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.


Sunday, January 25, 2009

Memories from Noise

Back in college, I had a friend named Ian Feinberg who was gifted with the natural instincts of a prop comic. One bit I remember vividly is that our cafeteria used to have these little "breadsticks" on the salad bar, that were really crackers the size and shape of a a Slim Jim, with rounded ends like a cigar, and Ian one day popped one of these into his mouth, grabbed a friends lighter, then lit it and smoked it. He got a pretty good amount of really awful smelling smoke out of it, if I recall correctly.

But, just this week, I swapped an email with Ian where I made reference to this gag and he wrote back confused by what I was talking about. He just didn't remember doing it.

I have another friend from college named Greg Hungerford who's been my best friend for the last twenty-five years. He's been witness to many major events in my life (or at least has heard about them very swiftly). Yet, every now and then, he'll be telling a story about one of our shared experiences and I'll notice events diverging from my own memory. Not usually important stuff, but little details where he remembers things one way and I remember things another.

I believe that there's an objective reality that underpins the entire world. I'm not one who goes in for the mystic mumbo jumbo that we create our own worlds through our perceptions. The past is a concrete thing. Yet, we are stuck attempting to percieve the past with tools ill suited for the job.

Human memory is notoriously fallible. I think my memory is pretty good about some things, but I have evidence it's truly lousy in other areas. For instance, I know some people who can tell me every teacher they ever had going back to kindergarten. I can't remember any teacher names past college. Zero.

On the other hand, when I went to dinner last week, I got into a discussion about Elizabeth Dole, our recently dethroned senator, and someone made a comment about what a lousy job she'd done as head of the Red Cross, where she'd opposed screening blood for AIDS. As much as I hated Dole, I had to spring to her defense. She hadn't become head of the Red Cross until the early nineties, and they started screening blood for AIDS back in the mid eighties while I was still in college. Someone grabbed their i-phone and went to wikipedia to verify this against Dole's biography. I was right... wikipedia right, at least, which is an iffy thing. Orson Scott Card complained in a recent post that his wikipedia page contained factual errors such as the dates of certain events in his life. He'd logged on and corrected these errors--and someone came along and "corrected" them back to the incorrect information.

When I think back about the big events in my life, I'm struck by how often they have good story arcs. After all, my major romantic relationships all had beginning, middles, and ends. There are portents and omens in the opening scenes of my memories that hint at how things will unravel later. Events frequently seem timed for maximum literary irony: I was served papers for my second divorce on Valentine's Day, for instance. Or, I wrecked my Honda Prelude, putting a long dent in the door and knocking hundreds off its value as I was driving it to the dealership to trade it in on my current car. Or, I once won a 5000 to 1 payoff on a slot machine on my birthday; another year, I got an offer from Solaris to buy Bitterwood on my birthday. One a more bittersweet note, I got my contract for Nobody Gets the Girl on the same day Laura got news that her cancer had returned.

Any given life is going to be full of these weird juxtapositions and coincidences. It's easy to see how some people can attribute some higher, guiding power to their lives assuming their experiences follow similar "storylines." I find myself wondering if it's just some pattern recognition function we humans have evolved that orders our memories into these meaningful arcs. Out of the background noise of daily events, does our brain constantly seek out causality and organize our lives into stories? After all, it would be useful to survival to remember the time you were out on the savanah laughing and singing with your family and a lion suddenly burst from the high grass and dragged away your child. You might learn not to let your guard down; you might learn there's a time and a place for laughter, but never to laugh in the high grass.

One thing that interests me is the effect technology is going to have on memory. When Laura passed away, I had strong memories of some of the things she'd told me in her early emails to me. I still had those emails. But when I went back to quote from them at her eulogy, I discovered I'd edited her words in my memory. I remembered the gist of what she had been saying, but specific lines in my memory were often patched together from bits and parts of different sentences. It's now so easy to document our lives in photos, emails, and recordings. I wonder if it will change us as humans as we constantly confront a recorded past that is slightly divergent from our memories. I suspect that what will happen is that we'll not dwell overly much on the documentation... traditional memory, flaws and all, will win out, since it gives meaning to the noise of events in our past.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Best Wishes, Mr. President

I wound up with the day off due to snow. I listened to the Obama swearing in on the radio. I'm fairly jaded when it comes to ceremony in politics, or ceremony anywhere, for that matter. Still, I appreciate him mentioning for mentioning "non-believers" in his list of Americans. He didn't mention Scientoligists, though. I bet they're pissed.

Over at World Net Daily, Joseph Farah has asked his readers to pray that Obama fails. I suspect this will have about as much success as their prayers that Bush would suceed, but it still strikes me as a little mean spirited. Let me be blunt: I think that Obama has made a lot of promises to do things that I think are pretty dumb things to do. I think running up the national debt another trillion bucks in the name of stimulating the economy is crazy. I think that promising to sink more money and troops into Afgahnistan is pointless. I'm deeply afraid of the economic damage that might result from some of Obama's environmental policies.

Despite all this... I hope that I'm looking at the data before me and interpretting it wrong. The world is big and history is vast. People can argue that doing "X" lengthened the Great Depression, while others argue "X" shortened it. We'll never really know. And, this isn't the Great Depression. History can't repeat itself, not really, because time never allows the same initial conditions. The reality is, I can weigh facts and make arguments, but it all comes down to soothsaying. I like to think my opinions have a little more logic behind them than, say, astrology, but, honestly, I don't have a whole lot of evidence for that. If I was actually any good at predicting future economic trends, why the hell aren't I rich?

I honestly with Obama all the luck in the world with his plans. I hope he proves that everything I think I know is wrong. I'd love to see things turn around in his first year in office. It would be good for my friends and family and nation, and it would be good for me.

And if things turn out to be a disaster... well, I guess hard times can sometime enoble people. Even the worst can all work out for the best.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Buyer Beware!

I've had a Chase Platinum Mastercard for several years now. For the most part I've been satisfied with it. I parked a balance on it a few years ago that I've been paying down; I had it targeted to pay off this year, actually. Never once have I ever been late on a payment, on this or any other card. So, today I get my bill and I notice that the balance fell a bit less than normal. I looked over the statement and I see that there's a $10 "transaction fee." Quite mysterious. I called up their service line... I waited for half an hour on hold before I finally spoke to someone. I was informed that in order to maintain my low interest rate, they were now charging the $10 fee each month. I could eliminate the fee if I agreed to a higher interest rate. I was informed that these are my only choices: pay the fee each month, or take the higher rate.

I am, of course, mortified. This card had a very low interest rate; it was actually one of the last cards I planned to pay off. Now, of course, it's jumped to next on the list. I'll pay them off next week.

I went and read reviews of Chase and see that I am by no means the only customer they've pulled this on. They must have performed some cold calculus and figured more people would pay this fee than they would lose as customers. So: Buyer beware. Chase is a corporation who will change the terms on you even if you have good credit. If you have an account with them, pay it off. If you don't, avoid them at all costs.

Also, I plan to write my congressman David Price to compliment him on voting for the TARP funds that are going to support these crooks. It's so nice to know that even after I cancel my credit card, the government is still going to bend over backwards to make sure this bank doesn't go under....

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Oh Lord....

So Michael Newdow is suing to prevent Obama from using the words "so help me God" when he takes the oath of office according to this article.

Newdow is also the guy who sued to have "under God" taken out of the pledge of allegiance. I share the same faith as him, but I would like to publicly state that not all atheists are this fragile. I feel about as threatened by a "so help me God" in an oath of office as I do by someone saying "Bless you" when I sneeze.

It's a free country. If Newdow wants to throw away his money on pointless lawsuits, I suppose he has that right. But I don't think lawsuits are the way to win over hearts and minds to his point of view. In fact, I suspect they have the opposite effect; they make the Christian majority feel as if they are under seige, causing them to go into fits of outrage on talk radio and fox news.

Who knows? Perhaps that's what Newdow wants. For the most part, you can be an atheist in America from cradle to grave without anyone hassling you about it, and some people have the mindset that they need to be hassled in order to feel as if their life is some great struggle.

Perhaps next he'll seek to legally change his name from Michael due to its obvious Biblical origins. Just saying his name in public is almost like praying.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Can we stop and think for a minute?

I read an article today that said that Obama wants to give congress only a week to consider the $1,000,000,000,000 stimulus package he's submitting when he takes office. If we don't act swiftly and decisively, we're facing 10% unemployment and the next great depression.

There are others, however, who say that running up the deficit now is foolish, that it will only prolong our economic misery. A popular argument among conservatives now is that the New Deal actually deepened, if not outright created, the great depression.

I have my doubts about that argument. To state that, we would need a parallel universe where the New Deal didn't happen so that we could measure how long it took to get out of the depression. In the absense of this, the most we can say is that the New Deal didn't end the Depression--the massive deficit spending of WWII did. The US ran deficits of 40% GDP during that time. And no conservative can argue that this deficit spending wasn't good for the US economy. However, a few minutes of thought show that we purchased something useful with that spending.

Our WWII debt purchased a massive industrial base that stimulated the consumption of every raw material America produced and trained millions of people in the art of industrial production. The workers who were building tanks and jeeps didn't go back to farms after the war... they stuck around and produced cars, televisions, appliances, etc. When they did go back to farms, they took industrial and factory techniques with them. Chickens, cow, corn, soybeans, etc. stopped being small family businesses and instead became agro businesses. Meanwhile, overseas, our military actions produced a new world order where former enemies became trade partners. We took our 40% GDP deficits and made investments that created the modern world.

The biggest and best argument against further deficit spending today is that our economy is already soaking in 10 trillion dollars of federal deficit spending. This is an inarguable fact: We have already thrown trillions into our economy and it did stimulate spending and comsumption. The US consumer took part in this deficit spending by creating their own deficits using credit cards and mortgages to produce historically quite lavish lifestyles. Today, our homes average 2300 square feet. In 1970, the average home was 1400 square feet. Our homes got larger as families got smaller, so all that new space is mainly being filled with stuff... and many families rent storage lockers to hold the excess stuff that no longer fits under their roof.

Some deficit spending is wise. Borrowing money to go to school might be a good investment. Borrowing to buy a house is generally a better use of your money than renting, even today. I borrowed to buy my car, since in my area a car is pretty much a requirement for having a job. The money I make driving to work more than offsets the debt of buying the car.

Mindless deficit spending is unwise. Americans have built up their personal debt buying televisions, iPhones, and pizzas. The government deficit spending has been mostly unguided. We haven't been making long term investments with the $10 trillion, we've been paying interest, enriching bankers, maintaining military presence in all corners of the world, and funding staggering entitlement programs that send both Ross Perot and my grandmother social security checks each month. Ross is worth a few billion, my grandmother isn't, but I'm guessing he gets the larger check.

I am firmly opposed to a trillion dollar stimulus package passed within a few weeks of Obama's swearing in. If we act with haste in the interest of "doing something," this trillion is going to just be wasted, and will leave us in a weaker position than we were before.

I am open, however, to a well thought out investment. If Obama announced that he was going to use the trillion in a three year plan to tranform the US into a single payer health care system so that US industries no longer had to price this cost into their products... I'd give it some thought.

Don't like the thought of the government taking over health care? Well, what about spending a trillion to produce a next generation high-speed wireless network that would cover the entire US? Might this be as much a stimulus as the interstate highway system investment was? Show me some numbers. If I'm being asked to go into debt, I'd at least like to be informed what I'm buying.

The reality is, alas, I won't be shown the numbers. The trillion will be spent and stuck onto the debt we're already piling on our children. We'll never get to rerun history and see what would have happened if we'd taken a wiser path.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

How to spin a story

For the last couple of days, I've been seeing articles about the survey of military personnel regarding their feelings about Barak Obama. "Liberal" MSNBC has the headline "Troops Concerned about Obama." Conservative WND has the headline 6 of 10 in service wary about Obama. Beneath is the subhead, "Survey: Nobody has confidence in this guy as commander and chief." If you go to google news and type "military survey obama" you can turn up dozens of examples: The Military Doesn't Like This Guy.

Here are the numbers actually produced by the survey:
8% of respondents didn't offer an opinion.
25% are pessimistic.
33% are optimistic.
35% are uncertain.

So, looking at the raw numbers, significantly more troops are optimistic about Obama than pessimistic, and the plurality are uncertain--a term that could indicate skepticism, but could also indicate a sense of fairness--let's give the guy a shot at actually running things before we form an opinion.

To arrive at a majority "concerned" about Obama, you have to add the pessimistic to the uncertain. But it's just as valid to add the uncertain to the optimistic. You could have run the headline, "7 in 10 troops look forward to Obama as commander-in-chief." It would be no more accurate than the other headlines, but also no less accurate. "More in service optimistic than pessimistic about Obama" is far more accurate than any headline I actually saw.

I don't regard this as evidence of some vast right wing conspiracy. I do think it's evidence that, if you have a story where things are somewhat ambiguous, it's only going to hit the news if there's a way to put a negative spin on it. It's not news to say, "Largest plurality of troops waiting to form opinions on Obama." It is news to imply there's going to be conflict, and that the troops dislike Obama. If you're conservative, this reinforces your world view that sensible people hate this guy. If you're liberal, this reinforces your world view that conservatives (in the military) are close-minded and grumbling about Obama before he's served a day in office.

A deeper question might be to ponder why anyone bothered with this poll. Honestly, what does it matter whether the troops like Obama or not? Most people in most professions think their highest level managers are clueless jerks. (I have no poll data to support this, just a lot of conversations with people who work for big corporations.) Our military is going to go do the job they are told to do whether they like the Pres or not.

You hear about contractions in the news media. NPR is laying off reporters, newspapers are folding, networks are closing offices. But, honestly, if surveying groups of people about their feelings about the future performance of other people passes for news these days, what's the loss? There's actual news happening in the world; wars and rumors of wars, financial turmoil, a slew of new politicians pouring into Washington and state capitals. We shouldn't be wasting ink on these pointless surveys.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

The New Year in a Pickle

Last night I went to Mt. Olive NC with my friend Cheryl and we wound up in a prime viewing spot for the annual pickle drop to commemorate the New Year. Pickle manufacturers being sensible people, they hold this event at 7pm... which happens to be Midnight Greenwich Mean Time.

I was moved more than I thought possible by the act of celebrating the New Year with a three foot tall glowing pickle dropping into a vat. Perhaps it was the symbolism, since 2009 starts off with the whole world "in a pickle," a very odd phrase that people would understand to mean "in trouble," but if you stop and think for a minute, why on earth would "in a pickle" ever have been chosen to mean "in trouble?" I mean, pickles are, for the most part, positive things. It's hard to find people who absolutely dislike all things pickled. I suppose some sorts of pickles are sour, or have a vinegar taste, but why isn't the phrase, "in vinegar?"

And another thing: When we were driving to Mt. Olive, I made the comment that it was "smack dab in the middle of nowhere." Which got me thinking about what an odd phrase "smack dab" is. I looked it up and it is in the dictionary meaning "directly," but no citations of its origins are given.

One reason I suspect that true artificial intelligence lies very far out in the future is that machine intelligences will probably always be restricted to operating under some sort of logic or rules. Humans are under no such obligation when they are creating their languages. We can take a word like "smack" and have it mean the act of striking someone--"Terry smacked Lisa's bottom"--or it can mean a kiss--"Lisa planted a big smack on Terry's cheek"--or it can mean a drug--"Terry was too strung out on smack to care"--or a commerical product--"So Lisa went and ate a bowl of Sugar Smacks"--or the act of popping one's lips apart to indicate satisfaction with the taste of something--"The cerial was so good she smacked her lips"--and, of course, it's half of a phrase indicating "directly"--"Feeling energized, Lisa punched Terry smack dab on the nose."

Our language is just too strange for words....