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.


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.