Welcome!

I'm James Maxey, the author of the Dragon Age fantasy series of Bitterwood, Dragonforge, and Dragonseed, the Dragon Apocalypse series of Greatshadow, Hush, and Witchbreaker, as well as the superhero novels Nobody Gets the Girl and Burn Baby Burn. 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.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Prediction Three: Our jobless future

I've been with my current employer for almost 19 years. I won't specify who I work for; you can see my last post for various reasons why I think it's a bad idea to publicly discuss your current employer online. But, I'm going to mention my current job obliquely because I think there's an important data point. I was present when my workplace opened its doors. At the time, we had 21 full time employees. Today, we have 7 full time employees, and the threshold for being full time is 30 hours a week, not 40.

Where did two thirds of our staff go? Part of our staff was lost due to a changing business climate. I work in an industry built around printing stuff, and print is dying. Fewer companies print catalogues or employee manuals, and marketing is done more online than via direct mail. But, we also lost a lot of need for warm bodies because our technology became more sophisticated. We used to need several cashiers on hand to manage transactions. Now, people can pay with a credit card without standing in line. Customers also don't need to come into the store to place orders. They can order stuff online, pay for it, and have it delivered without ever interacting with our store. Other jobs that were once done in house are outsourced to a larger production network that works because computer technology lets the work flow around to fill available capacity. Computers have made my workplace a lot leaner and more efficient.

You see it everywhere. When I go grocery shopping, I aim toward the self checkout lanes, since they often move faster. Here in Hillsborough, there's still one gas station that has full service attendants. I never go there, preferring to save a few cents by pumping my own gas, and save time by paying at the pump. One gas station I shop at, Sheetz, lets me order subs from a touch screen. $4 foot longs, toasted on pretzel buns, made to order, very tasty. That price point is probably possible because they don't have to pay cashiers. They've shifted some of the work load to the consumer. If the added work brings lower prices, I'm a fan.

Cheryl and I often go biking through a really nice neighborhood, and it's common to see landscaping crews working in the yard. A few weeks ago, we saw a solar powered robotic lawnmower working the front yard of one of the houses.

Robots will mow our lawns. They'll also soon be delivering our packages, or at least driving the trucks. Yes, robotic trucks will have accidents that will lead to expensive lawsuits. But, guess what? Human drivers also have accidents that lead to expensive lawsuits. Robotic truck drivers will be able to drive all night and won't ever be intoxicated distracted by phone calls. They won't have lead foots, and will get much better gas mileage than human drivers. They'll probably drive slower, obeying posted speed limits, but will make up by never needing to take lunches or pit stops to empty bladders. Once insurance companies start giving companies price breaks for using robotic drivers, humans will only be on trucks to help unload... though, of course, the technology for a truck loading and unloading robot is probably already being marketed.

Maybe you're thinking that your job is too highly skilled for you to ever be replaced by a machine. Maybe. But, I predict that within twenty years, human surgeons will be obsolete, replaced by machines far more nimble and precise, seeing what they're doing with senses far superior to human sight and touch. Sure, someone will have to build those databases and maintain them. But the educated labor forces will increasingly be drawn from countries with far lower wages.

Of course, there are some jobs that machines probably can't do as well as humans. I like to think that writing novels is one of these jobs. But, that doesn't mean I have job security in the face of ever evolving technology. E-books have already disrupted publishing, providing strong downward pressure on pricing. Now, there are services that allow you to read an unlimited number of books each month for one fixed price. Authors do get royalties if their books are read, just as musicians get some small payment if their song is streamed on Spotify. But, with all things digital, the price trends keep pushing toward free, and it's hard to make a profit when you're producing content that no one pays for. If you don't offer free books, there are tens of thousands of writers eager to be read who will gladly give away their work to build name recognition, trusting that they'll figure out how to make money at what they're doing later in the process.

I know all of this sounds a bit gloomy. However, a lot of the jobs we're losing are jobs that made more use of human bodies than human minds. The same technology that disrupts industries also opens up possibilities. Studio time for a musician used to be expensive, disturbing albums difficult and costly. Now, you can record, edit, and distribute from your home computer. The odds of making money have declined, but the cost of making yourself heard have also declined, giving more people a shot at making it big than ever before. I personally know a dozen authors who never passed the arbitrary threshold of finding a publisher willing to pay an advance on their novels who now manage catalogues of a dozen self published works, all of which are making at least some money. It's not just writers and musicians who have lower initial costs to launching a career. For almost any talent you care to develop, there are instructional videos on YouTube. While college costs sky \rocket, the amount of free and useful information increases online. And you no longer have to wait for a class to be taught every other semester in order to get the knowledge you're hungry for. The lectures and study material are probably a few keystrokes away. One day, it won't matter what degree you have, only what skills and know-how you have.

We may be on the cusp of a golden age of human creativity and productivity. Or, we may be about to spiral into an abyss where we're all so broke and depressed about a machine taking our job that we won't even leave our houses. The future will come down to a million individual decisions about how we're going to adapt and respond to our rapidly changing world. My own choice: Find some small way to improve myself each day, and keep moving forward.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Prediction Two: Privacy

Orwell was right. We now live in a world where we're constantly watched. It's not just grainy black and white footage captured by security cameras in banks and supermarkets. With a few keystrokes, I can find color photographs of tens of millions of people doing very personal things, like hanging out with friends and family, going on dates, drinking, or just goofing around. I can see wedding photos, birthday photos, and photos of people at science fiction conventions dressed in costumes that do not flatter them.

What Orwell didn't guess was that we'd be the ones recording our own lives in detail and sharing things willingly, even eagerly.

Some people are outraged by the fact that the NSA is collecting data on their phone calls, intercepting emails, and doing other sinister stuff behind your back, like seeing what you're reading on Kindle. But, we think nothing of signing contracts with corporations to gather data on us for commercial exploitation. Google searches through your emails on g-mail for keywords they can use to target you with advertising. Facebook mines your relationships and likes not just for advertising, but to identify larger trends that might prove valuable. Amazon has a pretty good guess about the next album you might purchase. When you shop at a lot of real world stores, you agree to let them keep a data base of your purchases in exchange for discounts and coupons. Instead of being creeped out that there are major corporations who know what underwear you have on, we're glad that we can buy their products at ten percent off.

We have strict laws about what medical information can be shared and who it can be shared with, but every day when I sign onto Facebook I learn that someone or their sister or their best friend has just been diagnosed with cancer. We announce who we're sleeping with by linking that we're in a relationship, and the whole world gets informed when we stop sleeping with them.

We'd never think of going to a job interview in a bathing suit, but fill web pages with photos of ourselves sunning by the pool.

Most people wouldn't like it if they were constantly followed around by police. But, most people with cell phones really appreciate that the phone company can keep track of them as they travel. With my GPS enabled smart phone, I'll sometimes be out hiking and suddenly get a text from Cheryl commenting on the scenery surrounding me, since she can watch the progress of my hike on Endomondo and see via satellite photo where I am. Rather than find this unnerving, I feel an extra sense of security knowing that I can go into remote places and not be in danger of falling and breaking a leg and languishing away where no one can find me.

Judging from the current state of things, it would seem like we didn't value privacy all that much. We'll trade it away for convenience and coupons and credit cards, for free apps and 15 seconds of fame--or 15 words on twitter.

Of course, some people do care about their privacy. They do care about the information that's available about their health, relationships, and finances. It's going to be a tough life for these people, since they will increasingly find themselves locked out of the modern economy. In an age of streaming, you won't even be able to become a TV watching recluse disconnected from the rest of the world. Netflix is going to know 1000 secrets about you by your viewing choices.

All this sharing will come with consequences. Right now, I don't think employers have yet taken full advantage of all the information that's available to them. I imagine we're heading for a day when a comprehensive web search will be routine before you can be hired. I saw a Facebook post the other day where someone reviewed an episode of Game of Thrones as being an experience comparable to anal rape. This is the sort of crazy hyperbole that can be funny between friends. But, say you're hiring for a position in a service industry. Do you want to take a chance on someone who finds rape jokes acceptable in a public forum?

Every day, I see people post strong political commentary. I post strong political commentary. Today, there are numerous examples of prominent people who have lost jobs and/or fans because of political opinions that weren't particularly radical up until the moment that they were. Every opinion we type down is going to be fair game for employers. Some of it will be a wash. If you're conservative, and applying to work in a gun store, you're in luck. A liberal applying for a job at a health food store? Probably not much of a problem. But, increasingly, we'll find that every thing we've ever put onto the internet is going to be available to employers, and I suspect we'll start seeing a new class of unemployable people. Don't like your present job and complain about it online? A potential employer is going to want to avoid working with a griper. Does posting your health woes bring waves to sympathy and support? Yay, but a potential employer might secretly consider whether its worth hiring someone still fighting cancer. It might be illegal to even consider this, but if the information is out there, I suspect not everyone will be strong enough to avoid the temptation of peeking at stuff you've made public.

I predict that as employers begin to make more aggressive use of social media data in hiring decisions, we'll see a return to an almost neo-Victorian era of politeness. We'll be aware that anything we might say online--in a public forum or even an email we assumed to be private--could become a permanent stain on our reputation. We'll recognize that, even if we try to keep our lives offline, there are a thousand people around us will cell phones aimed at us the second we do anything remotely interesting. I could be wrong, of course. It may be that baser human instincts will prevail, and fifty years from now so many people will have embarrassing photos or loudmouthed, poorly punctuated rants floating around that we'll all just shrug and figure that's part of the human condition. No one will be judged for such behavior. But, we might also see a growing machinery of outrage, interest groups ready to pounce on the slightest transgression, so that we'll all be thinking twice about what we say and do. It won't be just big brother watching. Everyone from here to the end of time will be watching.

So, watch out.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Predictions for the future (a series): 1. Climate Catastrophes

I'm heading to a science fiction convention in a few hours and will be on a few panels where I'll probably wind up talking about the future. Tonight, for instance, I have a panel on the future of artificial intelligence. Why does being a science fiction writer qualify me to talk about the future? It doesn't. All I can do is guess like everyone else. Still, the speculation is fun, and, as an author, it's often rich fuel for future stories. So, this will be the first in a series where I make predictions about how the world is going to change in coming years.

First up: Climate Change!

I admit to being on the fence as to whether or not burning fossil fuels is a significant source of warming. I am not on the fence as to whether or not humans can alter the environment unintentionally, usually with negative consequences. We've helped create deserts with careless farming and grazing practices. Our water management practices have erased countless miles of shoreline, flooded millions of square miles of previously dry land, and turned previously wet places into dry hell holes. (Google the Aral and Salton seas for examples.) Our industrial monoculture farming has destroyed native prairies, and our promiscuous use of fertilizers have created giant dead zones in the ocean where no fish can survive. Where our fertilizers haven't wiped out fish, we've helped mess up the ecosystem by overfishing, and, whether or not the carbon dioxide we put in the atmosphere warms it or not, it is definitely turning the oceans more acidic. Our consumer culture wipes out old growth forests and our fills our oceans with ever growing continents of plastic. To fuel it all, we bulldoze mountains flat, dig up tracts of land large enough to be seen from space, and accept the risk of contamination that goes along with drilling at sea.

I consider myself an environmentalist, and, despite my libertarian leanings, am mostly in favor of governmental practices that protect the environment, like limits on dangerous chemicals going out of smokestacks and tail pipes or tough laws against contaminating ground water.

That said, I'm not in a panic about carbon dioxide even if it does lead to significant global warming. I support things like higher fuel standards and transitioning our power grid away from coal, but for other reasons than fear of runaway warming. Do I think global warming might lead to catastrophes like powerful storms, widespread drought, and rising sea levels? Absolutely.

So what?

If you look at history, catastrophes don't seem all that apocalyptic. Consider how many major cities have been wiped by earthquakes, fires, storms, and war. If catastrophes were any real barrier to humans, there wouldn't be a Chicago or a New Orleans, there wouldn't be a San Francisco or an Atlanta. For that matter, people wouldn't live in Europe, since, statistically, it was pretty much depopulated by the plague a few centuries ago.

Of course, people do live in Europe. They also live in Charleston, SC, a city flattened multiple times by a massive earthquake, by hurricanes, and by the Civil War.

What about fears of widespread drought? I suspect there will be long term shifts in weather that will render some areas unsuitable for farming. It certainly happened in the Sahara, for instance. It may be happening in the American southwest even now. West Texas is about as bone dry as it's ever been. Yet, we aren't reading stories about the massive starvation occurring in Texas. Drought doesn't equate to death in a global economy. If food doesn't grow one place, it grows another. If you look at the IPCC maps on projected rainfall due to global warming, you'll find that for every place that is expected to see a decline in rainfalls, there are other areas projected to see an increase. Heat doesn't equal drought. Very hot places are often quite fruitful agriculturally. Buy any produce from Florida lately?

Of course, you won't be buying produce from Florida if the state's underwater thanks to rising seas. And, yes, there's a real possibility of that happening, almost overnight on a geological timescale.

Fortunately, humans don't live on geological timescales. Let's take a wildly unlikely scenario where sea levels rise ten feet in a century. That's going to suck for a lot of people who lose property. But, as a practical level, a century is plenty of time to get out of the way. Rising sea levels likely won't result in any significant loss of life, at least not measured as a percentage of the total population. Humans are pretty experienced with dealing with rising sea levels. Since the end of the last ice age, sea levels have risen by roughly 400 feet. 400 feet! Yet, somehow, humans have managed to survive this massive global flooding. It's true that, in recent centuries, sea levels have been relatively stable and many large cities have grown on our coastlines. Many currently standing buildings may be wiped out. All the evidence shows that we'll shrug, move back, and build again.

What gets rebuilt will likely be stronger and better. It used to be that hurricanes would devastate coastal cities on a frequent basis. As a resident of North Carolina, I can testify that this is a state that regularly gets walloped by big storms. It used to be that a big storm would mean massive property loss and widespread death. But, death tolls have fallen dramatically thanks to improved accuracy of storm tracking. People have learned to get out of the way of killer storms. When storms do wipe out buildings, zoning codes require the structures that replace them to have more secure foundations, better roofs, better protected utilities, etc. If global warming does bring an uptick in powerful storms, it will also bring an uptick in better constructed buildings along coastlines.

Or not. Because one reason we have so many buildings along coastlines is that governments step in to insure buildings that private companies won't. This means tax dollars subsidize construction in environmentally risky areas. The best thing the government could do to keep people from building in the areas where they are most likely to be hit by high winds and storm surges is absolutely nothing. Just stop subsidizing the insurance. Without the insurance, banks aren't going to lend money to build on coastlines. We'll have to move inland, and give our crowded coastlines a bit of breathing space.

Do I believe the world is warming? There is a tremendous amount of data showing that it is. The people who argue there hasn't been any warming in the last fifteen years are kind of missing the big picture. On the flip side, the people who get panicked by the prospect of warming are also missing the big picture. The world will change.  It would be impossible to lock our global thermostat on what it is today. The world is probably going to get hotter. It will lead to widespread flooding, widespread drought, widespread population movements.

In other words, more of the same stuff we've been putting up with since we climbed down from the trees and lit our first fire. My prediction: We'll muddle through.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

A devil's advocate argument for Intelligent Design


At ConCarolina's last weekend, I was on a panel to discuss Creationism/Intelligent Design vs Evolution. I had a hunch the panel would be dominated by the evolution side. I dislike lopsided debates, so I wanted to come in with the strongest argument for Intelligent Design I could muster.

This wasn't easy, since most of Intelligent Design arguments boil down to three unconvincing ideas:

  1. We know things are designed because they look designed.
  2.  Many biological systems are irreducibly complex. There's no point in developing half a wing, the argument goes, and random gradual mutation couldn't get you from wingless to winged in a single generation.
  3. The universe is fine tuned. Change the physical variants even slightly and none of existence is possible. The odds of such a finely tuned universe randomly coming into existence are very close to infinity to one against it.

You can Google the various refutations of these arguments. They've been pretty thoroughly shredded by more powerful thinkers than me.

So, I wanted to go into the panel with an argument that didn't have premade counterarguments. This is it:

It seems irrefutable that the intelligent design of organisms goes on around us every day. Broccoli, poodles, and corn wouldn't exist in their present configurations without the intervention of human intelligence. On a more advanced level, we're now manipulating living things genetically, creating disease resistant fruits and vegetables, and cows that have certain valuable proteins in their milk. And, for some reason, glow in the dark mice. Because, why not?

We also are fluent in generating artificial worlds within computers, complete with simulated ecosystems. There are games where creatures designed by users evolve over time in a process mimicking natural selection. But creatures with computers for brains aren't just found on our laptops and smartphones. We'll soon own self driving cars. Robots will likely build those cars. They already vacuum floors, make coffee, serve as bank tellers and fly long distances autonomously. Fifty years from now, the idea that human hands once performed surgery will seem like barbarism.

Many, many very smart people believe that we are only a decade or two from designing artificial intelligences capable of self awareness. It's also commonly believed that, once these digital intelligences come into existence, they'll be capable of designing a next generation that's even smarter, and after that, a generation even smarter, in a runaway process that creates beings we aren't even capable of imagining.

But, let's say that there's some physical law we're unaware of that prevents etched silicone from ever gaining self awareness, and only biological entities prove capable of intelligence. I would argue that, as we understand the human genetic code in finer and finer detail, we will be unable to resist the temptation to design better, smarter, stronger humans, humans who are immortal perhaps, or humans blended with machines that make them capable of surviving in environments that would kill us today. Our great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren may flit around on Mars on wings of flesh, drawing power from sunlight through photosynthesis. Or, if we don't want to alter ourselves that radically, nothing in the laws of physics prevents us from changing Mars to our liking. We could capture comets to bring Mars water, use enormous nuclear generators to provide a particle shield to protect the atmosphere from the solar wind, and seed the barren soil with microbes designed to turn Mars into an Eden over the course of a few million years. Such time scales seem absurd and impractical to us now, but what if we're capable of bioengineering immortality? We'll need extravagant hobbies to fill up the eons, and lots and lots of room to sprawl.

Natural selection is a pretty good method of making organisms. But, even its biggest proponents admit the raw material for the process consist of a lot of random variables. Turning a blue green algae into a multi-celled ape-like organism capable of understanding its past involves a lot of long odds and good luck. But, assuming we don't destroy ourselves in the near future, we are almost on the verge of a self-sustaining process where every future generation of intelligent beings comes about through careful, deliberate design. Our world is the only one in our solar system showing evidence of life, but check back in a million years, and probably every solid surface from here to Pluto will contain some sort of biosphere designed by our descendants to exploit and tame now hostile environments.

Assuming this vision of the future is accurate, then intelligent design will be the dominating force crafting organisms and worlds moving forward, from tomorrow until the last star winks out of the sky. If this is true (and, yes, that's a big if), then there will only one intelligent life form that comes about as a result of natural selection, and a near infinity of offspring designed to fit their environments. Thus, by simple math, we can see that intelligent design will be the primary cause of intelligent life in the total universe, while randomly evolved intelligence is such a rarity that, statistically, we may as well say it's impossible.

As far as I'm aware, my argument violates no laws of physics, biology, or cosmology. Intelligent design is how the inhabited universe will eventually be put together.

If there's a hole in my argument, I'm eager to hear it.

Now, let me add this: Even if my argument proves accurate a billion years from today, would I want it taught in classrooms today? No. What I'm engaged in here is speculation. Speculation is not science. Just because something is plausible doesn't mean it's proven. What I'm presenting here isn't a scientific theory, it's mere daydreaming, simple what ifs built on a foundation of what we know, but, at its heart, just a lot of guesswork held together with a lot of hand-waving. Do I believe it? Kind of. I don't think we're the products of intelligent design, but far, far in the future, a child may ask, "Where did we come from?" and his parent will say, "From the designer." And the kid will ask, "and who designed the designer?" The answer will be, "an earlier designer." "And who designed him?" The parent will shrug. "Kid, it's designers all the way down."

Even if they aren't scientific, daydreams and guesses have their own value. I'd even say that these are important foundations of human intelligence, and probably the biggest barrier to developing artificial intelligences. A machine that believed things that have no factual basis would be frightening driving your car or operating on your heart. But a human who believed in unproven things would hold the potential for creating new worlds.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

JamesMaxey.net launches!


So, it turns out this world wide web thing might not be a fad after all. Despite having two blogs and a Facebook page, I've never taken the time to actually set up a website devoted to my writing. I'm happy to announce that changes today. With the help of my friend Jesse Bernier, I'm launching a site that will consolidate both my blog feeds, provide a handy billboard for upcoming events, and give a more organized way of finding out information on all my books. Right now, there are links to buy the books, both physically and electronically, from various retailers. Soon, we'll have ecommerce set up so you can purchase books directly from me, including signed copies of the print books.

There's also still plenty of formatting and tweaking to be done. Right now we're trying to figure out why my blogs feed in with red text. So far, GoDaddy's tech support hasn't been very helpful on this. Still, small snags like that are no reason not to go live.

We've also got a nifty quote generator set up with rotating quotes from some of my books and stories, though I really need to add to the collection, since I've only got about ten set up so far. If anyone out there has a favorite line from one of my books, let me know and I'll add it to the rotation.

Oh! It would probably help to mention the name of the website: JAMESMAXEY.NET.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Because we're insane... 100 miles in 3 days. Plus, thoughts on body/mind duality.

Cheryl and I are constantly thinking about what our next physical challenge should be. A fifty mile bike ride? Been there, done that. Hiking to all 5 peaks in Hanging Rock on the same day? Checked off the list. Run in 5ks? Done it, have the t-shirts. Ocean kayaking all around Murrells Inlet? Not nearly as tough as we thought it might be.

Now, because we're insane, in about an hour we'll be leaving the house with the goal of biking 100 miles in three days. The weather this weekend is pretty much perfect for the challenge. Hot, but not yet dangerously hot, with clear skies forecast every day. The goal is to break it down as a 40 mile ride today and tomorrow, with a 20 mile ride on Monday. None of the individual distances worry us, but how we'll handle it without long recovery periods afterwards is where the difficulty lies. Honestly, I think there's a genuine possibility this could be beyond our grasp. Today's 40, no problem at all. And I'm sure we'll be able to get on the bike's tomorrow. It's how far we make it tomorrow before our bodies start insisting that we have better things to do that I'm most worried about.

When we started all this exercise, the goal was primarily to lose weight. Then the focus gradually shifted to overall fitness. Our waistlines didn't matter as much as the fact that we were healthy enough to do things that had once seemed out of our reach.

Now, there's yet another benefit to the exercise I've discovered. Many people think of humans as a sort of trinity. There's a body, a mind, and a spirit, existing in harmony but somehow independent of one another. As an atheist, I throw out the spirit part of the equation, and tend to think of humans in a dualistic way. We're part body, part mind. For the most part, I put these into two separate mental boxes. I bike and avoid soft drinks to improve my body. I read books and write to improve my mind.

But, on a deeper level, the duality is an illusion. There is only body. Mind might appear to be a separate entity, but in reality its only a function of the body. The evidence is pretty simple. If mind weren't a function of body, you wouldn't be able to get drunk. Anesthesia wouldn't be able to switch off your mind for surgery. Mind is only a persistent illusion, an important illusion, a necessary one even. But since I believe it is only an outgrowth of your physical form, it logically follows that, if you want to improve your mind, it helps to improve your body.

I used to think I didn't have time to exercise. What I really meant when I said this was that I was giving priority to mental activities, like writing books or (more frequently) hanging out on the internet talking about stuff. Exercise seemed boring, purely physical, a low priority to the brainier stuff I enjoyed. What I've since discovered is that making my body healthier has made my mind healthier. I'm less prone to depression, less haunted by doubts. I'm able to handle stress better. And, my imagination is more active than ever. Getting outside on a bike for three or four hours gets me away from computers and TV and even off my cell phone. I might pause to take pictures and post to instagram, but when I'm peddling, I'm peddling, and thinking.

Can exercise solve every problem you have in life? Definitely not. But if you ever feel stuck in a rut, unable to grow intellectually, give it a shot. Improved physical health definitely leads to improved mental health. And, if you happen to believe you have a spirit, I suspect it gets a boost as well.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig when I was in college. At the time, it had a big impact of my thinking. I think that, even today, I'm able to see solutions to problems that others get hung up on because of attitudes I found in this book. In a key scene, a friend's handle bars are slipping and the author offers to shim them tight with a sliver of old beer can. The friend is appalled; he's driving an expensive motorcycle, and the author is proposing to "fix" it with a piece of discarded trash. The key lesson of the scene is not to get hung up on the labels attached to things, but to look beyond to see the underlying forms and functions. His friend saw a piece of trash, but the discarded beer can was actually a sheet of thin aluminum, oxidized to resist further corrosion, of exactly the right thickness, and soft enough to be cut to the right shape with a pocket knife. It was the perfect solution, once you could see the thing for what it was, not merely as what it was called.

I've had plenty of chances to put this way of looking at things to the test. Once, my radiator hose burst right where it joined with the radiator. I had no tools but a screwdriver, and this was in the days before cell phones, and I was fifty miles from the nearest person I knew.

Fortunately, there was a broken beer bottle on the side of the road. And, one inch down, the radiator hose was still intact. It was only where it clamped on that it had ruptured. So, I used the broken bottle to cut off the last inch of busted hose, used the screwdriver to clamp it back on, filled up the radiator with water I was lucky enough to have on hand and drove back home.

At work, I'm well known as a troubleshooter, willing to try new things, to see outside the "correct" channels of doing stuff in order to see the path that will actually get the job done. I don't know that the book gets full credit for this. I had a tinkering nature even from childhood. But, Zen and the Art did resonate with me, made me feel that my way of looking at the world was worth nurturing.

The last few weeks, I've been rereading the book. Alas, from my perspective as a 50 year old, the philosophy no longer looks quite as clever as it did when I was 20. In the book, the narrator argues that quality is the primary generator of reality, existing both outside the object and the observer. He states that quality can't be defined, but everyone knows what it is, at least if they have eyes to see it. He laments that too often we get fooled into thinking that style is quality. Cars are built with attractive curves and fancy features, but are mechanically lemons, for instance. He goes on to argue that quality can't be defined because it's all encompassing. It's almost like God. Any attempt to describe it must by definition fail, since the concept is just to big and omnipresent to ever be contained in mere words.

To quote Orwell, some ideas are so stupid only an intellectual can believe them.

Pirsig's failure to define quality is based mainly on his unwillingness to accept that quality is completely subjective. Also, while insisting quality can't be defined, he continually attempts to define it as one big concept that covers everything.

He completely overlooks the following possibilities.

First, there is no universal standard of quality that applies equally to writing, motorcycles, and architecture. The things that make a book good have pretty much nothing to do with what makes a good hamburger. Instead of a universal ideal, we have a zillion ideals based on the things being judged.

Second, Pirsig rejects the notion that quality is purely subjective. As evidence, he has his class judge writing samples. As a group, they tend to agree on which writing samples are best. He takes this as evidence that there's a universal standard they're keyed into, even if they can't define it.

He overlooks that he's in a class of people very close in age, ethnicity, and educational background. He's teaching  a college class, after all. By the time this class has got to him, they've had years to be taught what's good writing and what's bad writing. The class is also connected by the culture of their era. Pirsig is a child of the 50s, and uses quite a bit of "beat" vocabulary, like calling some people "square." While he doesn't state it, he probably admires the writing of Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Indeed, he's writing a novel about being On the Road, full of observations about the people and towns he sees. It's difficult for me not to think that he didn't regard Jack Kerouac's writing as being high in quality. But, if so, I think he's mistaking quality for fashion. Kerouac's writing had its moment, but if the same novel first appeared today, would it have any kind of cultural impact at all? The good writing of 1950 isn't quite like the good writing of 1850, and the writing of 2150 will be judged by factors we can't even guess at. Quality changes with cultural context.

Think of food. I ate lunch at a Thai restaurant today. The primary condiment of Thai cuisine is a fermented fish sauce. To most American tongues, the stuff is foul. Who the hell wants to eat the run off juice of fermented fish? Or think about kim chi in Korean cooking. It's spoiled cabbage spiced to the point that many people find it inedible. Yet, in their own cultures, in the right context, these foods are of the highest quality.

Does that mean that quality is completely subjective? Not necessarily. From an evolutionary perspective, we probably all have built in receptors to find certain things attractive. Most of us like fatty, sweet foods because they are high in calories. In today's world of abundance, this leads to obesity, but in our ancestors world of scarcity these taste receptors helped us survive. Similarly, while our distant ancestors weren't expressing themselves as much in writing as we do today, I'm guessing there was a sexual selection bias that made people who could express themselves clearly and confidently attractive to the opposite sex. A gift for eloquence was a clue that the mate had good intelligence and could pass on good genes. That's why us writers get all the action.

My point is that there can be underlying biological urges driving us toward finding certain objects, actions, and appearances pleasing. These get overlaid with culture; if your Dad liked country music, you have a better chance of liking country music. If he listened to opera, you have better odds of liking opera. What's considered quality varies from socio-economic class and geography. At the risk of stereotyping my own state, many men from my neck of the woods and from my economic strata probably find NASCAR racing to be an art form. Give them tickets to a Broadway musical, however, and they'd feel a deep, deep dread at the thought that they might actually have to go.

Back to Zen: Strip away this core concept of universal quality, and it would seem like the book should fall apart. It doesn't. It's still an excellent narrative about a long road trip, and a touching story about a father trying to save his son from mental illness.

That's one of the weird things about quality literature. It doesn't have to make a damn bit of sense to still be good.