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


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

1001-A Fitness Update

As of today's hike on the Eno with Cheryl, I have logged 1001 miles of physical activity in Endomondo. About 450 is biking, another 450 is hiking and walking, and the rest is stuff like kayaking and running.

Next year will have a lot more running. Cheryl and I are building up to being able to run an entire 5k distance. Right now, I can go about 3k, with 1k of walking at the beginning and another 1k at the end.

Also next year, I'm planning a 50 mile bike ride to celebrate my 50th birthday.

I'm now faithfully attending a gym near my work, and starting to get my upper body into shape, since most of my activity to date has mainly strengthened my legs. My goal is to be able to do an actual unassisted chin up by my 50th birthday. I've never in my life been able to do one; I was kind of a scrawny kid, alas. But, I'm using the weight assisted machine to do them at the moment, and feel confident that I can get to the point I can do at least one or two within the next three months.

I feel like I should have something profound to say, on the occasion of having hiked (etc.) a thousand miles in a year. But, having worked out Monday, ran yesterday, and hiked today, all I can really say is: Man, am I going to sleep good tonight.

The Storyteller's Gift

Earlier this month, I was invited to take part in an event at the main branch of the Orange County Library called The Storyteller's Gift, where local authors discussed important books they'd received as gifts. This was my essay:

My grandfather Sid loved to read. His house was of full of books they'd spilled out to shelves on the front porch, where paperbacks soaked in the humidity of southern summers. There was no logic to the organization. Cookbooks would be mixed in with histories and random single volumes from encyclopedias. The books were purchased in bulk at flea markets and thrift stores, an eclectic collection of dime store romances, lurid non-fiction, and pulp detective tales. National Geographics accumulated in every corner, as well as Watchtower magazines, and numerous children’s books filled with Bible stories.

My grandfather never went to college. He’d grown up poor in coal mining country and worked most of his life in a factory. Reading helped him find a larger world beyond Appalachia. None of his children inherited his love of reading. I never saw my father with a book in hand, only the occasional woodworking magazine. The houses of my aunts and uncles had a book or two, but none showed an inclination toward building a library as grand as their father’s.

Then I came along. I was a kid more interested in books than toys. When I went to his house, I risked life and limb digging out National Geographics from tottering stacks taller than I was. The first science fiction anthology I ever read was pried from one of his porch shelves. I loved all the books about ancient astronauts and Bigfoot and alien abductions.

If I ever had a relative who should have given me a book for Christmas, it was my grandfather. But, he was a Jehovah’s Witness and didn’t celebrate holidays. While he was generous in letting me take home books I found on is porch, I can’t recall him ever giving me a book as a gift.

Like a lot of bookworms, he was a quiet person. Our only conversation I recall was him telling me how one day cars would run on hydrogen and we’d fill up our tanks with water.

He died when I was eleven. My grandmother survived him by over thirty years. The collection of books never changed after he passed away. They just kept rotting on the front porch, or collecting cobwebs in their stacks along the walls. She never got rid of the books, but never read anything other than the Watchtowers. For three decades, I never saw any new books show up on the shelves.
When she passed away a few years ago, her children had the task of emptying out the house. Silverfish and mold had ravaged the books on the porch. Cheap paper and decades of southern heat had reduced the books inside to fragile yellow pages that fell apart as you turned them.

I never went to her house after her funeral. It was the task of my aunts to settle her estate. I was told that the books had been hauled off to the dump, with a few of the more intact ones going to Goodwill. They’d save me a National Geographic from March of the year I was born. I was happy to have it, thinking this was the only link I’d ever have to that childhood library.

Two years ago, I went to my mother’s house the weekend before Christmas. I don’t celebrate the holiday myself, but my Mother and siblings do. I attend seasonal events with the firm rule that I don’t take part in gift exchanges.

My mother was almost apologetic when she came out of the back bedroom with a cardboard box for me. It wasn’t wrapped. It was just a bunch of random objects, all of them old. There was an ancient Kodak camera, an old conch shell, a few yellowed photos, a frozen watch. And, at the bottom of the box, books.

She’d saved these things while helping clean out my grandmother’s house and thought I might want them. My grandfather had one bookshelf in a back bedroom that had glass doors, so that the books inside had been in decent condition. She’d saved me a few science fiction and adventure novels.
I dug through the box and discovered that my grandfather had been a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs. There were a couple of Barsoom novels and a few Tarzan books, including a reasonably intact hardcover of Tarzan of the Apes.

I flipped to the copyright page. A. C. McClurg & Co., 1914.
I was no expert, but 1914 had to be darn close to the date Tarzan was first published.
I pulled out my phone.

Tarzan was originally published by A. C. McClurg & Co., 1914. First editions were worth $65,000, with dust jackets; jacketless editions like the one I held went for a mere $3000. Everything about my book matched the pictures on the internet, save for one small detail: While the copyright page listed the publisher as McClurg, the spine was stamped A. C. Burt.

Further research revealed the truth. A. C. Burt had reprinted the Tarzan books in the U.S. using the original British printing plates, including the copyright page. In perfect condition, they might be worth $50.

It didn’t matter. If it had been a first edition, I couldn’t imagine selling it. Flipping through the pages, the smell that washed over me was the exact scent of my grandfather’s porch. Even now, it takes me back to childhood.
This year, I finally read Tarzan. To say the novel hasn’t aged well is an understatement. The style is lurid. The plot is built on one implausible coincidence after another. There’s cringe-inducing racism. Tarzan, an abandoned white baby in a dark jungle, rises above the savage natives due to his superior intellect and fine breeding.

Toward the end of the book, the plot strains to tick the boxes of every imaginable adventure scenario, as Tarzan comes to America and races a car through a forest fire to rescue Jane and… I’m not making that up. Tarzan knew how to drive, because, why not? At this point, I was enjoying the book as an unintentional farce.

I reached the final scene, knowing that Tarzan and Jane confess their undying love and go back to the jungle… only that’s not how the book ends at all. In defiance of every Hollywood  adaptation, after crossing an ocean to find Jane, Tarzan realizes that, if he tells her he loves her, she’ll come back to Africa. But he also realizes she’ll never fit in there, any more than he belongs in the civilized world. The book closes with a perfect final sentence, one of the most satisfying closing lines I’ve ever read, as Tarzan throws away his chance of happiness in order to ensure Jane will have a better life. In an instant, a novel I hadn’t liked very much became a classic I wanted to talk with people about.

But who could I talk to? I didn’t know anyone who enjoyed old pulp novels. 
Except, of course, I did. He was gone now, but the fact he had a whole collection of Tarzan books told me a lot about his reading tastes. For the first time, I understood that it wasn’t just chance I’d found science fiction on my grandfather’s porch, or books about UFO’s piled under his coffee table. The books he’d chosen to preserve in his glass case were the ancestors of the books I now write.
It took me almost four decades to figure out that my grandfather had been a nerd. He’d lived in rural Virginia with no one around who shared his geeky interests. He didn’t talk much, but I bet he wanted to talk about those books.

I hope, by reading his books now, I’m doing my part to carry on the conversation. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Thinking about books, thinking about Greg....

"All over the States I wandered, and into Canada and Mexico .  The same story everywhere.  If you want bread you’ve got to get in harness, get in lock step.  Over all the earth a gray desert, a carpet of steel and cement.  Production!  More nuts and bolts, more barbed wire, more dog biscuits, more lawn mowers, more ball bearings, more high explosives, more tanks, more poison gas, more soap, more toothpaste, more newspapers, more education, more churches, more libraries, more museums.  Forward!"
--Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

My best friend Greg Hungerford passed away four years ago two days before Christmas. Of course, the holiday reminds me of him, but this year I've had a lot of other reminders as well. As I've been going back and rereading classic novels I either skipped or failed to appreciate in my school years, I keep running into books that remind me of Greg.

For instance, I would love to have read the Island of Dr. Moreau while Greg was still alive and harassed him until he read it as well (though, for all I know, he had read it, and it was my ignorance of the book alone that prevented a discussion). I think Greg would have really appreciated the religious undertones of the book, and the way the lines between man and animal get blurred. Greg and I talked a lot about books, but, curiously, we seldom read the same books. He was a big fan of biographies. I tended to lean toward science. He loved big, dense novels by writers like Faulkner. I loved tight little tales like the Grifters. But, while our tastes didn't overlap, the important thing was we were both readers. We both kept filling our heads with ideas, and used the other to test out those ideas through long, meandering arguments.

One thing we both loved were humorous authors. We'd swap books by Dave Barry, and both quoted extensively from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Whenever Dave Barry would publish his "Year in Review" column, it was something of a tradition for us to read it together. Greg usually did the actual reading out loud. He had a wonderful reading voice, and could manage to make it through most of the sentences without helplessly cracking up, as I was prone to do. No matter what he read out loud, he sounded like he'd practiced the material a dozen times, even if it was his first time glimpsing it. He just had the ear and the timing to translate the written word into poetic sound.

Of course, the single most perfect memory I have of Greg and a book comes from when I went to visit him in Athens Georgia. We were driving to get something to eat. As we pulled up to a stoplight, he suddenly threw open the car door and ran into the intersection. It was only then that I noticed a paperback book on the pavement. He snatched up the book and made it back to the driver's seat before the light changed.

"You really wanted that book," I said.

"It was on the road," he said.

"I saw."

"No," he said. "It was On the Road." He held up the Jack Kerouac classic. That's a coincidence even I find hard to believe, and I was there!

This year, I read On the Road again. I hated it. Behavior I was oblivious to when I read it in college now left me wondering how anyone could admire the book. Dean Moriarty, the most interesting character in the book, is a horrible slacker who can't hold a job. He runs around the country making babies with women, then abandoning them.

I encountered this same attitude in Tropic of Cancer, which I just finished last week. The book denounces honest work as a kind of slavery, and ends when the narrator convinces a man to leave his pregnant girlfriend because settling down with her is going to be the end of his freedom and happiness. The man agrees, but, feeling at least some twinge of guilt, he gives the narrator all the money he has on him to take to the woman to help her out, at least a little. The narrator sees his friend off, then keeps the money, because he's been broke the whole book and feels like he could use a little break from crushing poverty.

I can tell you that Greg's attitude toward jobs was similar to the Henry Miller quote at the top of this column. In the years I knew him, he probably had twenty or thirty different jobs. Only a few lasted more than a month or two. He wasn't lazy... he worked hard as hell when he found something that interested him, like repairing computers or rebuilding a carburetor. But, he was someone who was more suited to working his own hours and being his own boss. He didn't take kindly to the harness. He never quite fell into lock step.

Despite his years of drifting, and despite his deep seated desire not to get stuck in a steady job, Greg broke the mold of so many of the characters I've been reading about. Unlike Dean Moriarty, unlike Henry Miller, when Greg finally had a child, there was never, ever, even once, any thought of abandoning her. It didn't trap him to settle down and raise his daughter. He finally put down roots, and found that people, like trees, drawn nourishment from such structures.

Miller and Kerouac sang the praises of men who behaved badly. Greg didn't listen to their songs. The world needs more books written about men like him.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

The Five Most Overrated Classics (and Five that Deserve the Label)

On my Dragon Prophet blog, I've been chronically my reading for 2013, when I was trying to focus on reading classic novels that I'd somehow managed to skip in my reading to date. Some of these books left me stunned by how wonderful they were, the sort of books I wanted to run out and immediately start telling my friends about. But, because human nature is perverse, the books I usually wound up telling my friends about were the truly wretched ones, the books that turned out to be tedious, pointless slogs. In the end, I read 36 classics. Here are the five best, and five worst:

The Five Classics I read this year that I loved the most:

The Island of Dr. Moreau, H.G. Wells--An absolutely stunning book that explores man's relationship with God and tries to fix the line between what is human and what is beast, and just how thin that line may be. Beautiful writing, fascinating characters.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte--Of the romances I read this year, this one was my clear favorite. Jane has dignity and self sufficiency. She has to support herself, and has goals beyond just getting married. In contrast to, say, Pride and Prejudice, the obstacles to her happiness are genuine and not trivial. The lovers in Pride and Prejudice are kept apart by misunderstandings and class barriers that didn't resonate with me. The man Jane loves, on the other hand, is already married and hiding his deranged murderous spouse in the attic! That, my friends, is a barrier to romance. Alas, the book does fall apart a bit near the end, when the Jane's fortunes improve mostly through strokes of good luck instead of actions that she takes. Still, for truly deep, complicated characters, this book is hard to beat.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey--Holy moly! The language of this book is lyrical and evocative, written from a distorted point of view that misunderstands reality in a way that illuminates it. The plot and pacing are terrific, there's several characters you wind up caring for, and there are thought provoking explorations of how far society will let you go as an individual before you enter the zone of crazy. The one flaw is cringe-inducing misogyny. Every female in the book is a castrating bitch or a saintly whore, and the female antagonist is finally "put in her place" by a sexual assault. That said... wow!

Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut--Daring story structure, writing that is both plain and simple and poetic and surreal. A must read for those who think of WWII as the "good war." A beautiful tragedy.

Catch-22, Joseph Heller--Yeah, another WWII novel. Easily the funniest book I read this year, built around the most agonizing tragedy you can imagine. The way the story keeps building up layer after layer, from a dozen different character's perspectives, is a real high-wire act that leaves me amazed at how well it's pulled off.

Speaking of classics that left me amazed...

The Five Classics that I can't believe are considered classics:

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson--A good premise smothered by the author doing everything in his power not to actually show us much of Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. Stuffy writing, the barest imaginable plot, made all the more bewildering since Treasure Island by the same author is such an wonderful, fast paced, tightly written book.

Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jules Verne--Oh god, I can't believe I slogged all the way through this boring pile of words. The most shallow characters you can imagine, for no particular reason other than "just because," decide to go wander around in a really big cave. Lots and lots and lots of pages of characters looking at rocks. And, while I'm forgiving of outdated science in older SF, even when this book was written the whole notion that there were forests in the center of the earth had to be built around pure wishful thinking rather than any sort of evidence. The book's one virtue: It kept 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea off this list!

Dracula, Bram Stoker--This book is still famous today based on four or five awesome chapters at the beginning of the book, really some of the best horror ever written. And then... it feels like a different writer steps in to crank out the rest of the book. The hunt for the vampire is mostly a committee meeting. Seriously, there are chapters--chapters!--devoted to Mina typing up and organizing notes. Every time Van Helsing spoke, my eyes glazed over. And, the final climax is just about as anticlimactic as it could possibly be. Still, the first few chapters almost kept it off the list.

Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift--I admit, there's some funny stuff in here about the absurdity of how humans organize their societies. But, reaching the ten funny paragraphs requires wading through chapter after chapter of Swift bleeding his premises completely dry. We get it, Jon! These guys are really small! Or big! The real weakness of the book is that it's utterly plotless. It's just a record of weird stuff that just happens due to good luck or bad luck. And Gulliver himself is a complete non-entity, devoid of personality or goals, just a tourist in his own life.

On the Road, Jack Kerouac--Probably my most controversial pick on this list, since it's influenced so many writers. But it suffers from the same flaws as Gulliver's Travels. There's no plot, and the characters are all surface. Sal Moriarty is supposedly a fascinating, well drawn character, but, Jesus, if you met this guy in real life, you wouldn't want to spend five minutes in his company. He's a deadbeat who impregnates women and abandons them and tries to distract you from all the damage he's causing by talking about the beauty and mystery of life. I liked this book when I read it years ago, but, now I know children abandoned by their fathers, I know people who consider themselves too concerned with the life of the mind to be bothered with holding down a job, and I have no patience for a book that tries so hard to explain why such behavior is beautiful.

If someone wants to make a case for any of these five books, I'd love to hear what you found good about them. I know tastes vary, and my own prejudices can sometimes blind me to the charm of art that other people adore.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Bible for Non-Believers

As readers of my other blog know, I've been focusing on reading (and sometimes rereading) classic literature this year. As the end of the year approaches, I've decided to close out by reading some books of the Bible.

I've read a fair amount of the Bible thanks to my religious upbringing and continue to use a lot of Biblical learning in my writing. My Bitterwood novels are rife with Biblical allusions, not to mention direct quotes. Coming soon, I've got a short story called "Fall of Babylon" appearing in an anthology of kaiju stories where I draw heavily upon the Book of Revelation for inspiration.

But, at Capclave last month, I was talking about the book of Job on a panel with James Morrow and he basically said I didn't understand the lesson of that story. He's an author who's built a career out of building novels around Biblical concepts, so I'm taking his admonition seriously. It's been over 30 years since I've been to Sunday school and actually had homework assignments to read sections of the Bible. I have trouble remembering books I wrote just a year ago, so it's certainly possible that my memory of some of the Bible isn't as crisp as it needs to be.

Which, of course, invites the question: Why should I even want to know the Bible. I'm an atheist. Have been since my late teens. Why bother slogging through a book that's got almost nothing to do with my life these days?

I've got four answers:

1. The Bible is still the foundation of a vast body of English literature. Last month I read Jane Eyre, and all through the book she makes references to Biblical myths. While certainly our culture today is increasingly secular, and I'm sure you could watch a hundred episodes of "Three and a Half Men" without knowing a single scripture and not miss a thing, I still feel like many great books would be less satisfying if I was unaware of the religious text underpinning the works.

2. The Bible is actually pretty amazing reading... in parts. Look, I won't pretend that the average reader is going to get a damn thing out of trying to slog through Numbers or Leviticus or the cluster or minor prophets at the end of the Old Testament. But Job, Ecclesiastes, and Revelations are definitely worth mining for their poetry and imagery, and there's a lot of Biblical myths that a writer is going to be a hell of a lot poorer for not knowing. David versus Goliath, David and Bathsheba, the creation myth of Genesis, the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the parables of Christ, Jacob wrestling an angle, Moses parting the Red Sea then wandering in the wilderness for forty years, the Ten Commandments.... it's worth knowing these things for the same reason it's worth knowing Greek mythology or Norse mythology.  Only, more so, since no one takes Greek and Norse myths as literal truth, while we live in a nation where there are people... often people in with great political power... who do take these myths seriously.

3. It's important to know what's in the Bible because so many, many people think they know what's in it when they don't. I don't want to start a political discussion in this particular article, but lets just say that the Bible and Jesus get invoked a lot by both the right and left in contexts that bewilder me. I have a hard time figuring out how some people read the Bible and come away knowing Jesus's position of, say, the capital gains tax or EPA regulations. Knowing what's actually in the book so many people reference incorrectly is a useful tool for making yourself disliked in heated dinner conversations, if such is your goal in life.

4. It's important to know myself.  I was taught the Bible starting from the time I actually acquired language. I still remember some of the terror I felt in church being warned about the fires of hell. I remember the awe and wonder I felt thinking about armies of angels swarming down from a sky cracking open on Judgment Day. I remember my confusion about how the hell Noah got so many animals on the ark, and just what the heck any of this had to do with dinosaurs. I got a little cryptozoological thrill by being assured that giants and ghosts and witches and dragons were all real creatures, because the Bible said they were real.

There are still values and assumptions I hold without giving them much thought that no doubt arise from some of those early Sunday school lessons. Digging deeper into the book that gave birth to them might yet open unknown doors in my brain that lead me to discover the terra incognita within me.

So, next up... rereading Job.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Letting go of Superman

Last weekend I was a guest at Capclave, a speculative fiction convention in Maryland. I wound up on two panels about superheroes, one about superhero novels and one about superheroes with lame powers, like Stone Boy or Color Kid.

Neither was explicitly about the current state of the comic book industry, but both panels produced similar comments from the audience. Everyone who spoke up hated the comic books being published today, and quite a few people told me that they had finally quit reading DC comics. Attitudes toward Marvel were slightly less bitter, until, interestingly, we reached the topic of the Avengers and lots of people confessed to hating what had happened to the team in comic books while still being thrilled with the movie.

Even the people I talked to who still felt enthusiastic about modern comics admitted they've stopped buying the monthly titles and now wait and read only the collected graphic novels, since the monthly comics are seldom a complete story.

To me, the underlying problem is that, when comic books started gearing themselves toward adult buyers in the 80s, they found a much smaller audience, but an audience with much more money. When I was a kid, I had to ask my mom for a quarter if I wanted to buy a comic book. If I wanted a Superman toy, it was something I had to plead for an hope it might turn up at Christmas or a birthday. Now, you have adults willing to shell out fifty or sixty dollars for an action figure they will never take out of a box. When a new first issue of a title appears, there are comic book fans who will willingly buy three different variant covers, two copies each... since they need a copy to put into a poly bag and without ever actually opening it.

Because of all these adults with the shopping impulses of spoiled rich kids, Superman and other iconic characters have stopped being characters and started being properties. All that matters now is that new product get churned out month after month.

This isn't to say that no good stories are being told with these characters. But, because of the monthly need for new product, any good story is quickly washed away. Suppose that a creative team lands on a comic and takes the title in an exciting new direction; Grant Morrison and Richard Case on Doom Patrol in the 90s, for example. A brilliant run of edgy stories that made the book a hot property. But, Morrison and Case can't write the book forever. So, DC is left with two choices: Find a copycat writer artist team who will continue telling stories just like the popular ones. This was actually tried for a while and the results were fairly lame, because you can't imitate your way to originality. Eventually, the stories get so muddled and messy that readers drift away. But, the title can't be allowed to die an honorable death. Since it's a commodity with a proven market value, it now face the second option: The dreaded reboot. A new creative team comes aboard and wipes away everything that was done before, starting with a blank slate to tell fresh stories. Sometimes, this produces interesting results; after all, that was mostly how Grant Morrison and Richard Cases run had it's start (though they didn't completely wipe away all previous continuity). But, even if the reboot is successful, it hits the same wall: the creative team can only keep the new stuff going for so long, then the title goes back into stagnation or reboot. Eventually, fans get burned out and bitter.

I'm not saying that DC should never publish new Superman stories. But.... maybe it's time for the monthly comic book to pass away. Stop the treadmill of having to churn out stories month after month, year after year. Let time pass between new releases, and use strong editorial discretion to make sure the new releases are actually, you know, good. Take time to get it right.

It's really all up to us geeks. In the end, to save the characters we love... we must walk away from them, and grant our favorite monthly titles the right to die.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Drive-by Diplomacy

The debate among pundits seems to be that President Obama's handling of the situation in Syria was merely incompetent or outright idiocy. A few extreme right pundits have gone so far as to argue that the President has deliberately schemed to weaken America, while a few far left cheerleaders have proclaimed that the President was a Machiavellian genius who snookered Putin into getting exactly what he wanted all along.

I told a friend this week that Obama's performance had left me a little nostalgic for George W. Bush. I might not have agreed with Bush's choices, but you have to admit that he wasn't decisive. He might not have been the world's most gifted speaker, but when he took a position he and his underlings were prepared to defend that position to both the public, to congress, and to the rest of the world. Obama didn't seem ready to make the case even to himself. There's a show on Comedy Central called Drunk History where speakers narrate stories while intoxicated, getting their facts muddy, their narration meandering to odd places, until the speakers inevitably fall out of their chairs. Watching the stuff coming out of the White House, I detected the same sort of staggering, stumbling unsteadiness. Drunk diplomacy.

Yet, I have to admit, the end result is almost certainly the best possible case scenario. Obama managed to stumble himself right out of the hole he'd been digging for himself. The situation in Syria wasn't something we were going to solve by throwing drones at it. Obama is a one trick pony when it comes to military force--bomb bad guys, see what happens. I'm not certain it's effective, and I'm extremely certain it's not moral. Colin Powell famously invoked the (fallaciously named) "Pottery Barn" doctrine: You break it, you buy it. Until Obama, with a few exceptions like Reagan's bombing of Libya, the presumption was that, if we used military force against a nation, we than had an obligation to go in and provide security. Germany, Japan, Iraq, even Afghanistan... the stated goal was to leave these nations in better hands than they were when we decided to act against them. Anarchy was never an acceptable goal.

The only goal Obama seemed to have for Syria was anarchy. Punishing Assad only helped the rebels, and the rebels don't exactly strike me as nation building patriots. Bombing chemical weapon sites would have left big craters filled with dangerous substances at best, or wound up unleashing clouds of toxic materials to spread for miles at worst. Of course, you could not target the chemical weapons, just weaken Syria's infrastructure by taking out some power stations or bridges. But, this seems like an attack against the people of Syria, who have enough problems to deal with without us providing this kind of assistance. Our last option was to target Assad's troops and weapons, leaving him weakened. In this case, the rebels might overthrow him, and suddenly they are the ones controlling the chemical arsenals. Won't we all sleep better after that?

In the end, the only ethical choices before us were a full scale Iraq style invasion where we went in and stabilized the situation on the ground and took command of the chemical weapon stockpiles, or... we do nothing. The world is full of atrocities. We cannot intervene to stop them all. Attempting to do so would require us to conquer nation after nation, in a never ending quest to impose order.

Some people worry the world will become a more dangerous place if America isn't there to act as the world's policeman. Quite possibly. But I would argue that we help make the world a more dangerous place if our only course of action is to lob bombs onto foreign soil and hope for the best. That's not the behavior of the word's policeman. It's drive-by shooting diplomacy. Let us be done with it.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Day 365: Year one of living better

It was 365 days ago that I downloaded MyFitnessPal on my smartphone and made the choice to turn my life around. I put in my weight that first day at 284 pounds. I just weighed myself a few minutes ago, and I now weigh 228 pounds. Not only have I been able to lose about 20% of my body weight, I've now kept it off since I hit my major milestone of 224 pounds back in May.
Alas, I never reached the goal of hitting 220. So close, but it eluded me. I'm still hoping that I'll get there eventually. My weight started going the other way in May when the days started getting longer for a very good reason: I began moving my body through space at distances I couldn't have even dreamed of last year. Below is a chart generated by Endomondo, the program I use to keep track of how far I walk, hike, bike, run, and kayak. I started using the app last December. As you can see, I got a little obsessive about keeping my total distance always just a little bit higher than the month before, I trend I managed until August. But, in fairness, I had weeks of vacation in June and July where I had the time to do more long bike rides. The fact I got as far as I did in August while holding down a full time job is a pretty good accomplishment.

So, while I've gained a few pounds, I'm pretty sure most of the gain has come from adding muscle to my legs. Since we added biking to our workout schedule, it really uses a very different set of muscles than hiking. We've gone from sweating and panting our way through six mile bike rides to managing 30 mile rides, with plans for longer ones.

Alas, some of the few pounds I've added back might be fat. One paradox of all the exercise I've done this summer is that it's kept me eating ridiculously high calorie loads. Over the course of a week, I might burn an extra 8000 calories from exercise, but all the working out leaves me famished, so I can't stop snacking, and feel justified eating larger portions of everything. I'm still avoiding soda, but confess I've gone back to eating pizza after mostly staying away from it last winter.

Of course, weight isn't the only important number when it comes to health. I gave blood last night and my blood pressure was terrific and my resting pulse was only 68. My resting pulse used to be in the high 80s or low 90s. I used to have pretty frequent back pain, and now I go whole days without noticing a twinge. And, I'm still fitting into the 34" waistband pants I bought back in the spring. All in all, I'm probably more fit than I've ever been in my life.

Cheryl and I have moved ourselves through space under our own power a little over 750 miles so far this year.  We plan to make it to 1000 miles before years end, though it does get a little tougher in the winter since it's harder to get in long hikes or rides after work when it gets dark 30 minutes after Cheryl gets home. Still, I think we'll make it.

The major milestone I'm shooting for now is to bike 50 miles on my 50th birthday. That's in early March, so weather might complicate that. Obviously, if it's snowing or raining hard, I'll have to reschedule. Still, it's something to look forward to, and something I could barely dream of when I started this last year.

Friday, August 16, 2013

A few rambling thoughts on wealth disparity.

I read a lot these days about wealth disparity. One frequently sighted statistic is that the top 10% of households control 75% of the total wealth in the US. Dig even deeper, and the to 1% control 35% of the total wealth in the US. I have no reason to dispute these numbers.

A billionaire has roughly 10,000 times as much money as I have. But, does that make him 10,000 times better off? Can he buy 10,000 times as much health care? Perhaps he can afford 10,000 cars; good luck driving all of them. Is his television 10,000 times as large as mine? Does he have 10,000 times as much food? As much clothing? It seems to me that there is a point where extra wealth runs up against the wall of practical reality. He probably could buy his wife a wedding ring 10,000 times more expensive than the one I bought Cheryl, and maybe he could own some rare painting worth more than all the houses combined in the small town I live in. But, rings and paintings have value mainly because of subjective cultural factors. Practical things you need to live, like food, can be extremely expensive, but, from a nutritional standpoint, your body burns steak and potatoes from a high dollar restaurant exactly the same as it burns a taco from a food truck.

A billionaire and I have access to exactly the same books, movies, and music, at least what's recorded. I suppose people with a lot of wealth can hire their favorite musicians to play their children's birthday parties.

It is true that wealth can purchase experiences beyond my income. A billionaire could travel around the world on his or her private plane whenever the whim struck; I can barely afford a couple of trips a year to a beach in the next state. It's not just the money I can't afford, but the time. Working for an employer, I'm allowed only a certain number of days off each year, and these have to be approved in advance. Of all the things I envy most about great wealth, it would be the freedom to do what you wish with your time without asking permission. But, even the free time produced by wealth runs into some limits. We all get the same number of hours in a day and days in a year. I might chafe at the constraints placed upon me by holding down a steady job, but I'm sure wealthy individuals have their own headaches and hassles and wonder where all their time goes.

So, if there's a point where wealth has brought an individual pretty much everything that's available to own or experience in the world, does it make sense to allow a small sliver of the population to keep accumulating wealth? Or, would it be more beneficial to spread some of that wealth around?

Maybe I've been listening to too many Billy Bragg songs, but there is something appealing to the notion of taking a billionaire's wealth and dividing it up among, say, 100,000 families. An extra 10 grand for most families would be a pretty significant windfall. But, would it be moral to just take the money? What exactly is the ethical principal that says it's okay to take someone's property against their will and give it to someone else, even if the person you give it to really, really needs it? If I had bad kidneys, and there was a compatible donor who didn't want to give up one of his, would it be ethical for a doctor just to go ahead and take the involuntary donor's kidney anyway because it will save my life without causing permanent harm to his? One could argue there's a huge difference between body parts and money, but, I don't know. The money I have I've paid for by exchanging lots and lots of hours of my life, countless heartbeats and breath, lots of sore muscles and burned out brain cells. Taking my money is kind of stealing my body.

But, maybe it's all just a matter of what analogy you choose to use. Suppose there was a huge fire at my neighbor's house, and I had a swimming pool in my back yard, and the fire truck started pumping my pool dry, despite my protests of, hey, that's my water! I think only the most hardened libertarian would say that the firemen were in the wrong.

One last rambling thought: Is our wealth disparity possibly protecting the environment? While so few people control so much wealth, there are practical caps on how much they can consume. That billionaire can't realistically drive the 10,000 cars he could afford. But, divide up his wealth among 10,000 poor people, and suddenly they might all be able to afford cars, and bigger televisions, and find themselves eating higher up the food chain, consuming more meat and fewer backyard tomatoes. Distributed wealth would inevitably result in increased consumption. We don't notice a lot of the environmental harm our consumer society produces because we've outsourced a lot of our pollution. Not many American cities still have smokestacks, but China puts out enough smoke and dust you can see it from space. Could we survive even a hundredfold increase in our consumption? My gut instinct tells me we'd muddle through. It also tells me I'll probably never find out, since there's zero evidence that the wealth accumulation trends are going to change anytime soon.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Our Economic Future: Ecclesiastes 1:9

On Friday, I was given my annual performance appraisal. It was pretty positive all around, with high marks for my troubleshooting prowess and my ability to innovate and improve. Our center led the company in a lot of areas, and the appraisal gave me credit for figuring out a way to utilize our machines more profitably, credit I fully deserved. If the whole network adopts my idea, it will probably save the company tens of thousands of dollars a month.

I should have come out of that performance appraisal feeling pretty good about myself and my role in the company. Instead, my review was intensely bittersweet--I was being given a performance appraisal for a job I no longer had, written by a boss who no longer had his job either, since higher ups in the company had closed down our workplace in an effort to streamline the production network. The fact that our location consistently was at the top of rankings for various quality and profitability measures couldn't save us from the fact that, on a map, we were a bit too close to a few other production centers to justify renewing out lease.

Luckily, I was able to find another position inside the company, with a small cut in pay, and doubling of commute time. But, at least I still have a full time position that qualifies for benefits. Most of the positions being advertised these days in my company are part time. Which, if you read any economic news at all, you'll recognize as part of a larger economic trend, as a sizable majority of jobs being created these days are for part time positions.

I was tempted to just take the severance package and try to make a living solely by writing. But, writing income is lumpy; I get some monthly income from Amazon, but a sizeable chunk of my income still arrives as advances, and often these advance payments are months late. For instance, I was due an advance in April that didn't arrive until near the beginning of July. Unfortunately, my bills arrive every month.

Yet, I still might have been tempted, if not for health insurance. Going onto my wife's plan was a huge expense to lump on top of a loss of a steady income, and securing my own insurance was an even greater expense. I'm almost fifty and I've watched friends younger than myself battle with cancer and heart disease and seen some of the resulting bills, so, even though I'm in excellent health at the moment, I know that getting sick without health insurance would have the potential to wipe out every dime I've ever saved.

Our health care system has become a sort of giant reverse lottery. One day, your number comes up, and, boom, you have a $100,000 disease. If you don't have health insurance, you're bankrupt. If you do have health insurance... sadly, you're probably part of the reason health costs keep climbing. We've built a system where the person who purchases the services isn't the person who pays for them. So, most of us don't really pay attention to our hospital bills, we just let our insurance companies deal with it and pay whatever we're told to pay. When our insurance costs keep rising year after year, we blame the greedy insurance companies, not the rising health care expenses.

In reality, while I'm taking a reduction in my wages to stay with my company, next year I'll probably cost them a little more than I did this year because they'll be paying more for my insurance. According to statistics you can google for yourself, large employers like the one I work for are going to see an increase in premiums of about 6.3%. A little of that will be passed on to me, but, on total, the company will still be paying more to keep me employed next year than they did this year. My wages have been grown at a rather lackluster rate for most of the last decade. A 3% raise was a good year; some years, I got nothing. But, every full time employee was getting invisible raises in the form of the company paying ever more for our health insurance.

Knowing that insurance is going to be an ever growing expense, it makes sense for a large employer to look for every way they can to reduce the number of people they have to insure. The location I now work at was once staffed by over twenty people. Now, there are under ten. Small things we used to do like ringing people up have been replaced by automated pay stations that operate with a credit card. Big things we used to do like long, involved consultations to coordinate large projects have pretty much been eliminated. A lot of the document creation work that used to be done on site is now done by a separate company with a staff mostly located overseas. When I look around, I think, well, they can't cut the staffing any further. But, of course, they can. There are a half dozen branches within a twenty mile radius. Trimming one or two of these locations could probably be justified. Within the branch, a lot of time is spent shipping packages, with an employee standing at a station typing in the shipping information. How long before the computer gets turned around and it's the customer typing in their own information?

Think your industry is safe? There are technologies and social changes in the pipeline that can disrupt nearly every industry imaginable. Walmart makes a lot of dough selling us stuff cheaply; but in twenty years, 3d printing might be so advanced and so cheap, there's no point in going to the store to buy a new toothbrush; you can just print a new one at home. The masses of people working in factories overseas to supply us with toothbrushes and blue jeans and cell phones will one day look back at todays era as the golden age of jobs, the way people in Detroit fondly recall previous decades.

Even if technology doesn't wipe out an industry, there's always cultural changes. There was once a time when you couldn't drive through North Carolina in the summer without passing miles and miles of tobacco fields. This year, we noticed a tobacco crop while we were driving through South Carolina and marveled at how long it had been since we'd seen anyone growing the plant. Coca Cola still sells billions of gallons, but sooner or later the war on sugary drinks will move from being championed by a big city mayor or a first lady and be a major line item on a presidential agenda, and we'll see that industry humbled.

Right now, there's an energy revolution thanks to fracking, with plentiful oil and gas projected out for decades. But, we also have tons of coal; we just don't burn as much as we used to do to changing environmental regulations. Within a decade or so, someone will engineer a superefficient battery that lets an electric car cruise for a thousand miles between charges and gas stations will disappear. Or maybe a solar panel will be improved to be a hundred times more efficient than what's available today. Suddenly, digging energy out of the ground will be a quaint, obsolete technology, something that a caveman might do.

Even the health care industry, with it's ever rising profit margins--one day, someone is actually going to figure out a cure for cancer. You'll swallow one custom printed pill that will have an eye-popping price tag, but, after that, you're cured. You don't have to go to the hospital every week for chemo. You don't have years and years of scans and blood work looking for recurrence. It will be one and done, and the legions of people currently handling the paperwork required for billing all the thousand little expenses incurred in caring for you will suddenly be surplus employees.

Or, before a cure is found, people get so disgusted with the status quo that they just accept a single player health care plan, and the legions of people who currently work in the health insurance industry find that they're out of work, though at least they don't have to worry about losing their health insurance.

All of this sounds negative, perhaps even a little scary. But, I predict we'll like the world to come. As an author, I hate driving past places that used to be bookstores and seeing them vacant. As a reader, I like laying in bed and downloading a free novel to my kindle. I'm reading easily two or three times as many books as I did just a few years ago because there's no longer any real barrier between thinking about a book I'd like to read and acquiring it. The same is true of music; I buy more music today than ever, obscure bands like Beruit and Neutral Milk Hotel whose CDs would never have been stocked at my local record stores, back when there were local record stores. Beyond a few elitist audiophiles, does anyone really miss actual records? I'm told that the music I stream on Spotify has a lower sound quality, but I grew up in an era where I listened to music on distant FM radio stations, or through a tape deck in the dash. I suppose if I only listened to music in a dark room wearing headphones, I might detect some subtle difference in the quality, but under real world listening conditions, I honestly can't tell the difference. 

The air will be cleaner. The streets will be quieter. You won't have to deal with crowded parking lots or long lines at stores. Younger workers growing up in this new economy will probably like their jobs. Electric bills will be a thing of the past, as most homes will produce their own power. Even the dreaded ever growing cable bill will probably vanish, as everyone starts streaming only the shows they actually want to watch, probably at some trivial fee. Instead of huge media companies raking in all the profits, small indy media will carve out profitable little micro niches, where a few thousand fans can provide enough income to make a project worthwhile.

The challenge will be for people of my era. I'm way too young to retire, but old enough that returning to school and learning a new career where I'd have the skill levels of a twenty something intern as I'm launching a new career in my mid-fifties seems daunting. Ah well. I imagine wagon drivers had much the same worries the first time they saw a locomotive chugging down tracks. A few decades later, passenger train engineers must have gazed up at the airplanes high overhead and felt a gnawing sense of that their days were numbered.

Ah well.

What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.

Friday, June 28, 2013

North Carolina needs to revisit same sex marriage

Last year, North Carolina voters passed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. I voted against the amendment. I think gay marriage is a completely positive societal force, not just good for homosexuals, but for heterosexuals as well. I have longer, more detailed arguments for why I think it's positive, but the short version is that straight people have kind of dropped the ball on championing covenant monogamy as a superior social arrangement, so it's nice to have some new advocates on board who might show a little more enthusiasm for the cause.

When the amendment passed, I viewed it as a temporary set back. What could be amended by a simple majority could be undone by simple majority. I thought that within a decade or two we'd see a different outcome.

Now, I worry we don't have a decade to get things right. While I support gay marriage, I would prefer to see it enacted at the ballot box rather than through court action. I think it's plain from the text of Kennedy's opinion that he thinks there's an equal protection argument in favor of gay marriage that will likely apply to all states. I suspect it will be less than five years before we have such a ruling, negating laws throughout the majority of the states who've banned gay marriage.

I think it would be foolish for North Carolina to wait until it's ban is negated from above. During the next few years, I suspect there will be significant economic cost to this state if we don't change our laws.

First, North Carolina likes to court large tech corporations like Google and IBM, not to mention creative industries like film and television companies. These employers would no doubt prefer to treat their employees to uniform policies. They wouldn't want to extend benefits to a same sex couple in California that would be problematic in North Carolina. (For instance, even if the company extended health care benefits to same sex partners regardless of state law, in states where the spouses are legally married, those benefits wouldn't be taxable income, while, in NC, they would be taxable.) I doubt we'll see big corporations pick up and move from our state, but have no doubt we could become less competitive in recruiting them to come here in the first place.

Second, I think we'll start to see a population shift if this issue isn't resolved soon. Why would homosexual couples continue to live in a state where they can't be legally married if there are a dozen other states to choose from where they can get all the benefits of marriage? Maybe some right-wingers are delighted by the thought of all the gays packing their bags and moving to California. But, while I hate to play into the stereotype that all gays are hip, smart, creative people, if you go to some of the hippest, smartest, most creative spaces in our state, you find a reasonably high concentration of homosexuals. This could be rank prejudice on my part, extrapolating from the few dozen gay people I know to the whole of the state. I have no hard data to back me up. Still, my gut tells me that, if you cut the homosexual population by even a quarter, the down towns of places like Durham or Greensboro are going to be noticeably less lively and interesting.

My third reason is a combination of the first two, with a slightly different spin. One reason North Carolina has some great down towns is that we have some great schools like Duke and UNC. These draw in a lot of talented kids, some of who stay here and make our state a better place. But, if you're a homosexual teenage looking for a school to go to, are you going to seriously consider going to school in a state where you are viewed as a pervert unworthy of all the rights afforded to straight people? Especially when there are a dozen other states with good schools where you might be able to meet the love of your life and have that state legally recognize that love?

The DOMA ruling has set an economic and demographic bomb ticking in NC. We need to disarm it as quickly as we can before it blows a hole in our economy.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Tip-Toeing to Utopia

In a discussion last night, I was informed that the government employees who review the phone metadata and the internet data collected via PRISM are honest, dedicated people who operate under strict safeguards to ensure the data isn't abused.

I believe this. I'm certain they do their jobs with the highest ethical standards and the best motives in the world. They aren't reading your emails to your cousin in Pakistan because they want to use that information to harm you or enrich themselves. They want to protect you from proven threats. There are people in this world who plot to harm others; we should be glad there are people working to stop them.

In 1984, the men who comprise Big Brother are sinister rulers who manipulate the public and watch their every move for unabashedly sinister reasons. They're masterminds who view the rest of humanity as pawns in a grand game of chess.

I don't have much fear of America slipping down this path, where men of ill-will exploit us for personal gain. My concern is a much more plausible slippery slope. I'm worried we'll surrender our freedom bit by bit to men with noble goals and pure motives.

Let us grant that the laws passed in the wake of 9-11 have prevented many terrorists attacks. The exact number isn't important. If one terrorist attack a year is stopped, isn't this worth trading a little privacy? Only the most rabid libertarian would argue that longer lines and random frisks at airports are too high a price to pay in order to save the life of an entire plane full of passengers. As for the phone and internet data, the 99.999999% of us who aren't engaged in any activity even vaguely related to terrorism have nothing to worry about. We have the lack of another 9-11 as proof of effectiveness. Where's the harm?

In fact, monitoring phone metadata has apparently proven so effective at sniffing out terrorists that it would be almost criminal not to expand it's usage to other threats to public safety. Drug traffickers, for instance, almost certainly make use of cellphones and emails. The systems we've put in place to unravel terrorist networks could be applied to the war on drugs. Far more people are killed or injured each year as a result of illegal drugs than by terrorism. We already put up with drug tests to gain employment. Catch one small time pot dealer, trace all the calls he's made, then all the calls of all the people he called, and before long you've got a hundred members of a drug cartel cooling their heels in prison. Unless, of course, some of those members of the drug cartel are hiding out in countries where we can't easily get to them, like Cuba. Fortunately, we already have policies in place that allow us to use drones to eliminate threats we can't reach vial conventional methods.

Of course, many of the deaths in the drug wars have nothing to do with drugs, and a lot to do with the fact that gangs have become de facto militias waging war with rival factions using illegally obtained guns. But, again, at some point an illicit gun dealer has used a cell phone or sent an email. It would be for the public good to extend the tactics learned in the war on terrorism to a war on gun trafficking. People who legally purchase guns have nothing to worry about. No one's trying to take guns away from good people. Lawful gun owners would actually be more free once we get rid of the unlawful scoundrels.

However, in all the statistics released each year about gun deaths, there's a complicating factor that doesn't get discussed as much as it should. The number one cause of gun fatalities isn't crime, but suicide. Suicide would seem to be a victimless crime, but, honestly, it doesn't take more than two minutes of thought to realize that it isn't. There's the obvious emotional toll it takes on the loved ones of the deceased, but not so obvious social and economic costs as well. Alas, there's really know way of predicting who's going to try to kill themselves. Unless, well, maybe there is. It's quite possible that, if you review the phone records, facebook posts, and library checkouts of suicide victims you would be able to discover the warning signals. Once you knew the right keywords, you could use the systems already perfected during the war on terror to discover likely candidates for suicide and stage interventions to protect them from themselves. We'd save thousands of lives each year. Isn't trading a little privacy in your email communications to friends and relatives a tiny price to pay to prevent even one death?

We can all agree that preventing death (or even injury) is the highest, most noble purpose of any government. Safety is the paramount concern. For instance, reckless driving is a scourge on America that causes more death, hospital visits, and time lost from work than terrorism, gun wars, or drugs. We've repeatedly proven, as a people, that we need the state to step in and protect us from ourselves. We need laws to tell us to wear seat belts, to let us know we shouldn't drink and drive, or text our friends from behind the wheel. We have to have vehicle inspections, because, yes, there are people perfectly willing to drive without fully operational brakes or headlights or tires with actual tread. We need cameras at stoplights because people run those things, and cops patrolling the roads because we regard speed limits as ridiculous suggestions. We've proven for over a century that, when trusted with automobiles, we'll find ways of hurting ourselves or others. Take heart, however, that this is a new era of technology, when, with a little political courage, we need never fear reckless drivers again. Your smart phone always knows your location via GPS. It wouldn't require any significant new technology for your phone to constantly broadcast your speed to your cellular provider and for this data to be stored. Then, if the police pull you over for going too fast, they could get a warrant to check your records and see that, yep, you routinely drive 90 miles an hour during your morning commute. Someone that reckless is essentially a murderer lurking among us, waiting to kill not out of malice, but out of selfishness. His need to get home five minutes faster was more important to him than the minivan filled with kids he might one day plow into. Time to get him off the streets for good.

It will be paradise. A world where it's safe to drive on the roads, a world where no one ever fear random, violent death, a world where you don't have to worry that your kids are getting exposed to unsafe substances when you're not watching them.

Well, except the most dangerous unsafe substance currently attacking our children: Food. You don't have to be Mayor Bloomberg to notice that, as a nation, we have a lot of lard buckets among our kids. This has a tremendous societal cost. We all pay for increased medical care, obviously, and I'm guessing it wouldn't take a tremendous amount of research to prove that overweight children often have self esteem issues that wind up leading them to live less ambitious lives as adults. The potential economic impact over decades may easily cost us trillions. And think of the lives lost; death from obesity related diseases is a much greater scourge on society than even automobile accidents.

But what if... what if there's some phone metadata that might reveal patterns that would allow the government to sniff out harmful behavior in advance? I mean, this is just speculation of course, but, if the government had tax records showing that you were a single dad with three children under twelve, and also had phone records showing that you ordered pizza delivered to your house three times a week, might this not be a signal worth looking into? Many of us shop at supermarkets where we scan a little card each time we make a purchase in exchange for discounts. Grocery stores collect this data on our buying habits to better target coupons, but couldn't great public good be gained by turning this data over to the government? Too high of a Twinkie to brocolli ratio in a house with children, and it's time for the authorities to pay a visit to the home. Not for any sinister reason of course. It's all for the good of the kids.

This is Utopia. We want a world where the government keeps us safe and happy from cradle to grave. I don't see a lot of politicians getting voted into office on the platform of, "You're on your own, you fat reckless idiots."

The only price we pay, a very small price I think, is that, arguably, we'll no longer be human. We'll be sheep, part of a large, fluffy, soft herd.



Don't forget, Nobody Gets the Girl, a Superhero Novel, on sale on through June 19 for just 99 cents!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

What Orwell Got Wrong

This morning, I read the second most depressing thing I've yet read about the NSA data collection "scandal." I put scandal in quotes because, as it turns out, a substantial majority of Americans don't think it's scandalous that the US monitors the metadata of their phone calls. According to a Pew pol this morning, 56% of people don't have a believe that the monitoring is an acceptable tool for preventing terrorism. This is actually a higher percentage who feel this way than under the Bush administration, since in the previous administration, 37% of Democrats were in favor of this sort of surveillance, but now that Obama is the one collecting the data, 64% of Democrats are cool with it. (Republican opinion is just as partisan, with a 24% swing between administrations who think these actions are unacceptable.)

I'm depressed by these numbers, but not surprised. What Orwell got wrong in 1984 was the idea that people would feel stressed out or depressed by constant surveillance. But, in the era of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and blogs, it turns out that many people crave having their thoughts known every waking moment. There's a Candorville comic strip where the protagonist wakes up and finds an NSA agent sitting at the edge of his bed. The NSA agent starts to give the protag advice on his love life. The protag is outraged. "How does the government know so much about me?" he demands. The NSA agent says, "For starters, we read your blog." To which the protag gives a sheepish smile and says, "Oh, thank you."

The age of privacy is dead. Millions of people willingly use GMail despite the fact that Google makes no secret that it searches every email for keywords it can use to better target advertising. And we understand, on a technological level, that the cell phones we rely on everyday have to be tracked by a big corporation merely to relay calls to you. The sort of metadata the government collects is obviously in the possession of the phone companies, since they need to know who we're calling and how long in order to bill us. It's a trade off I think most of us accept because we don't think that a corporation like Verizon is likely to use this data against us in a harmful way. By studying who you call, when you call, and how long you call, Verizon could probably discover things you don't want widely known, but you trust that there's no money in them revealing these things, so why worry?

But, here's the part of this NSA news I find most depressing: There is money in this data. I don't think Verizon is being paid for turning over this information, but a second private firm, Booz Allen Hamilton, is being paid to do the data collection for the government. The spying has been outsourced. Your call data isn't being reviewed by men in black suits with stern faces sitting in a CIA office in DC. It's being looked at by 20-something tech geeks who may not be as responsible with the data as you would like. Hell, the fact that we even know about the extent of the surveillance is proof that not all these tech geeks are screened for their potential to misuse the data, since obviously Edward Snowden was able to walk away from the job with a substantial amount of top secret information.

In some ways, I'd be less bothered if it was the government collecting the data. I don't agree that they should be collecting the data, but at least I would believe that they would only use this data for a reasonably limited purpose of criminal investigation. But if a private corporation is collecting the data, they have to understand they're sitting on a gold mine of knowledge about people's behavior that advertisers would pay billions to have. I'm sure there are laws in place to prevent this knowledge from being sold... just as I'm sure there are lobbyists in place working to weaken or remove any such safeguards. It's bad enough I'm being spied on. Thinking that people are getting rich by spying on me via my own tax dollars just twists the knife a tiny bit more.

Luckily, our government has such a spotless record of standing up to large corporations, we've nothing to worry about, right?


By the way, not that I was especially prescient in this, but one of the plot points in my novel Nobody Gets the Girl is how a man who wants to do only good for the world, Dr. Knowbokov, uses his ability to spy on people's most private thoughts in a rather unsavory manner. And all to fight terrorism! I wrote the book 13 years ago. At the time I wrote it, I worried that the theme might feel dated in a few years. Hah! Oh well. If you haven't read Nobody yet, now's a good time. It's on sale for a mere 99 cents on Kindle through June 19.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

One month later: 224

I'd hoped to get under 220 by now, but it's been a slog just to lose the last pound I needed to get rid of to say I'd lost an even 60 pounds. But, this morning I weighed in at 223.8, so I feel like I can finally make that call.

I'm a little suprised it took a month to budge this little extra bit. Cheryl and I have put in a lot of miles in May, with numerous long bike trips and one strenous 8 mile hike at Stone Mountain, plus a dozen or more shorter walks. I did up my calorie count to a less agressive target, but I'm suprised that the increase in exercise didn't give me better results. Still, I'm down yet another waist size to a 34" waist.

I've also noticed that maybe, just maybe, my back isn't hurting me as much as it once did. I used to get terrible backaches from being on my feet too long. As I've been losing weight, it's bothered me that I wasn't getting the benefit of less back pain. I thought taking off the pounds would take the strain off my back. But, if anything, my back pain got worse in recent months. But, today we were out walking and toward the end I noticed my back was sore... and realized that it was the first time my back had really hurt in weeks. Maybe those last two inches of waistline were the key.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Weight Loss for Geeks Part Five: Money

One side effect of losing a lot of weight: It can be a little expensive. I've lost eight inches from my waist size, closing in on ten. I started out wearing a 42" waistband, but by the time I hit a 38" waist, trying to keep my old pants on was somewhat comic. I bought several new pairs with a 38" waist, but they were soon pretty baggy, and 36" inch waists fit much better. Now, I'm in 34" and they're already loose. My 38" waistbands have already gone to charity, practically new, and my 36ers will likely be there before long.

I've also invested in relatively expensive hiking boots, running shoes, and general purpose sneakers. Not that I'm losing weight in my feet, but once I routinely began hiking long distances, I found out the importance of really good shoes. Six months ago, I would have been skeptical that a hundred dollar pair of running shoes offered any real advantage over a pair from Walmart, but now that I've started jogging, I can tell you that the right shoes do make a difference. So do knee braces and, of all things, compression shorts and shirts.

Other costs: One of those little arm band thingies to hold my phone. A used treadmill. I'm also looking at buying a new bike.

But, some costs it turned out I didn't have to spend money on: A gym membership. Walking, jogging, and hiking are all great calorie burners, and they're all free. Once you get committed, bad weather doesn't deter you that much. Cheryl and I have gone hiking during a snowstorm. We went walking during the rain a few weeks ago. Last week, we were caught in a cloudburst while biking. It was refreshing. We aren't Baum witches. We don't melt.

We save a ton of money by eating out less. And, when we do eat out, water is pretty much all we drink. A lot of restaurants are charging $2.50 for sodas these days, so our bills are usually $5 less than they used to be. Also, we often just order one entree and split it these days. Restaurant proportions are ridiculously oversized in most cases.

For daily eating, Aldi is our best friend. I drink a lot of selzter water. I can get a case at aldi for about $7. Food Lion wants 99 cents a bottle. Also, we eat a crazy amount of fiber bars. My routine breakfast is a V8 and an oatmeal bar. The bars can be five bucks a most grocery stores, but at Aldi they're less than two.

Aside from the fiber bars, we eat mostly food we cook ourselves. This involves frequent trips to the farmer's market. We've bought a freezer (oh yeah, another expense) so we can buy meat from Sam's Club and freeze it rather than buying smaller portions at Food Lion. We usually build our meals around a lean protean.

The biggest investment turns out not to be money, but time. We have to travel a bit more to get our groceries, since we don't just live on frozen pizzas from Food Lion any more. And, it takes a lot of planning to have all the meats and veggies ready to go for each night's dinner, and then more time and attention to preparing them than eating prepackaged dinners. And this time is hard to squeeze in, given that we're also walking an hour most evenings.

We watch less TV than we used to. I've managed to find time for writing books, but have less time to blog than I once did. Also, and this is a little embarrassing, I no longer have much fodder for the old political rants I used to post, because I no longer have a lot of time to devote to following the news of the day. I'm not as focused on externalities as I once was, but also not as distracted.

Today, Cheryl and I are going to visit a couple of farmer's markets, then bike 24 miles on the tobacco trail. There won't be time for sitting around on the computer reading the news.

Honestly, I don't miss it.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Weight Loss for Geeks Part 4: Bodies in Motion Remain in Motion

Exercise. This is the part of weight loss that has most tripped me up in the past. Because, bluntly, exercise bores me. I've got other stuff to do. I work a full time job, write novels in the evenings, and would like to spend my weekends enjoying the company of friends and family instead of being trapped in some gym. I'm already running out of hours in the day before I run out of stuff I gotta do. When I do have a few minutes each day to unwind, I'd rather read a book or mess around on the internet for a little while. Where the hell am I supposed to find time to exercise?

It wasn't always this way, of course. When I was a kid, my love of reading went meshed nicely with keeping myself active. Since I was a bookish kid, it was only natural I knew the location of the nearby libraries. The closest one was a couple of miles from my house, but, fortunately, I had a bike. So, during summers, it was almost a daily thing for me to make the trek from my house to the library. I often joke that, if I'd kept up that link between reading and exercising, I'd be as skinny as an adult as I was as a kid.

Well, I'm happy to report that I've been able to harness the geeky parts of my brain into a willing ally in my quest to burn calories.

First, as a geek, I love gadgets. It's almost sad how much pleasure I take out of finding new stuff to do with my smartphone. I mentioned in my last post that I record everything I eat in an app called MyFitnessPal. When I walk, jog, hike, or bike, I use an app called Endomondo that uses GPS to track my movements and record  my distance, speed, and calories burned. Once I started using Endomondo, the gaming geek part of my brain kicked in and I started wanting to improve my stats. If I averaged walking a mile in 20 minutes, could I get that time down to 18? When I hit that goal, could I get my time under 16? To beat that time, I had to start jogging. I'm down to just over 13 minutes, which is a snail's pace compared to most jogger's speeds, but a pretty amazing accomplishment for me. I'm already working to get that down to 12, then down to 10. In addition to speed, I also push for distance. I used to be happy walking five miles a week. Now, if I don't get in ten, I feel like a slacker. And, I know if I'm slacking off, because Endomondo helpfully shows me records of all my activity, and I can see quickly if my numbers are going the wrong way.

Of course, getting out and walking for two or three hours at a stretch still presents the old obstacle of boredom. Like many modern citizens, I've trained my brain to have a short attention span by clicking links every twenty seconds. It's almost torture to spend an hour without checking the internet. But, is that hyper need for constant stimulation actually good for my brain? Or has it transformed me into a more shallow person, unable to think as deeply as I once did? Fortunately, exercise has helped me reconnect with the amazing power of boredom. As a writer, I need time to daydream. For a long time, I've daydreamed in short chunks, like when I'm driving, or when I'm in the shower. The very worst time of all for daydreaming is when I'm sitting at a computer... and, thanks to having the internet on my phone, I can always be at a computer. But, I can't hike and look at my phone at the same time. Getting out in the woods for an hour or so gives my mind time to wander. Yesterday I took a 50 minute walk in Duke Forest and spent most of the time figuring out the complete life history of a major supporting character in my next novel. Even though my exercise time keeps me away from Microsoft Word, when I do sit down to type, I find that I've got more developed material in my imagination buffer.

Still, I confess I do frequently distract myself when I'm walking. On about half my walks, I listen to audio books. I use the Librivox app (another thing I can do with my smart phone!), which has a library of thousands of public domain classics. I download the print version to my kindle, read at night, then pickup where I left off in the audio version the next time I go walking. So far this year, I've read/listened to Pride and Prejudice, Tarzan of the Apes, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Time Machine, The Great Gatsby, Wuthering Heights, Walden, Beyond Good and Evil, and am now working on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. This encourages me to take long walks, so I can get in more chapters. And, I find it creates really pleasant links between the places I walk and the books I've read. There's a bridge on the American Tobacco Trail that, every time I walk over it, I think about the scene in Dracula where vampire Lucy is confronted by van Helsing. There's a steep hill on one of the Eno River trails where I always remember the animal men chanting, "Are we not men?" Every time I walk around Occanneechee Mountain, I recall Heathcliff's passionate declarations of his undying love.

I used to think I couldn't find time to exercise. Now, my exercise time is my geeky brain time, away from the shallow distraction television and facebook, back to the deeper brain activity of literature.

At least, when I walk alone. Because, there's one other aspect of my current exercise regime that's vital to my current success. Cheryl has become just as avid about exercise as I have. Getting out on long hikes and bike rides is something we do together. We connect more walking up mountain trails even if we're fifty feet apart than we do sitting on a couch two feet from each other watching television. Exercise improves my brain and my most important relationship. The fact I also lose a lot of weight is just a pleasant side effect.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Weight Loss for Geeks Part 3: Eating Smart

I used to eat like an idiot. I have only myself to blame, because, looking back, my mother did a very good job of feeding us healthy food. Part of this was because we were dirt poor. We just didn't have the money to eat out at fast food restaurants or pizza joints. We also couldn't splurge on junk food like potato chips or snack cakes. We did what we could to stretch meat. In recent years, I've gone to steak houses and ordered 20 ounce steaks to eat by myself. In my youth, a single 1 pound steak would get divided up between my parents and all the children... which, it turns out, is a lot closer to a healthy serving size. We ate a lot of beans and vegetables grown from both our own small garden and my great-grandfather's farm. We would can tomatoes, green beans, and freeze corn and blackberries to eat on year round. We drank sodas very rarely. It was a special occasion to get your own 12oz bottle of RC.

Then I went to college and the cafeteria was all you could eat. And, man, did I eat! I wolfed down food like I'd never seen it before. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner I drank Coke. Around the same time, my father got a better job, and junk food started appearing at my parent's house. Little Debbie snack cakes. Cases of soda stacked on the porch. More bags of potato chips than you could quickly count. My father went from a rail thin man into a rather portly gentleman in the span of a few years. I was spared the effects of my overeating by my youthful metabolism and the fact that for most of college I didn't have a car and had to walk everywhere. (And, later, when I did have a car, I had no money for gas, so I was still walking.)

Eventually though, my financial prospects improved enough that I could drive everywhere. And, my frequent destinations were fast food joints. I knew the location of every pizza buffet within fifty miles. "All-you-can-eat" was my favorite restaurant catchphrase. Which is how, between my sophomore year of college and my 47th birthday, I doubled my weight.

Intellectually, I knew one shouldn't drink 2 liters of sugary soft drinks each day. Intellectually, I knew the proper serving size for pizza wasn't "buffet til you bulge." I suspected all these things might be bad for me. But, they were bad for me in small increments. It's not like I ever got on a scale and found myself 50 pounds heavier than when I last checked. Instead, it was 1 or 2 or 5 pounds, over months, accumulating over years and decades. My head might have known that my diet needed improving, but my stomach didn't see what the problem was. What was the point of being thin if I had to give up eating what by body craved?

I'm happy to report that, once I finally decided to change my diet, my body stopped craving the things that were bad for me. I no longer drink any soda and don't miss it at all. A few weeks ago, before setting out on a long hike, I decided I'd pay a return visit to a Pizza Hut buffet. It was like eating heavily salted cardboard that had soaked in bacon grease. Thank heavens they also have a salad bar.

I no longer eat at any fast food restaurants except for Subway, and I'm careful about what I eat there, avoiding cheese and mayonnaise and sticking to the lean meats like turkey and ham.

When my wife and I go out to eat at real restaurants, we research the menu beforehand. Most chain restaurants will have nutritional information available, so we know which dishes are calorie bombs and which dishes we can stuff ourselves with guilt free. And it's not always the dishes you suspect. We went to one bar known for their burgers and thought we'd just order the veggie burger, but by looking up the calories beforehand, we found the veggie burger had more calories than the beef one!

However, despite the veggie burger being laden with calories, the number one rule of eating smart would have to be, "Eat your vegetables." Eat the starchy stuff like potatoes and rice sparingly, but go to town on leafy greens like spinach and kale. Cauliflower is a stunningly versatile and delicious food once you learn what to do with it. One wonderful thing about vegetables is that you have so many choices these days. Every week, it seems like we're trying a food we've never eaten before; kohlrabi, endive, sunchokes, jimica, parsnips, rutabagas, and rainbow chard have all been added to our menu. Before we started our diet, we ate sweet potatoes twice a year, at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Now, we go through a bag every other week, sometimes using them as savory foods (they're great paired with flakes of chili), sometimes as sweet (sprinkled with cinnamon and a touch of brown sugar). We eat lentils and chickpeas and bulgar wheat, quinoa and farro and flax seed.

We don't avoid meat, but we do eat much smaller portions. 3-6 ounces of steak are more than enough if you are eating a good helping of vegetables with it.

I don't believe in "don'ts." I think if you go into a diet swearing you'll absolutely, never ever eat certain foods you'll probably fail. That said, eating a reasonable amount of some foods means eating a small amount. You shouldn't load up with a big bowl of ice cream. The "correct" serving size is about half a cup. Pasta's laden with calories, so I only eat it once or twice a month. I still eat candy... but I record every single ounce, and treat it as a treat rather than a staple food.

Ah, yes, recording every single ounce. It's old diet advice, but it's what worked for us. Cheryl and I downloaded the "My Fitness Pal" ap to our phones and started tracking everything we ate. It's a great tool for educating yourself as to just where your big sources of less healthy calories are coming from, and also a great way of training yourself to think before you eat, so you can avoid snacking out of boredom or habit. And, as a geek, it's really turned into a game for me to see if I can stay under my calorie goals. It turns my daily diet into a puzzle that I get to solve. It's kind of like real life Tetris. Through the day, foods keep falling my way. There are donuts in the break room. Candy bars at the project managers station. It's some one's birthday, have some cake! I get to decide what foods and how much of them are going to fit into my calorie slots.

I know it's possible to go too far down the path of obsessing over food. Eating is one of your fundamental biological functions. You shouldn't approach it with dread or shame. Still, being mindful of what you put into your body make sense. In my case, I have good results to show for it, at least when combined with my improved exercise habits. Which will be the topic of my next essay.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Weight Loss for Geeks: Part Two: It's Just Math!

First, let me say that I know a fair share of skinny geniuses and I've met plenty of fat people who are dumber than stumps. But, one thing I notice going to a half dozen science fiction conventions each year is that there are also a very high percentage of really smart geeks who are obese. If Big Bang Theory reflected the reality of my personal experience, among it's core group of geniuses (Sheldon, Leonard, Amy, Raj, Penny, and Wolowitz), at least three of them would be weigh over three hundred pounds. Of course, this is pretty much true of all television. While some shows do have one or two token fat characters, 95% of people on television are skinny, despite the fact that two thirds of Americans are overweight, and over a third are obese. Even though there's more to see of fat people, for some reason Hollywood pretends we're invisible. As someone with at least a little understanding of statistics, this nags at me.

While I do know a few literary-minded geeks whose eyes glaze over when you start talking about math, most geeks I know tend to be really good with numbers. Some are even downright obsessive about them. In a previous approach, I mentioned treating my own body statistics like they were the statistics of a character in a role-playing game. I once saw a gamer friend of mine sitting with a sheet of paper in front of him. As I got near, I saw the whole page was covered in equations. I asked what the heck he was working on, and he started talking about a computer game he was playing where he'd just found a new pair of gloves that enhanced his speed stat, but lowered his strength stat. He was working out whether, over time, being able to attack 2% more often would offset the decrease in damage he was inflicting. He'd concluded that it wouldn't, but then he also had to take into effect that the increased speed improved his dodging ability. He was avoiding some slight percentage of damage in each fight, so he finally worked out the numbers showing that the gloves allowed him to spend more time attacking with fewer pauses to heal himself and that gave him something like .025% more killing power over the course of a gaming session.

He's not an aberration. Old-school AD&D players will remember that the early Dungeon Master's Guide opened with a section on bell-curves and mathematical probabilities. There were charts showing the bonuses and penalties of different kinds of weapons against different kinds of armor, and every gamer I knew was obsessed with getting every single modifier he could manage into an attack. (Remember, as an elf, I get +1 with a long bow!) We once videotaped one of our D&D games, because, you know, we thought that shit was interesting as hell. When I watched it a few years later, I couldn't help but notice that we spent half our time arguing over math. A character would want to jump from a window of a tavern, grab a tree branch, and land in the saddle of his horse, and we'd spend twenty minutes debating the odds of that until we agreed on what number he'd need to roll on what combination of dice.

Yet, all the time we were debating this math, I was sitting there drinking straight out of a two liter bottle of Coke while going through multiple slices of pizza and half a bag of potato chips. For all the math I was worried about in my imaginary world, I was stunningly oblivious to the math of my real life.

Weight loss and weight gain really aren't complicated. If you take in more calories than you burn, you gain weight. Burn more than you take in, and you lose weight. I credit my success in weight loss to finally paying attention to these numbers. Using a smart phone app called MyFitnessPal, I began to record every single calorie I ate. Whenever I exercised, I recorded the number of calories burned. Of course, you burn calories even if you spend all day in bed reading; this is your basal metabolic rate. There are a dozen websites you can look up to calculate you BMR. Once you know it, the rule is pretty simple: Eat fewer calories than your BMR and you'll lose weight over time. At present, my BMR is around 2100 calories. It's certainly not impossible to stay under 2100 calories a day. But, in my old diet, it was really easy to go over that number. I used to go through at least two liters of soda a day. That's over 800 calories. I used to frequently eat pizza for lunch. Calories vary by the size of a slice of course, but most pizza slices are going to be in the range of 300 calories. It wasn't unusual for me to eat four slices, so, there's another 1200 calories. I'd be peckish after work, so I'd swing through a drive through and grab a burger and fries. There goes another 1000 calories.

Of course, even once you start keeping track of your calorie intake, you'll probably find that low calories alone aren't going to make the pounds fall off. And, there are times when you're still going to want a few slices of pizza, or some birthday cake, or some Halloween candy. Fortunately, your BMR is just your base number. You can burn more calories just by adding in a little exercise. I have plenty of days when I still eat over 3000 calories; but, I also have days when I hike five miles to buy these extras calories.

It's not healthy to get too obsessive over these numbers. You don't want to wind up with an eating disorder, of stop enjoying eating because you're so afraid of sugars and fats that you're paranoid about putting butter on your sweet potato. But, it's definitely healthy to be aware of these numbers. Once you start tracking your numbers, you'll quickly start to see where your excess calories were coming from. Cheryl and I have gotten really good at estimating how many calories are on any given plate of food we encounter. We've learned to correctly judge proportion sizes by putting almost every piece of meat we cook onto a kitchen scale. Even though I can now mentally keep track of my calories, I still use My Fitness Pal to record my numbers, but at this point that's turned into another stat. The program keeps telling me when I hit milestones of how many days I've logged in, and I don't want to mess things up by skipping a day. It will be the same thrill I used to get moving up a level playing Diablo 2. Watching a character creep from 32nd level to 33rd level released a little surge of adrenaline, and I felt the same way when MyFitnessPal told me I'd logged on for 200 days in a row. I imagine having it tell me I've hit 365 days will be nearly orgasmic.

Lord, I'm a geek.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Weight Loss for Geeks: Step One: See a Doctor!

How many times have you read diet advice that begins, "see a doctor?" (Or, more pretentiously, "consult with your physician?") I hate that advice. For several reasons, I'm skeptical of our medical system. About fifteen years ago I had a doctor who seemed to want to prescribe a pill for everything. I never left his office without a grab bag of pharmaceuticals. He didn't seem so much an actual doctor as a salesman for drugs.

So, I changed doctors, and my new doctor suggested I might have a food allergy that would explain my persistent allergies and said he'd order some blood work. He didn't tell me that the blood work would cost SIX-THOUSAND DOLLARS! It seems like, I dunno, the kind of thing you might mention. The blood work came back telling me I was "sensitive" to pretty much every food on earth, wheat, onions, tomatoes, radishes, and a long list of stuff I can't remember. I started reading up on food "sensitivities" and came away feeling like the whole thing was a scam. Obviously, there are legitimate food allergies, but the sensitivity stuff felt like pseudoscience designed to give doctors an excuse to issue bills for six grand.

After that, I went a decade without seeing a doctor. It was only a few years ago when I started drifting to sleep while I was driving home at 3pm that I thought, you know, maybe it's time I see a doctor about my never ending drowsiness.

It took about thirty minutes and an inexpensive blood test to diagnose me with a thyroid deficiency. The thyroid medication is dirt cheap, and my energy levels were boosted at least 200% once we got the dose right. But, I was still having to take naps in the afternoon. So, my doctor recommended a sleep study, saying I probably had sleep apnea. I suspected this was true, since I often woke up to discover I was sitting upright in bed, since I would stop breathing when I was laying down. I was really worried about using a CPAP machine when I first got it, but now using it is no hassle at all. I get great, deep sleep, and make it through my days without needing a nap. Heck, I even miss my afternoon naps and sometimes try to sneak one in and find I can't fall asleep because I'm not tired enough.

It's possible that I might have been able to lose weight if I'd cut calories and upped my exercise while I still had my thyroid deficiency, but it's doubtful. My metabolism just couldn't burn the calories I ate efficiently. It's also possible that I could have cured my sleep apnea by losing a significant amount of body weight. But, I didn't have the energy to do this until I started getting good nights of sleep by using the CPAP machine. I also couldn't have broken my addiction to soft drinks without CPAP. I used to require bottle after bottle of Mountain Dew to get me through a day. Now, I genuinely can't remember the last time I had a soda.

Even if you don't have an underlying health problem causing your obesity, if you are obese, it's likely that you're developing health problems. I was on the borderline of high blood pressure and flirting with diabetes before I changed my lifestyle. My latest blood work had all these numbers pulling back well into the safe zones.

Information is power, if you have the wisdom to use it. Your doctor has information you need. Get it.