Important Notice! One of my duties as Piedmont Laureate is a biweekly blog. So, for the rest of 2015, I'll be posting only rarely here, usually exercise related posts that don't seem at home there. On the Piedmont Laureate blog, I'll mainly be focusing on topics related to speculative fiction. Check it out by clicking here.

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. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Saturday, September 12, 2015

Back to My Fitness Pal

In last month's blog post I wrote: "I logged over 170 miles of activity in July, and still gained 10 pounds, because while on vacation for two weeks I pigged out on ice cream and soft drinks and junk food. Soda was an especially weak spot for me. I don't keep any at my house, so in my normal life I can usually avoid it, but the refrigerators were full of it on both vacations. I'd come in from kayaking and think, eh, I just burned a thousand calories, a can of Mountain Dew isn't going to hurt me. Or, I just biked ten miles, so let's splurge and have a milkshake. The truth is, exercise doesn't protect you from excessive sugar. Fortunately, now that we're back home, I can resume more sensible eating habits and hopefully shed the pounds as quickly as I picked them up."

As I was writing this, my weight was roughly 265 pounds. I was still close to 20 pounds lighter than when I'd first started my fitness life three years ago, and still feeling good that my body composition was a lot different than it had been when I hit 265 on my way down.

But, August continued to be a disaster for me. I felt like I was eating more sensibly, but every time I got on the scale, my weight continued to creep upward. Finally, near the end of August, I hit 274. Worse, most of my pants were getting really tight. When I started my fitness habits three years ago, I had a 42 inch waist. At my thinnest six months into my dieting, I'd been comfortable in 36" waist line pants, but for most of the last two and a half years I'd been most comfortable in 38" pants. That was still four inches off my largest waistline, and I felt pretty good about it. Now, I was starting to put aside pants as being too tight. The thought of buying pants with a larger waistline bothered me. But... I felt like I was eating pretty well. Why couldn't I get back to what I felt was my healthy weight and waistline?

The reality was, feeling like I was eating pretty well and actually eating pretty well are two different things. On September 1, I went back onto My Fitness Pal after being off of it for a month. I started faithfully tracking all the food I was eating, and discovered all the areas where I'd been letting calories sneak back into my life. One of the biggest problems was portion size. Now that Cheryl and I are weighing and measuring everything once more, we can see where we were likely slipping up. For instance, when we measure calories, we are careful to use exactly one tablespoon of olive oil to brown onions and garlic. When we weren't counting calories, I'd just pour enough olive oil into a pan to coat the bottom and go for it, easily tripling or quadrupling the calories from fat. Also, when you start tracking calories faithfully, it's a lot easier to throw mayonnaise and cheese onto a sandwich.

We've also been less likely to pig out after exercising. I mentioned that we'd go for a long bike ride then feel like we deserved a milkshake. If we'd made our 100 mile bike ride in the spring like we'd originally planned, we'd probably have celebrated with a huge steak dinner afterwards and likely have had dessert. When we did it last weekend, afterward we split an order of hot wings, and no dessert.

I'm already seeing a good trend down. After months where every day my weight seemed to be going up, it's nice to see the numbers going in the other direction. I only ever want to contemplate needing new pants because my current ones are too loose.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Fitness Milestone: 3000 Miles

My legs, 3000 miles later
Endomondo Summary, showing total distance I've tracked.

Two weeks ago, I logged into Endomondo to see how our activity for this year was comparing to last year. Back in June during the Warrior Dash, Cheryl seriously bruised her tailbone, which kept us off bikes all the rest of the month. We've hustled during July to make up miles, but summer heat keeps us from making really long bike rides. We've logged a lot of miles via kayak, but kayak miles are much, much slower than bike miles. Fortunately, we've had two weeks of vacation, so lots of little trips do add up, and we're back on track to reach our goal of 1200 miles for the year.

However, when I logged into Endomondo to look at my stats, I noticed for the first time the "Total Distance" stat. At the time, I was sitting at 2950 miles. I was stunned to realize I was about to reach 3000 miles of travel as tracked by Endomondo. I started using the app in December 2012, only logging 12 miles that month. So, it's taken me two years and eight months to travel 3000 miles in a combination of biking, hiking, running, kayaking, and just plain walking. Endomondo helpfully tells me how far I've travelled toward the Moon, but I thought it would sound more impressive to say that I've travelled from my house to Los Angeles via my own power. However, it turns out that I passed LA some time back, since that's only 2500 miles from my house. So I looked at the furthest point I could reach in the contiguous United States, and it turns out I've even managed to propel myself past Seattle, a mere 2839 miles away. Thanks to kayaking, I could now be sitting about 170 miles out into the Pacific!

With Endomondo, I only track actual exercise. I know some people use FitBits or other tracking to monitor their total steps during the day. I'm actually on my feet a good part of my normal work day, but worry that if I counted the miles I log as part of my regular movement, it might demotivate me to log exercise miles.

Three years ago, I hadn't heard of Endomondo. Three years ago, I was a couch potato who thought that moving 100 miles in a year via hiking and biking was an insane amount of exercise. 100 miles a month wasn't even conceivable. Running 100 yards was out of the question, let alone running 5k. And at the time, I thought of myself as relatively active. We'd occasionally go on two mile hikes, or go out and bike for three or four miles. We just didn't know how our world was about to change.

A few random thoughts on being active:

First, Cheryl and I often go out and push ourselves with long bike rides (40 miles plus) or long hikes (10 miles plus). But our health benefits kicked in with much more modest activities. One and two mile walks around the neighborhood are the backbone that supports the more ambitious activities. By sheer luck, we bought a house that's exactly one mile from the nearest shopping center with a grocery store, a few restaurants, and our gym. Walking there and back a few times a week really adds up.

Second, the physical benefits are nice, but the mental benefits are astonishing. Study after study shows that physical activity improves mental health, and I can testify that, compared to who I was three years ago, I'm now more optimistic, less stressed, and much more confident. If we've developed any unpleasant mental traits, I would say that we both now have a tendency to feel a bit smug when we're out biking, thinking about all the people we know who are probably sitting in front of a television as we zoom past trees.

Third, for the first time in my five decades on the planet, I feel like an actual part of nature. Nature used to be a place I'd occasionally visit, but I spent the vast majority of my waking life under a roof. I'm sure in terms of actual hours, I'm still inside more than outside, but now I've journeyed to the tops of mountains, I've kayaked into the depths of swamps, I've seen rivers and meadows and forests that I could never reach via automobile. We've gotten familiar with the sky. We schedule our lives around sunsets and full moons and good breezes. We've learned to handle heat and sun, how to hike through snow, and we've discovered that hours in the rain will not melt us.

Fourth, a word of caution: When Cheryl and I started our fitness kick a few years ago, our primary objective was to lose weight. One thing I believed at the time was that exercise was more important than diet. If I went out and biked 50 miles, that would certainly offset any number of Whoppers, right? Heck, if you look at the Endomondo stats, it even shows how many burgers I've burned with all my exercise. But I logged over 170 miles of activity in July, and still gained 10 pounds, because while on vacation for two weeks I pigged out on ice cream and soft drinks and junk food. Soda was an especially weak spot for me. I don't keep any at my house, so in my normal life I can usually avoid it, but the refrigerators were full of it on both vacations. I'd come in from kayaking and think, eh, I just burned a thousand calories, a can of Mountain Dew isn't going to hurt me. Or, I just biked ten miles, so let's splurge and have a milkshake. The truth is, exercise doesn't protect you from excessive sugar. Fortunately, now that we're back home, I can resume more sensible eating habits and hopefully shed the pounds as quickly as I picked them up.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Happy Independence Day! Let's talk about freedom...

I woke up this 4th of July thinking about freedom, and whether the word still holds any true meaning at all after so many years of being debased by politicians and demagogues. So many current political debates seem to be driven by conflicting, and sometimes warped, views about freedom. For instance, I’ve seen more people waving the Confederate flag in the last two weeks than I have in the last decade. I defend the idea that they should and do have the freedom to do so, but remain puzzled that anyone would find it honorable to defend the notion of the Confederacy. A lot of the flag wavers say the flag has nothing to do with slavery, apparently having never actually read the Confederate Constitution that the flag symbolizes. It specifically denied all states within the Confederacy the power to abolish slavery, ever. If there’s still one person in America who thinks, wow, wouldn’t the world be better off if the Confederates had won… well, I don’t know their hearts well enough to label them racist, but I know enough of their brains to shake my head at their ignorance.

Another issue related to freedom is gay marriage. I don’t think that most conservatives understand how fundamentally conservative the Supreme Court’s ruling was. It’s a central premise of conservatism that government doesn’t create or grant rights. Instead, rights are innate to people, something they are born with. Basically, you have the right to do whatever you wish to do, wherever and whenever you wish to do it, as long as it doesn’t endanger or inconvenience others or our shared living space. There are rights you possess that our founding fathers never dreamed of. For example, they never imagined you’d have the right to wear the Confederate Flag on your hat. Or, more seriously, they never imagined that women had the right to vote. But, in the conservative framing, women always had the inalienable right to vote. It wasn’t a right given to them by the state. It was a right the state unjustly denied them, until the day it stopped doing so. So, for conservatives who keep saying that the right to same sex marriage isn’t found in the constitution, they’re right, but rights don’t flow from the constitution. The central question wasn’t whether the government should grant homosexual couple the right to marry. Instead, homosexuals possess the same innate rights to pair up and call it marriage as anyone else, and the central question was whether there was any plausible governmental case to deny them this right. Do they harm or even inconvenience others by their marriage? No. My preference would have been for the majority to come to their senses and recognize the right legislatively, even if this took several more years, but in the end, I think the Supreme Court made the right call.

Finally, thanks to Donald Trump, there’s been a lot of talk about illegal immigration this week. He’s taken a lot of heat for his comments, but intellectually, I’m willing to concede some of the points of his argument, assuming his meandering babble can be called an argument. By many, many metrics, Mexico isn’t sending us their “best” citizens, at least as measured in terms of economic and educational status. Mexico does have middle class, even wealthy citizens, but it’s pretty unlikely that an executive in the oil business or the owner of a chain of supermarkets in Mexico City is going to sneak across the desert in the middle of the night to live as an undocumented construction worker. If you’re a Mexican with a college education who knows computer programming, say, or architecture, you probably have legal avenues you can use if you’d like to come to America, but can probably also make a pretty decent living in your homeland. The people who sneak across the border are, on average, quite poor and likely poorly educated. The argument that our crime rates are higher than they would otherwise be without illegal immigration seems to be supported by the evidence (though, it can also be noted that our actual crime rates across the board have been falling during the same decades that illegal immigration has been rising). I’m also mostly in agreement that the presence of so many low-skilled workers depresses wages, and that large corporations favor an influx of immigrants as a way of keeping their payrolls low. If you’ve read the Grapes of Wrath, you’ll be aware that this trick has been around for a long time. Get enough poor people competing for a job, and you can pay them pennies. If the wages get too low for them, there are more desperate people waiting in line for their job.

Weighed against these arguments is the Statue of Liberty. Yes, I recognize that the poem inscribed upon her isn’t a legally binding document, but the aspiration should hold true: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” The American call to freedom wasn’t sent out to only wealthy, educated, elite citizens of other nations. We might welcome great musicians and financiers and scientists, but which country on this planet doesn’t want that sort of immigrant? Some of the people most opposed to the influx of immigrants are some of the same people who are quick to proclaim that America is a Christian nation. But, isn’t it a central tenet of Christianity that you invite the beggar at the door into your home and treat him like a long-lost brother?

Look, I get that there are shared societal and economic costs to opening our arms to anyone willing to ignore our laws in order to sneak in. I understand there are dangers to doing anything that encourages people to make the trek illegally. Women and children die in the desert, abandoned by criminals who they’ve paid their last few coins to take them across the border. People come here and live in fear, and get exploited by people who feel like they’re doing them a favor by paying them cash under the table at substandard wages. I get that many of them don’t speak English, and can’t read or write, and sometimes have children here that are entitled to tax-payer supported government handouts. And, I will acknowledge that there are health risks, importing large numbers of poor people who may not be vaccinated against diseases we've mostly wiped out in this country.

But you know what? They’ve proven that they had the courage to take a chance to go after a better life. They’ve proven that they actually want to be here just by coming here. Meanwhile, I know people born in this country living on taxpayer dollars who won’t get off their couches in order to take a low wage job, let alone walk miles across a desert at night. I know Americans who’ve graduated from high school who live within a mile of a library yet haven’t touched a book since the day they escaped from education. I’ve worked with American born college graduates who didn’t have enough command of the English language to draft an email that showed even a passing familiarity with the rules of spelling or grammar. There are beloved celebrities loudly telling Americans it's dangerous to vaccinate our children. And I know people born in the United States who glorify the traitorous Confederacy, and view breaking away from our constitution and our values as a worthy and noble cause. When they visit Civil War battlefields, perhaps they think wistfully, "If only more American soldiers had perished, today we might be living under a better flag!" They get to be American by accident of birth, but we want to turn away people who actually respect our country just because they were born a few thousand miles too far south?

Ninety percent of the troubles caused by illegal immigration are actually troubles caused by our confused and broken immigration policies. We could design a fairer, better system, one designed to integrate people into our society in a way that causes less harm to them or to our legal and economic systems. With our heads, we can and should debate how to reform our laws. With our hearts, we should welcome the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. Let them breathe free.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

The Superhero Inside Us All

Next week on Wednesday, June 10, I'll be at the North Regional Library in Raleigh at 6:30 p.m. to lead a discussion called "The Superhero Inside Us All."

I've always been fascinated by superheroes. My interest spans several mental domains. First, I'm a big old geeky fanboy who has a massive accumulation of superhero comic books. It's been twenty years since I last made a serious attempt at organizing and cataloging my collection, and I owned about 10,000 books then. My wall of long boxes has only gotten bigger over the years. Most of my collection is dominated by DC. For a long time, well into the 1980s, they had simpler, more episodic issues. Since I frequently bought my comic books used at flea markets, odds were excellent that if I picked up a single random issue of a DC comic, I'd get a complete story, while a single random issue of a Marvel comic, at least since then early 70s, would be only part of a larger story arc that might be difficult to cobble together. Of course, things changed with the rise of comic book shops in the 80s and 90s. Then, it was possible to find all the back issues you needed to read a complete story, and by the 2000s, any story of significance from DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, Image, etc. was going to be collected into graphic novels. Ironically, the rise of graphic novels was a big factor in cutting me loose from my local comic store, which I used to visit with the regularity of church. Now, why bother collecting a story in bits and pieces? Wait six months or a year, and you can read it all at once for less than the sum of all the parts.

But, I'm getting distracted by the once dominant medium of superheroics, and neglecting to talk about the content. The scientific part of my mind is intrigued that superheroes have any hold on our imaginations at all. Evolution should have us programmed to understand the limits of a human body. We know we can't run faster than a car, know there's no use trying to pick up that car and throw it, and know that if a car is coming at us, we seriously need to get out of the way, since it's not just going to bounce off us. We know that we can't jump hard enough to launch into flight, and no matter how hard we stare at a wall, we're not going to see through to the other side. Yet, we accept all of these attributes in our superheroes. Tell a four year old that Superman can fly, and odds are good he'll believe you on the first try. Why? Even if we consciously reject the possibility of these things being possible, why are we so easily drawn in, so ready and willing to believe?

At the risk of getting overly metaphysical, I suspect that superheroes and religion share neural pathways in our minds. We've evolved to recognize patterns, even when none exist. If an old woman says she can make it rain by shaking a rattle at the sky, and it rains even once, we can be convinced there's something to it. This isn't just a habit of primitive minds. Even the most rational-minded people among us hold onto beliefs that they can control the uncontrollable with certain ritualistic behaviors. This primitive pattern recognition didn't evolve to recognize a difference between the natural and the supernatural, and, before the rise of the scientific method, it once must have made perfect sense that there were supernatural forces controlling everything. You didn't just want to accept that it was chance that determined if you were going to catch fish on any given morning. There must be river spirits who controlled such things. And, since we are excellent at projecting human characteristics onto inhuman things, it probably wasn't a big leap to think that the river spirits had vaguely human shapes, even if we never caught a glimpse of them. River spirits, cloud spirits, earth spirits, fire spirits... the world was controlled by powerful entities who chose to remain out of sight under most situations. But, we still felt in our gut that they were there, and this gut instinct now makes it possible for us to accept superheroes on a subconscious level.

Superhumans have always played a major role in the mythology of every culture I've ever studied. The Greeks, the Norse, Navajos, Egyptians, the Japanese... name a culture, past or present, and I'll find you some well loved hero with superhuman powers.

Of course, not many of them will be wearing capes, tights, and masks. This version of the superhero arose in the 1930's in America and quickly became the dominant shared myth of our nation. While I have no actual research to back me up, I suspect more people can name five founding members of the Justice League than can name our first five presidents.

How did the caped crusader style of hero come to such cultural prominence? It's easy to look to the spectacle, the bright colorful costumes, the violent adventures, the catchy code names. Flash! Spiderman!  Wonder Woman! All decked out in clothing indistinguishable from body paint, the products of our id escaping into daylight. But, I would argue that the real reason that the superhero template formed before World War II has endured has little to do with spectacle, and a lot to do with spectacles.

The genius of Superman was that he had a secret identity. When he wasn't fighting Lex Luthor, he was just plain old Clark Kent. Clark was kind of nerdy and clumsy. Ladies didn't give him the time of day. He wasn't rich; unlike Bruce Wayne, he had a day job. He paid rent, he paid taxes. He got yelled at by his boss. People ask, why bother being Clark Kent when you can be Superman? But Clark Kent isn't a disguise Superman wears. Superman is a disguise Clark wears, a coping mechanism that allows him to have a normal life. Clark isn't a god hiding among men. He's a kid from the mid-west, raised on middle class, middle American values. He's modest, he's honest, he's hardworking, and he's a team player. He's a journalist because he believes that a free press is vital to a democracy, and he's believes in democracy because he's an American in his soul. He had no desire to conquer the world, no desire to rule. He had the same fundamental power to change the world than any American has... he can vote, and I suspect he never misses an election.

Yes, he has amazing powers. Yes, he can fly. But he lives in the city, riding the subway, eating at lunch counters, because that's how normal people spend their days. And when rude people jump in front of him as he's racing to catch the elevator, or when his boss is nagging him about deadlines, and when for the hundredth time Lois has rolled her eyes when he asks him out on a date, he knows, deep down, that there's something inside his shirt that would make everyone see him differently, but he's just not ready to show it. I think this is the ultimate reason Superman (and other working class heroes like Spiderman or the Flash) resonates with us. As we put up with all the hassle of daily life, we can calmly smile, thinking, it's okay. These people don't know the real me. They don't know my secrets my true potential.

It's not the cape. It's not the invulnerability. It's the faith that, if the world truly knew the real you, they would be amazed. Deep inside, everyone has a little Clark Kent in their soul.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Million Step Journey to a Brand New World

 April 2010
April 2015
Last weekend, Cheryl and I drove up to Virginia. Our travels took us past places we'd visited five years earlier, on a road trip we'd taken when we first became a couple. The trip five years ago was a pleasant drive. Highway 58 through the Appalachians is a twisty road that rewards you with mile after mile of breathtaking views. Stick a camera out your window and take a random shot, and odds are good it would make a decent post card.
Our first road trip was purely an adventure in driving. It was a bit like watching television. We sat the whole time, looking at passing images through a sheet of glass. Save for the occasional stop to get out and stretch our legs, we didn't interact much with the environment beyond just looking at it. From our seated position, we saw hints that other people had a different experience with the surroundings. In Galax, we drove past the head of the New River Trail and saw people unloading bikes. We saw dozens of places to rent kayaks, and passed numerous entrances for trails, including the Appalachian Trail. In Damascus, we got out to take a picture of a railroad bridge that had been converted into a bike path and were almost run over by the bikes coming down the mountain on what we later learned was the Virginia Creeper Trail.
Zooming down the mountain on a bike sure looked like fun, but, let's face it, it was the kind of fun other people had. People who were younger, healthier, and, to be blunt, a lot thinner. Cheryl and I occasionally did hikes. We were good for a few miles along the Eno or on Occanneechee Mountain, but the hike to Moore's Wall in Hanging Rock wiped us out. As for biking, three miles around the abandoned golf course near our vacation spot in Myrtle Beach was a real work out. We liked getting outside, but liked getting back indoors to air conditioning just a tiny bit more.
This year when we went back to Virginia, it was a very different trip. Those places we drove past five years ago? Now, we got to experience them fully. On Saturday, we biked 50+ miles from Galax to Pulaski along the New River Trail. It took us 9 hours to make the journey, and my butt is still sore five days later, but we saw vistas that would have been forever hidden if we hadn't left our car miles behind. On Sunday, it was off to Grayson Highlands, to tackle two different hikes, one taking us up to the highest pinnacles in the park, another to take us up to the grassy ridges where wild ponies munched lazily on new spring growth.
Monday, we returned to the New River Trail for an 8 mile bike ride along a spur we'd skipped on Saturday. Then, on our drive home, we stopped by Hanging Rock and did two short trails we'd never done before, to the upper and lower cascades, discovering amazing waterfalls we'd passed by a dozen times without knowing what we were missing.
There's truly no comparison between the two trips. Five years ago, we experienced the world mainly with our eyes, and the vast majority of the things we saw had a strip of asphalt right down the center. This year, we experienced the world with six senses. We saw things we'd never have seen from a car, we heard waterfalls and birds and the crunch of leaves under our boots, we smelled blossoming trees and the lingering creosote of old rail beds. We felt the sun and the wind and the rough coolness of stone as we climbed boulders to get a better view of our surroundings. As for taste, you don't really appreciate just how good plain water tastes until you're about thirty miles in on your fifty mile bike ride. As for the sixth sense, it's proprioception, the internal sense of the positioning of your body, the relative position of all your limbs, and the amount of energy flowing to each muscle to keep you upright on a bike as you're bouncing along a rough downhill trail, or keeping you balanced as you ascend an impossibly steep wall of steps leading up to the peak of a mountain. It's not a sense that kicks in much when you're sitting on a couch, but when this sense is fully activated, I can only describe it as an acute and profound sensation that you're exactly where you're supposed to be in the world.
What changed in the intervening five years? We did. It didn't happen overnight. We didn't wake up one morning and think, hey, let's go ride 50 miles and then did it because we had the willpower. There wasn't an easy, five step plan to get us from couch potato to mountain climber. Instead, we've been on a million step plan. Results will vary based on the size of your stride, of course, but a million steps would take most people somewhere between 400 and 500 miles. To cover that in a year breaks down to roughly 8 to 10 miles per week on your feet, propelling your body forward across space with nothing but your own muscles. It's not easy at first. I won't even tell you it's easy later. Cheryl and I live a mile from where we have gym memberships, and we try to walk there when we can, but there are times when we just hop in the car, because it's too hot, or too cold, or we're just running short on time and have too much to do give up fifty minutes of our live to walking a mile there and back.
Fortunately, more often than not, we put on our walking shoes and hit the pavement. Every step adds up. The reward isn't just hikes in the highlands, or long bike trips between distant towns. The real reward is our triumph over those thoughts that haunted us when those bikes flew past us five years ago. I no longer feel too old to have new adventures, or too fat to accomplish amazing things. A million steps a year can reshape your body. More importantly, it will carry your mind to a brand new world.
That world is waiting. Take the first step.  

Monday, January 12, 2015


ORANGE COUNTY, NC (January 12, 2015)—The Orange County Arts Commission is pleased to announce James Maxey, a speculative fiction author from Hillsborough, as the region's 2015 Piedmont Laureate.
Mr. Maxey will appear at workshops, reading programs and speaking engagements throughout Durham, Orange and Wake counties, giving the public an opportunity to meet him and learn more about his body of work. He writes fast-paced, action-driven pulp fiction with strong emphasis on character growth and world building, dealing with larger-than-life characters adventuring in exotic worlds.
The Piedmont Laureate Program is dedicated to building a literary bridge for residents to come together and celebrate the art of writing. Co-sponsored by the Orange County Arts Commission, City of Raleigh Arts Commission, Durham Arts Council, and United Arts Council of Raleigh & Wake County, the program’s mission is to promote awareness and heighten appreciation for excellence in the literary arts throughout the Piedmont region. A different literary form is recognized each year– 2015 is speculative fiction.
Speculative fiction is an umbrella term encompassing the more fantastical fiction genres, specifically science fiction, fantasy, horror fiction, weird fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history in literature.
As Piedmont Laureate, Maxey will receive an honorarium and serve until December 31, 2015. His duties will include presenting public readings and workshops, participating at select public functions and creating at least one original activity to expand appreciation of speculative fiction. A schedule of the Laureate’s 2015 activities will be available online at www.piedmontlaureate.com
Readers who delve past the dragons and superheroes on the covers of Maxey’s books will discover stories that explore the deeper aspects of the human condition. In the course of introducing imaginary worlds, Maxey hopes to provoke readers into thinking more deeply about our own world and our shared responsibility to improve it.
Influenced by Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould and Stephen Hawking, Mr. Maxey is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop where he studied with author-in-residence Harlan Ellison, and a graduate of Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp. He honed his craft over many years as a member of the Writer’s Group of the Triad and continues to be an active part of the Codex Writers’ online community.
For more information about James Maxey, please visit www.jamesmaxey.net
For more information about the Piedmont Laureate Program, please visit www.piedmontlaureate.com or contact Martha Shannon at 919.968.2011or mshannon@orangecountync.gov or contact any of the other sponsoring agencies.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

The Future of Energy

Several years ago, I was a guest on Stephen Euin Cobb's The Future and You and one of the topics we discussed was the likelihood of local solar power generation replacing our present system of centralized power generation via fossil fuels. I was on the show just days after visiting Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks, and I'd seen how the power gets run to the island from the mainland then fed through power lines that run the length of the mostly empty highway. Cheryl and I had gone out to the beach to do some stargazing, far out from the lights of civilization, yet still the night sky was bisected by power lines. It struck me as a somewhat impractical system. Ocracoke seemed like a terrific candidate for wind, solar, and tidal power generation. Why rely on miles of vulnerable cable to deliver something so essential as electricity?

At the time, a second factor made the rise of alternate energy seem just around the corner: I thought we were getting near peak oil. A lot of people did, as little as five or six years ago. We were nowhere near peak coal, but I thought the environmental cost of coal mining was something that would increasingly limit the growth of the industry. The pictures alone would hamper mountaintop removal mining, given that we are now able to summon before and after pictures of affected landscapes with a few keystrokes on Google Maps. The logic was simple: fossil fuels would get more expensive, making alternative energy projects more cost competitive.

Of course, today the price of oil is falling, and experts are saying there's vast reserves of accessible oil under America. Presumably, the fracking techniques we're using to free up previously inaccessible oil under our landscapes can be transferred to other countries. Not so long ago, I thought we might run out of affordable oil inside of twenty years. Now, I suspect technological advances will keep oil flowing for at least a century.

My hunch is that there will be no popular political movement to limit our use of fossil fuels. There might be a few hardcore environmentalists who are viewing our falling gas prices with a sense of terror, but I suspect the vast majority of voters are pretty happy to pay less to fill up their tank, and won't be eager to vote for someone who even hints at the possibility of implementing changes that will make prices go higher.

Despite the probable abundance of oil, I suspect we'll see prices go through many boom and bust cycles in coming years. As oil gets expensive, a lot of people are going to want to drill for it. But as a lot of people drill for it, there will be a glut, and prices will fall, and people will cut back on drilling. Then, prices will rise again, and so on.

What will finally get us off the roller coaster? I still suspect solar will be increasingly cheap and easy in coming years. I don't think plug in electric cars have much a future, nor will plug in hybrids. The impracticality of having enough charging stations to let everyone in the parking lot a the mall will keep plug in vehicles from being anything more than a niche market. But, what if solar panels can be sprayed directly onto a car like paint, and your hybrid charges anytime it's in sunlight? Just sitting in the parking lot at work, it could be getting enough of a charge to get you home without having to run your gasoline engine.

I'm already seeing a lot of tablet sized solar panels in camping stores made to charge cell phones while you're out camping or hiking. As we start carrying more and more smart devices that require charging, a lot of people will be glad to carry around portable panels to keep their gear running rather than constantly be on the hunt for the next outlet. Right now, when Cheryl and I go on long hikes or bike rides, we usually carry portable batteries. But, give me a solar panel with enough power to actually charge a phone and small enough to mount on handlebars, get the price down to where it's cheaper than the portable batteries, and I'll start using it. It won't require any tax subsidies to encourage me. I want to be mobile, and I want electricity, and I'll pay a fair price to have it.

Ultimately, I think that portability is going to be the real path to ubiquity for solar power. As vast as our power grid is, it doesn't go everywhere. Neither does the sun, but it goes a lot more places than a power line. Gasoline is also portable power, of course... but it's too heavy for a person to carry around a gasoline powered generator and gallons of gas. To supply a demand for cheap, mobile electricity for today's wired users who also like being outdoors, solar cells will continuously get smaller and more efficient. My hunch is that in a decade, solar power won't just be cost competitive with fossil fuels, it will be so cheap that consumers will flock to it for the most sensible reason of all: it saves them a boatload of money.

While I think there's a consumer market for portable solar, America and Europe will probably be the last places to have widespread adoption of solar power for houses and businesses. The problem is, we became wealthy on a fossil fuel grid and there's going to be a lot of inertia that keeps a lot of the country on that grid even after better alternatives arise. You see the pattern with cell phones. In a lot of poorer countries, cell phones far outnumber landlines, because it was easier to build a few cell towers than to run lines to every building. In America, I know lots of people who still have landlines, even though they make 99% of their calls on their cell phones.

In emerging nations that don't already have a widespread electric grid, it's going to be easier to build a house with cheap solar panels and energy efficient designs that make the house self sufficient than it will be to build a reliable grid to hook the house to. In the US, it will be much more difficult to retrofit old houses to take advantage of the new technologies. My own dwelling wasn't built with a south facing roof. Turning the house 90 degrees seems like more of an expense than it's worth. But, houses built a decade from now may well incorporate maximum solar exposure into the design plans.

Saving the planet is nice, but saving money is where you'll get actual behavioral change. I'm still hoping that, in the long run, we'll collectively be cheapskates enough to leave most of the fossil fuels remaining in the ground.