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.


Thursday, December 11, 2008

And this is different how?

The news this week has been about the stunning corruption of Illinois governer Blagojevich. I admit, when I first heard the quotes from Patrick Fitzgerald, it was pretty jawdropping that he'd been so open about the financial advantages of the appointment. But, my second, more cynical reaction is, how is this different from politics as usual throughout government? How many congressmen, senators, and members of the executive branch leave office to take positions on the boards of corporations who at one time they held some power over? Or, if not them, their spouses? When former presidents leave and go on tours to give motivational speeches for a million bucks a pop, do you think it's really their tremendous oratory skills that earn them those fees? How many ambassadors and department heads have no skills directly related to their current positions, but did show skills as a fund raiser or campaign organizer? What was it on Micheal Brown's resume that got him top spot at FEMA?

We have laws that discourage nakedly handing politicians money on the front end, but once they are out of office and out of the spotlight the money always seems to flow their way. We, the public, just shrug it off. What can we do? It's not like we can vote them out of office once they are out of office. Prosecutors aren't going to chase them. It's not illegal, after all, for an ex-politician to take one of these high paid jobs. One reason it's not illegal is because the politicians have carefully crafted the laws to make sure it's not illegal.

I hate to be so negative. This is the point of the essay where I'm supposed to say, "The situation is rotten, but here's what we, the public, can do!" But, honestly, I don't have a clue how we get our way free of this stuff. Any legislation that politicians write to reform the system is going to be designed to create a new system of graft.

For those of you who'd like some sliver of hope, I'll reach into resources as a science fiction author and offer you this: There is always hope of an alien invasion. Yes, they may raze our cities and devour our children, but perhaps they'll be honest about it.

Monday, December 08, 2008

A Curious Art

I've been thinking today about the curious disconnect that exists between the act of producing writing and the act of consuming it. Artists of other media have the potential to watch their art being consumed. A singer can look out on the audience as she sings. A painter can stand in the gallery as people look at his paintings. A movie director can sit in the movie theatre and see if the audience is laughing or crying where he intended.

While a writer can read his work out loud, for the most part this is just a variant of acting; he's reading a script, and the success of the reading will depend not just on the words but tone, inflection and body language.

But the one thing a writer would almost never have the chance to do is to watch someone sitting silently reading his book. I suppose it could happen every now and then by chance that a famous author might be on a plane and spot someone reading their latest best seller. But, even then, reading is such a silent, internal process... how does the writer know what the reader is seeing and hearing as the pages turn?

Each story we write is only a message in a bottle. We will never know where it may wash ashore.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Card

Rastronomicals asked about my claim to be a card carrying atheist. I figured I'd go ahead and post the card here to remove all doubt. Feel free to print this card out and use it as you wish. It looks especially authoritative if you laminate it.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

D.N. Drake Guest Blog

James Maxey's note: First, just so there's no confusion, Dave Drake is not David Drake, the SF author of, like, a zillion books. This Dave Drake is someone I know from Codexwriters. His posts there can be a bit provocative and sometimes he'll bring up topics that are deemed off limits for that site. So, I reached out to him about a month ago to see if he'd be interested in doing a guest blog on a controversial topic of his choice. He came through with the following essay:

Change is coming!!! Hallelujah!!! In January 2009, the USA's next president, Barack Obama, will be inaugurated. With all the hype of him being the first black president, many people miss the fact that he isn't black, but rather a man of German, Irish, English, Cherokee, Kenyan descent who was raised by a set of ivory white grandparents. Its strange to me how even the supposedly "liberal" (what a misnomer!) left can be so calloused as to call this multicultural melting pot of a man "black". In fact, its funny how most Americans can actually be so blind to their Eurocentric definitions of race.

In the days when whitey was in charge of fucking the world up (pick a day between January 20th 2009 and any AD date that tickles your fancy) there was a bit of a superiority complex (not unusual for people in charge, regardless of parentage). This fueled the Johann Friedrich Blumenbachs of the world, and this then led to common understanding of what pedigree whiteness is-- pale skin and high foreheads. Anything askew of this was no longer "pure" white, but "tainted" -- and for obvious reasons, no longer "superior".

For some reason, this unfortunate falacy has widdled its way permanently into the brains of most people, including the many many non-white peoples of the world. This is my first gripe with all this "change" talk going around. If the pot starts out calling the kettle black, then this "monumental" moment of racial progress and equality in America is already flawed. Really, the only way "change" is going to happen is if Americans realize that being "American" is not just a nationality anymore, but an ever increasing ethnic and cultural identity.

But one may wonder if there is any silver lining to this current socio-politcal mess. Well, yes... there is, or at least I hope there is. If we, as a nation, can stop walking on fucking glass... that would be great.
What I mean by that is... if Kanye West says anything else that can be categorized as categorically annoying-as-fuck, then he needs to be treated in the same manner as dumb-ass Don Imus. Equal treatment for equally moronic people. Either that, or nobody gets punished (which is what I'm personally in favor of). Enough with the P.C. "can't say the N word with an er at the end" and the "check this box if you're Caucasian" bullshit. Nobody should use racial slurs, and I'm not fucking Turkish!

The first thing thats going to have to change (to many an African American's chagrin) is the special 'blacks are off limits' rule. Now that there's an arguably "black" man running the county, there absolutely NO REASON why whites can't poke fun at any ethnic minority of their choice. It shouldn't (and doesn't) need to be labeled as insensitive any more... (even though I don't know what I ever needed to be sensitive about, I was born in 1986 to a Dutch nanny and a second generation Irish American who descended from near slave-like plantation workers on the old Emerald Isle... COUGH... and no complaints here mind you). True, racism ran thick through the streets not so long ago (civil rights movement only a handful of decades ago), but its time to get over what happened half a century (or even one and a half centuries) ago.

James Maxey again: Thanks Dave. I sort of agree with one of your points, and largely disagree with another. I'll reply in the comment box.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Whose vote does the GOP still want?

When I was browing real clear politics a minute ago, a headline jumped out at me. "The GOP is Leaving Black Voters Behind." My immediate reaction was that this headline was backwards... black voters have left the GOP behind, probably more or less permanently.

This actually meshed pretty strongly with something I've been thinking about lately. Currently, former Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee seems to be on TV a lot arguing against gay marriage. You have a few rare republicans who are okay with gay marriage, like David Brooks, and a lot who keep silent, but the most vocal opponents seem to be from the religious right. The democrats aren't really for it either, at least not those seeking national elective office, but they aren't really going out of their way to say it's a threat to society the way the Republicans seem to be. The overall message from republicans is: If you are gay, we don't want your vote.

You can shrug this off, I guess. Homosexuals are a relatively small segment of the population. Losing their votes is no big deal.

The same is true of atheists. Libby Dole was able to run her "Godless" ad because the political cost no doubt seemed small. There aren't that many atheists in North Carolina as a percentage of the population. Who cares if they don't vote for you?

Also, the right has spent a lot of the recent years in a froth about illegal immigrants. Fairly or unfairly, this translates into an anti-hispanic vibe. Who cares? Illegal aliens can't vote, and just how many hispanics are there as a percentage of the population? You can certainly run the country without their support.

Then there are blacks. One could argue that republicans have a very high-minded view of race. It doesn't matter what group you belong to or the color of your skin; there doesn't need to be any special treatment for minorities because all individuals have the same rights, and the GOP is the party that values individuals over the collective. And, hey, the GOP has appointed blacks to cabinet positions and the supreme court; they aren't racist. And, bluntly, I don't believe they are; still, as a group, they seem to have decided that black people aren't worth targeting as voters. And, so what? They aren't the majority population. You can certainly win without them.

I actually could have been a Republican at one point. Republicans in 1994 went into office promising fiscal responsibility and reform, things I embrace. Yet, even then, the Republicans were deeply tied to people on the religious right who were publicly making the argument that true Americans were Christian; atheists need not apply. So, I remained in the libertarian ranks, and watched with grim satisfaction as the republicans self-destructed.

The GOP seems only to want the votes of the white protestant majority, plus maybe a few Catholics. The rest of the population is just to weird and different to deal with. And any given subgroup is too small to worry about when you write them off.

Except, if you write off enough of these small groups--atheists, gays, blacks, hispanics, muslims, liberals, and NPR listeners... pretty soon you've got a majority of people opposed to you.

What is the GOP's plan? Whose vote, outside of protestant whites, do they still want?

Monday, November 17, 2008

We Live in Fantasy

The Sky Beneath Me

The Jagged Gate

Three Paths

Friday, November 07, 2008

Weirdly Boring

This was one of the most historic elections of my life, yet somehow it was weirdly boring. I wound up going to bed at 10pm. Once Ohio was called at 9:30, the game was mathematically over.

On a larger scale, the game was over the week before the first debate when the stock market collapsed and McCain "suspended" his campaign to deal with it. He just looked like he was flailing around, clueless about what to do, and he completely wrecked three decades of opposition to pork by endorsing a 700 billion dollar Wall St. bailout only a day after it was announced. We just don't build enough 300 million dollar bridges to offset spending like that, and even Americans aren't bad enough at math to get fooled by this. If he squelched 16 billion in pork a year, he'd need to be president for 44 years to offset this single 700 billion dollar charge.

I guess I've been spoiled by the last 4 presidential elections. Both Bush elections were squeakers, and both Clinton elections had Ross Perot throwing a spanner in the works. The returns had a little suspense to them. We haven't had a blowout of this magnitude since Bush v Dukakis.

I've been amused by listening to the frothing among right-wing commentators that the reason they lost this time was that McCain wasn't conservative enough. Ann Coulter complains that they couldn't go after Obama on immigration or carbon caps or stem cell research because McCain was on the same page. The far right never did embrace McCain, though they all came on board with Palin. They also complain that the press never did talk about William Ayers or Jeremiah Wright... which makes me wonder just what newspapers they read.

I hate to smear Republican's with such a broad brush, but it feels to me like they have no arguments to make except to stoke our fears and then promise to protect us. Terrorists! Fear them! We will protect you. Gays! Fear them! We will protect you. Scientists! Fear them! We will protect you. Mexicans! Fear them! We will protect you. Liberals! Atheists! Reporters! Blacks! Drug lords! Socialists! Taxes! Darwin! Iran! Iraq! China! Cuba! and, oh my god, the RUSSIANS! They're practically in Alaska already!!! Gather your children, head for the cellar, and mail in your absentee ballot so that we can save you!

Democrats are also guilty of their own fear-mongering. They've been quick to talk about our economy being on the verge of the next Great Depression. Oil companies are going to cook our children and starve the polar bears and Diebold is rigging the election so that black votes don't get counted! If the Republican's ever get their hands on the economy again, we'll all be homeless and uninsured! Still, while I sometimes feel like my intelligence is being insulted by Democrats, I've never had them swerve out of their way to actually insult me personally, the way that Elizabeth Dole did with her "godless" smear ad.

There was a time when the Republican pitch boiled down to: Big army, small government. They've had their shot at power, and what did we get? Our big army is completely bogged down in a nation that never threatened us. Our government has grown to a behemoth with its fingers in every single American pie. They've abused their first promise and betrayed their second one.

How do they crawl back from this? I have no idea, though I suspect Democrats will find some way soon enough to revive them.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Further Election Musings

I voted yesterday. I was confronted with what was probably the longest line I've ever stood in to vote, and this during early voting, a process designed to help avoid long lines. Listening to chatter, the crowd seemed heavily democratic, though that's not a big shock given that Hillsborough is in Orange County, which is probably the most left-leaning county in North Carolina.

The crowd also felt a little young to me. Maybe that's just a reflection of the fact that I'm 44, and at some point in my life I was going to slowly come to the awareness that in any given crowd most people would be statistically younger. But my rather subjective memory is that most voting lines I've stood in have been dominated by people older than me, while this crowd looked to be heavily under 30.

Again, it's foolish to extrapolate from a single polling place on a single day voting trends for a state, or a nation. But, I've never allowed looking foolish to hold me back in the past, and I see no reason to start now.

I have a theory as to why North Carolina and a lot of other traditionally republican states might be in play this time: Rush Limbaugh. Back during the Democratic Primary, Rush Limbaugh instituted a vote drive called Operation Chaos where he encouraged voters to go out and vote for Hillary Clinton in order to keep the democrats divided all the way to the convention. His stated goal was to see infighting and civil war among the democrats. Shortly after he started Operation Chaos, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in the the Texas primary by roughly 1% of the vote, or 100,000 voters. Did Rush Limbaugh have enough sway in Texas to give Hillary her winning edge? I haven't bothered to look up actual numbers, but I'm willing to bet Rush has a lot of Texas audience. It seems plausible that he kept her hopes alive by giving her this little boost. If she'd lost Texas, it's possible that she would have seen the light and pulled out of the primaries rather than riding them out all the way to the end. (Or perhaps not--she obviously stayed in long after it was mathematically impossible to win.) By keeping the election alive until the very end, North Carolina wound up with a primary that actually mattered, something I haven't seen before. The result was that in the spring, hundreds of thousands of new voters registered as democrats, while republicans had nothing much to get excited about, given that their primary was mathematically over.

Thus, my theory is that by helping keep the democrat fight going all the way to the end in the spring, Rush Limbaugh actually laid the groundwork for a democratic edge in the fall.

Moving on from the presidential election, I was torn this year over whether or not to vote for Elizabeth Dole for senator. In any other year this would have been easy: No. I don't vote for incumbents at a federal level. It might seem dumb to have such a blanket rule, but I have 11 trillion good reasons why anyone who is currently in Washington should be fired, regardless of party. Still, Dole was one of a handful of senators who voted against the Wall Street Bailout. Also, I think there's a really good shot that the democrats are going to have a filibuster proof majority in the senate, and voting for Dole might save a seat for the republicans and make the numbers 41 to 59. It would be the only small brake left on the democrats over the next two years if current trends hold. But, this week Dole unleashed a new TV ad implying that her opponent Kay Hagen was an atheist, or at least hung out with the godless. The tone of the ad was such that it was clear that Dole felt that the only proper response to an atheist offering you a campaign donation was to spit on the money, and then slap the atheist. So, of course, as an antheist myself, it instantly became impossible for me to support Dole. Then, Hagen jesused up and sued Dole for the horrible accusation that she had ever willingly been in the same room as an atheist. In my mind, the proper response would have been, "I'm not an atheist, I'm actually a Sunday School teacher, but I'm running to be a senator, not the pope, and I'll proudly represent the godless as well as the Christian, the Muslim, the Jew, or the Scientologist." Then, I would have voted for her. Instead, I voted for the libertarian in the race, Chris something or other.

One final thought on the election: Despite the pro-Obama mood in the crowd yesterday, I'm starting to wonder if there's a signal in the polls that he might actually lose this thing. It's true that he's leading McCain in just about every poll I've seen. But, I notice that his numbers seldom reach 50%. Instead I'm seeing a lot of polls with numbers like 49 to 44 Obama, and I have to wonder what the 7% of undecided voters are waiting on before making up their minds. Could this 7% represent a percentage of Americans who won't vote for Obama because he's black, but who won't come out and admit this to a pollster? Obviously, I'd rather have Obama's poll numbers right now than McCain's. Still, it is hard to imagine what the undecided are waiting on at this point.

I think we'll see Obama win electorally pretty handily. I think the democrats are going to get to 60 in the senate. What happens next is tricky. I think there are so many things the democrats are going to want to do all at once that you might wind up with a kind of paralysis. What first? End the war? Stop global warming? Boost unions? Reform health care? Reinstate the fairness doctrine? I can see slap-fights breaking out on the floor of the house, and two years from now the Republican's sweep back into power in the midterms.

We live in interesting times.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Obama would be my second choice

I'm voting for Bob Barr. I don't like Bob Barr because I doubt the authenticity of his libertarian credentials in light of his record as a Republican congressman. It seems like he's changed his positions on a lot of things to get this spotlight. But, then I think... what spotlight? What's he gained? There are things in this world worth selling your soul for, but being leader the Libertarian nominee for president really isn't one of them. It's not a position that brings fame, fortune, or respect. So, who knows? Maybe he really is a believer. I'm voting libertarian because they are the closest to my own philosophies, and in the areas where we diverge, I can take comfort in knowing it doesn't matter, they won't win anyway.

If I weren't voting for Barr, I'd probably be voting for Obama. I really can't think of anything I agree with him about, and during the debates I was struck by his slipperiness and evasiveness. But, last week at some event, he gave this stirring argument to some Republicans in the crowd: "You may as well vote Democrat. We can't do any worse." It was dangerously close to honesty, and, really, it is tough to see how he can possibly be worse than the present administration. Bush ran on a platform that said we wouldn't get US troops involved in nation-building. Now, we are in the most expensive and intrusive bout of nation-building you can possibly imagine. We probably spend in a month in Iraq what we spent in Somalia or Bosnia. Bush ran as a fiscal conservative, then ran up the largest budget deficits ever, doubled the national debt, and sent the tentacles of government deep into private industry first with the Drug Plan, then with the Wall Street Bank Bailout. And, finally, it's impossible to overlook the Kafkaesque turn our government has taken under Bush. This week, there was a story about prosecutors at Guantanamo dropping the charges against some of the prisoners there, because, since they were charged, the military actually had a timeline to bring them to trial soon. Dropping the charges means that they don't have to worry about deadlines for bringing them to trial but they still get to hold them prisoners anyway! Yes! Our government views not charging people with crimes as a better legal justification for jailing them than actual charges! This is evil of literary proportions.

We cannot just shrug off this wickedness.

McCain isn't Bush, but there has to be some accountability. Republicans are the primary drivers of this mess. The democrats helped too, of course. In a perfect world, they'd all be tossed out. If Americans were serious about democracy, there wouldn't be a single incumbent elected official returned to the Federal government this year. In this imperfect world, at least the Republican's should be seriously smacked down.

Obama's single virtue is that, as a senator, he hasn't done anything. Seriously, I think on his very first day in the senate, he filled out the paperwork to get his lunch room pass and business cards, then went home early. As near as I can tell, he's showed up for maybe a dozen votes, and hasn't exactly put any thought into these, just voting straight party line on any significant issue. In his legislative career, he's shown absolutely no interest at all in legislating, and I think that's actually a fine virtue for a politician to possess. With any luck, he'll bring this same work ethic to the White House and spend four years touring the country giving speeches. He'll be very popular, and when people ask four years from now what he actually accomplished, everyone will just shrug, and say, "Well, he wasn't George Bush."

I predict he'll sweep to a second term in a landslide.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Bad analogies

I read this in an editorial this morning:

"Perhaps passage of the rescue bill can best be compared to emergency action to save a heart attack victim. Suffer a heart attack, and you can be treated roughly in the emergency room.
Doctors can subject your body to a variety of abuses. They can shoot it full of drugs, apply electrical shock — even cut open your chest to manually massage the heart. That's all abusive to the body, and you wouldn't do if the heart was healthy — but the first goal is to get the heart beating again. The analogy fits the credit market freeze."

This wasn't the first time I've heard the analogy: variations of it have been used by the presidential candidates and I heard it yesterday on NPR from no less a luminary than Warren Buffet. All the varients boil down to this: The credit markets had a heart attack. When someone has a heart attack, you must take swift and decisive action to save the patient.

Now, I'm no economist, but as a writer, I am rather fluent with crafting analogies, and I also have a nose for analogies that stink. In this case, a far more accurate analogy would be this: The credit market is a fat man who collapses with a heart attack. The congress and the adminstration are the paramedics who rush to the scene. A large crowd has gathered to watch the dramatic rescue attempt. The paramedics stare at they dying body and shout, "This is going to be a very expensive medical bill!" They the pull out guns and demand the wallets of everyone in the crowd.

We know we are in for at least four more years of more of the same shakedowns. What may well be the biggest political crisis that the next president will have to deal with has already arisen. In response, Obama and McCain have both locked arms with George Bush and all three men endorse the same general solutions. Yeah, they all disagree on who's to blame, they squabble about what's past, but, looking forward, they all have committed to walking the same path. Voting for either man is a vote for more of the same.

Despite my personal antipathy for the man, this crisis has pushed me toward voting for Bob Barr. If I were liberal, I would vote for Ralph Nadar. Both men opposed the bailout for very different ideological reasons. People tell me I'm throwing away my vote when I support third party candidates. I say that voting for men who've mugged you and your children so openly is twisted. Voters sticking with Republicans and Democrats is (if I may form an analogy) like an abused woman standing by her man. Yeah, he beats me up now, before we're married, but I know that's just the stress he's going through. My bruises prove how much he cares! And I know, just know in my heart, that after the wedding, he'll change and be good to me.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The cats weigh in...

The cat's have noticed my compulsive towel washing and weighed in with their opinions on this morning's post.

Will things get better, or worse? Round two.

According to google analytics, one of my most popular posts to this blog came back in May when I posted an article called "Will things get better, or worse?" I looked at some of the various forces I thought might push the world closer to paradise, versus equally powerful forces I thought might push us into an apocalypse.

This morning, listening to the BBC, the trumpets of the apocalypse seem to be sounding. Financial markets around the world are in full blown panic. No matter what happens in the long term, the fact is that we are going to enter into next year with significantly less wealth in the world. So, I find myself on a rainy Friday morning looking out over the gray gloom of the day and thinking, "Is it time to fucking panic? Seriously, should I be drawing the last hundred bucks out of my 401k and go shopping for some sort of semi-automatic weapon? Maybe stock up on canned goods to better wait out the rampaging hordes of looters that may start wandering the streets any day now?"

Fortunately, any fan of science fiction knows that the wisest advice ever offered is: "DON'T PANIC!" Instead of shopping for guns, I'll spend my morning instead washing my towels. (If you aren't getting the reference here, you are dead to me.)

And now, three reasons to panic:

1. We are governed by idiots, thieves, and madmen. If you're not willing to go that far, I still think you would have a hard time arguing that any major political figure of the last twenty years has covered himself in glory. No one, either democrat or republican, has shown any willingness to tackle our economic problems in a responsible fashion. Last week's presidential debate was astonishing in it's shallowness. Both McCain and Obama, when asked if this current crisis was going to change the way they would approach the office, basically pretended not to have heard the question. No one is showing even a sliver of honesty or wisdom. Obama has chided McCain for his "erratic" behavior, but Obama, too, got behind a trillion dollar bailout bill within hours of hearing it proposed and, having impulsively decided to support it, still stands behind it. Do you know how the $700 billion figure for the initial bailout proposal was arrived at? Pure guesswork. Nothing more than a nice, round figure that Henry Paulson thought was lucky because there was a "7" in it. There were never any hearings where independent experts were invited in to propose a true cost and show the mathmatical logic of how they arrived at the cost. Instead, we're going with a number picked with the same care people bring to picking numbers on a roulette wheel.

2. The significant chunk of the world's economy was built on stupidity. About twenty years ago, someone in the banking industry realized that credit cards could be a cash cow if they gave the cards to people who wouldn't or couldn't pay them off quickly. There was a time when, if you had a credit card, it meant you were an affluent member of the monied elite who regularly made purchases of items such as diamond rings, jet planes, and small island nations. If you were a person with a million dollars in the bank, said bank would issue you a card with a credit limit of upwards of ten thousand bucks. Today, if you have a credit card, it indicates you have a pulse. You are more likely to be buying pizzas than diamond rings. Pizza! PIZZAS! There are people in this world who go into Pizza Hut and go into debt for PIZZAS!!!! YOU MORONS!!!! Get the hell out of the gene pool, now!!!!

Ahem. Excuse me. {Wipes spittle from chin.} Deep breaths. Find my happy place.

Okay. Look, I'm not coming at this from some holier than thou position. I've put some amazingly stupid charges on my own credit cards. But, credit card companies have given consumers an amazing amount of rope because it's profitable for them to have people hang themselves. Banks want people to run up large debts with no plan on how to pay them off, knowing that while most people are lousy at math, they are also fundamentally honest and 90% of people will pay their monthly minimum payments, which are designed to have the debt paid off in roughly a century. People could live as if they were making $60k a year when they were, in fact, making only $40k a year, because every year banks would send them more credit cards with $20k limits. This can't go on forever. And, when it does stop, you're going to see a lot of empty parking lots at malls and shopping centers. An entire economic model has grown up out of people spending money they don't have. Once this house of cards collapses, it will take years, even decades, to build a more sound economy.

3. Even if you don't panic, you're surrounded by people who will. Remaining calm in the middle of a frightened mob is a good formula for getting trambled to death. So, I can sit here and calmly say I will be resolute and firm and not touch my 401k in a time of panic. But, the collective panic of even 10% of the populace invested in the market is enough to slash the value of my investments by half. Last year, the stock market was at 14k. If trends hold, we're going to see it hit 7k. Whether or not I panic, my single largest asset outside my house is in freefall, and what can I do about it?

Well, one thing I can do is think of three reasons not to panic:

1. People don't like being poor. I don't think that most people in America are going to switch to a diet of beans and oatmeal any time soon. We are still going to demand our pizza and sushi. We are still going to want our televisions and cell phones and GPS navigation in our cars. And, we're willing to work to get them. The world is full of carrots that will continue to motivate people to get out of bed and go to their jobs. People who lose their jobs will find new ones. You know all those jobs that they say American's won't do any more, jobs that require an influx of a few million people a year illegally to get done? We may even start doing those jobs again. The fundamental truth is, while American's are foolish consumers, they are also highly motivated and adaptable workers. We will keep things rolling through sheer worker inertia.

2. Every sale is a buy. This one requires a little thought, but, if the stock market plunges to 7k, it's going to be because people have sold a lot of stock in a panic... and other people have bought this stock at firesale prices. Let's say a speculator bought stock in North American Widget Corporation when it sold at $200 a share. The speculator went into the stock because it had been climbing like crazy in recent years, and he thinks that since it rose from $100 a share to $200 a share in two years, in two years more years it's going to be $400 a share! Now, in the panic, NAWC stock has fallen to $100 a share and the speculator is jumping out. Someone out there is buying that stock, hopefully becaused they've looked over the balance sheets and saw that NAWC is leading manufacturer of widgets with a good reputation and a highly trained workforce. NAWC stock didn't have a price to earning ratio that supported $200 a share, but it does support $120 a share, and the new buyer just make an INVESTMENT as opposed to a gamble. Panic punishes gamblers, but creates opportunities for the financially savvy.

As for the fall in house prices, we are now going to enter a market where cautious, careful people can buy houses for their true value, or even under their true value, as opposed to buying a house on the premise that it was a lottery ticket. Cable TV was full of shows on "flipping," where people would buy an old house for $400,000, paint it and put in new appliances, then sell it two months later for $600,000. Maybe now people will return to a more fundamental approach to houses... buying them as places to live instead of places to turn a quick buck.

3. Maybe... just maybe... we'll actually learn something from all this. This is, admittedly, my shakiest proposition. But, maybe we'll come out of this downturn uniformly smarter as a nation when it comes to money. People will realize that the government isn't going to save them and will sit down and take out pen and a notebook and start writing down their expenses and their income and start making some genuine financial plans. We had two decades where we've had bubble after bubble that offered easy riches. Now, perhaps people will stop and set financial goals appropriate to their income--or, set income goals appropriate to their desires and go out and get the training they need to get what they want. We could be in for five years of intense pain, but come out of it smarter, leaner, and tougher.

Right now, I'm slightly more optimistic than pessimistic. This isn't the next great depression, just a long-needed market correction that the average person will simply tough out. Just the same... don't lose track of your towel.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

I wonder if the check has cleared yet...

So, when the stock market fell 770 points after congress initially voted down the Wall Street Bail Out, there were dire warnings that, if it didn't pass, the market would fall to 8,000. So, we passed it... and the market fell to 9000, and 8000 is maybe two rumors and a week away. Is it too late to stop payment on that check? If 700 billion didn't stop this, what, exactly, will?

I would argue that the damage done to the markets in selling the bailout did far more damage to Wall Street than just sitting back and doing nothing. Having every politician with any real power go on TV and tell us that the next depression was around the corner if the government didn't save us has done more to lock up the economy than anything. In the debate the other night, McCain and Obama seemed to be competing to see who could offer the most frightening doomsday vision. To hear them talk, every other person in America is getting evicted, losing their jobs, and going without health care and food.

No one dares speak the truth because it sounds callous: The vast majority of homeowner's aren't in any danger of losing their house. Even if their house has lost value as the bubble collapses, most people with fixed rate or even variable rate mortgages can still afford to pay their mortgages. Second, most American's still have their jobs. Don't get me wrong: I can feel the job market tightening. Every day, I get phone calls from people asking if the company I work for is hiring, and that wasn't true a year ago. But, the job market is never zero sum. A lot of car dealerships are going to find the market for new cars getting really tight, and they'll be letting go more and more sales staff. On the flip side, I think I can safely say that if you have any mechanical skills at all, your job is pretty safe for the next few years as people spend more money on keeping their existing cars on the road. The economy is likely to be cruel to people who sell stuff, but I predict it will smile on people who actually make or fix stuff.

On the final note, health care... lord only knows. It's still a growing business in North Carolina. I keep hearing about shortages of workers in the health care industry. And, when I visited my friend Greg in the hospital last week, I didn't exactly notice many empty rooms. It's true that costs are insane, and show no end in sight.

But, have you noticed that industries that recieve money directly from government tend to have the most out of control costs? A fair amount of money is spent to ensure people go to college... and college tuition costs rise many times that of inflation in the rest of the economy. Doctors and drug companies recieve hundreds of billions from the government for medicare, and that industry's costs rise many, many times that of inflation.

Now the government is about to start pumping money into banks... and I predict the cost of banking for ordinary consumers is about to jump at breathtaking rates.

Man, I hope I'm wrong.


I miss capitalism.

Friday, October 03, 2008

What I can do.

Many of my recent posts have focused on the trillion dollar mugging perpetrated today on the American public. Wall Street took the US economy hostage and demanded this money in ransom. The Democratic Congress held our arms behind our backs while the Republican administration beat us to a pulp and took our wallets. Record numbers of people protested this action; we were met with a deaf ear. I wish I thought that we could vote these crooks out, but both McCain and Obama championed this theft, and most congressmen are too gerrymandered to really pay any political price for any decision they make.

So, what can I do?

I've been protesting against high public debt for years. During these same years, I've gone into debt for a variety of legit reasons--buying a house and buying a car, for instance. But, I've also made a thousand foolish, tiny, bad choices to go into debt. I've put lunches and dinners onto a credit card, especially if I'm travelling at a SF convention or something. I figure, eh, it's tax deductable, and it's only twenty bucks here, twenty bucks there. I've also thrown some unexpected expenses on, things like dental work my insurance didn't cover, or replacing a tire that had a nail in a sidewall. All these little things add up: I currently have over $15k in credit card debt. A lot of this is old debt--after my second divorce, I had a lousy run of bad luck. I had a car die, then bought a used car that turned out to be a lemon. It seemed like every other month I was throwing another thousand onto the card as the radiator blew, and the clutch went out, egr valves died, and the starter stopped. In my house, the water heater blew up, the furnace went out, and I was paying a mortgage I couldn't afford alone. Then I moved, and was paying rent and the mortgage for months, until I sold the house for a $7k loss just to stop the bleeding. I probably run up 12k of my credit card debt during two lousy years. Yet, over five years later, it's still hanging around, because, like many people, I pay the laughable minimum payments.

I've always justified this by saying that my money situation isn't so bad. If I add up all my assets and compare it to all my debts, I'm solidly in the black. I pay all my bills without sweating, and I'm never late on anything. I've always thought that, one day, I'd finally crack down and just get rid of this debt.

That day is today. The goverment is preaching that the threat to the economy is that credit is drying up, and people can't borrow money. If the government wants me to borrow money, given the actions of the last two weeks, I can only assume it is the worst thing I can possibly do.

I've been keeping track of my budget closely since I bought my house two years ago. Right after I bought the house and spent a couple of grand renovating it, I was at the peak of my debt load as a single man: I owed roughly $86k, a figure that included my mortgage and the 401k loans I'd taken out for the downpayment, but technically owed to myself. Today, I owe just under $76k, meaning, on average, I'm paying down about 5k a year on my debts, and I've been patting myself on the back for taking my debts seriously. But, it's not enough. My new goal: $10k a year. I'm paying off my car within a year, then my credit cards, then doubling up on house payments. I'm 44. My new, firm life goal is to be debt free when I turn 50.

Seven years ago, when terrorists attacked America, the president went on television and told us all that the most patriotic thing we could do for our country was to go out and shop. In reality, for many people, this meant going out and digging themselves further into debt. No more. I know that I'm probably jinxing myself by making this public vow. The clutch on my car is probably crumbling to dust as I type. But from now on, I'm keeping my lowest interest credit card open purely for emergencies, and intend to free myself from my servitude to the corporate banks that have gotten fact on my financial sloppiness for too long.

If the banks want my damn money, they'll have to get it the old-fashioned way, by going to the government for their slice of my taxes.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Apocalypse, round two

I was suprised when congress voted down the bailout Monday. But, the bill is back, and this time it's even worse! I'm pretty much a single issue voter on the matter of the federal debt, and this new package includes 150 billion in tax cuts for businesses and high income households (in the form of raising the alternate minimum tax). The fact that 70+ senators voted for this atrocity is a testament to who they truly serve. Hint: It's not you and me.

The house republicans will instinctively salivate over tax cuts. I'm hoping that a few democrats who voted for this bill will flip to opposition, but I doubt it... I suspect there will be high torque arm-twisting.

My congressman, David Price, voted in favor of the bill Monday. I've never voted for a republican in my life (well, except once in a sheriff's race), but Price has just pushed me to vote for his opponent, William Lawson, who opposes the bailout. I'm writing to let him know this of course. If we, the public, put these crooks back in office after this robbery, we deserve our impending bankruptcy.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

My letter to my congressman

Driving home tonight, I listened to the President talk about the need for the 700 billion dollar bailout package. A feeling of terror gripped me; I am deeply, sincerely afraid that he might get away with this. For a long time, some of my more liberal friends have been pitching me conspiracy theories about George Bush and how he has turned the US government into a big cookie jar for all his friends to loot. They point to all the no bid contracts in Iraq, including the contracts of American oil companies to manage Iraqi oil assests. For a long time, I've resisted these conspiracy theories, choosing to believe that Bush was most likely doing what he believed was best for the country, even when I deeply disagreed with him.

However, after listening to this bailout being debated for a week, I'm now convinced that this is, in fact, nothing but a scheme to enrich a small handful of wealthy, well-connected people at the public trough. 700 billion dollars is a staggering sum of money that is going to wind up in the hands of a relatively small number of people. I have yet to hear one economist say it's actually going to solve the financial problems on Wall Street. I've been hearing dire warnings that the market may fall to 8000 in the coming days if action isn't taken. My 401k is already taking hits. It' scary to look at. But, here's the thing: if the stock market falls to 8000, it's because it's only truly worth 8000. If it's actually worth more than 8000, then people like Warren Buffett are going to sweep in and buy everything they can lay their hands on, because it will, eventually, rise back to it's true value. The government's actions seem to be dedicated to blowing more air (or, in this case, money) into a bubble that is rapidly collapsing. Why, why, why, why does it make sense to anyone to keep a financial bubble growing past the point where it should naturally collapse in on itself? Bailing out Wall Street now is going to be the equivilent of giving all the people defaulting on subprime mortgages high-limit credit cards they can charge mortgage payments to--which, believe me, some people have no doubt done. Blowing money into the bubble now is only going to make the collapse in the future far, far worse.

So, for the first time in my life, I've written my congressman an email. I doubt it will change a damn thing. But, I encourage you, if you are opposed to this bailout, or even in favor of it, to take the time to write your congressman. It's easier than ever these days. Two minutes on google will produce your representative's webpage and email address. We may see congress write the largest check of all time within the next week. One reason we're in this mess is American's have been willfully blind to most actions of congress and the administration. If you are ever going to make your voice heard, this is the moment to do it.

Here's the letter I wrote:

Representative Price,

I would like to add my voice to the flood of email I'm sure you must be getting against the proposed 700 billion dollar bailout. This is being sold to the US public in the same doomsday terms used to sell the Iraq war--then, we were warned of nuclear weapons, today we are being warned of long term recession. But, saddling the taxpayers with another trillion dollars into debt is insane. The very heart of our financial crisis is that too many people have been buying things they can't afford on borrowed money. Homeowners have bought houses using loans they couldn't afford, banks have made the loans using the plentiful credit available on world markets, and the US government has been helping create an artificial boom economy by spending hundreds of billions of dollars more than it takes in each year in taxes, purchasing the illusion of prosperity today at the expense of future generations.

The time has come to obey the first law of holes and stop digging. If the stock market collapses and credit markets freeze up, there will be a lot of pain, but it's a neccessary hardship to endure to get our economy back on track. A tight credit market will kill subprime mortgages and marginal credit cards, but I predict that responsible borrowers will wind up highly sought after and the credit market that emerges will be more restrictive, but sounder. Borrowed wealth isn't true wealth.

If the stock market falls to 8000 or lower, that's because that's the true value of the market--I don't see it as government's responsibility to artificially inflate markets. Yes, a lot of people will take a serious financial hit as their 401k's fall. I had been looking at my 401k as recently as last year with daydreams of early retirement. But I'd rather not build my life around a lie, where my wealth depends on an ever growing bubble. Sometimes, you have to let the bubble pop to find out what the true value of things are.

The right thing for you to do in the coming days is to just say no to any bailout at all. I hope you will have the wisdom and judgement to resist the president and leaders in your own party to make this stand. If you choose to reply, I would like to know how you intend to vote on this bailout.

Thank you,
James Maxey

Monday, September 22, 2008


My short story "Final Flight of the Blue Bee," which first appeared in Asimov's, has been reprinted online at Diakaijuzine. It's a superhero story, so if any of you are fans of Nobody Gets the Girl, you're likely to enjoy this story as well. It's also a story about emotionally screwed up people striving hard to live their lives in a way that makes sense to them even though it makes no sense to any sane person - in other words, it's a James Maxey story. Check it out.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

A long, cranky rant about our economy and our government

This morning I discovered something called the "Drew Carey Project" and heard he'd had put some videos on the web talking about the positive effects of immigration. It turns out that he has a whole series of short documentaries he produces and hosts on a wide range of topics. I've spent the last two hours absolutely absorbed in these things.

If I've ever had any wavering doubts about my libertarianism, they've been completely blown away by the video on bacon dogs. Drew tells a story of a street vendor in LA who was actually JAILED FOR 45 DAYS for the unthinkable crime of selling hotdogs wrapped in bacon. I'm not sure how to link to any individual video, but you can find a complete list here. Scroll down to the video labled "food fight."

On the surface, this was a bad week to be a free-market libertarian. When the stock market tanked early in the week, the blame fell on unfettered free markets and a lack of regulation. When they rose at the end of the week, it was because the government rode in on a white horse and rescued Wall Street and promised regulation to make certain this would never happen again.
In reality, the government's fingers are deeply dug into the current market woes, and the proposed action to save the markets are only going to lead to further woes. First, where is the government going to get a trillion dollars to buy all these insolvent loans? They'll either borrow it, tax it, or create it by printing more (not that I think any actual printing is involved). If they borrow it, it's just another shackle we're locking onto the legs of our children and grandchildren. Our debt is already pushing 10 trillion dollars. If they actually raise taxes to cover this, it's safe to say that will depress the economy enough to drag the stock market down as much as it was going to fall anyway. And, if we print the money, we'll add to inflation.

By intervening in the market this week, government has again rode to the rescue of people who made irresponsible choices. Borrowers shouldn't have been lending money to people with horrible credit scores and no verifiable income. And people with horrible credit scores and shaky income shouldn't have been buying properties they couldn't afford. Investors around the world shouldn't have been investing in portfolios they didn't understand.

Lending money to people with bad credit isn't risk free, or at least, it hasn't been. Now, as I understand the proposed bail out, the government is going to be buying the bad mortgages from banks so that they will no longer bear the risk, allowing their stocks to rise once again. Wall Street has learned a lesson, of course--not the right lesson, which is that they should be careful with the money they invest, but instead the perverse lesson that the government will bail them out if they make risky investments and those investments explode badly enough to cause the stock market to plunge.

If you do check out the Drew Carey Project videos, another eye-opening video is called "Living Large." The point of the video is that the middle class is more affluent today than at anytime in history. But, I think there's a point Carey missed: I'm willing to bet that all the middle-class boat owners he talks to in the video are in hock up to their eyeballs. My biggest worry about America's seeming affluence is that it's borrowed affluence. The government borrows money to keep our taxes low and our social benefits high and to fund foreign adventures and bank bailouts. But the American consumer is no more responsible with their own money--they finance furniture, televisions, boats, tanks of gas, lunches, etc. The concept of saving money to make major purchases is something that seems to have faded from American culture in the span of my lifetime. I remember going with my mother to the layaway department at Sears to make payments on appliances we were buying. The idea behind layaway was that you would go each week or month and pay a little on something you wanted to buy, and when you'd finally paid enough to buy it, you took it home. It requires patience and discipline to purchase stuff this way. Now, it's all been flipped; you buy first, then pay. Layaway departments no longer exist.

We've become a country where responsible choices are increasingly punished. If you choose to live within your means you will have a smaller house compared to your free-spending neighbor who buys a house he can't afford using a subprime mortgage. And, next year when he defaults--no big deal. The government will have backed his mortgage and will take it over, offering some sweetheart plan to prevent foreclosure.

The free market can only encourage responsible behavior if prudent behavior is rewarded in risky behavior is allowed to fail or succeed on its own right. Sometimes, when you go into a casino and put in a silver dollar and pull the handle, the slot machine gives you a million dollars back. Imagine how many more gamblers we'd have in this world if, everytime you put in a dollar you lost it, there was a congressman behind you telling you that it wasn't your fault, that it was the fault of the wicked old slot machine manufacturers, and here's a tax dollar to replace the one you just lost? Because if that's not what's happening on the large scale, I need someone a lot smarter than me to explain how all this makes sense.

In the meantime, I think I'm going to console myself by going to the grocery store and buying some hotdogs and bacon... don't tell the cops.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The two sentence guide to writing interesting characters

I've been corresponding with a fan of Bitterwood who's asked me for some advice on developing the characters in a story he's working on. I told him that, for me, one of the keys to figuring out who your major characters are is to figure out what the worst moments of their life have been, and know what lessons they took from these experiences.

One reason I start Bitterwood out twenty years before the main novel is that I wanted to tell my readers about a pivotal moment in the hero's life. The story starts with Bitterwood's brother on the verge of raping the woman Bitterwood loves. Bitterwood is powerless to stop his brother Jomath, but the rape never occurs because of the arrival of the Bible-thumping, axe-wielding Old Testament style prophet Hezekiah. Hezekiah proceeds to kill Jomath for being an unrepentant heathen; he kills a lot of other people too. Bitterwood is standing there witnessing this; his brother is dying at the hands of the Lord's messenger just at the moment when Bitterwood hates Jomath the most. Bitterwood comes away from this event with a clear vision in his mind that God is a god of wrath and vengeance. There is a higher force in the world watching out for Bitterwood and smiting those who have wronged him. Only, as the backstory unfolds, Bitterwood loses his faith in God when he finds out that Hezekiah is a false prophet. Then, Bitterwood becomes his own absent God; since there is no higher power dispensing punishment upon the wicked, he will do the job himself. He's not doing it for love or money; he's doing it because he wants the wicked to suffer, because that's the god shaped hole in his world that he needs to fill.

Of course, any rational reader will conclude that this is a fairly insane lesson to draw from the events of his life. Bitterwood would have been much better off, probably, just sucking up the injustices visited upon him and trying to rebuild his life. But, this is the second key aspect to character building: Characters are more interesting if they have learned the wrong lessons from life's traumas.

Take Bruce Wayne. He saw his parents gunned down when he was a child and drew the lesson that he should dress up like a bat and use his vast wealth to buy bat-shaped cars and airplanes, so that he could hang out in alleys and throw boomerangs at muggers. An alternative lesson he might have taken away would have been to use his vast wealth to try to strengthen police work and work for social justice to reduce the forces that give rise to crime in the first place. But, since he's learned the wrong lesson, he's interesting. If he'd learned the right lesson, who'd care? There are surprisingly few stories that feature well-adjusted philanthropists as their protagonists.

So my two sentence guide to writing interesting characers is this: 1. Know the event that sent the character's life off the rails. 2. Understand the major flaw in their world view that results from this event.

Obviously, this is oversimplified. But, if you're a writer trying to come to grips with who your character is, try the two sentence guide. Let me know if you like the results.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

How to be a Writer

How to be a writer:
Step one: Write book.

Step two: Go fishing.

Yesterday, I finished step one. I started Dragonseed, the third Dragon Age novel, back in February, though I immediately came down with the flu after chapter one, so my real start was actually more like March. I finished the first draft in early June, the second draft in early August, and have spent the rest of August reading the book out loud polishing the prose to make it sound natural to my ear. This last week I've been tweaking, trimming some spots, beefing up others, doing tedious searches for words I know I sometimes overuse. Then: poof. At some point yesterday, I realized I was done. I cannot at present make the book any better than it already is on my own, so it's time to but it into my editor's hands and let him take a crack at it. Not that I think there will be much cracking. It may be that I'm too close to judge, but this book feels tight to me.
Yesterday, after I finished the book I went to Walmart and browsed through their fishing department and I spotted something I hadn't seen in a while: Mepps spinners. I learned the magic of Mepps when I was a teenager in Mississippi, and fished with them religiously when I moved to NC. Then, I stopped fishing for about a decade and when I picked it up again I remembered using spinners, but was a little vague on the exact brand. I tried a bunch and never had any luck. But, yesterday, my eyes fell on a Mepp's rooster tail and instantly I knew it was the spinner I'd used 30 years ago. I bought two, then drove over to the Eno and tested it out. Bam! I caught fish right and left. Actually, that was it: two fish, a small bass to the right of a small waterfall and a nice sized blue gill to the left of it. But, it was a nice test. I'd already made dinner plans so I had to stop fishing and go get ready for that.
Driving home last night, a storm passed through the area. I woke up this morning certain that fish were biting. So, again I went down to the river, cast with the Mepps, and wham, first cast, first bass. Second cast, second bass. Then it slowed down for a bit, but I caught two more bass over the next half hour. They were about 10" to 14" long. I threw back the smallest two and decided I had more than enough fish to make a big batch of ceviche.
Here is a picture of my catch, in its deconstructed ceviche form:

I'm certain that other writers have other rituals to recharge their souls, but for me, fishing is a transcendent activity, a perfect restorative for mind, body, and spirit. There's nothing quite like looking at a swirling eddy of water and thinking, "I bet there's a fish there," then sinking your lure directly into the bulls eye of the current and seeing your rod bend two seconds later. Life is fantastic and magical.

For one of my favorite stories about the healing power of fishing, I highly recommend listening to "the Test" by Scott Carrier. You can listen to this story at the This American Life archives. This whole show is terrific... nothing Scott Carrier has ever recorded is boring.

By now, my ceviche should have finished marinating. Lunch time!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Single Issue Voter

I've been wrapped up in the final draft of Dragonseed during a time when there's been a lot of developments in the political world. I'm someone who takes pride in knowing what's going on in national politics, although at some point my motivation for following the news slipped from wanting to understand the world to wanting to be able to get the jokes on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me.

Due to my deadline, I haven't watched a minute of the Democrat's convention, nor did I take time to listen to McCain's announcement of Veep. I didn't even watch John Edwards creepy confession of infidelity, despite the fact that he's from NC and despite the fact that I have personal experience both with unfaithful spouses and cancer stricken partners. And, really, what is there to debate about the whole Edward's thing? Other than whether or not we made a mistake by getting rid of the stocks we used to lock people into on the public square so we could pelt them with rotting vegtables?

The Edward's thing did lead me to realize a very subtle distinction in public moral attitudes that I don't think I was aware of before. It's scandalous, though not always ruinous, for a politician to cheat on a spouse and stay with that spouse. On the other hand, if a politician cheats on a spouse, then dumps them and marries the new object of his affection, it's no big deal. McCain pays no price for cheating on his first wife because he dumped her. I think that American's are open to the storyline that someone can be married then meet someone new and fall in love, but are less forgiving of politicians who are just out chasing tail. Or maybe none of it matters anymore.

But I'm getting sidetracked. The title of this post is "Single Issue Voter," and it's my announcement that for the first time ever I'm giving serious consideration to not voting for president this time. I usually vote Libertarian, but I don't think I can vote for Bob Barr. This has almost nothing to do with logic... I just dislike the man personally. He flip-flopped on so many issues in order to become a Libertarian that I think it's legitimate to wonder about his sincerity. He now says marriage law should be left to the states, but in congress he was one of the authors of the Defense of Marriage act. I just feel like it's creepy for a man who's had three wives to be legislating anyone's morality. Finally, there's just something deeply disturbing about the fact that his mustache is a different color than his hair.

So, I may not vote in this election because as the years have gone by, I've drifted into the stance of being a single issue voter. The only issue I care about at the moment is the Federal debt. I have strong opinions on a zillion other issues, but the Federal debt is the monster issue that is eating up every other issue on the table. Our shared debt has turned us into a nation that is borrowing money in order to pay the interest on the money it's already borrowed. If a family household reaches the point where it's using credit cards to make payments on other credit cards, any intelligent person would agree that family is in serious trouble, and the first is most sensible advice you would give that family would be STOP BUYING STUFF YOU CAN'T AFFORD! Both Obama and McCain are running on platforms of tax cuts while at the same time talking about new spending, either military or domestic. Both of them make vague, laughable projections that sometime around the end of 8 years in office, their budgets will finally balance and they'll leave office with the nation poised for a new golden age.

Either McCain and Obama are idiots, or they are opportunistic sleazes who understand the problem but are instead committed to telling American's what they think American's want to hear: Everything's going fine! We'll give you more and take less! Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

I talked to someone at dinner the other night who supports Obama and believes that Obama really does intend to balance the budget with higher taxes, and that he's only talking about tax cuts right now so that he can make it into office. I've heard a few Republican's say similar things about McCain, that they think he'll be a deficit hawk and be much more agressive with spending cuts than he lets on. There's something embarassing, I think, in supporting a candidate because you know in your secret heart that he agrees with you, and his public positions are just lies to appease the masses.

Even the libertarian position on the deficit/debt is a joke. They believe you can cut government services enough to get rid of taxes once and for all! Utopia! But, our debt is so large, you could stop all spending. Everything. No social security, no congressional salaries, no military... and you still couldn't pay off the public debt.

Not all debt is evil, of course. I've gone into debt to buy my house and my car. Debt is a useful tool for making big purchases. But, all the debt I've taken on, I have a plan and a budget to pay off. The US plan for debt at the moment is... keep borrowing more!

So, I will support the first candidate who obeys the law of holes: When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. How can you stop digging? 1. Freeze spending until we are back in the black. The country didn't fall apart at our present level of public spending this year. We can probably survive on the same level of spending next year, and the year after. 2. Stop cutting taxes. We actually collect a seriously impressive amount of money each year. And, we survived this year at our present level of taxation. It won't kill us to put up with it for another year or two. Since our present spending and taxation produce deficits, we wouldn't have a balanced budget, although due to economic growth we would eventually get there. After we stopped actively making the problem worse with tax-cutting and increased spending, we could then tinker at the edges to get us into the black. And then, this is important: We can't just balance the budget, we need to begin to run surplusses and keep running them for decades to pay down our debt.

Find me one politician who has a serious plan to stop digging, and I'll give him or her my vote.

Now, back to Dragonseed!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

I just couldn't keep quiet!

Okay, so two columns back I announced I wouldn't be posting any columns here in August because of the deadline for Dragonseed. But, yesterday I was doing my morning wake-up browse of the internet and stumbled onto an editorial by Dennis Prager, a talk show host. He's written an article arguing for the neccessity of God, as opposed to the existence of God. It's basically a list of 14 reasons why, if we assume there is a God, we are better off than if we assume there isn't.

You can read his whole article here. Unfortunately, the article didn't have a comment field beneath it. I don't want to violate any copyright by cutting and pasting his 14 point here to argue with them one by one.

Some of them, I don't argue. Some sound like pretty good arguments for atheism, starting with his first item:

Without God, there is no good and evil; there are only subjective opinions that we then label "good" and "evil." This does not mean that an atheist cannot be a good person. Nor does it mean that all those who believe in God are good; there are good atheists and there are bad believers in God. It simply means that unless there is a moral authority that transcends humans from which emanates an objective right and wrong, "right" and "wrong" no more objectively exist than do "beautiful" and "ugly."

I'm perfectly comfortable with the notion that good and evil do not exist in some form that transcends humanity. Once I stopped attempting to divine the wishes of an invisible judge who will weigh the value of my life after I die, my life became a bit less stressful.

But, moving on, there was one point that was made that really made my eyes pop open:

Life is ultimately a tragic fare if there is no God. We live, we suffer, we die – some horrifically, many prematurely – and there is only oblivion afterward.

I dislike the use of the word "tragic," but aside from that, I agree with the basic thrust. However, the alternative seems to be this: Life is ultimately a tragic fare if there is a God. We live, we suffer, we die – some horrifically, many prematurely – and afterward all but a tiny handful will be punished with everlasting torment.

To me, the first statement seems far more acceptable than the second. We live, we suffer, we die--but at least God isn't eating popcorn while watching kids starving or getting abused or coming down with cancer. The human condition seems to me to be exactly the same level of suffering with or without God--only, if you do presume the existence of God, you're left wondering why he hates you and what you've done to deserve the tornado that just wiped out your house.

One last point that also got my goat: If there is no God, the kindest and most innocent victims of torture and murder have no better a fate after death than do the most cruel torturers and mass murderers. Only if there is a good God do Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler have different fates.

This was closely related to the moral argument that eventually drove me into atheism. Because, according to the teachings of my church, there was no path to God but through Jesus. So, being kind wouldn't save you. Being an innocent victim of torture or murder wouldn't save you. And, if a murderer repented on death row for killing and raping some Buddhist hippie, that murderer was going to heaven to live it up while the woman he killed was going to spend all of eternity in a pit of eternal flame suffering far worse agonies than mere rape. In my church, Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler did have the same fates--they were both going to hell, since Catholics weren't really Christians. Ghandi was going to hell. John Lennon, hell. Every native American born before Christians reached the America's... hell bound. Unborn babies aborted in China were heavenbound, since sin didn't pass on until you were born, but all their commie mommies and daddies... off to hell! God doesn't care if you're a good mother or an axe-murderer. If you aren't born again, you burn. And, he doesn't really grade the sins... Hitler is going to suffer in the same hell that Ted Kennedy is going to for voting against the Iraq war (or whatever).

Anyway, sorry to break the silence with a rant, but I just couldn't let these two arguments pass. Now, back to Dragonseed.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Dona Nova at Golden Belt

I took a break from my writing marathon on Friday night to go see my friend Dona Nova's new studio at Golden Belt in Durham. It occurs to me that this gives me the opportunity to sneak in a five-thousand word blog post, since a picture is worth a thousand words:

I worry that my cell phone photos may not do justice to the intesity of color and depth Dona manages to achieve in her work. If you look at the painting immediately below the penguins above, you'll see a yellow and purple abstract that looks like just a bunch of swirls. But, when you are actually standing right in front of it, these swirls all create an illusion of depth and you feel as if you are staring at something organic. I took a close up of this painting from about three inches away:

Dona's art works at a distance, but also rewards people who are willing to put their noses a few inches away from the canvas.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

A last post on writing before a month long break...

Sorry for the lackluster post rate lately. I'm posting more frequently at my dragon blog these days as I work to promote Dragonforge. The prospects of more heavy posting in August look dim. I've got to turn in the third Bitterwood book, Dragonseed, at the end of August. I'm still working on the second draft, and am probably going to wind up with only three weeks to finish the final draft. That means I'll need to be reading aloud and polishing 10 chapters each week. Eek! I'm not complaining. Getting that immersed in a writing project is actually pretty close to my dream life. But, it definitely means a fall off in blogging until the book is turned in.

So, since it may be a month before I get back to this blog with a substantial post, I figured I'd toss out a bit of writing advice that crystalized for me just this week. Many writers struggle with backstories for their characters. How to get all the information in about what has gone before is a challenge, and leads to the dreaded writing technique known as infodumping. So, here's a different way of thinking about backstory that may be of use: Turn your backstory into setting details.

For instance, if you were to visit my house, a halfway careful observer would figure out a lot of my personal backstory just by looking at my walls. It would probably be fairly simple to deduce that I'm a writer, given that I have covers of my books framed and displayed in my living room, as well as a shelf there with a copy of every anthology I've ever been published in, as well as all three of my novels, including ARCs. Oh, also some posters from bookstore signings. You would also find a photo of Laura prominently displayed in my living room; since there's no woman living with me, you might guess it's a girlfriend, but if you dug around a little you'd find the obituary I keep in the white table in the living room. There's also picture frame on my bookshelf that opens into a small photo album; it would be simple to deduce what had happened to Laura by following the sequence of photo there.

When you are crafting scenes, remember that characters aren't just sitting around in their houses or cars or workplaces... they are sitting in the middle of their backstories. If you carefully focus the camera of your prose upon the right details of the setting, you will reveal things about the character's past. A key example of this from Dragonforge would be the second chapter, when Graxen and the Matriarch are speaking in the thread room. There are tapestries on the walls that tell the entire racial history of the sky-dragons. I don't describe the history page after page, but I do describe the tapestries enough to bring it to life in the reader's mind, and the presence of the tapestries serves at key moments in the conversations as jumping off points for talking about backstory without it seeming infodumpy. It's natural that they should briefly discuss Vendevorex, for instance, because there's a blackboard where the Matriarch updates her genealogical notes and Vendevorex's name is written on the board in bold letters and surrounded by question marks. The matriarch doesn't know his origins, and it's her job to know everyone's origins... and we can learn this because of the setting detail that invites this explanation. And, we also get a very brief summary of the conclusion of Vendevorex's storyline from the first novel. Again, it doesn't feel like a naked infodump because it flows from the setting.

So tie your setting and backstory together whenever possible. It makes both richer.

More posts on writing will be coming next month!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Cuteness as an evolutionary strategy

I've been assured by fellow codexian bloggers that I'll double my readership if I start adding pictures of my cats. At first I thought, yeah, that's not going to happen. Readers of this blog come here for my discussion of politics and religion, as well as the occasional advice on writing. Cuteness has never really been part of the mix.

Then, I thought, well, why not? So, here they are, in all their feline glory:

Isosceles is 14 years old, blind in his right eye, and cannot drink water like a normal cat. He must instead splash the water all over the kitchen, then like his paws. I'm told that this isn't that strange of a behavior, that, having evolved in deserts, cats dislike large still bodies of water. I feel like evolution has had more than enough time to get them out of that habit, but what do I know.

Sarah is about 9 years old and insists on drinking her water straight from the faucet. She also assumes that the bathroom sink was built as a cat bed. She is perhaps the least aloof cat in the world. She has absolutely no fear of strangers, and if you sit down on my house, she has some sort of lap-radar that will bring her running to sit on you.

Since it's been a while since I did a science post, one of the things that most interests me about cats is how humans and cats (and other animals) are co-evolving. We seem to be selecting them for increasing cuteness. It's obvious that they've thrived as a result--there are cats in the US with better health insurance than many kids. Somehow, cats trigger all the instincts in humans that make us treat them as if they are our own babies--small, crying creatures that respond to perpetual nursing.

It's obvious why cats benefit from this relationship. But, it's also easy to see that, by evolving instincts that found cats to be cute, humans increased their survival odds as well. Having lots of cats around is a good way of not having lots of mice and rats around--or, for that matter, spiders, snakes, and various other creepy crawlies that my cats seem hardwired to hunt. So, in some ways, they repay us better than babies, which just lay around all day and are real slackers in the vermin hunting department.

Of course, I don't have a lot of mice or snakes around my house reguardless. And, snakes would be just as good at keeping the mice population down anyway. So, perhaps my theories about cuteness as an evolutionary strategy has a few holes in it.

If any has any suggestions on how to get either of these critters to reliably drink from a water bowl, I'd love to hear it by the way. There's nothing quite like getting into bed and having a cat with cold wet paws walk across your back.

By the way, it remains unlikely I will be posting wacky pictures of them with "I can haz" captions.

Unless the hits on this post really spike. Then, I can't promise anything.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

My first ever blog post composed on a cell phone

I'm at the beach, sitting in the crows nest of a beachhouse, typing a blog post on my phone. It's one of those strange moments when I worry that my sense of wonder is either underdeveloped - I am, after all twenty yards from the Atlantic and completely ignoring it - or overdeveloped, since I'm feeling all tingly with gadget awe, and the uncanny sense that the future has arrived.

We live in a world of casual miracles. Today I've communicated with people on three different continents, messages flying around the globe in seconds. Earlier, I rode to the beach in my friend Cheryl's hybrid Toyota. It converted five gallons of gas into 200 miles of forward motion, and in under four hours we'd covered a distance that once would have required days.

Of course, my sense of wonder is tempered by a fair share of pessimism. Not more than an hour ago, I had a conversation where I adopted the rather sour opinion that we are on the brink of a new depression. So much of our current prosperity seems built on unsubstainable debt. A viscious cycle of ever increasing debt defaults will lead to less credit, leading to more default, until everyone is living on actual cash in hand-a situation that will topple the structure of our economy.

But then I go up above the roofline, look at the ocean, and write about it on my phone, and I feel like things will be fine. There is so much innovation and progress - We'll beat this current downtick. I can't imagine how, but I didn't see blogs, cell phones, or hybrid cars coming either.

Sometimes, I worry about my mood swings...

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Odyssey Fantasy Writer's Workshop

In the last two weeks, I've driven an insane number of miles. First, I drove 700 miles to Chatanooga to attend a gathering of my fellow Codexians. We were graciously hosted by the family of Codexian Mary Robinette Kowal, and had as a special guest the legendary editor Ellen Datlow. Best-selling author David B. Coe also made a special appearance for a night of grilling... I don't mean barbeque, I mean we questioned him about every last aspect of making a living as a writer, and his answers were an inspiration for everyone in the room. Codexwriters.com was started a few years ago by Luc Reid as a gathering place for writers at the start of their career. It's members have since gone on to publish more books than I can count. One of the qualification that will let you join the group is if you've attended one of the major writing workshops, like the Odyssey Workshop in New Hampshire.

I attended that Odyssey back in 1998, and learned from such luminaries as Harlan Ellison and James Morrow. So, it was a tremendous honor to leave Chatanooga after a wonderful long weekend of writing and drive 1200 miles to Manchester New Hampshire, to return to Odyssey as a guest teacher.

There are certain milestones in my life that have increasingly made me feel like a writer. It seems odd, perhaps, that after having written 8 novels, 60ish short stories, and published a respectable chunk of them, that I still sometimes have to remind myself that, oh, yeah, I'm a writer. The goal I sat out to achieve back when I was 25 has been met. I can walk into almost any Barnes and Noble in America and find my books. For that matter, I could walking into any Waterstones in the UK and get them as well. I'm invited to be a guest at cons, editors of magazines solicit stories from me, and I actually have, you know, made a little money at this game. Yet, none of these accomplishments have quite given me the adreneline rush that returning to Odyssey did. Because, when I was at this workshop ten years ago, with every writer who visited to teach, I was sitting in the classroom thinking, "One day, I want to be up there." So, last Friday was one of the greatest days of my life.

Also, one of the most nerve-wracking. I've never really been nervous about speaking in public. I'm really comfortable when I'm on panels at cons, and I love doing readings and signings. Yet, at Odyssey, I was a complete nervous wreck the whole time I was in front of the class. Part of it was that I'd made the mistake of reading my lecture out loud the night before around midnight, when I should have been going to bed... and realizing that my lecture was the dullest, driest, most boring thing I'd ever written. So, the next day in class, I pretty much decided to wing it. I had a few excercises to fall back on. I knew the big points I wanted to make. I had no idea if I had enough material to fill up 2.5 hours. Also, I'd forgotten to turn my cell phone off, so the whole time I was in front of the class, I kept thinking, "It's going to ring... NOW. It's going to ring... NOW." Luckily, it didn't ring. The more or less random collection of thoughts I had bouncing around in my skull all managed to find their way out without me saying anything too embarassing.

The subject I was speaking on was "How to get a reader past the first page." Fortunately, I'd stumbled onto a good metaphor for the point I wanted to make as I was getting ready for the workshop. During my ten days away from home, I'd saved a shirt and a pair of pants specifically to wear when I taught the class. I'd obsessed about what I was going to wear for months. I didn't want to go too formal... I'm there to lecture on writing, not banking. On the other hand, a tee-shirt and shorts seemed perhaps a bit too casual. So, I'd saved a pair of black jeans that are well broken in without being torn or stained, some nice shoes that were a decent balance of dressy and comfortable, and a Hawiian shirt that's actually moderately tasteful... it's black with large pale flowers, nothing too loud. I spent a lot of time thinking about how I was going to dress myself because I know that visuals matter. I was going to be judged before I ever opened my mouth. Which led me to the most important point I had to make about writing: A writer must dress the first page of his story with the same care and obsession that I brought to dressing myself to teach the class. The images and sensory detail matter to readers judging your story in the same way that they matter to students judging a teacher.

Of course, it's difficult for many writers to think of details, especially the right details, to include on a first page. Writers need to have a mental bucket full of these images that they can draw upon when the time arrives to actually write. So, one of my excercises was to send the students on a mission to actually fill buckets with images. I gave them stacks of paper strips only an inch tall and three inches wide and told them to go search for actual, concrete items that would be interesting if they were placed onto a page. This was a tough environment for this excercise, since classrooms aren't exactly full of exciting and interesting objects like jet fighters or switchblades or dragons. Yet, the class performed admirably, spreading forth and returning with strips of paper populated with autoflushing urinals, black gunk on the edge of the stairs, wet grass, and toenail fungus. We dumped out nouns into the bucket and passed them around, with everyone taking six and writing a story opening with all the elements interwoven.

I must say, they did a great job. This was a really talented class. My fellow Solaris author Justin Gustainis was there as a student, as well as fellow Codexian Sara King. In all, I read and critiqued 7 stories by 6 authors, and, with no offense to my classmates from back in 1998 intended, I thought that, based on this random sample, this was a much more advanced collection of students than it was when I attended. It makes sense, I suppose. Odyssey was fairly new when I attended. Now it's starting to rival Clarion in reputation. Competition to get into the workshop is no doubt becoming more fierce with each year. Jeanne Cavelos, who runs the workshop, has certainly earned bragging rights in developing this workshop into such a success.

After the lecture and critiquing, the Odfellows had a cookout. I've never turned down free food in my life, so here's a photo of me chowing down, taken by Chad Wilson:

Although, upon closer inspection, despite the fact that my hand is near my mouth, I think I'm actually signing a book in this photo. I'd carried up a case of books and gave one to everyone at the workshop, so the aftermath of the cookout became my first ever outdoor book signing. Hopefully I didn't get too much mustard on the books... I'm going to make a bold, and potentially wrong, statement and say that the woman whose book I'm signing is Breanna Wojcik. Maybe. It will be embarrassing if I'm wrong, since I talked with Breanna for twenty minutes in a one on one critique of her stories. But I also talked to Jasmine Hammer as well for a one on one critique, and there's a reasonable chance this could be her. Or maybe it's neither of them. It was a long day. I can tell you in great detail about their stories (or could if the critiques weren't confidential), and can say with some authority that, whoever the hell this is, she's off to a good start as a writer.

If my memory has failed me after one week, I have a good excuse: Immediately after the cookout, I embarked on the 900 mile drive back to North Carolina. I was exhausted and nearly brain dead after over a week on the road, and what few synapses I still had firing were shocked into stupor when I paid $4.68 for gas in New York. I made it home roughly 24 hours after pulling out of New Hampshire and collapsed into my unmade bed instantly snoring for twelve hours while my cats crawled over me, licking my fingers and ears. They were either attempting to revive me in hopes I would give them attention after my long absense, or else taste-testing me in the event they are one day forced to feed upon my corpse. With cats, you just never know. *

*At the Codex gathering, I was assured by Laurel Amberdine and Jenny Rae Rappaport that if I talked about my cats on my blog, I'd double my readership. I'm not sure that they had in mind that my cat's first appearance here might be as potential body eaters, but what the hell.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Anthology Builder

I'm a featured author this month at Anthology Builder. Anthology Builder is a neat little concept that is a bit like a paper iPod--you go to the site, browse through the hundreds of authors and stories available, and select the stories you want to put into your custom anthology. You can then pick your cover and give your anthology a title. The anthology is printed out and shipped to you. Neat, yes? There's a $1 discount on the anthologies if you select a story by a featured author.

I've only got two stories available there at the moment, my two Asimov sales. "To the East, a Bright Star" is my first sale to Asimov's and is the story of a former circus acrobat as he navigates a flooded city on his way to watch a comet strike the earth. It's quite possibly the most thought-provoking story I've ever written. My second tale, "Final Flight of the Blue Bee," is about a former superhero sidekick named Stinger who's spent forty years in prison for murdering a supervillian. Stinger's finally been released and is seeking revenge on the Blue Bee, the superhero who abandoned him at his time of greatest need and allowed him to rot in prison. If you're a fan of Nobody Gets the Girl, my superhero novel, then Final Flight of the Blue Bee will be right up your alley.

Anthology Builder does let you see PDF previews of the stories. (It must allow a certain number of characters for the preview... I notice that some of the previews don't just end in mid-sentence, they end in mid-word!) It also has search functions that let you look for keywords, though I'm a bit confused as to how they work. "Superhero" doesn't turn up the Blue Bee story, nor does the word "bee." In fact, "flight" seems to be the only keyword that brings up the tale. Strange. Hopefully as the site grows, the search features will improve. One nice feature is you can sort stories by publication--so, if you like stories that appeared in Asimov's, you can see their whole stock of these stories quickly and easily. (All stories, it should be noted, are reprints from professional publications.)

I plan to add to my stock of stories on the site eventually. Unfortunately, my early Phobos tales are tied up by a bad contract I should never have signed. My stories at Intergalactic Medicine Show aren't available since they may be reprinted in an IGMS anthology--in fact, definitely will be, in the case of To Know All Things That Are In The Earth. A few of my other tales appear in small press POD anthologies, like Modern Magic or the Urban Bizarre, and I don't want to undercut potential sales of these books if a person wants to read my stories in them. Still, if I see that people are actually buying my stories on Anthology Builder, I may change my mind about what I make available there.

Check out the site. Looking it over, it makes me wish I was romantically involved with someone right now: a custom anthology of love stories seems like it would be perfect gift for a significant occasion. I probably wouldn't use the cover with the spaceship for this, though.