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


Tuesday, March 19, 2019

A Flunking Grade in Quiz Writing

Clicking through headlines this morning, I saw one that didn't come as much of a shocker: "American's Get Flunking Grade on Economic Literacy." I clicked on it partly because of the irony of a "flunking grade" headline containing a grammatical error. (American's should be Americans.) But then I took the "quiz." From the very first question, I knew I'd been suckered into reading political propaganda instead of any honest attempt to survey American's for their economic literacy.

During the first two years of the Trump Administration, did the U.S. economy grow faster than the last two years of the Obama Administration or slower?  Faster Growth Rate,  Slower Growth Rate,  About the Same. 

If you clicked on slower or about the same, you were then informed the "correct" answer is Faster Growth Rate. But my problem with this as the "correct" answer is that "about the same" is also a fairly accurate answer, since "about" is a reasonably broad term. The final year of Obama's term did have a relatively slow growth rate, but 2015 had a growth rate of 2.9 percent. 2017 had a growth rate of 2.6%. So, Obama's second to last year beat Trump's first year. But more importantly, if you look at a few decades of economic data as found in this chart, there's really not been a dramatic shift in growth between the Obama years and the Trump years, with the disclaimer that there's only been two Trump years. It's hardly enough to show a trend or allow for any long term comparisons. It's apparent looking at data that the growth rate for the last decade mostly bounces around in a range between 1.6% and 2.9%. The question seems designed to make you conclude that Trump has managed the economy better than Obama, but I'm skeptical that a four year span is long enough to draw any meaningful conclusions from.

A few other questions seem placed to make Trump look good as well. The second question is about the Hispanic unemployment rate. It correctly notes that the unemployment rate for Hispanics is the lowest ever recorded. But, this is supposed to be a "Basic Economic Quiz." Slicing up the data to look at unemployment rates for different ethnic groups seems outside the scope of "basic" economic literacy. I think the average person could remain blissfully unaware of the Hispanic unemployment rate and still be well educated enough to balance their checkbooks, choose a good mortgage, and save for retirement. The quiz is only ten questions long, and, for the record, does ask a question about mortgage rates, but asks no questions at all about retirement savings. For a quiz about "basic" economic literacy, it skips over a lot of basics.

But I wouldn't be writing this blog post if it had just been questions with a political slant. I'm writing it because one of the questions just struck me as presenting an answer that's mostly wrong.

5. Generally speaking, if more people want to buy a particular product, will the price of the product go up, down, or stay the same?
 The price will go up
 The price will go down
 The price will stay the same
 Not sure

The "correct" answer, according to the quiz writer, is that the "price will go up."

"Generally speaking," this is wrong only if the question is modified. If people want to buy a particular product that's only available in a limited quantity, the price will go up. So, if more people that want to own gold, the price will get higher, because demand outstrips the increase in supply. The same is true for some brand name items where scarcity is a matter of design. A designer of handbags might only release a very small quantity, creating an artificial scarcity that allows the handbags to command a high price. In comic books, publishers deliberately create instant collectibles by printing variant covers in small quantities. Artists sometimes release numbered prints, so you know that you've bought one of only 100 existing copies of an image. It's scarcity by design.

But, generally speaking, for most commodities increased demand will result in prices coming down if there are multiple people competing to supply that demand. When I first got the internet, I paid $12 an hour to dial up to a very, very slow connection. But, a LOT of people wanted to access the internet. So providers did what they could to make it affordable to broaden their customer base. Even today, providers try to undercut the prices of their competitors to attract more customers. Per minute, I pay a fraction of what I used to, and get access to a product that is so superior to what I once had that it almost feels like magic. Maybe my internet bill will go up next year. But this will be offset by the fact that I'll probably be able to download more content at even faster speeds, and as a percentage of my total income, the cost will likely stay flat, or even shrink.

Inflation makes it difficult to compare prices directly, but if you like drinking soda, good news. A bottle of soda today costs a lot less relative to your total income than it did half a century ago. I can go to Walmart today and buy a good pair of jeans for under $20, which, again as a percentage of income, is a price drop compared to what they cost in the seventies or eighties.

If a commodity doesn't have an artificial cap on its production by a variety of competitors, in general a product that's in high demand will wind up being cheaper because you can make more money with a tiny profit margin if you are capturing a broad pool of customers. Raise your prices, and you'll start losing customers to competitors offering better prices.

Finally, I would also say that the question is ambiguous when it asks about a "particular product." Demand for I-Phones have kept the price for that "particular product" relatively high. But, as a category, smart phones with broadly similar capabilities have dropped sharply in price compared to what a phone with similar specifications would have cost even a few years ago.

Fortunately, I suspect that this "quiz" will soon vanish as a needle into the near infinite haystack of  the internet, as will this blog post. But, it still feels good to get this off my chest. If you're going to write a manipulative quiz about basic economics, maybe it would help to actually understand basic economics in the first place.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Don't Wait for Perfect Days

I post a lot of pictures from the adventures that Cheryl and I undertake in good weather. Sunny days are conducive to photography. If nothing else, they have good light. Warm days also mean we're not bundled up in so many layers of clothes that pictures of us look like snapshots of potatoes wearing bike helmets. Not all seasons are pretty to look at. Fall has leaves, spring has blossoms, and summer has beaches and water. Unless it snows, our winter excursions are often through landscapes that are gray and brown and somewhat bleak.

Vere's the important thing: We probably wouldn't be outside on the good days if we didn't also go out on the bad days. If you write off going outside from November through March, you're going to develop habits that are going to make going outdoors the rest of the year inconvenient and, honestly, a little disappointing. You get outside and it's a little chilly, or kind of windy, or hot and sticky, or there are too many bugs, or thunder's getting closer. Who needs that?

Make yourself get outside three or four times a week in January and February when it's drizzling and gloomy, and you'll have a lot more appreciation for a not quite perfectly warm day in April.

Yesterday Cheryl and I took advantage of a forecasted break in the rain to get out to the ATT and grab an 11 mile ride a little before sunset. It was cold, and got a lot colder when the wind picked up. It was cloudy, so it got dark fast and we had to ride the last few miles in pitch blackness and load bikes by flashlight. When we got home, we were laughing as we undressed because to combat the cold we were wearing a ridiculous number of layers. We filled an entire washer load with just the clothes we'd had on for a single ride! I had on underwear, long underwear, and sweatpants, plus four shirts. Add in gloves, socks, shoes, a hat, and a rain coat and I probably had on ten pounds of clothing. And I was still cold!

On the other hand, we weren't the only crazy people on the trail. We passed a guy running in shorts... and he was barefoot! Still, on a warm, sunny day the trail can be so congested it almost feels like rush hour traffic. Last night, while there were other weirdo's out, they were few and far between . We could bike in freedom without the stress of passing or being passed.

Today we went for a walk on the Riverwalk. I think we saw two people in a mile and half. It was deeply overcast and gray, but there were patches of moss and grass in shades of green that could fairly be described as vibrant. No flowers in bloom, but lots of daffodil stalks that had pushed up through the leaf litter. In another week, there will be yellow flowers everywhere.

Because the trail was so empty, there were deer not ten feet off the trail, chewing buds on branches. There were four of them and they apparently really liked the branches they were eating because they kept their eyes on us as we passed but never bolted. On a nicer day, when people would have been out running the trail with dogs and kids, the deer would have kept their distance.

I don't want to oversell our toughness here. Today was 40 degrees and drizzle. If it had been 30 degrees, or hard rain, we'd probably have stayed inside. And, it was way too wet and cold to ride today. Yesterday was only about 5 degrees warmer, but it was just over the threshold of a tolerable ride. Looking at the forecast for the coming week, I see that Wednesday has a high of 38 and wind and drizzle in the forecast. We'll likely stay inside. On the other hand, Monday is a high of 59 and merely cloudy. We've already got the bikes loaded and plan to ride.

Cheryl and I study ten day weather forecasts the way some people study horoscopes. We arrange our lives around the weather, and if there's a great day amid a string of duds, we grab it. But sometimes it's all duds. My two week forecast doesn't have a picture of a sun on it until Feb 27, ten days away. There's no way we're going to stay indoors ten days in a row. We own raincoats. Might as well use 'em.

Today's weather was dismal, but the deer and the moss made for a pretty good walk. That's the important takeaway here. If you wait for the perfect day to go out and take a walk or a ride, you're going to let a lot of pretty good days sneak by you.

And, hey, at least in February there are no mosquitoes.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Best Photos of 2018: Big Pictures

Lots of time outdoors this year. Sky, water, trees, sand are more of a living room to us than our, you know, living room. It's good to get out into places where there aren't any walls around you. 

Cheryl started the year with knee replacement surgery. Two weeks later, she walked her first mile on the new knee and never looked back. 

Okay, so yes, some of the place we went did have walls. They were still cool. 

How this lone tree managed to grow in by itself in Lake Mattamuskeet is kind of a mystery to me. There are a lot of islands on the lake, and trees in the water near the shore, but this has to be the loneliest tree ever. 

We were on a bridge on the Hillsborough Riverwalk and happened to look straight down to find this deer having a snack. 

This is the first year we've had mountain bikes and they let us go places our old bikes couldn't take us. But when I hit this "bridge" on the Eagle Spur trail I found out just how far my sense of adventure could take me. This far. No further. I turned back rather than trying to ride across or wade through slime. 

Here we didn't even have a bridge!

This is from the first snowstorm of the year, when Cheryl was still recovering from surgery. I think it's just the trees in my front yard.

We saw more dolphins this year than any other year I remember. Getting a good picture is almost impossible. If I'm on a kayak, I'm bobbing too much to hold the camera steady, and if I'm on the beach even with my maximum zoom all I get are small bumps in the water. Still, this one isn't bad. 

Friday, November 02, 2018

Our Biggest Threats Part Three: Plague!

Plague is a pretty reliable stand by for science fiction authors when they need a plausible apocalypse. After all, it's happened before in history, and we don't have to go to ancient history. In our lifetimes, 70 million people have been infected with AIDS, and 35 million people have died.

Go back only a century, and you find 500 million people infected with flu in 1918-1919, with 50 million people dying.

Which is why, on the whole, I don't spend a lot of time worrying about civilization getting wiped out by disease. Nature takes its best shot at us all the time, and for the most part we just shrug it off. This doesn't mean it's not tragic if you or a loved one is one of the millions claimed by a modern plague, only that it hardly qualifies as an apocalypse if the world, for the most part, carries on. Let's say a truly devastating mega-disease breaks out next year that has twice the death toll of the 1918 flu, wiping out 100 million people worldwide in a single year. This sounds devastating, but in a world with 7 billion people, close to 98.5 percent of the population isn't going to be killed by the disease. Subtract 100 million people from 7 billion, then round up to the nearest billion, and you're still at 7 billion. We'll carry on.

Now, there are a few arguments in favor of a deadly plague spreading. First, we're a much more mobile world than we were in 1918. Plague can spread from continent to continent in a matter of hours. Second, our current crop of antibiotics is under great stress due to evolved resistance and there's little reason to think that new antibiotics are going to show up in time and abundance to counter the tide. Third, in the wealthiest, most educated nation on earth, it's become fashionable among a segment of the population not to vaccinate children.

The counter arguments: Disease might be more mobile, but so is information. By the end of the first week of the new plague, everyone on earth will have heard about it and heard how not to contract it. Antibiotic resistance is a genuine problem, but can be countered in part simply by following good hygiene practices. We know more about not contracting these infections than ever before. And, most plagues would be spread by viruses, which aren't affected by antibiotics anyway. As for the vaccination resisters, part if the reason such stupidity can spread is that vaccinations have been so effective that most people have never met anyone with one of the diseases being vaccinated against. It's easy to question whether a polio vaccine is necessary if there are no cases of polio at all in your state for the last fifty years. But let even a handful of cases show up in a modern school system and I predict vaccinations will become all the rage again.

Ultimately, our biggest defense against a modern plague isn't some new vaccine or drug. It's our own biology. Humans have been around a long time on the planet and gotten pretty good at fighting the various microbial threats that lie in wait for us. Just as importantly, a lot of these microbes have gotten good at surviving simply by becoming less lethal. A microbe that kills its host quickly and in massive numbers will have a pretty short run. Our second best defense beyond our own biology is good government. Lord, that's kind of chilling, isn't it? But, seriously, despite my best libertarian, free market instincts, I have to admit that government run water and sewage systems have probably done more to end the spread of disease in the US than any other innovation. The biggest reasons a truly devastating modern plague is unlikely are porcelain toilets and clean tap water.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Our Biggest Threats--Part 2: Authoritarianism

Continuing my series of looking at potential apocalypses, I'll veer off into something that isn't technically the end of the world, authoritarianism. As a science fiction author, this is sort of baked into our view of the future. There's a looming doom ahead of us that the relatively free life we enjoy today will vanish and be replaced by an authoritarian form of government that squelches all dissent and makes it a crime to even think the wrong thoughts.

The logic behind this premise is pretty soundly based in historical precedent. Authoritarian regimes do arise repeatedly in human history, and even today a sizable portion of the world's population lives without such fundamental freedoms as the freedom of speech, the freedom to vote, the freedom to own property, the freedom to travel, the freedom to worship, or the freedom to love whoever you wish to love.

Of course, these freedoms are squashed along a sliding scale and to various degrees. Americans are now mostly free to openly love whoever they wish to love, unless, of course, you'd like to be married to multiple partners, or to be involved with a very young person. In the second case, the question of consent and abuse in an excellent reason why we should prohibit such things. As to polygamy between adults... I have to admit I'm not at all certain what logical or legal argument should prohibit such a thing. Such an arrangement strikes me as distasteful and impractical, but I'm not certain why my feelings on such things should have any legal weight in keeping others from doing as they wish to do if it doesn't harm me.

As for free speech, a growing segment of the US supports prohibitions against hate speech. Your freedom to own property is compromised by laws and regulations declaring what you can't do with said property. We also have some odd barriers to voting. Most exist in the name of stamping out fraudulent votes, but there are also punitive laws. In many states, convicts can't vote, even though every other right is returned to them after they've served time. It's odd that some crimes carry a one year prison sentence, followed by a lifetime ban on possessing a fundamental right. As for your freedom to travel, sure, as long as you don't try to get onto a plane with the wrong papers or drive down a highway without the proper documents in your possession.

I give these examples to make a larger point: All governments are authoritarian governments. Every government ever formed by man has given someone the authority to restrict the freedom of other men by taking their property, silencing their voices, restricting their relationships, throwing them into prison, or killing them.

The trade off for giving others the power to restrict our freedom is that we hope they will use this power wisely. We want them to throw murderers into jail, but not the person standing on a street corner holding up a sign saying, "Trump sucks!" We want our governments to keep our next door neighbor from turning his front lawn into a junk yard, or building a fence 50 feet high that throws our house into permanent shadow. On the other hand, if you wanted to grow hemp in your backyard garden next to your tomatoes, you're likely not all that thrilled about the government's power to come and rip up those plants, seize your property and sell it without ever actually convicting you of a crime.

The great danger of authoritarianism is that it's absolutely vital if we want to live in a safe, comfortable, and clean world. Someone needs to be watching what's coming out of our smokestacks. Someone needs to be making certain I can bike through a neighborhood and not have to worry about packs of unleashed dogs chasing me down. And, yes, it does make most of us safer if we give some people with badges the power to stop random strangers for trivial reasons to ask a few questions.

But, of course, slopes are slippery. We get used to granting the government power over those who inconvenience us, then worry when we realize that the government might very well turn those same powers against us.

Good. Keep worrying. The greatest defense against a necessary degree of authoritarianism becoming an oppressive dictatorship is simply knowing and understanding the potential for the danger. To liberal friends who find themselves panicked at the thought about the powers that Trump and the right-wingers have seized, I encourage you to think deeply about why such powers should exist in the first place. If America was to slip into authoritarianism, it would be because we granted a central power too much authority in the name of pursuing some degree of good. We want to save the world from climate change, for instance, so we decide we should skip the messy compromises of the democratic process and allow a central agency to simply dictate the rules. Or, we panic because some people commit crimes like school shootings or flying planes into buildings, then grant our authorities power to seize and hold anyone they find suspicious under laws written vaguely to be broad enough to cover crimes we haven't even thought of yet. Or, we allow ourselves to be comfortable with ignoring the presumption of innocence in the name of respecting the rights of victims. Or, we celebrate the FBI monitoring the phone calls and emails of people we don't trust and don't like. Or, we decide we should subsidize and mandate the use of ethanol in fuels because it's great for the environment, then find ourselves completely unable to reverse the subsidies and mandates once we realize, nope, this path is actually much more harmful for the environment that simply doing nothing.

Before you grant any power to people you like and trust, please, please, please ask yourself one question: Will I also enjoy these powers winding up in the hands of people who are my enemies? Does the potential for abuse outweigh the potential for good? Are you absolutely certain you are wise enough to make that judgment?

The good news is I don't truly fear America sliding into an irreversible authoritarian dystopia for a rather simple reason. Our government was intentionally designed not to work very well. Trump can come into office promising to build a wall. He can have majorities in both houses of congress and a court that shows deference to such matters. And... nothing. Not even a mile of wall can get built. I don't doubt his sincerity in wishing to do so, but there are a zillion obstacles in the way, and any grand project that is going to take more than two or four or eight years to roll out and implement can only move forward successfully with bipartisan buy in. This is going to keep us from doing a lot of grand things, like colonizing Mars or signing some binding international treaty to regulate greenhouses gasses, then implementing it on any realistic time scale. It also likely dooms single-payer health care. Inertia and impotence are built into the system. They aren't the flaws, but the foundation.

The design of the American political system must look absolutely perverse to an outside observer. How the hell do we ever get anything done? Minority forces have too much power to gum up the works. Majority forces become paralyzed by internal fighting among factions. Laws that do get passed get tied up in courts and overturned or neutered. The laws that survive the courts get thrown into a bureaucracy that somehow implements them in the least efficient ways imaginable and often provides advantages to the very industries we'd hoped to regulate.

I can't speak for the rest of the world. Nor can I argue that it's inevitable that the arc or history is going to bend toward greater freedom and justice. But, I can take some measure of comfort in knowing that, at least here, the road to authoritarianism is littered with the landmines of ineffectiveness, inefficiency, and impermanence. So, keep worrying. But don't panic.

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Biggest Threats Before Us, and Why We'll (probably) Beat Them -- Environmental Collapse

An article by Kevin D. Williams called The World Keeps Not Ending struck me as fairly insightful, and made me reflect on the fact that pretty much every day of my life I've lived under the threat of an imminent apocalypse. 

I'm old enough that I remember taking part in nuclear preparedness drills. I attended a school that had a bomb shelter. It was full of boxes of rations that, in my memories, were covered in dust. The shelter was in the basement and I recall it as poorly lit and shadowy. A lot of public spaces had fallout shelters back then. I assume some must still be around, but I can't recall the last time I saw one. Still, I grew up during the waning days of Vietnam and, while I was too young to understand much of the world, I remember nuclear annihilation being the overarching apocalypse I was raised to expect. 

But, it was hardly the only apocalypse looming. I'm just barely old enough to recall the televised Watergate hearings. There was a sense then that our government was on the verge of falling apart. I remember the Oil Crisis and the Iran Crisis. I was in my late teens, and that's when I started reading the front parts of the newspapers every day instead of just the funny pages. (For readers under twenty, ask your parents about newspapers and funny pages. It would take me too long to explain them.) I remember stagflation and the misery index, the sense that the American economy had gotten old and fossilized and that Japan was going to run the world with its supreme efficiency and advanced technology. There was AIDS, which could take out a quarter of the US population in under a decade. Then a string of other diseases, like ebola, that could spread through our connected world as a runaway plague and cripple the world. There were other dooms of the week. Swine flue! The China syndrome! Killer bees! A looming ice age! Supervolcanos! Comet impacts! Gay marriage is going to bring down God's wrath! Robots will steal our jobs! We're going to run out of food! Out of oil! No, wait! We grow too much food, creating an obesity crisis, and burn too much oil, frying the world! 

Well, okay. Actually, that last one doesn't seem to be mere hysteria. And a few of the others on the list weren't either. AIDS didn't wipe out a quarter of the US, but it did create real havoc in Africa. Robots did steal a lot of jobs, but it turns out we can and do make new jobs. There are jobs today that didn't exist when I was born. Twenty years from now, there will be jobs we currently aren't imagining. If Yellowstone decides to erupt, or a comet takes aim at us, at the moment there's not a lot we can do about it. But as for most of the other potential dooms, I'm going to write a few articles taking at look at how risky they actually are, and why and how I think we'll avoid them. 

Environmental Collapse. I don't want to limit this only to climate change, because, honestly, I worry that term is too limiting in capturing the full range of dangers to our environment. I also think the vast majority of climate change won't be avoided, but find the notion that this will lead to an apocalypse to be overblown. Humans were around during the last Ice Age. Following the last Ice Age, they spread to every continent except Antarctica. During this time frame, sea levels rose 400 feet. It didn't lead to our extinction. We also survived mega-draughts, deforestation, and species depletion. It's true that, on local levels, certain civilizations were wiped out by climate change. But, the whole arc of human history shows that we're a durable species who adapt to just about anything. In the future, because of climate change, there will be droughts, floods, superstorms, blizzards and heatwaves. And, if our climate were utterly stable, there would be droughts, floods, superstorms, blizzards, and heatwaves. We'll adapt. There will be misery, there will be costs, but, honestly, I just don't see a clear path to human extinction or any significant danger of the total collapse of civilization. 

Yes, it's going to suck to lose your whole nation if you live on some coral atoll, but, in the US, we've wiped away 1500 square miles of coastline in Louisiana. This is an area larger than Rhode Island! Seriously, we've erased an entire state's worth of land because we change the environment... not by warming the world, but by trying to control flooding on the Mississippi, stopping the continual replenishment of the delta. It's an environmental catastrophe worthy of any SF dreams of an apocalypse, taking place in a nation with a free press that has the resources to report it and an audience with a proven taste to read about disasters. Yet, while I can definitely find plenty of information about it, it's a weirdly invisible crisis. I've never heard it mentioned in a presidential debate. I've never heard of a movie star or famous singer adopting it as a cause. I can't think of a big budget film talking about the American Atlantis, nor point to Oprah featuring an author who's written a novel about a family displaced by the disaster. 

The Louisiana example is far from my only example of severe climate catastrophes failing to have much of an impact on the overall survival and prosperity of mankind. We've drained seas--Google the Aral Sea. We've accidentally created new ones. Google the Salton Sea. We turn our backs and move on and the world as it was before the disaster is mostly forgotten. 

I'm not arguing for complacency, or hopelessness. We need to keep working on non-carbon based ways of powering our modern world. But I don't think we'll get there with international treaties or carbon taxes. I think, more likely, we'll just get really good at energy efficiency. Our houses, lightbulbs, appliances, etc., are far more energy efficient than they once were fifty years ago. We didn't embrace these improvements to save the world, but because we want smaller power bills. 

Our factories are also far more energy efficient than they once were. Trump in no way intends for his tariffs to reduce climate change, but there would be an unintended environmental benefit to returning more factory production to the US. First, our power generation is much cleaner than Chinese power generation, as can be seen by any objective comparison of our carbon emissions. Second, no matter how efficiently you produce a cell phone in China, you are then going to have to put that phone onto a tanker and move it across an ocean. Transportation is a huge chunk of the world's total carbon budget. The more stuff that's made on the continent its consumed on, the smaller the carbon cost of transportation. Finally, high tariffs should drive up costs of consumer goods, leading to less consumption. Less consumer consumption, less carbon. If someone wants to show me some math proving that it is more energy efficient to build goods in China then ship them here, go for it. The economy and energy costs are complex issues, and I will gladly admit to not being able to think through every unforeseen variable.

My most optimistic hope for decarbonizing the economy within the next twenty years moves into the realm of speculation. I have faith that, sooner or later, we're finally going to invent a better battery. We'd all be driving electric cars right now if they could be charged in five minutes and had a range of 500 miles. I don't think it's big oil that's killing the electric car, it's the technological wall we've hit on energy storage. It may be that research into improved batteries is like fusion power, sucking in billions of dollars and decades of research and returning nothing but the promise that next time, maybe, we'll lick it. But, just as Tesla has had no trouble finding investors despite a laughable failure to actually deliver the product it promised in the time frame it promised, when someone does eventually invent a better battery they'll have every investor in the world throwing money at them. We'll stop burning oil because it's pricy, messy, and politically disruptive, and the super battery is just the better option. Until the super battery, alas, I think we're stuck with oil. 

Beyond climate change, however, there are other things I worry we might not adapt to quite as readily. I'm really worried about over fishing and the pollution that goes into our oceans. And, yes, climate change is definitely stressing this ecosystem, both through warming and acidification. Still, I'm even more worried about the jelly fish apocalypse. It's a thing. Google it. And microplastics, and fertilizer, and toxic metals that get introduced into the environment a little bit at a time. 

The oceans are stressed and, unfortunately, like the vanishing delta, seemingly invisible. Again, when has this ever been a subject in a presidential debate? I don't feel like the problems get the time and attention they deserve. 

On the other hand... I kayak a lot on the NC and SC coastline and I'm often amazed at how rare it is for me to see bottles or cans or other junk. It's not that I never see them. I'm almost guaranteed to see some trash on any given mile of paddling. But, the water's just not as junky as it was in the 1970s. The road sides aren't as trashy. Believe it or not, as late as the seventies, it wasn't uncommon for people to just chunk bags of trash into ravines, or throw old tires into creeks. We've done a lot to clean up our world, little by little, and now most people do gather up their trash when they're done hanging out on the beach, or hiking to a mountain top. On a municipal level, we just don't dump as much crap into the water as we once did. We're better at managing our water and our air. This is another thing that a lot of younger people in the US won't remember, but the world used to stink. Cars and trucks used to freely roll down the highway trailing smoke. Whole towns would smell like burning coal, or excrement, or the nearly indescribable stink of a paper mill. Downtown Roanoke where I grew up used to have a miasma of smog trapped within the valley. Now, when I go there, the air smells fine. We've done a lot to clean up, little by little. 

Hopefully, this incremental improvement and awareness might yet save our oceans. My wife and I cut up plastic rings from drink cans despite the long odds that they'd ever make it to sea and around the neck of a sea turtle. But, we don't cut up a lot of them because we really just don't buy sodas that way any more. We don't use as many straws as we once did. We've talked about ways to cut down on how much plastic waste we produce. And, what we do produce, we recycle. 

And maybe it doesn't matter in the least. Or maybe it's all that matters. Educate yourself to the environmental impact of your life, both upstream and downstream. Take as many steps as you can to not be wasteful or harmful. Keep learning, and keep acting. We might get through this yet. 

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Fitness Update--Six Years In

I think it's safe to say that the changes have stuck. Six years ago, I did a blogpost called "Lifestyle Changes Ahead."  I talked about being overweight and out of shape and resolved to change things. Each year, I've been reporting how things are going. This year: So far, so good. 

This year started with a curveball: Cheryl had to have knee replacement surgery. It's tempting to blame her bad knee on all the stress we've put on it once we started exercising, but, the reality is that the years of inactivity beforehand are the more likely culprit. Her pain really started after an 11 mile hike with a torn meniscus, and only got worse year after year, until her knee was nothing but bone on bone. She had the knee replaced in January, and, as can be expected, didn't get a lot of miles of walking, biking, etc. during January or February. My own mileage logged during those months were also pretty low. Part of it was not wanting to leave Cheryl sitting at home alone while I went out and tried to get in a long bike ride, but weather was also a factor, since this year brought some really miserable weather during those months. 

In March and April, we started getting back outside again, with Cheryl putting her new knee through its paces. We did a lot of short 10-15 mile rides in the spring while her leg got stronger. By June, we were chasing 20-30 mile rides. Last weekend, we did a metric century, 62 miles, followed the next day with a 6 mile kayak trip, and yesterday by a 10 mile walk. I think it's safe to say that the new knee works! 

So far, I've logged 1400 miles for the year, mostly biking, but with kayaking, walking, and hiking as well. Last year, I reached 1600, so I'm on track to beat that number. My goal is 1800 miles for the year, but if weather is good in November and December I might push for 2000. 

My weight for most of the year has been pretty stable. I've been averaging a little over 245 for most of the year, and not much I do seems to move that number much in either direction. 

I think there's three big reasons we've stuck to our fitness goals, despite the fact that, like most people, we'd resolved before to eat better and exercise more without following through. 

1. Being outdoors has become our default.  

Cheryl and I just like spending time together outdoors. It's really replaced watching television or hanging out with friends as our presumptive activity for when we're not working. Our weeks aren't planned around figuring out which day we'll exercise. Instead, we plan in the opposite direction. We assume our evenings and weekends will be spent on a bike, kayak, or hiking trail, and schedule the days that won't happen, either because of a conflict with another event or just because, occasionally, we need to schedule at least one day of rest. Looking at my tracking for August, we did something outside 23 days out of 31. 

2. We chose the best possible time to take up biking.

I mean, honestly, there's no bad time to take up exercise. But we started biking just as local cities were really investing in greenways. Since we've started, the American Tobacco Trail has been completed, as well as the Neuse River Trail. It feels like every time we turn around, we find a new greenway under construction somewhere within walking distance. Just yesterday, we walked on a new greenway segment in Winston Salem. The last decade saw a lot of cities invest in greenways and I hope the trend continues. Want us to spend money on hotels and restaurants in your town? Build greenways. We will come. 

3: We started our fitness activity just as smart phones and social media really took off.

It's weird how linked our smart phones and our fitness activities are. We track all our physical miles with a program called Endomondo. The stats give a tangible sense of progress and add an element of video gaming. If I do hit 2000 miles this year, it will be like leveling up! But the fact that smart phones mean that we always have a good camera with us and Facebook gives us a giant album to show off those pictures gives us an extra incentive to get outside. Yeah, some people are probably wondering just how many pictures of turtles and herons we can possibly post. But we sometimes get amazing shots, like the picture I took of an osprey eating a fish on a tree branch, just as he spread his wings to balance himself. And, the pictures are really just the tip of an iceberg of memories. Sunday, a heron launched from a branch directly above us. We didn't see him until he launched, mere feet over our heads. We didn't get a picture, but we did get a wonderful memory. 

Moving into year seven, we've got big plans. With Cheryl's knee improving with each week, we look forward to getting in more hiking. We've now got bikes that handle well on trails, so while we aren't likely to go out jumping over gullies and splashing through creeks, we've already been logging miles on paths we once could only visit on foot. We've got our eyes on long greenways in Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina, and have a list of other greenways all throughout the US that we're hoping to do at the first possible opportunity. 

Finally, despite all the miles we do, I don't think anyone would look at Cheryl and myself and instantly assume we're athletes. Age, body shape, and serious illness haven't stopped us from making a change for the better. We spend our days hot and sweaty, swatting away bugs, wondering where the hell we're going to find our next water fountain or bathroom. We've both gotten sunburned this year, I've been stung by hornets, Cheryl has take a bad fall, and we've both gotten muddy and scratched up in difficult terrain. And all this is so much more interesting than sitting on a couch watching television. Seriously, you should try it.