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.


Thursday, March 31, 2016

What We Can Learn from Bigfoot

Since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by cryptozoology, the science (or pseudoscience) of studying unknown animals. As a child, I really wanted to believe in Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, the Chupacabra, and their many brethren. Alas, as the years rolled by and I actually started looking at the evidence for such creatures, I found myself becoming a skeptic.

I have sympathy for people who do believe in such creatures, however. First, there’s an issue of basic fairness. Cryptozoology has seen a few mythical beings actually come to light, most recently with giant squids finally being captured on film and proving the existence of the kraken. Other creatures were based on misinterpretations of actual evidence. Fossil elephant skulls were taken as proof of the existence of the Cyclops, for instance. Unfortunately for cryptozoologists, the deck is stacked. Whenever an unknown creature is finally proven to exist, it no longer belongs in the realm of cryptozoology. It’s merely zoology. Over time, all the mysterious creatures that actually do exist get claimed by science, and cryptozoologists are left with an increasingly dubious bestiary.

But I think cryptozoology has one interesting spin off that does fit into the realm of science. There’s something we can learn about how our brain works by looking at what’s perhaps the most universal and persistent superstar of cryptozoology, Bigfoot. While Bigfoot as a specific creature resides in the Pacific Northwest, there are numerous large hominids reported around the world in a variety of terrains. Swamps produce skunk apes, mountains produce yetis, and the previously mentioned Cyclops resided on a Mediterranean island. The Bible reports on the existence of giants. The notion that there’s big, wild man living somewhere in the nearby wilderness is something that a lot of people throughout the ages have been willing to believe in.

The easy answer to why so many people throughout history believe in these large hominids is that people are stupid. Some people let their imaginations run wild in barren lands and start jumping at their own shadows. They tell their stories to people who are insufficiently skeptical, and eventually a significant percentage of the population believes in beasts that simply do not exist. For a long time, I was satisfied with this easy answer.

Then I found out that dogs recognize other dogs and changed my mind.

You may be wondering what dogs have to do with Bigfoot. You may also be wondering why I would find it even vaguely interesting that dogs recognize other dogs. But, if you think about it, dogs have such variable body shapes that it’s difficult to define on a purely surface level exactly what a dog looks like. A pug looks nothing like a Doberman and a Chihuahua bears only the slightest resemblance to a Saint Bernard. Yet, when the pug sees a Saint Bernard, it somehow knows it’s a fellow dog. This makes sense if the dogs meet and can smell each other. However, the study I read about eliminated this by only showing the dogs pictures. The study dogs were shown two pictures at a time, one of a dog, one of a non-dog mammal. If they picked the picture of the dog, they got a treat. They got nothing if they picked a cat, horse, or goat. The dogs weren’t fooled by the non-dogs. Something in their brains seems to be hardwired to hone in on the defining features of a dog, whether it be a dachshund or a Great Dane.

The human mind likely possesses similar built in templates. Humans evolved in a world with numerous rival hominid species competing for the same habitat. Lions and tigers and bears were threats, but none were as dangerous to our survival as other large hominids. If one was in the neighborhood, spying at us from behind a tree or a rock, we had to be able to spot it fast or we might not live to pass on our genes. Our hominid spotting senses didn’t need to be too finely tuned to weed out false positives. If we mistook a shadowy tree trunk for a giant, hairy man and ran away, we’d live to tell our tribesmen about our close call. If we mistook a giant, hairy man for a tree trunk, we might not get to tell anyone.

It evolutionary years, it’s practically yesterday that we were sharing the planet with other large, tool-using hominids. We probably still have the built in templates for seeing these dangerous beasts out of the corner of our eye. Of course, all we get now are false hits. But I suspect that a fair number of Bigfoot sightings are honestly reported by sober people who actually saw something suspicious because our brains are on the lookout for something suspicious. The hunt for Bigfoot will probably never actually produce a Bigfoot, but I think it does provide us an interesting window into the lives of our early ancestors.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The End of Atheism?

A study put out by Duke University a few weeks ago caught my attention, with the revelation that only 45% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 30 say they have no doubt that God exists. 55% aren't sure that there is a God. The exact wording of this statement doesn't mean that a majority of young Americans are atheists, however. As near as I can tell from most surveys, only about 3% of Americans identify themselves as atheists.

It would seem that, as an atheist myself, I would be cheered by the news that a majority of young people are uncertain if God exists. However, I confess that I think that the decline in belief in God has very little to do with the actual rejection of the idea of God, and much more to do with ignorance, apathy, economics, and spectacular marketing failure on the part of American Christianity.

First, economics. When I was a child, pretty much everyone I knew went to church on Sundays. All stores were closed, and most restaurants. Starting in the 80s, though, Americans began to really assert their rights to shop on any day of the week they wanted, including Sundays. This meant that a lot of potential church goers got pulled out of the pews and put to work. One can blame the evil corporations for making people work on Sundays, but the reality is that businesses wouldn't be open on Sundays if they didn't have plenty of people shopping. I don't have any actual statistics, but it seems to me that if I go into most stores on weekends, Sundays feel a lot busier than Saturdays. Sunday lunch at restaurants is easily as busy, if not busier, than Friday nights, from what I can see.

I will also say, from personal observation, that the sort of workers who wind up working a Sunday morning shift tend to be younger employees, people in their twenties who don't yet have enough value to their employers to demand better shifts. People this age are also people who tend to have young children. So, the young children aren't in church because their parents are working. Which leads to the ignorance I mentioned: many of the non-religious young people I know aren't rejecting religion as much as they are just completely unaware of it. If you aren't indoctrinated into your parents faith at an early age, you are unlikely to spontaneously decide on your own that church is something you really need to get into your life.

Because, really, who has the time? It's the apathy I mentioned. Church used to be a huge resource for entertaining young people. You'd hang out with your friends at Sunday School, you'd go to Bible School in the summer, you'd play on the church softball league, and go to church picnics. Today, these activities are competing with the internet, video games, and a wave of streaming media that fill up our idle hours. Who needs a church for socializing if you've got a smartphone and social media? Why wait for Sunday when you can socialize 24/7? It's not that young people are completely unaware that there are churches out there. I'm sure they drive by them every day. They just don't care.

Lastly, the marketing failure: I don't know who's bright idea it was in the 1980s to weave together Christianity and right-wing politics, but in retrospect you have to think that the religious right didn't do their religion or their party any favors. Christianity did a pretty good job for a long time marketing itself as a fountain of peace and charity. Then, somehow, they threw their support behind politicians with militaristic tendencies and the avowed goals of cutting holes in the safety net of the poor. What would Jesus do? Bomb His enemies and slash food stamp budgets, apparently. I don't even necessarily think that these are bad ideas! There are people and places that probably do need the occasional bombing, and one can also argue that poorly designed welfare systems wind up exacerbating poverty rather than alleviating it. Still, how these came to be marketed as Christian values is mystifying. (I will acknowledge, by the way, that the so-called Christian right probably never represented a clear majority of Christians. Left wing Christians, however, never mastered talk radio and televangelism.)

In any case, once religion got tied to politics, it wound up tied to the ebb and flow of political popularity. Anyone with even a casual knowledge of American history understands that there is no permanently popular political party. Whoever is on top today will be on the bottom in a few years.

For avowed atheists, alas, the decline in religious belief probably also marks a decline in our ranks. Atheism is, despite the protests of its more fervent proponents, more reaction that action. I used to go to atheist meet-ups fairly frequently. As a rule, the sort of atheist who came to these meet ups had been raised in a religious household. A populare topic of conversation was on the struggles we'd had telling our families and loved ones that we no longer shared their beliefs. I seldom met people raised as atheists. To not believe in something, you have to know what it is you're not believing in. I'm not even sure that the growing lack of belief even falls into the category of agnosticism. Most agnostics are aware of the arguments on either side, they simply don't feel that either side has an irrefutable position, and are happy to actively reject that they need to take a position.

The ranks of unbelievers now don't seem to be made up of atheists and agnostics. They instead are filled mostly with the unaware. They aren't rejecting God, or refusing to take a position. They aren't even aware there was ever a need to have a position. A century ago, most people probably had opinions on telegrams and the way the railroads were being run. Today, these topics have all but vanished as a topic of conversation (unless you live in the tiny sliver of America actually served by railroads). Fading relevance is probably the biggest challenge facing religion today, and may mark the beginning of the end of mankind's belief in God. But who would have guessed that it might also lead to the end of atheism?

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Silver Age Nostalgia

Last night, I reread Kingdom Come, a graphic novel by Alex Ross and Mark Waid. It's generally regarded as one of the best comics ever published, but I hadn't read it in years, and my memory of it was dim. Rereading, I remembered why I'd forgotten it. The storyline is a cluttered mess, with a lot of the characters hitting false notes. Superman has retired because, as best as I can tell, he got his feelings hurt when his poll numbers dropped and another superhero became more popular than him. (Seriously. There's a whole panel showing the pie chart of the poll results.) Batman is a bitter jerk. Wonder Woman is just looking for an excuse to kill someone, and finally does so. The art is cluttered, with too many characters jammed into every page, and the story never stops to explain who these background characters are. If you haven't read every comic book published by DC or the companies they've absorbed like Charleton, you don't have a chance of making heads or tails of what's really going on.

The funny thing is, I'm actually a reader who had a pretty good shot of recognizing all the obscure background characters. I've been reading comics since I was ten, with a heavy emphasis on DC. If I couldn't connect with the story, I'm not sure who the target reader was.

It left me nostalgic for the Silver Age comics I first read as a kid. My dad used to like going to flea markets. I'd go with him. Back then, comics weren't so much collector's items as accumulated items. You'd find them in cardboard boxes, often mixed with other magazines. Typically, a used comic book cost 10 cents. They wouldn't be in mint condition. They often didn't even have covers.

One reason I drifted toward reading DC comics over Marvel was that, by the mid sixties, Marvel changed their storytelling so that almost all plotlines stretched over three or four issues. There might be a villain of the month to get clobbered, but usually the last page of any issue was a cliffhanger that required you to get the next book. This was a great strategy for hooking readers buying new comic books. For someone picking up random back issues at flea markets, the odds of putting together a complete story was slim.

The real find if you were digging through a flea market box was to stumble across a 100 Page Super Spectacular. This was a format DC played with in the late 60s and early 70s, where they would slap together a bunch of already published material from their archives and sell the whole bundle for premium prices. (50 cents! Who had that kind of money?)

Usually, these collections were publishing stories at least 10 years old, and often they'd reach back to the Golden Age for material. They were a good way for a budding geek to get caught up on DC history. Today, you'd have to shell out hundreds, if not thousands of dollars for an original comic featuring the Jay Garrick Flash, or the first appearance of Captain Cold, or the first appearance of Kid Flash's classic yellow and red costume. I definitely got my comic book education on the cheap.

Rereading the Silver Age Flash stories, I find they hold up okay. His superspeed stunts are usually built around some actual science. There's pretty much zilch in the way of character development, which was par for the course at DC during this era. Marvel characters had recognizable personalities--the Human Torch was cocky, Spiderman was publicly jokey and privately brooding, the Hulk, you know, got angry. DC's second string characters like Flash, Atom, Green Lantern, and Green Arrow were pretty interchangeable, perky, wholesome, with an affinity for puns being the entirety of their sense of humor. Was this better than Kingdom Come, with its more "realistic" personalities? Not really. Whenever I reread Silver Age DC comics, my nostalgia usually crashes hard on this one aspect of the story telling. The characters didn't even reach the level of being one dimensional. They were a name and a costume and that's about it.

Superman, interestingly, did sometimes escape from this utterly flat character development. Unfortunately, when you reread Silver Age Superman, the character who emerges isn't the smiling champion of truth and justice. Instead, Superman is kind of a sociopath who enjoys mentally tormenting his inferiors. His primary motive in pretty much every adventure is to single out one of his closest "friends" for the utter destruction of their psyche. If Lois plainly catches Clark changing into Superman in the broom closet, rather than just fessing up, or even just using his super-hypnosis to make her forget, he has to make her question every aspect of her reality by convincing her that she's surrounded by robot doubles and shape-changing aliens. Maybe deadly fumes from crash landing rockets that have made her hallucinate seeing him in a cape. Lois or Lana or Jimmy always end the story frowning, wondering how their senses can be so fallible, while Superman smiles behind their back, pleased with how he's brought them down a notch.

Of course, Lois and Jimmy get off easy compared to some of Superman's targets. In the headline story of the issue above, a lone Superboy robot has gained sentience and is now living in Smallville where he saves people invisibly at superspeed. Basically, nothing bad happens in Smallville under his watch, until Superman discovers the robot. His robots used to be obedient to him, but, as mentioned, this one has developed it's own personality and refuses to obey Superman anymore. So, Superman disguises himself as Smallville's sheriff. Then, when the sheriff tries to arrest the robot Superboy, the robot Superboy protests that he's done nothing wrong and slaps away the handcuffs. This causes the sheriff to have a heart attack, and fall dead at the robot's feet. (Since Superman can cause his heart to stop at will without harming himself.) Mortified that his actions have caused the death of a human, the Superboy robot flies into the sun and destroys himself. This issue ends with Superman grinning smugly, pleased that he has tricked a perfectly benign being into committing suicide.

So... maybe the petty, emotionally fragile Superman depicted in Kingdom Come wasn't so far from the mark after all.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Best of 2015: Adventure

In absolutely no logical order, some scenes of Cheryl and I pushing our limits this year.
By the end of the year, we'd look back on this fondly as one of the easier bridges to get across.

Once you start collecting conchs, it's tough to stop.

Sunset at Murrell's Inlet

What we looked like a few minutes before launching on our 100 mile bike ride. There's a good reason we don't have "after" pictures.

Cheryl out on a limb.

This log cabin isn't on the official map of Eno State Park. We found it by following the very faint remnants of an old road.

At Hanging Rock.

At Tory's Den.

A winter's walk.

No one said there'd be dinosaurs!

Perched atop Cthulhu.

New River Trail, about 40 miles in, just before the last ten miles ground our spirits to dust.

Old tunnel on New River Trail.

Cheryl grooving on the ponies at Grayson Highlands.

A little together time at the top of the world.

Some alone time at the top of the world!

Reaching the top of the world ain't easy.

We took a lot of selfies in front of water and rocks. This is one of them.

Abandoned trestle off the Mountain to Sea Trail.

Literally pushing the boundaries at Eno State Park.

Neuse River Trail.

Warrior Dash!

That might be Cheryl near the top. The camera was a little muddy....

Definitely Cheryl!

We also posed in front of fields. Lots and lots of fields.

Advanced selfie taking while bike riding.

Not the only time this year we were caught by rain.

Biking after rain turns the pavement into mirrors.

Nothing like sharing adventures with family!

I've always liked Popeye. All this biking is giving me his legs.

Cheryl spend much of the year with a bike chain grease tattoo.

Best of 2015: Nature

Cheryl and I spent a good part of this year outdoors, keeping an eye open for the wonders of nature. Nature was happy to oblige!
We didn't have to journey far for this taste of spring. It's from a tulip tree in our front yard.

A stretch along the Eno we nicknamed "the Shire" for its idyllic beauty.

Farm creek on the New River Trail.

Colorful gravel beneath water at Hanging Rock.

I think this little guy is from the Mountain to Sea Trail near Old Oxford Road.

Petal suspended in a spider web, Eno State Park.

Off the marked path in Eno State Park, exploring an old road to nowhere.

Skinks near the Durham Farmer's Market.

A hitchhiker in a conch we found, just before we returned him to the marsh.

Dragonfly at Murrell's Inlet.

Dunes across from Murrell's Inlet.

This was taken in my mom's back yard.

Congregation of butterflies, looking somewhat like sailboats.

Sunset at Occaneechee Mountain

Fall at Jordan Lake.

Flower at Duke Gardens. Cheryl told me what it was, but I've forgotten. It reminds me of dragon scales.

Taken as we were leaving Duke Cancer Clinic.

This one was still occupied, so we left him.

Turtle in the Trent in New Bern.

Albino faun at American Tobacco Trail.

Blue heron near American Tobacco Trail.