you get breaks on insurance and other shared purchases, and there are estate issue that are vastly simplified if you are legally recognized as the spouse of someone who has just passed away. Once some people have these advantages, it's only natural that people excluded from these advantages would want them as well.

I've never really been happy with the whole "legal advantage" line of thinking. To me, it strips a lot of romance out of marriage. Of course, in a lot of cultures historically, marriage had nothing to do with romance. It was much more nakedly an economic tool than a means of professing love.

But, we live in a culture that has intertwined love and marriage. If you love someone, and keep loving them long enough (a very flexible standard, "long enough"), you marry them. And, that's the sweet and simple reason that atheists do frequently decide to get married; it's a declaration of love. You just want the world to know. To deny gays this same declaration of love seems small minded and small hearted.

I can almost hear the protest now among the defenders of traditional marriage. If a homosexual couple, or atheists, or whomever, wants to hold a big party and dress up in fancy clothes and make a public declaration of their love that includes cake, go for it. It's still not marriage, since the primary goal of marriage, they would argue, is procreation, which homosexual couples are biologically incapable of. Of course, this would also exclude the elderly from getting married. Or, people who are sterile for some random physical malady. Or, people who just don't want children. "Do it for the kids" seems to me to exclude too many people who we do already allow to marry.

As far as the big party, the actual wedding, that's just one day. Weddings do not a marriage make. However, in the traditional vows, you do find what I think are the most honest reasons that homosexuals, atheists, and, well, everyone, should desire marriage: "In sickness and in health, till death do us part."

If marriage were just a contract people entered to raise kids, then everyone could just get divorced after those kids grow up. But marriage isn't a contract only to work together to raise kids, or to be best friends laughing together when times are good. There's a bargain you enter in marriage that overrides everything else: You agree to be the person who will never abandon your partner just because he or she gets sick. You are agreeing to be the person who will change your partner's diapers if they get paralyzed in a car wreck. You are agreeing to sit by a bedside and hold their hands when they are withering away from cancer. You take a stand and say, "I will not abandon you in your times of greatest adversity," with the bargain being that your partner will do the same if it's you in the intensive care unit.

We live in a culture that seeks to restrict marriage from some people, while at the same time, heterosexual marriage seems to have lost its sticking power. The vows for many "traditional" couple seem to have been edited to read, "for better or for worse or until we get tired of each other, or until someone hotter comes along." It's not gays who are the biggest threat to traditional marriage. I think instead it's that we've overemphasised the warm and fuzzy romantic feelings that start a marriage and lost sight of the end game.

Marriage isn't just about the wedding. It's also about the dying. And whether you are straight or gay, Christian, Rastafarian, Hindu or atheist, you are going to one day get sick and die. It's the universal human condition, and marriage and families are the best tools we've developed as humans to help us endure our endings. To deny this comfort to anyone seems to me to be the worst sort of inhumanity.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Cultural Obstacles to Scientific Literacy

I think it's a relatively undisputed premise that Americans are falling behind in scientific literacy. Most objective measures of how our students rank compared to other countries show declining proficiency relative to other nations. Partially this decline may be due to other nations improving their scientific education. Still, while I know that eye-witness testimony is the worst kind of evidence, my own personal experience of trying to find people to intelligently discuss science leads me to think that the situation is even worse than what gets reported. Science, for most people, is something they were forced to study in school that instantly vanishes from their brains the second they hit the real world. Why?

Here are eight possible answers:

1. Religion. I know, as an atheist I'm probably supposed to argue that this is the most important cause. Fundamentalist religion pushes back against fundamental science, disputing such ideas as evolution and the size and age of the universe. On the other extreme, new age religions mangle quantum mechanics in their attempt to seem legitimate (see the movie What the Bleep Do We Know for a truly grating example). And don't even get me started on Scientology. Still, the tensions between religion and science have existed since the time of the Greeks. I don't think it's the primary culprit.

2. Our education system in general. It ain't just science where we ask, "Is our children learning?" An argument can be made that as politicians have tried to improve education, they've wound up instead improving bureaucracy. The right has tried to blame teacher's unions and the breakdown of the family brought about by liberalism. The left has tried to blame a lack of money and right wing censorship. All these things may contribute, but I don't think they quite get at the heart of the issue. I think I'm fairly well educated in science, but my education didn't come primarily from a formal education. Instead, I'm a voracious reader of books and magazines that report on science. The science I was exposed to in high school didn't have as much impact on me as the science I was exposed to reading Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould. The information is out there for anyone who wants an education, completely free, or nearly so. Why don't more people make the effort to learn?

3. Technology. In a counterintuitive argument, as our technology has been improved by those who do understand science, it's weakened the minds of everyone else. I will use the analogy of the automobile: At first glance, the car has improved our mobility. We can move our bodies dozens of miles in space in a matter of minutes. But, the price we've paid is that, unless we really work at exercise, we are weaker and have less stamina than our ancestors. A century ago, the average person could probably walk a dozen miles and think little of it. Today, a dozen miles would be a challenge to most people. The use of machines to improve mobility weakened our bodies. Conversely, the use of machines to improve our knowledge may be weakening our brains. If I ever lose my cell phone, I'm screwed, because I can't remember any one's phone number. And why bother learning history since, if you ever need to know the reason the civil war was fought, you just pull out your smartphone and look it up on wikipedia? The easier and more available information has become, the less value we place on it.

4. Affluence. Our grandfathers came to this country and took jobs as janitors and cops and coal-miners so that their kids could become doctors and lawyers and rocket scientists so that their kids could become performance artists and coffee shop baristas. Of course, affluence doesn't rob people of all ambition. Some of these people have accumulated really great action figure collections. Wealth insulates people from the consequences of their own ignorance.

5. Science fiction. Heresy! So many science geeks, including myself, will report that science fiction opened the door to their interest in science. But, I also think that a lot of my education has been one long string of disappointments as I discover that so much of the foundational assumptions of science fiction, like faster than light travel, time travel, interstellar civilizations, laser pistols, jet bikes, transporters, robot butlers, etc., become less plausible the more science I know. I've bounced back from these disappointments, but I wonder how many other people wound up bummed out that science fiction has made so many promises that actual science can't keep?

6. Science television. Heresy again! Right now, you have television channels like National Geographic and Discovery with a lot of programming related to science. But, the focus is on the big and flashy stuff. If one watches Mythbusters, you might come away with the notion that science is all about making things blow up. Biology, you might assume, is all about finding great white sharks and harassing them into biting your dive cage. The study of dinosaurs on television has become the study of animation and cgi effects rather than the study of fossils. Again, I worry that science television sets up expectations that actual science can't keep. Darwin wrote an entire book on the behavior of earthworms; don't expect the Discovery channel adaption any time soon. Science can and does take place in the absence of animated dinosaurs, great white sharks, and explosions.

7. Politics devours science. Of course, politics devours everything. But, our news media outside of the segregated science shows tends to turn all scientific questions into political questions. For instance, the ongoing oil spill in the gulf has a hundred different scientific elements that deserve reporting. The physical changes that common materials experience once they are under a mile of water is important here. Ocean currents, food chains, coastline migration... there are a lot of scientific questions I'd like to see more reporting on as a result of this spill. Instead, the focus has been almost entirely on what facial expression and mannerisms Obama adopted while talking about the spill. Strip away the politics, and reporters seem bored by the subject. Once they've filmed a few dirty birds and talked to a couple of fishermen, they run out of ideas on how to cover the actual spill.

8. Removal from nature. This is, I think, the biggest culprit of all. Science is the study of reality, and the whole goal of civilization seems to be to remove people from close contact with reality. We spend our lives sealed up inside boxes--our houses, our cars, and our stores, and don't spend that much time outside. I was reading Mark Twain recently, and was struck by a passage where he chronicles the journey of a small caterpillar. His writing is rich with details because he didn't spend his childhood watching television. He spent it outdoors, finding his entertainment in bugs on leaves, on wild islands in the river, and beneath night skies that still had stars in them, rather than a dull silver haze of light pollution. Science has been turned into a subject, something you learn in classrooms, on television, and in books. But, the roots of science come in experiencing the world around us and asking, "why," and "how," and "what the heck is that?" If you want your kid to get interested in science, lock them outside this summer. Let them sleep in the backyard and get curious about all the stuff crawling over them. Take them fishing and let them take apart and devour a fellow denizen of the planet. Get them someplace as dark as you can so there's a chance, at least, of seeing a shooting star.

Newton discovered gravity sitting under an apple tree, and Einstein figured out relativity while biking through Alpine villages. I don't think anyone has yet reported any scientific advances that came to them while they were bowling on their Wii.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

What I Should Have Said...

I just arrived back in Hillsborough from ConCarolinas. I'll write more about the con on my other blog when I have the time, but right now I want to continue making an argument that I took part in during my last panel at the con. The panel in question was on censorship. I was making the deliberately provocative statement that there was no true censorship in America, not compared to the censorship you would find in China, Germany, or even Canada, where the government can step in and put you in jail for what you say or publish.

Now, it might seem like censorship takes place all the time. For instance, Comedy Central made South Park censor their depiciton of the prophet Mohommed. There are plenty of books that school libraries remove from their stacks because of parental complaints. The FCC will slap you with fines for saying certain words on television. Also, you have the whole movie rating system where you have restrictions on your audience if you show certain body parts or depict certain acts.

However, in all these cases, the underlying speach or art could still be legally published by the artists. A filmaker can release his film without seeking a rating. The makers of South Park could have quit in protest, and posted cartoons of the prophet Mohammed on their various blogs and other media till they were sick of drawing him. If the local school library won't carry "Susie has Two Mommies," any parent who wants their kid to read the book is free to order it off Amazon.

In none of these cases is the government going to come and put you in jail.

Where the panel went horribly off topic, however, is that another panel member told me how she'd been investigated by social services for being a witch. Someone in the audience chimed in and told me they knew someone whose children had been taken away because they were witches. I expressed an extreme amount of skepticism. First, I believe that social service workers are perfectly capable of abusing their power and taking children away from loving parents for reasons that are wrong or mistaken. But, the law plainly prohibits the government discriminating against the religion. You cannot have your kids taken from you because of your religion. Now, actions you take because of your religion might be a different thing: The fundamentalist Mormon's who were having their 14 year old daughters "marry" their 80 year old prophet a few years back are an obvious case where religion lay at the root of removing the children, but the actual laws broken were statuatory rape, not the belief in wierd crap.

The panel closed with the last word going to somone who told the tale of a topless dancer who's kids were taken from her even though her profession was legal. I had no time to respond to this. I'm certain that such things happen; no doubt topless dancers have children taken away all the time. But, I don't think this constitutes censorship; presumably, even if her child is taken away, a topless dancer is free to keep on dancing. And, I'm reminded of the very famous case of Courtney Love losing custody of her daughter. One could argue that it was to prosecute her for her famously foul-mouthed lyrics, but I suspect that the judge was moved far more by the fact that Ms. Love was also an ill-tempered drug adict. (Whose music I admire, by the way.) At the risk of slandering all topless dancers, I suspect that, in the cases where children are removed, there are other facts at hand arguing for the removal of the children.

Sure, there are actual cases of governmental censorship where some prosecutor with a name to make is going to go after some gay bookstore selling a racy calendar or comic book shop selling japanese tentacle porn. Standing up and defending the free speech rights of these people is important. But, I feel like most arguments of censorship amount to little more than whining and/or promotion. For instance, any list of books banned in recent history is going to include the Harry Potter series, removed from many a school library for promoting witchcraft. I don't think any statistics could possibly drawn to prove this, but I suspect that in schools that ban the book, you'll wind up with more kids reading it than you do in schools that just allow it the book to go onto the shelf. It's hard for me to accept the notion that a book is "banned" if I can walk into my local grocery store and buy a copy. Complaining about censorship on a book that sells millions of copies simply devalues the word.

Am I missing something here? Is there some horrible wave of oppressive silencing of free speech going on that I'm missing? Are our prison's filled with writers, artists, and musicians guilty of nothing more than expressing unapproved thoughts?

Friday, May 28, 2010

A Libertarian Environmentalist Agenda

I was recently in a discussion with folks who expressed skepticism that a libertarian could ever be an environmentalist. You need a strong government to defend the environment, was the general gist of their argument.

But, any government big enough to save the environment is a government big enough to harm it. BP may have dirtied the gulf, but it took a government to tame the Mississippi to the degree that shoreline of the gulf coast is retreating and shrinking due to the lack of silt that used to replenish the coast. BP is going to dirty the shorelines; the army core of engineers was able to sink thousands of square acres beneath the waves. It took a government to drain the Colorado River to the point that it turns to dust before it reaches the Pacific. It took a government (not our own, fortunately) to drain the freakin' Aral Sea. And, it took a government to pump our atmosphere full of radioactive particles from above ground atomic weapon testing.

So, I think the real question should be, how can a person care about the environment and NOT be a libertarian?

If I were ever to be elected president (I would place higher odds on the rapture occurring), here’s my five step environmental program. My goal isn’t a complete libertarian takeover of every aspect of American life. I’m just shooting for implementing a handful of libertarian ideas to produce a healthier planet.

1: Stop all farm subsidies. Right now, we warp markets to encourage American farmers to grow more corn than the world can consume. In a free market, farmers couldn’t make a profit from overproduction. Our corn monoculture requires the use of petroleum-based fertilizers that distort the ecosystem in immeasurable ways, and damages once fertile lands by compressing them. On a side note, I’d legalize hemp, which would provide a nice transitional crop for some of the corn farmers, and is rugged enough to grow on some of the land damaged by our present policies, helping restore the soil.

2: Eliminate federal funding of new highways. Slap toll booths on the existing highways we choose to maintain. Urban sprawl was made possible by the federally funded interstate system and the fact that use of these highways has no [i]perceived[/i] cost. Whether or not you believe the auto exhaust contributes to global warming (which, personally, I doubt), if we drove less, there would be fewer incentives for oil companies to drill holes a mile beneath the ocean. And, even the most hardcore global warming skeptic has to admit that if we cut the number of miles driven by a substantial percentage, we’d have cleaner skies, water, etc.

3: Bring the boys back home. Wars are never good for the environment. Bring home all those diesel guzzling humvees and tanks and warships and permanently park all our fighter jets. And if you think plastic water bottles all over the landscape is bad, it's nothing compared to the litter of unexploded cluster bombs.

4: Break up the government enforced monopolies of current power companies. Let power companies charge whatever they damn well want to charge. Public power companies have their rates approved by politicians in exchange for monopoly rights to supply power to given areas. The low price we pay for energy as a result means that new technologies face hurdles in becoming cost competitive. The current government plans call for subsidizing new technologies with tax dollars, or inflating old technologies with carbon taxes. But, you could just take government dollars out of the picture and let power companies charge whatever they wished. As rates went up from big companies seeking higher profits, smaller companies would be able to enter the market. For instance, if you were Walmart, and were building a new store, you could choose to do business with local power companies that were going to gouge you, or you could work with an energy contractor to cover the roofs of your multi-acre store with solar panels and install turbines on your lamp poles to capture the updraft from your parking lot. Consumers at the mercy of a price-gouging power companies might respond by purchasing energy efficient appliances and choosing smaller, more energy efficient houses.

5: If we must have public lands, then at the very least let’s charge companies that use these lands for profit ungodly fees. Right now, the cost of leasing public land to drill and oil well or mine for copper or graze your cattle is trivial compared to the profits generated from these activities. Of course, an alternative solution might be to sell off public lands at preferred rates to conservation groups, and allow them to simply not allow drilling, mining, grazing, etc. We could use the money raised to help pay off public debt.

How about it? Would anyone vote for me?

Friday, May 07, 2010

One Good Moment

Yesterday was the 4th anniversary of Laura's death. I had fully intended to post something last night, but two things stopped me. The first and biggest obstacle was that I didn't feel like I had all that much to say. I've experienced several deaths of people close to me this year, namely my father, my best friend, and my grandmother. When my father died, I spent several days in the hospital by his side, and it was impossible not to go through that without thinking of Laura's final days. I've had my fill of intensive care units at this point, and would like to not visit one again for a few decades at least. Then, when Greg died, I felt frustration at my lack of ability to express myself, not just here, but to anyone, really. I know things about Greg that no one else will ever know and can never know. Our friendship wasn't just one of good times. Greg had stood by my side during some of my darkest moments, and there were bad times in his life where I had been the one person he could call and talk to. To fully explain what he meant to me, I would have to betray his trust, and I won't do that, even in death. But, it means that the stuff I can and will talk about with others feels hollow to me. I can tell the funny stories, and the safe ones, but the rest are effectively gone. I'm the only one that knows them, and I will never tell them. And if a story is untold, does it even exist?

The same is true of Laura. It's easy to elevate the dead, and talk about their wisdom, their humor, their kindness. But the Laura I knew was a very comlicated human being. I have no problem telling the world about her loves and joys, but, like all people, she was fully capable of anger and bitterness and even outright hatred. I feel free to tell the world she fought cancer bravely and loved life. But I was also there during the moments when bravery failed, and when she wasn't certain that going on another week or a month was worth the effort. I was there when she was tired and miserable and mean, and that, too, is now something I carry in silence, unable to share the specifics. It means that parts of Laura will never be known; when I am gone, those parts of her will be gone. It creates something of an empty feeling.

So, last night I had opened up my laptop and was staring at a blank Blogger essay field when my phone rang, giving me reason #2 not to post anything. It was an old friend of mine and she wondered if I had a minute to talk. I closed down the computer and went out to the deck and talked to her for a while. She had recently had a cat die and was feeling depressed. After Greg had passed away, I had told her that I was giving serious thought to starting an atheist ministry to give atheists somewhere to turn to during difficult moments, and she was in one of these difficult moments. She told me how the cat had been feral and she'd slowly tamed it, and during a vet visit had discovered a heart condition, and had been considering treatment options when the cat passed away. Now, in addition to being depressed over losing the cat, she was also wondering if she'd done enough. Maybe if she'd made different decisions with different priorities, she could have had the cat's heart condition treated earlier.

I told her that the opposite was also true. She could have done absolutely nothing with this feral cat. To feed it, tame it, and take it to a vet was much more than many people would be willing to do for a stray. In some alternate universe, maybe a diferent chain of events would have led to the cat living another ten years. But, in this world, you can never know how much time anyone or anything has. All you can hope to do is make the most of the moments that you do experience. The cat was happy, well fed, and cared for during the last few months of what was likely a very rough life. The fact that the cat didn't live longer didn't subtract from the good she did. Kindness need not be permanent to be important.

Today, I feel a little more at peace with my inability to fully explain or share all I knew of Laura, or Greg, or my father. Because, at the risk of stating the obvious, what I do now to memorialize them makes no difference to them at all. What made the difference isn't what I've done since they passed away. It was what I did when I was alive to show them kindness and make their time on earth a little better than it might have been. When I am gone, these moments I remember will be forever lost. But... so what? The kindness, the beauty, the sorry, and the truths I've shared aren't a product of the memories. They're a product of the moments. Moments are fleeting and ephemeral, and have a distressing tendency to slip past without announcing their presence. But, in the end, the moments are all that truly matter.

A lot of religion is eternity-centered. The dream seems to be to take the ups and downs and sideways of life and turn them into an unending sequence of only good times. The reality is all flipped around. It's not eternity that matters. It's the moments. One good moment can make all the difference in one good day, one good year, or one good life. You are probably surrounded by people who need this one good moment today. Go out and help them find it.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Debt Milestone and the Breakdown of Memory

First, a little good news. Back when the housing bubble burst and banks tightened up on credit card lending in the fall of 2008, I was one of many people who started worrying about public debt. I don't just mean our federal debt, which I've been worried about for a long time, I mean the debt that we, the public owe to various banks in the forms of loans, credit cards, mortgages, etc. We live in an era where many people live beyond their means. I used to drive around and see all these new housing developments filled with half million dollar homes and brand new cars and wondered, who can afford to live like this? It turned out, of course, that a lot of people couldn't afford to live like this. Now that credit has tightened up, I know of some high dollar developments built at the peak of the housing bubbles that now are ghost towns. There was an article I read recently that said that over 100,000 mortgages for Bank of America were over a year deliquent; there would be even more abandoned houses if the banks had the resources and the will to foreclose on all their bad debts. And, at least mortgages are secured by actual property. The banks are in even bigger trouble with credit cards, which are secured by zilch.

That last paragraph just doesn't seem like it should start, "First, a little good news," does it? I meant for it to be a much shorter introduction to the news that I just got my American Express bill yesterday, and the balance was zero. Nothing. Nada. Back in 2008, my worry about debt wasn't just a worry about the behavior of others: It was a time when my eyes popped open to my own stupidity as a consumer. In August 2008, I had four credit cards, with a combined debt total just shy of 20,000. ($19,434 to be exact.) I justified this debt because all the interest rates were fairly low. Since I have good credit, I was a frequent recipient of offers for new cards with deals like 3.99% rates on balance transfers for the life of the loan. So, my debt was spread between cards with 2.99, 3.99, a small balance on a card at 7.99, and a card with a variable rate that hasn't been above 5% since I got it. Since it wasn't costing me a tremendous amount of interest to manage the debt, it was easy to pretend it wasn't a problem. Secondly, my debt compared to the equity in my house and the value of my 401k was pretty small. As long as my 401k was growing at a healthy clip, and as long as my equity in my house could wipe out all my credit card debt when I sold it, I wasn't worried. But, of course, when the housing bubble burst, I could no longer count on my house maintaining value and my 401k was losing money with each statement. It was time for me to stop being complacent about my debt. My strategy was to look at the minimum payments on all four cards and double that total... but pay that extra on the highest rate card. So, I effectively maintained the debt on three of the cards, while knocking down the highest rate card in big chunks. When that was paid off, I moved to the next card, maintaining the same overall payment level, so the second card fell even faster than the first card. I was also helped out, I confess, by some large lump sum payments from my book income. Now, two and a half years later, I've paid off three cards and am left with the variable rate mastercard, which I still owe way too much on ($8,500). But, I can now attack it with the sum I once paid over four cards. The math doesn't quite work out for me to be out of debt by the end of 2010 like I'd hoped, but 2011 looks doable. All in all, it's a nice milestone for me to be back to one credit card bill. I'd throw a party to celebrate, except that I'd have to go into debt to buy the booze and food, since I've spent all my freakin' money for the last two years on getting rid of debt.

Now, a little bad news: I sat down this morning intending to link to a previous "Jawbone of an Ass" post where I discussed my personal credit card debt and my resolve to eliminate it. I googled "James Maxey credit card debt." The article I wanted wasn't on the first page, so I tightened the search by adding "Jawbone" to it, which pretty much guarantees hits from my blog. And, I still couldn't find it! There were just too many pages of hits to filter through. But, no matter. I could write the article without the link. Except, as I was writing the first paragraph, I thought about linking to the article I read about the number of mortages in default by over a year, and, after a half dozen tries, I gave up. There were just too many articles being turned up by the words "delinquent" or "default" and "mortgage."

This was really disturbing to me, because my own, personal, biological memory has been tanking over the last few years. I'm sure it's just normal aging, the kind of stuff other people over forty have to deal with, but it really sucks. At work, I used to be a person who could remember some obscure job from five years before when a customer would want to reorder it and I'd remember details like what printer we'd used, what paper stock had been chosen, etc. Now, I can't remember jobs from the previous month. Part of this was a change in workload. Like many workplaces, fewer and fewer employees are used to keep track of the work, and the time I spend on any given job has shrunk. But, another part just seems to be that the little shelves in my brain where I store and organize information have just gotten filled up and cluttered, and any new information I jam in seems to dislodge old information. My brain seems to have exceeded it's storage capacity.

While I was aware of the growing weakness of my memory, I took some comfort in the fact that my memories were now mechanically augmented. If there's a song that I have a tiny fragment of lyric stuck in my head, I can google that lyric fragment and the next thing I know I have the whole song. Or, if there's some article I read that I want to recover some detail from, I just google, and there it is. And, since I've been blogging for years, I frequently google my own blog to discover the dates of certain events in my life. But with my two google failures this morning, I'm starting to wonder: What if our ability to store information is outpacing our ability to organize and recover it? The number of articles, blog posts, photos, etc. put online on any given day keeps growing exponentially. The sorting tools don't seem to be improving at the same rate. What does this portend for the future? Will our electronic collective memory suffer the same clutter and decay that our biological minds endure? Will we be unable to find the information we want not because it's forgotten, but simply because it's lost among too many similar things? It's easy to find needles in haystacks. But often I'm looking for a single straw, and we keep piling on straw.

My debt, I knew how to fix. My memory... I have no idea.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Blood and Devotion Giveaway!

Blood and Devotion is the latest anthology from Fantasist Enterprises, edited by William Horner and Illustrated by Nicole Cardiff. The theme of the anthology is summed up on the FE website: "Brave warriors and devotees to the gods follow the paths their faiths have put before them, and when religious fervor meets skill of arms and magic, kings will fall, armies will collide, and men and women will perish for their beliefs."

The stories within are:

Foreword by David B. Coe
“The Daughters of Desire” by Jay Lake
“Hammer Song” by K. L. Van der Veer
“The Treachery of Stone” by William Jones
“In the Light of Dying Fires” by Gerard Houarner
“The Perils of Twilight” by Peter Andrew Smith
“The Gifts of Avalae” by Ian McHugh
“Eye of the Destroyer” by Aliette de Bodard
“Greatshadow” by James Maxey
“Magic’s Choice” by R. W. Day

The title "Greatshadow" may be familiar to readers of my other blog, the Prophet and the Dragon, as the name of my current novel project. The short story in this anthology is the inspiration for the novel, containing the same basic plot: The church has launched an expedition of its finest warriors to wipe out Greatshadow, the world's most feared dragon. A band of local mercenaries has been hired to help guide the heroes to the dragon's lair, but the mercenaries plot to kill the heroes once the dragon is slain and keep the treasure for themselves.

I recently acquired some extra copies of the anthology to reward wise-readers of the Greatshadow novel, and still have a couple left over. So, let there be a drawing! I've got two copies to give away. But, you've got to do a little work if you want a copy: I'd like to see jokes about dragons. How many dragons does it take to screw in a light bulb? Why did the dragon cross the road? A wizard, a knight and a dragon walk into a bar.... you get the idea. Either post your jokes in the comment thread on the identical announcement over at The Prophet & the Dragon or email them to me at nobodynovelwriter@yahoo.com. I'll draw two winners from the entries on April 16. Good luck!

Random Political Thoughts

A few comments on political developments this week:

1. New Nuke Policy. Obama announced this week that we will not use nukes against any non-nuclear nation, even in self-defense. Right wing talkers immediately denounced this as projecting weakness. But, honestly, can you imagine any scenario where we would ever use nukes if they hadn't been used against us first? The truth is, no actual state is ever going to be able to launch a meaningful war against the US. Even at the peak of Soviet power, they could have attacked us, but they could never have invaded us. Terrorists may strike us, but nukes aren't the proper tool for retaliation. And, given the scope of our air power, even without nukes we have the ability to turn any city we want to strike into a plane of black, smoldering glass in under a week. I just don't see how this new position weakens us in any way.

2. Offshore Drilling: Meh. I'm dubious the policy change to allow offshore drilling along certain areas of our seaboard will lead to any actual oil wells, unless the amount of oil that's out there is greatly underestimated at the moment. The number of regulatory hoops that would be jumped through to tap wells that would be drained in under a decade will probably dissuade development. This seems like a strategic move to silence the "Drill, Baby, drill," crowd. It won't work. They'll still complain.

3. Lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Obamacare: Specifically, the lawsuits challenge the individual mandate to purchase insurance. Personally, this one area of the law does strike me as constitutionally dubious. The idea that the government can compel you to purchase a product from a private company seems to me to be a real abuse of the interstate commerce clause. The analogy to being forced to buy car insurance doesn't hold water, because you can avoid buying car insurance just by not buying a car. Here, you could only avoid the mandate via suicide. This seems harsh. But, on the other hand, if this one provision is struck down, we will be screwed, because the rest of the law will likely remain in effect, and health care premiums will sky-rocket due to the new mandates on the companies. And, because our government is no good at saying, "Oops!" and repealing bad laws, they will use the sky rocketing costs that this law generated as a reason to go ahead and take over the whole system. I'm terrible at predicting the future, but here's my feeble attempt at playing Nostradamus: The individual mandate will be struck down by the courts a few years from now. By 2016, health care premiums triple or quadruple, and the quality of care dives due to hospitals scrambling to implement new regulations this bill imposes. By 2020, people are so disgusted with the whole system that they elect a libertarian to repeal it all and let the free market reign. NO! Just kidding. By 2020, the system is so bad the people in mass support a full public takeover to create a system like that in Canada or the UK. And, it will be a better system than what it replaces, but only because the government went out of its way to cripple the old system.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Ilene Hall Maxey 1918-2010

That's me in the hat. I was two years old. The other child is my cousin Tony, age 1, and my grandmother, Ilene Hall Maxey, who would have been 48 at the time. She passed away on Tuesday last week at the age of 92.

She lived alone in her own home; she was far too independent ever to move in with one of her children. And, in my memories, it's difficult to untangle memories of my grandmother from memories of her house. She lived out in the country in a stone house built by her husband and children. Going there when I was a child was alway an adventure. There were fields of corn my great-grandfather used to plant that I remember running through, an old barn I used to climb around in, and seemingly endless woods I used to explore with my cousins.

More significantly, though, her house was a library. My grandfather, Sidney Maxey, had subscribed to National Geographic non-stop since the 1940s and there were stacks of the magazines everywhere you looked. He also was an accumulator of paperback books, which he kept on shelves out on his porch where they would turn yellow, their covers falling off, but oh, oh, oh, how I loved the smell of those old books, and how I would dig through them, searching for pulpy science fiction. Grandfather apparently had a taste for fringe science, so I also remember books about the bermuda triangle and Atlantis and ancient astronauts. I first read Charles Forte's "Wild Talents" among his collection. To this day, my reading preferences are shaped by those never ending stacks of decaying pulp.

One specific memory of my grandmother that still touches me comes not from my childhood, but from when I was in my late twenties. I'd just gotten divorced, and felt like the biggest failure in the world. My family was getting together for some sort of reunion, and I dreaded having to walk in and tell every one the news of my divorce. But, when I told my grandmother the news, she just shrugged it off, with, "Well, you're not the first Maxey ever to get divorced." She really didn't seem phased by the news at all, nor did her opinion of my seem to be lowered. It's easy to see now that the bonds of family are much tougher than the setbacks of a life that unfold day to day or year by year. You just shrug off the bad stuff, move on, remain family.

One final note: As I was standing by her grave, reflecting on the fact that she was 92, I was trying to take comfort that, hey, if I lived as long as her, I'd have another fifty years. But, of course, I instantly recognized that my math was off, and recalculated. I'm 46 now. That means... I'm exactly half the age she was when she passed away. So, why is it I still feel like a child so much of the time? Why do I feel pretty much the way I did when I was twenty; I'm in the body of an adult, but when it comes to handling adult matters, I still feel every day like I'm just making it up as I go along?

Did the woman in the photograph above, age 48, feel like she was winging it? Does this feeling last, perhaps, all the way to 92?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Legally Enforcing Responsible Behavior

So, Obama finally has a health care bill he can sign. I confess, I was certain the whole affair was doomed after Scott Brown was sworn in and Republicans had the power to filibuster again. But, in a truly amazing display of legislative force, Nancy Pelosi found the votes to pass the already passed senate bill. You can complain about backroom deals and legislative tricks all you want, but you have to respect the fact that Pelosi wasn't afraid to use the power available to her at this moment. This is probably the high water mark of Democratic power for at least a decade. If she couldn't pass this law now, then it would never be passed. Even if you completely disagree with the law, you have to admire Pelosi's political talent and courage. She knew democrats were going to lose seats whether or not this passed. A more timid politician might have tried to cut their losses. She instead got the bill passed, and seems willing to deal with the political consequences. If she was doing this in support of something I was enthusiastic about, like deficit reduction, I would sing the praises of her great leadership. Even though I don't like where she's heading, I still recognize that this was an act of leadership that will go down in the history books.

One of the curious things about this bill is that its most important element is essentially very conservative. There is now a federal requirement that all adults purchase health insurance. This is solid, responsible behavior, the kind of thing that the vast majority of adults already took steps to secure for themselves and their loved ones. It's closest parallel that I can think of are seat belt laws and helmet laws for motorcycles. Intelligent, responsible people were already going to be doing these things. But, because the number of stupid, irresponsible people isn't trivial, we wind up with laws on the books requiring us to do what's obviously right. Not having health insurance in today's world is an increasingly risky gamble that gets subsidized by the higher and higher health care costs of those of us who do bother to pay thier bills.

On a purely libertarian level, I have a philosophical stake in defending the rights of people to behave irresponsibly. But, my theoretical libertarianism often crashes up against my real world pragmatism. For instance, on an abstract level, I believe that people should be as free from micromanagement of their activities as possible. But, a few years ago, I got rear-ended by another driver who was distracted by his cell phone. Now, if the state banned cell phone use in cars, and especially text messaging, the libertarian philosopher in my brain would go, "Tsk, tsk, what a shameful incursion on individual liberty," while the real world commuter inside me would go, "Yeah! And outlaw eating and driving while you're at it!"

So, on a purely practical level, I think the individual mandate to purchase health care is a good thing. Where it goes off the rails, of course, is that the government is going to step in and subsidize it. The problem with this is that we are, as a nation, living so far beyond our means it's really just not funny anymore. We have to borrow money just to keep the lights on in our federal offices. It's nice that the government wants to do good things for people. But, once you start doing it on borrowed money, doing good quickly becomes a form of doing bad. It's nice that some additional people will have health insurance. It's not so nice that we will be facing future tax rates of twice what we pay today, if not more, or else experience hyper inflation that renders the money I've managed to save to date worthless.

It would be nice if Congress, while it's passing laws mandating that the citizens behave like responsible adults, would show a little inclination toward responsibility as well. But, of course, they would, if more citizens would behave responsibly by staying informed on the issues and, you know, voting. Congress would be a much more functional institution if more than 20% of the citizens in a congressional district could actually identify their congressman by name.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Memory and Fire and Greg

I came home from work today and built a fire in the backyard. Cheryl has one of those little steel fire-bowls. She's had some pretty big limbs in her yard that blew down months ago and there was something in the chill of the wind as I arrived home that made me think, "It's time to stare at some flames."

Staring at fire is good for people. At least, it's good for me. I find it almost impossible to watch flames dancing without opening a floodgate of memories. My memories today were mostly of Greg Hungerford, my best friend, who departed this world a few months ago. Greg and I lived about a two hour drive apart for the last five or six years; our time together during these years didn't involve much in the way of setting fires. But once... once...

For several years, I lived on the outskirts of a little town called Stokesdale, NC. I had a two acre lot near the end of a dead end road, and at some point before I bought the property a storm had torn through a stand of pine trees behind a huge shed and knocked over a dozen or so of them. Pretty much the day I moved in, I invested in a chain saw and some cinder blocks. I used the cinder blocks to form a large circle to serve as a firepit behind the shed, and set to work clearing out all the fallen trees one bonfire at a time. Some of these were party events, attended by dozens of people. But, most of them were just me, going out behind the shed in the evening, with a chainsaw and an axe, turning a half acre of fallen trees into an slowly growing empty space.

Back then, Greg lived only ten miles away, so at least once a week, sometimes more, he'd come over in the evenings and we'd stand around the fire, arguing politics and melting things. Glass bottles melt up nicely in a hot fire. And, if you get a fire hot enough and big enough, you can stand out in the woods in the middle of a fairly decent snow storm and still stay warm and semi-dry.

Something about standing in a small, hot circle of light in the middle of a dark winter night is conducive to honest conversation. Greg and I were both going through some struggles back them. My marriage was falling apart. He was a single father with a young daughter and was having trouble back then holding down a job. Both of us were in that phase of life where it was getting harder and harder to pretend we were still young men just starting out in the world. We were in our late thirties, and beginning to become aware that maybe we hadn't accomplished all we wanted to yet, and were somewhat at a loss to say where things had gone wrong, or even, truth be told, what it was that we had wanted. Clear goal setting wasn't a particular strength for either of us. Even a month before he died, Greg was still trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. I, on the other hand, have known since my mid-twenties exactly what I wanted to do with my life--I wanted to be a novelist, and to make a living at it. I just have never quite figured out the sure path to get there. The whole writing the books part... that I've got sussed. But making a living at it? Still a mystery.

So, Greg and I would talk about our doubts, as well as our dreams, as we turned pine trees into ash. And, I know there are people who go to therapists to talk through their problems, and some people who turn to religion, or even medication, to find a little peace. But, I really believe that what kept Greg and me sane through those tough years was the ability to go out and start a fire. There's something very primal about tending a fire beneath the stars. Something that connects back to the deepest human roots, reminds us of how we have pulled ourselves up out of animalness, that we are not just creatures of instincts and urges that we can't understand or control but are, in fact, masters of our world. We have the intelligence to build a fire, a dangerous, destructive thing, and keep it safely controlled, and take from it light and heat and memories.

Of course, eventually, with all fires, there comes a point where you've burned up all the fuel, and the embers that remain begin to smother beneath their own ash. Perhaps that's true of life as well; all that brightness and warmth must inevitably turn to cooling, ashed over cinders. You can't burn forever. But sometimes, even when the fire has died down to flickering wisps, you can still stir the ashes and send a shower of sparks heavenward.

Tonight, my memories of Greg are such sparks.