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.


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Greg Hungerford, Part 4: An Atheist Memorial

I was invited to speak at Greg's memorial service yesterday. I had originally written about five hundred words to read, avoiding the subject of Greg's atheism. I knew his mother was deeply religious, and didn't want to appear confrontational. But, some of the speakers before me framed Greg's life in religious terms, and I realized that it wouldn't really be Greg's funeral without an argument breaking out. So, I got up and gave a eulogy emphasising Greg's atheist values. Since it was mostly improvised, below is my attempt at recreating what I had to say:

Greg and I didn't agree on much during the years we were friends, but there was one issue on which we were in complete agreement: We were both atheists, loud and proud. Greg lived a life in which he was kind, considerate, and genuinely caring of others. No one who knew him would say he wasn't a good man, and he was good without God. He didn't show kindness to strangers because he was afraid of some afterlife punishment, or in pursuit of some afterlife reward. He was good because it was simply in his nature.

Still, the question that any atheist must face is, does life have any meaning? If there's nothing beyond this life, do our actions now really matter?

I think the answer is yes, and here's why Greg's life mattered to me:

When I met Greg in college, he didn't immediately stand out as the one friend who would stay part of my day-to-day life for the next twenty-five years. I think that a casual observer of our first few conversations might have thought that maybe we'd one day be enemies. We argued about pretty much everything. I was for nuclear power; he was against it. I thought that capitalism was fundamentally fair, he thought it was tilted to reward the greediest and most cold-hearted among us. We drew our battle lines early.

For the next two and a half decades, we kept arguing. We'd get together to play rummy, and squabble about politics as we racked up scores into the thousands. We'd get together in restaurants and debate over dinner, keep arguing until they closed for the evening, then stand in the parking lot and continue verbally sparring until two or three in the morning.

But, underneath the surface of all this fighting, there are three important things I learned about Greg, and about life.

First, Greg was a passionate defender of ideas he believed in. He'd keep fighting for them even as his political heroes proved to have feet of clay, or as the country tilted to the right. He didn't care if his beliefs were popular, or moderate his positions so that they would appeal to more people. He staked out his ground, and would defend it until the end.

Second, Greg's beliefs were underpinned by a powerful intelligence. In an age when American culture seems to grow ever dumber, Greg was unashamed to be a geek, capable of tearing down any computer and putting it back together better than ever. For a man who didn't even own a computer before he was thirty, he plunged into the world of bytes and bits with unabashed enthusiasm, devouring books about the origins of the PC, and reading biographies of the men who helped make our world digital. There was a time when he would hang motherboards and deconstructed hard drives on his wall like works of art. He never once thought he was too old to keep learning new things or tackle new challenges. In our last conversation in the Intensive Care Unit, he was already talking about his next educational goal, as he stared at all the medical equipment around him with eyes determined to tear them apart and discover what made them tick. I honestly think if he'd had a screwdriver and a pair of pliers, he would have had a difficult time resisting taking apart his heart monitor to see what made it tick. (No pun intended.)

Finally, this smart, passionate man probably couldn't have been my friend if not for one thing: He had the wisdom to know that a person who disagrees with him doesn't have to be an enemy. While he could be quite ferocious in attacking political figures, one on one he would debate ideas without slipping into personal attacks. For Greg, the fact that he was talking to someone who disagreed with him was no reason to end a conversation. If anything, it was an invitation to keep the conversation going and the dialogue flowing. He could form firm friendships with people who didn't agree with him on a single thing.

In the end, we can honor Greg's memory by honoring these virtues: The passion to speak your mind, the courage to keep learning at any age, and the wisdom to engage others without malice.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Greg Hungerford, Part 3

Back in 2004 I posted an entry called "Entropy and Death," in which Greg played an important role in helping me define my world view when I was thirty, which, at the time, was summed up as, "Things tend to go wrong. Then they get worse. And, eventually, something will kill you."

This doesn't sound like the punch line to a funny story, does it? And yet, that was the beauty of my friendship with Greg: No matter how bleak or pessimistic I could become, Greg and I could always, always find life funny. I uttered the above line about the inevitablity of death fifteen years ago on a cold, windswept beach on New Year's Eve and we spent the rest of the day laughing about it. The next morning, Greg and I drove to Shoney's for breakfast and read Dave Barry's year in review column out loud to each other, laughing until our faces hurt.

When I saw him last Monday in intensive care, he told me the story of how he'd passed out on Sunday and the ensuing adventure of getting swept off to the hospital in the ambulance. He thought it was funny that he'd crawled across the floor, unable to rise to his feet, to unlock the door to his house when he heard sirens, because he was worried that rescue workers would break his door. He'd also detoured to a portable heater he'd had running to turn it off, so that his house wouldn't burn down while he was gone. He was amused by the trivia of the things that had fixed in his mind. For instance, as he was lying on the floor unable to breathe, he'd called his brother-in-law so he could go pick up his daughter, but had never thought of, you know, calling 911. In writing, or even in person, I can't do justice to the telling. Greg had been an actor in high school and college, and always maintained the ability to turn his stories into performances. He had the gift of timing that never really translates into writing. He knew the number of beats of silence that should pass before delivering his punchlines; you are either born with this gift, or you aren't.

There's no way to pretend that dying at 48 isn't a tragedy. It's difficult to put a good spin on such a fate. But, those who knew Greg for a long time can testify that he lived his 48 years mostly on his own terms. I've spent most of my adult life working for two employers. I worked for one company for 8 years, my present employment is going on fifteen. For the most part, I hate my job, but lack the courage to just quit. I think too much about consequences. As a result, far two many hours of my life feel like they weren't truly my own; I've been selling them, at a shockingly low price, to others. Greg, on the other hand, was pretty much fearless when it came to quitting jobs. Until his daughter was born, he would change jobs on pretty much a weekly basis. He had a low tolerance for working for idiots, and wasn't afraid to just turn around and walk out if asked to do something stupid. Assuming he even went in to walk out. Once, we were playing spades with some friends; he had just started a job on third shift the week before. Eleven o'clock passed without comment, and sometime around midnight, someone finally asked, "Weren't you supposed to be at work an hour ago?"

He shrugged and said, "I quit."

"Really? When?"

"About an hour ago. They'll figure it out."

So, while he may not have gotten a lot of years on this earth, no one can say that he didn't spend the hours he had here doing the things he most wanted to do. He sometimes chose to enjoy the moment over deferring pleasure to work toward long term goals in a tomorrow that might never come. I guess, in the end, his instincts proved correct.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Greg Hungerford Memorial Service Information

I just learned that the memorial service will be held Tuesday. 3pm at
Burroughs Funeral Home
1382 Hwy 65 West
Walnut Cove 27052
336 591-4341

Since there's not going to be a wake, and since Greg and I have a tradition of almost 25 years of getting together for dinner once a week to talk about politics, I'm going to go to San Luis Mexican Restaurant in Greensboro that evening at 7:00pm for dinner and invite any of Greg's friends to come along, though I don't think we'll be discussing much politics. There are two San Luis; this is the one on the southern side of I40, not the one near the coliseum.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Greg Hungerford, Part 2

First, for friends checking in for funeral information, I still don't have any firm dates or times as of Christmas night. I promise I'll post information the second I have it.
Driving home in the rain tonight, I mindlessly cruised past the exit I was supposed to take go home; missed it by about ten miles, in fact, before I came out of my memory fog and realized I was pretty far off course. I was, of course, lost in memories of Greg and one of those memories, ironically, involved missing an exit on the highway. Almost twenty years ago, when we lived together in Asheville, Greg had been driving on the interstate as we headed home one evening. We were arguing about something or other, and in the heat of the argument, Greg drove past our exit. I noticed, but didn't say anything. About two exits later, he realized he'd screwed up, and took the next exit to turn around. I told him I'd wondered why he hadn't taken our normal exit. He asked, exasperated, "If you saw that I was going to mix the exit, why didn't you say anything?" I shrugged and said, "I trusted you had a destination in mind. I figured you knew what you were doing."
And, for twenty-five years, I was able to maintain that trust, despite a lot of external evidence that Greg didn't know what the hell he was doing on just about everything in life. I watched as he'd churn through bad jobs and unhealthy relationships, and more than once I gave him some grief about his seeming lack of direction in life. Yet, beneath it all, I always had a rock solid faith that Greg knew what he was doing. He had a vision of life as it should be lived, but somehow never quite managed to put it all together. Greg was born about twenty years too late; he was, in many ways, a child of the sixties. I think in his perfect life, he would have lived in a VW microbus, following the Greatful Dead, selling tye-died tee shirts and bootleg Bob Dylan albums.
Over the years I knew him, he engaged in just about every art form you can name. He wrote poetry, short stories, plays, and a fair chunk of a novel. He painted portraits of men he admired, played guitar, and once recorded a tape full of his own folk music, a tape I have sadly lost long ago. He was an eternal critic of the society he lived in. I met him when he was full of indignation about Reagan. He had fits under Bush 1. And, in case you think he just hated republicans, he disliked Clinton enough to actually leave the democratic party and declare himself a communist (though he did come back around to defending Clinton once the right wing tried to impeach him). His rants against Bush Junior were works of art, and he was well on his way toward branding Obama as a right-winger in disguise. But, his frustrations with politicians was matched by his puzzlement of his fellow citizens. He couldn't understand how so many people were simply disengaged from politics, or how such a high percentage of those who did bother to get involved could do so at such a shallow, sound-bite driven level.
You might think I'm describing someone who was bitter or angry; in truth, there has seldom been anyone in this world more laid back and friendly. Greg could easily fall into conversation with almost anyone. Unlike me, he had interests outside of politics, and could discuss sports and movies with an ease that always eluded me. I saw Greg get angry about politics, but I never saw him lose his temper under every day circumstances. A natural storyteller, I think he simply catalogued his daily frustrations to turn them into funny stories later on.
I happen to have taken part in some of those funny stories; I promise to share a few soon.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Greg Hungerford, Part One

My best friend passed away last night. He'd been admitted to the hospital on Sunday after fainting with his pulse and blood pressure at frighteningly low levels. He'd been having a wide variety of health problems for a while, and before this incident there had been discussion that he might require a pacemaker. He finally had the surgury yesterday, and seemed to emerge from it in good shape. Then, apparently there was a blood clot, and he passed away with no warning, still in the hospital.

I had visited him on Monday, and he'd been in good spirits, looking forward to resuming normal life once the pacemaker was in. I honestly thought I'd be seeing him again any day, and was looking forward to a new, healthy Greg who could join me on walks up at Hanging Rock, only a few miles from his home.

I called a lot of people today to share the news; Greg never had any trouble making friends, and he's going to be remembered by a lot of people. I promised to post information about the funeral here, but, alas, I don't have anything firm yet. Tentatively, there will be a memorial service for Greg Tuesday at 3pm. Hopefully I'll have definite information soon.

I've started work on a memorial post about Greg. This post has been about his death; what I want to do is tell you about his life, but it's more than I can process at the moment. Greg has been an ever-present part of my life for twenty five years. He was my intellectual sparring partner, my voice of wisdom, my ally in tough times, and the one person who I was always free to laugh loudly and freely with. It's going to take a little while to sort out an organize my thoughts.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Better or Worse, 2009 Edition

Last year, before the whole collapse of the housing market, I wrote a column called "Will things get better or worse?" As a science fiction writer, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out where the future is going based on present trends. I filter the world for odd bits of data that serve as omens, both good and bad, seaching for clues as to whether the world twenty years from now is going to be in the midst of a Golden Age, or if we're all doomed and should be stocking up on bottled water and shotgun shells.

Last year, I didn't know. This year... of course I still don't know. The only thing certain about the future is that it's going to throw you curveballs. But, here are some data points that have caught my attention lately:

The best clue that the world is going to be just peachy:

My best friend has been having trouble with his heart, and is even now facing the prospect of Christmas spent in the ICU, having a pacemaker installed. This ISN'T the good news. But, during the course of diagnosing his heart condition, he was sent home for two weeks with a cell phone that transmitted data continuously to a monitoring service, tracking his pulse and blood pressure. This information was collected primarily to diagnose whether he actually needed a pacemaker, but while he was on the monitor, he'd get phone calls asking him if he was feeling any symptoms, apparently because the data was showing abnormal data. The bad news is, this created a lot of grief: It's not conducive to sleep to have medical big brother waking you up with phone calls at 2am asking how you're feeling. "Stressed out and tired!" would be the only sensible answer by about the third phone call. But, while the execution of the data collection left something to be desired, I was still amazed by the potential of the cell phone heart monitor.

For instance, my grandmother fell and broke her hip while gathering firewood a few weeks back. She was all alone, and made the heroic struggle to drag herself back into the house so that she could call for help. But, these days, cell phones are sophisticated enough to know their orientation and flip their screens based on how they are being held. I predict the day will come when the elderly could have a simple app on their cell phones that recognizes the motion of a person falling and can automatically trigger a call for help, or at least a call to investigate whether assistance is needed (since there will almost certainly be more false positives than actual injuries... they might drop the phone, for instance).

Diabetics could have continuous, real time blood sugar monitoring via cell phone. A chemotherapy patient could be monitored for drug levels following an infusion, and the treatment schedule fine tuned with a precision that formerly would have required residing in a hospital. In fact, it won't be long before you don't have to go to the hospital, because your cell phone and a few sensors implanted beneath the skin will turn you into a walking hospital. Google has released the android operating system. I predict we aren't far off from the cyborg operating system. You won't need to go visit your doctor when you wake up with the sniffles. Your phone will scan you like a tri-corder and have all your vital signs ready when you call in to the Google doctor desk. The Google doctorbot can tell you to call in sick and drink lots of chicken soup, or it can tell you to get to a surgeon immediately to get that damned appendix out.

This level of innovation and ingenuity fills me with a lot of hope. No matter how challenging the problems, there a actual geniuses out there hard at work finding solutions. Invention will begat invention, and one day, we shall all be healed.

The reason we should all just give up now:

I've been finding the political news this year just agonizing. I'm not arguing that things were better under Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, or Carter, or that things would be better under McCain. But, as sure as there are a lot of smart people solving the problems of the world, there are legions of idiots in elected offices working hard to create new problems.

The levels of outright bribery going on in the house and senate to pass health care "reform" have to leave any fair-minded person a bit sick to the stomach. But, whether or not this was a good bill or a bad bill, what terrifies me most is that I honestly worry that the US is on the verge of bankruptcy. As a nation, we are deep in a debt hole, and the hole is only getting deeper. I feel like we're in a very fast car heading for a cliff, and our politicians keep slamming down on the accelerator, and no one is grabbing the steering wheel.

I cannot point to a single significant national figure who is proposing a sensible plan to deal with our national addiction to borrowing. The democrats have turned into a parody of themselves; the rap against the party has always been that it's a party of free-spenders and big government, so, of course, now that they are back in control, they are on a spending spree that truly does dwarf anything we've seen since WWII, both in real dollars and as a percentage of GDP. I want to throw the bums out... but replace them with what? Republicans? They haven't exactly covered themselves in glory when it comes to deficits. They are stuck on the idea that tax cuts are going to eliminate the deficit. But, since they first acted on this idea in 1980, and we've had three decades of deficit spending in the interum (save for one brief blip during the Clinton years), I'd say that they can keep beating the tax cut horse if they want to, but most sane people understand that the horse is dead.

Unfortunately, our politicians aren't elected by sane people. They are elected by Americans. Our binary political structure leaves us doomed. We can either elect democrats, who will produce sky-rocketing deficits with unrestrained spending coupled with a lack of courage to raise taxes, or we can elect republicans who will produce sky-rocketing deficits by cutting taxes while lacking the courage to cut spending. No party out there is willing to tell the American public the truth: To escape from three decades of outrageous fiscal irresponsibility, we are going to have to both cut spending and raise taxes.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Is Global Warming a Hoax?

So, if you are even moderately paying attention, you've probably heard two bits of news lately:

1: There's a conference in Copenhagen where the countries of the world are going to band together to save the world from man made global warming and

2: global warming has been exposed as a hoax cobbled together by a conspiracy of scientists, as revealed by the publication of their stolen emails.

I'll start with the second bit of news: Even if every single scientist in the world were colluding to dupe developed nations into crippling their economies, it doesn't change the underlying reality of whether the world is or is not warming. I'm convinced by enough untainted data to say that the earth certainly does seem to be experiencing a warming trend for about the last 150 years. I hear some people claim that the trend is over; that, since 1998, the trend has gone down. I think it's fairer to say that the trend has stayed flat. Of course, I also feel that, in matters of global climate, it's difficult to point to any ten year span and be able to call it a trend.

The data that convinced me that the world is, in fact, warming, were rather mundane canal records dating back a few hundred years. A lot of civilized places build canals, and a lot of these place keep records of when the canals freeze over and when they thaw. These dates have been recorded without any agenda, and they show that canals freeze later and thaw earlier than they did a century ago. Unless the global warming conspiracy is in possession of a time machine, I'm prepared to acknowledge that a fair judgment of objective data shows that the world (or at least the northern hemisphere) has been warming, and I also accept that this warming correlates with an increase in carbon dioxide from industrial activity.

But, correlation isn't always proof of causation. There was a warming trend about a thousand years ago that is well documented and obviously can't be blamed on an addiction to coal or oil. The argument that our increasing temperature of recent decades is purely coincidental with industrial activity is very difficult to prove or disprove in any politically useful time frame. Given the constant natural fluctuation of temperatures, I don't see how anyone can claim, as I often hear, that the debate is settled.

One place that you'll be hearing that it's settled is Copenhagen. Currently, the right wing is all fired up about the US damaging its economy by signing treaties calling for carbon cuts. Personally, I'm upset for a completely different reason: If the world ever does face a truly global environmental threat, I worry that toothless, wheel-spinning conferences such as this are going to destroy any ability for effective action later on. I think we'll come out of this conference with nation committed to a bunch of targets for emission cuts, and I think that, a decade from now, not a single target will have been met, and, in fact, net global emissions will have risen.

Fortunately, if global warming is man made, and can be blamed on carbon, I still don't see myself losing much sleep over it. The earth isn't going to turn into Venus. Pre-industrial men have adapted to living in the Sahara with their greatest technology being tent making and camel husbandry. I suspect that modern men will be able to muddle through. Nature will adapt as well. No one is talking about temperature extremes as what we experienced during the last ice age. There was wildlife during that time, there's wildlife now, there will be wildlife in the world to come. It's true that some islands might vanish beneath the waves, but that's just a reality of some types of islands. A lot of islands exist for only a blink of a geological eye. I suppose that it's vaguely possible that in a century the Outer Banks of North Carolina could vanish, but unless we chain the people who live on the islands to posts, its difficult to imagine anyone getting killed because of this. Prudent people will move inland as the waves start lapping at their door. (Though, one may argue that prudent people wouldn't build homes fifty feet from the ocean to start with.)

For me, my biggest objection to the arguments of proponents of global warming is that it's going to produce catastrophe. I will accept it's going to cause change, but it's going to be gradual change, decade to decade. We'll plant different crops in different places, we'll build new homes on new shorelines, and life will go on. And, fifty years from now, if a real global threat arises, we'll point back and laugh about how worried we were about global warming, and do nothing. This really is a case where hyping the fear of global warming can potentially do more harm than just learning how to live with it.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Surge of Stupidity and Hypocrisy

Several weeks ago, I wrote a post critical of Obama dragging his feet on deciding what to do in Afghanistan. Now that he's made a decision, I'll continue to be critical, since I'd rather we just pack up and come home. Note that I think we should pack up and come home from pretty much everywhere in the world, including Germany, Japan, Korea, Iraq, etc. I fear that we are following the path of the former Soviet Union, pouring our national resources into a mighty military until the point that it bankrupts us. The amount of stability we add to the world with troops in over a hundred nations doesn't equal the amount of instability that will be created when the dollar has all the prestige and buying power of Monopoly money.

However, please note I've been opposed to most of our military adventures for decades due to my libertarian leanings. So, while I dislike Obama's decision and decision process, I'm also gob-smacked by the hypocrisy of right-wing critics of Obama. Limbaugh, Palin, and other prominent right wing voices griped for most of the year that Obama wasn't giving Afghanistan the troops needed for victory. Yet, the troop levels under Obama were already higher than they were under Bush. Where was the right's criticism of Bush's timidness for the proceding seven years? Famously, Cheney criticized Obama for "dithering." But it seems to me that Bush and Cheney had a policy of permanant dithering on Afghanistan. Dithering was the actual plan. We occupied the country for seven years with just enough troops to keep the taliban from marching into Kabul, but not enough force to do anything like bringing actual peace and stability to the country. It may be argued that peace and stability weren't and aren't possible without a massive multi-decade multi-trillion-dollar nation building effort that the public will never support. But, in that case, I don't see how it's moral to keep troops in a country for seven years primarily to harrass people with cave-men morality and technology.

The taliban were never an actual threat to the world. Osama bin Laden wasn't and isn't an actual threat to the US commensurate with the response to him. His terrorist actions cause lots of local pain and suffering, but it wasn't like he had armies waiting on aircraft carriers to land on the shores of NYC and occupy it. On the other hand, with a few box cutters and airplane tickets, he's provoked a response that has killed and maimed far more Americans than he could touch with his original attack, and caused far more economic damage. It's like dying from a bee-sting--the original injury is painful, but it's the body's overzealous, disproportunate immune response that actually proves fatal.

The one thing I admired about Obama's speech this week was his committment to wrapping the war up without passing it on to his successor. It's tough to know if he'll actually keep his word on this, but, one can hope.